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Posts Tagged ‘revelation’

What do I know but…

CALVIN:  Above all we must recognize that God stoops to reveal Himself.

BARTH:  Above all we must recognize that God stoops to reveal Himself.

CALVIN:  No but it’s a stooping revelation.

BARTH:  Yes but it’s a stooping revelation.

CALVIN:  But what we see is God in His condescension.

BARTH:  Amen!  We see God in His condescension.

CALVIN:  But we can’t know God except that He accommodates Himself to us.

BARTH:  Yes but we do know God as the One who accommodates Himself to us.

CALVIN:  In all humility we cannot presume to know God apart from His condescension.

BARTH:  In all humility we cannot presume that God is any other than the One who condescends.

CALVIN:  No but when He condescends He clothes Himself in a character foreign to Himself. (see here or here)

BARTH:  … And how do we know that it’s foreign to Himself?

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By the way, I love em both.  I love Calvin when he sounds like Barth and Barth when he sounds like Calvin.  But on this issue – if I’ve understood them both (which I may not have!) – I’m with Karl.

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I’ve only caught snatches of the BBCs Nativity, but two scenes interested me.

When Gabriel appears to Mary he doesn’t tell her the news.  There are no words from on high here.  No, no, that would be oppressive and authoritarian.  Instead he invites Mary to look within to the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit gives her an experience of the truth.  A very modern (or should that be ‘post-modern’) take on revelation.

And faith?  Well the Magi (from a very brief viewing) seem pretty much in the dark about the whole thing.  Only one of them has any kind of certainty about what they are seeking.  And even he keeps his cards close to his chest.  They seem a lot more sure about the astronomy than about the Child.  And what really matters is the journey.

Now, back to preparing our own nativity…

 

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Unlike the scuttling basements of many a blog page, the comments section of Christ the Truth is its most redeeming feature.  For those who only get the RSS feed you are missing out.

I thought I’d give you excerpts from some of Paul Blackham’s comments which would otherwise languish in the blog’s underbelly.

Jesus – centre of all reality
…what if Jesus actually IS God? What if the prayer/holiness/sovereignty stuff is actually all about our relationship with LORD Jesus? What if Jesus is not the agent but the content, the substance and all these other things are ‘agents’ for Him? What if Jesus is the centre and substance of every creature’s relation to the Living God? What if the LORD God of the Scriptures is Jesus?…

Jesus – centre of our Doctrine of God
…what would happen if all the attribute/substance stuff was only described in a Trinitarian context? What if Jesus was allowed to be the centre and soul of the doctrine of God? Ok, I know that is just fantasy and it will never happen…. but wouldn’t it be amazing if Jesus was really taken that seriously!!!…

Jesus – centre of the Scriptures
…If the Bible reveals the Living God then it just has to be deeply connected to Jesus. The more I go on and realise just how completely Jesus surrounds us in creation then it makes more and more sense that He is present in the Scripture in a much deeper way than is often described. Too often the doctrines of Scripture spend all the time working at issues of inerrancy, when that might come a lot easier if the Bible is seen as the ever-living presence/clothing of Jesus…

Changing the world through love
…the ancient Christians changed the world when their gospel living, their sheer ‘unreasonable’ love for Jesus was so intense and so ‘impractical’ that it could not be ignored. By trusting the Spirit and obeying Jesus even when it seems impossible or foolish… By trusting the Spirit to really change the world to the pattern of Jesus… we aim for something much more than a re-adjustment of the furniture on the sinking ship… we join Jesus in aiming for a really new world where sorrow, injustice and death are illegal and impossible…

On Apologetics
…if we are trying to render the ‘concept of god’ as reasonable or if we are trying to ‘demonstrate’ that the Bible is the Word of God or if we are deploying philosophical arguments that never end up with ‘ergo, Jesus is the glory of God, the eternal Son of the Father’… then we are obviously trusting in the flesh. Of course we want to believe that if only we work hard enough or organise well enough or develop the best campaign or get the new ‘technique’ then we don’t really need to fast and pray, we don’t need to follow Jesus in sheer dependence on the Spirit on the way to crucifixion. Yet, the truth is that when the apostle Peter spoke of giving an apologia, he did so in a letter that consistently argues that the glory comes after suffering, that we will be thought strange for the way we live, that we should be living such good lives that people ask us about Jesus…

On engaging atheists
…The great temptation is to want to be ‘reasonable’ – i.e. to find a non-’religious’ foundation that will show us to be wise and the atheist to be foolish. The only foundation is Jesus. He is why we believe in God…

God’s glory – not the glory of Allah
…It is not arbitrary to say that God’s glory is His grace – because the apostle John makes it so very clear that God’s eternal glory is manifested at the Cross. The specific words of Jesus concerning His own glory have to be our starting point here. My most common conversation partners in theology these days are various Islamic theologians [especially those amazing guys from the 8th/9th centuries] – and their understanding of the transcendant glory of Allah is really serious. If you really want an exaltation of divine glory that is utterly, utterly opposed to human autonomy/glory then those are the guys you really want to be reading. However, is that what the Living God Himself said about glory when He walked among us? Where did He say that His glory was to be seen? Is the glory of Allah substantially different than the glory of the Trinity?…

On Christ Alone
Matthew 11:25-3o – Everything is in the hands of Jesus – whether revelation or redemption. We can know nothing of any god other than what Jesus chooses to tell us. How do we know that there is a Father other than what Jesus tells us? How can we prove the deity of the Father other than through Jesus? How can we find rest for our souls other than through Jesus?

Recently we were challenged to ‘get serious with god’ over the summer… but Jesus wasn’t mentioned. I imagined a follower of Odin heading home to get on his viking helmet and wielding his battle-axe with more passion and commitment or a follower of Baal putting aside his tiredness and heading out for some serious immorality after work.

If we are not dealing with Jesus then does it matter whether we get serious with Odin or Ra or Vishnu or Artemis or Allah or the Prime Mover.

Christ alone… in all the Scriptures… or else why bother at all?

On the Enlightenment
I think the Enlightenment brought a re-structuring of European thought generally – from specifics to universals. Think of the contrast between John Owen and John Wesley. Both are such amazing Christians, but they live on different sides of the Enlightenment fence. Wesley is a ‘global’ or universal man, thinking of a truth for all humanity. Think of the way that Wesley relates to the empiricist philosophers of his day, whereas Owen is related to a much older philosophical world. Wesley is ‘modern’ in a way that could never be said of Owen. Owen was still thinking in that more ancient mode where the universal vision was very much at the edge of his thinking… or perhaps it is more to do with the ‘universal’ being at the edge of ‘feeling’ rather than ‘thinking’. Wesley traveled around the world, around his global parish – but the Puritans didn’t really feel that need.

Is it possible for us to have the global heart of Wesley while rejecting the Enlightenment ‘objectivity’ that feels so shocked that we are condemned sinners? Of course, the very last thing we want is to dig up a scholastic zombie as if the missing ingredient is more Aristotle!

Jesus Himself, of course, is the glorious solution – a great love for everybody He meets but without that ‘objectifying’ train of Enlightenment thinking. He faces the chaos and suffering without any of the self-pity or bitterness… yet joy and hope pour out of Him. Glory! What a mess we make of our thinking and feeling… and we only realise what a mess we make as we look at His glory and maturity!

Sex
This is important. I’ve been reading some of the books and sermons on sex/virginity from the early centuries after the apostles. The contrast with especially modern evangelical thought is shocking. Today, in the church community almost as much as outside, sex is something to be simply ‘celebrated’ and enjoyed – and there are plenty of Christian sex manuals etc etc. Sex problems are seen as resolved through better techniques or losing repression or ‘communication’. The idea that a closer relationship with Jesus might be helpful is not a common solution. Of course, when the most intense experience of intimacy in the culture is ‘mind-blowing sex’… then of course sex is seen as an end in itself. To celebrate sex is seen as a big enough goal in itself and why shouldn’t the Bible be forced to have such a limited horizon? The deep damage that this kind of attitude has for single and LGBT Christians is frightening. How can we really hold sexual practice up as the most intense relationship/intimacy, constantly trying to pair everybody up, and also pretend to be so shocked when single and LGBT Christians believe the hype?

