Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Two Testaments pt 1: Christ the Lord of Scripture

What is the Bible? It is divine revelation. It is God's inspired Word. Certainly these statements separate me from all liberal theologies that reject from the outset the possibility of divine revelation and focus instead on the subjective religious experiences of humans. However, my aim in these posts will be to draw out how one can be faithful to these statements, faithful to the divine authority of Scripture, without being a fundamentalist.

A fundamentalist approaches the Bible in basically the same way a Muslim approaches the Qu'ran. Christian fundamentalism and Islam have essentially the same notion of divine revelation: God bestowing facts about himself and his will to human beings. Both of these religious movements claim that God has bestowed these facts, and thus revealed himself, through a book. My contention is that this notion of revelation is radically unbiblical.

It is unbiblical because it is impersonal. Revelation in Scripture begins with God's covenant with Israel, a relationship God establishes with a particular people that is to be one of love and trust (their trust in Him). God gives Israel the Law (Torah) not as a set of universal facts about his will but as the terms of their relationship, much like marriage vows, giving concrete expression of what it ought to look like for Israel to live a life of love and trust in Yahweh. But the New Testament goes further in the personal direction of revelation; we could even say that the New Testament radically personalizes the Jewish understanding of divine revelation.

Two classic texts help us to see how radical the New Testament notion of revelation is. The first is John 1:1-3, 14: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." In Christ, the Word of God that is eternally with God and is God, God has not just given us facts about himself which could be contained in a book, but given us his very Self. God thus reveals himself to us through himself, himself made one of us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He took on a human existence and revealed himself as God in that form to his apostles ("We have seen his glory"). This kind of revelation cannot be understood simply as the giving of facts, but as fellowship, personal and intimate communion in which God reveals himself to us through his personal presence, much as a newly wed couple reveal themselves to each other through time spent in intimate personal encounter (we are the bride of Christ after all, Rev 19:7).

Second is Hebrews 1:1-3: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word." This gives us much the same picture as the one we saw in John, but here we see an emphasis on the superiority of the personal revelation of Christ as the Son over the previous "many ways" God had spoke to Israel through the prophets. I might be so bold as to paraphrase, "In the past God sent messengers to give us messages from him, but now he has personally come among us himself in the person of God the Son, making his glory known to us directly."

Taking these two passages together, what emerges is an understanding of revelation that is firmly tied to Christ as the Word and Son of God, the exact representation of God's being. So how is the Bible the Word of God if only Christ reveals God and thus only Christ is the Word? This is where fundamentalism gets off track. It basically believes in two Words of God, Christ and the Bible. By understanding the Bible itself as the Word of God in a direct and unqualified way, fundamentalism treats every word in the Bible as God's direct speech. It that understanding, no differentiation can made between any two parts of the Bible; no part of it stands over the rest as the having more importance because every word is God's Word. In effect, its authority is flattened out so that all of its historical narrative must be taken strictly literally. Questioning whether or not there really was a talking serpent in a literal garden of Eden or whether or not Samson's power was contained in his hair impugns the Christian faith exactly as much as questioning the deity of Christ or his resurrection from the dead. In fact, for fundamentalism, and this is its most serious crime, the reliability of Scripture replaces the Lordship of Christ as the foundation of Christian faith.

To illustrate, when a fundamentalist sings "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so", when he/she ought to mean by that something like "Jesus loves me this I know because He tells me so through the Bible", what he/she actually means is "Jesus loves me, and the reason I know that is because the Bible tells me so, and anything the Bible says has to be true because its God wrote it." In other words, God has revealed everything we need to know about him and his will in a book, and that book happens to tell me that God wants me to believe in Jesus.

