Tag Archives: Revelation

Pagels on Revelation

Yesterday, Elaine Pagels was on NPR’s Fresh Air discussing her new book on Revelation.

The interview was interesting on a number of levels. She discussed the place that the book of Revelation has had in the history of interpretation, and how it was likely intended to be read in its first-century context.

Pagels located John’s Christianity as a Jewish branch that had not experienced disruption with its Jewish roots. I found this perspective to be quite different from what others have intimated about the Apocalypse.

At any rate, the interview is worth listening to, if nothing else to find out once and for all what 666 means.

The book is called Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation.

Humanity Ready for God

Karl Barth claims that God is ready to be known by people, and hence actually knowable by people. In §26 of the Church Dogmatics, he approaches this from two different angles.

First, as we discussed previously (here and here), Barth draws us back to revelation, claiming that God is only known as God has revealed himself in and by the word.

In §26.2, Barth takes up the same question from the human side. If God is knowable, there must not only be a God who makes Godself known, but a humanity capable of receiving this knowledge.

Who, then, or perhaps what, is this humanity?

First, Barth returns to the question of natural theology, applying his previous arguments about God as knowable through the natural order to humanity as those who can know as they are by nature.

Well, not exactly as humanity is “by nature.” What humanity is in its “fallen nature” is more to the point. We’ll come back to this in a second. At any rate, humans as we actually are cannot truly know the true God through a natural theology, but only through God’s revelation.

“Anthropology” is not the route to humanity’s ability to know God.

Interestingly, and again, perhaps, surprisingly, Barth is equally insistent that ecclesiology, humanity as addressed by the church, is not the humanity able to receive the revelation of God. Humanity in the church is as liable to deception about its understanding of God as humanity in general. It is as liable to control it for its own purposes, as humanity in general.

Though I don’t recall Barth saying so explicitly, I wonder if this twin denial isn’t a recurrence of Barth’s regular two-sided glance: on the one hand he wants to show how evangelical dogmatics stands over against Christian liberalism; on the other he wants to show how it stands over against Roman Catholicism.

If not anthropology or ecclesiology, then on what basis can we discover humanity’s readiness for God? Unsurprisingly, it comes from Christology.

God is known knower in the triune, eternal relationship between Father and Son. This Son who has eternally known God, becomes human, thus joining the eternal self-knowing God with human flesh. How can people know God? Because, on the human side as well as the divine, God knows Godself. “On the human side” meaning, in this case, the humanity of the God-man.

I have a couple of questions about Barth’s construction.

First, do his stances against anthropology and ecclesiology as means by which we might see that God is knowable to people underplay the significance of Christ as The Human One and of the church as the Body of Christ? In the salvation story, there is a redefinition of humanity, of “image of God,” of the people of God, of “the church,” that is derivative from Christ himself.

Does Barth take this incorporation into Christ seriously enough in his denial that as humans or as the church we can know God?

Second, and related, does Barth give too much play to sin as a defining element in our human nature? Not that all humans aren’t born in sin and all the rest. But being sinful isn’t at the core of what it means to be human. Yes, it’s the reality that we are born into and from which Christ ushers us into a better future.

But Christ was fully human, and yet without sin. So if it’s sinfulness that keeps us from knowing God, it’s not our humanness that keeps us from God, but instead it’s the lack of true humanness that keeps us from knowing God.

So then, third, why is it that Christ offers a new humanity in which God is knowable? Is it because Christ is God? Or is it because Christ is truly human? Has Barth retreated too quickly to the Trinity rather than taking full stock of the inherent value of humanity as created in God’s image and recreated in the image of God in Christ?

That’s the real fun stuff. On a side note: is there a difference between natural theology and general revelation? The latter phrase keeps the requirement of “revelation” on the table, as Barth says is necessary, but allows for a broader compass of revelation than we find in only scripture, Christ, and preaching.

No Such Thing as Christian Natural Theology

So there you were, cultivating a rich missiological approach to your own cultural context. You were studying the environment in which you found yourself, looking for glimmers of the transcendent, unconscious acknowledgements that there was a God worthy of worship just beyond the recognition of your neighbors.

