The Glass of Vision Lecture 3: Images and Inspiration

This post is the third in a reading of Austin Farrer’s lecture from 1948 (lecture 1, lecture 2).

So far, Farrer has led us through a general discussion of how we might understand the relation of the supernatural and natural as not entailing a metaphysical duality of mutual exclusion. The stated goal of this current lecture is to “make a fresh examination…about the form and nature” of Christian revelation, particularly as it touches on scriptural writing and authority. Farrer wants to find a middle way between two perspectives: revelation as given in the form of propositions, and revelation as the best memories and understandings of those immediately impacted by the original events. The problem with the first is that it entails the “senselessly duplicated account of revelation” known as dictation theory. The problem with the second is that the substance of revelation “has an uncanny trick of evaporating once its accidents of expression are all removed.” The choice is still a contemporary one: dictated propositions or divine events relayed second-hand.

Farrer begins to look for a path by noting the commonplace ‘Barthian’ insight that, for Christianity, Jesus is the primary revelation. If Jesus is the revelation of the divine coexisting with the human, then this is a clue about the meaning of revelation. Revelation, in its truest sense, is the self-revelation of Jesus. So what does Jesus reveal?

The primacy of the Head in revelation is seen in two things. First, the self-giving of the divine mind to man is fully actualized in the personal existence of Jesus Christ. Secondly, the communication to mankind in general of the human-divine mind of Jesus Christ is begun by Jesus Christ, who by that beginning lays down all further lines of development. Development is development, and neither addition nor alteration.

We have here a standard expression of Christocentricism. The unique move that Farrer makes comes next. The teachings of Jesus are given to us mostly in the form of (written) images. Think, for example, of “the kingdom of God” or “Son of Man” as true Adam.

These tremendous images, and others like them, are not the whole of Christ’s teaching, but they set forth the supernatural mystery which is the heart of the teaching. Without them, the teaching would not be supernatural revelation, but instruction in piety and morals. It is because the spiritual instruction is related to the great images, that it becomes revealed truth….The great images interpreted the events of Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection, and the events interpreted the images; the interplay of the two is revelation.

Theology analyses these images, but what we call revelation, according to Farrer, does not extend to theology; it is what theology works with. What then should be theology’s method? How do we theologize about way in which divine truth is captured in these images? One way is to systematize them so that some of them become the reason or meaning of the others. We are painfully familiar with the fruits of this method. Farrer wades through this and a variety of other options that we have encountered before settling on the idea that a fluid immersion in the power of the images given to us is most in keeping with the idea of revelation. The biblical writers themselves seem to be doing as much. “…[T]he images are still alive and moving in the writers minds, not fixed or diagrammatic. They continue to enter into fresh combinations, to elaborate themselves, to beget new applications.

In recent times, there has been a Christian rediscovery and appreciation of the Jewish concept of midrash for the interpretation of scripture. Much of what Farrer is saying resonates with that. Midrash, of course, simply means ‘interpretation’ in Judaism, but for many Christians brought up in a rigid, systematizing tradition it can be a novel idea. This strategy gives weight to the tensions within the texts, ones that are often papered over in an effort to achieve a fragile harmony. The tensions are allowed to pull the interpretations in different directions accordihebrew_text.jpgng to different contexts, nuancing the meaning. The point is to allow the text become life-giving once again. Because this approach is more topical than linear, the seeping in images that Farrer describes is a useful way to get at the deeper, complex meanings. When the texts speak with supernatural power into our life-situations, to illuminate, challenge, change, and console, this is revelation. “Through the secret act of God by which the Apostles were inspired there came upon us in imaged presentation the shape of the mystery of our redemption. It possessed and moulded their minds, it possesses and moulds ours…