Theology Matters

Faith Virtue Knowledge


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Give me revelation!

“Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth!”

I was blessed to grow up in a family that loved and honoured the word of God. I vividly remember one evening as a small boy when my dad read to us the story of the call of Samuel. You remember? God begins to call Samuel by name, but Samuel does not recognize God’s voice and thinks it is Eli the priest calling to him. Three times he gets up and reports dutifully to Eli. And on the third time, the penny drops for the old man of God and he instructs the boy to return to his bed and listen. If the Lord should call again, then Samuel is to say (in the old King James that the story book my father was reading quoted): “Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth.”

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That night I went to bed feverishly excited. As I put my head on my own pillow, I began to repeat Samuel’s prayer over and over again. “Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth. . . (nothing). . . Speak Lord for they servant heareth. . .” I was disappointed as I went to sleep that night, but looking back on my life, I can see that God has been answering that simple prayer ever since.

Over 30 years later, my desire continues to know God’s word, to hear God’s voice, to experience revelation from God.

Don’t use the ‘R’ word

As a theologian, I’m not supposed to use that word. I am supposed to reserve it for speaking only about Creation, the Incarnation and the Bible. Theologians make a distinction between general revelation, that is, what can be known about God through creation and reason, and special revelation, God’s saving revelation through Christ and inspired Scripture. And a further distinction is made between ‘revelation’ and ‘illumination’—the personal apprehension of what God has already revealed (in creation and the Scriptures). They do this for a very good reason. People these days are not supposed to experience the sort of ‘revelation’ that results in the addition of another testament to the bible or the establishing of a new religion. Agreed. And yet, there are a couple of problems with a strict revelation/illumination divide.

First, the bible (as is so often the case) is not quite so accurate in its usage of the word ‘revelation’ as we theologians might wish. In 1 Corinthians 14, for example, the Corinthians are told to anticipate that ‘revelations’ will frequently occur in the context of church meetings:

What shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. (1 Cor 14:26)

It is astonishing that Paul allows for this even among the Corinthian Church—that disorderly, super-spiritual congregation with so many problems. But even here, the notion of ‘revelation’ is not excluded. Rather, it is merely regulated and made subject to the law of love and the necessity of order.

In another passage, Paul frankly admits that he prays earnestly and ceaselessly that the Ephesian believers would (if you’ll permit me) get a revelation of God’s love:

 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. (Eph 1:17)

Apparently, merely hearing the words is not sufficient. And unfortunately, the term ‘illumination’ does not really account for the immediacy and personal. . .ness that is being conveyed here. Its not as if we could know, and all we need is for the ‘light to go on’ as the word implies. The point is that in order to apprehend anything about God we need the revelation of the Holy Spirit, not a mere application of some already-written words to our lives.

And this brings me to the second problem. We cannot see unless our eyes are opened; we cannot hear unless our ears are opened; we cannot properly perceive or apprehend truth unless our mind and heart are opened. And this is the ongoing revelatory (there, I said it again) activity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is just as active in my reading of the Bible as he was in inspiring its authors. It is not mere ‘illumination’ as if God only spoke or revealed himself at certain times, and then stopped. When God said “Let there be light.” There was light. And there still is. That word that God spoke so long ago remains both spoken and speaking. The light is still shining. The sun still bears witness to its creator. It is the same with the words of Scripture—they continue to speak, every time that they are read or heard—and indeed with the Word incarnate. Jesus still lives and still speaks. God’s Word remains spoken and speaking. The problem is, not everybody actually listens.

Though everybody hears the voice of creation’s testimony as Romans 1 makes clear, we need revelation in order to apprehend its message. And this should not surprise us. The gospels make clear that while many heard Jesus’ voice during his earthly ministry, comparatively few understood his message; while many beheld his miracles, few apprehended his true identity.

In summary, we need revelation (not just illumination). Paul both prays for believers to experience it, and counsels them in its use to build one another up. This kind of ‘revelation’ is the “I get it!” moment. But, if I may to presume the popular usage of this term—and indeed its biblical usage—over against the theological category which the same word is used to designate, when I actually get something, that is because the Holy Spirit has chosen to reveal it to me at that moment in that way. It is because God loves me infinitely but also individually, and thus knows just how to get through to me. It is not simply because I am slower than others. But Paul’s usage also implies that the ‘revelation’ that I receive about God is not just for me. It has the potential to bless others also and for that reason should be shared.

