Sunday, March 18, 2007

Revelation, Geography and the Bible Canon

A couple of weeks ago, a couple of Mormon guys in their white shirts and black ties came to my door. I just shooed them away by saying that was not interested in LDS. I have tried to debate people of other faiths before, and though it is often interesting, it ultimately gets nowhere in terms of persuading anyone. Even as that is so, it is useful for me to better clarify my differences with such groups, so I’ve continually asked myself how I can better explain that the New Testament has no room for the sort of extra revelation that the Latter Day Saints are offering.

And it’s not just the follower of LDS. Followers of Bahai and Islam, to name a couple of major groups, also claim to complete the teachings of NT and/or correct severe and drastic failures of the NT to get the message right. LDS, Bahai, Islam and other groups like them all claim that their beliefs operate with some essential connective tissue to the Bible and the NT. For them, Jesus is an important teacher en route to the real goods, which are provided by this person or that who followed after Jesus and who completed Jesus and/or who corrected the serious mistakes of the apostles/bible writers/translators.

It seems clear enough to me from my read of the Bible and the NT and all that Jesus plainly said and didn't say that there is no room for a prophet to follow the NT whose importance is co-equal to Jesus and/or the apostles. If Jesus was who he said he was, then there would be no need for anyone to follow. Jesus affirmed that he was the Messiah, and he said that he fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. Jesus did not say that another prophet of equal authority to him or to his apostles would follow. When there was, in fact, something of salvific importance that was to come in the future that the apostles and/or any and all of Jesus’ future followers would need to know (ie. the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Second Coming) Jesus plainly informed his apostles. This understanding is in conflict with the idea that Jesus and the apostles of the Bible got everything right and that everything has been passed down intact and correct – except that there was more crucial canonical information that needed to be revealed to the world long after Jesus and his apostles.

Due to the conflict that is presented by claiming to add to the words of Jesus while recognizing that his words are intact and correct as presented to us in the New Testament, many canon-adding groups claim that the New Testament is, in fact, not correct or is incomplete due to lost information. Now, if one accepts any idea that Jesus was the messiah and Lord according to words and actions attributed to him, then one must place some degree of trust in those whom Jesus entrusted with his words. If one can't trust Jesus’ apostles to get the New Testament right, one can't trust Jesus to be a Lord who was wise enough to have picked and guided the right disciples. If one accepts the idea that the apostles got it right, but that later translators severely altered the Bible, then one is still left with a Lord who wasn’t wise enough and powerful enough to ensure that his message made it intact to the world. For this one must claim that Jesus’ promises of ongoing guidance by the Holy Spirit were mere fabrications and/or empty promises. If the combined effort of Jesus and the Holy Spirit wasn’t enough to ensure the intact presentation of his message to the world, then Jesus is less than the Lord that he said that he was.

If one were to argue that Jesus of Nazareth was an important teacher/prophet, but that it was merely the Bible writers who got him wrong by conflating him into one co-equal with God, then one is left with the burden of constructing a completely different Jesus that the one in the New Testament, and not merely an altered one.

The bottom line to all of this is that one can't claim to add or correct the Bible with extra canonical revelation without diminishing Jesus' lordship, and one can't diminish Jesus lordship without making him and his apostles to be liars/frauds to one degree or another. Here, Jesus ends up being less than Lord if one is either A) out and out denying Jesus’ Lordship (like the Muslims) or B) claiming to complete Jesus' original mission to communicate new information about the Gospel to the world with extra revelation long after Jesus and the apostles (Like the LDS). It seems clear enough to me that there is no way around it, but it is obviously not clear enough to those who claim to have added/corrected canonical information in regard to the New Testament.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge the cessationist/continuationist debate. In regard to revelation, as a continuationist, I don't believe that experiences encountering God, words of knowledge, miracles, gifts have ceased, though they may not be manifested equally among all Christians at all times. A cessationist might ask, "So what then is the nature of the revelation that has ceased if you, the continuationist, believe that these manifestations of the Spirit continue?" I want to simultaneously deal with the non-Christian (or quasi-Christian) groups who are Bible adder/correctors and the Christian cessationist brothers by dealing with arc redemptive history in regard to the nature and purpose of revelation and God's use of geography. I want to construct an argument that deals with the Bible as an indivisible whole and that sews up an answer to the question, "Where does canonical revelation begin and end and why?” in such a way that contextualizes the ministry of Jesus and the apostles within redemptive history.

