12 March 2015

Revelation and Nature

The folks at Reformed Forum are always interesting. I enjoy their articles and listening to their podcasts. One of them recently posted a brief piece mentioning the insistence within the Reformed tradition that revelation must not be separated from nature.

He argues revelation should not be treated in an abstractly supernatural fashion but that grace perfects nature.

He then goes on to pair the Barthian and Anabaptist views as being similar and in opposition to the Reformed view. He believes their view(s) to contain implicit dualist tendencies and represent a kind of anti-nature and anti-matter mindset. He doesn't specifically mention the Gnostics but most make the charge at this point. He then argues that the Reformed and in particular the Amillennial wing within the Reformed need to be sure not to fall into this trap.

It was an interesting little read and I appreciated it even if I cannot agree with him. I understand the emphasis though. This seemingly obscure point is actually pretty important. Without this, the entirety of their theological project falls into peril. And certainly you cannot speak in terms of Christianity and culture apart from this understanding. It's no accident that the theologian he cites is the Dutch giant Hermann Bavinck.

While I am not a follower of Kant, I do agree with him that the epistemological categories are limited by our experience. Our understandings of quantity, quality, relation and modality are all limited by our ability to contextualize within our minds. In fact I would go further and state all of our understanding is ultimately relational. Things, object and ideas only have meaning (to us) in how we can relate them to other similar and dissimilar entities.

God of course relates at a different level and at a different scale than we do. His knowledge is not just quantitatively more than ours, because his understanding of relations (and thus all knowledge) is different than ours, his knowledge is qualitatively different. He can relate things in ways and in comprehensive contexts that we cannot.

Revelation reveals to us truths from the eternal and spiritual realm, a realm we have no way to contextualize. Theologians of the scholastic tradition seem to believe that once we are given foundational revelatory data we can proceed (as it were) into the spiritual/metaphysical realm and begin to predicate, deduce and form models of coherence. This quest for system allows the theologian to not only 'round-out' the corpus of knowledge but also to probe into other areas and seek to apply theological principles in wider fields of ethics and sociology. We will revisit this point.

If the metaphysical realm apart from strict adherence to revelation is closed to us, then this project is effectively terminated. This is why sometimes you will hear people say that Barth was anti-metaphysics. I won't presume to interpret Barth and yet it very well may be the case and I came to a similar conclusion long ago. This is not to say there isn't a metaphysical reality. By no means. But what it is saying is that philosophically and theologically we cannot say anything about it apart from what we are given by God.

But unlike Barth I believe in revelation given to us in the form of inspired Words (Scripture) and preserved as such. I believe apart from this inscripturated Word we are indeed blind. We can tell the spiritual/metaphysical realm is there but we cannot predicate concerning it and any attempt to do so actually leads to idolatry. Lacking proper epistemological tools we end up attempting to relate metaphysical categories and meaning to or not, we limit them to the epistemological categories of the space/time realm... our own experience. We create reductionisms and ultimately false constructs.

I do not believe the spiritual realm is the equivalent of Kant's noumenal and that it's up to us to actualize in different contexts. Barth might believe the Scripture contains numerous instances or examples of God's Word but he also seemed to believe you could encounter the Word through other types of experiences, great emotion, a trauma... perhaps even the sublime. This of course is reminiscent of Schopenhauer and other figures that came after Kant and worked with and modified his categories.

The Word functions within space/time and thus Creation but it is spiritual in its nature. People could hear Jesus preach and witness miracles and yet apart from the Spirit's work on the heart they did not have the ability (via the nature of This Age) to rightly interpret these phenomena. Only those who have been gifted with transcendence (re-birth, eyes to see) can rightly begin to apprehend let alone comprehend the revelation they are encountering.

The 'law', the commands of God are spiritual and the natural man cannot understand them nor in any way begin to follow them. Jesus said that he could not tell the disciples 'heavenly' things and Paul experienced things which cannot be uttered. The mysteries of the Incarnation and Trinity transcend the categories that we can function with and God Himself reminds us that His ways are not ours, His thoughts are not ours and He draws a distinction between the ways of heaven and the ways of earth and man (Is 55)

Revelation being part of nature is critical to the Protestant project because transcendent truths have to be legislated and culturally enforced. There has to be a way to bridge the truths of the Spirit-Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. Without this connection there would indeed be a distinction between secular and sacred and this oft attacked Biblical concept is something they have sought to eradicate. Apart from this connection between revelation and nature, the ability to apply the Kingdom to the cultural and sociological model (to Sacralize it) would collapse. Again, if the categories cannot parse revelation there's no way to develop comprehensive theological, philosophical and thus sociological systems.

