Sunday, October 07, 2012

God's Speakings 3: The New Testament Church

Now to continue my Sunday work on Biblical Theology.

Chapter 1
Introduction to Biblical Theology

Chapter 2: Revelation
2a From Text to Scripture
2b NT Understanding of Scripture
2c God's Speakings before Scripture
2d God's Speakings in the Old Testament
... Christians believe that God's definitive speaking in all of human history was and is in Jesus Christ.  More than in any writing of any kind, more than any individual oracle, the Revelation of God par excellence was in a person. God's Word for the creation became flesh in Jesus Christ (John 1:14), the consummate Word.

While Jesus was on earth, he revealed what humanity can be.  He demonstrated a life fully pleasing to God and confirmed that love is the whole of God's expectation of humanity. In his death God revealed his identification with human suffering and the healing of a broken universe.  In his resurrection God revealed the ultimate hope for humanity's eternity.

The New Testament and the common Christianity that followed are the unpacking of the central Revelation of Jesus Christ.  This unpacking not only looked to the unfolding of the significance of Jesus Christ but it involved a renewed look at the Scriptures of Israel to see their fulfilled sense.  For example, the Gospel of Matthew shows us how Jesus fulfills the Law, filtering its instructions through the love command.

The books of Paul recognize that Jesus is not just for Israel but for the whole world. Those parts of the Law that were specific to ethnic Israel--circumcision, food laws, sabbath--are not required of these new believers. Hebrews, perhaps in the wake of the temple's destruction, recognizes that Christ's death is the only true sacrifice of history, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. These realizations did not come the day after Jesus' death and resurrection.  It took decades for these revelations, which are central to Christianity, to become obvious.

Some of the most central beliefs of historic Christianity took even longer. The worship of someone who had only recently been alive was unprecedented in Judaism. But from our comfortable vantage point two thousand years later, we are prone to think that they understood what they were doing exactly as we do. A brief look at church history reveals that it took several centuries for the early Christians to unpack our current understanding of the Trinity.

Christians believe that Christ was not merely the firstborn of the creation, but in fact "eternally begotten of the Father."  To say that Jesus was fully divine and fully human took some processing. We see this truth so easily now when we read the New Testament, but it took centuries for this precise understanding to unfold. It is no coincidence that it is about the same time that these insights were finalized that the New Testament canon was finally solidified.

Christianity as it exists today finds its common ground in the understanding of the New Testament Scriptures at this point when the unpacking of Christ reached its mature form in the 400s. When the Protestant Reformation would peel back the further developments of the Roman Catholic Church, it would reset the church to this point. It represents common Christianity. It also reminds us that, for our method to be coherent, we must always be open to reformation of earlier understanding.

Christian Scripture, the Bible read from this mature understanding, is thus the primary witness to the significance of Christ.  To be sure, these moments in God's walk with humanity were moments in history, points in time when God met specific people at specific places through specific prophets. There is thus a tension between the "timeless" reading of these texts and their original particularity.  Discerning the parts where God was meeting and audience in its particularity and those that transcend a moment in time is a difficult and corporate task.  We work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

The ultimate interpreter of Christ is the Spirit. It was the Spirit that unpacked Christ in the writings of the New Testament. It was the Spirit who unpacked the core significance of Scripture in the early centuries of the church. And it is the Spirit that unfolds any truth we might know today.

Any word from the Spirit is as true and authoritative as any other word, including Scripture.  How could it not be so?  The problem is not with the Spirit's authority but the fact that we cannot trust ourselves to know for certain when we are truly hearing the Spirit. No degree of individual certainty, even corporate human certainty, can be trusted absolutely.

But God can and does speak today through reason and experience, as he has in the past. And surely God has spoken in Christian history.  Scripture is our starting point for hearing his words, but Christian tradition, experience and reason are also ways God has spoken and continues to speak. All of them, when we truly hear God in them, are a witness to Christ.

God is thus a God who speaks.  He can speak through our experiences, especially our experiences of the Spirit. He can speak through reason and science.  Scripture is the best starting point to hear his voice, and we join the Christians of the ages in listening to God's voice in them. But the consummate Revelation of God, the image of his substance, is the Son, the person, Jesus Christ.

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