…The best sex help we can offer is to remind us/seduce us back to the Divine Romance. That is the full and complete and ultimate human experience of intimacy… and from that ecstasy we do begin to see both the joys and sorrows of our fallen human sexuality… not in hopeless frustration or obsession, but as a grace given to some of us in order to lead us to our true Spouse.

On Song of Songs as a love triangle
I think that there are two men after the bride – the wealthy and powerful king with his many lovers and the humble, rural Shepherd who has eyes only for His love. The bride is caught up into the king’s seduction/power… but her heart is always really for her true Love. Will she be one of many in the glittering palace… or will she be the ‘one, true love’ out on the mountains, in the shepherd’s home?…

On biblical masculinity
…think of the different kinds of men within the Bible. Would artistic, multi-media Ezekiel spend his free-time with Jehu?

Who is the proper man – Esau or Jacob, Cain or Abel, Joseph with his fancy clothes and fear of ‘sex’ or Judah with fairly ‘relaxed’ view of what’s on offer sexually speaking? Would bi-polar, zealous Elijah fit well with the very reliable/stable Daniel?

David himself is such a complex character. On the one hand he is a sorry figure, hunched over his roof-top porn… setting a destructive example to his sons… yet on the other hand he is capable of such profound and deeply masculine expression in the psalms; tremendous integrity and courage before Saul and Goliath.. but cowardice and stupidity before the Philistine king; passion for the LORD Jesus when enacting the ascension in transporting the ark, but the seedy and humiliating “hot-water bottle” of the latter years.

On Calvin and Barth
…Calvin begins with the utterly transcendent God before the world began… whereas Barth wants to always begin with the actual point of contact, the one mediator, Jesus Christ. I find that both theologians lead me to worship.. reading them both is like walking into a grand cathedral. Calvin carries me away to eternity, to divine counsels and the being of god in a more classical sense. Barth confronts me with the Word of God, Jesus Christ, here and now.

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CALVIN:  Above all we must recognize that God stoops to reveal Himself.

BARTH:  Above all we must recognize that God stoops to reveal Himself.

CALVIN:  No but it’s a stooping revelation.

BARTH:  Yes but it’s a stooping revelation.

CALVIN:  But what we see is God in His condescension.

BARTH:  Amen!  We see God in His condescension.

CALVIN:  But we can’t know God except that He accommodates Himself to us.

BARTH:  Yes but we do know God as the One who accommodates Himself to us.

CALVIN:  In all humility we cannot presume to know God apart from His condescension.

BARTH:  In all humility we cannot presume that God is any other than the One who condescends.

CALVIN:  No but when He condescends He clothes Himself in a character foreign to Himself.

BARTH:  … And how do we know that it’s foreign to Himself?

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Who do you like in this battle of the reformed giants?

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  1. Through Christ, the Triune God has already revealed Himself unmistakably in every aspect of creation so that humanity is without excuse.
  2. Against Christ, humanity has taken knowledge into its own hands and so barred the door against all claims from above.
  3. In view of Christ, God has handed humanity over to its chosen futility, locking the door from His side too.
  4. In Christ, God has entered this prison and manifested His eternal glory in time and space, even in human flesh.
  5. As Christ, humanity now has a perfect mind with which to comprehend God (and everything else) – one that is not only human but also in God.
  6. Out of Christ, His Spirit has been poured to incorporate us into the Man who knows.

This is what has already happened.

Here’s what happens when we forget 1:

We think:

  • That the universe is basically mute (when actually it’s preaching day and night)
  • That humanity is not really deaf – they’re listening hard but the sermon’s too quiet
  • That we, therefore, have to piece together proofs to amplify the sermon
  • That ‘evidence’ for God exists only in some limited aspects of the creation (e.g. fine-tuning)
  • That there are certain obvious pointers to “God” but ‘Jesus’ and ‘Trinity’ are actually pretty obscure
  • Therefore, that evangelism is a three-part process from creation to God to Jesus. (It’s the very opposite!)

Here’s what happens when we forget 2:

We think:

  • That humanity (or at least some humans) are actually truth seekers
  • That the mind is somehow less fallen than the rest of the person (rather than the centre of our enmity)
  • That fallen humanity is genuinely questing after the capital-T Truth when it makes its enquiries
  • That the way forward is to agree to their own systems of truth verification
  • Therefore that we need to find ‘evidence’ to submit to their systems

Here’s what happens when we forget 3:

We think:

  • Perhaps if our faulty grasping after knowledge was the problem, our true grasping after knowledge will be the solution. (Instead we should realize that the grasping was the problem!)
  • If we now reason properly we can reverse the fall. (But no, God has confirmed our decision and locked the door from His side).
  • Maybe God is pleased by our efforts to ascend to knowledge (rather than thwarting them – catching the ‘wise’ in their craftiness)
  • Maybe God will aid our efforts to shepherd an unbeliever up the mountain. (In His grace, He might aid the unbeliever but not our efforts)

Here’s what happens when we forget 4:

We think:

  • Christ is the cherry on the epistemological cake.
  • We can (or even should) should reason from creation to Christ (rather than Christ to creation).
  • Christ is one relevation among many (rather than the one Lens through which all must be seen)

Here’s what happens when we forget 5:

We think:

  • There remains within Adamic humanity a capacity for knowing God (rather than realizing that this capacity lies in Christ alone).
  • That the quality of our conversion, or ongoing knowledge of God, finally depends on our own reasoned response to God.  (At base it relies on Christ’s reasoned response to God).
  • Christians are rational individuals raised to a higher intellectual plain (rather than fools united to a Person who is Wisdom).
  • Once we have come to Christ we can know God autonomously.  (No, only in Him by the Spirit can we go on knowing God)

Here’s what happens when we forget 6:

We think:

  • Maybe we need Jesus to bring us to God, but it’s up to us to get to Jesus.  (No, it’s the sovereign work of the Spirit through the gospel word).
  • Maybe there are ways and means to get to Jesus apart from the Spirit-empowered word.  (No.  While the whole universe screams ‘Jesus is Lord’, the Spirit unblinds our eyes to these things only as He shows us Christ in the word).

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So then, these six events have already happened.  Acting like they haven’t happened or they need bolstering by our own efforts betrays the gospel that we proclaim.

The only thing that needs to happen now and the only thing that can happen now to remedy our situation is for the Spirit to sweep the unbeliever up into the Son’s knowledge of the Father.

And, lest we divorce the Spirit from the word, the only means by which the Spirit does that is the gospel word.

So get proclaiming.

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I’m halfway through Mike Reeves’ excellent lectures on a theology of revelation.  Go and listen now if you haven’t done already.

Maybe I should put them somewhere prominently and permanently on the blog because they explain much better than I can the thinking behind ‘Christ the Truth’. 

To be an evangelical theologian is to have your method entirely shaped by God’s coming to us in Jesus.  Just as we are saved through God’s grace alone by Christ alone, so we know God by God’s grace alone and through Christ alone.  This being the case, we need to be saved from our ‘wisdom’ every bit as much as we need to be saved from our ‘works.’

Anyway, all these sorts of thoughts were circling through my head when I came across this quote posted on Tony Reinke’s blog.  It’s all about how we should ‘restore the bridge’ from classical literature to Christ!

“What then shall we say if we would restore the medieval bridge from Homer, Plato and Virgil to Christ, the Bible and the church? Shall we say that Christianity is not the only truth? Certainly not! But let us also not say that Christianity is the only truth. Let us say instead that Christianity is the only complete truth. The distinction here is vital. By saying that Christianity is the only complete truth, we leave open the possibility that other philosophies, religions and cultures have hit on certain aspects of the truth. The Christian need not reject the poetry of Homer, the teachings of Plato, or the myths of the pagans as one hundred percent false, as an amalgamation of darkness and lies (as Luther strongly suggests), but may affirm those moments when Plato and Homer leap past their human limitations and catch a glimpse of the true glory of the triune God.

