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


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, Anglican Church of Australia, Anglican Provinces, Theology

19 comments on “John Shepherd: Revelation and the straitjacket of human language

  1. Rick H. says:

    I struggle with the idea of coming to faith through intellectual assent to a set of belief statements about God, Jesus and the Church.

    So do I! Christian faith requires much more than mere intellectual assent. It requires us to stake all of our hopes and aspirations on the unique historical figure who was true God and true man, Jesus Christ. Faith is not being persuaded by a series of intellectual arguments. It is more akin to planting a flag, claiming an entire territory for ourselves.

    Our creeds and doctrinal statements should be used and treasured for what they are — historical landmarks in the evolution of our understanding of God. But if used stridently and legalistically, as if they represented ultimate truth, we would have imprisoned the divine within the straitjacket of finite human language, and compromised the integrity of the Gospel.

    Actually, the creeds were intended to be and are today (for a majority of the world’s Christians) statements of fact, both historical fact and spiritual fact. They define the parameters of our faith, what we got when we planted our flag and claimed Christ for ourselves, or rather, allowed him to claim us for himself. To call them, “historical landmarks in the evolution of our understanding of God,” is to render them meaningless. Instead of Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever, we get Jesus Christ, ever-evolving to keep pace with our ever more enlightened culture.

  2. D. C. Toedt says:

    Kendall writes: “Why does his trouble get to be the controlling element in this process of interpretation?”

    Don’t (metaphorically) shoot the messenger, Kendall, just because you don’t like the bad tidings he bears. But kudos to you for calling attention to his essay.


    Rick H. [#1] writes: “Actually, the creeds were intended to be and are today (for a majority of the world’s Christians) statements of fact, both historical fact and spiritual fact. “

    Agreed — which means that fidelity to the First Commandment requires us to be just as open to reexamining creedal statements of fact, when and as new evidence or insights are revealed to us, as we would for any other factual statements.

  3. Jimmy DuPre says:

    “I struggle with the idea of coming to faith through intellectual assent to a set of belief statements about God, Jesus and the Church. ”
    Implied in this statement is the idea that God is dead; no longer inserting himself into our lives to save us; we are left with old writings from a bygone era. I am sympathetic to his view; I held it for 15 or so years as an adult. But it is not compatible with Christianity.

    What troubles me is conservative views as expressed in the first comment ; where our faith is grounded in our decision rather than being a response to God acting gracefully in out lives.

  4. D. C. Toedt says:

    Jimmy DuPre [#3] writes: “What troubles me is conservative views as expressed in the first [sic; second?] comment ; where our faith is [1] grounded in our decision rather than [2] being a response to God acting gracefully in ou[r] lives.

    I don’t see why [1] and [2] need to be mutually exclusive.

  5. Jimmy DuPre says:

    I meant the first comment as I stated it. There is no real difference between believing that God helps ( saves) those who help ( save ) themselves, and God acts to save but I have to accept. Both are the American religion. Not the same as saved by Grace alone throught faith alone etc.

  6. Ross says:

    #5 — is it possible to hold sola fide and sola gratia and also believe in free will? I ask seriously; I’ve never understood how those two “solas,” taken to the logical conclusion, leave any agency whatsoever to human beings.

  7. Jimmy DuPre says:

    Ross; simple answer is no;
    “Article X. Of Free Will
    The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will. ”
    It has been said that original sin is the one Christian doctrine that can be proven empirically.

  8. Ross says:

    #6: Then what’s the point of believing or not believing, or having faith or not having faith, or for that matter anything at all? If God wills that I will be saved, then I will be saved no matter what I believe, or have faith in, or do; if God does not will that I be saved, then I won’t be — again, no matter what I believe, or have faith in, or do.

    How does sola gratia not lead inexorably to complete apathy and indifference? If not one single choice that I make matters, why make any?

  9. Jimmy DuPre says:

    Ross; do you feel gratitude for what Jesus accomplished for you on the cross? He took on God’s righteous wrath for our sinfulness so we could live. If we were not helpless in our sinfulness his sacrifice would have been a gesture of good intentions; but as it was he saved us. Christians through the ages have responded to God’s grace with worship rather than apathy, which is only logical. We would feel gratitude for the rest of our lives if someone sacrificed their life to save ours; how much more if the salvation is eternal?