No, our faith is not in the Bible as such but in Christ, the incarnate Word of God. The Bible, however, is the Word of God to us because that is where Christ makes himself known to us. As we saw above, when we take the prologues of John and Hebrews together, we see that Christ, as the Word and Son of God, is the revelation of God. As such, he is both the promise of the Old Testament ("Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" Luke 24:44) and the content of the New Testament, as he commits himself and his gospel to apostles who are its source ("He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me" Luke 10:16). Thus, the Bible has a definite center, a definite focus on Jesus Christ as its true content. The Bible can never be understood as God's Word apart from that central content; it is that content, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, that makes the Bible the Word of God. When we read the Bible, our faith does not stop at the words we read; those words point past themselves to the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. It is he who reveals God to us and he does this as we encounter him in Scripture. Christ stands behind the Bible as its essential message; we hear him when we hear its message. Christ is thus the Lord over Scripture and it is submissive to him; as he speaks through it to us, his church, we submit to Scripture because in it we hear the voice of our Lord. This is what my theological hero T. F. Torrance calls the "depth dimension of Scripture".

More to come.


  1. Can't disagree with what's been said here. Good stuff. Fundamentalist is becoming a bit of a catch-all word, and I'm not sure all readers of the Qu'ran would want to be called that, but the point is well made and taken. I'm not sure that I agree with this, however:

    "Questioning whether or not there really was a talking serpent in a literal garden of Eden or whether or not Samson's power was contained in his hair impugns the Christian faith exactly as much as questioning the deity of Christ or his resurrection from the dead" (emphasis mine).

    I don't think that's always the case. The thing that concerns lots of church people, and not just fundamentalists, is how the person who "demythologizes" other parts of the Bible keeps from doing so with the resurrection. Its not necessarily that there's a simplistic "its all literally true or its all false" argument going on. It is just a worthwhile question to ask, not just as it relates to the resurrection, but as it relates to each text in question. Anyway, I'm sure you agree since you are embarking on a series that addresses it! :)

    Personally, I asked it of you in that previous post because I'm interested to hear how you'd do it, and because I want to flesh this out myself. As you know I share your view of Scripture, by and large, and yet am also trying to assess how one works in the church in this altered paradigm. I want to be responsible about this. It would be only too easy to throw caution to the wind and accept all the findings of historical criticism and adjust our approach Scripture accordingly, perhaps even too much.

  2. Good question.

    My questions about literal readings of stories like Samson aren't motivated by scepticism about the miraculous or supernatural. I'm totally against the notion of demythologization. My willingness to leave open the possibility of Samson being a legend rather than a literal history is because I think it reads like a legend.

    A comparison to the story of Moses might be helpful. When Moses does miracles in Pharoah's court, they serve a definite purpose in God's redemptive work, and they are responded to in a way that takes their miraculous nature seriously. This is even more so in the Gospels. Every miracle Jesus performs leaves people amazed, as it should. In Samson, Delilah seems to think that his hair being the source of his strength is entirely reasonable. But that by itself isn't a very compelling reason to question its historicity.

    I am fairly impressed by the position that the book of Judges came about in its present form in the post-exilic period and served as propaganda that Israel needed a king. The formula repeated in the last several chapters, "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit", which is also the final line of the book, seems to suggest this function, as does the repeated cycle earlier in the book of Israel constantly falling into the hands of their neighbours because of their sin, which at least might be interpreted as the effects of lacking the consistency of a faithful monarchial dynasty.

    If this is so, the material collected in the book of Judges would have been handed down in various forms, quite possibly primarily orally, over hundreds of years. Under the normal processes of history, it would be only natural that those stories would evolve and develop legendary qualities. A fundamentalist understanding of inspiration demands that such things not be so. I don't see why not. This is why I leave it open, while I don't leave open the Easter story - the importance of the quick publication of the books of the New Testament, within the lifetimes of those who saw Jesus, disallows any such legendary readings of the Easter story.

