Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Is the Spirit of truth liberal or conservative? (3)

Picking up the conclusion to the previous post:

"In this way the revelation of 'all the truth' which Jesus promises through the Spirit is not a revelation of new truths (as many take it, so we now have new truths about slavery, about women, and, today, about homosexuality) but a revelation of the full extent of the truth already revealed by Jesus.

Indeed John's Gospel itself is a fulfilment of this promise. But let's stop there for today and come back to that matter another day."

The Spirit of truth takes us deeper into Jesus, the revelation he has made to us about the love of God and the God who is Love, and into the cost of that love, a love which asks us to die to self in order to live completely to God.

John's Gospel as a fulfilment of this promise concerning the Spirit

John's Gospel is a cheeky gospel. Virtually all scholars agree that by the time his gospel was completed, the other gospels had been composed. Whether circulating widely or not, it is reasonable to assume that John had an idea of their contents (not least because parts of his gospel betray knowledge of their contents, or, at least, of the traditions which informed those contents). Yet John publishes his gospel, knowing it is different to the way the gospel is being told elsewhere. It is a cheeky offering to the church. "Yeah, yeah, I know others tell it differently, but here is my version."

What gives him confidence to do this?

I suggest two possible answers. One is enshrined in his gospel and one is enshrined in church tradition.

The latter is that this is the gospel of the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Who better to have authority to author such an alternative account that one of the apostles, even better one who (according to all gospels) was very close to Jesus (though, according to this gospel, closest of all as 'the Beloved Disciple'). Whether the apostolic John actually wrote the gospel matters little, on this line of thought, since what matters is the authority which commends this gospel to the church. The confidence that the apostle John approves this gospel, indeed 'lends his name' to this gospel is enough.

The former is that the Spirit of God has led the author to write this gospel as a true testimony to Jesus. What is written, on this line of thought, is the Spirit of God leading the church into all the truth about Jesus, the guarantee of which function of the Spirit is given in the words of Jesus about the role of the Spirit of truth. On this line, it matters little whether the apostolic John has any connection with the gospel, since the Spirit of truth is a much greater authority.

Nevertheless the two possible means of confidence for the writer of the gospel are compatible. If both prove true then the confidence is doubled!

In this context, one implication of understanding the Spirit leading into all truth is that this is not about 'new truths', to be revealed through future history, but about the Gospel of John itself. Alternatively, it could be about the gathering of all authentic and authoritative testimony about Jesus into the canon of Christian Scripture (of which, it turns out, John's Gospel is likely the last written document).

Revelation of God's love affects our understanding of human love and its obligations

Nevertheless, it is appropriate to ask whether an implication of the Spirit of truth leading us deeper into the truth of the love of God is that we are also led into new dimensions of understanding humanity or who we are as people. In Johannine thought, especially in the context of 1 John, the love of God is always connected to our love for one another (e.g. 4:10-12, 19-21).

Thus in a comment to the previous post, Roger Harper makes this observation:

"You make a distinction between the fuller truth of Jesus, of the love of God, and the new truth of slavery, women in leadership etc. I can't see the basis for such a distinction. The 'new' truth that Christians are not to own slaves is a fuller expression of the truth of Jesus that the love of God means that we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. It is even a fuller expression of the even older truth that our God liberates slaves, not only from Egypt. So it is in both your categories. The classic Biblical example and authoritative paradigm is the 'new' truth that some of God's people can eat pork. This is a fuller expression of the love of God for humanity, as well as of Jesus saying that what goes into the mouth does not defile. Also fitting well into both your categories. I hope you will include a consideration of the Council of Jerusalem etc. as an important part of what it means for us to be Spirit-led into all truth, including truth we could not bear before now.

Yes, Christians, have made terrible mistakes by not distinguishing between the spirit of the age and the Holy Spirit. That does not mean that we give up on being led by the Spirit and fall back to living under Law, Torah."

Let me both defend myself (a little) while also agreeing (a lot) with this observation.