  10. John Wilkins says:

    I’m not sure what it means to have the creed question us first. It does disrupt things, as it should. As does scripture. But unless we are talking metaphorically, it is the voices of those who wrote the creed questioning us. And we question them back. It is the rubrics, and the dialogue itself which represents the engagement of the holy trinity.

  11. D. C. Toedt says:

    Jimmy DuPre [#9], I don’t think you responded to Ross’s point [#8]. According to your argument, even if I were totally ungrateful to God for having (hypothetically) willed my salvation, I would still be saved. If sola gratia were truly the case, then each person should do and think and feel as seems good to him, because in the end it would matter not a whit.

    (For all we know, that may actually be the way it works ….)

  12. Jimmy DuPre says:

    DC; my reply is that his proposition is a straw man arguement; we don’t respond to God as stated in his hypothetical proposition

  13. Ross says:

    OK, let me put it this way:

    If sola gratia is true, then whether one is saved or not is purely, absolutely, 100% dependent on whether God wills one to be saved, or does not so will.

    If that is true, then why does it matter one whit whether the Episcopal Church — or any church, for that matter — teaches “the faith once delivered to the saints,” or some different version of the faith, or the 1983 Yankees starting lineup? What we believe is irrelevant; salvation is purely up to God’s choice.

    And yet, commenters on this site have repeatedly stated that what the church teaches matters because the salvation of souls is on the line. But if what we believe has some influence on our salvation, then it is not “grace alone” which saves us — it is grace, together with some response on our part. And so we’re back to free will.

  14. Jimmy DuPre says:

    Ross; read Saul/Pauls trip to Damascus in Acts; look at this based on what is real rather than hypotheticals. God’s call to Saul was for salvation; His name change was because he was now a new man. He was called to preach the Gospel to the gentiles.

    The Bible is a story of God involved with man from beginning to end; sometimes we don’t understand exactly why or how; but nowhere is God hands off , leaving us to make all of our decisions. If this were so no one would be saved.

  15. Ross says:

    That’s… more or less irrelevant to the question I asked.

  16. Jimmy DuPre says:
    Ross, you say “it is grace, together with some response on our part. And so we’re back to free will. ”
    What you describe is covered in the article referenced far better than I could attempt

  17. Ross says:

    Thanks for the link. He argues a strongly Reformed position, which I suppose is only natural.

    My point is: if you adopt the Reformed position that far, then I don’t think you can logically avoid adopting predestination as well. And if predestination is true, then there is no such thing as a “choice” or a “decision,” so arguing about doctrine is pointless — because nobody can “decide” to change what they believe — and for that matter so is evangelism, for the same reason.

    So I cannot accept predestination, which means I have to reject sola gratia as well. I’m with the RCC on this one:

    2002 God’s free initiative demands man’s free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man. He has placed in man a longing for truth and goodness that only he can satisfy.

    (From the Catechism, which for some reason I can’t link to.)

    Or, as the article you link to quotes (and vehemently disagrees with): “If God takes a thousand steps to reach out to you for your redemption, still in the final analysis, you must take the decisive step to be saved.” Call it semi-Pelagian if you like, but I think that if you throw out the necessity for that one step on our part, you render Christianity pointless.

  18. D. C. Toedt says:

    Jimmy [#16], you’re still ducking Ross’s question instead of responding to it. It looks to me like he’s got you pinned; you can keep trying to move your king around, but you’re still in checkmate.

    Quaere how exactly RC Sproul and his co-believers know (supposedly) that salvation works solely by God’s grace, with no human agency. Suppose we trace their chain of authority back to Paul: The question then becomes, how did exactly did Paul know? Paul claims he was inspired directly by Jesus, and the church claims that inspiration was infallible; but why should we believe either? Paul’s persistence in his ministry is not persuasive; all kinds of religious nut cases have persisted even unto death, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite being but two examples from our own era.

  19. Jimmy DuPre says:

    to those who are healthy it is pointless; to those of us who are dead in our sins and saved; the point is we are saved. Jesus said; the healthy have no need of a physician, but the sick. You two obviously are healthier than I; check back with me in 20 years.

    After the observers heard Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler, they asked; who then can be saved? The answer; with man this is impossible; with God; all things are possible