Galileo and the Two Books: The Bible and Scientific Knowledge

July 19, 2016

The Bible has a lot to say about the natural world, but what does it say? I’m not asking, “Which words does it use and which sentences does it contain?” but instead “When the Bible talks about the natural world, what is the nature of its discourse?”

As I discussed in a previous journal entry, the Bible talks about the natural world in its relation to human beings.  I offered the example of Proverbs 30:24-28, where moral lessons are drawn from animal behavior.  In contrast to scientific knowledge, in which things are studied in ways that abstract from the human experience of them, in the Bible things are often presented according to the ways in which we experience them.  Scientifically, it would be absurd to claim that ants are wise (as Proverbs 30 does); but it is also true that we (or at least ancient people did) experience them as wise.

Consider Genesis 1:24-25, where God creates land animals.  They are organized into three groups: cattle, wild animals, and creeping things.  This is hardly a scientific taxonomy.  Instead, it divides animals into groups according to their relationships to human beings: animals suitable for eating and sacrificing, dangerous animals, and miscellaneous other animals that are neither edible nor dangerous.  It’s obvious that human concerns–Which animals are for eating? Which animals may eat us?–have driven this description.  It’s senseless to try to read a scientific motivation into it.

The Bible thus sometimes describes natural things from the perspective of the way in which we experience them..  Scientific knowledge, on the contrary, results from trying to minimize, or even eliminate, human subjectivity from knowledge.

So, I now want to look at a couple of other passages:

You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting (Psalm 104:19, NRSV)

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years (Genesis 1:14, NRSV)

Ptolemaicsystem-small

In these passages, sun, moon, and stars are described, once again, according to their importance for human beings.  They exist to determine the calendar.  Absent is any scientific interest in what they are made of or why or how they move.  The celestial bodies are important because they serve a purpose that is vital to human beings.

To conclude: I started this series with a discussion of Galileo’s view that science and the Bible cannot conflict because they are about different things: science is about things in nature, the Bible describes the way of salvation.  This view is, I think, wrong.

It’s not that the Bible is not interested in the natural world, but instead that the Bible talks about the world from a certain perspective.  That perspective is human interest.  The Bible portrays the natural world in so far as it bears on matters of human concern or provides an illustration of something that humans are interested in.

There are several lessons to draw from these observations:

  • First, contrary to the view of Fundamentalists, the Bible does not provide us with scientific knowledge.  Attempts to extract information that can inform scientific views is fruitless.  Fundamentalists’ fantasies about using Genesis to construct an alternative science is hopelessly misguided.
  • Second, Galileo’s view that the Bible is about salvation is overly narrow.  The Bible is too big to be contained by any single category.
  • Third, the Bible can perform a useful service for us by reminding us that there is more than one way to know something.  In our culture, it is not uncommon to hear representatives of the scientific community claiming, expressly or implicitly, that scientific knowledge is the gold standard of knowledge, and perhaps the only sort of knowledge that deserves the name.  The Bible’s attitude toward nature reminds us that there are varieties of knowledge, differing ways in which we may relate to things in the world.  The scientific project provides us with one way, but it is preposterous to imagine that it is the only or the best sort of knowledge.

This is where (some) scientists and Fundamentalists both go wrong–assuming that there is one sort of knowledge.  Some scientists, armed with this belief, criticize and reject the Bible for failing to exhibit this knowledge.  Fundamentalists, with the same belief, try heroically but futilely to squeeze the Bible into a scientific mold.

In our current cultural situation, in which rationality is increasingly channeled into one course–science–it is good to be reminded that we relate to worldly objects in many ways.  Scientific knowledge is only one of those ways.

Modern Art and the Bible (I)

July 15, 2016

I’m in Phoenix and visited the Phoenix Art Museum.  I was struck by the points of contact between modern/contemporary art and biblical interpretation.  So, here is the first in a series of very short comments on some pieces of art and some thoughts about interpretation.

Flowing forms

George Condo, Tumbling Forms

Here’s a piece, Tumbling Forms.  What struck me was the way in which the artist piled gobs of paint in layers.