I reject the all-or-nothing, darkness-or-light dualism that Luther at times embraced. But I also reject the modern relativist position that truth is like a hill and there are many ways around it. Yes, truth is like a hill, but the truth that stands atop that hill is Christ and him crucified. To arrive at the truth of Christ, the people of the world have pursued many, many different routes. Some have only scaled the bottom rim of the hill; others have made it halfway. But many have reached the top and experienced the unspeakable joy that comes only when the truth they have sought all their lives is revealed to them. …

If we are to accept these verses [Romans 2:14-15] in a manner that is in any way literal, we must confess that unregenerate pagans have an inborn capacity for grasping light and truth that was not totally depraved by the Fall. Indeed, though the pagan poets and philosophers of Greece and Rome did not have all the answers (they couldn’t, as they lacked the special revelation found only in Jesus), they knew how to ask the right questions—questions that build within the readers of their works a desire to know the higher truths about themselves and their Creator.”

—Louis Markos, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (IVP Academic 2007), pp. 13-14

How do you think your mild-mannered correspondent reacted?

Well – go and see.  Here’s a selection of my many comments!

I enjoy the blog. I hate this quote.

Christ and Him crucified does not sit atop a hill as though waiting for natural man to ascend! The Truth steps down to meet us in ignorance, just as the Life steps down to meet us in death. And besides, which natural mind has ever drawn near to the crucified God? Such truth has only ever appeared as folly to the world, yet this *is* the power and wisdom of God.

This quote is epistemological Pelagianism. Salvation and knowledge go together. We must oppose synergism in the one as strongly as we oppose it in the other. No wonder Luther shows the way. We’d do well to heed his cautions…

It is incontestably and trivially true that pagans can write meaningful novels, develop life-saving medicine, pursue world-enlightening science, make correct philosophical and moral observations. And it’s equally true that pagans can work for peace, give blood and generally be very, very nice people. No-one’s saying unbelievers can’t say true stuff, just as no-one’s saying unbelievers can’t do good stuff. The trouble comes when someone tries to co-ordinate nature and grace in either knowledge or salvation. Whenever the natural is seen as a stepping stone into grace alarm bells must go off. Whenever co-ordination, stepping-stones, bridges, spectrums, pilgrimmages, ascents up hills are discussed flags have to go up…

Truth is relative – relative to Christ, the Truth (good name for a blog I reckon). His subjectivity is the one objectivity. There are therefore whole worlds of understanding that make some kind of sense within their own terms of reference and which make some kind of sense of the world but are falsely related to the true Logos. Therefore in toto and at root they are utterly false. And there can be no bridge between these worlds and the world in which Christ crucified is central. There can only be redemption from these worlds. Such a redemption will require wholesale rethinking (metanoia – change of mind)…  2 Cor 10:5!…

I’m happy to call any number of pagan statements ‘true’ – just as I’m happy to call any number of pagan actions ‘good’. (For me this parallel between knowledge and salvation is key.)

It allows me to say:

1) such ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’ is of great benefit to the world.

2) such ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’ can be truly seen by the regenerate as evidences of common grace.

but,

3) such ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’, viewed from the pagan themselves, does not lead towards but away from Christ and Him crucified.

A pagan’s goodness leads them away from the grace of Christ, a pagan’s wisdom leads them away from the revelation of Christ…

I could tell you all sorts of propositions that surrounded my saving faith in Christ, but I’d be reflecting back on a miracle. I wouldn’t be telling you the natural steps that secured salvation any more than the servants at Cana would be telling you how *they* drew wine out of those stone jars.

Just as there are no discrete human deeds that add up to divine righteousness, so there are no discrete human understandings that add up to divine knowledge. All must be of grace, all must be of revelation.

 

So there.  I also discuss Acts 17 and Romans 2 a bit.  And there’s even some good points made by other bloggers!  Common grace really is astounding  ;-)

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The dumb thing about blogging is that you’re always burying your old stuff with whatever nonsense occured to you in the shower that morning.  Almost 500 posts on it occurs to me that newer is not necessarily better and, apart from Bobby, I’m not sure how many of you were following the blog from the beginning.  So because of that (and because I’m lazy!), I’ll repost some older stuff.  Probably not every Thursday, but getting old stuff out of the freezer on Thawsdays appeals to me.  Anyway, here’s my third ever post.  It’s called:

God is not revealed in His Twin

This should be very obvious, but we easily forget it.  Even in the verses that most directly uphold the full and complete revelation of the Father in the Son, the differentiation of Father and Son are also prominently in view:

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb 1:3)

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Col 1:15)

“…see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God… For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor 4:4-6)

The Father is perfectly revealed, not by His Twin, not by a Clone, but by Someone who is His Complement.  The Father is revealed in His Son, the Firstborn, His Image, His right-hand Man-Priest.  Self-differentiation is at the heart of God’s revelation.  Jesus is not the same as His Father and yet fully reveals Him. More than this – this difference is of the essence of the divine self-disclosure.  Self-differentiation in communion is the being of God – all of this is perfectly revealed in, by and through Jesus of Nazareth.

Now to say that Jesus is other to His Father is not an Arian position.  On the contrary this is a determination to see Jesus’ revelation as a full disclosure of the life of God.  It was Arius who would leave us short of full revelation in Jesus.  Here we are embracing the otherness of Father and Son as the very deepest revelation of the divine nature. It is because of His equality with the Father that Christ’s otherness must be taken as part and parcel of the divine revelation. Because Jesus fully reveals the divine life by speaking of Another, thus He is not obstructing our view of this Other.   Rather the interplay of He and the Other are constitutive of the divine life which He reveals.  Arius is refuted at the deepest level, and all by heeding this simple truth: God is not revealed in His Twin but in His Son.

This should be so obvious and plain and yet so many take their opposition of Arius in precisely the opposite direction.  Their first and fatal move is to maintain that homo-ousios commits us to three-fold repetition.  They assume Father and Son are identical from the outset – all in the name of Nicene orthodoxy (of course ignoring ‘God from God…’).  Now when they approach the eating, sleeping, dying, rising Jesus they must account for these differences while upholding that the Father and Son possess identical CVs.  What to do with the discrepancies?  Simple.  Ignore the fact that Nicea pronounced the homo-ousios on Jesus of Nazareth and instead attribute all discrepancies to a human nature that is distanced from His divine nature. 

The cost of such a move?  Immediately, the otherness of Jesus is not revelatory of the divine nature, in fact it impedes our view of God. Now to see Jesus is not to see divine life, but merely human.  We have in fact lost the one Image, Word, Representative and Mediator of God.  Jesus of Nazareth has become, to all intents and purposes, homoi-ousios with the Father.  Question marks hover over everything we see in Jesus as to whether or not this reveals the divine life.  We have returned to Arius’s problem via another route – we are left short of full revelation in Jesus.

Now if we took seriously the fact that God is not revealed in His Twin but in His Son we would be saved from all of this.  Christ’s humanity neither commits us to an eating, sleeping, dying, rising Father, but nor does it distance us from a true revelation of God.  Instead Christ’s eating reveals a Father who provides in our frailties, His sleeping reveals a Father who protects in our weakness, His death reveals a living, judging Father, His resurrection reveals a justifying, reconciling Father.  We see into the very heart-beat of the eternal trinity when we see Jesus of Nazareth in all His glorious humanity. 

And all because we have remembered the simple adage: God is not revealed in His Twin, but in His Son!

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Christ must be proclaimed biblically.

Nothing has been said yet about the character of the preacher.  This has been deliberate.  It’s not the character of the preacher but the character of the word that is determinative.  It’s not ultimately the skills, gifts or even godliness of the preacher that will bring the word home to hearers.  The Second Helvetic Confession continues its article on preaching by saying…

… the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.

Whatever we say about the character, gifting or expertise of the preacher it must begin with these immovable indicatives.  The preacher is, first, recipient (and a thoroughly unworthy recipient) of God’s overflowing revelation.  We gratefully hear this word, knowing its divine source and character.  Preachers though find themselves carried along in the same movement to testify to this same Word that holds them captive. 

