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The Shape of Progressive Orthodoxy: Part 2 of 7

This is the second installment of my seven-part series on my expression of Adventist Christianity: Progressive Orthodoxy. As explained in the first installment, this largely grew from a rejection of conservatism and liberalism. In this post, I will explain Thesis 1 of the 6 I proposed (see first post), and try to demonstrate how it helps us move past the battle between conservatism and liberalism. Like last time, a (much) more detailed (and longer), academic version of this post can be found on my blog, Constructing Adventist Theology.

Thesis 1: God is revealed in history, as witnessed to in scripture; this revelation calls for an appropriate response.

Revelation as Event

Theology faces a problem: the knowledge of God: How can God be known? In answering this question, the church became divided into two basic groups: those who believed that God could be known through revelation, and those who accepted that God was and would remain unknowable. The first group became divided over what exactly the revelation of God is; the second group, who would come to be called theologically liberal, resorted to the task of studying religion—its practices, rituals, habits, community beliefs, etc., without necessarily judging the truth or falsity of religious claims.

Within that first group, a prevalent opinion is that God’s revelation is propositional.[1] This is the belief that revelation comes in the form of statements that are true; revelation is true information about God and reality, contained in the unquestionable, unchallengeable texts of the Bible. In contrast, theological liberalism relies upon universal, unquestionable, unchallengeable religious experience, which may be interpreted in a variety of ways, and may interact with various sacred texts in varying degrees. Both of these options, as Nancy Murphy has pointed out, are irreconcilable because of their shared epistemology (i.e., theory of knowledge) of Foundationalism, but radically different foundations.[2] Indeed, it is because of their epistemology that the debate seems to be at an impasse; competing foundations that render competing truth claims reveal that it is not a spectrum of belief, but that these two perspectives are mutually exclusive.

The present task, then, is not to reside in the (non-existent) middle ground between theologically liberal or fundamentalist ideologies; no, the task is first of all to make clear the fact that those two positions are no longer viable options. Those who propagate such ideologies are peddling false certainty and binding people with the coercive power of “authority.” What we have discovered in Late Modernity is that “the emperor has no clothes,” that “the house of authority” has collapsed.[3] We have no access to indubitable foundations. An honest, contextually appropriate theology will not make truth claims on the basis of an unquestionable authority; our state in this world is such that these kinds of claims should now be categorized as forms of violence; the world’s (and our own!) “incredulity toward metanarratives”[4] must lead us to make truth claims carefully, with integrity, and without coercion. This cannot be reduced to merely choosing a new starting point for theological reflection; rather, it is a call to reframe the questions, to conceive anew of the answers, and to approach the task of theology in new ways.

I have come to realize that theology is, above all else, about God. It exists to help us know God. Thus, the object of theology must be the revelation of God—the communication of God in which God is given in the revelation. The revelation of God is an act of God. It is the cosmic event of God, and God is made known in it. Unlike the study of ‘propositional revelation’ contained in the Bible, which provides knowledge of a book, and unlike the study of religion, which is really the study of ourselves, the study of the revelation as event makes us responsible to interpret that revelatory event. And then we make propositions about these implications, and our propositions are never absolute, because we are limited in our ability to understand God’s revelation, and because our knowledge is itself limited because God is categorically other.

By recognizing that revelation is primarily divine action in a cosmic event, we are able to do constructive theology that can take seriously propositional statements that we firmly believe are true, as well as religious experience—whether Christian or not; we are free to engage seriously and honestly with scripture, history, experience and reason. Indeed, the reorientation of theology calls for a different epistemology. What I have found most helpful in moving beyond the Foundationalism of liberalism and conservatism is F. LeRon Shults’ description of Postfoundationalism.[5]

The Object of Theology

The revelatory event is the Christ Event—the intersection of divinity and humanity in Jesus. The Christ Event must not be reduced to the death and resurrection of Jesus, nor even to his life. Instead, when we speak of the Christ Event, we speak of an eternally predestined act of God that has finally been made visible in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Someone may say that to describe the Christ Event in this way, and to see this event as the event of revelation is to confuse revelation with salvation. This is exactly my point. God’s act of salvation must be seen as one in the same with God’s act of revelation, and it is when they are divided that we are cornered into a propositional model of revelation, and our understanding of justification by faith collapses into Gnosticism. It is in the act of saving that God reveals; in revelation God is revealed as the God who saves.

This makes clear the fact that central to Christian faith is the claim that it is not the believer’s faith which saves, but it is the God in whom the believer trusts—it is the bold claim that salvation is found in “no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”[6] And this, not because of some narrow parochialism, but because what comes to light in the Christ Event is that salvation none other than a sharing in God’s life, which is achieved when God takes on and takes in human life: “…[the Father] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world… In love he predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself…”[7]

Asserting the particularity of Jesus means recognizing that only in Jesus has God revealed himself to be the one who, by the Incarnation, has become Father and Brother and Spirit of Life to humanity; our adoption in Christ is our salvation. For this reason we must always maintain that this act is unique and decisive—Jesus was not a mystic or sage from whom we received a perspective on truth. Jesus is not one of many paths to salvation. Jesus himself is salvation, in accordance with God’s eternal plan since before creation.

