A Review of Matthew Levering’s Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation

(Baker Academic, 2014)

by Aaron Anderson

Among the accolades for Matthew Levering’s latest text on the doctrine of revelation is this from John Webster, one of Levering’s main Reformed interlocutors: “Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation possesses all the qualities that readers have come to expect from [Levering]: wide historical learning, theological discrimination, clarity of thought, and spiritual vigor.” Webster’s praise, it seems to me, is on the mark. In exemplifying so many of the spiritual and intellectual virtues essential to ecumenical theology, Levering breaks ground in creative ways on matters of fundamental concern between Catholics and Protestants.

Levering’s purpose in this book is relatively straightforward: marshaling ancient, medieval, and modern sources as well as recent works on revelation,  he aims to convince us that the Church “mediates” divine revelation. In other words, the reception of divine revelation cannot be separated from the ongoing interpretive, liturgical and dogmatic activity and practices of the Church. Along with this affirmation comes a second, correlative argument: we must resist various “fall of the church” narratives that have proven so tempting throughout Christian history for both theologians and ecclesial identities. In the words of Levering:

This book stands against ‘ecclesiastical fall narratives’ which call into question the very possibility of truthful mediation of divine revelation. We cannot cordon off the truth of the gospel (let alone Scripture or its interpretation) from the truthfulness of the Church, both because Scripture identifies the Church as the Spirit-filled interpreter of revelation and because historical study shows that scriptural texts and canonical Scripture itself are inextricably embedded in the covenantal community. (p. 3)

Levering’s specifically Roman Catholic emphasis on mediation is placed in juxtaposition to theologies which insist that, under the weight of our creaturely and fallen condition, the church is unable to faithfully mediate divine revelation. This inability is usually articulated either in terms of necessity – constitutionally, due to sin or the ontological gap between divine communication and human reception, the church can not bear revelation by mediating it  – or in terms of history – demonstrably, time and again throughout the church’s history, it has corrupted and mishandled revelation to the point of effacing it, so that de facto it has not and will not live faithfully enough to fulfill its call to mediate revelation.

Theologies that emphasize this distance and loss are widespread across various Christian traditions and are often quite diverse in their rationales and deployment of historical data. They do, however, share a family resemblance; namely, they insist that the revelation given to the church at its origin is full and pure (in various permutations, “apostolic,” “apolitical (or supremely political!),” “collegial, not hierarchical,” “untainted by tradition and Greco-Roman philosophy,” “subversive of empire,” etc.), but that the church has proven unfaithful or unable to maintain the purity of revelation, and cannot rely on ecclesial traditions, liturgy, confessions, hierarchy, or philosophy to play an integral role in continuing to receive revelation. Against these construals of the church’s relation to revelation, Levering argues that the church is not simply extrinsic to the event of revelation, but that the church is in fact a mediator of that revelation, even though divine revelation still judges and orders that mediation.

What stands out about Levering’s text is not so much its objective, but rather the breadth of topics Levering engages and holds together to serve his thesis. While many who have explored ecclesial fall narratives at an academic level have tended to focus in on one problematic aspect, Levering engages eight distinct but related topics that have served in various ways as essential punching bags for narratives of ecclesial fall: church, liturgy, priesthood, gospel, tradition, development, inspiration, and philosophy. He manages to survey a wide range of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant literature on these topics, and maintains a fair posture (at least, so it seems to this reviewer) in analyzing recent literature on revelation.