  3. I think I get your meaning Adam;
    I mean, the scribes refer to David as a man after God's own heart, yet, Bathsheba was not a youthful nor a fleeting transgretion. His sons were running wild, unmentored, while he caroused on his couch and lusted after his neighbor. He conspired and murdered his faithful soldier, whose wife he took. Anyone else would have been stoned and his house set under a dunghill. And what of the all wise Solomon? He kept many times as many horses, chariots, concubines and wives as was wise to have by the law of Moses. He married outside the faith. He bragged of his material wealth, and forgot to brag on the Lord.
    The apple didn't fall far from the tree, this uber wise man failed to teach his son any humiltiy, so that his son's thigh thick finger split Israel in two. Sounds like the stuff of legend to me.


    P.S. Now I must confess: Lord please forgive my impertanence as I know nothing at all of your servants David and Solomon, but to slander them. I just confess my ignorance.

  4. Duane, thanks for posting. I'm actually more inclined to take the David and Solomon stories at face value since in there are references in the book of kings to the book of the annals of the kings of Israel, and in Chronicles there is reference to the book of the annals of King David. I'm not going to die for every detail, but I take them more or less at face value.

    Actually, I know this is confusing for me to say given everything else I've written over the past few days, but I take the book of Judges more or less at face value too. Even if the stories were passed down over hundreds of years, I still think the essence of the story is historically true - I just don't hold to it as a matter of faith as I do the history of Jesus Christ. I guess that's my own way of making a confession of ignorance.

  5. I think it is a misunderstanding even of the "original" Samson story (if there is one, which I would tend to think there is) if anyone thought it was the hair that held the strength. I think its own message is that in the obedience lay the strength. I am comfortable with seeing it as a story told in "legend" fashion, and certainly wouldn't think it diminished the Bible if it turned out to be a post-exilic reflection on the nation's pre-king past. I take your point there, and agree with your last comment too, that I take it at face value but don't see its literal-historical nature as crucial to the Bible being true, or to the resurrection being true. Thanks for those clarifications. That said, I tend to want to put the burden of proof on those who want to de-historicize the events of the OT completely, not because the truth of the Bible is riding on it necessarily, though, but because it would be all to easy to just take all the "findings" of historical criticism as some new authority ....

    Thanks again for the post.

  6. I agree that when historical criticism confidently asserts its de-historicized findings, it has overreached its capacity and ascribed an authority to itself above Scripture.

    As far as the message of Samson being that his strength lay in obedience, I think that may be what we want to see it saying, but I don't see it saying that. It seems clear in the story that his strength is tied to his hair. His strength doesn't leave him when he disobeys God in earlier passages through murder or breaking another part of his Nazirite vow by eating honey from the carcass of a lion. Its only when his hair is cut that his strength leaves him and before he again has the strength to push down the pillars of the Philistine temple, we are told that his hair had begun to grow again. I see the message in Samson being similar to the Jacob story; God blesses them (Jacob with good fortune, Samson with strength) despite their total lack of virtue or obedience because of the covenant he made with Israel.

  7. I'd like to offer some nuance on behalf of the fundamentalists we've been discussing. What makes them so prone to caricature, I believe, is that they equivocate on the term 'Word of God.' With reference to Jesus, they mean (I think) something like what John meant: Jesus' word-hood identifies him as consubstantial with the Father. As such, it is a unique name reserved for the Son. When they apply 'Word of God' to Scripture, however, what they really mean (I think) is 'words from God', with the concomitant claim that God the Holy Spirit superintended the writing of Scripture such that it is proper to assert that God has acted in time and space in the production of these words.

    Now, setting aside the matter of whether the equivocation itself is appropriate, I don't believe there is anything prima facie wrong with the doctrine of Scripture thereby indicated. Of course, it takes some creative thinking to come up with a doctrine of inspiration to sustain such a view (particularly when it comes to authorship), but on the face of it, I don't see how it would contradict God's nature, the God-world relation, or the order of redemption to assert that God can and possibly has produced a book which contains true statements, justified commands, promises, etc. the warrant for which are beyond the ken of human beings. Mechanical dictation fits within these bounds, as does some sort of compatibilist account. To my mind, the question is ‘Did it happen?’ – not ‘Could it have happened?’ Clearly, it could have.

