I’m working my way through John Webster’s posthumously published book, The Culture of Theology (Baker Academic, 2019), which contains his six Burns Lectures given in New Zealand in 1998. I didn’t know Webster much before coming to this book, though I did know of his reputation as “a theologian’s theologian”, as Ivor Davidson puts it in the book’s introduction. I love the brio and assertiveness of Webster’s writing, as seen in his use of the verb “cleaves” below to describe revelation’s unsettling and unmooring of our prior human identities and priorities. His discussion of revelation and its work and eschatological nature of the church offers much to think about, especially someone like myself, the priest of a small town parish, who every day has to think about what and how we might live in this unlikely place of divinely inspired crisis. MP+
Revelation in the Christian sense, we have seen, is the overwhelming splendour of the being and activity of God set before us in creation and redemption. Such splendour is manifest but not possessed; like the manna in the wilderness, it is an event and not a bit of spiritual stock. Christian culture has this splendor at its centre, and this splendor both authorizes and disturbs.
Revelation authorizes. Because of the self-communicative presence and activity of God – because in Jesus Christ the Lord of all things is among us through the Holy Spirit – then the church is given authority to live, speak, and act. The church’s speech and action are eschatological, bearing witness to a different, new order of reality from far beyond the horizon of human history. The permission and command that they be so is to be found in that fact that God’s self-manifestation has intruded upon the world. God’s glory is now visible; God’s mystery, once hidden, is now manifest. And therefore the church is commissioned to speak and act. This authorization of the church by revelation is, crucially, something incommunicable. The authority of revelation is not some quality which can be transmitted to or deposited within the church. Revelation is, and remains, a summons which cannot be converted into the basis of authoritarianism. “To say that the God who reveals himself is a hidden God is to confess that revelation can never constitute a body of truths which an institution may boast of or take pride in possessing” (Paul Ricouer, “Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation”).
Hence revelation disturbs. It is “an interruption which addresses us” (Eberhard Jungel, Gott als Geheimnis). As it accosts us, revelation establishes a distance – between ourselves and our past, present, and future; between ourselves and our traditions; between ourselves and all aspects of our settled identities. Revelation cleaves us apart; as God’s eschatological word and work, as the presence of the divine glory, it loosens and sometimes severs the conventions which constitute our individual and corporate selves. To be addressed by revelation means that we may not rely unthinkingly on those conventions, believing them to be simply what is the case. However much they form the basic and necessary structures of our historical existence, there is no achieved symmetry between them and the eschatological order of God. “Revelation means that God comes to the world” and “God’s coming-to-the-world means an elemental interruption of our being-in-the-world” – including our Christian being-in-the-world (Eberhad Jungel, “Dogmatic Significance of the Question of the Historical Jesus”). Revelation is, in short, the crisis of Christian life and thought.