Daily Archives: March 7, 2009

John Shepherd: Revelation and the straitjacket of human language

My trouble starts right here. I struggle with the idea of coming to faith through intellectual assent to a set of belief statements about God, Jesus and the Church. Our credal statements and formularies might gradually become meaningful to those who have already grasped a sense of the presence of God in their lives, but they are not helpful as entry points to faith. They are not the place to begin. Their metaphorical and mythical significance is too complex for that.

A phrase such as “ascended into Heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father”, for example, becomes ludicrous if taken in a literal sense. It is figurative language that conjures up a powerful image of the familial relationship of Christ to God. And after many years of worship, contemplation and critical biblical study, it is possible to place it in a theological and devotional landscape which can be creative and inspiring.

But it is not a phrase to come across cold. In fact, it could be a very off-putting phrase. “He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead” is another phrase requiring considerable theological rehabilitation if it is to be understood in any meaningful, pastoral way. It is too heavily freighted with Jewish apocalyptic to be immediately comprehensible within a Christian environment.

Why does his trouble get to be the controlling element in this process of interpretation? Not for the first time, the Dean of Perth has it the wrong way around. For him, the creed is the problem, the older language is the problem, this all requires “rehabilitation” which his vantage point is uniquely suited to offer us. But this hermeneutic of suspicion just gets exhausting and is itself to be called into question. What really allows the meaning not to be squeezed out at the outset is when the Creed gets to question us first, when our language and our categories are suspected first. Isaiah 55 comes to mind as a good passage to apply here. In any event, read it all–KSH

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