A discussion aimed at Christians of my own generation (Part IV)
We have been exploring how modernist and post-modernist views of the passage of time simply equate human understanding with what our scientific knowledge has developed. The prevailing view is that when we come to the Bible we need to extract the “spiritual” meaning of these ancient writings from their “historical” seed-bed. By assuming that the “spiritual realities” which Paul and John thought they were disclosing stand in need of our retrospective critique (deconstruction) our task in re-reading the Bible is set out for us. We have to apply to our own time what we have discovered to be the “timeless” residue of their contributions (reconstruction).
And so, the history of the people of God is equated with post-Pauline and post-Johannine developments in human insight. This is presumed to be an undoubted development of the way the human spirit bequeathes a self-generating autonomous and independent basis for evaluating ourselves and our spirituality; it is presumed to be thoroughly sufficient for any and every interpretative attempt to catch what these biblical writers were then saying and are now saying so that we can derive “spiritual” guidance, and thus provide a failsafe basis on which to make any scientific judgement about the enduring value of these ancient writings.
In other words, such a sentiment is an accommodation by which what the Bible is said to teach us is first seen in terms of what we assume science has authoritatively revealed about ourselves, our world, our history. Then and only then is it really safe for us to approach the Bible. And so, in such a frame of reference, Paul is judged to be deficient when he is read to so confidently predict that Christ’s coming is near.
And more to the point: this mythology assumes that science is a revelation putting Biblical teaching in its right place so that it can be properly read. By understanding it correctly/properly 21st century earth dwellers have a basis on which we can tell Paul, were he alive today, what he clearly got wrong. We wouldn’t be so crude as to try him for heresy, although in various places that might well be in view.
Yet could not this emergence of a lack of confidence in what Paul wrote be but a symptom of something deeply and spiritually embedded in the traditions and customs of late 20th century, early 21st century Western Christianity? After all, does not this interpretative approach, this style of hermeneutics, signal a renaissance of ideas that can be found already “embedded” in late 19th century studies of Biblical literature?
But the description of the dogmatic prejudice I have just described, doesn’t account completely for the emergence of a mental reservation in Christians who were trained theologically in the mid-20th century and for whom the first phases of their Christian service seem, on retrospect, to have taken the opposite direction to that in which they are now headed. And we should keep in mind that such Christians are often overwhelmed with a sense of spiritual upheaval. They have lived through a spiritually exhausting process by which truths previously considered beyond doubt have been “deconstructed”, leaving them without the intellectual energy to engage in any “reconstruction”.
The response of the Christian in this invidious position may actively aid and abet the process, or simply adopt a passive fatalistic orientation, from which posture it is presumed that “everything fixed has become transitory” and life’s meaning dissolves as surely as the grave beckons.
The temptation is to align or adjust one’s reflections to a gnostic belief that salvation and final justice will only come from forces “beyond” our immediate life and experiences. After all, it will be supposed, only that which is “beyond” can take us out of this fallen world, to what lies “beyond”. The New Testament writers, John and Paul in particular, come to be viewed in these (gnostic) terms as well.
It is in this way that the Gospel becomes construed as the (perhaps superior) message of an “alien force” that has had to “break in” upon us. In that context, who then can say that one form of gnosis is more real or more authoritative than any other? For such Christians, the era of post-modern incredulity is merely the era of competing gnosticisms of which one’s own faith becomes part of the turbulent mix. And love of neighbour is equated with a firm refusal to contest this presumed reality. This was also clearly identified half a century ago:
A wild fantasy has taken hold of many Christians. They have come to imagine that just as the unselfish man restrains himself from snatching another piece of cake, so too he restrains himself from putting forward his point of view. And just as it is bad form to boast about your private possessions or loudly recapitulate your personal achievements, so too it is bad form to announce what your convictions are. By analogy with that charity of the spirit which never asks or claims but always gives and gives again, we have manufactured a false charity of the mind, which never takes a stand, but continually yields ground. [Harry Blamires The Christian Mind London, SPCK, 1963, 39].
One can’t help asking whether there isn’t this kind of retro-moralistic yielding of the ground read back into the founding documents of Christianity itself, pre-eminently in the interpretation of the New Testament itself.
In providing a reading of “John’s Apocalypse” I won’t be providing a comprehensive analysis of how this persistent and spiritually compromising gnostic theology continues to maintain a firm grip upon the thinking of many Christians.