You were looking at Acts 17, and pondering what statues to an unknown God there might be in your workplace or civic life.

You were studying Romans 1 and imagining that a knowledge of God persists among those who do not, as yet, know God in Christ.

And then brother Karl comes along and opens up his can of Christological grace in the presence of totally depraved sinners.

Next thing you know, natural theology of every time is being denied. Points of contact are shown up as little more than ways to get people to see quickly that they do not, in fact, know God (and won’t likely be willing to). And you are sent to your room in tears.

The main line of biblical witness, Barth maintains, is that God is known, and can only be known, through His revelation of Himself in Christ. This consistently Christological frame of reference radically discounts claims that God is known otherwise than as God is revealed in what is often called “special revelation.”

Barth explores the “secondary line” of biblical witness that may seem to require us to acknowledge that God can be known, in some sense, in creation. But again and again he comes back to the point that what the text such as Ps 8 or Ps 19 or Rom 1 or Acts 17 depend upon is a prior conviction that God is truly known as the God of Israel.

And that’s at the heart of Barth’s point: God of Israel.

In order for God to be known, God must be known as God has bound himself to a particular people and a particular act of salvation. There is no idea of “God in general,” no abstracted knowledge of what a god is like that is simply true of our God because it’s true of some hypothetical being. God is known as God truly is, and that is tied to a particular revelation.

The God whom the Psalmists know is the God of Israel, the Lord of the Exodus and of the wandering in the wilderness, the Giver of the Law, the Hope of David, His wisdom , His power, His goodness, His righteousness, originally and conclusively this God alone. (Dogmatics §26.1, p. 109)

To me, the most interesting moments in this section were Barth’s wrestling matches with the apparent biblical counter-evidence.

Why does Acts 17 not establish the viability and significance of the “point of contact” for reaching new people? Because it is when he brings in the identity of the unknown God as the one who has raised Jesus and will judge the world–i.e., what is revealed of God in Christ–that Paul is mocked and rejected. Is this really an invitation to hold onto “in roads” for the gospel where people are ignorant in their so-called “knowledge”?

There are unanswered exegetical questions, but in this section we see the genius and consistency of Barth as he demands that the revelation of God always be a true disclosing of the true God–something unavailable to fallen human beings unless it come to us by grace.

Natural theology? No. Only theology of the revelation of God in Christ.

Fearing and Loving the Covenant God

Can we truly know God? If so, what does such knowledge entail? How can the God who is wholly Other make Himself known to creatures? If we were to know this infinite God, as finite creatures, what would such knowledge look like?

Karl Barth claims that it would be an involved knowledge, a true knowledge, and a knowledge that is nonetheless shrouded in mystery.

Knowledge of God is self-involving. To know God is to love God. This is not the knowing of propositions, but the knowledge of faith and love. We know God as we trust what we have heard in the proclamation of the word.

But with “love,” Barth also insists that true knowledge entails fear of the Lord. Yes, perfect love casts out fear–of judgement. But there is an otherness of God that is embraced, and an appropriate response of fear, that comes when we truly know the true God.

It seems that the point to which Barth is perhaps most eager to arrive, however, has to do with how God can possibly become a true object of our knowledge. Here, he turns to the Trinity.

God does not become known and knowable after there are people to know God. God is eternally known and knowable because the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father (through the Spirit? or does the Spirit know, too?).

Human knowledge is true, if limited. God has revealed Himself as this God whom God knows himself to be.

Although the Trinity can never be a philosophical answer to the problem of the knowledge of God, it is one that coheres within the Christian claim about God’s identity, and the nature of God’s self-revelation.

Bible Without Fundamentalism

Is it possible to be continually seeking scripture as the rule for faith and practice without becoming a “fundamentalist”? (And by fundamentalist, here, I mean what we all usually mean: someone to the right of us theologically whom we don’t particularly like.)

I wrestle with this question a great deal. I believe in the normativity of scripture for governing Christian faith and life, but I also recognize that the church has to continue listening afresh, and not allow itself to think that repeating the words of an earlier generation will maintain its vitality or faithfulness to God.

