Friday, 26 April 2013

The Word who guarantees the word

Readers of this blog may recently have noticed a contribution which went something along the lines of “The Bible is not the Word of God, Jesus is.”
In one form or another, this is actually a remarkably common view, held by people who feel they are not merely being reasonable but are standing up for dogmatic orthodoxy (though they might be hesitant to subscribe dogmatically to that notion). “Some Christians,” they will argue, “Seem to believe in a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Scripture. But God is not a book!”
It is subtle, it is appealing, it is (if I might say so) flattering to the self (“I have seen the light”) — and it is seriously wrong.
Not least, though, it is wrong because it sits on the very branch it is sawing off.
As a statement in itself, it is analogous to that old conundrum, “Everything I say is untrue.” Ah, but if everything you say is untrue, then what about that statement? Is it also untrue? And if it is untrue, then everything you say is not untrue. But then that means what you’ve said is untrue, which means it was a lie ... and so on.
The statement “Jesus is the Word of God” comes to us from the Bible. But according to the proponents of this position, the Bible is not is “the Word of God”. So when they say, “Jesus is the Word of God”, the one thing they don’t have is God’s word for it.
At this point, however, we must watch out for a bear trap, namely a circular argument that the Bible is God’s word because it says so in the Bible. It does say so, and a certain amount of ‘foundationalism’ is unavoidable when it comes to the authority of Scripture. To what else can we appeal for that authority except the Bible?
But the statement “Jesus is God’s Word” is actually fundamentally helpful — as no doubt it was intended to be! And it helps us see how and why the Bible can be God’s Word.
The problem with all of this, as the postmodernists began to observe some decades ago, is that it is all just words. As one correspondent here put it, “just ‘words’ about the Word”. But as another, from a similar perspective as the first, said, “Words are always in search of a meaning.” They are, from the postmodern perspective, not ‘meaningful’ like numbers. Everything is ‘interpretation’.
Who will rescue us from this Babel of verbal confusion?
The answer lies in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word”, and its assertion that Jesus is, indeed, the Word of God. For what this means is that at the heart of God’s own self is the quintessence of words: ‘the WORD’.
This does not, however, relegate words to the status of ‘just words’. In fact its effect is the exact opposite of the conclusion drawn by those who say, on this basis, “The Bible is therefore not the Word of God.” On the contrary, it is the very guarantee that God speaks words and that words speak of God. The statement “Jesus is the Word” is actually the anchor holding fast the ship, not an island standing on its own in a sea of verbal confusion.
After all, what is the statement, “Jesus is the Word of God”? Is it not itself ‘just words’. What I think our debaters want to reply is this: “Of course it is! Indeed what it says is that behind all the words we discover something else — a person!”
It all sounds terribly noble. But the problem is that what we are told about this person — the way to regard the ‘personality’ — is not (in this particular instance) as Saviour or Lord (surely viable options) but as Word. And what is a word? It is not just a communication! It is not a ‘sign’ or a ‘wonder’ — things by which God indeed communicates and by which this one will (we are told) reveal his glory (Jn 2:11). No, it is verbal communication. It is the basic unit of speech.
However, the fact (I am assuming it is a fact) that this One is ‘the Word’, means that ‘the words’ do not just communicate about God. Rather, they are very basis of communion between me and the God with whom this Word was from the beginning. Words draw me into the Word and share his essence.
This why we are told we live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It is not ‘just words’. It is not just that God speaks and we listen — much less that people speak about God and we interpret as best we can. It is that the Word comes to us in the Word of God.
One last thing. This argument, such as it is, generally tends to revolve around the Bible and its authority. But the Word of God is not just the Bible! The Bible is, as the Anglican Articles put it, “God’s Word written”. It is also (according to the Apostolic testimony) theopneustos — God breathed (2 Tim 3:15). It has a special status.
But the Word of God is a living Word, which goes out through preaching and proclamation. Where the Bible is preached (declares the Proclamation Trust), God’s voice is heard. Where the gospel goes (says Luke) the word of God spreads.
What has come into the world is the Word of life. That stands written in the Word of God (1 Jn 1:1). And it is proclaimed in the Word of God, preached and taught, “so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (vv 3-4). It is all words, but not ‘just words’, for from the Word comes the Word which brings us to the Word.
EM Forster’s character, Mrs Moore, in A Passage to India, evidently derided “poor little talkative Christianity”.
We reply, wrong! Blessed, fortunate Christianity, whose Saviour sustains all things by the power of his Word (Heb 1:3) and whose Word has power to save (Jas 1:21). Indeed, whose God is Word. Hallelujah!
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  1. Andrew Godsall, Exeter26 April 2013 at 09:37

