August 31, 2005

Ecclesiology in Swinburne's Revelation

I've just finished reading Richard Swinburne's Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, in which he strives to create a rational foundation for belief in (a particular understanding of) "the Christian revelation" (which, on Swinburne's account is not exactly equivalent with the Bible, but we'll get there). The beginning of this book is very good. Swinburne argues forcefully that if the God of traditional Western monotheism exists, then there is good reason to expect that He would reveal Himself to mankind, and, of course, if we have an a priori expectation that there is probably a revelation out there somewhere, then much less evidence is required to identify some specific item as that revelation than if we had a view of the world which makes such a revelation unlikely (note that Swinburne establishes the authority of the Bible on the basis of the existence of God, not vice versa). However, as one moves on further in Swinburne's book, into the specifics of his theory of revelation, his statements become increasingly problematic (read: false). Swinburne's departure from sound doctrine is not due to flawed philosophical reasoning, but rather to correct reasoning from a false premise. The departure occurs at a very definite point and comes from a very definite cause: the horrible ecclesiology assumed, not argued for, in chapter 8. Some hints of this problem occur earlier, but so far as the course of Swinburne's argument is concerned he does well up to this point, but as soon as he allows this false premise to enter he departs from the "straight and narrow" and the rest of his argument, following this premise, moves him farther and farther away.

Now, let us be clear here: this is not so much a (theologically) liberal/conservative dispute as a Roman Catholic/Protestant dispute. Swinburne does ultimately allow some rather liberal conclusions about the proper interpretation of Scripture, but these are well argued for (I do not know the Roman Catholic tradition well enough to tell if they are established or if he is omitting crucial evidence) and stem from proper conservative Catholic doctrine.

The crucial assumption is this: that the Church is an earthly institution, with a unified human authority structure, with buildings, meetings, etc. Since Swinburne's argument shows that Jesus of Nazareth (whose life and teachings are taken to be the "original Christian revelation") established the Church and that the resurrection, which Swinburne takes to be God's "signature" on the revelation (I like that part, by the way - Swinburne argues that, just as human beings sign letters so others will know they are legitimate by performing and action easy for the real author but impossible or nearly so for others, God would authenticate His revelation by performing some act which is easy for Him but impossible for anyone else. This act was the resurrection of Jesus. Again, Swinburne establishes the authority of Scripture from the resurrection as an historical occurrence, not vice versa), validated the church as the body God had appointed to interpret the revelation. Swinburne does have arguments which show that, due to the culture- and language-specific nature of human communication, a once-for-all revelation would be likely to have an interpreting body to make it accessible for future generations, and the New Testament itself does seem to have such a conception, but we are getting to that. Now, because of Swinburne's ecclesiological assumption, it becomes necessary to find the church (or churches - he leaves open the possibility that due to splits there may be more than one) which is the true successor of the Church which Jesus founded with His twelve disciples, i.e. the one that has true apostolic succession, and to believe the teachings of that church. Of couse, apart from Swinburne's (in my view false) assumptions about the sort of Church Jesus founded, why should there be such a church, in our modern sense which gives us options like (to name a few) the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, Calvary Chapel, or some combination of the above. Why should we suppose that ANY of these are the sort of thing meant by "the Church" in the New Testament? All of the Protestant denominations can be traced to founding by a distinct human individual. Nothing recognizable as the Roman Catholic Church existed AT LEAST until the Council of Chalcedon gave (honorary only, according to the Eastern Orthodox Church) primacy to the patriarch of Rome (later called the Pope) over the other patriarchs in 451, and probably not really until the Great Schism permanently separated it from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054. It is my view (based on my limited knowledge) that, although I do not believe in apostolic succession per se, if any modern institution church has a legitimate historical claim to it it must be the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, once again, I see no reason to suppose that that is at all the sort of thing that the "one holy catholic [i.e. universal] and apostolic Church" of the Nicene Creed is.