Defend: In the context of John's Gospel, which has virtually no interest in ethics, in the day to day decisions of believers as to how they will live, it seems to force the text in an un-Johannine direction to take the promise that the Spirit will lead us into all truth to mean that over time a detailed agenda re slavery, women and homosexuality will be attended to by the Spirit, with specific revelations on each matter unveiled for future generations.

This is to say nothing of quite a lot of questions about the Spirit's rationale for, e.g. attending to slaves before women; presiding over the subjugation of slaves for centuries before finally enlightening us;  making some matters clear and agreeable to all (say, the equality of women with men) while not making other matters clear to all Christians (say, the ordination of women).

Then there is also the matter of truths which are hard to bear being the ones which will later be revealed: is the eating/not eating of pork one of those truths?

A final point here is whether on the specific matter of the issues of slavery, women and homosexuality, we need some kind of new guidance of the Spirit beyond that already found in Scripture which is very clear on anthropology (men and women made in the image of God), justice, and kindness. A new revelation of the Spirit is not needed to end slavery as a maltreatment of fellow human beings, to end oppression of women as second class humans, and to treat homosexuals kindly and fairly. To the extent to which slavery (to take just one matter) was a means of society having a class of people to undertake basic work, we remain a (now global) society which has a class of people undertaking basic work and for which we have much to do to improve conditions. The improvement of those conditions does not require a new revelation of the Spirit.

Agree: It is unquestionable that Christians pursuing with the Spirit's guidance their understanding of the height, depth, width and length of the love of God must, in time, confront the matter of what this means for human conduct in society, of obligations of discipleship in the kingdom, and of relations between brothers and sisters in the life of the church. It would have been - indeed! - too much to bear to have had some kind of detailed compendium of all future issues and their resolution presented on that night before Jesus died.

Nevertheless, to make this observation does not take us too far. It leaves us with the question of how the Spirit guides us into all truth, and the question of how we know what the guidance of the Spirit is for the church today?

As we work our way through the New Testament, we do see instances of the Spirit speaking to God's servants. Roger Harper draws our attention to the Council of Jerusalem which confronted an issue on which the earliest church was not clear in its own mind, informed as it was with the memory of Jesus' teaching and challenged as it was through special revelation to Peter and to Paul. On this matter the Council came to a common mind and issued a Spirit-led judgment which remains binding on the church to this day. Or does it? (Incidentally, for further comment on Listening to the Holy Spirit, by Roger Harper, go here).

An intriguing observation about the Jerusalem decision is that it is utterly clear about the general inclusivity of Gentiles into the gospel people of God without requirements to also become Jews. But it is not so clear in respect of the specific details re 'abstention' requirements (see any commentary). Indeed Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 10:27-29 would appear to take a more 'liberal' line on the eating of food offered to idols than the line implied in Acts 15:20.

Further lack of clarity exists on relations between women and men (Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:16 acknowledges that there might be other ways to approach the matter than the one he has just argued). In 1 Corinthians 7, discussing marriage, on one point Paul notes that he speaks without the authority of the Lord (7:12) and thus, logically, has no specific guidance from the Holy Spirit.

Incidentally, we cannot pass on from Acts 15 without a remark about the role of Scripture in the guidance of the Holy Spirit: the Council in its determination that the Holy Spirit had spoken found corroboration in Scripture (Acts 15:15-8 = Amos 9:11-12; Jeremiah 12:15; Isaiah 45:21).

In sum: in some situations it is clear what the Spirit is saying to the church, in other situations it is clear that the Spirit is offering no specific guidance for the church, while there is a third set of situations in which the guidance of the Spirit is yet subject to further consideration, even debate as to its specific applicability in the life of the church.

How do we know which is which situation? To reiterate the questions above:

How does the Spirit guide us into all truth?

How do we know what the Spirit is saying to the church today?

In Johannine terms, the Spirit guides us into all truth through recalling for us what Jesus has taught. We know the Spirit is speaking to the church today when we are called to belief in Jesus, to remain faithful to Jesus when opposition arises, that is, when we are drawn by the Spirit to die to self in order to share in the risen life of Jesus.