Thus the preacher is never a person capable of preaching.  Really the true mark of the preacher is that they are incapable of doing otherwise.

 “If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, indeed I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9)

 

Conclusion

This paper has sought to provide an answer to the ‘How can?’ of preaching.  Hopefully, along the way, some of the ‘How to?’ has been addressed as well.  Yet, in the end, a true understanding of preaching should always propel us to the most urgent question: ‘How can we not?’ 

“I am compelled to preach.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16);

“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak.” (2 Cor 4:13)

“The love of Christ controls us …  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us…  (2 Cor 5:14-21)

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The whole paper is here.

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Christ must be proclaimed biblically

Hopefully it is not a new thought that Christ is the Word of God.  Perhaps, though, it is a new thought to consider preaching as the word of God.  Therefore some may wonder whether we have lost the vital importance of Scripture as the word of God.

Absolutely not.  Without Scripture we have no Christ.  Without Scripture we have no preaching.  Yet here is the irony. When the preacher is viewed simply as ‘explainer and applier’ of God’s word (the bible), this results in a lower view of Scripture.

If preaching is simply explanation and application of the bible then it’s difficult to avoid the impression that the Bible stands in need of our interpretive and psychological expertise: the Bible needs explaining as an obscure text and it needs applying as a distant text.  On this understanding preaching either doubts or dilutes the authority of the Bible.  It doubts it if the preacher ‘comes between’ word and congregation as the word’s helper.  It dilutes it if the preacher ‘comes between’ simply to pass on Scriptural information.  In either case we are left with this question:  Why should the preacher even attempt to offer words in addition to the written word?  If, as the reformers contended so fiercely, the Bible is perspicuous, why should the preacher take up thirty minutes of the service but the Bible reading only three?  If all that can be called ‘word of God’ exists in the Scriptures alone, how do we dare to embellish with our own blessed thoughts?

Here is the problem: if the preacher is reduced to a bible-expert we inadvertently reduce the bible to a difficult text.  And simultaneously the preacher is raised up to stand in the gap.  The ‘scholarly’ among us will dissect and expose the text with expert exposition.  The ‘dynamic’ among us will ‘enliven’ the Word with rhetorical flair, persuasive apologetics and well-aimed application.  However, in either case, whether as explainers or appliers, preachers become essential aids for a word that seems less than ‘living and active.’

In all this we communicate the idea that the bible is actually obscure, boring, weak, vague and disjointed.  So then the preacher’s task is making the obscure clear; making the ancient relevant; enlivening the dead letter; making pointed application where we find the bible too vague and providing cohesion to the disjoined Scriptures – bringing things back to ‘the gospel’ or ‘the kingdom’ or ‘the cross’ etc.  Yet the bible is already perspicuous, already living and active, already a persuasive word, already a pointed (application-making) address, already a witness to Christ. 

Perhaps the greatest need for preachers today is to understand the significance of this ‘already.’ 

We think of the bible as an obscure and distant text given to the individual believer for the sake of their personal morality. On this understanding the preacher comes along merely to strengthen Scriptural admonishments to piety.  Yet the bible was not given for the prayer closet but the pulpit.  The Scriptures are the Spirit’s living testimony to the Son, addressed to the church and intended for proclamation to the world. 

What then is the role of the preacher?  We don’t ‘stand in the gap’.  We stand in a stream.  We don’t draw out the living waters.  The Scriptures overflow.  Already the written word has this out-going character.  God’s word cannot be chained (2 Tim 2:9).  Preaching is simply the expression of the Scriptures’ own uncontainable witness.

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Go to theology network for the full paper on preaching.  I’ll post it here in chunks.  Be great to talk about it if you want to comment.

 

We’ve made the claim that preaching is God’s word when Christ is proclaimed biblically.  Now we will tease out some implications of this central conviction:

 

Christ must be proclaimed biblically.

We proclaim Him (Colossians 1:28).  The point of the sermon is not to inspire certain feelings, to convey certain doctrines, to enjoin certain ethics, to dissect certain passages.  The point of the proclaimed word is precisely the point of the written word – to witness the eternal Word (See John 5:36-47).  We don’t preach Luke or Ecclesiastes.  We preach Christ from Luke or Ecclesiastes.

Perhaps the Lord’s Supper provides a helpful analogy (it too is proclamation – 1 Cor 11:26).  Just as the point of  communion is the receiving of Christ by faith, so the point of the sermon is the same.  He is as vital for sinners as bread to the famished.  He is as available to sinners as the bread on the table.  And in preaching, as in the sacraments, He is handed over to sinners for their nourishment.  Where Christ is received by faith, proclamation has done its work.  Where Christ is not graciously held out to the congregation the preacher has spoken in vain and the people go hungry. 

What does this mean for the ‘application’ of the sermon

Often ‘application’ is taken to mean distilling the text into timeless doctrinal propositions to be turned into contemporary moral injunctions.

 preaching 1

Application on this understanding is a discrete portion of the sermon.  Once the preacher is done explaining, then come exhortations about our practical response. Usually the application is something along the lines of ‘read your bible, pray, evangelize.’ Occasionally it’s ‘Give money, cut out the porn, volunteer more.’

Now besides being a suspect view of sanctification, this betrays a deficient view of revelation.  Here the bible is ‘God’s instruction manual for life.’ The preacher is the expert coach.  And Christ?  Where is Christ on this understanding? 

On the analogy with communion, such preaching is like the minister pressing into our hands not bread but a ‘To do’ list.  We leave the communion rail (or rise from the sermon) not so much savouring Christ as resolving to improve.  Not glorying in His work but plotting our own.

 But what if we took to heart the theology of revelation outlined here?  In that case application would be by the pointed driving home of the gospel. 

 

 preaching 2

On this model, application is not what we must do on account of the word.  Rather, application is what the word itself is doing to us and in us.  The Word is being applied to our hearts in lively, surprising, evocative, nourishing ways to the end that He might be trusted.  We hear in order to believe (Rom 10:14).  This is the work of God – faith (John 6:29).   The work of God for which the preacher aims is not so much what the congregation will do on Monday morning having been inspired by the word.  The work of God is what God Himself does to the congregation right there in the Sunday sermon.

Application then is the Spirit’s work in driving home the Christ whom we proclaim.  It is a work which we cannot perform as preachers but to which we are called nonetheless.  In prayerful dependence we follow the way of witness in the Scriptures as they point to Christ.  And we point, too.  With excitement, with passion, with entreaty.  And we say as Moses did regarding the bronze serpent: Look and live!

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Go to theology network for the full paper on preaching.  I’ll post it here in chunks.  Be great to talk about it if you want to comment.

The Word of God

In saying that preaching is itself the word of God, it should be made clear that the bible has a vital role.  The law and the prophets proclaim the gospel of the Son in advance – a gospel which was ‘according to the Scriptures’.  The apostles attest its finished truth and significance for the global church.  Both Old and New Testaments are the Spirit’s perfect and authoritative testimony to the Son.  This completed canon stands above the church as its infallible rule and the test for all its proclamation.  It is enduringly and entirely the word of God written. 

Yet, to be true to these same Scriptures, we must confess that the title “God’s word” does not simply apply to the bible.  Already we have seen how the Son is originally and definitively ‘the Word of God’.  But we can also identify a third sense in which it is right to use the phrase ‘word of God.’  The witness of the church – a Scriptural, Spirit-empowered, Christ-focused witness – can also be called ‘the word of God’. 

Consider how the book of Acts describes the growth of the word. 

Acts 6:7:  And the word of God continued to increase

Acts 12:24: But the word of God increased and multiplied. 

Acts 13:49:  The word of the Lord spread through the whole region

Acts 19:20:  In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

Where there is Scripture-consonant, Spirit-empowered witness to Christ, not only does the church grow – the word grows.  And it is God’s word, His presence and power attending and enlivening it.

