BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 77
Copyright 1995, Biblical Horizons
Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is really a parenthesis inside of the larger reality of Christian history. Progress and forward movement inside of science is a footnote to the larger and more general reality of covenant renewals in both Biblical and Christian history. The fundamental mark of paganism is stagnation and cyclical time. It is with the coming of I Am That I Am, and I Will Be That I Will Be into history that genuine change, movement, and progress happen. Scientific revolutions are merely one aspect of the revolutions of the Christian world. (The great chronicler of Christian revolution is the neglected and almost unknown Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy whose seminal and suggestive work, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man should be far better known.)
One of the necessary processes of a revolution is a change in authority. One authority is exchanged for another. In times of "normal history" (when a particular covenant is in place, and is functioning) the purpose of authority is to make transition possible. A president or a king has the power to declare war or announce peace. A headmaster has the power to declare a student to be a degreed person. A minister has the power to pronounce publicly a man and a woman to be husband and wife. These are all necessary transitions inside of a functioning society. But, when the covenant of a society begins to reach a crisis point, the authorities find their power to create transition is compromised or questioned to the point that it no longer functions. On the highest level, when an army will no longer take an order from the king or chief executive (as with the onset of the French Revolution, when the army refused to fire on the crowd surrounding the Bastille, or with the Communist Party in 1991, when the generals refused to take their orders) that authority is finished.
The especially interesting element in Kuhn’s volume is his study of the periods of transition from one scientific paradigm to another, the time when "anomalies" so thoroughly abound that an entirely new synthesis of scientific knowledge becomes necessary. There are analogously periods in history when one era is passing into another because of abounding "anomalies," or when one Covenant is being superseded by another. What happens in these eras? These periods are important to us because they give clues and direction about what we can do to advance God’s cause in these times.
Prophecy and interpretation are at the heart of covenant transition. To borrow an idea from Rosenstock-Huessy, the basis of progress in both theology and science is despair, but not final despair. Rather it is a despair that deep underneath still hopes in the Father. Every advance in science is a result of despair at dealing with the physical universe. Advance only comes when "common sense" entirely fails. Then, because we are at least "Christianized" if not truly Christian (and for no other reason), our despair leads to hope of deeper but less obvious knowledge because the Bible teaches that "The Lord by wisdom established the earth…," and He who is Wisdom has visited us, and given us His own mind (1 Cor. 2:6-16). Therefore an unobvious and profound way can be found forward that in all likelihood contradicts "common sense."
Likewise, theology finds its way forward by means of hopeful despair (Romans 4:18). Theology only progresses as the church must more deeply deal with her despair that she is inherently damnable. Whoever God is, He is always the God who is greater than my sin and despair. As the ages wend forward, fresh and terrible causes of despair are revealed. True theology is the Church’s God-given capacity to continually reveal the glory of "Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners." This is true prophecy, and it is not obvious. True grace and hope are never obvious. They are rather "Mysteries Revealed" (Col. 1:24-29)
The twin myths that becloud the fallen human mind are pantheism and evolution. What is obvious to fallen man is that, in one way or another, all things mysteriously emerge out of a self-contained and divine world. Every revolution that is a true revolution, whether it be scientific or societal, repudiates these myths for the unobvious and fresh mysteries of the Covenant. True prophecy is the exposure of darkness to the uncovering power of light.
But authority must change if revolution is to transpire. How does authority change? How is authority transformed? Authority is transformed when prophecy exposes darkness and reveals light. Now prophecy includes two elements. First, it explains, it uncovers. Secondly, it involves the imperative. It issues a command. The command, the imperative, shows the way forward, and gives a way out the pagan dead end, out of despair.
James Jordan has instructively expounded the example of Pharaoh and his dreams, and the transition of authority to one of God’s Covenant people. Let us expand this scope a bit. Biblically, the examples of both Joseph and Daniel are helpful. Both are placed by God in pagan empires that are controlled by the twin myths of paganism: pantheism and evolution. In both cases the kings are sent nightmares that involve insoluble "anomalies," in both cases the result is despair, and in both of these cases God sends a prophet. The prophet both exposes and commands. In both cases nobody can explicate but the prophet of God. And following the explication is the giving of the imperative. Obedience to the imperative offers the way out of the anomalies. Joseph exposes to Pharaoh the non-autonomy of the River Nile. It is not an unchanging and cyclical god. It is rather a creature entirely under the control of Jehovah, and Jehovah for His own purposes will disrupt the regularity of the river’s cycle. This is light in the darkness. Pharaoh is amazed, because he has been troubled. Beyond this, Pharaoh is told what to do. He must obey the imperative. He must store grain for seven years while awaiting seven years of world wide famine. The result is that Pharaoh makes Joseph his Prime Minister, and Egypt is substantially transformed as a Covenant Nation.