Redemptive history in the context of the Israelites/Jews is the process of God unfolding pieces that, put together, comprise the complete body of God’s globally necessary salvific knowledge for the world. The Bible contains this in ways that are stated both directly and via example, both as narrative and as precept. When Paul says in Romans 5:20

"The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more"

in the context of explaining the role of Christ in regard to redemptive history, Paul is explaining a metaphysical reality that is rooted in the real blood, sweat and breath of human history through time. When he discusses the Law in regard to the Jews in Romans 2:23-24

"You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,"

Paul is in the process of explaining a principle that it took the arc of history through the real blood sweat and breath of the Jews operating in history to be able to explain. These examples in Romans are just two examples of the many ways that the New Testament contains both a narrative and the complete metaphysical and creedal understanding of that narrative and all of the narrative that proceeded it. As such, the New Testament canon is a complete package of teaching that can be presented to the whole world along with the rest of Scripture as that which consummates the rest of Scripture and explains it plainly. In this way, Old and New Testaments combined as the Bible contain both the demonstration and the explanation of the demonstration of this: the salvific truth that is necessary for our foundational understanding of the God who has operated in history and our relationship to Him.

While the Bible represents the completion of globally necessary salvific knowledge, it does not mean those who lived before its completion were incapable of being saved. Rather, it means that there were key pieces of the salvific knowledge of God that were needed to be completed through the story of the Jewish people before the revelation could be complete as a Gospel to the whole world. Before the completion of this globally necessary salvific knowledge, salvation still required an orientation to the Jewish people and, during the era of the temple, to the temple via the outer court. Before the completion of the globally necessary salvific knowledge, the temple is still at the center of the terra firma of the word of God in Zion as both spirit and geography.

It is with the ministry of Jesus and then the apostles that this ends, and something important happens: the revelation is taken out of the bounds of Jewish people and the geography of Jerusalem. The globally necessary salvific revelation is now portable to the ends of the earth: it is now a Gospel. This altered relationship with geography is confirmed by three particular events that happen to the temple after the cross and the resurrection. The ripping of the temple curtain, Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD were sequential earthquakes that signaled this altered relationship with geography and the Word of God. It is the dissemination of globally necessary salvific knowledge via direct revelation to a particular man or group of men that has ended, which is why the relationship between the word of God and earthly geography has been altered and the dissemination of God’s word is now no longer within the boundaries of the Jewish people and land.

To use big fancy words, the portability of the Gospel beyond the terra firma of the temple mount has particular pheumotological, cristological and ecclesiastical ramifications. Having a different relationship with land, the church now also has a different relationship with human mediators. It is now Jesus, the king and high priest who communicates directly with all believers, as lesser priests, via his Spirit to all ends of the earth to accomplish the goal of establishing his Kingdom in the transformation of believers. It is in the administration of this that Christ betows gifts and fruits to advance it. The church, as an ecclesiastical institution, is merely a container and shell of loosely held, locally operating and very conditionally held institutional authority that is placed by God to guide the establishment of God's Kingdom. As Jesus has commissioned the Gospel to be spread to the whole world, it is the province of the church, as the collective, organic body of individual Christians each operating as individual agents whose job it is to disseminate the body of completed salvific revelation presented in the Bible as it is understood in the context of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, to answer the cessationists, the revelation that has ceased is any new revelation of globally necessary salvific knowledge of God which must be disseminated via one man to the whole earth. If a cessationist insisted that I was I partial "cessationist" and therefore not a pure continuationist, I would concede that I was a "cessationist" for that particular nature and purpose of revelation. As a continuationist (in the meaning of the term in the cessationist/continuationist debate), God's low-level revelation aka illumination (a word that is used to keep "revelation" distinct) is ad hoc, supplemental or is individually necessary or locally necessary or temporarily necessary or useful to advance God's kingdom across the globe.

