Monday, January 4, 2016

A Clarification on Frame's "Person-Revelation"

Because John Frame took the time to answer my critique of his position on “person-revelation” in the Introduction to my book, One Kingdom: the Practical Theology of John M. Frame (xi-xii), I want to clarify my comments. I do this because I really do not disagree with John completely. Rather, I have questions. And it was my unanswered questions that kept me from fully embracing John’s position on person-revelation, which I noted in the book as follows.

[Frame] speaks of “human beings as revelation.” That would seem contradictory to the biblical truth that the apostles had authority as recipients of revelation (Eph. 3:7-13; Gal. 2:8-9; Rom. 1:1-6) but not as sources of it.

John begins his explanation of person-revelation in the context of divine communication (2010:304). Following his Lordship triad: authority, control, and presence, he extrapolates that “God reveals himself in events, words, and persons” (2010:304). Central to his position is the fact that humans are created in the imago Dei; hence, all human beings reveal God and his attributes in meaningful ways (Rom. 1:19-20; Psalm 8:3-4). I have no argument here. It is settled dogma that all people are created in God’s image and are therefore means of natural revelation.  

It is the next point in Frame’s syllabus on person-revelation that caused me pause. He moves seamlessly from the role of the image of God as revelatory of the Creator, to the place of the redeemed creature in helping us learn how we ought to understand and live God’s word. For “if meaning is application, at least from one perspective . . . then we cannot understand language without understanding how its speakers apply it. Language is part of life” (2010:305). I glean from John’s writing a three-fold approach to this understanding.

First, “we should understand how God himself makes use of his word” (2002:305). John’s principle example is God who calls us to “be holy, for I am holy (Lev. 11:4; 1 Peter 1:15-16)” (2010:317). In line with the imitatio Christi, we see God’s holiness best expressed in the earthly life of the incarnate God: Jesus of Nazareth. (2010:317). Second, and in order of importance, we have the lives of the Apostles who “place great weight on themselves as person-revelation” (2010:318). Here John is referencing occasions in which Paul, for example, encourages us to “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). And third we need to keep an eye on how responsible Christians apply the word, because “there is no better way to learn the application of the Word than by seeing it applied by others who understand it well” (2010:317). Point in fact, our human example need not be redeemed for “we need to see examples of how fellow human beings use God’s word—rightly and wrongly” (2010:305). “Wrongly?” Yes. For as John says elsewhere, “Even sin, in one sense, images God, for sin is basically an attempt to be God, to replace God on the throne” (2010:316).

The point of connectivity in Frame between understanding the Bible and how people go about applying it is inspired mainly by his penchant for seeing all theology as “practical.” However, it should be noted that this connectivity is also inspired, in part, by John’s reading of Wittgenstein, who rejected the idea that the meaning of words is grounded in the God of all meaning. Wittgenstein instead held that the meaning of words is wholly dependent upon their use from culture to culture; from individual to individual. John certainly does not believe that words are without absolute meaning save for their application. Still, Wittgenstein’s language construct is seminal in John’s evolvement on person-revelation. We learn the meaning of the word of God by how people use it.

As I pondered the matter during the course of writing One Kingdom, two questions arose in my mind. “Does the Bible speak of how people apply God’s word as 'revelation?'” And “If the Apostle’s lifestyle is revelation, can we say the same of all people?”

There ought to be little question that God’s own use of his word, certainly as Jesus lived it, is revelatory. His miracles were deeds that revealed his identity. The right use of God’s word as Paul lived it is also revelatory of Christ with the caveat that Paul was not perfect. If the rĂ©gime of the Apostles is to be a standard for our behavior, then it must reveal something important to us about God and his word. So I will call this revelation—“person revelation”—if you like.

On the other hand, I do not find Paul referring to his walk as “revelation.” The idea may be there, but it is not patent in the Pauline corpus. Nor does Paul extend the idea to say that the lives of all admirable Christians is revelation. But should this be the case, then at what point is my brother or sister Godly enough to help me understand the meaning of God’s word? Must he or she be like Paul? That is the inference in 1 Corinthians; a rather tall order I might add, one that I do not see in any of my fellow believers including myself. Furthermore, as John has said, if  even wrong behavior images God, I am compelled to wonder why Paul calls the Corinthians to repent of their bad behavior and model his good behavior?  John might reply that wrong behavior is not to be modeled, but only shows our sinful desire to be like God, which John has said reveals an aspect of God. But I’m not convinced that sin images God. I’m not saying I disagree, but only that, as of yet, I am not convinced. In fact, it is regular parlance in Reformed theology to say that sin has defaced the imago Dei, not that it images God and/or the meaning of God’s word from its own unique perspective. I am not mocking these points. Theses are serious questions for me.

Then I noticed that the two principle teaching points on person-revelation do not seem to match. John teaches that all people—saint and sinner—image the Creator, whereby all give testimony to God's existence. There is no distinction between the two groups. But then note that person-revelation becomes restricted. Although we can comprehend how God intends us to use his word even by those who use it "wrongly", John would have our attention focus mainly on mature Christians as the divine witness. At this point, I began to wonder about the internal consistency of person-revelation for theology. Perhaps the answer is that there are different categories within person-revelation each with special nuances. I do not know.

These are questions with which I still wrestle. And all of this is to say that my critique of person-revelation in One Kingdom was fostered more by unanswered questions than by principled disagreement. Again, I am completely on board with person-revelation as an appellation for the functioning capacity of the image of God to reveal him. It is the exploitation of how well people in general (not just Jesus and Paul) practice God’s word that leaves me with too many questions to feel comfortable with the thought—at least for now. This is why I stated in my book that the idea of imitating mature Christians might best be elaborated under the heading of the doctrine of sanctification, with lateral reference to how Godlike behavior “reveals” God’s will for our lives. In other words, person-revelation works better for me as a subset of progressive sanctification than as a way to understand the doctrine of the Word.

I will continue to wrestle with the idea of person-revelation.