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Revelation in the prologue of John

Second Sunday of Christmas: 3rd January, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

John 1:1-18

In his book 'Reading the Bible again for the first time' Marcus Borg categorically rejects the idea of revelation in speaking of the Bible. He summarizes his central arguments in a number of propositions. He says:

The Bible is the product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement. As such, it is a human product, not a divine product. This claim in no way denies the reality of God. Rather, it sees the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to God. As their response to God, the Bible tells us how they saw things. ... It is not God's witness to God (not a divine product), but their witness to God. As a human product, the Bible is not 'absolute truth' or 'God's revealed truth', but relative and culturally conditioned. [1]

Unlike the arguments that raged when I was a student in the 1960's as to the extent of revelation in the Bible, Borg's position is highly inimical to the very idea of divine revelation. For him, the Bible is purely a human product and a social construction representative of a particular people, place and time. His conclusion is blunt and clear: 'What we have in the Bible is how our spiritual ancestors saw things, not how God sees them'.

But Borg's rejection of the notion of revelation sits very awkwardly against the teaching of today's Gospel reading from the marvellous prologue to John's Gospel. There can be no doubt that for John, knowing God is not a matter of human discovery but of divine revelation.

Professor Graeme Garrett captures the underlying thrust of John's thought when he says: 'God is not isolated, self-enclosed or unrelated. Out-going-ness, self-expression and self-communication are of God's essence'. [2]

According to John, God's self-communication comes through the divine Word or Logos in three main ways:

1. The Word can be glimpsed in creation

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.

There are many echoes of Genesis in John's prologue. In particular the opening words of the Gospel call to mind the opening words of Genesis chapter one — 'In the beginning God' — 'In the beginning was the Word'.

It sounds very odd, to say that in the beginning God made the world by saying things. God said, 'Let there be light and there was light'. God created by means of his Word and John reaffirms this but for him the Word has a personal identity of its own. 'He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him'.

It is important that the Word of God is bound up with creation, because from this Christians derive their endorsement of the modern science of ecology and their positive attitude towards the created order. Of course the universe is not to be identified with God. That would be pantheism and John is not defending that. But creation was made through the Word. So we are most definitely to look for God's signature upon the world.

In St Paul's Cathedral in London you can find the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect. Written upon it in Latin, is the inscription: 'Reader: if you seek his monument, look around you'. Wren had expressed himself in those mighty walls and the dome of St Paul's. He needed no other epitaph. In the same way, Paul tells us that the invisible things of God are clearly seen in what has been made; and John is saying something similar here.

One lovely sunny morning I was sitting on a public seat by the seaside in Newcastle, having just had my regular morning swim. The swimming stirred up a voracious appetite and I was tucking into a bowl of muesli for breakfast. I must have looked like a cat that had just licked it's bowl clean because an old lady out on her morning walk stopped in front of me, and with a glint in her eye, said: "You wouldn't be dead for quids would you?"

I've often mulled over her words. They expressed exactly what I was feeling. As I sat on that bench seat soaking in the beauty of seascape and landscape, the creation became for me, in Calvin's words, the 'theatre of God's glory'. Like the psalmist I was deeply moved by the wonder of creation; 'The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork' (Ps 19:1). John tells us that something of the Word of God can be glimpsed through paying attention to creation.

2. The Divine Word is known through human mediation

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to bear witness to the light so that all might believe through him.

On first reading the reference to John the Baptist is decidedly odd in the middle of such a profound passage of theology. But when you appreciate that John's purpose in the prologue is to point out how the eternal Word can be known by human beings, it fits in perfectly well. The divine Word makes himself known in what theologians call a general revelation through creation but He also takes the risk of making himself known through a special revelation in the fragile words of human agents — like John the Baptist, the last of the great prophetic preachers. The grace or out-going-ness of God, irrupts in human language.

