Friday, August 22, 2008

The revelatory waltz

The three steps whereby God becomes known to us...

Step 1: Action

God does something. He performs an action. That action may be speaking, or it may be raising Christ from the dead. Often, as God performs an action he speaks to interpret the action. Other times he simply expects the action to be interpreted in the light of his previous actions. Sometimes the action may simply be to 'nudge' the imagination of a human being. God takes the initiative. (Barth would say that this one step is 'revelation' proper; I can see why, but I'd prefer to think of revelation as encompassing all three steps).

Step 2: Inscripturation

A human being records God's action, and often also records the reactions of themselves and others. Sometimes in the act of recording they add interpretation - as, for example, when the Chronicler notes that Jerusalem was captured and destroyed because of the people's unfaithfulness. Note that God is no less involved in this step than he was in the former. He takes the initiative to get things recorded, and he ensures that what is recorded is a true witness to what has occurred.

Step 3: Illumination

As the text of Scripture is read, or preached, or listened to, the Holy Spirit makes it real to the recipient. In and of itself, the Scripture was and is always a true witness to God's action - always God's word - but now by virtue of the Spirit's activity it becomes to this one person the very Word of God, powerful to shake them out of the lethargy of sin, powerful to shine a light that pierces the darkness of sin. The action of God in the past becomes present ('it was before your very eyes that Christ Jesus was portrayed as crucified') and God, who made himself known to others in the past, now makes himself known in the present through their witness. And he does so in freedom, which is simply to say that he bestows this insight where and when he wills, for his own good purposes.

Is that right?


  1. Isn't scripture more than just a true witness of what ocurred? In other words, God doesn't just work in inscripturation to guarantee that the bible is true, he also works to make sure that everything the scripture says (when understood properly) is what he wants to say and how wants it said. As you say in step three, it is his word in and of itself, but not simply because it is a true witness the God's action.

    Without clarifying thus we are close to a neo-orthodox view of scripture in which the bible is an accurate witness to the word but is not itself the word (and can therefore, contain human errors, so long as they don't encroach on accurate recording of God's actions).

  2. Well, you've spotted exactly where I'm going with this...

    I am basically wondering aloud about how Scripture is best understood. I can see a lot that I like in Barth's doctrine, and even the bits I don't like - as, for example, his assumption that there is error in Scripture - seem almost peripheral in practice: he never does anything with that in terms of the way he uses the Bible as his authority.

    In particular, I'm wondering whether 'true witness' doesn't account best for the character of Scripture. Perhaps when you throw in dual authorship: so, the human author and the divine author witness to God's action in history? Would that preserve what does seem to be a good definition of what we have in the Bible without leaving a door open to error?

  3. The point about dual authorship though is that they're both equally true the whole time. God works through the human authors, and he does so completely. So scripture is 100% divine and 100% human. In this way, the scriptures themselves are (not just testimon to, but actually are) the breathed-out words of God. The words are simultaneously God's and the human author's.

    So, witness/testimony to God's actions is ok, so long as we realise that it is God's own witness/testimony to his own actions that we're talking about. 'Witness to actions' on its own is in error by what it leaves out rather than what it includes.

    I have a feeling that Mark Thompson has written a book that might deal with some of the Barthian stuff directly (the silvery bib. theology series), tho not sure - I'm basing that on some lectures I heard him give once that dealt oh so briefly with it.

  4. So, to put it in the sort of language you've used, I wonder if the a good way of describing scripture is something like 'God testifies to himself through human authors.' Provided we understand 'author' to necessarily entail something more than a typist/ copyist (and I think the word 'author' does do just that). Or something?

  5. The book you're thinking of by Thompson is 'A Clear and Present Word'. I read it when it came out a couple of years ago - should probably have another glance through. He does interact with Barth, but by his own admission very briefly and only in the broad brush strokes.

    To my mind, 'true witness' has several things going for it. One is that it seems to fit what the human authors actually claim to be doing in many cases (think of Luke and John's gospels in particular). Another is that it safeguards the primacy of the original divine action. That seems important to me: God didn't just write a book, but he intervened powerfully in history.

    Having said that, I concur with your assessment that the way I've phrased it thus far doesn't bring out the role of the Holy Spirit in ensuring that not only the substance but the form of the witness given is as God would have it. A work in progress...

  6. 'God didn't just write a book, but he intervened powerfully in history.'

    I agree, that's really important. Though, of course, part of his intervention in history is inscripturation, as you say in the post, God is as involved at this stage as anywhere else. And indeed, given the importance of scripture in the historical spread of the kingdom and the application of his once-for-all intervention in Christ, God intervenes in history powerfully now through the scriptures. I guess it's incorporating all these elements that you're trying to get at in yr three stages.

    One of the reasons why we need to emphasise that scripture is not just a true witness but God's own true witness is the issue of authority. Luke's gospel is not just authoritative because it is a true record of what God did. I take it that there is much writing out there that is true and authoritative in that sense. Sometimes apologetics talks leave the whole matter at the 'trust it because it seems to be historically accurate as far as we can reasinably tell' level. And yet, as you comment in another post, it is God's word that brings faith.

  7. Intervention. I should have called the first step intervention.

    It wouldn't have made any theological difference, but it's aesthetically streets ahead.

    One reason to emphasise the original intervention, I think, is that it sets Christianity apart from Islam. We have a record of things that actually happened in space and time; they have an eternal book dictated in a cave. And that means that we have a (divine and human) witness to salvation won, whereas they have a to do list.

    The question of apologetics is a very serious one. I think I've written about it before, but in the past I think I've said untrue things about Scripture in order to try to persuade the unbeliever of its authority because I didn't trust that it's authority was divine. Increasingly I think apologetics is a bad idea.

    The fact of Christ's intervention powerfully *now* through the Scriptures is exactly what I was trying to get at in my third step. In particular, I want to relate that third step to the first - so that we don't give people just a book which is somewhat disassociated from the things that it records. I guess I don't want Scripture to be a secondary mediator?

    Not sure. Still thinking.

  8. Have you read any stuff about presuppositional apologetics? It puts 'evidence' and 'proof' in their proper place. Frame's 'apologetics to the glory of God' is probably the thing to have a look at. I think it's the only consistently reformed and evangelical option.