The best we can say beyond that on issues of the day could be this:

Where the church unites in discernment of the guidance of the Holy Spirit (compare the Council in Jerusalem, Acts 15), uniting both in what it hears the Spirit saying and in determining that this is corroborated by Scripture, the church is so guided.

Where the church is not united in discernment of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it may be that the matter is not important (i.e. adiaphora, indifferent). In Johannine terms we could think of the remarkable conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 21 where it does not matter that Peter's future as a disciple is different to the future of the Beloved Disciple.

Or, it may be that the matter is not yet resolved.

8 comments:

val said...

The true Gospel is now delivered to you from the wilderness Rev 12:6 as a witness Matt 24:14.
Our heavenly Father will NOT put any child of his into a hell fire no matter what their sins. Sin doesn't scare God! He created it Isa 45:7 to teach us all the knowledge of good and evil Gen 3:22 for our eternal placement in his coming kingdom. Throwing a child of his into a hell fire has never entered the heart or mind of God to ever do such a thing Jer7:31, Jer 19:5. Anyone preaching a hell fire to God's children is deceived. The whole world has been believing in a god of hate murder and revenge (The devil Rev 12:9). The true word of God John 1:1 is now delivered Rev 12:5 here http://thegoodtale.wordpress.com/

God chose a woman Rev 12 to be the prophet like unto Moses and Elijah Matt 17:3, Acts 3:21-23, Luke 1:17. Those professing themselves to be Christians would be wise to hear all Acts 3:23 BEFORE making any judgment. The proof of what I tell you is in the hearing.

Prove ALL things 1 Thes 5:21. Satan has deceived the whole world Rev 12:9 until now.

Bryden Black said...

I have to agree with you Peter about the basic line you have pursued in these three posts re the Spirit of Truth. I sense the enormity of “and the Word became flesh” has only just begun to dawn upon us mere humans. As for the full reality of Jn 14:15-24 (a neat, Trinitarian set of statements), personally I yearn for the fulness of the reality of “On that Day”, v.20. I sense we are but scratching the surface, given notably the time-table of eschatology.

True; these observations are based as well on the likes another author’s perspective, and his promptings offered us in Eph 3:14ff. It is taken up furthermore in those ideas of Gregory of Nyssa that even in the New Creation we shall never be able to catch up with the sheer infinitude of the Triune God such is his ‘epektatic’ nature.

All of which does not deny those specific shifts of neighbourly love enjoined upon us. But, as you point out, slavery and the due status of women and men, are already within the canon of the NT (Philemon; and multiple texts), and so do not need ‘new revelation’ - just the obedience of faith! What has always puzzled me about the alleged continuity of the emancipatory trajectory supposedly leading to same-sex ‘marriage’ is the sheer countervailing evidence of the NT texts. True; it took us centuries to discern the difference between decriminalization and sin; but sin remains sin even when Christians support the former - as I do. [An aside. No; this is not to obsess once more, but only to bring us back to what prompted these very posts by Peter ...] And so, how the Spirit of Truth leads the entire Catholic Church into the Truth when those practices and disciplines of spirit are all but jettisoned in this day and age, is truly beyond me! The current muddle in e.g. the Church of Scotland is just that - a muddle (pace Roger Harper).

Andrew White said...

To be blunt, I'm not convinced that the modern trend to decriminalisation of sexual perversions - not the least adultery, fornication and homosexual sex - was an altogether wise move, given the destructive consequences to society. What one does in private self-evidently does affect those around us - it's not a small or private matter. This is not to say that legal sanctions are always the best way to deal with destructive behaviours, but to assert that "decriminalize" is consistently the best path to "caring" is naive at best.

Shawn Herles said...

I agree with Bryden and with the conclusion that a deeper understanding of the truth of God's revealed love cannot, without being contra the canon of Scripture, lead to same-sex marriage.

That said, I want to play devil's advocate. Reading Roger Harpers post on the Council of Jerusalem, and connecting that with Christ's giving of the Keys of binding and loosing to the Church, is there a possible way forward in which on the one hand we affirm the Biblical witness that homosexual sex is a sin, and that the Church can only bless male-female covenant marriage, but on the other hand find a way to include those lay people who experience life-long same gender attraction through the Churches Kingdom ministry, demonstrated at the Council of Jerusalem, to bind and loose?