Likewise, Daniel was able to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s "anomalous" dreams. No one else could. Daniel had transcendent wisdom in an empire of pantheism and evolution. He could interpret and uncover. The dreams of the king himself contained the meaning of the entire ancient world, not because they emerged out of the world automatically, but because God authored them. The meaning was not obvious. "Common sense" was a failure. No wise man of Babylon could begin to interpret their meaning because they contradicted the whole cyclical metaphysics of paganism. What they involved was a revelation of the truly new, which can only come from God. There was an implicit imperative in all of Daniel’s interpretations, which was "worship the Lord, and only the Lord." The failure to do so led to Nebuchadnezzar’s being transformed into a beast for seven years, and his following conversion. And Babylon became to a degree, a Covenant Empire.
This points the way for us. We have reached the period when anomaly is piled on anomaly as a result of the implicit agreement to secularize as represented by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). Westphalia ended the era of religious war. Men agreed to place religion in the realm of "opinion," and to place and found societies squarely on the "bedrock" of natural law. We re-entered a world that was implicitly pantheistic and evolutionary. Men would no longer be divided along religious lines, but along the lines of nation and language. Religious war was replaced by national war. Gradually, the internal contradictions of the Treaty have been revealed. Today we live in a new era of despair, but because of the presence of the Church as a leaven there is a "hope against hope" (Rom. 4:18). Despite the despair, there is hope of understanding that I Am is greater than our despair, and that grace abounds to the chief of sinners. The hope is to be given a way out of the sterility of humanism, and to transcend medieval immaturities in a new Christian world.
But how does the Church know what to prophesy, and what to command? Let us look at a particular instance of "paradigm shift" in the Book of Acts. The tenth chapter of Acts gives us one of the clearest instances of "revolution" that can be seen anywhere. Here we are taken behind the scenes to see God’s preparation of the prophet himself before he publicly prophesies.
In the tenth chapter of Acts, Peter leads the church into the revolution of calling Gentile believers into full membership of the church. This transition did not come about because of analysis on the part of the church or the disciples. This transition came because of obedience.
One of the great errors of many modern people (which includes the church) is to think that the way out of impasses is analysis. We analyze our psyches, we analyze our churches, we analyze our cultures. We analyze everything. There is a wonderful and rather cynical quotation from Sam Shoemaker to the effect that whenever the church encounters a difficulty, "`the blessed commission’ is appointed to `study the problem,’" whereas in reality throughout all of history the way forward has always come through "a bunch of inspired nobodies" (who may do something different, new, and unexpected). One cannot analyze ones way out of a box that one is blinded into.
Peter did not analyze his way out of the Jewish dead end. He obeyed his way out. God told Peter to do something that he did not understand. A sheet came down from heaven with animals that were common and unclean, and God told him (three times) to rise, kill, and eat. God then gave him the rationale, "What God has cleansed, you must not call common." He was then sent to the house of the Gentile Cornelius, and told to baptize him.
Peter was in fact being given new illumination about what the life, death, and resurrection of Christ had all along meant, but he was blind to the real implications. What he needed was a new theological synthesis that would give the basis for new prophecy, but he could not analyze his way to this. He could not because his entire intellectual perception was controlled by certain rules and limited by certain Horizons that would not allow certain kinds of data even to enter his mind. The rules and the Horizons had to be smashed for a new synthesis to emerge. He therefore had to be told to do something that to him seemed a "transgression." What he had to do felt at the very lowest, odd, and even wicked.
"Transgression" of this sort is very familiar in the Bible. Jesus does many things in the Gospels that are shocking to his contemporaries, but are necessary if a Way Out of the Dead End is to be given. Here are several examples: He purposely heals on the Sabbath right in front of the Pharisees, knowing that this will infuriate them (Luke 14:1-6). He publicly rebuked people for seeking seats of honor (Luke 14:7-14). He ate with publicans and sinners (Luke 15:2). He suggested that the most respected and respectable people may be the most damnable (Luke 11:37-54, 18:9-14). Indeed, Jesus went so far as to allow a prostitute to enter a respectable dinner party and to weep on his feet (Luke 7:36-50). Virtually everything that Jesus ever did or said was a "transgression." In this he was fulfilling the transgressing role of the prophets of the OT, and the church is meant to carry forward with transgression in the world today. In truth, the Gospel is dynamite, over and over blowing up settled ways of viewing the world and of doing things. Jesus’ appearance on earth was shattering. All of the rest of history is a gradual unfolding of the revolutionary implications of who and what Jesus is.
From the time of the Romantics, who saw themselves as prophets, "transgression" has become fashionable (which is an oxymoron). It has been secularized. From the time of the Romantics on, a negative rebellion against The Establishment has, oddly, created whole new classes of hyper-conformists.
So how is the Church to lead the way in prophecy and true transgression? Jesus promised progressive uncovering of the meaning of the Covenant to the Church for those who would be obedient.
- No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a vessel, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light. Take heed then how you hear; for to him who has will more be given, and from him who has not, even what he thinks he has will be taken away. (Luke 8:16-18)
Progress happens quite simply by means of obedience to what is uncovered to us (a little here, a little there) from the progressive exposition of the Scripture. It is almost too prosaic to say: but only if we are obedient to the little things God gives us to do (some of which will be uncomfortable and odd) will light will be given, and new synthesis come. And the new synthesis will contain within it the foundation for the new imperatives. And out of the new imperatives God will create a new future.