Consider also these verses from the epistles:

“…when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  (1 Thessalonians 2:13) 

“You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this is the word that was evangelized to you.” (1 Pet 1:23-25)

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.”  (Hebrews 13:7)

So we see that the reformers did not overstate their claims.  The preacher’s lips are speaking God’s living and active word!  What does this mean?

Recently I sat in a friend’s living room on a Tuesday afternoon.  There were about ten teenagers present and we had John chapter 20 open on our laps.  I looked them in the eye and told them that the risen Christ had entered this living room and was confronting each one of us in a way more blessed than Thomas’s own encounter (this is the clear implication of verses 29-31).  I called on them all to confess Christ as their own Lord and God to receive the life that was on offer.  Now, here’s the question.  If they refused to do so, had they merely disobeyed me?  Had they merely disobeyed Glen Scrivener the preacher?  No, to refuse my words in this context is to refuse Christ Himself.

 

When are the preacher’s words God’s? 

Here is a vital question.  What is the context in which such feeble and faltering human words carry divine authority?  I rarely expect teenagers to notice my words let alone submit to them as divinely authoritative.  In what context are my words to be heeded as God’s?  

The first thing to say is that the initiative lies entirely in the hands of the Speaking God.  No human technique conjures Christ into the upper room.  Equally no locked doors can keep Him out!  Revelation is always grace.  So then, perhaps we should rephrase our question.  Not, How can we bring God’s word down?  But, How is it that God chooses to speak through our human words of witness? 

Here is my central conviction: 

At God’s initiative, preaching is God’s own word when Christ is proclaimed according to the Scriptures.

This draws together the three senses in which we have spoken of the ‘word of God’: Christ, Scripture and proclamation. 

This is the key context.  And we must be wise to perceive when this context holds.  We still listen as Bereans to discern its biblical character (Acts 17:11).  We still ‘test the spirits’ to discern its Christ-focus (1 John 4:1-3).  If proclamation fails these tests it fails to be proclamation.  Yet where Christ is proclaimed biblically there we can (and we must!) prayerfully expect divine encounter. 

Before we go on, you will notice that this context is not an institutional or situational context.  It is not God’s word because it is Sunday, this is a pulpit, and the preacher is ordained.  The context I am putting forward could apply to any number of situations – a bible study, a drink with friends, a greeting card, even a text message.  We can speak words of immeasurable comfort to one another in a thousand different situations.  Yet the focus of this paper will be on preaching to the congregation gathered around word and sacrament by those the Second Helvetic Confession referred to as ‘lawfully called’.  It is not that genuine proclamation only occurs in the Sunday sermon or only from the lips of the ordained.  Not at all.  But there especially we are to prayerfully expect the voice of the living Christ.

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Go to theology network for the full paper on preaching.  I’ll post it here in chunks.  Be great to talk about it if you want to comment.

The Speaking God

Let’s begin at the beginning.  Our God is the Speaking God.  The eternal life of Father, Son and Spirit has ever been an out-going, communicative life.  Because our God simply is Trinity there has never been such a thing as a God who then comes to speech.  Arius was wrong.  There is not a God who then has a Word.  God’s existence does not precede His expression.  Rather God’s expression, His Word, is eternally constitutive of His life.  God is always and eternally the Speaking God.  To encounter His Word is not to be obstructed or distanced from a divine reality behind His disclosure.  Rather to receive His Word is to be drawn into the depths of His eternal reality as the Speaking God.  Revelation, as the unfolding of God’s own life in Word and Spirit, is not simply what He does.  It is who He is. 

From the overflow of this communicative life came creation.  Again, by His Word and through the Spirit, God brought all things into being (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6; John 1:1-4).  The universe exists in correspondence to God’s Word.  “God said… and it was.”  This means that to be is to be an obedient hearer of the Word.  The universe is His congregation and, derivatively, His herald (Psalm 19:1-6). Humanity, as the pinnacle of creation, is supremely called to appropriate God’s revelation.  Our vocation, not simply as Christians but as creatures, is to receive the Word.  And in receiving the Word we participate in the life of the Speaking God. 

What is more, He comes to participate in our life.  In incarnation, the Word comes not simply to man or even just in man, but as man.  God’s revelation could not be louder or clearer.  The Word, Jesus Christ, reveals His Father through His words and actions (e.g. John 14:5-11).  Both these words and actions were committed to Him by the Father (e.g. John 5:19ff; 8:26,38; 10:37f; 15:15; 17:6,14).  These words were entrusted to the disciples and these actions were witnessed and remembered by them, all through the power of the Spirit (e.g John 16:12-15).  In the power of that same Spirit, these disciples proclaimed them to the world (e.g. John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8).  The world’s response to this witness is their response to Christ, and their response to Christ is their response to the Father (e.g. John 14:22-26). 

To put it another way, the Father Himself confronts us in the Person of His Son and the Son Himself confronts us in the Spirit-empowered words of His messengers (e.g. Matthew 10:40).  From Father to Son, from Son to His bride and so out into the world the Spirit carries divine revelation. 

Contemporary proclamation is not simply the remembrance of past events or the recitation of ancient words.  To proclaim this Word in the power of this Spirit is to stand in a stream of revelation which both preceded and produced the universe.  Our words witnessing the Word have their source and authority in the Speaking God who graciously includes us in His ongoing life of self-disclosure.

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Go to theology network for my paper on preaching in full.  Here I’ll post it in chunks.  Be good to talk about it if you want to comment… 

Introduction

It is often said that the real issue in preaching is not ‘How to?’ but ‘How can?’  How can a preacher stand before a congregation and dare to speak ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’?  The ‘How can?’ is by far the more pressing question.  And yet, in the textbooks, at the conferences and in preaching groups it seems the ‘How to?’ is the perennial concern.  Notes or full script?  Powerpoint or no?  Topical sermons or lectio continua?  These questions abound.  Even issues like ‘how to address the heart?’ or ‘how to preach wisdom literature?’ threaten to drown out proper theological reflection.  All the while the ‘How can?’ question stands above our practice demanding an answer. 

Our silence on this issue could simply reflect the pragmatic spirit of our age.  We want to know what ‘works’ so we can copy it.  But I suggest there is a deeper problem.  Fundamentally we have an impoverished theology of revelation which fails to appreciate what evangelicals from another age held dear – namely that God Himself addresses us in preaching. 

Consider this classic statement of reformed faith from the Second Helvetic Confession:

“The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed and received by the faithful.”

Luther would agree:

“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness… For the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.”

 Or consider this from John Calvin:

“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”

The reformers viewed preaching as God’s own word proclaimed in His name, by His power and with His authority.  More to the point this is the bible’s own teaching, as we’ll see.  Proclamation of the word of Christ is not simply an explanation and application of the bible.  It is itself a divine encounter in which the Spirit again confronts the hearers with the omnipotent force of God’s own Word.

In the face of such an audacious claim, the ‘How to?’ must be put on hold.  This paper seeks a theology of revelation that is able to address the question ‘How can a preacher dare to speak the word of the LORD?’  What is the nature of divine revelation such that this is even possible?  Once we have we addressed this we will find that the ‘How to?’ has been decisively and much more faithfully shaped.

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This is in response to Orange Mailman’s question on my last post:

Creation preaches Christ.  Creation cannot save.  I definitely want to uphold both things.  And Romans 10 is a great place to highlight both. 

Verse 14: How can they hear without someone preaching? 

Verse 17-18: Psalm 19’s Word of Christ goes out to the ends of the earth.

Perhaps we have trouble putting those two truths together because we tend to think like this:

  • We don’t ‘hear’ creation speaking about Jesus
  • When our fallen (and very western) minds assess creation we just ‘hear’ some kind of unitarian revelation of a creator god.
  • Therefore we conclude that this is the sum total of what creation is actually saying. 
  • Then the Christians among us conclude: “Ah yes, so that’s why creation doesn’t save. It doesn’t proclaim Christ.”
  • Then we say, “So that’s why we need special revelation.  Special revelation fills out the general revelation (which is silent about Christ) and adds to it extra information about Jesus. 
  • Ergo – That’s the fundamental difference between general and special revelation – a difference of content.  General revelation is sub-Christian.  Special revelation is Christian.

