Sunday, 28 October 2007

Author, Canon, Inspiration

The idea that a book of the Bible is actually written by the guy who says he is writing it (like Paul writing the letters of Paul, or Peter for Peter's letters or John for the three letters of John, for example), is fairly old-fashioned. Modern wisdom has it that the early church was fairly relaxed over the whole issue of people writing as a famous person and really had no problem with the average John Smith adopting the pseudonym of Paul, Peter or John. From here it is then suggested that therefore we shouldn't get too strung up over the issue and just accept that they probably didn't write the books they seem to have written. Some magnanimous souls allow a several books to be accepted as having been written by the person who states they wrote the book, but many allow only a few.

So old fashioned creatures such as I are fairly rare. I think it is actually a fairly important issue and I'm not convinced that the early church was as relaxed about it as modern scholars would want to argue.

This conviction was heightened during the week as I continued to read some introductory material regarding the book of Revelation. I discovered that while the book was readily accepted throughout the early church as Scripture (not the case with all the books of the NT), there was an exception to this. A bishop, Dionysius of Alexandria, wanted to argue that the book of Revelation was not in the canon (in order to stifle a heresy he was battling in his part of the world that appealed to material in Revelation for support). So he set about trying to prove that while the book was inspired it was not written by the Apostle John, and therefore could not be included in the NT. Subsequently, several other bishops around Alexandria rejected the canonicity of Revelation and it wasn't until some time later that it was accepted in that part of the world.

It is important to remember in all of this that Dionysius was not just an ordinary church goer with some funny ideas. He was a bishop. In our day that doesn't mean much. Bishops wear strange clothes and appear to be either trouble makers or completely useless, or earnest men, who might be able to make a difference but on the whole don't. Actually this is probably just a post-60's thing to a certain extent, where yet another authority figure is rejected for no other reason than their being an authority figure.

But in different places Bishops are still remarkably important. In a hostile zone in Africa, I heard of how during a recent civil war the Bishop of the area gathered up his congregations and hid them in the jungle until it was safe to come out. And now that the war has ceased, he is rebuilding the church, physically as well as spiritually. And this fits with how Bishops were in the early church: it was the Bishop who met the barbarians at the gates of Rome, for example, and managed to sue for a limited peace which protected the bulk of the people. Bishops were not just strange people wearing odd hats (in fact, they probably had the good sense not to wear bizzare 'religious' garb), but were (and are) real community leaders and real religious leaders. When a bishop made a decision, it had a serious impact on the people under his care. It doesn't mean they were all good, by any means, but it does mean that they had genuine influence in the life of the church in ways we don't always notice now.

So, a bishop in Alexandria is not to be quickly disregarded. And if, as is the case, his ruling leads to a group of bishops in his area also insisting that the Apostle John did not write Revelation and it is therefore non-cannonical, I think we have reason to question the generally accepted position that the question of who the authors of NT books were did not matter much to the early church. Even if it only mattered to this group of bishops (which I find hard to believe), it renders the accepted position suspect. It means that more needs to be said to confirm this favoured position than a mere assertion. And simply showing that some secular writers thought that pseudonymity was fine is not enough here because church leaders do not necessarily go along with their culture (even today!). Some serious primary source evidence from key church leaders would be a great start. I shall have to go and read more on the issue.

One of the interesting things in the whole discussion with Dionysius was that authorship was elevated even over inspiration. Dionysius was unwilling to dismiss Revelation as not genuinely inspired. Instead, it was on the grounds of questioning whether it was written by the Apostle John that he 'removed' Revelation from the canon. I'm not sure I agree with his ruling (God has been known to use donkeys!), but it does show that he (and his fellow bishops) took authorship seriously. It wasn't enough for a book to be the Word of God to be authorative--it had to be written by a ridgey-didge apostle!

It does give people like me, who are suspicious of this apparent ease the early church had regarding authorship, a growing confidence that the easy dismissal of my position by much of the scholarly world is not based on the substantial and rigorous evidence often assumed in the literature.

Sunday, 21 October 2007


Among the things which sit less comfortably with me about the Bible is the emphasis it places on rewards. You notice this in the Sermon on the Mount, where the reward you look for is from God the Father and not from those around you, when you pray, give alms, etc (Matt 6); it pops up in places like 1 Peter 5:4 as the motivation for being a good leader (and follower; 5:6) and so forth.

