Friday, August 07, 2009

The order of things

The order in which things are said matters as much as the particular things that are said. For example, imagine you were trying to work out your doctrine of revelation. (I don't need to imagine it, that's exactly what I'm doing, but you can just imagine, that'll be fine). Where would you start?

You could start with the actuality of revelation - i.e. the point that revelation has in fact occurred. Within that, you could make your initialy point one about the objective actuality of revelation, in which case you'd be beginning with Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word, and the revelation of God in history. Or you could start with the subjective actuality of revelation, in which case you'd be talking about the preaching of the gospel and the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. Both would make sensible starting points in some ways, the former because it lays the foundation for Christian doctrine, i.e. it is the most fundamental point; the latter because it is existentially and experientially the first point. There is also perhaps a third position relating to the actuality of revelation - you could start 'in the middle' as it were, with the doctrine of Scripture. That would make some sense as well - after all, that's how we know about Christ in the first place.

Alternatively, you could start with the possibility of revelation. In other words, you could begin by answering the question "how is it possible that God can be revealed to us?" That would cover the same ground, but from a slightly different angle. You could still start with the objective, i.e. Christ, or the subjective, i.e. illumination, or the mediating position, i.e. Scripture. But you'd be starting, not by describing revelation, but by analysing the conditions necessary for revelation to occur. Again, all would make sense. After all, ought we not to discuss how revelation can be, before we discuss what it is?

A third big set of starting points would be the necessity of revelation. This would mean starting with the question "why is revelation necessary?" You could talk about anthropological problems - the finitude of man in comparison with God, the sinfulness of man in the face of God. Or you could talk about theological problems - the wrath of God, the need for God to condescend in order to reveal himself. All would make sensible starting points in some ways, not least because it is not clear why we should worry about the doctrine of revelation until we've clarified these things.

All these things need to be said, but what you say first will set the tone for the presentation of the doctrine, and will affect the way you treat other issues later on.

I know where I'd start. How about you?


  1. I'm reading a book called 'Being Given' which I hope will provide me with an interesting angle on this!

    So, where would you start (I presume, in the same place as Barth, but where is that?) :-)

  2. Old Karl would begin with Jesus (that is always the answer to any theological question related to Barth). He argues that there is no a priori reason to believe that revelation (as a sovereign act of God) is possible or necessary, but that the fact of Jesus Christ demonstrates both. Somewhat stronger than that, in fact - he argues that revelation creates its own possibility. One consequence is that he doesn't really discuss the issue of people who don't believe; as far as he's concerned, revelation in Christ is a given. He then goes on to talk about Scripture.

    Of course, he's writing in the context of liberal theology, which begins with the believing subject and tends to then orient everything around that believer. Obviously opens the door to real subjectivism, and in liberalism you do see that subjectivism. Eventually, you end up with no discernible revelation at all, just a human being and their thoughts/feelings. So in that context, Barth brings refreshing objectivity.

    I've been wondering whether (as a matter of theological architecture, if you like) it would be sensible to follow Barth 'down' the chain in your doctrine of revelation (Christ-Scripture/Spirit-Illumination) but then go back up it from the human point of view (faith-Scripture-Christ). At that stage you wouldn't be strictly speaking in the doctrine of revelation anymore, but you'd be talking about the response to revelation.

    One interesting consequence would be a chiastic structure focused on the 'decision' or crisis of faith - the encounter between the human and divine. But does that make things overly individualistic? Does it take the focus off the decisive encounter between the human and divine in Christ himself?

    Dilemma, dilemma. Who is the author of the book you're reading out of interest?

  3. Most of the stuff I've read on this tends to work out of a concept of a 'revealability' and the event. i.e. there is the bare possibility of a rupture in history and the world, but by definition we cannot anticipate it in its content (because if we could, it wouldn't be rupturing anymore). So, there's a lot of emphasis on waiting, welcoming, and opening oneself up (with risk and hope).

    I'm interested about this chiastic structure...

    The book is by Jean-Luc Marion, a Catholic theologian and philosopher - 'Being Given' more or less a phenomenological work, he works through the same themes from a theological pov in a book called 'God Without Being', which tries to think God as something that crosses or exceeds ontology (e.g. as love, or gift).

    I'm hoping it will give me some clues in a chapter I'm writing at the moment in Coleridge, currently rather muddled, which is basically about how a thought of the world as an immanent totality can become nihilistic (i.e. the thought of 'being' reverts to 'nothing' if everything is considered as ontologically physical/material)...Ahem, that probably makes no sense. Hopefully by the end of August it will have emerged into crystalline lucidity.

  4. Interesting stuff Chris. A question that would have to be posed by Christian theology, I guess, would be "given that we can't know the content of revelation a priori, on what grounds could we presuppose that it would not have a stable character?" That might not quite hit what I'm getting at... But say Jesus Christ is revelation: well, then, the 'rupture' has been made once for all, and there could only in a secondary sense be a need for 'rupture' in the individual's experience...

    Possibly I'm mumbling incoherently. I'd be interested to see some thoughts on the book when you've finished reading it.

  5. Not incoherent at all. Well, whilst trying to stay in the Christian framework (e.g. Judaism still has an 'open' Messianism, I suppose), the typical answer would probably run something along the lines of:

    A 'event' (messianic or otherwise) has no proper temporality, since it is not part of history (in the logical sense of being a rupture of history).

    Although it is frequently dated, absorbed and neutralised, it continues to represent a conceptual excess to any historical (political, ethical...) schema. So, I suppose, it is a rupture once-and-for-all (that is its evental status, after all), but it also *remains* a rupture. It's not like there is one (objective) rupture and then aftershocks (subjective) ruptures, rather it remains a point of historical objectivity that remains inassimilable - it refuses to become an object, perhaps, would be one way of putting it.

    I think that would be close to the answer given by someone like Derrida or Jean-Luc Marion.