As I have attempted to explain in my posts on "house building" and "will teach you all things" part 1, part 2 and part 3, Jesus and the apostles claimed their role as completing the dissemination of the “truth” of revelation/ aka. the Foundation, but also explained that there was to be an ongoing dissemination of ad hoc wisdom from the Holy Spirit to believers. It is in the space of this ongoing illumination that Jesus interacts directly with believers, affecting their transformation with the intervention of the Holy Spirit, and thereby guiding them to complete the work of the Gospel.

Jesus did not say that this process of illumination via the Holy Spirit would end, and I don’t believe that it will end for the reason that I stated in paragraph 3 of this post – I believe that which Jesus plainly opened is open, that which Jesus plainly closed is closed, and that which Jesus plainly says will come in the future will come in the future. Believing that the illumination of the Spirit has ended would require having extra-biblical knowledge that the promise of ongoing illumination has closed when Scripture has not plainly said so and has said many things plainly to the contrary.

Another way to think metaphorically of the divide that separates the revelation of the Bible canon from the low-level ad-hoc revelation/illumination that follows is to think of a tree. One can understand that canonic revelation is contained within a "trunk building" dispensation of God's revelation and what is now the branch building dispensation of God's illumination. (I don't normally like to use the word dispensation because "dispensationalists" too often emphasize divisions in history and not continuity of God's truth and word). The NT written by the apostles represents the authoritative writing connected to the final "trunk" revelation of God. The NT ministry of the apostles is just where the trunk is becoming branches. It is Bahai, Islam and LDS who all claim some sort of "trunk" quality revelation, some new canon for some new globally necessary salvific knowledge coming though one prophet requiring a new commissioning of missionaries to spread it to the ends of the earth.

In regard to the cessationist who might say that any modern believer’s claim to a special, conscious experience of having special communion with God puts him at risk of being seen as co-equal with the Prophets and Apostles. It is my assertion that we believers can experience the existential faith of God’s leading as an experience of God’s illumination with the same intensity and claim to God's direction and call on our lives that Abraham experienced as God’s revelation, and that we modern believers can use Abraham as an example for our journey in God’s illumination without being accused of making ourselves co-equal as prophets to Abraham. This is because Abrahams place in history makes him part of the "trunk" narrative, as Abraham's faith was necessary to advance the nation of Israel. This, so that Paul and the author of Hebrews could later look back on Abraham’s example as a way to communicate the reality of faith for the benefit of the all in the context of God's revelation in history. Only if I were to claim new, foundational, globally necessary salvific knowledge as a result of my journey with God in 2007, then I would be in problematic territory in regard to the prophets and the apostles and I would be in danger of adding to the canon as the cessationists so often fear.

I will say that I have an affinity with Catholics as brothers in Christ in a way that I do not feel with LDS or with Bahia or Islam (though some Catholics would consider me a heretic). However, the problem I have with these aforementioned groups is a similar problem that I have with the idea of "apostolic succession" of the Catholic church (and to some extent in the Anglican church). While the Catholic church leadership does not claim any new salvific knowledge after the Bible canon, they do claim a centralized illuminatory authority that emanates from God to one man and/or group of men in one corner of the world. It is the tendency of LDS, Islam and to a lesser extent the Catholic Church to try to re-orient the Word of God as something that is oriented toward a particular man at on a particular piece of terra firma. While God can certainly use the institution of the Catholic church for good and to spread the Gospel, it is its centralizing tendency in regard to geography that makes it regressive in their relationship to revelation and the geography of the Gospel. This tendency toward valuing a particular piece of terra firma is also found to one degree or another in all of the Bible canon-adding sects and religions.

In sum, it is my assertion that God's altered use of geography away from needing to by tied to the land ended any formal centralized revelatory/illuminatory ecclesiology. That the church, now free to go to the ends of the earth with the Gospel, is no longer ecclesiastically bound to the globally necessary teachings of one man or group of men. Instead, Christians operate as the "priesthood of all believers" relating directly with Christ and operating within their local church as they complete the mission of His kingdom to the ends of the earth.

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