Here’s an example:IMG_20160714_144026357

 

 

 

Another example:IMG_20160714_143953980

Whatever else this painting is doing, it is calling attention to itself as a painting.  Its caption tells the observer that it depicts something–tumbling forms–but its technique reminds the reader that it is a painting.  It enforces, in other words, a careful distinction between its being a depiction and its being a thing that self-consciously depicts.  By having the gobs of paint turn the painting into a three dimensional object that rises from the surface of the canvas, the artist ensures that the observer is not too deeply immersed in the object depicted, but instead attends to the painting as a painting, as something graphic.

This reminded me of the way in which the Bible sometimes calls attention to itself as writing, even as it directs the reader’s attention to the subject matter that is narrated or discussed.

For instance:

  • Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:3-4, NRSV).  Deuteronomy knows that the people who met with the Lord at Mount Horeb were all dead and that none of those being addressed in these verses were alive when the covenant was first made.  But it deliberately ignores that historical reality to make the point that the covenant is renewed in each generation.  It thus calls attention to itself as something other than narrative, even as it engages in narration.
  • Consider the preface to the gospel according to Luke.  Here the (implied) author steps out of the text to address the implied reader.
  • Finally, there is this passage in John’s gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah” (John 20:30-31, NRSV).  Here the author drops the pretense of simple narration and tells the reader why the narration exists.

In each of these instances, the Bible directs the reader’s attention away from what seems like a straightforward historical narrative and toward the text as something written–as the creation of a writer.

Like the painting above, the Bible wants the reader to be mindful of the way in which the Bible is a written work, even as it seeks to engross the reader in its subject matter.  In other words, it wants the reader to carefully attend to the scribal, graphic features of the Bible.

More on Galileo

July 12, 2016

More on Galileo’s theory of the two books (nature and the Bible).

To recap from last week’s journal: Galileo proposed that the Bible’s purpose is strictly to instruct us about salvation. Put differently, the Bible has nothing to say about the natural world–or at least nothing that might conflict with scientific theories. So, there are two sources of information, two books, each providing knowledge of a different domain–salvation and nature.

Last week I noted how popular this view is in the world of Christian universities. It guarantees that scientists can teach potentially controversial subjects like Big Bang cosmology and evolution, since they are expounding the book of nature and since the Bible has nothing to say about nature. Buried in the fine print of this deal is a clause that reserves matters bearing on salvation to the theological community.

Far be it from me to ruin a workable arrangement; no one except card-carrying Fundamentalists want to inhibit the steady progress of scientific knowledge and of course no one wants a repeat of the Galileo fiasco, one of Christianity’s greatest PR blunders.

At the same time, even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that it has a fair amount to say about the natural world.

Take, for example, Proverbs 30:24-28:

Four things on earth are small, yet they are exceedingly wise:Four animals Proverbs 30

the ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in the summer;

the badgers are a people without power, yet they make their homes in the rocks;

the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank;

the lizard can be grasped in the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces. (NRSV)

Such a passage is not trying to offer a scientific account of natural phenomena, but it is also not inconsequential. Proverbs is here drawing moral lessons from animal behavior. It is saying that wisdom is not simply a human phenomenon, but is in fact found throughout the world. Even animals act wisely.

love-monkey-bonobo-8I’m not convinced of the advisability of drawing moral lessons from the animal world–we know too much about animal behavior to simply extract a morality from it. Some primates (especially the highly social ones–bonobos and chimps) do seem to exhibit the beginnings of a moral sense and do sometimes deliberately engage in behavior that benefits other members of their communities. (My knowledge of this comes mostly from the writings of Frans de Waal.)

Still, the vast majority of animal behavior is either strictly amoral or such that any moral lessons would be highly problematic.

Here’s my suggestion: It is true that the Bible is not offering scientific knowledge of animals; on this issue, Galileo is right and Fundamentalists are wrong. At the same time, the Bible is offering a different sort of knowledge about animals–knowledge from a different perspective.

CellsThe project of modern science lies in abstracting things from their connection to humans and studying them in relation to each other. Take the stars: in ancient times, our interest in the stars related to their usefulness in setting the calendar of religious festivals and events. It related as well to the stars’ presumed influence on our lives–hence the popularity of astrology.

In other words, until the rise of modern science, humanity’s interest in the natural world concerned the way in which stars, animals and other things relate to us and to our interests.