Bryden Black said...

Andrew; your caution is noted. I too point out there needs to be a direct tie-in between private morality and public justice. That said, the tragic nature of the State's "sword" (Rom 13) does necessitate not just allowances for the "weak" but has to address ongoing unredemptive human nature. What is enjoined upon the CHURCH however is another matter entirely (including Rom 14 and the weak) - something often sadly forgotten in our current debates.

Chris Hynde said...

Peter, thank you for this carefully thought-out and cogently argued series. Although I am not in total agreement with everything you have written it has helped me see and understand things from a different perspective. The "maybe" is a sign of light and hope for continued fellowship to this gay, liberal Anglican. Peace be with you!

Peter Carrell said...

Thank you, Chris!

rogerharper said...

Many thanks. Peter, for responding to what I have written, for both your disagreement and agreement. We share a common desire to promote Biblical unity in the Church. We share a sense of the importance of being led into all truth by the Holy Spirit. How indeed does He lead?

Thank you for pointing me to James arguing from Scripture in Acts 15. I should have included that and will amend accordingly. It still seems to me that what you call the ‘special revelation’, given to Peter particularly, is not ‘special’ in Biblical, Acts 2, terms, but normal. It is normal for the Holy Spirit to cause people to prophecy, to see visions and dreams from the Holy Spirit, which are an integral part of his leading the Church into all truth. It is also normal for the Holy Spirit to bring to mind relevant verses from Scripture and to help us to see the logical implications of what we read. ‘Where the church unites in discernment of the guidance of the Holy Spirit (compare the Council in Jerusalem, Acts 15), uniting both in what it hears the Spirit saying and in determining that this is corroborated by Scripture, the church is so guided.’ Amen.

I don’t, though, see how John / Jesus’ wide specification of ‘all truth’ can be limited to ‘the sort of truth John writes.’ Surely ‘all’ means ‘all’ – principles and practicalities and everything?

We cannot indeed understand all about the Holy Spirit’s timing and ability to convince the Church. With the hindsight of history, we can imagine that, if the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s people had been part of the very original gospel, the very earliest Church would have struggled even more to become established in Jerusalem. It may well not have survived. God’s people eating pork was indeed hard to bear, as the immense controversy leading to Paul writing letters bears witness.

The most difficult issues are ones on which a number of Scriptural passages point in one direction, with others, often fewer, in the other. God’s people eating pork was outlawed in much of Scripture, although pointed to in the passages James quoted (Acts 15) Slavery is treated in much of Scripture as a normal acceptable part of life, which should be regulated, both legally and by conscience, but continued. There was much Biblical writing quoted in favour of retaining slavery. A new revelation of the Spirit was indeed needed, as well as a new concentration on the teaching of Jesus, over the rest of Scripture.

I’m not a categories kind of person, so I also find it hard to see your distinct kinds of situations in which the Church and the Holy Spirit interact. It seems to me that there is usually more or less lack of agreement about the leading of the Holy Spirit, which is only resolved through much discussion, debate, prayer and listening. We have to keep the messy process going, as widely as possible. Eventually we reach the point of saying ‘It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ Even then, as you note, debate about the detail may continue.

Thank you for mentioning the possibility that an issue such as gay marriage may be deemed ‘adiaphora.’ I think this is a crucial, ignored, possibility. Too many people assume that gay marriage is a ‘primary issue’ without giving arguments for deeming it primary from the leading of the Holy Spirit as confirmed by at least some Scripture. As you know, I think there are arguments the Spirit are guiding us, including through Scripture, into seeing gay marriage as not primary, simply not THAT important…

The Church of Scotland seem to have agreed gay marriage as less than primary. They recently voted to uphold traditional teaching and practice on human sexuality, but ‘nevertheless’ to allow those Kirk sessions who so decide, to depart from this traditional teaching. Any comment on this decision? Can you see Anglicans being able to say something similar?