At this point we would argue that revelation itself is a miracle and thus by definition transcends the categories of nature and space/time. It is in the world (space/time/history) but it is not of the world. When revelation is flattened to the point where the distinction between general and special revelation are lost, then faith ends up being something more akin to 'right reason' then the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Please note the evidence is of the type that transcends the categories of nature. It's not verifiable, but it's not something that's unreasonable or incoherent. It rests on the claims of a Person and His Work. It is rooted in a bare and simple and yet incomplete coherence, a recognition that reality is more than what we experience but it cannot be 'proved' in terms of logic or pass some kind of test of falsifiability.

It is a blessed hope, not something we approach with epistemological certainty in the way we approach material phenomena or mathematical proofs. Our faith rests not in proofs and deductions but in a Person and His claims and deeds.

General Revelation points to a spiritual or noumenal reality. We're left like Kant (and Ockham before him) saying we cannot (via nature) go any further. But since we accept Christ we can believe the Scripture He sanctioned and that takes us into the Spirit-realm. We can have knowledge... the knowledge of analogy and replication, not the ability to predicate and speculate. As mentioned previously, doing this leads to reductionist coherences and thus ultimately to misleading conclusions.

This is the difference between what we would call Biblicism vs. the Scholastic Model which has plagued the Church from at least the days of Peter Lombard and in the form of Confessionalism after the Reformation. We prefer a different intellectual pedigree, one that follows (to a limited extent) the path of Ockham, Hume and Kant, one that leads to Scepticism vis-à-vis this world and inconclusiveness regarding the necessary Spiritual reality and points us instead to a choice.... Nihilism or Revelation.

We are thankful that Common Grace leads to restraint and that we can speak of an Innate or Natural Law that is flawed and partial but functions within the hearts of men. But they cannot account for it and when they attempt to probe it or establish it, it will always lead to idolatry and error. Is this due to a simple lack of right reason, or is it a result of a chasm, a gulf fixed by the curse of Eden and that right reason in fact cannot lead man to God? Reason limited by space-time-experiential categories cannot penetrate the veil. The instrument of access is faith in Christ. Apart from that, man's only viable choice (if honest) is Nihilism. All coherences end up being subjective and ultimately unverifiable. Attempts at meaning are reductionist speculations.

Scholasticism inadvertently leads to man-made systems, an idolatrous pseudo-Coherence, an attempt by man to grasp and formulate a comprehensive system. Ultimately it begins to self-destruct, as the systems created cannot stand up to their criteria and wither under their own scrutiny. Scholasticism lays the groundwork for its own destruction.

Barth offers a somewhat similar critique but in reality embraces a very different understanding. We might indeed call him a Word-ist. He would also seemingly decry the scholastic project but for him the Word is not the equivalent of Scripture. That may have been true to some degree prior to the Apostolic Age. But as Biblicists we must insist after the Apostles disappeared from the earth, the only prophetic oracular Word we have is Scripture. For Barth this is problem because like a good Kantian he seems to insist that we must individually and thus subjectively experience the Noumenal-Word. At this point he is little different than the theological liberals he opposed. He could not accept the idea of an inspired and preserved infallible and thus canonical text that was fully authoritative. His Enlightenment commitments wouldn't allow him to do that. So he sought a way to retain Supernaturalism but divorce it from an Infallible Bible.

We are not sceptics on the order of Hume but like Cassidy we can appreciate Hume for his utter destruction of any kind of positive Rationalist or Empiricist system. Hume, in many ways like Ockham of old leads to Scepticism and Kant for all his efforts remained mired in dogmatic slumber and had to resort to creating a system (albeit brilliant) that cannot be verified. Scepticism can be destructive or it can drive man to be forced to say I (of myself) can know nothing. Possessing nothing and with no hope, the Sceptic can possibly be softened to hear the answer... the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Rejecting the philosophical project the Christian embraces the faith based on basic principles of coherence. Innately we know there is a God, there is a metaphysical realm, there is truth and it can give us a foundation to stand on to embrace the gospel and revelation.

But once we are there we leave aside the quest for Coherence and instead embrace truth in the form of Correspondence. Our thinking which is at best analogical must match and pattern itself after the revelation provided to us from God. We understand (Heb 11) that true reality is trans-physical or supernatural and yet we also understand that our fallen categories won't function in that realm. We cling tenaciously to revelation because it's all we have. It's our guide as it were to the metaphysical/spiritual realm. It's not a philosophical foundation stone to transform and redeem this world.

We are not anti-matter. We are anti-'This Age' because Christ has already condemned this world and its 'god' (2 Cor 4.4 and Ephesians 6). The Dominionist impulse wants to insist that creation is being redeemed. This is a desperate attempt to retain their cultural project and make the works of This Age a part of the Kingdom. They believe we will carry our works with us to heaven and thus we'll have Bach and Rembrandt and other such cultural 'attainments' in The Age to Come. The Secular becomes the Sacred.