The Bible is clear that God’s act of creating and his covenant relationship with Israel anticipated this decisive act of God, this Christ Event: the apostle Paul points out that Adam was a “type of him who was to come,”[8] and that this mystery was “predestined before the ages for our glory;”[9] the author of Hebrews writes that in the past God spoke through the prophets, but now in these last days has spoken in a Son, “whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the world. And he is the radiance of [God’s] glory and the exact representation of his nature.”[10] The history of the creation and Israel is the anticipation of the Son of God, looking forward to our adoption as children of God in him.

For this reason the Christ Event is the object of theology, because God’s eternal plan and all of cosmic history are consummated in it, and in it the divine-human future has been revealed. Therefore Christian theology must never be reduced to a mere systematic arrangement of abstract ‘Bible doctrines’. Instead, the theological task is to strive for knowledge of God in God’s revelation. This revelation is mediated to us contemporarily in the witnesses to it (the Old and New Testaments) and in the Spirit.

Witnesses to Revelation: Theology Today

If the Christ Event is the revelatory event, then a problem immediately arises: how is it that we, several centuries removed from this Event, can have access to the revelation of God in order to do theology? This is the argument made by those who want to resort to the liberal or fundamentalist perspectives: God is either unknowable to us, or God has given us inspired documents that are guaranteed to be absolutely reliable for deriving theological propositions. However, if we cannot separate the act of revelation from the act of salvation, then those who deny revelation or reduce it to the words of the Bible have also denied salvation or have made it Gnostic. Yet this is not how they have usually articulated their understanding of salvation.

Especially in conservative traditions, there is a clear emphasis on the need for true, heart conversion—a faith experience that goes beyond ‘mental assent’ of information. In practice, these traditions acknowledge that the revelation of God which offers salvation to a person is far greater than the words of the Bible. What I am suggesting is that conservative traditions have stumbled upon something indispensible in their soteriology (i.e., doctrine of salvation), but that this concept must be applied to the entire category of salvation—which includes revelation. To demonstrate this, I will (very) briefly work backwards from the experience of salvation to the description of revelation implicit in it.

In Romans, Paul writes:

. . .because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation. For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” […] For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? […] Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ.[11]

What cannot be missed is the way in which this short passage corrodes the foundational presuppositions (pun intended) of conservative theology that relies upon propositional revelation. It may seem at first that Paul is suggesting to his readers/hearers that they must accept, really accept this proposition that God raised Jesus from the dead in order to be justified, but this is a misreading. Paul’s rhetorical questions at the end of the passage suggest that he understands that the faith is a gift from God that comes from hearing the “word of Christ.” Implicit in this statement alone is the very idea that the hearer has a ‘revelatory experience’ which is mediated by the preaching of the gospel, and this encounter with the gospel creates the opportunity for faith to be born and for confession of Christ to be made. Faith is what happens when God is revealed to a person when they are confronted by the message of the gospel.

I suggest that it is God’s Spirit who confronts us when we hear the message of the gospel through the biblical witness. She confronts us, and her confrontation is a revelation—we hear the gospel, and she reveals to us that the gospel is the message of Truth. This revelatory experience of Christ in the Spirit is also the experience in which faith is born or faith is resisted—the confrontation puts us in the crisis in which we must make the decision of faith.

The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and until the coming of Jesus our only experience of Christ is mediated through the Spirit. This distinction is important if for no other reason than for speaking accurately so that our Trinitarian formulations do not slide into Modalism; I am aware, in saying this, that I am open to the charge of tri-theism. This is a risk I will take. Indeed, the really earth-shattering revelation in the Christ Event is that God is triune. It is through God’s tri-unity that we experience God’s salvation as adoption: because God the Son has made himself our brother, and because we have been reborn in the Spirit who has become our Mother and Comforter, we may also be called children of Jesus’ eternal Father, who has sent him and the Spirit into the world in order to draw us into his Trinitarian life. And this is God’s life—to eternally live and love in tri-unity.

Life as Doxology

The transformative power of God’s revelation/salvation calls us to respond in freedom. I will discuss this in more detail when dealing with the third thesis, but will mention now that God’s revelation demands response. While I have listed five—discipleship, mission, ethics, theology and worship—these are only broad categories that should not be seen as exhaustive or definitive whatsoever. My intention is not to outline what the appropriate responses are, but to point out that response is necessary, and that we must constantly come back to God’s revelation to discern what that response must be. I summarize all of the responses in one category: doxology.

I have come to believe that whenever we are dealing with any acts of God, we are dealing in the category of gift. And, if this is the case, then the fundamental category we are dealing with in our responses to these acts of God is thanksgiving. This I see as the truest expression of worship in Christian faith: worship is not empty praise which seeks to appease, flatter or manipulate the god, but is the free response of thanksgiving to God that works itself out in the whole life, not only in words or song. We shall return to this.

[1] Norman R. Gulley, Systematic Theology: Prolegomena (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 2003); Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Receiving the Word: How New Approaches to the Bible Impact our Biblical Faith and Lifestyle (Berrien Springs: Berean Books, 1996).

[2] Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997), pp. 88-93.

[3] See Edward Farley and Peter C. Hodgson, “Scripture and Tradition,” in Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, ed. Peter Hodgson and Robert King, 61-87 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 72-77.

[4] Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984), p. xxiv.

[5] F. LeRon Shults, The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology: Wolfhart Pannenberg and the New Theological Rationality (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 43.

[6] Acts 4:12, NASB.

[7] Eph. 1:4, 5, NASB.

[8] Rom. 5:14, NASB

[9] 1 Cor. 2:7

[10] Heb. 1:2, 3, NASB

[11] Rom. 10:9-11, 13-15a, 17, NET.

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