Modern science constitutes a different way of knowing–a way that removes natural phenomena from their relation to us and instead studies their relations to each other: the relation of a population to its environment, or of one to cell to surrounding cells, or of one molecule to other molecules.

The Bible, an ancient document, understandably talks about animals and other bits of nature in the ancient way–in connection with their relation to us. In the case of Proverbs 30, this means finding salience in the ways in which animals exhibit human-like qualities such as wisdom.

So, Galileo was correct in one sense: the knowledge conveyed by the Bible does not compete with scientific knowledge; however, I think he misunderstood why this is so. It’s not that the Bible is strictly and only about salvation. Instead, it’s because it meditates upon nature in a way that differs from the scientific way. It is truly knowledge, just not what we today call scientific knowledge. It is knowledge of how nature relates to us.

More in a few days on Psalm 104.

Theology, Politics, and Rhetoric

July 7, 2016

So, I’m writing a book on how to read and understand the Bible.  The book is for undergraduates, not for theological professionals, so rhetoric becomes an important consideration–how to find the right way of saying things so that communication actually occurs.

Communication in theological  subjects is a challenge for several reasons.  The nature of the subject matter is one, but another is that often the teacher or writer inhabits a different culture from the learner or reader.  This difference of culture assumes a sinister character in today’s political climate.

There is an excellent editorial by David Brooks (“Revolt of the Masses,” June 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/28/opinion/revolt-of-the-masses.html?_r=0) in which he describes the two cultures that are driving this year’s presidential campaign and why neither understands the other.

The articles focuses on what he calls the “working-class honor code” and makes several incisive observations (relying, in part, on the research of other people).  My attention was caught by one comment in particular: The working-class honor code “has been decimated lately. Conservatives argue that it has been decimated by cosmopolitan cultural elites who look down on rural rubes.”

Red state blue state

Map of the Christian Church in the United States

The red state-blue state cultural bifurcation that afflicts American politics today is mirrored in the Christian church.  I doubt that my church has many “cosmopolitan cultural elites,” but there is a cultural divide; it is to some extent generational and to some extent educational.

Under these circumstances, theology is no longer simply an intellectual  task.  Instead it becomes a political matter of negotiating the differences among various cultures.  It’s not unlike the task facing a presidential candidate, who has to find a message, or a way of presenting a message, that the various factions within his or her party can be happy with.

For instance, several years ago I was writing a textbook of theology.  The section on sanctification required two thorough rewrites, demanded by the various layers of ecclesiastical editors.  The rewrites were required because I had to find a way of stating the idea of sanctification that would not offend or irritate the most conservative readers.  Rewrites were necessary to find the right rhetorical tone for a potentially wide audience of varying theological cultures, including the culture whose members are acutely sensitive to departures from the hallowed tradition.

This means that ecclesiastical leaders have a nearly impossible task.  My church, like most others, contains at least two distinct cultures, one socially conservative and the other not.  The leaders of my church have the unenviable job of keeping this mixed multitude together on one ecclesiastical ark (I resist the temptation to use here the image of clean and unclean animals on the ark) and of articulating our theological heritage in a way that allows the multitude to inhabit the ark with some degree of harmony and shared vision.  (Not that our leaders do this very well.  From my location at the far edge of the denomination, they seem to excel mostly at traveling and administration.  They and their bureaucratic acolytes appear to have nothing in their theological toolbox except hackneyed platitudes satisfying an increasingly small number of zealots.)

Unfortunately, the need to preserve unity and avoid conflict results in a culture of pervasive fear and in risk-averse conduct.  A similar situation obtained in ante-bellum America, when the debate over slavery was so acrimonious that it threatened to split churches.  As a result, many churches for several decades tolerated slave-owning members, believing schism to be a worse fate than tolerating slavery.

In a context of political anger such as we experience today, when fury has become a Christian virtue, church leaders will understandably be reluctant to expose themselves to the vitriol of the aggrieved culture and to run the risk of schism.

So what is a theologian to do when the church is populated by differing tribes, differing cultures?  What is the theological task in a situation in which segments of the church react with near hysteria to changes in the social and intellectual landscape?  It’s not necessary to adduce gay marriage as an example–portions of the Christian community are still fighting over the theory of evolution and the ordination of women, and I’m confident that somewhere in the church there are lingering doubts about the civil rights movement.

