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On Knowing Christ
By: Rev. Boyd Morris, Colorado Springs, CO
Question: How can we rightly know the Person and the works of Jesus Christ?
Note: This question comes from an explanation of a statement made by Dr. Robert Webber in his book, Ancient-Future Faith, Baker Books, 1999. The statement in question is: "I have structured Ancient- Future Faith around the phenomenon of the origin of the Christian faith. I have not started where evangelicals usually start- with the Scriptures. Rather, I begin with the work of Jesus Christ, the primordial event of the living, dying, rising, and coming again." P. 30,31
The issue is, since we know of the person and works by the New Testament writings, how is it that Dr. Webber states he has not started with the scriptures?
While the Scripture is the only infallible authority, it is not the only authority that reveals the work of Christ. In the early centuries, before a majority of the churches had a full collection of New Testament Scriptures, what the churches all had in common was the ongoing work of Jesus in the Liturgy and His ongoing work through the Spirit. New Testament Scriptures were the late comer to the party.
The manifestation of the work of Jesus in the Liturgy and by the Spirit is as real and as equally authoritative as the revelation of His work is in Scripture, just in a different way. The three forms of revelation - sacrament, Scripture and Spirit - have equal authority but different functions. The infallible authority of Scripture is not more authoritative than the revelation of Christ in sacrament or by the Spirit, it just functions differently. Together, these three strands of revelation form one cord that reveals the work of Christ. It's the convergence of the three forms of revelation that Webber wants to start with.
While each of the three forms of Revelation reveal different content about Christ's work, all reveal the same context or pattern or framework, which is Him, His life, His work in and through His Body, the Church. The particulars of the work of Christ made known by the Spirit and in the sacraments, while different in content from the particulars revealed in Scripture, line up with Scripture and are compatible with the work of Christ as revealed in Scripture. The common pattern all three forms of revelation keeps our understanding of the meaning of the particulars on track. The context within which every fact of revelation fits best is self-evident and is recognized as such over time by us. But because fallen humanity suppresses the truth, the amount of time this can take may be long and drawn out.
Registering the particulars of revelation is one thing. But understanding the overall pattern that the particulars come already embedded in is what's separates the men from the boys. Ever since Adam and Eve chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, fallen humanity has been set against acknowledging that an overall pattern of revealed truth even exists. Would be autonomous man would rather feign ignorance that any such pattern exists so that he can supply one of his own and in this way convert the divine meaning the particular truths of revelation into whatever he wants them to mean. This is the essence of sin, which is lawlessness.
But redeemed humanity in Christ, that is, the Church, is humanity being restored in humility and boldness to acknowledge that God has already encased the facts of existence into an overall plan or pattern for existence. God doesn't just reveal truths but also Truth. He doesn't just issue laws, but also Law. The classical name given by the Church to this divinely revealed pattern of truth is the Apostolic Rule of Faith, which Keith Mathison in The Shape of Sola Scriptura calls, "Tradition 1." When the Church acknowledges and operates by Tradition 1, then she operates as Paul said, as the pillar and ground of the truth, that is, as a court of truth, not a source of truth. The authority of the Church, while secondary, derived and subordinate to God, is no less authoritative than is revelation in sacrament, Scripture, or the Spirit. The Church's authority is just different, not less than the kind of authority inherent to sacrament, Scripture and the Spirit. When the Church faithfully submits to the authority of God as the revealer of the meaning of the facts, not just the revealer of facts, then the Church administrates the authority of God, not as God, but as Totus Christus, Christ the Head and His Body as one.
Thus the works of Christ in His Church are where we see the work of Christ. Sacrament, Scripture and the Spirit are like three overlapping lenses through which we see His ongoing life and ministry in and through the Church.
Webber's statement about starting with Christ's work rather than Scripture, could be modified so that we imagine him saying,
* "I have not started where the sacramental-liturgical expressions of the Church usually start - with the sacraments. Rather, I begin with the work of Jesus Christ..."
* "I have not started where the charismatics and Eastern Orthodox expressions of the Church usually start - with the Spirit. Rather, I begin with the work of Jesus Christ..."