As I suggested previously, the Bible has a different view of the ekklesia, or Church, which it often refers to as "the Body of Christ." Firstly, the word itself has the primary meaning "assembly," but more particularly it is etymologically related to kaleo, "I call". It is "the assembly of the called." In the Athenian government, it was the assembly of all citizens, which was called together by the town crier. In this case, it is the assembly (gathering together) of all those who have responded to God's call to the world. It may very well be significant that the early believers used this word rather than the word "synagogue" (Greek: sunagogos), which also means "coming together" but did not have the idea of being called or chosen in its connotation (note that ekklesia is cognate with the English "eclectic"). Take into account Jesus' own words in Matthew 18:20, "For where two or three are gathered together [Gr. sunegmenoi, from the verb form of sunagogos] in My name, I am there in the midst of them." THIS is Jesus' concept of the Church. Furthermore, we know that in the first century new believers were inducted into the Church by baptism (see e.g. Acts 2:38-39), and in Paul's discussion of baptism he says, "by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13), and that body is clearly the Church in Paul's thought. That is, Paul identifies the members of the Church as those who have received the promise of baptism "with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16), and this is not a matter of membership in some specific earthly institution. After all, consider the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). What earthly institution did he join? After baptizing him, Philip disappeared! Did he even know about the (lower c) church in Jerusalem, or anywhere else?

Now, as to Swinburne's assertion that the Church is the interpreter of revelation, this is true, but not in the way he thinks. Paul says, "These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:13-14). The Church is just that group of people that is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:16 teaches that the Holy Spirit testifies to each believer that he is a "child of God", i.e. a member of the Church), and, therefore, just the group of people capable of understanding and interpreting "the thing of the Spirit of God," which includes the Bible. Also, John 16:13, which Swinburne cites to this effect on the last page of his book, specifically discusses the Holy Spirit guiding us into "all truth." Thus the putative revelation, the Bible (which Swinburne says is merely a correct interpretation of the true revelation, the life and teachings of Jesus - let us concede that point, as I simply don't think its worth arguing about, provided "correct" is understood strongly enough), actually tells us what the interpreting body will look like, and therefore if such a body exists and the revelation is legitimate then the body will be the proper interpreter.

What does that mean? Baptists have traditionally affirmed the right and responsibility of each believer to interpret the Bible for himself within a community of believers, and I think this is the correct direction to take. The Bible is, primarily, a tool by which God the Holy Spirit reveals the same truth to different people at different times in different ways, but the tool is public because of the dangerously subjective nature of individual revelations. Thus the Holy Spirit makes special revelation to each individual in the Church, but He does so through a public tool which admits to a degree of objectivity so that there is a means of distinguishing the true revelation of the Spirit from the wishful thinking or invention of the individual. It takes time to learn to hear God's voice and follow Him as our Shepherd (John 10:27), and in order to do this we need "training data", so to speak, for our "spiritual sense" - that is, we need well known, public examples of things that God has said so that we can learn to discern his voice from our own (or that of the devil). Thus the Bible contains the revelation which is universally applicable, communicated in such a way that it can be properly interpreted only with divine guidance, but nevertheless admits to publicly verifiable analysis. This is what it means that the Bible can only be properly interpreted by the Church. Swinburne may even be right that it is the Church's status as interpreter of the revelation which came in the life and teachings of Christ, signed by God with the resurrection (but do not read either Swinburne or myself as claiming that this is the SOLE purpose of the resurrection - God never does anything for only one purpose), that tells us that the canon of Scripture is a further revelation (or correct interpretation of the original revelation, or whatever).

It follows then that an individual currently outside the Church seeking to understand the Christian revelation, must consult the Church. But how does one find the true Church? Jesus tells us "you will know them by their fruits." (Matthew 7:16), and this is clearly the central criterion. Swinburnes other criteria, continuity of organization and purpose, are also important. Swinburne says that one criterion is in fact that the true Church will have sound doctrine, continuous with the teaching of Jesus, but since we are, in this case, attempting to find the true Church in order to figure out what Jesus taught, this is only helpful for what little we can determine by normal historical inquiry, without treating Scripture as a revelation. Clearly the modern Church will in some sense "look like" the Church in the first century. However, if the central definition of the Church is "the gathering together of those called out of the world by God and filled with the Holy Spirit" then the primary characteristics will be those the Bible associates with this change, which includes "signs following" (Mark 16:17-18), power to witness for Jesus (Acts 1:8), changed lives (see esp. the change from the frightened disciples before Pentecost, to the fearless preachers after), and, above all, the "fruits of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the crucial mark of the true Church, the gaurdian of the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is not a human institution, nor need it have a central human authority structure; only Jesus Himself is its head (Colossians 1:18).

Posted by Kenny at August 31, 2005 2:41 PM
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