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Revelation, Primitive


The term primitive revelation has generally meant a body of supernatural truths revealed to man at the beginning of the human race and passed down over the centuries, with remnants of this revelation embedded in primitive religions. This conception of primitive revelation, most closely associated with the name of H. F. R. de lamennais, arose in the 19th century in reaction to rationalism. In the 20th century it was given support by the work of Wilhelm schmidt, whose aim was "to describe the first glimmering of supernatural Revelation, more properly referred to as primitive revelation; and to show its obscuration by the Fall of Man, together with its subsequent fate" [W. Schmidt, Primitive Revelation, tr. J. Baierl (St. Louis 1939) 3].

Primitive revelation, however, may have a wider significance, namely all pre-Judaic revelation of God. Catholic theology must accept this kind of primitive revelation because: (1) the first chapters of Genesis testify to it; (2) God wills all men to be saved, and the existence of such a salvific will implies the possibility of faith in a supernatural revelation. That there was supernatural revelation before the Patriarch abraham is a necessary conclusion; but the origin, form, and content of such revelation is far from clear. The first definition stated above finds practically no defenders in mid-20th century. A better understanding of the Biblical story opens other possibilities, and the findings of anthropological sciences make the passing down of truths from the first man all but inconceivable.

Although this question has yet to receive adequate treatment by theologians, the following principles would seem to be the basis for a solution. The supernatural revelation to the first man need not have taken place through verbal utterances of God or through extraordinary events. That adam had a preternatural gift of knowledge does not imply that he had more than a fragmentary knowledge of revelation. Furthermore, the existence of revelation at later periods of history need not stem from this first revelation. Both the first man and subsequent men may have attained divine revelation by the grace of God through their own experiences.

Because man lives in an order of grace and is directed to a supernatural destiny, it is possible that his moral experience could indicate to him a more than natural ideal, thus bringing about an implicitly supernatural knowledge of divine things. The natural and supernatural orders must not be confused, but neither are they to be separated; and all man's experiences are in a world of sin and grace. The pointers to such a revelation, arising in the life of the individual, could be preserved and developed in religious institutions and myths so that the possibility of supernatural faith would not depend entirely on the isolated experience of the individual. Christianity thus recognizes that primitive religion may be the vehicle of true religious, even supernatural, knowledge, though such knowledge is in constant danger of being distorted or destroyed.

See Also: religion (in primitive culture); symbol in revelation.

Bibliography: "Uroffenbarung," Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (Freiburg 195765): suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokument und Kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) v.10. g. gloege, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 7 v. (Tübingen 195765) 6:11991203. h. vorgrimler, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (Freiburg 195765) 7:111516. m. vereno et al., ibid. 7:110415. j. r. geiselmann, h. fries, ed., Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, 2 v. (Munich 196263) 2:242250. a. lang, Religions-Wissenschaftliches Wörterbuch, ed. f. kÖnig (Freiburg 1956) 604607. w. koppers, ibid., 189203. k. rahner and h. vorgrimler, Kleines theologisches Wöterbuch (Freiburg 1961) 372373.

[g. moran]

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