Q & R: Bible and Revelation

Here’s the Q:

Hi Brian,
In “A New Kind of Christianity” you address the question “Is God Violent”, by seeing our faith as an evolutionary process. The example you gave of children’s math text books was most helpful. Like you, I love the Bible. I am not having much difficulty considering and even accepting a more evoluntionary understanding of God throughout scripture. But now, as I go back to study the scriptures and prepare a message for my congregation each Sunday, I am perplexed with a question about revelation. I was always taught that revelation was closed, the canon is complete, and these 66 books contain all we need to know from God. But if, as your time machine example implies, our understanding of God is continuously unfolding, would that not signal a major shift in the uniqueness of the Bible? (special revelation, authority, inspiration, etc.) If God is still speaking (or if we’re just coming up with better ways to describe and understand God) then how do we decide what authors and speakers are “inspired”? And if some are “inspired”, then how, if at all, is their inspiration any different than Moses, David, John, and Paul? If indeed the collective faith of humanity is continuously evolving and unveiling, then shouldn’t there be a consistent stream of “unveilers”? Questions breed more questions. Can you help clear up this dilemma?

Here’s the R:

Great question. A few brief thoughts in reply.
1. To say the Bible is a closed canon doesn’t mean (or isn’t supposed to mean) that God is done revealing. As the Psalmist said, “Day to day pours four speech” – creation continues to reveal God’s glory microsecond by microsecond. And the Holy Spirit is still at work, guiding us into all truth.
2. To say the Bible is a closed canon says, “OK, this is all the text needed to set up the boundary conditions for the faith to grow.” To remove some texts would rob us of something essential … essential background into the story of Jesus, essential views of Jesus, essential insights into how the message of Jesus took root and spread. To add more texts would have at least one unhelpful consequence: it would limit freedom, since that’s what boundary conditions do. (I’ll not another unhelpful consequence in a minute.) We would be invited, not into the ancient conversations and arguments that took place in the time of the Exile or Jesus and the Apostles, but into the conversations and arguments of the fifth or fifteenth centuries, and to some degree, the conversation would be somewhat narrowed – narrowed to the degree that these later writers, in their respective traditions and subtraditions, were dealing with more parochial issues. Options had already been prematurely foreclosed upon, options that we may need now or in five hundred years. So in this way, less is more – less text preserves more freedom.
3. To make this more concrete – you can be a Christian and ignore Augustine if you want. Or you can ignore Aquinas. Or you can ignore Anselm. (I don’t recommend you do so, but millions have and do.) But you can’t (or shouldn’t) ignore Genesis or Exodus or Jude or Revelation. If we were to add Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm to the canon of Scripture, our thinking would, I think, be more bounded … more stuck in the ruts of Western thinking.
4. To be left out of the canon doesn’t mean these voices are unimportant, nor does it say they should be ignored. But they become part of an ongoing conversation about the original conversation in the canonical text itself. Keeping these later voices out of the canon helps us avoid giving them too privileged a position. And I think many of us have seen – whether we’re talking about Augustine, Aquinas, Anslem, Luther, Calvin, or Darby (not in any way to equate them!) – later figures in church history can easily acquire too privileged a position.
5. I would hope that many, many voices are speaking more or less from Spirit-guided impulses rather than “from the flesh” only. In that case, Paul’s words are applicable: Despise not prophesyings; test all things; hold fast to that which is good. But just because we discern they were saying things from the Spirit that we need to hear doesn’t mean they are saying things from the Spirit that everyone for all time in the future needs to hear. Imagine if we did that … Jesus’ own contribution to the text would become a smaller and smaller percentage, and (recalling my blog yesterday) he would indeed be in danger of being replaced by his assistants.
6. I’m careful about the metaphor of foundations, since I’m not a strict foundationalist in the philosophical sense. But here’s a metaphor that might help. You can build a house upon a certain foundation. As time goes on, you can add a second story, redo the kitchen, add a deck, re-landscape the yard, and so on. A good foundation doesn’t stop you from doing those things: it makes those things possible. The canon works like this, I think. It supports later thought without limiting it unnecessarily.
Well, this feels a bit rambly and perhaps not very precise, but this is a blog after all, not a textbook, so I hope it’s at least a little helpful. By the way, this blog nicely captured what I was trying to say in a recent article and in the book about the supremacy of Christ: