James Barr, in a further lecture from his Gifford Lectures on Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, explored the possible relations of natural theology in the Bible to science and linguistics. He knew that he was not talking about any developed natural theology. But he looked for ways that the Bible recognizes that the universe is a reality that speaks to us of God.
Today people generally look at the universe through the lens of science. This was not so in the biblical world. Although the Wisdom literature uses observation of the world to illuminate practical problems, it did not base its view of God on anything like science.
So Barr asked about the possibility that linguistics shows us how the Bible used natural theology. In other words, what forms of language or rhetoric in the Bible show us a basis for theology in the natural world. He points to metaphors that speak of this.
One that I had not thought of in a while is the metaphor of God walking in the Garden of Eden in the evening. God really does walk in the garden. Metaphorically deity is with us in nature.
Barr concluded that, although theologians talk of central metaphors like covenant as revelatory, those metaphors were based on a hidden natural theology. There was an “anterior” knowledge of God that underlay the Bible’s God talk.
This led to the discussion of the parables of Jesus. These rested on observation of the world. The birds of the air and lilies of the field give insight into God. But most of the time the parables draw on human relations like father and son or king and subjects. These, though, apply metaphorically to the divine-human relationship.
Jesus got these stories from observing the world. So Barr wondered in what sense one could say they were revealed.
Basically Barr questioned the way Barth and others had used the idea of the Word of God as though it came in a direct way without being mediated through the anterior knowledge of God that comes from the world we experience. He did not think revelation could be separated from human experience.
So what of the authority of the Bible? Well, just when Barr seemed to have discounted it, he turned and said that the Bible is somehow a revelatory tradition interpreted by the Church. He says that ascriptions of authority like “holy”, “inspired” and even “infallible” apply if we use them primarily to speak of the Church. The authority of the Bible will depend on the authority of the Church. For Catholics that will be a strong authority. For Protestants it will be a weaker one.
I am not quite sure where Barr went with this in the 10th and final lecture, which I haven’t read yet. For now, I think I have a little more robust doctrine of revelation than he does. That is, I take the Bible to have an objective content which is revelatory apart from its interpretation by any current form of the Church. I tend to say that God has revealed himself in historical events.
People often assume that if events have natural causes and stand alongside other historical events they cannot also be revelatory. However, I tend toward the view that this is reductionist. In other words, I don’t see why an event can not both have natural causes and be in its timing and nature a pretty clear word from God. Sometimes Barr seemed to disagree with this. But I do not yet see why.