Revelation and Authority: An Anthropologically honest, Communal and Pneumatological Approach

Tony Sig
Jeremy’s recent post suggests that of the “Four Sources of Authority” the only one which is not an illusion is Experience. And since Experience is completely subjective there is nothing but your own “authority.” He says:

“The only real authority in the church is the personal experiences of those who are in charge. Every other vehicle that is used is tainted by experience.”

And again:

“God is the source of your experiences. He is the animator of your being. He is the silent voice for which you unknowingly consult for the authority in which you seek. God is in it all, and yet you will never escape your own experiences.”

I believe that there is such a thing as “Revelation” which is “above our own,” consequently I do believe that we can hope to draw on that Authority to help guide our doctrines, ethics, and worldviews.

Pneumatologically Speaking: No, not in Tongues

As I said before I believe that God is our Authority, and while Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience are all guides to discerning that Authority, ultimately they are guides and canons, not the source; we have no need of a mediator between us and God, because it is the Spirit of God which has been active in his People since the beginning. In his book “The Promise of the Spirit” William Barclay demonstrates that in the OT, “The great men of the OT are men who posses the Spirit, who have been possessed by the Spirit, and in whom the Spirit dwells.” He adds, “The Spirit of God is specially connected with the gift and obligation of Prophecy.” Indeed, “Israel is the people among whom the Spirit of God dwells.” And so, even though we believe the Spirit to be present among his “renewed People” in a new way with the giving of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, we have long maintained that the Spirit of God is the one who reveals God’s truth to his people.

Communal: Collective Discernment, not Individual Experience

It is the collective discernment of the People which determines which paths to take, which ideas to espouse, and when in the past, mistakes were made. In the OT you see Prophets who speak, some people believe, others don’t. In fact there are competing voices, competing prophecies. It was only when, in retrospect, looking back at who was right, and interpreting the consequences, we begin to see the collaborative discernment. Scripture is full of this. In the Post-Exilic books we see a focus on the line and covenant of David emphasized over the covenant put in place by Moses; we see a new focus on the Priesthood being hashed out; in fact much of the Post-Exilic books are polemical narratives which attempt to assert a specific will, which only in time is accepted by the larger body of Jews.

Likewise in the New Testament we see Peter having a vision, going to a Gentile home, baptizing without the need for circumcision. After this happens, the “Church” in Jerusalem joins together to ask whether what was done was acceptable and whether it should continue to happen.

Mythology: You’re Right, It’s Not Objective

How can we trust this Authority then? How can we possibly assert with unswerving certainty that we have access to God in a way that is more reliable than just our perceptions of the world around us…..? With our “modern” understanding of evolution and psychology, our historical investigations and reconstructions, how can we make Truth claims to the world around us with any degree of honesty?

We can’t

But we can mythologize.

We are still feeling here the pains of previous worldviews, previous epistemology’s. Christians need to recognize that our Truth claims cannot be asserted to be self-evident and unbiased. But neither do we just say that all chance of real outside Revelation is unattainable. This is the place of myth.

Let me explain

In Jerusalem, many years ago; A vast foreign empire was expanding it’s territory by force. It was only a matter of time until they made it to Jerusalem, and the J-town wouldn’t stand a chance. But before it happened, a crazy and unkempt man walked around naked proclaiming the demise of Jerusalem if they did not repent of their ways of injustice and idolatry. This Prophet tells the city that he is hearing from Israel’s God, YHWH himself. At the same time there are other prophets saying exactly the opposite, that there is nothing to fear and that everything is going to be alright. Well, the naked guy was right. His words were preserved by disciples and by common oral tradition. Later, that Tradition would be used, recorded, and elaborated on, and the Prophetic books would come into existence: Part telling of the past, part interpretation of the past, and part imaginative rendering of the future in light of this past.

The anthropologist wants to tell us that the Prophet was just having ecstatic visions, the same that “holy men” have been having across cultures and times. They are not “true” or “special.” The destruction of Jerusalem? Just a consequence of unfortunate political and economic circumstances. There is certainly no “objective” way to say that Babylon was an “instrument of God.” Therefore, the whole God thing is only a construct of the primitive mind and is untrue.

Or take Acts II. Here are a bunch of Jews in a room, after the tragic death and glorious Resurrection of their Messiah, waiting for something. They end up having an ecstatic experience, “seeing” visions of fire and babbling on in previously unknown “languages.” They interpret this to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel.