Rowan Williams has pointed to the divine risk involved in this. He says: 'The God who speaks our language is unimaginably vulnerable; in the sense that for God to give what is God into the hands of the world is to open up what is worse than misunderstanding or rejection. It is to risk idolatry — the assimilation of God to some portion of the perceived world, and thus an absence of God. If God speaks, God abandons control on how the divine is represented'. In other words it opens up the danger of bibliolatry — the worship of a book. We are to worship the Person to whom the book bears witness, not the book itself.

In addition to the prophetic word of John the Baptist, the prologue mentions two other sets of human mediators of the written Word — the torah — the law given through Moses; and the apostles, indicated in verse 14 by the first person plural: 'We have seen his glory' — that is, 'we' the apostles who were eyewitnesses of the Lord 'have seen his glory'.

None of these human mediators — whether prophets like John the Baptist or law givers like Moses or even New Testament apostles — were great philosophers. They were primarily witnesses, sent from God not to speculate but to testify and it is through their witness recorded in the Scriptures that we are given access to the living Word.

But thirdly, the prologue drops a final bombshell and tells us that we encounter the divine Word — not just in CREATION or in SCRIPTURE but most spectacularly in JESUS CHRIST.

3. The Word is revealed most fully in the incarnation

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14)

The created world was made through him. The inspired prophetic Word testifies to him. But in the historic Jesus, God himself has taken up material existence and in him we see the 'undisguised heart of God'.

If the prologue begins with an exposition of Genesis 1 it ends with an exposition of Exodus 33. In Exodus 33:18-23 Moses asks to see God's glory — glory is a way of referring to what someone essentially is, i.e., his or her character. Moses is allowed to see only the 'backside' of God — but that's more than enough for any mortal being. As the hymn puts it:'Immortal, Invisible God only wise; in light inaccessible hid from our eyes'!

In the Son of God, John tells us, we are shown the full glory or nature of God, not just a reflection of his glory but the embodiment of that Word and that glory. 'We have seen his glory, glory such as could only belong to the only Son of the Father'. To the question of Job in the Old Testament, 'can a person by searching discover the mystery of God?' the prologue of John's gospel gives an emphatic answer — 'no'. We twisted humans cannot by our own ingenuity, find our way to God without God first disclosing Godself to us.

According to the wonderful overture to John's Gospel, God does this in three main ways: the Word can be glimpsed in creation; the Word is more precisely revealed in Scripture and the Word has finally and fully been revealed in the person and work of Jesus. As the great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth expressed it: 'We may be speechless before Mystery, but Mystery is not speechless before us.' [3]

But so what? What is to be our response to John's emphasis in his prologue on the fact that God has revealed Godself? In a word, it is intellectual 'humility'. The truth of God is neither what Marcus Borg thinks nor what I think — nor even, for that matter, what you think! As Christians we are not 'free thinkers'. God has revealed Godself and we are to submit our minds to that revelation.

This does not mean, of course, that we must stifle our minds and become obscurantists or fundamentalists. It is ironical that those who hold a high view of the Bible and its authority are sometimes the most careless and superficial exponents of it. Surely, if we hold a high view of the Scriptures as in some way God's self-revelation, it is incumbent upon us to give ourselves all the more to its study, exposition and application. We are not to stifle our minds.

But we are to humble our minds. In fact, it is true to say that the greatest need of the Church in this and in every age is to submit with humble and teachable minds, to this Word that John describes in his marvellous overture to his Gospel. The only way to enter the Kingdom of God, John will later tell us in chapter 3, is to become like a little child. And that is a condition not only for entering the Kingdom but for continuing in the Kingdom: 'To all who received him, who believed in his name, he has given the right to become children of God' (John 1:12).

Thank God then for the revealed Word. Without this revealed Word we humans would grope in darkness. In the Written Word God has given us a lamp to illumine our path to the Living Word. May we use it this year thoughtfully and humbly as we seek to see the Lord more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly. Amen


Notes:

[1] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (Harper, San Farancisco, 2003), p.45

[2] Graeme Garret, Scripture, Inspiration and the Word of God (Pacifica 6, No. 1, 1993)

[3] Graeme Garret, Dodging Angels on Saturday (ATF,2005), p.51


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