To be clear, I am not advocating for any ‘revelation’ that would contradict what God has already revealed about himself through the Creation, His Son, and his Word (more on that in my next post). I am trying to rehabilitate the word in its scriptural usage, and share both my hunger and my expectation that God will indeed reveal himself to us.

More on Samuel’s experience next week.


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Faith Seeking Understanding

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reflecting on 2 Peter 1: 5–10. Since this blog is a new venture for me, I planned to spend a bit of time with this passage because it is a good introduction to where I am coming from. If you get this, and you like it, you will probably enjoy my posts. If you don’t or you disagree, I’m sure I’ll annoy you terribly.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge. . .”

 In my last post I focused particularly on the word ‘virtue’.  In this post, as promised, I want to look more closely at the order presented in this verse. I don’t yet know how far into these things most people read, so let me put this right up front: I think that all too often we get the order mixed up. It doesn’t say that we should add faith or virtue to knowledge, but that we should add knowledge to faith and virtue.

Believe so that you may understand

 The first way we get mixed up is when we want to subordinate faith to knowledge. There seems to exist the notion that only that which can be proven empirically is worth believing. But this totally ignores the fact that some things are not known cognitively as much as they are known intuitively. Faith does not always or necessarily mean being prepared to accept the ridiculous; nor does it mean being prepared to accept a proposition on less evidence. Rather it means being willing to accept something on a different kind of evidence. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, all believed except for Thomas. Thomas needed proof and demanded to be able to touch the nail marks. When he received this tangible proof, in fairness, he did believe. But Jesus commended the type of faith that believes without the proof that Thomas demanded. It wasn’t that Jesus was asking the disciples to believe without proof. But the proof that was sufficient for the other disciples was their trust in Jesus’ character and his words.

 I recall a number of years ago in a university group called Students for Christ, we had a young man coming along to our meetings who appeared to be close to making a decision to become a Christian. One night after a meeting he came to speak with me. I don’t remember his exact words, but he had reached the point where a ‘leap of faith’ was all that was separating him from beginning his walk with God. “I have so many questions,” he said. And he began to list them, one after the other. I was sorely tempted to begin answering them as best as I could, one by one. But this would have been a mistake. Luckily the Holy Spirit stopped me. I explained to the young man as best as I knew how, that his questions did have answers and that he would find them, but that he was far more likely to do so after he had decided to entrust his life to Christ. What I had said falteringly and in many words St. Augustine said in just a few: “Believe so that you may understand.” Anselm’s (more) famous dictum extends Augustine’s principle: “Faith seeking Understanding.”

 If we make our faith conditional upon having all of our questions answered, then it is not really the type of faith that Christ commended—a declaration of trust in his person leading to a fully surrendered life. That is why any attempt to make sense of life apart from the foundation of faith in God is doomed to failure. And that is why the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, a knowledge that is devoid of faith and ambivalent to virtue, is ultimately futile.

 Practice what you preach

A second mistake that we make is elevating knowledge at the expense of virtue. Did you ever hear a kid in primary school come out with “Don’t you even know that?!” Perhaps you remember saying it (I think we all have). Ever since Eden, knowledge has been a kind of currency. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes. But what is the usual response to the primary school classic? “Yeah. . . of course I do. . .” the child is tempted to lie because they would rather have knowledge than virtue.

The trouble is that the elevation of knowledge—dare I say, the worship of the intellect—often leads to overstating what is or what can be known. Call me post-modern, but I have played the academic game long enough to suspect that way too many claims that begin with “We now know that. . .” are just such overstatements—a stubborn refusal to admit that the intellect too is damaged by the Fall. But isn’t it interesting to note what is damaged first? Faith in God’s character (“Did God really say?”) followed by the virtue of obedience. Adam and Eve gained knowledge, true enough, but the knowledge that they tripped over faith and virtue to gain was only partial and was now the knowledge of a world that had been broken by their Sin. Our very capacity to know truly is directly affected by our obedient faith.

I am not saying that we should not seek knowledge. We should. In fact the very point of 2 Peter 1:5 is that we should strive to attain knowledge. I’m just saying that we should put knowledge in its proper place—behind faith and virtue.  Because, while faith without works is dead, knowledge without virtue simply ‘puffs up’ rather than ‘builds up’ (1 Cor 8:1).

