Christian Doctrine (4)

Image - John Calvin

“Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.” (Institutes I.6.1)

More summary notes on Christian Doctrine, (Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) this time Chapter 4 (pp 53-69), “How Does God Find Us?” which deals with the concept of “special revelation” – that is, the self-revelation of God through special vehicles. It’s a big idea in Reformed theology: human knowledge about God originates in God’s self-revelation, rather than in human conceptions or rational conclusions about God.

There are three acknowledged sources of special revelation: history, specifically the “salvation history” that centers on the story of Jesus; scripture, a written witness to God’s exchanges with humanity; the community of people – shorthand, the Church, but also Israel – who have received and acted on the other two sources of revelation (54)

The content of special revelation, as with all revelation, includes knowledge of God and of ourselves. “The content of revelation is a Person (53),” which means knowledge from revelation is personal knowledge, and significantly experiential (54-55). “The knowledge given with revelation is the knowledge of something (or better: someone) new and unexpected,” and is simultaneously active or “in action” and “in word (56).” An implication of this idea might be that we wouldn’t expect self-contradiction between revelatory word and act. The vehicle for this self-revelation is accessible: “earthly, worldly, human (57).” Paradoxically, all this self-revelation, specifically, also depends upon receptive interpretation – Jesus, divinity made manifest in limited humanity; “God’s mighty acts” that include ancient war and prophets; Scripture – human literature; the Church – sociological, fallible, mixed-up. One implication: no one form is simply, in an unqualified way, “revelation.” Another implication: these various sources of revelation aren’t identical with the God who reveals Godself in and through them. For instance,

There is no such thing as a personal relationship with God without a personal relationship with our fellow human beings. But our fellow human beings are not themselves God. In, with, and through these relationships God comes to us – judging, forgiving, renewing, doing among us and for us wht we can never do for ourselves or for one another. (61)

Maybe saying the same thing, the “Word of God” incorporates both a priority of sources, and a distinction between the sources we acknowledge and the Word we understand to speak in and through those sources. So there is a unity of revelation – the Word of God in various forms is one Word – and a distinction and priority among forms, so that first God’s words and actions in history leading up to and fulfilling itself in Jesus Christ reveal God, and then this revelation is recorded as written word, and then the community interprets and speaks, in its life and activity as much as in its doctrine, this same word.

But, as we know, given the specific limitations of the forms, there are tensions. Guthrie presents these by posing two questions: 1) Do you believe in the Bible? Answer: we believe in God, but then, we only know the God who reveals Godself in and through Jesus Christ in and through the Bible, so there’s a distinction between these forms of self-revelation, but we perceive a significant unity as well. 2) Did revelation cease when the Bible was completed, or does it still go on in our time? God never stops acting in history and the ongoing life of the Church is another source of God’s self-revelation, but then again, we only recognize the action-in-word and word-in-action of God where we have learned its characteristic way of showing up from scripture. So only insofar as the Church reveals the God known in and through Scripture – e.g., Creator, Reconciler, Liberator – is the Church speaking and acting in unity with the revelation we have.

[So, for instance, Guthrie says:

Does the church speak and act as if its only task is to serve itself – to make itself a big, successful, influential institution; or to ten to the spiritual and psychological needs of its own members? To that extent it is not speaking and doing the word of God. For God was and is a liberating Spirit who sets people free from enslaving preoccupation with their own power and security, free for service of God and fellow human beings. A truly “spiritual” church proclaims the word of God only when it speaks and acts to serve not itself but the kingdom of God’s liberating justice, compassion, and peace in and for the world, outside as well as inside the church. … There will be a unity between the word of the church and the living Word of God just when, and only when, we acknowelege the distinction between the speaking and acting of Christians and the speaking and acting of God. But when we do recognize this distinction, then we may be confident that the same living God who once spoke and acted long ago in the history of the people of God continues to speak and act in our time, among us, in and through the Christian church.(64-65)]

Finally, because God is free, we experience a tension between the particularism – specifically the Jewish particularism – in what we receive as special revelation, and the non-exclusivity of that particularism. Main points here are: “God is at work even where God is not known (66),” so in times and places that are not aware of the “salvation historical” shape of what the Reformed understand to be God’s self-revelation; Christian particularism is not a ground for Christian arrogance, but instead is a reminder that Christians are subject to special judgment and called to a special task; while the recipients of this particular special revelation are limited – so, constrained to seek and find God through this vehicle – God is not limited in this way, and is free to make Godself known to others in whatever way, shape, or form (67-68). This last position implies that, when Christians notice results or actions that “rhyme” with what they know of God through their sources, we may celebrate this and recognize its confluence with the truth we know. We are not in a position to demand that everyone else seek and find God as we do; rather, we acknowledge that we experience this revelation as having laid claim to our lives.

Guthrie’s language of Christians being “bound” to seek God within the boundaries of the Word of God resonates with my own experience, honestly. I study and think about and value and appreciate other religious “ways.” But many years ago, when I was actively reading and studying and investigating other traditions as personal practice, I realized … I was simply never going to become a Tibetan Buddhist; I was never going to put in the work to learn the pantheon of boddhisatvas and other manifestations, and to figure out what I did and didn’t believe about them; I was honestly never going to feel about the Buddha the way I felt about Jesus. At that point, I decided, I wasn’t going to fight it: I was going to accept the fact that I was Christian, and work out what that meant in practice. Or as I said to someone else around that time: “the gates of dharma are manifold – so I’m working on the Christian one.”

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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