Doctrine in the wake of the Reformation(s) and Enlightenment(s) has witnessed both the conflation of revelation and Scripture, and, relatedly, the use of Scripture as epistemic grounding for all subsequent theological claims.[1] A corollary of this movement is that Scripture tends to be discussed outside of its role in the economy of salvation and missio Dei. This births manifold problems, which must be addressed when seeking to develop an account of revelation, Scripture, and imagination. First, those forming an epistemic ground on Scripture likely need to defend the inerrancy of the Bible; which creates conflict with historical-criticism and scientific disciplines. This misunderstands the purpose of Scripture and can foster an isolationist and combative Christian community. Second, defences of inerrancy require a diminishment of the human author, sometimes to the point of advocating a kind of holy dictation of the words in Scripture. This misconceives the God-human relationship, the ongoing work of the Spirit, and the broader scope of revelation that necessarily preceded and lives beyond the written words in their historic form. Third, diminishment of the human actor in the process of revelation presupposes a kind of pure revelation untouched by human imagination. Yet, revelation requires a recipient, and that recipient is inevitably shaped by their imaginative world. Fourth, and finally, the neglect of imagination in the relationship of revelation and Scripture inevitably problematises the movement of Christianity across cultures. If revelation is contained to Scripture, the involvement of the Spirit isolated in the past, and human participation instrumentalised, then the possibility of positively integrating and engaging with cultural traditions outside of Jewish and Christian (West) imaginative worlds is curtailed. In the contemporary context, doctrines of revelation should positively account for and be expanded by community shaping narratives and practices, such as Indigenous creation accounts. The vision of revelation introduced is insufficiently resourced for this task.

In these two posts I propose an account for the relationship between Scripture, revelation, and imagination, which positively renders the role of imagination within that relationship, and makes space for revelation to exist more robustly beyond and within Scripture. Revelation exists for the purpose of drawing humanity into God’s saving mission. For this reason, revelation cannot be separated from human participation, nor is it consumed by the imaginative worlds of those human participants. Revelation is limited by, and seeks to expand, human imagination. Through this we come to see Scripture as an example, par excellence, of this relationship, whereby God condescends to the limits of human imagination to expand that imagination, casting new vision of a world reconciled and redeemed. We begin our argument by untangling Scripture and revelation directing attention to the purpose of revelation. Following this we will demonstrate the inextricable role of imagination in the experience of revelation, the production of Scripture, and its reception today. Finally, we will consider how the cross-cultural movement of the Christian faith provides new imaginative possibilities into which God can communicate and so reveal the gracious mission of salvation.

Untangling Revelation and Scripture

John Webster’s critique of the post-Enlightenment/Reformation shift in the use of the doctrine of revelation highlights two disorders. First, rather than a way of talking “about the life-giving and loving presence of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sprit’s power among the worshipping and witnessing assembly,” revelation becomes “an arcane process of causality whereby persons acquire knowledge through opaque, non-natural operations.”[2] Second, the doctrine of revelation was saddled with unachievable demands. The most “significant symptom” is the way “Christian theological talk of revelation migrates to the beginning of the dogmatic corpus, and has to take on the job of furnishing the epistemological warrants for Christian claims.”[3] Together this contributed to a “process whereby revelation and Scripture are strictly identified.”[4] Anecdotally, this is seen in sections of church websites that denote “what we believe.” With regularity (increasing in certain traditions), these statements begin with a comment on belief in the Bible as authoritative, infallible, inerrant, God’s word. Yet, there is little connecting the Bible with the nature or purposes of God. Scripture is placed first, seemingly implying that the Bible, by its own power, validates doctrines of God, Trinity, Christology, church, mission, etc.

Three steps are required to develop a proposal in which Scripture is removed from its isolation, unburdened from the demands of providing an epistemic foundation, and returned to the status of servant of God’s revelation. First, the doctrine of revelation needs to be expanded beyond the confines of sola Scriptura. Second, the doctrine of revelation needs to be reintegrated into a broader picture of God’s communicative self-disclosure, which is to speak of its purpose as part of God’s salvific mission. Third, the importance of human imagination needs to be attended.

Amos Yong contends that the Reformation rallying cry of sola Scriptura, and the emphasis on Scripture’s priority over tradition, led to the “development of a theology of the Bible as revelation.”[5] Reducing revelation to Scripture alone, alongside its role in securing the “epistemic criteria for belief”[6] forced the “contemporary preoccupation” of defending the inerrancy of the Bible.[7] Rather than defending or securing its power, this preoccupation minimises many aspects of the Bible. Yong, is worth quoting at length in his analysis of this minimising:

The diversity of Scriptural genres – narrative poetry, law, prophecy, letter, and so on — means that biblical truths are communicated variously other than merely propositionally. Further, the many modes of interaction with and reception of Scripture – certainly through reading and studying but even more important historically: singing, chanting, reciting, preaching – suggest that the message of the Bible ‘works’ not only cognitively but also affectively and synesthetically, differentiated according to human sight and hearing. Additionally Scripture’s various functions – not only informing but also correcting, encouraging, guiding, and inspiring, among other purposes – suggests that divine revelation is multifaceted rather than reducible to any one register. Last, but not least, the media of Scripture itself have been dynamic… Each of these aspects of what we call Scripture invites a more nuanced theological understanding than those driven by epistemic requirements of the modern world.[8]

The Bible, as a book sitting on my desk, is not revelation. As Webster points out, it does not have its own ontology.[9] The diversity of modes, genres, functions, and media is a consequence of its place within a living God’s broader self-communication to people in concrete times and places. The Bible cannot be singularly identified with revelation, because, staying with Webster, the content of revelation is “God’s own proper reality” and the agent of revelation is God himself.[10] Revelation is not identical with Scripture, but “with God’s triune being in its active self-presence.”[11] There is a relationship between revelation and Scripture, but this relationship is not one to one. The text is, according to Stephen Fowl, “subsidiary to and dependent upon a notion of revelation that is itself directly dependent on God’s triune being.”[12] It is the loss of this relationship that leads to references to the text in and of itself, when the focus should be, as Telford Work puts it, the way “the Christian Bible, as divine message, historical phenomenon, and physical object, participates in the Trinitarian economy of salvation.”[13]

The purpose of revelation (and within that broader conversation, Scripture) “is ultimately not about a book but about the living Christ, the Spirit-anointed Messiah.”[14] It is living and active, purposeful and present. There is no revelation detached from the God-human relationship, and that relationship is marked by God’s initiating act of grace to create, communicate, reconcile, and redeem. When revelation is about the person of Christ, the Spirit-empowered inaugurator of God’s kingdom, then the Bible (as servant of this triune God) cannot be fixed, static, or solely cognitive. Revelation is God’s self-communication for the purpose of transforming hearts and minds and so bringing repentance and conversion to the kingdom of God. Revelation (and so Scripture) is not an isolated doctrine. With Work we agree, that it “participates in the will of the Father, the kenosis of the Son, the power of the Holy Spirit, the humanity of God’s chosen people,”[15] meaning that its proper place is in the economy of salvation.

The soteriological purposes of revelation require more flexibility than many contemporary doctrinal formulations allow. Therefore it is helpful to stress that revelation is God’s communication to humankind. Communication makes space for flexibility because it is concerned with the impact of its content not the protection of its form. Yong explains:

The verbal character of Scripture means that God speaks – which means always through divine breath, the Spirit — formerly through the prophets, unsurprisingly through Christ, and now continually through the church and even other divinely chosen media… because Scripture is verbally inspired by God, it is eminently translatable into many tongues, which means not just languages but discursive practices. This is all the more the case given that its communicative idioms, even propositions, such as they are, point to the living Christ, whose reality transcends what is written (or read, chanted, said, etc.) but nevertheless becomes personally real and available through the verbalizations of the triune revelation.[16]

Because revelation (and Scripture) are part of God’s economy of salvation God could not allow such a rigid form of communication to exclude those who could not access the words of a physical Bible. Yet, revelation as the communication of God’s saving mission does not diminish or sideline Scripture, but imbues it with the holy purpose of pointing beyond itself to its content and agent.

Locating revelation in God’s economy of salvation necessitates a discussion on the human side of the endeavour, both those who participate in the recording of revelation in Scripture, and those who receive revelation in contemporary contexts. In part two (out tomorrow) we need to explore the relationship of imagination to revelation and Scripture. This will occur in three parts. First, the compatibility of human imagination and divine revelation. Second, the place of imagination in the process of tradition to canon. Third, imagination in the preaching and interpreting of the Scripture and the contemporary experience of revelation.

Thanks for reading, come back tomorrow for part two. If you want to start up a conversation, comment below or reach out on twitter – @liammiller87 or @rinserepeatpod

[1] This shift is not universal, but prominent particularly in evangelical traditions.

[2] John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 12.

[3] Webster, Holy Scripture, 12.

[4] Webster, Holy Scripture, 12.

[5] Amos Yong, Renewing Christian Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 332.

[6] Yong, Renewing Christian Theology, 331.

[7] Yong, Renewing Christian Theology, 335.

[8] Yong, Renewing Christian Theology, 335, 336.

[9] Webster, Holy Scripture, 7.

[10] Webster, Holy Scripture,14.

[11] Webster, Holy Scripture,14.

[12] Stephen E. Fowl, “Scripture,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, ed. Kathryn Tanner, John Webster, and Iain Torrance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 348.

[13] Telford Work, Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 2.

[14] Yong, Renewing Christian Theology, 350.

[15] Work, Living and Active, 35, 36.

[16] Yong, Renewing Christian Theology, 351.