Useful Things | January 20, 2020

Quotable

What is the basic concept of revelation as taught in Scripture? Scripture teaches that something of God is revealed in the natural universe, so our model of revelation must accommodate that insight. Moreover, Scripture is not written in the form of a systematic theology or a doctrinal treatise with propositions laid out in a list, but as we shall see, God does reveal information about himself, us, and a host of other things. And, God reveals more than information. He reveals himself in actions. Some of this he does unilaterally without his creatures as mediators of the revelation in any way, but he does other actions through the agency of his creatures. Of course, without explaining the significance of the events and acts, it would be difficult to know what they reveal.

Then, according to scripture, sometimes what is revealed is a person. In particular, the most complete revelation of God is Jesus Christ. He is that in his very person, and he also revealed many things through his teachings. He taught about God, humanity, etc., but he also made many claims about his own identity as the Son of God. . .

So, how should we start to unpack biblical teaching on divine revelation? I begin with two preliminary points. The first is that revelation is progressive. Evangelical and nonevangelical theologians have generally agreed that God didn't "speak his whole mind" on a topic all at once. Certainly, those who believe Scripture is revelation would say that God didn't say everything he wanted to communicate about a topic in just one biblical book or in one passage. Rather, God addressed topics on various occasions, each time revealing more about them.

This does not mean that revelation somehow follows an "evolutionary" path, i.e., that revelation that comes later is truer than what is revealed earlier. Nor does it mean that until recipients had God's fuller explanation of a topic, they couldn't understand any earlier revelation on that subject. While those with more revelation knew more than those with less, those who had only earlier revelation did know something about the topics God addressed, and what they knew was true, even if incomplete. Neither of these rejected ideas is at all the concept of progressive revelation, or even an implication of it.

Instead, revelation as progressive means that even though what God reveals at any time is true, as time goes by, God amplifies and explains in more detail and clarity what he has previously said. God's revelation about salvation and having a right relationship with God illustrates this point well. According to Genesis 1-2, God gave Adam and Eve instructions about appropriate behavior, and he told them what would happen if they disobeyed. But he said nothing about how to handle the consequences of disobedience if they should disobey. In Genesis 3 we read of their disobedience and of God's response. Commentators generally agree that Genesis 3:15 is the first hint of a remedy for the human predicament, though it is stated briefly and in rather opaque terms. In Genesis 3 we learn of animal death, because Adam and Eve are clothed with animal skins, and by chapter 4 we read about animal sacrifices and offerings although very little is explained about their purpose. Later in the Mosaic law God elaborated a whole sacrificial system, explaining the various kinds of sacrifices and their purposes. He also clarified the relation of sacrifice to sin and showed how sacrifices brought in faith would help to maintain a sinner's right relation with God.

As the storyline of Scripture continues, there are various hints of a coming Messiah, God's anointed one, who would somehow pay for the sins of his people and ultimately lead them to an unparalleled time of blessing and intimacy with God. By the end of the OT, the facts that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), would be despised, rejected, and eventually killed by his own people (Isaiah 53), but then would be brought back to life (resurrected; Isa. 53:10) were all revealed. But the OT didn't identify the exact person who would fulfill this role. Though it also teaches that his death would be a sacrifice for sin (Isa. 53:10-11), it does not say that his death would end the Mosaic system of sacrifice.

In the NT God revealed all of these important pieces of information. Moreover, in the NT epistles God added many details about the salvation worked out by Jesus Christ. Soteriological concepts like justification, sanctification, union with Christ, reconciliation, and more are introduced and explained so that readers can grasp the full nature of human sinners' predicament and can see that God's plan of salvation provides everything needed to establish and maintain a right relationship with God.

More details could be added, but the point should be clear: God did not say everything about sin and salvation on just one occasion or in one place. As time passed, God progressively revealed more and more about our wretched estate because of sin and about God's glorious and gracious remedy. What is true about God progressively revealing details about his plan of salvation is also true of other topics God addresses in Scripture. The fact that revelation is progressive should warn us against isolating a passage or two from the whole of Scripture and thinking that, from them alone, we can know "the biblical teaching of . . . x," where "x" stands for any topic that God has addressed.

— John S. Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture (Crossway, 2018), 44-46.


Evangelicals and Interreligious Dialogue

by Andrew “Ike” Shepardson

Proponents of interreligious dialogue have noted that Evangelicals seldom participate in these kinds of conversations.  This is because interreligious dialogue can pose a problem for those who self-identify as Evangelicals.  Particularly, interreligious dialogue, even in its most charitable forms vis à vis those who possess a degree of assurance about their religious commitments, discourages both convincing and converting and encourages bracketing or forsaking notions of the normativity of any single religious tradition.  So it is easy to see how Evangelicals would find interreligious dialogue as a theological challenge, for interreligious dialogue is often characterized by prescriptive pluralism about religious truth.  Though these are important issues, I argue that the Evangelical understanding of the uniqueness and character of Christ can drive both (1) a rejection of philosophical and theological pluralism and (2) a commitment to dialogical engagement rooted in Evangelical identity.