The facts never speak for themselves, regardless of whether they are the facts of revelation in sacrament, Scripture or by the Spirit. Facts always and only have meaning when they are interpreted within a framework of pre-existent meaning. The particulars of Christ's overall work revealed in Sacrament, Scripture and Spirit don't come to us without interpretation. They are already interpreted by the Father and our invitation is to reinterpret them in line with what the Church calls the Apostolic Rule of Faith. The Church didn't invent the Apostolic Rule of Faith but acknowledges it as sourced in God.
In Matthew 16 Jesus commended Peter for recognizing that Father's interpretation of the facts about who Jesus was. When Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do you say that I am," Peter responded, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." (Matt. 16:16) The next thing Jesus says speaks directly to what we're talking about here. He says to Peter, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven" (v. 17). Jesus goes on to say that this kind of confessor and confession is the rock upon which He will build His Church (v. 18). Those who interpret the facts in line with the Father's interpretation of the facts, thinking God's thoughts after Him as it were, will be able to bind and loose on earth what has already been bound and loosed in heaven (v. 19).
It's like in the movie Contact when a signal from "heaven" (i.e., from an alien race) is received on earth. It turns out the signal isn't just a simple "SOS," but an encyclopedic fire hose of information. But there's one problem. No one knows how to interpret it. And so the search begins for the cipher, the code for making sense of the volumes of information. Then someone finds the cipher in the most surprising place. It's contained within the signal itself! Keith Mathison calls this the One-Source View of Authority. There is one source for both the content and the context which gives meaning to the content. The Apostolic Rule of Faith is the cipher revealed from the same source as the content it serves to interpret.
But fallen humanity is blind, even hostile, to the idea that divine revelation comes with its own cipher. This fallen mentality grips the Church in two ways, which Mathison calls Tradition 0 and Tradition 2. While these traditions appear on the surface to embrace God's revelation, with varying degrees of emphasis, as it comes to us in sacrament, Scripture and the Spirit, dig a little deeper and you'll see that these traditions reject the divinely revealed cipher in order to substitute one of their own. In Tradition 0 individuals supply their own cipher and in Tradition 2 the collective Church supplies it. This is the Two-Source View of Authority. These traditions acknowledge that the source of revealed truths is from above, but then each tradition appoints itself as in its own source of the pattern that assembles these truths into truth. The result is denominationalism, which isn't just a love affair with one form of revelation more than another, but more so a denial that every form of revelation also comes with the key to its own meaning.
Thus when Webber says he's starting with the work of Christ and not Scripture, it's just his way of saying that he's starting with the Apostolic Rule of Faith. Or to use Mathison's play on words, Webber is affirming Sola Scriptura and rejecting "Solo Scriptura."
The Church is the ongoing expression of the work and ministry of Jesus. So effectively, for Webber to say that he is starting with the work of Jesus also means that he is starting with the work of the Capital C Church done in faithfulness and conformity to the Apostolic Rule of Faith. Jesus said, "If you have seen me, then you've seen the Father. For works that the Father does, I also do." So the Church as the Body of Christ, in a subordinate and secondary way, when operating according to the Apostolic Rule of Faith, is able to say as authoritatively as Jesus, "If you have seen the Church, then you've seen Christ. For the works that Christ does, the Church also does."
That has an edge on it in a similar way, or so I imagine, that Jesus' words had upon the advocates of Tradition 0 and Tradition 2 whom He confronted. To those who are trying to cover up that they are operating by their own authority, nothing creates a greater threat to exposing such duplicity than someone who is not operating in his own authority. Jesus' very existence, or what we might along with Webber call, "His works," broke all the unspoken rules of fallen humanity about appearing to honor revelation from God while autonomously perverting it for one's own ends.
Because of the Incarnation, the works of Christ are what Word made flesh looks like in His Body - that is, His body physically, His body sacramentally and His Body, the Church, ecclesiastically. This view of things elevates Scripture to take its proper place in the economy of divine revelation instead of diminishing it through the abusive works of human autonomy.
Let's start with the work of Jesus. Amen? Amen!
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