Here is where Karl Barth’s pervasive insistence on the active grace of God can come into play, driving us back to the text, yes, but doing so to listen afresh for the word of God to become living and active in our sphere.

Barth allows the old music to speak through fresh means

Church Dogmatics §21.1 is devoted to “The Freedom of the Word.” Here, as so often, Barth has his gaze cast in two seemingly opposite directions at once: the Roman Catholic Church and Modern Protestantism.

To those who have a strong sense of both tradition and ecclesial authority as such, Barth has a strong word of caution that we must not think that ossified statements of theology or church law will be for us the voice of God. The word is free within the church to command the church. The word of God cannot be controlled.

And, if the church decides to listen to itself rather than the word, then it has failed to be the true church–the place where God speaks and reveals.

This, then, becomes a word of warning for liberal Protestantism that looks too much to human effort in historical criticism or human activity in the world in general and fails to recognize both that the Word of God comes in the freedom of God, and that God has chosen the sphere of the church as the sphere of revelation.

These words of warning reach out to the would-be evangelical church as well.

We, no less than the Roman Catholic church, think that our tradition of biblical interpretation is, itself, what the Bible says. But we must not allow that to keep us from returning to the Bible as the sphere within which God is free to speak in such a way as to shatter what we thought we knew. We, no less than neo-Protestantism, must not think that our own mastery of the grammar and history and archaeology of scripture will dictate for us what God would say to the church.

So while the complaint of folks to the right has often been that Barth’s doctrine of scripture undermines its objective reality as the word of God, the response of Barth that scripture maintains its role as subject that speaks the word of God is more than compelling. It leaves scripture in the hand of God–never to be mastered by us, but always in a position to master us, and speak to us, and command obedience from us, afresh.

Does God Really Say?

Some of the most basic ideas are also the most difficult.

Early on, many of us learned that when we hear the words of scripture we are hearing more than the words of people. We are hearing the word of God. Christianity depends on the idea that the God who created the world is also the God who has spoken.

Recently, I was watching a Twitter war of sorts, where Christians on either side of a contentious issue were posting their opinions and their dissatisfaction with the Christians who disagreed with them. At one point, someone wrote, “How can you know what God thinks?!”

I’m not saying that knowing the mind of God is a simple matter, or that scripture requires neither Spirit nor hermeneutic. In fact, it requires both, and is thus no simple matter.

But the “that” is one of the absolute prerequisites for Christian faith. If God has not spoken–if God cannot speak!–then our faith is nothing more than people grasping after transcendence, a chronicle of pitiable human effort.

Do I want my children to grow up in my faith? Yes. Because I believe that something is uniquely true in this Christian sphere. I believe that we have to do, in the Christian story, with revelation–not the revelation of human action, but the revelation of God, and of the God who has acted in the world, and the God who has acted in the world to reconcile the world to himself in the cross of Christ.

Without revelation, the history is no sacred history, and the cross is no saving act of grace.

Does God really speak? If the answer is no, then the gig is up.

Humans Receive God’s Word

For all the topics of Christology and ecclesiology and pneumatology and Trinitarianism that we are rolling through in volume 1 of Church Dogmatics, we are still working through “The Word of God,” how God reveals Godself to humanity.

Jesus, the God Man, is the revelation of God. But God’s revelation always comes to people who do, in fact, hear it and respond to it. It is the reality of human response to the revelation of God that Barth takes up when he turns to the Holy Spirit as a constituent agent of the revelation of God.

Barth is at his strongest as he articulates this move to incorporate the Spirit into the doctrine of the word. We not only know that God reveals, but we know that people have responded.

That given of human response to the revelation of God–witnessed to in scripture–is what Barth intends to explore here.

How do people respond? We don’t know. That they do is the reality of Christian life, the reality of scripture whose prophets have heard and speak the word in response to the God who has spoken.