But, as my last post was arguing, this is not how we should think.  The bible does not say that the sermon of creation is a minimal thing.  No, no, no.  It is an immensely wide, long, high and deep revelation of the Logos of God, the Logos of this world – the LORD Jesus.

If we don’t see that, then it just shows how blind we really are.  In thinking these things through again yesterday it struck me just how estranged this world really is from the life of God, and yet how intimately related!  How completely insane it is that we are not living in the direct personal presence of Christ our LORD!  Once we were.  One day again we will be.  But how far have we fallen!!?  In Him all things hold together.  And yet…  how ignorant the unbeliever is, and how forgetful is the Christian most times.  He is the true Light that enlightens every man and yet we live in the midst of such darkness.

All of this is to say that the fall is HUGE!   MASSIVE!  Beyond our reckoning.  If I don’t hear Jesus proclaimed in the creation my first reaction should be: “What a wretched person I am!  How blind to the Light of the world!”  What I should not do is conclude: “Creation is an indistinct and minimal word.”  The bible never says that.  It says the very opposite.

If you asked the Hindu what creation is saying, they’ll hear many gods.  If you ask the atheist what creation is saying, they’ll hear nothing ‘spiritual’.   And let’s be honest, the only reason we think ‘general revelation’ speaks of some single creator deity is that we’re conditioned by centuries of western philosophy, not to mention centuries of western theology that thinks of the one creator God separately from the triune God revealed in Jesus.

So really this is a plea to take the fall seriously.  And to say that only the proclamation of the church will pierce deaf ears and remove the scales from blind eyes.  Not because of a different content but because of a different mode.

Not sure if this illustration is helpful but perhaps we are a bit like Mary in the garden of the resurrection.  There is the risen Christ.  THE RISEN CHRIST!!!  It’s not like she doesn’t have all the information she needs.   It’s not like she’s only been presented with a minimal, indistinct word!  There is the very Glory of God shining at full strength.  And she thinks He’s the gardener!!  But then she hears Him speak her name and suddenly what has been true all along comes home with living power.  That’s a bit like the revelation of creation and the revelation through human proclamation.  Both are saying the same things, but only one awakens faith.

As for why creation doesn’t save, I remember asking Richard Bewes that question (former Rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place).  He thought for a second and said “God’s not enlisting individuals, He’s building a family.”  It’s people-on-people contact that grows the church to bless the world.  I think that’s the best answer I’ve heard to that question.

Feel free to come back to me on this stuff…

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As we’ve been thinking about how to know God (and how not to) we’re basically thinking about the subject of revelation.

It’s common when speaking of revelation to treat two categories – general revelation (God made known through nature and conscience) and special revelation (usually meaning ‘the bible’).  Now of course such a distinction can be fruitfully and biblically made.  Psalm 19 for instance spends the first 6 verses describing the proclamation of the heavens but the last 8 verses speaking about ‘the law/testimony/precepts/commandments of the LORD.’   And while creation’s voice is not said to revive the soul – the bible does in fact give us life (v7ff).  And so, often, the difference between general and special revelation is imagined to be something like this…

gen-revelation-1

 

Such a presentation protects the fact that general revelation cannot save.  Well that’s a good thing.  But here are four things that I think are really problematic with such a view:

1) It works off the assumption that salvation is a matter of accumulating stuff – in this case knowledge.  And it imagines that God works salvation by adding to our natural stash a supernatural donation and together it gets us over the line. 

I hope alarm bells are going off.  I mean let me just switch the terms from epistemology (knowledge of God) to soteriology (salvation by God).  As we’ve seen in previous posts, these are parallel concepts.  Hopefully you’ll see the problem immediately…

gen-revelation-3

 

That’s no way to conceive of salvation.  Not this side of the reformation anyway!  It’s not a matter of God’s grace bridging the gap between my good works and God’s standard.  God’s grace in Christ judges even my righteousness.  In fact – especially my righteousness.  You see, because salvation is a gift, any imagined journey towards salvation via works is proved to be completely backwards.  Only receiving in faith is the proper response to a gracious salvation.  Works don’t advance me towards this salvation at all.  Now of course, at the same time there are such things as Christian good works.  Yet those works flow from faith and do not lead to faith.

In just the same way we mustn’t think of general revelation (knowledge of God that which we piece together from observing nature) as advancing us towards the truth that is in Jesus.  By all means there is a Christian knowledge to be had in observing the creation.  But because of point 2 below, observing the creation does not by itself lead to Christian knowledge.  Rather from the knowledge we have in ‘special revelation’ we perceive the creation rightly.

In short – the problem with general revelation is not its lack of content in getting us over the line.  The problem is any idea of ‘getting over the line’ in the first place.  Knowledge, like salvation, must be received.  Where it is not received, attempts to grasp it don’t just ‘leave us short’ they are travelling in entirely the wrong direction.

2) Let me re-assert my reformed credentials and drop some shibboleth terms like ‘total depravity’ and ‘the noetic effects of sin.’  I believe in these.  More to the point, I think the bible teaches them:

 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God (Rom 8:7)

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Cor 4:4)

You… once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds (Col 1:21)

Straight after Paul tells us that “what may be known about God” has been made plain to all people through creation he says that men “suppress the truth.” (Rom 1:18,19).  Humanity once knew God (aorist tense, v21) but something has happened.  Humankind “became futile in their thinking” (v21) – a reference, I believe, to the fall.  Our foolish hearts have been darkened and we have become fools (v21-22).  We have exchanged the truth for a lie (v25).   Our epistemological depravity is every bit as deep as our moral depravity – and in fact the two are inextricable.  Just as there is no-one righteous, not even one (Rom 3:10), so there is no-one who understands (Rom 3:11). 

In short – the reason general revelation doesn’t save is not because its content is supposedly sub-Christian.  The problem is sin.  Humanity is blind to the bleeding obvious – ie Jesus is LORD.

3) I just don’t see the bible teaching that the content of general revelation is sub-Christian.   In fact I see the opposite.  Psalm 19 tells us one prominent example of how the heavens proclaim the Glory of God (hint hint!).  Verse 5 goes into detail about the light of the world that is like a Bridegroom Champion (cf Psalm 45).  And Paul specifically calls this Scripture ‘the word of Christ.’ (Romans 10:17-18) 

We’ve already noted how Paul says “what may be known about God” is made plain in creation (Rom 1:19).  Do we really imagine that “what may be known about God” should be understood to be some minimal information about how big and clever the creator deity is?  Is that really “what may be known about God”??  Don’t we know a wee tad more than that?

I believe Revelation 5:13 to be a present reality – all creation sings about the Lamb.

Colossian 1:23!  The gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.  That statement makes perfect sense in the context of Colossians 1.  To say that creation preaches the gospel is simply what you’d expect if you take the previous 8 verses seriously!  Col 1:23 is no more hyperbole than Col 1:15-22!  The creation that was made by and for Christ and holds together in Him – that creation proclaims Him.  Of course it proclaims Him.  Who else is it going to speak about?

In short – I do not think the biblical evidence supports a ‘sub-Christian’ content for general revelation.  In fact I think the bible tells us that Jesus is being proclaimed in manifold ways, at all times and in all places. 

4) What kind of knowledge of God is there that’s sub-Christian?  I just don’t get it.  Are we to imagine that creation proclaims a basically unitarian creator deity – a kind of Allah-lite?  Please no!  And please don’t tell me that this basically unitarian creator deity is a foundational revelation that can set me up for true knowledge of the Father, Son and Spirit! 

I remember speaking to a lecturer at bible college about these things.  Incredulously he spluttered out, “So you think that tree out the window is preaching Christ to you right now?!”  I’m sure I’m remembering my response with a few coats of gloss but I said something like: “Of course it’s preaching Christ, who else would it speak about??”

Ok.  Enough ranting.

I can say all I want to say with the old hymn:

Jesus is LORD, creation’s voice proclaims it.