The criteria they employ to determine what is good and beautiful are not based on Scripture but instead are rooted in ancient philosophy but that's for another discussion. 

Without this cultural redemption then indeed the whole of the Reformed project regarding culture is rendered worthless and meaningless... just what it is. Abraham Kuyper and all his descendants at work in America today are gravely mistaken even if they have virtually conquered the Evangelical world.

The problem with the old Fundamentalist and Evangelical notion of heaven being ethereal is not due to dualism or Gnosticism, rather it is the result of some bad theological impulses and probably rooted more in the Dispensational divide between Jew and Gentile. Just because some have seemingly missed the fact that we will have resurrection bodies does not mean they're Gnostics. The problem has been compounded by the fact that you have groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses who actually hold to more or less Biblical view of heaven. This has made the Biblical view suspect. But actually I think the Dominionist view of this life and the afterlife have become the dominant teaching in today's Evangelicalism. This has been true for about twenty years now.

And yet returning to the issue of the resurrection body, Christ's body was unlike ours. It was physical but of a different nature. The categories do not apply. We cannot account for a being that can eat fish but pass through walls and ceilings, appear or disappear at will. The resurrected Christ is also a form of revelation and a very poignant example of how the categories (nature) fail to be applicable. In truth we don't even know which of these attributes are part of resurrection life or applicable only to Christ's Deity.

Despite Cassidy's concerns, Paul speaks in a way he doesn't in 2 Cor 4.16- 5.19. Paul speaks of focusing on the eternal, not the temporal, he speaks of our bodies as tents to be destroyed, and he groans to be 'clothed upon'. While at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. Living as risen, Kingdom-people we are part of the new creation, all things for us are new, the old things (of This Age) have passed away. The Judgment draws the line. And the reconciliation of the world? That's the work of Holy Spirit in forgiveness of sins, categories which cannot be applied to the culture of Common Grace... art, science, politics etc...

1 Cor 7 tells us that even Common Grace ordinances like marriage are temporary... meaning they cannot be redeemed. Christian marriage is of a different order than that of the world because the two people are 'in' Christ. But even that blessed arrangement is temporary as are all things of this age. And how we approach this age is demonstrated in how we 'possess' things. We use them as things that are passing away with this age. This must seem rather dualist to many a Dominionist as Paul doesn't seem to share their culture-positive constructivist view.

2 Peter 3.10-13 teaches that this world and all the works that are in it shall be burned up. That's how it's renewed. Cassidy seems to think that so-called Christian art and cultural endeavours are not part of the works of the world and thus will survive. Only the work of the Spirit, that which is Holy is already part of the New Heavens and Earth. God has given us many beautiful things in the arts and culture, but they are cheap shadows and the corrupted works of men's hands compared to the glory that shall follow.

Think of the temple. Yes it became obsolete and was done away with when Christ fulfilled the typology, but nevertheless the works of man, even redeemed man are still like Solomon's works... failures. The earthly temple, holy in its context and blessed by God was but a shadow compared to the Temple made without hands.

If our knowledge is analogical and God's knowledge is qualitatively different than ours, anything we produce will at best be a childish reductionism and I see no warrant for believing that our cultural endeavours, contextualized in a world of sin can possibly do anything to contribute to God's Kingdom or our experience of heaven. Like Noah we condemn This Age and all its works.

Cassidy demonstrates the tendency within Reformed Amillennialism that I realized almost twenty years ago. Most of them, because they still embrace Dominionism and the language of Cultural Mandate might as well be Postmillennialists. Kline is right. On this point the Biblical Amillennial position has more in common on a practical applicable level with historic Pre-millennialism.

Revelation is not our clay that we're allowed to sculpt. Poor in spirit we understand that we cannot know anything in this world as we ought. We cannot account for the knowledge we have or how we apply it. We know just enough to be guilty. Revelation brings us the gospel in the person and work of Jesus Christ. On the basis of faith in Him we accept the Bible as His Word and it is our light and truth. Without it we cannot hope to navigate This Age. It is our only window into the eternal realm and it is our guide through this dying world under judgment. It teaches us that we are to be light-bearers and martyr-witnesses, that we are to wage spiritual war on this battlefield and that we win by being slaughtered and persecuted. This world is not our home and we do not seek to reform this age. Only God can bring the reformation... the fires of Judgment and recreation.

Like the post-flood world, heaven will be a fresh slate, the former things will not be remembered or come to mind and the tears will be wiped away from our eyes.