Dialogue and Pluralism

Roman Catholic dialogue proponent Raimon Panikkar argues that good interreligious dialogue requires a commitment to normatively pluralistic assumptions as a precondition for dialogue.  In his book Invisible Harmony, he argues that truth is not relative, but plural, and includes the notions that “each person is a source of understanding” and that there is no such thing as absolute truth (156-157).  The first notion amounts to a humble assent that all people can know truth, yet each has a unique perspective on reality.  The second notion denies that truth is one.  Evangelicals will accept the first notion, but reject the second.  This is because they consider Jesus as the locus and source of truth about reality.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, NASB).  Evangelicals may be able to come to understand that they do not have the ultimate perspective on all things, but they would also affirm that the ultimate perspective and truth inheres in Jesus Christ.  Further, the notion that there is no absolute truth is itself an absolute statement about the nature of reality and is, therefore, self-refuting and false.

Another key proponent of dialogue, John Hick, argues that all religions are equally authentic and truthful responses to an ineffable ultimate reality.  His Kantian metaphysic posits the existence of the Real, the noumenal and unknowable ultimate reality.  The Real is revealed in the phenomenal realm of human experience and is manifested in the various historically conditioned symbols, deities, principles, texts, and practices of the major religions.  This again undercuts any ultimate uniqueness for the person and work of Jesus Christ, for as an Evangelical might say, “There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, NIV).  Evangelicals also hold that God is personal and revealed.  God is not completely unknown as is Hick’s Real.  The message of Jesus is the “mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known” (Rom. 16:25-26, NIV).  Furthermore, Hick’s theology of religions seems to preclude any ability for one religion to provide a critique over the beliefs and practices of other religions save, of course, criticizing any religion that claims to have an advantage over other religions.  This means that all religious doctrines are true except if one’s religion proclaims some kind of ultimate truth, as Evangelicalism does.  His theology of religions excludes some doctrinal positions a priori, and thereby, fails to live up to its own standard of affirming the Real’s working together with adherents of all religions to reveal doctrine and texts.

In truth, the kind of pluralism that is desirable is that which affirms the human ability to follow one’s conscience and live within one’s culture without fear of discrimination or oppression.  Instead, Panikkar and Hick prescribe pluralisms wherein some kind of equitable and normative validity is given to all religions.  It is the normative pluralism of people like Panikkar and Hick that Evangelicals will reject, for it undercuts their understanding of the uniqueness of the truth revealed in Jesus and the normativity of confession of faith in Jesus.  Even so, Evangelical doctrine should not preclude Evangelicals from learning from and contributing to interreligious dialogue, and it is to the possibilities for Evangelical engagement that we now turn.

Evangelical Engagement in Interreligious Dialogue

At the close of the Gospel to Matthew, Jesus addresses his disciples after his death and resurrection.  He gives them the Great Commission:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age  (28:18-20, NASB). 

This is understood as, among other things, a mandate for missionary activity wherein Christians proclaim the good news with the goal of conversion (among other things) for those who hear.  A key reason that Evangelicals sense that they cannot participate in interreligious dialogue is that such participation is often predicated on prescriptive pluralism with the disavowal of attempts to convince or convert one’s dialogue partners.  This commitment in pluralistic dialogue seems to preclude faithfulness to the Great Commission.  However, I would counter that this Great Commission is not all that Christ commands, nor do the standards of interreligious dialogue amount to a repudiation of conversion or convincing in other contexts.

I suggest, instead, that Evangelicals may appeal to the richness of what historian David Bebbington calls crucicentrism, a focus on Christ’s sacrifice, as the standard by which they engage in dialogue.  Convincing and converting can be goals that Evangelicals can retain for other contexts, but refrain from in dialogical settings.  An important Christological portion of the Bible commends some key Christian virtues:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  (Phil. 2:5-8, NASB)

First, consider the incarnation where the Son “emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant.”  Christ took on human form, limiting his divine prerogatives, so that he could identify with humanity.  This kind of incarnational activity is commended in the Apostle Paul’s life, as well.  “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:2, NIV).  Evangelicals would do well to consider that conforming to some dialogical standards might be the means that God uses to save one’s partner in dialogue at a later date.

