Speaking on Newsnight last week, John Broadhurst suggested that current disputations among Christians are really all about revelation, and I think he has a very useful point. Rosie Harper picked it up on the programme by pointing out that “Revelation is something which evolves; tradition grows in response to the work of the Holy Spirit.”
For some people, revelation is the process of handing down a fixed corpus of doctrine, a wrapped package that we label “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Faith is the work of protecting, propogating and defending that deposit against all comers. That’s where Saul started out, a Pharisee of the pharisees, zealous in his defence of the faith in which he had been brought up, a persecutor and zealot.
Then Saul encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road, and even though some of the rags and cultural assumptions of a persecuting zealot clung to him thereafter, the whole course of his life was changed. Faith was not slavishly adhering to works of the law, but exhibiting the courage, vision and hope of Abraham whose faith was accounted to him as righteousness. Once someone was in Christ they could not simply carry on using the old absolutist auto-pilot. They were subject to the Spirit who gives life, not the letter of the law that kills.
For Paul the Apostle, the faith once delivered to the saints is not an ideology but life in the Spirit by grace through faith, a revolutionary process of renewal by the Spirit. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counted for anything but grace working through faith, a new creation, to incorporate someone in Christ. This is the work of the Spirit, not human agency. In this way of looking at things Revelation is a dynamic personal process, not an instutional or ideological fix.
This renewal process didn’t nullify the law, but it did set it in a radical new perspective in a way that painfully exposed its limitations. The law was good as far as it went, but Grace accomplished what the law, weakened by sin, never could — the constitution of a new humanity in Christ where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.
Looking back at the law which had been his everything, Paul did not rubbish the concerns of those who stood where he had been, hanging onto various kinds of legalism, obsessing over meat sacrificed to idols and the like. But still he insisted, the reality of being in Christ transcends all else, and every decision now needs to be interpreted in the light of its over-riding significance.
In this perspective, the disputes that arise between Christians are a means of proving the genuineness of their convictions. Factionalism is part of human nature, but if indulged, it becomes Cancer in the body of Christ which needs to be watched and stamped on hard. Therefore erecting any Apostle, even Cephas or Appollos, into a rallying point for intra-Church exclusivism or disunity is profoundly abusive, however well-intentioned.
The challenge is to incorporate the vision of Pauline Christianity in our consciousness consistently as a way of life, and not to produce a new Pharisaism. Make no mistake, this was the big issue for early Christians, and concern about it runs through pretty much every page of the Epistles. Had the broader transformative Pauline vision not won through, the Church would almost certainly have survived only as a minor Jewish sect. The transformative stuff comes from the Spirit, and against its justice there can be no law.
Confronted with causes that divide people today, as then, what we need to do is reflect on the realities of the context in which God has set us, the mystery of Christ and the call of the Spirit, and then go figure.
The radical willingness to do this is saving faith, and by its fruits the world shall know Christ for who he is.