  • In “Church,” he unfolds the doctrine of the “missions” of the divine persons, bringing Aquinas, von Balthasar, and Christopher Wright together to show how the Church is integral to the missional activity of God, grounded in the missions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Levering argues that any notion of churchly mediation must be grounded absolutely in Christ’s prior visible mission from the Father in the invisible mission of the Spirit, which sanctifies and vivifies the Church’s missionary activity.
  • In “Liturgy,” Levering commends the work of John Webster and seeks to supplement the liturgical deficiency in Webster’s work by turning to Scripture, the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger for a demonstration that revelation, while in one sense “above” the liturgical community, always has a liturgical dimension, and indeed, is an integral factor in its faithful reception.
  • His chapter on “Priesthood” reviews accounts of the growth of hierarchical priesthood and its downfall in the thought of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, who both emphasized the intrinsically rivalrous nature of church leadership and insisted on a form of unity that tamed human competition – for Calvin a more local ecclesial leadership and for Hobbes a usurpation of church authority by civil authority. Levering suggests that the Gospels themselves show that Jesus encountered this “priestly rivalry” among the disciples and gives them the means to defuse rivalry by teaching them servanthood and an exercise of authority grounded in love. Crucially, Levering attempts to show exegetically that authority and priesthood are not negated by Jesus’ often scathing critique of the rivalrous nature of authority.
  • “Gospel” discusses the recent work of the (now Anglican) scholar, Scot McKnight, and his book The King Jesus Gospel, which attempts to take back a “gospel culture” for the church from a captivity to a “salvation gospel”, the former being a holistic vision of the sacramental and kingdom realities of the gospel, the latter being a narrow focus on the individualistic mechanisms for personal salvation, which McKnights construes as a “fall” begun with Augustine and continued in part by the Reformation. Levering commends this emphasis on gospel culture, while bringing in Aquinas on Romans and Galatians to suggest that McKnight’s Protestantism does not allow the creedal, liturgical and conciliar testimonies of the Church to integrally inform this gospel culture. Here, Levering finds McKnight’s “true gospeling” criterion of locating true churches insufficient, in that it excludes ipso facto the possibility of the Church itself being able to assess the content of “true gospeling.”
  • “Tradition” involves a lengthy discussion of the Roman Catholic theologian Terrance Tilley’s work on tradition, appreciating his observations at points about the coherence of a practice-based concept of tradition, but largely disagreeing with his overall account. In this chapter, Levering is at his analytic best, attempting to spell out exactly what the content of tradition is and its mode of transmission, admitting that the process of articulating tradition is “tortuous”, but still necessary so that, quoting Dei Verbum, “the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all people should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations.” For Levering, tradition is that which faithfully transmits and protects the Scriptures and apostolic testimony, but that does not entail that it is a “simple logical extension” of doctrine (p. 174). Rather, tradition requires the Church’s mediation of God’s message in time and history.
  • In “Development” Levering argues that doctrinal development is, when properly understood, a means of protecting the purity of the gospel, not a way of allowing unbiblical accretions and corruptions into the gospel’s message. Here he surveys John Henry Newman, John T. Noonan, Lewis Ayres and Khaled Anatolios to furnish an account of development that avoids doctrinal rupture and corruption. Here balances the teaching of Dei Verbum with a commitment to a theory of development that is not crudely propositional, nor squeamish about the inevitably propositional content of the doctrine that develops.
  • “Inspiration” is a study of persistent questions about the compatibility of Scriptural truth with historical truth. Levering suggests corrections for both literalist accounts of Scripture and historiographies that are sealed from the activity of divine providence, since both of these temptations stand to threaten the possibility of the mediation of inspired revelation in history. Here he continues lines of thought begun in his Participatory Exegesis. 
  • Last, “Philosophy” helpfully traces the discussions within Christian tradition on the legitimacy of appropriating Hellenistic, pagan philosophy for theology. The danger, both for proponents and opponents of integrating philosophy and theology, is that the radical revelation of the God of Israel, described in Scripture, will be subordinated and ultimately domesticated by philosophical language and discussions of its limits. Levering argues for a chastened relationship between philosophy and theology, where “the doctrine of Israel’s God developed in Scripture in a manner that required, and continues to require, certain salutary insights found in Hellenistic philosophy.” (p. 256)

Especially commendable in Levering’s study is his steady and creative dependence on Christian Scripture. Levering stands in the burgeoning movement that has been described by Reinhard Hütter as Ressourcement Thomism, comprised of theologians “who seek a coherent and rigorous Catholic theological inquiry that has the intellectually and spiritually formative power of a school,”[1] a school that is especially attentive to the reception, interpretation, and exegesis of Scripture in conversation with the documents of Vatican II such as Dei Verbum. Levering returns again and again to the work of exegesis and biblical theology as he argues for the liturgical backdrop of the reception of revelation in the Pentateuch, the confrontation between Jesus and the dangers of priestly power in the Gospel narratives, and the meaning of the gospel in Romans and Galatians (with helpful interpolations from Aquinas), and the apostle Paul’s arguments about tradition and doctrinal transmission. Levering also engages at length with some of the most outstanding Protestant works on Scripture, especially in his first chapter on liturgy, which includes a sustained dialogue with the scriptural theology of John Webster, arguably the pre-eminent Protestant doing work on Reformed dogmatics today.

It remains to be asked what the ecumenical prospects are for such a work. It seems to me that, while Levering demonstrates the problems with many ecclesial fall narratives, readers, especially Protestants, will not be entirely satisfied with his counter-proposals for a robust Catholic theology of mediation. This is because the precise content and meaning of “mediation” is often left under-defined by Levering (this also holds for other corollary terms in Catholic theological parlance such as “participation,” “co-inherence”). It is not that these “hypostatic” terms are without content for a theology of revelation, but evangelical and Reformed theologians might agree with many of Levering’s critiques of ecclesial fall while continuing to require clarification on exactly what the metaphysical and theological warrant is for invoking these terms, given as they are to a blurring of the distinction between the otherness of God and the limitations of creatures.

There are deep and legitimate concerns in the Reformed tradition about the dangers of “immenantism” in language that brings human and divine activity close together and it is not clear that Levering articulates a theology of mediation amenable to Reformed concerns in this book, rather than gesturing towards the outlines of one. This is, perhaps, not a fair critique, since Levering does spell out the shape of these terms in detail in another book, Christ and the Catholic Priesthood; rather, it is to point out a (possibly necessary) shortcoming that may leave many Reformed readers wanting more after such an effective deconstruction of tempting churchly histories.

However, Levering, especially in his engagement with Webster’s nuanced objections to the concept of ecclesial mediation, models quite well a “receptive” ecumenism, insisting, not on refuting Webster’s contentions, but rather on seeking to first appreciate, learn, and find agreement wherever possible and then moving on to a supplementary account of liturgy’s necessity for the reading of Scripture. For Levering, Webster’s account is more helpful as a theological corrective than it is a failure to accord with a Catholic theology of mediation. This is a style of ecumenism that is imperative. Though this book is not explicitly a work of “ecumenical theology,” his spiritual impulses, scholarly rigor, and painstaking effort to engage Protestant thought is a very positive sign of things to come in Levering’s writing.

  1. “The Ruins of Discontinuity,” First Things 209 (2011).

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