Second, the preceding points to another virtue in the Philippians passage:  servanthood.  In becoming human and in dying for humanity, Christ becomes a “bond-servant,” and his example calls Christians to serve others.  This means patience, as servants are called to wait on those whom they serve.  Evangelicals can respect that dialogue under any conditions is a painstaking process of listening and waiting, putting the needs of the other before one’s own.  Interreligious dialogue is an opportunity to practice the virtue of patience as one’s hope that the other may become a Christian is bracketed and as one serves the other by listening and dialoging.  Third, and relatedly, the example of the incarnate Christ reminds the Evangelical that Christ was supremely humble as he “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,” but became a servant.  In Christ, one finds an attitude of humility that one is called to imitate.  Particularly, Evangelicals can freely admit that they hold no monopoly on truth even as we are committed to some objective truths about God, self, revelation, meaning, and history.

Finally, the Philippians passage finds in the example of Christ a commitment to redemptive suffering.  Christ suffered to provide atonement for sins and reconciliation to God, so Christians must suffer for the betterment of others.  Interreligious dialogue provides an opportunity to practice redemptive suffering as one’s own views may be misunderstood generally, or as the Evangelical conviction of the normativity of the confession of Christ as Lord is rejected or disparaged.  While I am not encouraging suspicion of one’s partners in dialogue, these situations may occur.  In such cases, the church of God’s people must be willing to suffer for Jesus.

In all of this, Christ’s example is the paradigm for Evangelicals.  Indeed, while Christ’s uniqueness forms the basis for rejection of philosophical or theological pluralism, it also provides the impetus for an Evangelical engagement in interreligious dialogue, even if participation in such dialogue puts some temporary constraints on the content of the Evangelical witness.  Evangelicals can and should participate in interreligious dialogue under such conditions.

Andrew “Ike” Shepardson (Ph.D., University of Toronto) teaches philosophy and religious studies at Denver Seminary and Life Pacific University and is Co-Pastor of Hope Denver Church in Denver, Colorado. His work has been published in Philosophia ChristiToronto Journal of TheologyThe Denver Journal, and Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He is the author of Who’s Afraid of the Unmoved Mover?: Postmodernism and Natural Theology (Pickwick Publications).

Read an excerpt from Who’s Afraid of the Unmoved Mover? in the December 8th edition of Useful Things.


Book Highlight

*Unless otherwise noted, descriptions are those provided by the publisher, sometimes edited for brevity.

What we believe about the Bible is foundational to every part of life. Scripture is the very Word of God, the final authority for all of theology, the governing source of all other doctrines. In the latest volume of the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, theology professor John S. Feinberg has written a landmark work on the doctrine of Scripture, offering a robust, serious treatment of topics such as revelation, the canon, inerrancy, infallibility, sufficiency, preservation, and more—all with the goal of helping readers cherish, obey, and be transformed by what God has spoken in his Word.

Endorsements

“In 1978, a young theologian, John Feinberg, signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a watershed document for contemporary evangelicalism. Forty years later, as a veteran scholar, he makes another significant contribution to the evangelical doctrine of Scripture, extending his treatment beyond its inerrancy to include inspiration, authority, canonicity, clarity, power, sufficiency, preservation, and intersection with the work of the Holy Spirit. Light in a Dark Place is a must-read for scholars, pastors, believers, and skeptics alike!”
Gregg R. Allison, Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Pastor, Sojourn Community Church; author, Sojourners and Strangers; Roman Catholic Theology and Practice; and Historical Theology.

“Building on a lifetime of scholarship, John Feinberg provides us with a superb exploration of the ‘perfections’ of Scripture for a new generation. This is a wise, well-informed, and very important summary of the normative source of faith and practice. What a gift!”
Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary, California

Table of Contents

Introduction

Part One: Creating Scripture

1. Light Unveiled: The Doctrine of Revelation
2. Light Unveiled (II): Special Revelation
3. Light Written: The Inspiration of Scripture
4. Light Written (II): Other Biblical Testimony about Scripture’s Inspiration
5. Light Written (III): Theological Formulation of the Doctrine of Inspiration

Part Two: Characteristics of Scripture

6. True Light: Inerrancy and Infallibility
7. True Light (II): Objections to Inerrancy
8. True Light (III): More Objections to Inerrancy
9. Divine Commanding Light: The Authority of Scripture

Part Three: Setting the Boundaries

10. Light Canonized: The Doctrine of Canonicity
11. Light Canonized (II): Scripture on Canonicity
12. Light Canonized (III): Old Testament Canonicity
13. Light Canonized (IV): New Testament Canonicity

Part Four: The Usefulness of Scripture

14. Light Embraced: The Doctrine of Illumination
15. Clear, Understandable Light: The Doctrine of Perspicuity/Clarity
16. Living, Powerful Light: The Animation of Scripture
17. Light Enough: The Sufficiency of Scripture
18. Enduring Light: The Preservation of Scripture

Conclusion: Light in a Dark Place: Does It Make a Difference?

Find Light in a Dark Place at Logos (currently on sale at a 25% discount), Amazon, Crossway, and other major booksellers.

See more volumes in this helpful series (Foundations of Evangelical Theology) at Logos and Amazon.


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