There are many reasons to live a life of obedience to God:
because he is good,
because Jesus died for us and calls us to such a life,
because he is God,
because Jesus modelled for us a life of obedience,
because it is good for those around us,
because God is transforming us by his Spirit to seek out this life... and so on.

'Reward' later for living this kind of life seems ignoble and small compared to these reasons. And the triumphalism which has sometimes accompanied Christians crowing about their heavenly reward as though it is their right (as history records), is further disincentive to focus on this aspect of Scripture.

But there has to be a legitimate Christian way of being motivated by heavenly reward and not sinking into the pious but possibly un-Biblical practice of asking, "Why would I need a reward? Just knowing God is reward enough." Surely we can be genuinely satisfied with God in a deep and real way, and look forward to a reward, at the same time if both are elements of how the Bible paints the redeemed life.

In the past, I have noticed from time to time our habit of passing over the reward passages as though they aren't there to legitimately motivate us, but never put serious thought into it. Which meant that as I read through Revelation I became increasingly uncomfortable. Rewards are promised throughout the book. But more than that, the Christians in heaven seem openly keen to get them. There is no demure: "I couldn't possibly...!" but an eager recognition that their reward is important to them.

One of the places this is seen is in the climatic scene in Revelation 11, where finally the 7th angel blows his trumpet unleashing the 3rd woe. Uncharacteristically, the 'woe' seems to be the handing over of the kingdom of the world to Christ, which hardly seems a tragedy. This fits with the disorientation that has been building in the letter, in which patterns are established and then broken. The worst offending (up to this point), is the pattern of the angels and their trumpets. Here, in chapter 11 the entire pattern is turned upside down and the reader (naturally) wonders where the 'woe' is. Has it happened yet?

And then the 24 elders, who seem to symbolise believers (not sure of that), explain it in their response to God:
"We give you thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. And the nations were enraged, and your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth." (11:17-18)

The woe is two-edged. Those who stand with God are rewarded; those who stand against God are judged. It is part of the Bible's ongoing theme of judgment and salvation being accomplished by God in a simultaneous action.

But the reward is not incidental to the 24 elders' understanding. They don't seem to hold with the view that insists that we glorify God as the goal of our lives, even if he damns us in the end. When I came across that idea, it seemed brave and noble, but the more I think about it, it really doesn't square with the Bible. Wanting the reward of salvation in all its fullness, which includes but is not limited to enjoying a relationship with God, seems to be part of what it means to be in relationship with God. There is no sense in which the rewards promised in Revelation can be separated from a relationship with God or with his salvation. (So even the slightly odd rewards in the letters at the beginning of the book, including my personal favourite: "I will give him a white stone and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it" - all have to do with a relationship with Jesus and the salvation he offers).

In fact, it would not surprise me if wanting the reward God offers us is a result of his work in us, transforming us by his Spirit, so that far from dismissing his rewards, we strive harder to achieve them. They become things of worth and immensely valuable to us, not separate from our relationship with him, but precisely because of our relationship with him. Wanting our reward is the work of the Spirit as we come to understand through God's word the immense reward he holds out to us.

Wanting God's rewards then, not dismissing them as being unnecessary; trying to figure out what they are and what they mean and actively using them on ourselves as incentive to live a life which pleases God - all seem to be legitimate (and praiseworthy) responses in the NT to God's promises of reward. Of course, it would be ridiculous to put 'reward' at centre stage, eclipsing God's salvation as God's work from first to last, thoroughly embedded in grace and his kindness to us who have no 'right' to a reward. But this awareness should not so swing back our pendulums that we shy away from cultivating an eagerness to receive our reward from God. Just more of the freedom we have in Christ to be genuinely human!

Friday, 12 October 2007

Revelation: A Narrative?

I have spent some time in the final book of the Bible over the past week. I am doing a master’s research project on this, which means I need to seriously increase my knowledge of the book!

Finally, here, I’ve had some free time to actually start grappling with it. I’ve discovered a number of things, but on my initial read through (which is still in progress) the narrative structure of the book is really impressing me.

I wouldn’t have said that Revelation had a narrative structure. I’d have thought it was too apocalyptic for that. Instead I find some of the best dramatic tension, a whole series of offline/online switches and other narrative techniques. The ‘plot’ slows down so much in places that there are whole chapters where the narrative doesn’t so much as move forward a single inch. There are even weird sort of Brecht-ian moments where John reappears in the narrative to remind you of his all-important witness to these events. I’m sure there are other reasons which I just don’t see at the moment for his reappearance as these precise moments. All very clever, but who really cares?