I’m tempted to regard this situation as generational and to hope that time will reduce the conflict between the cultures.  My undergraduate students mostly come from conservative, non-denominational churches.  Nonetheless, on social issues such as homosexuality they hold views that are far different from and less militant than the way in which Evangelical thought is commonly portrayed–a portrait of  representatives of conservative churches who are usually typically pretty old.  Even students who oppose homosexual marriage exhibit a rhetoric that is considerably milder than the alarmist speech characteristic of Evangelicalism’s spokespersons.

A stubborn sense of realism, however, intrudes into my hopes and forces me to acknowledge that the difference between cultures is not simply generational.  It is in fact deeply ideological.  The Christian community in America today simply possesses contrary views about the church’s relation to culture and nation.

In this situation, where theology inevitably acquires a political dimension, rhetoric becomes important.  It becomes, in other words, important to attend to means of persuasion.  Theological scholars and intellectuals have only words, but words can persuade.  The task is to find the right words and to place them in the right order.  Behind this task lies the whistling-in-the-dark confidence that there are Christians in every political culture who can be persuaded.  Whether this confidence is warranted is a matter of debate, but Christianity is, after all, a religion of hope.

Why I Hate the New International Version of the Bible

July 4, 2016

As readers of this journal may know, I am writing a book on how to read and interpret the Bible.  So, I’m thinking a lot these days about hermeneutical matters.  Yesterday provided me with a shock that somehow has to find its way into the book.

Vittore_carpaccio,_vocazione_di_san_matteoMy Sunday School class is studying Mark’s gospel.  Yesterday’s lesson was on Mark 2.  In one episode, Jesus calls the publican, Levi, to be a disciple (2:14).  In the next episode, Jesus is eating in “his” house, along with many publicans and sinners (2:15).  In class I made the point that in Mark’s gospel it is not clear in whose house Jesus is eating.  Luke’s gospel removes the uncertainty by telling the reader that the meal occurs in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29).  I wanted the class to notice that Mark sets the two episodes side by side without directly connecting them.

I then learned that the NIV Bible takes it upon itself to connect what is unconnected.  It translates Mark 2:15 thus: “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house. . . .”  In other words, the NIV gratuitously adds to the biblical text, thinking that it thereby helps the reader.  (I learned this because most of the class uses the NIV.  Some years ago it became the translation unofficially endorsed by my denomination.)

The clods responsible for the NIV, thinking that they have done the reader a favor, have, in fact insulted the reader.  The NIV consistently assumes that the reader is stupid and needs the translator to clarify whatever in the biblical text is unclear.

The NIV approach fights against the very thing that is most needed, namely, for Christian disciples to read the Bible very carefully and slowly.  The NIV hinders such careful reading by making the biblical text more familiar–in this case, by importing information from Luke into the translation of Mark.  Doing so eliminates the need for the reader to linger over the text, puzzling about its narrative flow or lack of flow.

Speed_bump_(asphalt)

The NIV refuses to acknowledge that sometimes lack of clarity is a good thing.  Lack of clarity in the Bible functions like a speed bump, slowing the reader so that reading becomes more laborious but also more careful.  The problem for many Christians is that, having read and/or heard the Bible for many years, they are overly familiar with it–it contains no surprises.  One way of getting them to read more carefully is to draw attention to the surprising points of unclarity in the text–the places where it doesn’t make sense or says something different from what we think it says.

Wrinkled_Paper_Texture_Free_Creative_Commons_(6816216700)The NIV subverts this process by smoothing out the wrinkles in the Bible, making for a smoother text and a faster read–exactly the thing that is least needed today.  That is why the New American Standard Bible is superior–when the biblical text is unclear, its translation is unclear; when the biblical text lacks coherence, the translation lacks coherence.

Trying to increase biblical literacy in the church is a daunting task today.  It’s too bad that the translation that is most popular in my church makes the task more daunting.

