Revelation, Grace and Humility
For my first post here at Out of Bounds, I’d like to connect a central theme of my research to the interests we have to initiate what Jon has called “gospel conversations“. My work focuses on what T. F. Torrance has to say about what Scripture is and how it is to be read. I want to relate some thoughts about the relation of revelation, Scripture, and theology to how we ought to approach theological conversations.
Torrance argues, following Karl Barth, that in the Gospel God’s self-revelation has a twofold objectivity which means this: first, there is the knowledge God has of himself, the knowledge the Father has of the Son and the Son of the Father. This is a knowledge entirely beyond our human reach or capacity. Second, by grace God reveals himself in a way in which we can know him through the use of certain created things, things bound up in his covenant with Israel: historical events, prophetic oracles, sacred texts, legal codes, cultic rituals, and ultimately the humanity of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. None of these things are God. God is God. He is not something we can see or touch or even properly conceptualize. But since we as humans are only able to know what we can access through our sense perceptions or reason, he in his grace unites himself with our humanity in the person of Christ in order to reveal himself and accomplish reconciliation with us through things we can see and understand. The important point here is the shape our knowledge takes in response to this twofold (divine and created) objectivity of revelation in Christ.
Our knowledge must attach itself to the specific created realities God has chosen to reveal himself in. His decision to unite himself to a certain created reality does not license us to seek knowledge of him through any and every earthly object, like sunsets or poetry or our families, in the same way as Christ’s humanity. The union of Christ’s divine and human natures in his one person is an utterly unique event. And yet on the other side, as we attach our knowledge singularly to Jesus Christ, we must recognize that even in Christ where divinity and humanity are united, divinity is not humanity and humanity is not divinity. The hair follicles and fingernails of Christ are not the eternal Word and Spirit of God. Our knowledge of God in Christ thus necessarily involves a dynamic operation of “distinguishing and uniting, uniting and distinguishing” (Barth, CD II.1, p. 17) between God who is not a creature and created realities that are not God (distinguishing) but are appointed by grace to be the place in creation where the Creator makes himself known (uniting).
Since Christ’s humanity is not directly available to us in our time and place, our knowledge of him comes to us through the mediation of Scripture. Scripture is able to mediate such knowledge to us because the incarnation of the Son of God into the humanity of a 1st century Galilean has created what Barth speaks of as a “sacramental continuity” reaching back from Christ into Israel’s expectation of him as their Messiah attested in the Old Testament and forward to the apostle’s recollection of him attested in the New Testament (Church Dogmatics II.1, p. 54). The prophets and apostles testimony to Christ recorded in the biblical texts is the objective reality available to us through which Christ makes himself known to us.
That being the case, we must still constantly respect the fact that knowledge of God is not available on the surface level of the biblical texts but mediated through them in their testimony to Christ. Just as Christ’s fingernails are not themselves God in their mere physicality but rather point to the divinity to which they are united, so the words of Scripture are not the truth in their mere textuality but in their pointing beyond themselves to the Truth of Christ. As Torrance has put it, “if the Scriptures are treated as having a light inherent in themselves, they are deprived of their true light which they have by reflecting the Light of Christ beyond themselves – and then the light that is in them is turned into a kind of darkness” (Reality and Evangelical Theology, p. 95).
Gospel conversations, then, are accountable to the twofold reality involved in divine revelation. What we say about God is first of all accountable to the text of Scripture. We can’t just say whatever we want about God or even whatever seems naturally obvious; we have to follow the prophets and apostles as our authoritative guides for speaking about God according to his mighty acts of redemption and the covenanted forms of life and speech he established in Israel, all of which testify to God’s ultimate act of redemption through the incarnate Word. Our conversations attend to the Gospel only when they attend to the forms of thought and speech we receive from Scripture.
But this is exactly where those conversations tend to go wrong, by satisfying this criterion and neglecting the twofold nature of revelation.When people proclaim the absolute truth of their theological statements because of their correspondence to Scripture, they forget that, it is as if I were to claim to have received Christ because I came into possession of one of his fingernail clippings. This is because, after our first accountability to the text of Scripture, we are also, secondly, accountable in our theological conversations to the grace of God which establishes all connections between God as God and the created things (like Scripture) he reveals himself through. Because all such connections are established entirely by God’s gracious decision to reveal himself to us and save us, no created person or thing can decide on its own behalf to be the place where God will show himself through to creation. To do so is to violate the gracious nature of revelation. If it is by grace, it is by God’s decision alone, not ours. All we can ever do is point to the grace of Christ as the truth, a truth our statements cannot contain or control but can only point to, appealing to the grace of God for the establishment of their truth in Christ.
If all theological statements are at the same time accountable to Scripture’s testimony to Christ and also dependent entirely on the grace of God to establish their truth, theological conversations ought to be persistently marked by humility and civility. God is self-revelatory, not hiding in himself but giving us the truth of himself in Jesus Christ, and yet he never puts that truth into our hands to do with as we will. It is a giving that puts us in a position of perpetual reception. When this realization of our position is in place, we as fellow receivers will resist drawing circles around our own feet to designate the location of orthodoxy and instead point to Christ, bearing an openness in dialogue with those who point quite differently from ourselves and from quite a different place but nevertheless point in the same direction.