 


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For goodness sake, make an effort!

2 Peter 1:5 “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness, and to goodness knowledge. . .”

Several weeks ago a leader in our church challenged the congregation to memorise the first part of 2 Peter 1. Ever since that time, I have been reflecting on the above verse. Three questions have been foremost in my mind. The first two, I’ll deal with in this post. The third, I’ll save for next week. Here are the questions:

1. What on earth does ‘goodness’ mean?

2. If we are saved by grace, why is ‘every effort’ necessary?

3. What significance might there be in the order of these three (and the rest of the list in verses 6 and 7)?

What is goodness?

When I was in school, ‘good’ was one of those adjectives like ‘nice’ that carried little meaning because it was so vague. (Actually, this is not the case in the US, where it is a much more precise adjective which, when used of food, means something like ‘very delicious’). But upon closer investigation, I found that the word translated ‘goodness’ (arete) would be better translated ‘virtue.’ All of a sudden it began to make sense. Human Virtue broadly speaking is the skill of living rightly acquired by practice over time. Traditionally it has been broken down into a number of individual ‘virtues’: charity (selfless love), chastity (sexual purity: marital fidelity or abstinence), temperance (self control and moderation), diligence, patience, humility and kindness. Essentially it boils down to the practiced instinct of doing the right thing at the right time in the right situation for the right reason. When used of God, virtue refers to His essential Goodness (that word again, but it doesn’t seem as vague when used of Him). Thus our virtue is always derivative. He is the ultimate Good. Here in 2 Peter 1, the exhortation to virtue in verse 5 is on the basis of God’s virtue in verse 3.

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness (virtue)….For this very reason, make every effort…

And that kind of brings me to my next question.

Make every effort!

Why is it that if we are saved by grace apart from works, we are exhorted here to make every effort to add virtue to our faith, knowledge to our virtue and so on? That sure sounds a lot like work to me. Well it is. I said before that virtue can be understood as a skill that is acquired by practice over time. Like any skill. If you want to learn to play the piano, or train to win a marathon, or acquire any other skill worth having, you need to practice. You can’t play the piano ‘by grace’ (however gracefully you may play). That takes practice. Nor can you become a champion athlete by grace. You must practice.  But it needs to be said that virtue, properly understood, no more equates to merit than practice of the sort that is necessary to acquire it equates to ‘work’. Virtue does not save. We are not considered righteous before God on the basis of our goodness, but on the basis of Christ’s. Neither can we make ourselves good or virtuous by our own effort apart from the Holy Spirit.

But then again, a young person cannot make themselves a champion athlete either without some kind of inspiration; some kind of belief that deep down inside, that is what they really are. This is why we hear sports people talk so much about self-belief. It is that belief in the end goal, of realising their full potential—who they know that they are on the inside but are yet to be in fullness—that gets an athlete out of bed at 4.30 in the morning to train. And here is the point. When we receive salvation, we receive it free and its effects are total. What remains however is our physical flesh, the habits of a lifetime, the well established thought patterns of our mind. And yet when we receive salvation, we are declared to be a new creation, God’s child. This is the new and glorious reality, and yet while the possession of our new identity happens in a moment, the realisation of its fullness takes time…and, dare I say it, effort. It is not that we strive from this starting point to become worthy of a title we do not deserve. Rather we strive to cooperate with the Holy Spirit; to live as the children of God that we already are.

Here’s a simple example. Why do we as Christians read the bible? Is it because we are trying to earn our salvation by doing things that we think will be pleasing to God? Well, I admit, many do. But that just isn’t sustainable. The sense of obligation is suffocating as the experience of many would testify. No, when we read the bible, we read it as children seeking to understand their Father better. Because the more we understand Him, the more we understand who we are, and the more we understand who we are the more we are motivated to live accordingly.

We don’t work to please God. We don’t work to earn our position with Him. But when we actually get a revelation of the position that we already have, as his sons and daughters, we are freed to do the work for which we were made. And we strive, not to be found worthy, but to develop our potential as God’s children, to grow in the virtue that is ours by (new) birth.

For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith, virtue. Or, in the words of my title, for goodness sake, make an effort!