The anthropologist again climbs upon the ivory tower to proclaim judgement on the inferior and primitive religious folks.

Luckily Derrida and Kuhn set fire to the tower and it came crumbling down…down….down. Like the walls of Jericho before them.

You see, there was an “experience.” The historical event of ecstatic events in Jerusalem need not be doubted by even the staunchest Atheist. “Myth” is the interpretation of that phenomenon. When we say that what “really” happened in Jerusalem on that day is that God poured out his Spirit on all flesh, we are mythologizing.

But that does not mean that the “myth” is not “true.” We accept the interpretation, as a believing body, by faith, trusting in our God to guide us.

Sure, it’s not what one might want for a foundation of Authority, it is easier to say “The bible says this” or “St. Ignatius says that” “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” Our claims are subject to the ridicule of others, but we do not just give up, but put our trust in God to guide us “into all truth.”

Conclusion:

In this way I believe that “God’s Revelation and Authority” are made reality. God inspires the Prophet, the Mystic, Theologian, Scholar, Poet, Artist, etc… They do what they do. The people as a group go through a period of discernment, where the truth of the claim is tested by the Spirit among his People, where it is subjected to the current Canon and Narrative in prayer and by argument. Often the “truth” is expressed in “myth” which is asserted to be true and “faith” or “trust” is put in God to lead and guide his elect. Kant wouldn’t have liked it, but Kierkegaard sure would have.

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2 Comments

  1. I do not see how this form of Authority is any less valid than Jeremy’s description. Instead of simplifying it to “experience” which is what, in essence you claim the revelation of truth to be processed.
    Jeremy says it is through experience, which is completely subjective, that we obtain truth. This description claims experience redistributed as myth is the way we can achieve valid authority.
    Both of these descriptions give credence to the use of an above authority, one very generally, one contained strictly into a 21st century understanding of a 1st century thought process.
    Tony, this description Barclay gives of these writers of the Hebrew Bible is just as mythological and expressly unfounded as the parting of the red sea. The only barrier between the myth of the parting waters and the great spiritual grasp these men had is the use of an ambiguous word “spirit” that could mean everything or nothing.

    This brings a foundational problem we continue to come across when speaking of revelation and authority – specificity. If authority can only be founded in an understanding of the Hebrew peoples, a correct reading of their scriptures and a historical critical examination of the anthropological circumstances surrounding all of the above – we are ignorant to the criticism of other world history and reactions to revelation throughout the other corners of the earth.
    If I cannot say “god speaks to us” but rather have to specify “the holy spirit reveals to me” we miss out on the universal (and not simply Judeo-Christian) interaction between god and man. God should be described hand in hand with “the spirit of god”. What differs these two? Is it necessary to even do so?

    Reply

  2. Dan,

    I think that you point to a few gaps in what I was trying to communicate. But that was a lapse of communication or clarity on my part and not an inherent flaw in the ideas.

    What I was trying to to imply is that while Jeremy believes ecstatic and inspirational moments are completely subjective, that is, the experiences are mere creations of the mind and chemistry; I believe that these moments have their origin from God. I was attempting to postulate that there is an external stimulus to the experiences even if that experience is molded in the subjective mind and communicated with myth and poetry.

    I only used Barclay as a convenient way of summarizing his work. These little snipbits are derived from his study of the “Spirit” in the OT. He is merely harmonizing the many passages in the OT that deal with “Spirit.” Which, though not explicitly Trinitarian, is no so vague as you may want to claim. I think you are projecting your own ideas of what “spirit” is onto the intention of the authors.

    I also find your claim to truly understand 1st Century thought processes dubious. Just as I find it tedious when Reed (sorry Reed) complains about “eastern vs western” ideas. While there are differences, I do not think us learned enough to make such broad statements comparing and contrasting the two. Besides, these experiences were happening well before the 1st Century. And of course my ideas are “21st Century,” I don’t know what else they could be.

    Part of what I consistently try to do here Dan is not go off into pure speculation with theology, but I attempt at all times to frame my ideas within the basic canonical narrative of Scripture. That is why I did not address “the universal interaction between God and man.” Our controlling narrative, though concerned with the redemption of the whole of creation, focuses that on God’s unique relationship with Israel as the plan that God has for creation.

    Reply

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