In an age of rapid social and technological change (the iPhone, after all, was born only about a decade ago) religious communities steeped in ancient tradition continue to search for ways to provide contemporary direction while remaining grounded in God’s word.
Perhaps the Pilgrims can offer some insight during this Thanksgiving weekend.
Before leaving Holland, the Pilgrims' longtime pastor John Robinson — who stayed behind — gave a parting sermon to his band of separatists.
Edward Winslow, who traveled on the Mayflower, recorded Robinson’s words: “He charged us before God and his blessed Angels (that) if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive any truth by his Ministry: For he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.”
Robinson said that although the reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther “were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them: And were they now living they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received.”
Separatists believed in reforming the Church of England through strict adherence to God's word in the Bible. But, Robinson's idea seemed to be: remain rooted in ancient revelations while remaining open to further "truth and light" yet to break forth.
Two centuries later, that idea had been somewhat lost.
Reviewing a copy of the Book of Mormon in 1831, Presbyterian Warren Isham recoiled at the idea that there could be “a New Revelation.” As he put it, “A new revelation was not needed. Everything essential to our salvation was already revealed.” Theologian Jonathan Edwards had long-since warned against following “impressions and impulses” that “leave the guidance of the polar star to follow a Jack with a lantern.” Indeed, “since the canon of Scripture has been completed,” Edwards declared, “these extraordinary gifts have ceased.”
Such sentiments were evidently so pervasive in Christian thought during the mid-19th century that Emerson made quite a stir when he told the Harvard Divinity School: “It is my duty to say to you that the need was never greater (for) new revelation than now.” People speak of “revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.” As if to invoke Robinson, Emerson admonished: “It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.”
Christendom has increasingly warmed to Emerson's position.
Brigham Young University scholar David L. Paulsen has traced the emerging thought within many mainline Christian circles that God’s revelations continue to unfold — that the canon is not closed. “There is no way to argue biblically or theologically that the biblical canon is closed if there is still the activity of God among us,” argues the Rev. Lee M. McDonald, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and president emeritus of Acadia Divinity College. “If this is still the age of the Spirit, there is little argument theologically to say that God has stopped speaking.”
Meanwhile, there are those who, like Jonathan Edwards, express legitimate concerns about too much openness and too many Jacks with lanterns. Ross Douthat’s 2012 book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” cautions that America needs more religious ballast rather than myriad prosperity gospels, popular spirituality fads or preaching intermingled with politics.
John Robinson seemed to anticipate that need for balance several centuries ago. He was “confident the Lord had more truth and light,” but, he made it clear that it would “break forth” out of that which God had already wrought, that is: “his holy Word.” Robinson's farewell sermon still resounds nearly 400 years later.