Saturday, March 10, 2012

Revelation (Wes. Theo. series)

For the last few weekends, I've been spinning out what kinds of things I might write if I did a small book overviewing Wesleyan theology.  The brainstorms I've done include:

Faith (Introduction)
Creation and Alienation

There is so much of me in these posts that it really should be called a Wesleyan theology rather than anything like an overview from a historical perspective. It seems to me the last two hundred years push us to broaden our consideration, not least because we now have a better understanding of how to read the biblical texts on their own terms. A re-presentation seems necessary to speak with full power to today, and a mere repetition of historical categories seems two dimensional to me.

Today's overview is Revelation.

4.1 Natural Grace
John Calvin had a sense of grace built into nature, and I personally believe it is healthy for us to believe that there is a great deal of goodness in nature still that remains an embodiment of God's love for us. The Stoics spoke of "logos seeds" in all of us, which some parts of the New Testament call "the implanted word" (e.g., James 1:21). These are bits of the truth of God's will in all of us. Perhaps we want to call this "natural revelation," elements of the creation that point to God.

Dare we believe that God reaches out to the non-human parts of his creation as well, both in salvation and in goodness?

4.2 Prevenient Grace
Wesley and Wesleyans have traditionally gone one step forward to speak of God's prevenient grace, his  "lightening" of everyone who comes into the world (cf. John 1:9). In my opinion, the most coherent Wesleyan theology today will believe that God reaches out to everyone who ever lives in this world. This is a reaching out not with the head, since clearly most of those who have lived on the earth have never heard of Christ.  It is a reaching out with the heart.

Similarly, the response God is looking for is surely not a response with the head, some hollow assent to certain beliefs, but an assent with the heart. But that is for tomorrow.

4.3 Israel
Christians believe that God reached out to humanity through a people. Surely he must have been reaching out to humanity long before Abraham.  Egyptian culture had flourished for well over a 1000 years before then. Even by Bishop Ussher's standards, humanity had lived for over 2000 years before then, and science would say a massively greater time than this. From Abraham to the Christian age, the overwhelming majority of the world knew nothing of Israel's faith.

So once more we must either believe that God cared nothing for these poor souls or that he was reaching out to their hearts long before he came with matters of the head. Christians believe that his coming to Israel was the beginning of a coming with the head. But even here, he reveals by building a relationship with a people. He meets them where they are at.

It is not a full revelation of himself. He meets them with their understanding. A fuller truth is "concealed" or, better, it is partial. He lets them do things that are not his perfect will. Jesus includes divorce in this category. I would include the attempted annihilation of whole peoples in Canaan.

4.4 Scripture
The texts that we now call Scripture accumulated over a 1000 year period or so.  So we once again see that God's revelation is vastly larger than these written texts. But these written texts are the fullest witness of the head to God and his relationship with his creation. They give us the story of God's focal reaching out to the world through Israel and then ultimately, through Christ. They are the playing field on which Christians wrestle together to find God's will, to work out our salvation together with fear and trembling.

4.5 Christ as Revelation
The Word of God is Jesus Christ (John 1:14). No other word compares to the fullness of God's reaching out to reveal himself, and any confusion on that matter bespeaks a tendency to idolatry. It is in Jesus Christ that God has most fully revealed himself, once again showing that reaching out in relationship and not knowledge is the center of revelation.

4.6 The Spirit and the Church
God has not stopped revealing himself.  New issues arise.  Further, the Christians of the first centuries systematized their understanding of Scripture in the time after Christ. If we are to believe the historic doctrines of Christian faith and accept the canon of Christian Scripture, we must believe that God continued to reveal himself to them even after the time of the New Testament.

The tension between the pneumatic and the traditional in knowing and doing God's will remains present with us today. Surely God still speaks to individuals through the Spirit. Yet much individual revelation is none of the sort, and traditional structures help sift through such matters. This tension is already present within the witness of the New Testament in the contrast between the prophets of the early church and structures that included overseers and deacons.


Nathaniel said...

You realize that natural grace is Pelagius, right? And that Wesley adopted prevenient grace to avoid this Pelagianism in Calvin?

Ken Schenck said...

I associate Calvin with total depravity... surely his natural grace was not Pelagian. I'm open to correction on his position. As a good Wesleyan revivalist, I've never worried too much about the fine points of the Pelagian debate.

FrGregACCA said...

"This tension is already present within the witness of the New Testament in the contrast between the prophets of the early church and structures that included overseers and deacons."

They are differentiated, but I do not recall reading of any conflict between the prophets vs. the other leaders (and one also does not find such conflict in the Didache). The only conflicts that arise, it seems to me, involve prophetic movements of questionable orthodoxy, such as Montanism.

Historically, the role of the prophet was largely assumed by the monastics, such as St. Antony the Great who, after spending 20 years in ascetic preparation in isolation, came forth and consulted with all who came to him. He also supported Bishop Athanasius in his struggle with the Arians.

In the Christian East, as opposed to the West, there is little conflict between the prophetic and the institutional....