Galileo: The Man Who Made the Bible Safe for Science (continued)

July 1, 2016

Scientists as workIn my journal entry of June 28, I discussed Galileo’s notion of the two books, viz., the Bible and the book of Nature.  Galileo’s goal was to prevent theological and ecclesiastical inference in scientific research.

Pictured: Scientists at work, happily free from ecclesiastical interference

 

To achieve his goal, Galileo limited the message of the Bible to one issue, salvation.  As he said in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany:

The Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side. . . .  Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation?

NOMA

A modern form of this view was offered by Stephen J. Gould.  Gould advanced the notion of non-overlapping magisteria.  Gould, neither a Christian nor a theist, discovered at some point in his life that not all Christians were anti-scientific dolts.  In particular, he seemed appreciative of John Paul II’s efforts to reduce the tension between the scientific community and the theological community.  In response, Gould articulated the NOMA principle, a sort of division of labor between science and religion.  In Gould’s words:

If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

The truce between science and theology thus called allows each to work undisturbed by the other.  Fuzzy but sincere lines of demarcation are established between the domain of science and that of theology.  Each agrees to work its own side of the street:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.

Two circles black white 2

Non-overlapping Magisteria

Gould’s view represents a vast improvement on the idiotic picture that many scientists seem to have of theology’s relation to science, a picture of unrelenting hostility caused by thick-headed religious believers who willfully refuse to accept the results of science.

Distinguishing, as Gould does, the domains of theology from those of science performs a practical service.  As the long, sad, and baffling history of biblical creationism has shown, trying to extract scientific knowledge and theories from the Bible is futile. It is, moreover, a hindrance to the scientific enterprise when adopted into scientific education.

At the same time, I’m not convinced of the wisdom of limiting the Bible so one-dimensionally to matters of salvation.  Gould’s approach gives us a workable strategy for reducing conflict between science and theology, but can the Bible so easily be restricted to “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectHere’s what I’m getting at: the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) makes assertions about the non-human portions of the universe: sun, moon, and stars; animals; natural forces and processes; and so on.  Only Fundamentalists want to continue the preposterous agenda of squeezing scientific information from these biblical assertions. But are such assertions one and all expressions of “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Here’s a good cliffhanger on which to end.  More to come shortly.

Galileo–The Man who Made The Bible Safe for Science

Two books (Bible and nature)

Two Books and the Man Who Separated Them

June 28, 2016

Back at work after a hiatus occupied with grading and other necessary tasks.

In March I gave a short presentation at the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.  In it I talked about the way in which my church (the Church of the Nazarene) and many other Christians have enthusiastically embraced a view of the Bible that goes back at least as far as Galileo.

Among other things, Galileo is famous (among people who read such things) for an essay

Christine_of_Lorraine_Medici4

Christina, happy to hear from Galileo

(the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany) in which he argued that the purpose of the Bible is strictly to reveal the way to salvation.  Put differently, it is not the Bible’s purpose to reveal anything about the natural world.  Galileo cleverly used a metaphor to get his point across–God has spoken in two books, the Bible (for knowledge about salvation) and the book of nature (for knowledge about the world).

 

Judging from my experience in the dialog between science and theology (a curiously one-sided dialog), my sense is that many Christian thinkers are attracted to Galileo’s way of dividing the intellectual pie.  This embrace is due to the perception that too much unnecessary controversy between the theological and scientific communities has ensued because of faulty assumptions about the Bible. Fundamentalists, in particular, are known for their trust that the Bible delivers to us accurate knowledge about everything, at least everything mentioned in the Bible.

For example, there is a physician, Dr. Mel Mulder (http://www.muldermel.com/author.html), who has a radio show (“Beyond Intelligent Design”) whose tagline is that the Bible is our only source of truth.  This is farther than many Fundamentalists would go, suggesting as it does that the sciences are not at all sources of truth.  Nonetheless, most Fundamentalists would say that the results of scientific study are valid only as long as they do not contradict the Bible.  The assumption is that the Bible does indeed reveal to us certain vital truths about the natural world.  If scientific theory disagrees with the Bible, too bad for science.

Galileo thus provided Christians who are anxious to preserve the autonomy of science with an alternative to Fundamentalism.  Instead of assuming that God lodged truths about nature in the Bible, many, perhaps most Christian thinkers, have embraced Galileo’s division-of-labor approach.  We go to the Bible if we want to know about salvation; we go scientifically to nature if we want to know about the world.