I care.

Because I think this demonstrates that John the Apostle is the author of Revelation. I know this is hopelessly old fashioned, because after all that is the tradition of the church and the evidence of the text, so it must be wrong. But I really don’t care. John the Apostle (whom I also think wrote John’s Gospel, demonstrating that I am lost cause on the issue) is remarkably clever at story telling. He arranges his Gospel with all the artistry and scientific precision of a da Vinci, incorporating different genres (narrative and teaching) to breathtaking effect. This is precisely what I see happening in Revelation: a blending of genres, (letter, apocalyptic, narrative) which dovetail and create a meaning more substantial than is possible with any one genre. John seems to be a master craftsman when it comes to shaping content using form, in which the form is more than the packaging but adds meaning to the content. Revelation, although it has different stylistic features and uses different language, feels Johannine in this way.

But John is doing more than merely being clever. At this stage in my thinking, I would say that the overarching theme of Revelation is the sovereignty of God. God owns all people, all creatures, all of history and he will bring it to an end and rearrange everything. Those who love him will be recognized by him, and will themselves recognize and applaud his work. Those who hate him will be compelled to recognize and submit to his rule, despite his rejection of them. It is a stark message. The focus from the beginning is the rule of God in this, seen in the content of the various chapters.
However, the form adds to this content in several ways: (in no particularly order)
• Worship completely slows down proceedings. The action completely stops while various groups cry out to God about how extraordinary he is and praise him for what he has done. Nothing can happen for an entire chapter, twice between chapters 4-11 because of the worship. It could have been written as a less detailed narrative: “And all the angels, creatures and believers worshipped God in various ways.” But instead the detail is given: who is speaking, what they are saying, what they are doing and in what order. The effect is to show us that responding to God is not incidental. God is not merely acting without any interest in the response of his creation: their response is important. The reader’s response is also important. And the effect is also to model a response. Some of the things happening in the book are unusual to say the least and it is hard to know what is going on, let alone how one should respond. The detailed responses help orientate the reader as to his or her response: the book is not intended as a showpiece of apocalyptic literature but to call from us faith and love. These scenes also show that there are definite groupings (each grouping has a different level of intimacy: believers almost exclusively are the group which use ‘you’ to address God; the whole of creation (and presumably those who hate God) only speak of God in the third person). This too is to help us respond appropriately now and learn to love God before finding ourselves hating him, we are cut off from him forever.
• Everything is numbered. Yes, the numbers are very interesting and you can add them up and do all sorts of things with them. But when someone numbers something, then you can tell they are in full control of it. The seven angels with seven trumpets, for example, show that the woes visited on the earth are under the precise management of God himself. They are unleashed at precisely the right time in precisely the right order, with lots of narrative clues along the way that this is the case. The end of the world does not happen because God loses control of the cosmos even momentarily and it unravels accidentally. The end of the world happens because and as God chooses. The form and the content make that crystal clear.
• The narrative focuses our attention on the critical moments by drawing out the action and creating dramatic tension. There is a major interruption between the sixth and seventh angel, creating substantial dramatic tension in the narrative. Not only that but the fifth and sixth angels have between them completely broken the pattern of the angels with their trumpets, so that the reader is completely disoriented and remains disoriented as a strong angel (who fits no pattern) pops up and proceeds to push the narrative in a different direction with John re-emerging into the narrative once again. The effect is to highlight the seventh angel and his ‘woe’, which is nothing less than everything being handed over to Jesus as true Lord of all lords. The narrative is structured to focus all of our attention on it.
• God is introduced, seated on a throne. He is surrounded by colour, movement, noise (presumably melodious but that is simply not in the text; the various creatures may be singing off key for all we know) and various responses to him. God says and does nothing. That is a rather unfashionable observation because it sounds like the ‘unmovable mover’, but I think it is done deliberately to set the context for the rest of the book. God isn’t frantic. He isn’t busy. This is not one of the Parthenon of gods, restless and ill at ease, planning things. God is utterly in control. The proper response to this God is to worship him and acknowledge his rule.
So John isn’t just being clever with his design of this immensely complex book, but is carefully helping us wade through complicated apocalyptic things and see the real message of the book: God is utterly sovereign; Jesus is Lord. He wants to help us see and say these things now and live in light of them (rather than be condemned by saying them against our desires in the final day), and so he does that in various ways. One of those ways is through the actual design of Revelation.