One question I had: Barth here incorporates our illumination by the Spirit into Revelation itself, rather than relegating it to a separate category of “illumination.” I know that this writing of our response into the doctrine of revelation would be seen as problematic in some circles.

What do you think? Is it good or is it dangerous to put the human response by the Spirit in the same category of “revelation” as Christ himself is the revelation of God.

Theologically, what I found most engaging about this section was the idea that those to whom this revelation come become an extension of God’s revelation to the world. There is an “in Christ” theology that demands the church to take seriously its own life as an extension of Jesus Christ, the revelation of God.

The revelation of God is in the body of the incarnate Christ, and the church, being in Christ by Spirit-engendered faith, is the body of Christ on earth. There is a seriousness to Christian identity in Christ as the continuing revelation of God that we need to recognize as an essential part of our calling.

I realized that the intro to this section made me anticipate some talk of election; I’m not sure if that’s coming up in the next section, or if that anticipation KB has created is simply a factor of his theological method, and the way that all the parts are integrated.

To say that our reception of the word must happen by God creating freedom in us to respond to God’s free act means that we are not free as humans, but only as humans who have received the grace of God. No doubt, more talk of this “God making us free” is in the offing soon.

The Beginning and the End

Over at Wipf and Stock there’s a great new book you should know about.

Michael Pahl has written, The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’s Stories and Revelation’s Visions.

His first Wipf and Stock production was also outstanding, From Resurrection to New Creation, which should be a staple in your “introducing people to the Christian story” type settings.

In this new work, Michael revisits the stories of Genesis and the visions of Revelation–crucial components of the story for us to understand if we want to get our story straight. The great thing about the book is his ability to use historical critical scholarship to nourish the church’s faith.

Here’s what the blurbers are saying:

“Can my students and other thoughtful believers be delivered from misguided misunderstandings of absolutely key texts in Genesis and Revelation? They can, if they are presented with a crystal clear, compelling, faithful alternative. That’s what Michael Pahl gives us here. This little book will become a core text in my Theology of Creation course, and I hope also a core text for bible study in many, many churches.”
-Douglas Harink
Professor of Theology
The King’s University College, Edmonton

And this from one ne’er do well Fuller prof:

“The beginning and ending of the Christian story are perhaps the most hotly contested parts of our canon. Michael Pahl cuts through the morass of distracting debate, laying out an accessible approach to the narratives of creation and consummation. In doing so he also demonstrates how historically sensitive readings can feed the faith of God’s people. The church needs this book.”

Take and read.

I’m not sure what the federal guidelines are on this. They say I have to tell you when I review something I got for free, but I’m not sure if I’ve gotten anything for free yet. I read a digital file, which I got for free, but have yet to receive a free copy of the hardcopy of the book. Do I have anything to disclose? Should I tell you that I’m cahoots with Wipf and Stock? I promise that I don’t ever promise to give good reviews or even to read the manuscripts I’m sometimes sent. I’m at a loss… But just so long as you know that I fully anticipate reaping the benefit of a $15 dollar book at some point in the next couple weeks, I feel that I’ve done my due diligence to comply with federal law. Does this all make my suggestion that you read the book look like a sham? I hope not. I’m so confused, and I dearly, dearly hope that you still love me. Please say you do.

Time and Revelation

And by revelation here we’re not talking about the final book in the NT canon, but the larger idea of God’s revealing of Godself to humanity–what Barth summarizes as “Jesus Christ.”

In this, the first of a three week excursion into §1.14 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth brings us back again to his central tenant that what we know theologically we know on the basis of revelation alone. We do not have general ideas of “god” that the true corresponds to, but a revealed God whom we believe.

Similarly, we do not have a general concept of “time” to which the time of God corresponds, but in revelation we learn of a new kind of time that is not defined or measured by the time we inhabit from day-to-day.

Our time, like the rest of the created world which we inhabit, is time created good but fallen.

God’s time is summed up in the person of Jesus. While this revelation enters history, history itself can never be seen as revelatory. Revelation is about the incursion of light that shines in the darkness. The darkness can never be revelation, though it can be the context within which revelation makes itself known.