Adopting Galileo’s view carves out a space in the anxious world of Christian universities, a space that, in principle if not always in practice, allows scientists to go about their work without ecclesiastical interference.  This space allows worried university administrators to permit more-or-less untrammeled scientific teaching and research with a good conscience–at least until scientists annoyingly encroach on recognizably theological topics such as the soul and ethics.  Nonetheless, as long as Christian scientists abide by the rules of the Galilean game, the only people complaining are Fundamentalists, who reject the game.  The existence of Fundamentalists, however, is actually a blessing in disguise for Christian universities.  They enable the Christian university’s scientists and administrators to engage in self-congratulation for bring broad-minded and enlightened (compared to Fundamentalists) and also authentically Christian (compared to those afflicted with liberal theology).

Oddly both Galileo and Fundamentalism have proven to be blessings for the Christian university.

Although it is not uncommon for scientists today to play up Galileo’s controversy with the Renaissance papacy, the truth is that he laid the foundation of much contemporary Christian thinking about how faith and theology relate to the sciences.

However, I for one am not happy with Galileo’s depiction of the Bible.  In particular, the notion that the Bible is strictly and only about salvation seems questionable.

However, I’m typing this book on scripture and need to maintain momentum, so I will continue this journal entry on Galileo shortly.

Dance, a Metaphor for Lent

Romeo and JulietTerrie and I last night went to see Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet.

One of the striking things about dance, when done well, is how effortless it seems.  We all know that dance requires a lot of effort, but when professional dancers perform, they seem to float above the floor.  Unlike the clumsy rest of us, there seems to be perfect coordination of body and spirit. The body has been perfectly spiritualized; the spirit has been perfectly embodied in the body’s movements.

This is a symbol of Lent.  Lent is a time for, among other things, detaching ourselves from the pleasures of the body.  It is easy to interpret this detachment as a revolt against the body and a rejection of its fleshiness, but we can also see detachment as an exercise designed to spiritualize the body–to overcome gap between the spirit and the body, so that the spirit can be fully embodied.

In theological circles these days it is customary to assume that we are embodied creatures, but perhaps embodiment is a task to be accomplished, not something that we can just assume.  Perhaps embodiment is an acquired skill, like dancing.

If so, then those who, in the spirit of Lent, achieve, however fragmentarily, the spiritualization of the body are like the greatest of dancers who in the act of dance realize the union of spirit and body.

Progressive Revelation

Work in progressThe
Christian faith affirms the reality of progressive revelation; without it, the New Testament would be, not new, but only a different version of the Old Testament. For Christians, the New Testament bears witness to a revelation that is more complete than what we find in the Old Testament. And even in the New Testament we can see some developing insight into revelation, as when the church, after considerable discussion, came to see that God does not require male Gentile converts to be circumcised.

What usually worries us about the idea of progressive revelation is the possibility that there could be a revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ or a witness to revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The Church of Latter Day Saints, for instance, professes to have a revelation that goes beyond and adds to the revelation of Christ to which the New Testament bears witness. Muslim theology claims that Mohammed received from God the ultimate revelation that gives the true interpretation of Jesus Christ’s significance. It is these sorts of beliefs that make the idea of progressive revelation problematic.

Jesus Christ is the
ultimate revelation of God

It is a bedrock element of the Christian faith that there is no revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ and no witness to that revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The basis of this belief is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the
Logos, the word of God, incarnate. Before Jesus Christ there were many preliminary expressions of the word of God, such as Moses’ law or the declarations of the Old Testament’s prophets, but Jesus Christ is the word of God itself, and not merely an expression of that word. It is also a fundamental conviction of the Christian faith that the New Testament is the unsurpassable witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ and is so because it rests on the testimony of Jesus’ apostles.

However, revelation is not only something sent but is also something received. Revelation that is not received by human eyes and ears and minds is not yet revelation. There can, accordingly, be a development in the human understanding of revelation–a growing awareness of the implications of revelation. So, although in one sense no revelation can surpass Jesus Christ and the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ, there is a developing history in which God’s revelation is understood with increasing insight.

