Note: this is the final installment of a series that was much sought after following the demise of my dearly beloved Sibboleth blog.
The Structure of the Universe (Part 7: Revealed)
I thought I was done with the structure of the universe series, but then an e-mail I received and my current trek through 1 Corinthians brought up something else.
One reason why it is crucial that we not lose sight of the deeply contingent nature of the biblical narrative is that the cross demands that Christians affirm the need for revelation–not in the sense of “scripture”, but in the sense of God, by Christ and the Spirit, making known to us things that were truly unknowable before. That includes things that scripture itself teaches that were previously unknowable even from scripture itself.
For example, do we really believe that in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed? This is a point at which I don’t think the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions have taken the Bible seriously enough. Paul contends, and the Gospels testify, that the true content of the righteousness of God is not made known to us until Jesus dies on the cross and rises again. Revelation.
On a “Law as structure of the cosmos” view of things, we know what the righteousness of God is, as everyone always has, and so we simply await the day when someone comes to make that available in an account from which we can withdraw. But Paul takes the surprise of the Christ event with the utmost seriousness: it reveals God’s righteousness–even as it is the fulfillment of God’s promises in scripture. There is something truly unknowable before the Christ event makes it known. Revelation.
This differing set of ideas about the cosmos is at the heart of debates (such as Beale v. Enns) over the NT’s use of the OT. When the scriptures are simply containers for revealing truths, then the coming of Jesus is just one more truth they witness to. Scriptures are de-historicized in order to attest to a transhistorical God who reveals things that are true.
But the NT writers cry out in the streets that the Law and even the scriptures are not ultimate. Christ is ultimate–therefore the scriptures are only of value insofar as they are read as pointing beyond themselves to the Christ to come. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have life–yet it is these that testify about me!” (John 5). Scripture and Law are of value only insofar as they are reconfigured onto a grid of history in which Christ, rather than Law, is ultimate. This means, as Paul demonstrates clearly in Rom 10, that the Law and the scriptures in general must be reread, reinterpreted, given new and previously unseen and unseeable meaning, in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Revelation.
This also gets to that little bit about the Spirit. The job of the Spirit, says Paul in 1 Cor 2, is to reveal to us that the economy of God, of God’s wisdom and power, as demonstrated in the cross of Christ, is true wisdom in contrast to the structures by which the world functions. This takes us back to my prior series on ethics: the cross reveals the mind of God in a way that subverts the power games of this world. That is something previously unknowable, but God, by the Spirit, makes it known that his way, and his power, are found in weakness. Revelation.
Here, it seems to me, we are up against a couple of foundational presuppositions that are keeping the conservative Reformed world from catching up with the broader world’s understanding of what is going on in scripture:
(1) The Reformed tradition teaches that its theology is the system of doctrine contained in the scripture. What is the Bible? It’s a receptacle of data which we are called to assemble into the system. This is what every pastor in the PCA, OPC, professor at Westminster or an RTS has to sign off on. In this view of theological systems, the revelation of God in Christ is no more central than any other piece of data, it simply shows that the covenants that have always been in place and the law that has always been in place continue to be God’s way of making things right with the world.
(2) The historical contingencies that deeply effect how scripture was written and read, and affect how we read earlier in light of later moments in the story (including our own) must remain forever off the table. The meaning of any passage of scripture, claims the Westminster Confession, is one. But what, then, of passages that were never messianic prophecies (Isa 7 comes to mind) that are then invoked as being fulfilled in Jesus? We must contort our readings of such OT passages to claim that they always spoke of the coming messiah. This is the fruit of a deep-level commitment to a scripture that is free from the taints of history. It is the upshot of a way of understanding who God is, and how the cosmos is stitched together, that has no need of the kind of revelation that comes with and after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Is there a true, earth-shattering event that happens at the turn of the era with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Is there a Revelation? I believe so, and I believe that it introduces a level of disjunction in the Story that requires radical reappraisal, rereading, of all that came before. In that Revelation we are confronted with the surprising truth about the fabric of the universe: even the Law which proceeded from the very mouth of God becomes penultimate when the Logos who proceeds from the Father from all eternity appears as the ultimate Revelation of who God is and how this God communes with His cosmos.