    It's a nice try John - but you still make a circular argument go the wrong way. We have the bible because people had the relationship with God and Jesus Christ and each other. The bible is a record of this relationship. They/we do not have the relationship because of the bible. As I said in a previous post, this is where you make the fundamental error and fall into a kind of idolatry of the bible - which leads to fundamentalism and all of the associated problems. Christian believe and know that Jesus is THE word of God of incarnate. That's why they wrote the gospels, the creeds, the Kerygma etc. That's why we still write theology, and still have new things to discover. We don't know because we have the new testament - we wrote the new testament because we know.

  2. Andrew, the problem with your opening argument is that you rely upon aural tradition where it no longer exists. The only way that we can now know about God is through the Bible, either by reading it ourselves or by others speaking from it (either directly or from memory).

    If someone comes to you and asks you about God you don't refer them to a conversation that Peter had with Jesus that has been passed from Pope to Pope, filtering down to the priests and from generation to generation, you go to the Bible and your knowledge of it's content.

    Knowledge now only passes via recorded information. So to suggest that "we wrote...because we know" seems to me to be hugely in error. It may have originally been accurate, but for those who have no first hand contact with Jesus or those who did it is no longer the case. We know because of what has been written before us, so that we might read and understand. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that we wrote about the Crusades because we know about them. Actually, people now read about the Crusades, then know. And once they know, through reading, they then choose to write about them. It is the way history works. Your way makes the NT seem like a story made up, rather than a factual set of events, that any primary school history student could tear holes in, not a basis for a faith to believe in.

  3. The Word comes to us through the Word. End of.

  4. Andrew Godsall, Exeter26 April 2013 at 10:13

    You are promoting fundamentalism again John. The Word comes to us through scripture, tradition, reason and experience. (There is no 'End of' in this issue...if there were, you wouldn't need to promote your personal views in a blog!)


      "1. serving as, or being an essential part of, a foundation or basis; basic; underlying: fundamental principles; the fundamental structure.
      2. of, pertaining to, or affecting the foundation or basis: a fundamental revision.
      3. being an original or primary source: a fundamental idea."

      If John is promoting fundamentalism then I would suggest the root of the word, as noted above, would say that fundamentalism is a good thing.

    2. That's a fair comment YP

      As I understand it the words Fundamentalist/Fundamentalism have a bit of history, coming from that definition.

      At the turn of the last century, as Protestant denominations became increasingly liberal, a group of Theologians at Princeton wrote a collection called, "The Fundamentals". This was the fundamental truths Christianity was based on. Their point was this is not "Reformed" or "Presbyterian", as most of them were, but basic Christianity, as CS Lewis would later call it.

      In that sense, quite a few of us would be happy with the term Fundamentalist.

      BUT, as movement it took on a life of its own and by the 1920s those who called themselves Fundamentalist added other things to doctrine. As I remember, not drinking alcohol, not smoking, not dancing and 2 others... can't remember. Anyway, bit embarresing for them as one of their Champions was Greham Machen... who broke all of them!

      Now, Fundamentalism just means extreme/extremist. Which is why it's a bit lazy to use in an argument. It is just used to associate someone's view with those who fly planes into buildings. It also can always be leveled back, at wishy washy fundamentalists.