The possibility of such a developing history is grounded in the fact that the revelation of Jesus requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches disciples (John 14:26) and guides them into the truth (John 16:13). This Johannine theme reminds us that revelation must be received and that our minds must be suitably disposed by the Spirit to receive it. History shows us that the Spirit’s attempt to lead the church into truth is progressive, even if the pace of progress is frustratingly slow and uneven.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND:  SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

For example, take the practice of slavery. Paul wrote (in Galatians 3:28) that in Christ there is neither slave nor free person. The revelation of Jesus Christ, in other words, means that God is overcoming the distinction between slave and free. Yet the New Testament writers took slavery as a fact of life. They did not and, in their cultural situation, could not envision an end to slavery. But over the centuries, the Christian church came to understand that slavery is contrary to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It took more than 1800 years, but the Spirit finally succeeded in helping the church grasp this important truth. There has thus been progressive insight in the meaning and implications of revelation. Or, take the ordination of women into the ministry of the church. It took Christian churches more than 1800 years to grasp the point that the oneness of men and women in Christ implies the propriety of ordaining women. Most churches still do not acknowledge this point, but some do. Finally, consider the centuries-long Christian belief that the Bible teaches that the earth lies at the center of the universe. It took the labors of astronomers to convince the Christian community otherwise. In this case, astronomy was useful in helping Christians gain insight into what God’s revelation teaches and what it does not teach.

These examples show us that revelation is one thing and the human understanding of revelation, of its meaning, significance, and consequences, is another thing. It is good for us not to confuse the two. When we forget this distinction, we identify our finite, fallible interpretations of scripture with the declaration of scripture itself; we think that our understanding of revelation is revelation itself.

There is no such thing
as generic revelation

What about the phenomenon of Christian prophecy? We read of prophets in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 11:27; Acts 13:1; Acts 15:32; Acts 21:9-11; 1 Corinthians 14:29). These prophets may deliver a revelation (1 Corinthians 14:6, 26, 30). Do these new revelations transcend the revelation of Jesus Christ? The book of Revelation shows us that such utterances of Christian prophets are new revelations, but are not thereby progressive revelations. They do not constitute a revelation beyond Jesus Christ, but they are fresh occasions of revelation in new contexts. Because revelation must received and because this reception always takes place in particular historical and cultural circumstances, there is no such thing as generic revelation. Revelation is always the intersection of God’s speech and human situation. That is why we read the repeated refrain in Revelation, “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (e.g., 2:7; 2:11). The revelation of Jesus Christ is, in a sense, a treasure. Those who are trained for the kingdom of God can bring from it both what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52). Expressed differently, the Spirit of God may have a new word to speak to the church–new because the church dwells in ever-changing contexts that require fresh adaptations of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

God and Dance

SD Ballet

Terrie and I attended the San Diego Ballet’s “Evening of Jazz and Dance” yesterday.

It’s always inspiring to see people doing creative things excellently, like young people with fluid and sinuous movements.

But since I’m a theologian, my thoughts inevitably turn to theology.

During the performance, it occurred to me that there is an important analogy between God and dance (and music). Dance is a matter of form–tempo, rhythm, motion but above all the form of the body, its shape, its posture, the arrangement of head, hands, and limbs, as in a painting composition.

As form, dance is not about something or the expression of something. It simply is something. It doesn’t re-present something, it simply is presentation. When we see dancing, we don’t seek something behind the movement, looking for a meaning. The motion that we see is the whole thing.

There is, then a wonderful superficiality in dance (and music)–not superficial as in shallow, but superficial in the sense that everything lies on the surface, available for seeing.  We see the motion and hear the sounds, but not in order to get at something deeper.  There is nothing deeper; the motion and the sound are the depth.

There is a tradition in theology, going back to Aristotle, that thinks of God as form. Like dance, God is not about something or the expression of something. God simply is. As in dance, there is nothing behind God that would provide the real meaning of God. As in the experience of dance, in encountering God we experience the reality itself, not a reality being mediated to us by an expression.

With God, the divine form, given in the movement of revelation, is not the re-presentation of something behind the revelation or deeper.  The form lies right on the surface of revelation’s movement.

You can learn a lot from dance (and music).