Suppose that the office at which you and 99 other people work asks each of you to individually write down the directions from your respective houses to the office. Suppose further that from these accounts – and only from these accounts – somebody then tries to make a detailed map. How reliable should we expect such a map to be? What purpose should such a map serve that the directions themselves could not? What details should we expect to find in the written directions but not in the map (or vice versa)? Most importantly, which would you rather have if you were simply trying to get to the office from some person’s house?
These two tasks and the relationship between them, I submit, are exact mirrors of the relationship which exists between revelation and theology, or (R)eligious and (S)cientific approaches to the divine. I submit that revelation consists primarily in directions or instructions on how to get to heaven whereas theology consists in descriptions of the “space” between us and heaven. In this post I wish to further unpack the difference which exists between these two.
The first and most obvious difference between revelation and theology lies in the purpose which they each serve. While both revelation and theology both consist in information that is in some sense about the divine, the former helps us approach the divine while the latter helps us understand it. Revelation leaves out many details which would only serve as a distraction along the path, focusing instead on the more salient signposts that clearly indicate whether we are on the right track or not. By contrast, theology tends to get caught up in details which are of questionable relevance to any such religious journey because the primary goal of theology is to describe the path rather than keep us on it. One side sees the second as directionless while the other side sees the first as myopic.
While all true revelation is certainly united by a common destination (not unlike 100 different workers commuting to the same office), that is really the extent to which we can expect to find uniformity within it. Sometimes God will say, “The smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever,” and other times he will say something very different. Such is revelation. Theology, on the other hand, assumes a significant amount of consistency from the very start. Since a map treats each and every point as if it were a potential destination, its consistency must be systematic in nature. Indeed, an inconsistent map would be difficult to conceptualize, let alone use. Thus, whereas revelation assumes consistency in the one, universal destination to the many individual journeys, theology requires a much stronger consistency in the many individual destinations to the one, universal journey. One side sees the second as mingling the philosophies of men with scripture, while the other side sees the first as irrational.
Since revelation is aimed at a contextually unique audience, it must tell them what to do and where to go from that particular point in space and time. Accordingly, we should not be surprised to see Joseph Smith teaching 19th century Americans some things which differ from what Paul taught 1st century Greeks or what Moses taught the Jews over 2500 years ago. Theology, however, tries to uncover the universal principles by which all of these specific instructions – along with any hypothetical instructions which “might” have been given – can be seen to “hang together”. Theology thus takes the contextual and hypothetical imperatives of revelation (you should do “x” if you want to get to heaven) and tries to make universal and categorical imperatives out of them (everybody should do “x”, period). Accordingly, whereas we see Jesus saying, “it was said of old… but I say…” we see Orson Pratt, John Calvin and Saint Augustine all debating timeless truths. One side accuses the second of being too abstract to be of any use while the other side accuses the first of being arbitrary.
Since revelation is intended for a particular audience which is contextually situated in a specific time and place, we wouldn’t expect the public sharing or arguing over these directions to heaven to be of much use. It is for this very reason that personal revelation should remain personal. It is for this reason that we trust “our” prophets rather than “their” prophets. To paraphrase a classic, if any of you lack wisdom, let him stop and ask God for directions. Theology, on the other hand, would have us lay all of revelation, personal or otherwise, out on the table so that it can be subjected to “peer-review”. After all, the theologian argues, how could this mechanism of self-correction do anything other than help our quest for understanding? One side sees the second as a quarrelsome mess while the other side sees the first as being too undisciplined and lenient.
Revelation aims at, and thus is solely bound by whether it gets us to heaven or not. Of course our beliefs concerning the world and what God has told other people certainly function as constraints in this process, but no doctrine or instruction must of necessity be beyond revision. It’s all up for grabs: God’s grabs. Theologians, by contrast, take an approach to doctrinal truth in which they use logic and publicly corroborated empirical observation too “fill in” the gaps in our understanding. Indeed, continuing revelation is itself just one more form of this filling-in process. Since the idea that God gave insufficient or inaccurate information to past prophets is morally objectionable, the theologian is forced to judge modern doctrines by ancient standards which are themselves taken to be timeless and universal. Consequently, theologians think it convenient but unnecessary that we have modern day prophets to fill in the gaps in their understanding. One side sees the second as worshipping whited sepulchers of dead prophets while the other side sees the first as being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.
Since revelation just is directions to get to heaven from each individual’s particular context, the idea that it will continue in the future really is quite obvious. Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. This is simply the promise that we will never be left without a guide in our individual journeys to heaven and that the Lord will always give to all men liberally what they need to know, when they need to know it. For the theologian, however, that phrase has almost the opposite meaning. Rather than being an assurance that we will always have sufficient instruction and directions, it becomes a caveat that our map is still incomplete and as such cannot yet be fully trusted. Indeed, the theologian sometimes goes even further, pointing out specific topics that they take to be in need of “further light and knowledge.” In this way, they hold the Lord accountable to their reasoning rather than the other way around. One side sees the second as being a doubting Thomas while the other side sees the first as being a know-nothing fundamentalist.
Perhaps the most important difference between revelation and theology lies in the fact that one is fully endorsed in the scriptures while the other is regularly rebuked. The Lord calls us his sheep and asks us to follow him lest we become lost. He gives us liahonas, iron rods and stars in the sky to follow. He even calls Himself “The Way”. None of these things suggest an interest in giving us a detailed description of anything. Alternatively, the warnings against applying the rules of liberal science to the things of God are almost too many to list: the craftiness, thoughts or philosophies of men; contention, strife and disputation; doctors, lawyers and scribes; etc. The scriptures have never spoken kindly of those who have “used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to … establish their own tenets and disprove all others.”
Let us now return to a slightly modified version of the questions with which we began this post: How reliable should we expect theology to be? What purpose should theology serve that revelation cannot? What details should we expect to find in revelation but not in theology (or vice versa)? Most importantly, which would you rather have if you were simply trying to get to heaven?