The difference between the proclamation of creation and the proclamation of Scripture is not basically one of content (though obviously there are differences).  Both of them preach the triune God, Christ as Mediator, His life, death, resurrection, ascension, the church, etc, etc.  

Perhaps this diagram gets at what I’m trying to say.

gen-revelation-2 

The difference in size between the two boxes is immaterial.  (In some ways I could have drawn the General Revelation box bigger – after all, the data available in everything from the horsehead nebula to sub-atomic particles seriously outstrips the bible!).   But really the difference is in the way that true knowledge comes.  No-one becomes a Christian through creation because all are blinded in sin and no-one can earn knowledge of God.  Just like salvation, it must be received.  Which is why the gospel must be specially revealed.  But once it is, we are equipped (and more so as we study the Scriptures) to hear the profoundly Christian sermon of creation.

Sorry.  A lot of words to say not very much…

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So then, Christ, the Image of the invisible God must be our starting point if we want to know God.  We can’t begin with reason, we can’t begin with religion, we can’t begin with creation.  It is simply not the case that these things provide us with a sub-Christian starting point to which can be added Christian revelation. 

Now there is Christian reason (eg see this post on faith seeking understanding).  There is Christian religion (eg see this post on Jesus’ new wineskins).  There is Christian knowledge of God to be had from creation (eg see this post on the sermon of creation).  But we can only do any of this on the basis of Jesus – the Word of God. 

And that’s something I’m determined to take very seriously.  Jesus is THE Word.  Whatever other words there are (even if they be written by prophets and apostles!) cannot be allowed to speak over this Word.  Rather they must be strictly co-ordinated with THE Word and understood as expressions of that one Image of the otherwise invisible God.  If these others words do not point us to the one Word then they cannot be considered true words.

Jesus is THE revelation of God.  He is not simply the best revelation of God or the seal of a series of improving revelations. He is THE image of the invisible God. No-one has ever seen God, BUT Jesus – God the One and Only – has made Him known. There is no presentation of God that is not a presentation in and through Jesus. If we try to think about God without thinking about Jesus we are sure to fall into idolatry.

In John 14:6 we see Jesus explaining His exclusivity to His followers:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through Me.”

Imagine if a Christian friend came to us saying they thought there were other valid ‘ways’ of salvation. Or that there were other Christ-ignorant ways that were a beneficial preparation for Jesus – what would we say?  Or what if someone claimed there was life outside Jesus (remembering the meaning of “life” in John’s gospel!) or that there were other Christ-ignorant ‘life’s that were helpful stepping-stones to Jesus – how would we react??  Yet I think we are tolerant of claims within the church that there is ‘truth’ that is available to all regardless of whether the person has come to Christ – the Truth.

So the question is – Is Jesus just as much ‘the Truth’ as He is ‘the Way’ and ‘the Life’?  One of the main points of this blog is to keep answering Yes to this question and to think through its implications.

I think this is a worthwhile task because so often people talk of ‘the wisdom of the world’ in positive terms – as though Paul had never written 1 Cor 1:17-2:14!  Truth is in Jesus (Eph 4:21) it is a property which no human has by nature but is only grasped in Him. To know any truth whatsoever about God we must come to Jesus. To continue to grow in knowledge about God we must enquire of Jesus.

It is significant that, following Jesus’ magnificent proclamation in John 14:6, Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father. Now perhaps we think Philip ought to be commended for such a Christ-centred request – after all he’s not asking Mohammed to show him the Father! Yet Jesus does not consider Philip’s question to be Christ-centred enough, not by half:

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know Me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in Me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in Me, who is doing His work.”

Christ does not lead us by the hand to a place where we can see the Father! If we want to see the Father we look at Christ. Jesus will not have His followers avert their gaze from Him for a second. There is nowhere else that Jesus would have us look except to Himself. The Father is not a reality which we can consider outside of Christ – the Father is IN Christ. Therefore to see the Father we focus all our seeing and thinking on Jesus. Whatever is true of Jesus will be foundational for our understanding of God. Whatever is not true of Jesus cannot form our view of God – such ‘truth’ has clearly come from elsewhere.

The challenge for us is this: Is our view of Jesus this big?

Is Jesus the Image of the Invisible God, the Creator and Purpose of the Universe?
Or is He just a tour guide who’s brought us to the Father (the real God)?

Is Jesus the height and breadth and length and depth of the fullness of deity?
Or do you think of Him as somehow smaller or narrower than ‘God’?

Have we made peace in our thinking/praying/worship with a picture of God which is not revealed in Jesus? The answer for all of us is almost certainly “yes.” Therefore we must repent. Continually. And resolve to shape our vision of God, of life, of ourselves, solely in Christ – the Truth.

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Previously on Christ the Truth:

We must begin all theology with the Word of God – Jesus.

This means ruling out other starting points, such as…

Reason

and

Religion

Now we consider creation as another false foundation for theology.  Not, of course, that the heavens are silent about God – they pour forth speech day after day! (Psalm 19).  What I am opposing here is the idea that creation gives us a sub-Christian witness that is a kind of stepping stone to Christian knowledge. 

I turn to this issue now because it is just so common for people to argue that revelation cannot be solely mediated in Jesus since ‘general revelation’ is not a specific witness to Jesus.  If this were true then I would have to give up my claim that all revelation of God is in and through Jesus.

So then let us then apply ourselves to the question ‘Does the creation tell us general things about God without Jesus?’

Well the Scripture has a very high view of the creation. The heavens and the earth were created very good and though the universe is now fallen due to human sin, the Father is committed to redeeming it through the Son and making planet earth His eternal home. In Romans 8, creation itself groans in its longing for this time and cannot wait for its liberation from the bondage to decay. Throughout the Psalms the personality of the creation is proclaimed again and again. A famous example is Psalm 19:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (vv1-4)

The creation is an evangelist – it declares continually and universally the Glory of God. And notice, this is intentional evangelism. It is declaring, proclaiming, speaking and displaying. The creation is not concealing special clues in odd places. It is not that creation has simply left marks of design that point to some kind of god. This is proclamation. This is the pouring forth of speech. And there is no speech or language where this proclamation is not heard.

So, many claim “there it is!” The creation reveals general truths about God but without the need for Jesus.” Not so fast! Let’s see how the Apostle Paul understands the Psalm:

“Not all Israel accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, ‘LORD, who has believed our message?’ Consequently faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did:

‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.'” (Romans 10:16-18)

Paul makes it abundantly clear that Psalm 19 is not declaring general truths about some kind of god. Psalm 19 declares message of the ‘good news. The heavens of Psalm 19 are declaring “the word of Christ.”

We may ask, ‘how are they declaring the word of Christ?’ Well let’s note, first of all, that verse 1 of the Psalm tells us the heavens are declaring the Glory of God. The Glory of God is not primarily a shininess of character- the Glory of God is fundamentally His Son.

From verse 4, the Psalmist develops the way in which the Creation proclaims the ‘word of Christ’ – he gives us one small illustration – the sun:

“In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.”

 So the sun, which is the light of the whole world (nothing is hidden from its heat) – is like a Bridegroom who is also a Champion as He moves from east to west across the sky (east is estrangement from God, west is His presence.  Note that the High Priest travels east to west on day of atonement to enter into the presence of God)

What is the sun trying to tell us? Well it represents One who is both Bridegroom and Victor and the Light of the World . Who could this be but Christ? The Apostle Paul agrees! (Rom 10:17) The creation does not mutter general truths about God but boldly proclaims the word of Christ.

What about Romans 1?

Perhaps the most frequently cited passage used to establish a Christ-free revelation of God is Romans chapter 1. It is asserted that these words from Paul prove that creation reveals God in a non-Trinitarian, non-Christ-centred way. If this were true then Christ would not be the sole mediator of revelation. Let’s look at the verses:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” [For] the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities –his eternal power and divine nature –have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:16-20)

Here we have a simultaneous revelation of the righteousness from God and the wrath of God from heaven to earth. This revelation is (v17) in the gospel. It is in the gospel that we see God’s anger at sin when the Father metes it out on the Son at the cross. It is also in the gospel that we see God’s offer of righteousness as Christ rises again to offer us His righteous status before the Father. Both those things, the righteousness from God and the wrath of God, are revealed in the gospel. Unfortunately, v18, we suppress the truth of the gospel by our wickedness.

