Friday, July 24, 2009

Thoughts on the Bible 3

The Word of God under Four Heads

This spring, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted to uphold Aberdeen Presbytery's decision to ordain Scott Rennie, an openly gay man, to the pastorate of Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen. When the initial decision was made by Aberdeen Presbytery to ordain Rennie, Presbytery members who had voted against the ordination wrote to the body at large, objecting to its decision based on the Word of God's condemnation of homosexuality. Defending itself on this point, the Presbytery flippantly responded that "the Bible cannot be identified with the Word of God."

As interpreted by those who wish to reject explicit biblical teachings, a neo-orthodox doctrine of the Word of God seems to be a useful tool for justifying such a rejection. Indeed, history and current practice has proven this to be the case, especially if a neo-orthodox understanding of Scripture has been coupled with a rejection of biblical inerrancy. While many neo-orthodox Bible interpreters do explicitly reject biblical inerrancy, it need not always be the case that a neo-orthodox understanding of the Bible necessitates a rejection of the highest possible view of biblical authority.

That being said, I will keep my opinion regarding the ideal of biblical inerrancy in suspense for the moment, but I will presently put forward a "high" Bible, Christocentric, neo-orthodox-style understanding of the Word of God. I will do this under four heads.

1. Jesus Christ as the Word of God

I will not explicate further on this, for it needs no explanation as the Bible thoroughly and explicitly describes Jesus using this term, (see John 1) and I have already treated rather extensively Jesus Christ as God's self-revelatory Speech.

2. Holy Scripture as the Word of God

Holy Scripture is the written Word of God. The term, Word of God, cannot be used exclusively in reference to Scripture according to the Bible's own usage, though it most often does indeed refer to the Bible. In matters of authority, we must subordinate the Bible's authority to Christ's own authority, as the Bible has no authority independent from the One who breathed it into being through His patriarchs, prophets, and apostles and who continues to speak actively and powerfully through its witness. In this light, then, we must also note that the target of the written Word of God is always only the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ.

In speaking of the Bible as the written Word of God, we are also speaking of God's agency in the inspiration and writing of the original biblical documents. Though we must not overlook the human authorship of the biblical documents, God is the efficient cause of these documents, moving the human authors to testify by writing that which He willed them to by Divine inspiration.

That being said, the Word of God comes, as it were, through the earthen vessels of human authors and their thoughts and words. God speaks reliably and unfailingly through this process, even though the cultural situations and contexts of the human authors, with all of the limits these impose on the authors, condition and color the biblical documents produced by their hands. Instead of having this derogate the authority of the Bible, however, we can exuberantly declare that it is not in spite of the biblical authors and their human limitations but rather through them that God faithfully expresses and delivers His Word to His people. At any rate, through this miraculous synergy of Divine and human work, we can say that while what is written is 100% the words of human beings, it is also 100% the Word of God.

To deal with the particular question, then, that my beloved Church history professor, Dr. Calhoun, hit on in his staunch inerrantist critique of Barth and that Aberdeen Presbytery so obtusely, irreverently, and, dare I say, blasphemously answered in the negative in its correspondence with its dissenting members, the Bible, the word on the page, is the Word of God, carried though it is in the earthen vessel of human language. Perhaps a good way of describing this is to say that the Bible is an earthen vessel that carries the living water, but, in order for us to draw out that water, we need the Spirit to enlighten us.

I must also note in passing that to fail to identify the Bible directly with the Word of God smacks of a Gnostic species of doubt that God in His transcendence can accommodate His revelation to our creatureliness. If the Incarnation teaches us anything, it is that God is willing and able to make Himself small in order to reach us according to our human weakness. I must also note that to move the content of the Word of God too far from the text itself would be to place the Word of God in an undesirable sphere of subjectivity and to put the reliability of the Bible's objective content in general in doubt.

Most often, we must note that the written Word of God is secondary revelation mediated through human authors. The direct revelation in these cases is the work of God in history placed openly before God's covenant people to see, which they testify to under the unique inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the production of Scripture. Yet, we must also note that some of the biblical revelation seems to come as direct propositional revelation from the mouth of God, particularly large segments of the Torah and the words of the Savior recorded in the Gospels, though these too undoubtedly came down to biblical authors either through their own memories under the Holy Spirit's guidance and/or to human processes of preservation.

I think it would be safe to say that the written Word of God is in a category that neither of the other two senses of the Word of God I have yet to treat can be placed in. The written Word of God is normative and binding for all Christian people at all times, as it represents God-breathed revelation from the hands of the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, upon whom rests the foundation of the Church. As such, the written Word of God can neither be added to nor subtracted from.

3. Preaching as the Word of God

I include this under the Word of God because preaching is a given means for the Church by which to receive God's exhortation from His written Word. The center and goal of the proclamation of the written Word of God is the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. In the work of the Holy Spirit through the preacher, Christ Himself delivers a Word and applies Himself in an enlivening way to the hearts of the faithful to rouse them for His service or to awaken those dead in their sins to spiritual life through regeneration.

4. God's revelation in history as the Word of God

I include this under the Word of God because God's work in history is the primary revelation to which the written Word of God testifies. Christ the incarnate Word of God as mediator of God's historic covenants with Israel and the Church publishes and executes the will of God the Father through His action in the world, revealing God's loving intentions and judgment against sin for all of humankind.

Jesus Christ, as God's eternal image and self-revelation, verifies that it is God's message that is being given. If Christ declares it, we know that it is the will of the Father.

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