But I believe that today a refreshed reading of the Bible’s “book-ends” (the other one is Genesis) may well be the best diet for Christians who seek to strengthen a flagging faith by improving faith’s immunity to such idolatrous mythologies.
We should not try to side-step the problems. We need to keep the above-mentioned ideology in mind. We do so in order to rightly assist readers discern the word of truth in this 21st century context,
A series of questions face us:
But how should we view the future?
How does the first coming of Christ prepare the way for us to view His second coming?
And to what purpose are we to look to His second coming?
How then does the Good News itself lead us and inspire us in our dreaming dreams and seeing visions?
Christians – whether as family members, as members of congregations that meet for public worship, as citizens, work-place labourers, managers, buyers and sellers, public servants, members of associations and clubs, students of whatever discipline and profession, neighbours in 101 informal situations – need to demonstrate in word and deed that their belief in Christ’s Lordship means a firm hope in the promised fulfilment of God’s creational purposes, and hence of what we are called to do, here and now! We look forward to a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, prepared as a bride for the groom.
Such a hope looks forward with confidence and trust and will seek to dispense any hint of gnostic presumption that blunders into arguments in which God’s revelation is subjected to an imagined standard that has been established by modern science. Just as much, we will need to avoid substitute messiahs and world-flight escapism.
Christian faith is living and working in the knowledge that resurrection to eternal life – the raising of Christ Jesus has been the first – is what will fulfil the children of Adam, mercifully restored in the life of the second man, Israel’s Messiah (1 Cor 15:42-56). This is to live in the faith that God’s enduring creational and redemptive work goes on through us because of Christ Jesus (Phil 2:12-13).
Paul and John did not live with an implicit (and thoroughly misplaced) demand that Christ return in their own lifetime. And neither do we. Our petition “Thy kingdom come!” is no demand that we can issue to the Lord on grounds of our rights. To suggest that unless He does so our profession that “He will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead” is somehow all washed up is simply to mock the promises of God. But such assumptions are still held among those who believe in Jesus, and in that sense it is a strange reversion of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:
If Christ be not returned yet, then our faith is in vain!
It is a peculiar and persistent inversion of the Gospel’s teaching. Instead, as followers of Jesus, our confession should be that whoever we are, whether we live or die we are the Lord’s. During our lifetime we trust Him; we trust His given assurance that He is on His way to complete an urgent business. Those who remain faithful to Jesus and die in the Lord will rest from their labours, for their deeds will follow them (Rev 14:13) just as they follow all the kings and princes who also obey the summons to come before the Lord and assemble before Him in holy array in the City of God wherein righteousness presents itself fully attired because He indeed is there waiting to welcome us. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find encouragement that assists us as we read this most prophetic of New Testament books. It is found in the book we know as the Treatise Written for Those of Hebrew Ancestry.
Take care brothers lest there be in any of you an evil unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the Living God. But exhort one another everyday, as long as it is called “today”, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our primordial confidence firm to the end … [Hebrews 3:12-14].
The book known as “Hebrews” is written by an author we do not know, but the message is loud and clear to those of Hebraic, Abrahamic and Jewish ethnic background. In it we have a clue to understanding Christian discipleship that helps us understand the John’s Apocalypse. By way of contrast we do know the name of the author of this latter book – even if that does not always help us when confronted by ongoing disagreements about the meaning of the visions of this book.
But however we read and receive it, this Book has a power, the power of God’s word, to dispel our disagreements by reminding us of our firm and unshakeable hope. There is another “clue”, like the primordial importance of remembering “today” in the above admonition from Hebrews. It comes from the Sermon on the Mount.
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own trouble is enough [to worry about] for each day.
Both of these “clues” to reading John’s Apocalypse, direct us to live and work and think in the present, that is, “today”. That means now, and to use Jesus’ terms, in the day before tomorrow. Here then is an important “clue” that should be self-consciously applied by ourselves now in the reading of the Bible. Since today is when we hear of the fulfilment of God’s eternal promises, we live as those invited to get in step with the Spirit, “on the way” just like Abram when he was called (Genesis 12:1-3), just like the disciples when they heard the Good Shepherd’s voice bidding them to follow Him.
This is the fourth in a series of eight posts.
BCWearne © January 2016.