Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  1.1 Special Revelation and Theology

Notes from a Sunday School that begins on May 25.

Comments, corrections, and routine editing: absolutely welcomed!

An index of all posts is on the right frame.

A blog with only the Sunday School Posts is here.

Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

1.1 Special Revelation and Theology

God has provided two broad modes by which He communicates His redemptive plan to us. The first we will look at is called Special Revelation. Consider this compact and straightforward definition from Tim Challies:9
Special Revelation has been unfolded through history. It began with God revealing Himself to just one man – the first man. Then he revealed Himself to a family, then to a tribe, a nation, a race and then finally to the whole world.

Special Revelation speaks about the same things as [General] Revelation (see § 1.2, General Revelation and Science.), but does so in more detail. It also speaks of things that [General] Revelation does not and cannot. We learn further details about God’s existence and power and we learn more about His wrath, including the reasons behind it.
Challies also lists ways in which God has revealed Himself through Special Revelation.10 With a few modifications:

  • God speaking directly. God has spoken directly and audibly to people.

  • God becoming man (Theophanies).11 Several times in history God revealed Himself in human form.

  • Prophecy. God spoke through the mouths of prophets. These men and women, when they prophesied, spoke God’s words with their voices.

  • Casting of lots.12 God made his will known through seemingly random events. If God controls everything in the world, this must include things as small as a roll of a dice or casting of a lot.

  • Urim and Thummin.13 These were ancient tools used by ancient Israel. We know very little about them, except that they communicated God’s revelation to Israelite priests.

  • Dreams and Visions.14 Dreams and visions have been used to reveal something about God or His will.

  • Jesus Christ. God’s primary means of Special Revelation is through the ministry of Jesus Christ. “Listen to Him” God told Peter (Matt. 17:5). Jesus said, “"My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” (John 7:16), and “For I have given them the words that you gave me,” (John 17:8).

  • The Apostles. Jesus bestowed teaching authority upon the apostles. The New Testament is clear that the apostles, through the Holy Spirit, are supernaturally empowered as teachers. For example, they can, years later, reliably write the Gospels because their memory is provided by the Spirit.15 Furthermore, they are granted their authority to speak by Jesus Himself.16

  • The Bible. God’s practical means of Special Revelation is through The Bible. It can be thought of this way: Jesus was God the Father’s messenger.17 The apostles were the messengers of Jesus. Their message, which by the preceding chain is easily understood to be God’s message, maintained its integrity through the workings of the Holy Spirit and is provided to us through the New Testament.

This is an interesting list. God has, as the writer of Hebrews declares, has spoken “in many times and in many ways.” (Heb 1:1). However, for the purposes of this study we shall use a working definition:

Special Revelation: The detailed knowledge of God’s redemptive plan made known to us today through the Bible.

In the Bible, we have a perfect, sufficient, inerrant18 source of Special Revelation.

At that point, however, things get a bit murky. At that point, theology enters the arena. What is theology? Again, we will use a working definition.

Theology: A human intellectual activity that seeks to develop sound doctrine and practice based on Special Revelation, i.e., by interpreting scripture.

Theology is the imperfect way that humans wade through the perfect Bible, attempting to classify, clarify, and personalize the text.

We know from painful experience that this practice is greatly flawed. From one perfect source, the human practice of theology produces, among well meaning, God fearing, inerrancy affirming, scholarly men and women: Armininans and Calvinists; millennialists of at least four flavors and even more subtypes; dispensational and covenant systematics; old and new “perspectives” on Paul, old and young earth creationists; proponents of believers’ baptism and paedobatism; culture engagement game plans ranging from separation of church and state (invented, by the way, by the Baptists) to the culture warriors of the religious right, all the way up to the so-called reconstructionists or theonomists.

And that’s just a short list. The prima facie evidence that theology is, to put it mildly, an imprecise endeavor, is the very definition of overwhelming.

This is by no means an indictment against the practice of theology. On the contrary, it is biblically mandated as a profitable activity.19

To further drive this point home, consider the passage:
And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator." (Dan:9:27)
If your eschatology is amillennial, the “he” refers to the Messiah. On the other hand, for dispensational premillennialists, “he” is the antichrist. Somebody is going to be quite embarrassed.

Truly, theology might be the most error prone of all human intellectual activities. The disagreements are as vast as those in politics. That is all the more remarkable when you consider that in the theologies we are contrasting, all parties agree a priori to use the same textbook, and all agree that the instruction therein is perfect.

Our point, as we conclude the section, is that while we have a reliable text, we have a demonstrably imperfect method of interpreting and understanding that text. We believe there are two important ramifications of this:
  1. We should be very careful as to what we include in our circle of orthodoxy. That is, what we define as the minimal set of beliefs that must be held by a Christian should be exactly that: minimal.20

  2. When we have a collision between one theology and another, or between theology and science, we should be willing to examine the possibility that an erroneous theology is the source of or contributes to the conflict.
To reiterate the second point: we must never preclude the possibility of a theological error by mistaking it for a biblical error. Those are two very different beasts.

This will be clarified further after we examine the second great mode of God’s revelation.

9 See this Tim Challies post.
10 Ibid., with some modifications.
11 E.g., Jud. 13:22; Luke. 3:22
12 E.g., Jonah 1.7; Acts 1:16.
13 This little understood method of divination is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. For example: He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the LORD. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in. (Num. 27:21) See also 1 Sam. 28:3-6. Many believe the terms actually refer to objects involved in the divination, such as the high priest’s breastplate. See the Jewish Encyclopedia article.
14 E.g., Gen. 31:24; Acts 9:10.
15 Speaking to the apostles, Jesus said: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
16 Speaking to the apostles, Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20)
17 Speaking to the apostles, Jesus said: “And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (John 14:26)
18 The inerrancy is limited to the original autographs. We acknowledge the possibility of transcription errors, translation errors, and redactions. For the purposes of this work, we uphold the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
19 Now these [Berean] Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11).
20 Here the historic creeds of the church are helpful. For example the Nicene Creed. No eschatological wars there—it simply states what all Christians can agree with, that someday Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.
21 Article "Revelation," from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, General Editor, v. 4, pp. 2573-2582. Pub. Chicago, 1915, by the Howard-Severance Co.

No comments:

Post a Comment