As so often in the Dogmatics, Barth seems most concerned with theological Liberalism, with its propensity to equate the mundane with the divine, to both strip away the supernatural from the biblical record in order to find what is true and good and the tendency to see all of life and history as culture as revelatory of God.

This dense chapter presents us with a way of beginning to wrestle with some of the most vexing problems of the NT’s depictions of the work of God in Christ. Specifically, it seems that there are many things that are begun, a new age that has dawned, and an immediacy to the consummation of the Kingdom that have failed to materialize.

As longtime readers have heard me say before, one of the most profound issues Jewish people have with Christian claims about Jesus as Messiah is summed up in these words of Martin Buber:

Now to the Christian, the Jew is the incomprehensibly obdurate man, who declines to see what has happened; and to the Jew, the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man, who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished

The unredeemed world. There’s the problem.

But the NT also demands that we recognize a tension between the “now” of God’s kingdom alongside the “passing away” of the world of flesh in which we find ourselves.

Here is where Barth wants us to recognize the advent of not a new era in the sense of the latest in a series, but instead a new kind of time altogether–the presence of God with us. This is a time that can encompass all our times, and will continue as God’s presence to us and for us when time is no more.

And, this unredeemed world can truly be known as redeemed in the suffering servant–but only by means of revelation.

Revelation and Trinity

In this week’s reading of Church Dogmatics Barth works out the nature of revelation in conversation with the identity of God itself.

There were two amusing moments for me in this reading. One was when he said on p. 330:

    The statement: Individuum est ineffabile, can indeed be made but characteristically it cannot be proved, whereas revelation is ineffabile which encounters and reaches man and proves itself to be such. From this standpoint, then, we finally achieve full clarity regarding what was said in 1. and 2. about the unveiling and veiling of God in His revelation.

Full clarity? Right…

The other amusing moment came at the end:

    Any child knows that [the church's doctrine of the Trinity] uses some of the philosophoumena of declining pagan antiquity.

I confirmed this with my three year old. He said that he did, in fact, know this.

Otherwise, this chapter was a mixed bag for me.

What I absolutely loved:

Barth is insisting in this chapter that we must wrestle first with the question Who is God, first and foremost, rather than the question, What is God.

Abstract categories of God’s identity and philosophical speculations about the necessity of some god’s existence are not the stuff of Christian dogmatics. This is absolutely true. The idea that we can “prove” the existence of some “unmoved mover” (for example) tells us absolutely nothing about Christian faith.

We must begin with the particular God who is revealed in the particular story of the Bible.

The other good things about Barth’s approach is that he is holding the line against those who want to suggest that Christianity is articulating universal truths that are generally experienced.

Barth avoids the temptation of this universalising by saying, no–God does in fact reveal. People in particular times know that in what are otherwise “historical” events God has made Godself known. Ultimately, of course, this is so in the revelation of God who is Jesus.

The place where I am not so happy with this chapter is the overall notion that it’s the Trinity that is the core of our understanding of God’s identity. While Barth is keen to make sure that the “who God is of whom we speak” is none other than “the God who has revealed Godself in this particular story,” the move away from the revelation of the story to the later reflection of the church on that revelation undermines the stated point.

The weakness of the approach is illustrated in the ways that it impacts exegesis.

Throughout the chapter we catch glimpses of where we’re supposed to recognize that it’s this God, this Trinity, who is at work. But all too often, these are not indications of Jesus as divine, or Spirit as divine person. Peter’s confession, even in Matthew, has nothing to do with Trinity. The baptismal formula in Matthew 28 is no more Trinitarian than Jesus’ baptism–and that’s not even getting to the Old Testament.

It’s the OT that creates the most significant challenges here. Can we so tie the identity of God with the Christian story that this same God is recognizable on the pages of the OT? Here is where the loss of narrative categories, and the adoption of the “philosophoumena of declining antiquity” is most unfortunate.

The continuity of God is a question for the NT writers, and we should follow their lead in recognizing that the God we worship is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who witnessed to Jesus by mighty deeds, the Father who did not spare his son but delivered him up for us all, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.