But this does not deter the Living God from revealing Himself. No – He continues to reveal these truths whether we suppress them or not! Verse 19 shows that God reveals an incredibly vast amount about Himself in the creation. “What may be known” about God is made plain to every human being. This is very similar to what we saw in Psalm 19. In the creation – if we have eyes to see it – God is revealing Himself in depth and in deliberate universality. Verse 20 tells us that this revelation could not be more full – even God’s invisible qualities can be clearly seen. (We’ve already noted from Colossians 1:15 that the invisible God is only made visible in Christ). We are told that this revelation explicitly includes the power of God (which has helpfully been defined in v16 as the gospel) and His divine nature.

All of this plain revelation of ‘what may be known’ about God renders every single human being without excuse on judgement day. No-one will be able to stand in front of Jesus, the Judge of the World, and say “Who are you? The creation said nothing of You”.

The heavens declare daily, deliberately and universally the Jesus Christ, who IS righteousness FROM God. That is why all humanity is without excuse. The only excuse on judgement day IS the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet Paul says no-one can claim ignorance of this ‘excuse’. The creation proclaims the word of Christ day after day, night after night.  Thus the creation removes from people any excuse that they are ignorant of Christ since it proclaims Him, every day, in every detail of His world.

It may seem like an odd idea to us that the creation speaks specifically of Jesus (rather than just ‘some kind of god’). Most western people think that if the creation is saying anything spiritual at all it is proclaiming the god of western philosophy. However, if we asked a Hindu they might say that the creation tells of many different gods. The atheist claims that the creation says nothing spiritual. It is clear that we only ever hear what we want to hear. That is the point of v18 – “we suppress the truth by our wickedness.” Though the gospel is trumpeted into our ears day after day, we pursue our own agendas in wilful ignorance of the Truth. Verse 16 gives us the remedy though: ONLY as the church does its work of evangelism, is the power of God unleashed to open blind eyes, unstop deaf ears, and bring salvation to the world.

When Jesus picked up a seed to demonstrate some spiritual truth, He didn’t say “Hey look how cool seeds are, they’re incredibly complex and well designed, isn’t God a powerful and intelligent Creator?!” When Jesus looked at a seed He saw a picture of His own death and resurrection and from it the new life made possible for many! (John 12:24) When the Apostle John is given ears to hear the song of creation in Revelation 5:13 it is explicitly about the Father and the Son who is the slain Lamb! The creation does not reveal some kind of Unitarian non-Christ-centred god who may as well be Allah. The creation is an evangelist – it tells the Trinitarian gospel.

The Apostle Paul said it best in Colossian 1:23. Having told us that Jesus is the image of the invisible God in v15, he tells us in v16 that He is the Creator of all things – the Father made everything through Jesus and for Jesus. In v17 Paul writes that Jesus is the operating system in which all things hold together. In v19 we see that all the fullness of God dwells in Jesus. In v20 He is shown to be the universal reconciler of all things in heaven and on earth. It is therefore no surprise when we get to v23 that Paul says this:

“This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”

Paul proclaims the same gospel that the heavens proclaim. Day after day the non-Christian is confronted with Jesus Christ the image of the invisible God, the Creator and Purpose of all life.

To summarize

The proclamation of general revelation is, according to the Apostle, the same as the proclamation of special revelation. And humanity is equally blind to both in our wicked truth suppression. Only through the preached word of Christ (Romans 10:17) are people able to see what is most manifestly true about the universe – Jesus is LORD.

The pagan looking up into the night sky sees everything yet sees nothing. He ought to know everything yet he knows nothing. He is without excuse for Christ is proclaimed in every way possible. He is ignorant exactly because he rejects Christ in every way possible.

In all this, it should be clear that Jesus is not incidental to the question of revelation. Not a speck of the knowledge of God can be credited to the one who rejects Christ. Yet it is Christ who the unbeliever rejects, in every aspect of their being. For this they will be judged – judged by the One who they have actively and wilfully resisted all the days of their life.

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So God is known in Jesus alone.

This means He is not known through human reason.

It also means He is not known through human religion.

The Bible often engages with other religions. Never does it assume that such religions have any revelatory insights to offer.

Numbers 33:50-53; Deut 7:1-6; 12:1-3; 29:16-18; 32:15-21; Psalm 96:4-5; 106:35-40; Isaiah 41:21-24; 44:6-26; Jeremiah 16:19-21; Romans 1:23-25; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; 10:20.

We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)

A religious person may speak eloquently about their “lords” and their “gods” – aspects may seem similar to the Living God, yet they are not speaking of the God who has made Jesus Christ the point of contact. They are speaking about something else – not the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  For more on this see my posts on Allah is an idol.

It is instructive that none of the prophets ever speak with Assyrians, Moabites, Baal worshippers etc and say “Yeah, Yahweh – He’s like a cross between Asherah and Baal – but, like, bigger.”  Or “Of course you know El Elyon through the primitive religious spark latent within you.  But let me now introduce to you the Son of the Most High, His name is Yahweh.  If you like Elyon, you’ll love the LORD!”  Yet how many Christian apologists function with just this kind of methodology.  Anyway, mustn’t get side tracked…

Big point: human religion is not a stepping stone to the living God.  It does not yield partial knowledge that can then be built upon towards a knowledge of Jesus.

 

Biblical religion

Ok, maybe world religions don’t have an angle on God. But surely there is one religion in the world that does. Don’t the Jews have revelation of the Living God? They share our Scriptures (three quarters of them!!). Don’t they know at least some truth about the One True God?

Well, what did Jesus think about that? Let’s look at John 5:37-46:

The Father who sent me has Himself testified concerning Me. You have never heard His voice nor seen His form, nor does His word dwell in you, for you do not believe the One He sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life…
…”But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

Jesus acknowledges these men’s diligent study of the Scriptures. Yet He denies outright that they have any knowledge of the Father or the Son. They have sought to by-pass revelation in Christ and their very means of attempting this will be their damnation.

To the person who does not come to Christ, the Scriptures leave them utterly ignorant of the Living God. Even ‘diligent’ study of the Bible leaves a person utterly lost unless they are drawn to the central character of the Bible – Jesus. No part of the Bible – not Moses, not the Prophets, nothing – reveals God outside of Jesus.

This of course has many implications for how we read the Old Testament.  If you’ve read my blog for any length of time you’ll know my position on Christ in the Old Testament.  To put it in John 5 terms, Moses believed in and proclaimed Christ.  Whatever you believe about such things, it is enough presently to note that Jesus does not consider the Bible, in any part, to be a Christ-less revelation of God.

Now none of this is to be construed as an anti-Jewish sentiment.  Nor is it some chronological snobbery against the ancient world.  It’s not something that Christians can laugh off as an error belonging to another people or another time.  If any human action towards God could lay hold of true salvation or knowledge – then surely it would be Jewish religion and Jewish Scripture.  Their privileges are “much in every way.” (Rom 3:2)  Yet the failure of Jewish religion should serve as a stark warning for those who would seek to grasp the things of God through some supposed Christian religion.  Doesn’t the experience of the Pharisees in John 5 warn us too?  Shouldn’t we too be wary of our diligent study?  Their error is repeated in Christians time and again.  We have these witnesses to Christ (Scripture and also sacraments etc).  Yet rather than receive them with empty hands and be led away from ourselves and to the One in Whom all salvation and all knowledge of God is complete, we attempt to use them as building blocks towards our own salvation and our own synthesized theology.

To know God we must abandon the attempt to build, to strive, to ascend.  It is all a given in Christ.  Human religion, even biblical religion – when used rather than received – will produce only ignorance.  We must begin again with Jesus at the foundation.

So we’ve rejected reason and religion.  Next time we’ll see how creation is not the way to a true knowledge of God either.

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