    As you suggest, however, problems arise when the category of 'revelation' is applied to Scripture. But here, as well, I think there is some equivocation going on. For fundamentalists, Scripture as 'revelation' means that it contains information, promises, commands, stories, etc. whose warrant are beyond our ken. Hence ‘in the beginning was the Word’ is revealed because we could not otherwise have known such a thing. But is the further claim made that in the human act of reading and possibly assenting to such a statement, there is a necessarily reciprocal divine act of personal and hence redemptive unveiling? I don't think so. Hearing, understanding, and yet failing to act on the biblical command to 'repent' may indeed make one culpable before God, but the unbeliever's encounter with this text need not have been a 'spiritual' event in the fundamentalist’s eyes; special revelation condemns in the same way as general revelation. All that to say, there is a difference between ‘revealed truth’ and ‘God revealed’ – even for fundamentalists.

    Like you, Adam, I think there are massive and potentially unhelpful hermeneutical implications to the view of inspiration demanded by this view of Scripture – you’ll get no argument from me on that score. But I do think that we should afford the fundies a bit of respect. The problems stem not from attributing to Scripture properties which are properly christological; they stem from ambiguity surrounding a particular view of biblical inspiration.

  8. Ya'all too smart for me.
    The Word of God is sharper than any 2 edged sword, dividing assunder soul and spirit. But I aint smart enough to know what of God's word He wants me to take at face value, and what He wants me to spiritualize. I guess I'll play it safe, and believe the whole thing. That don't mean I'll doctrinarilly insist on literal interp. Maybe the serpent was not a literal serpent. Maybe the tree was not a literal tree. But there was a literal sinless, deathless creation, Eve was created from Adam. Death was foisted upon creation by man's sin. I so not know how you can arrive at that without retaining a pretty large portion of the creation narrative.

  9. Justin: I appreciate your clarifications and nuance. I think I basically agree with you; I don't necessarily think fundis directly attribute christological categories to Scripture. I think they transgress upon Christ's unique role as Mediator by approaching Scripture solely through pneumatological categories and thus see Scripture as revelation in a sense utterly independent from Christ, who is its true content.

    Duane: I think you've got the core issues at play in the creation account pretty well sorted; whether or not they depend on a totally literal reading of Genesis 1-3 is something I'm not convinced of, but I think you're right that it would make almost no sense if their was not initially a sinless/deathless creation in which sin and death were introduced by human acts. What I'm concerned to clarify is that the Word of God which Hebrews speaks of as sharper than any 2 edged sword, is in its primary reference identical with the great High Priest Hebrews speaks of just a few verses later. The Bible is not God's Word in a direct way, but it is as it points us to Christ, God's eternal Word. Scripture, all of Scripture, including the creation story, is God's divinely provided sign pointing us to himself as he has made himself available to be known in Christ.

  10. Question re: Justin's nuances, possibly relevant to the larger questions Adam is raising:

    Doesn't such a view of biblical inspiration -- that God could have and in fact did produce a text that infalliby declares facts about God in this way -- become problematic precisely because of the view of human agency involved?

    What I mean is that, your fair suggestion that this is possibly a coherent account of Scripture's "inspiration" (mechanical dictation, or compatibilist), seems to me to (a) basically remove the factor of human agency involved in the production of these textual truths that directly refer to God -- the human beings involved are basically pure receptacles or transmitters of divine work here, right? -- while (b) necessarily depending upon the assumption of a much more complex intertwining of divine and human agency in the establishment of these particular texts as "canon."

    In other words, to be coherent, wouldn't such accounts have to admit that our modern certainty that it is these books alone that reveal God in this way itself depends upon an account of God's continuing involvement in a certain tradition, or at least in a few distinct processes of human judgment, that establish the canon? Do such views take account at all of the historical establishment of the canon? And if not, isn't that a major, major - like revealing their complete idiosyncratic nature - flaw?

    It seems to me that the problems of history and mediation haunt such accounts precisely as much as does christology. In fact, only a completely trans-historical view of the Logos wouldn't want to connect these problems.