I might have given as a subtitle for this piece, “The Insufficiency of Revelation” which would have seemed almost blasphemous to some and heretical to many. The “Word of God contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” – how could it ever be insufficient? But not only do I think that it is, I also think that the scripture itself admits that it is.
A series of utterances of Jesus about the coming of the spirit in John 14-16 constitutes this admission:
John 14: 12,13: Jesus says that those who believe in him will do even greater deeds than him because he is going to the father.
John 14: 16,17: Jesus promises that he will ask the father to send another advocate, the spirit of truth
John 14: 26: Jesus says that the spirit advocate will teach the disciples everything
John 15: 26: Jesus affirms that the Spirit of truth issues from the father and witnesses to him.
John 16: 7- 15: Jesus says that if he does not go to the father (via the cross) the advocate will not come. When he comes he will guide the disciples into all truth. The spirit will speak on behalf of God, bringing knowledge of the future by taking what belongs to Jesus and making it known in a new way.
The sum of these passages is that the spirit does not simply replace Jesus’ presence with his disciples but leads them into new understandings of Him. All future disciples who have not known Jesus in the flesh will know him through the spirit making use of what belongs to Jesus, that is, his story and teachings. Great deeds and new truths will be enabled. What has been revealed will always be insufficient (hallelujah!) because the spirit offers truth in the present tense.
An example may help. There’s not a lot in the Bible about ecological concern, except the command of God in Genesis that humanity should fill the earth and subdue it, exercising dominion over its creatures. Well, that hasn’t worked out wonderfully. The reason for this absence is that the biblical writings belong a) to an era of humanistic pride in mediterranean cultures, in which the capabilities of human beings were evident in a new urban civilisation fed by a new agriculture; and b) to the pantheon of masculine sky-gods and their consorts who had overruled the older, often feminine gods of the earth and the underworld. Beliefs and taboos that belonged to an earlier civilisation more embedded in nature were forgotten.
So we’re left with the fact that the saviour of the world has less to say about caring for the planet than Boris Johnson.
Now, of course, the ecological crisis has spawned an awesome number of theological writings asserting that “God is green,” few of which admit that classic Christian doctrine with its anthropocentric bias is partly responsible for the mess that the green God is now trying to clear up. The rush for relevance has in many cases outstripped the desire for truth. In the case of ecological issues Christian thinkers, in my opinion, are not dealing with a classic theme that requires updating, but with a set of assumptions that requires correction.
Is it possible that the spirit of truth can take from what belongs to Jesus an understanding that God’s interpretation of his life is different from ours, and from that of mainstream theology, and perhaps from his own?
When feminist believers asked that question with regard to patriarchal interpretations of Jesus they began to see hints in the scripture of what had been hidden by that bias. I have read a number of green makeovers of Jesus which have left me unconvinced, since they have demonstrated so little in the New Testament that even hints towards ecological truth. In effect they have simply incorporated Jesus’ goodwill in their own mix of ecological teaching.
John’s gospel famously characterises Jesus as the demonstration of God’s love for the WORLD, which is a very strong hint that Jesus was not here with love for human beings only. Is it possible to construct an interpretation of Jesus which sees him in the light of God’s love for the universe? Process theologians, using the insights of Alfred North Whitehead, have developed creation-centred theologies which deal fully with ecological issues, but so far at any rate, the weakest aspect of their work has been their interpretation of Jesus.
It’s possible that when the spirit goes to take ecological truth out of “what belongs to Jesus” it comes back with nothing more specific than an unbounded love of God and God’s rule, meaning God’s making of a perfect universe. But from that point of view, Jesus’ utter opposition to violence and greed, his advocacy of modest living and his trust in the creator might, with the inspiration of the spirit, and the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible, become the centre of a distinctively Christian ecology.
None of this can happen unless we celebrate the insufficiency of revelation, which in some cases amounts to the wrongness of revelation, and open ourselves to the other advocate, the spirit of truth.
Some doubtless may prefer to continue with their view of a fixed revelation, along with their motor cars and beef steaks, trusting that when the world gets fried, theirs will be the only asses that are unscorched. Well, good luck with that, is what I say.