      Packer wrote something about this didn't he? "Fundamentalism & the word of God"

      Darren Moore

  5. John,

    Have you seen Andrew Shead's book A Mouth Full of Fire (on Jeremiah)? Shead argues that Word= the message/communication of God. The Word/message of God comes to the prophet who then communicates then in his own words, which are also the words of God because of God's authority. These words are ultimately written down in Scripture because of prophetic inspiration. When Scripture is read/taught/preached etc. those words of God become the Message/Word. In the book, there is a fine engagement with current theories of Scripture.

    Further Logos does not precisely mean Word; it means more like communication/revelation. One could almost translate John 1:1 " in the beginning was the Sermon and the Sermon was with God and was God!"

    Ro Mody, Bournemouth

  6. Ever since Andrew’s original post on another thread (“of course the bible is inspired ... but it’s not the word of God. The word of God is Jesus isn’t it?”), I was determined to move from regular reader to occasional contributor to this blog.

    I confess to being both baffled and distressed that any Christian could declare and defend so boldly the claim that the Bible is not the word of God.

    I am baffled because, as John points out, our only knowledge of him who is God’s word incarnate comes through God’s word written. Doubtless we may be helped by our God-given minds (reason) and God-guided history (tradition), but the famous three-legged stool of Anglican authority is deceptive: Scripture is supreme. If it isn’t, we have no solid (that is, revealed) basis for the confession that God has become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. We might as well go with sky fairies.

    But I am distressed because if Jesus is God’s word made flesh, then why are we not listening to what he says about God’s word written? Later in John’s gospel, Jesus answers the Jews from “your Law” (John 10.34) which he then describes as “the word of God” in the next verse, and declares, “the Scripture cannot be broken”. The Word of God in the flesh declares that the Scripture is itself “the word of God” which “cannot be broken”, precisely because it is not merely the fallible word of human beings.

    And it is ironic to declare faith in Jesus as the Word of God, while repudiating the purpose of the apostle who bears witness to that truth. In John 20.31, John declares that he writes his book, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” That is, we come to living faith through the apostle’s words about the Word.

    Indeed, this is Jesus’ own understanding: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their [that is, the apostles’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17.20-21). The Word of God in the flesh prays for us to come to faith in him through the words of his apostles who are uniquely equipped to speak his – that is, God’s – word (John 16.33 et al).

    So, in order to declare that “the Bible is not the word of God”, one must deny the testimony of him who is the “Word of God”. This is so serious (and ancient) a denial of our faith that John writes his first letter at least in part to combat it. But perhaps that’s for another post!

  7. Another perspective:

    Jesus Christ is the Word of the Father, who brings us to the Father. Scripture is the Word of Christ (Colossians 3:16), which brings us to Christ (who brings us to the Father).

    Just a thought.

  8. Andrew Godsall is confused and illogical in what he says, and worse,his statements are not what the Church of England has historically taught. "We" did not write the NT; it was written by the apostolic church, who had personal, historical knowledge of Jesus - something we do not have. His statements are garbled and logically inverted.
    Mark B., W. Kent

  9. Andrew Godsall, Exeter29 April 2013 at 10:05

    Mark B - "we" means "the Church". So I don't actually think we are too far apart.
    Surely we have personal knowledge of Jesus.

    1. Andrew,
      It would be more accurate to say that the Apostolic oral Proclamation/message creates the church.

      Further, the letters are written by the Apostles to the churches, sometimes in order to correct them. The apostolic canon of the NT is then fixed by the church, precisely because these documents are recognized as having authority over the church.
      The supreme authority of Scripture (in the matters Scripture addresses)over the church does not means that tradition, reason, and experience are not authorities secondary to scripture. Tradition, reason, and experience help us, hermeneutically, to understand Scripture.

      In addition, how are we to have salvific access to God? We cannot have unmediated knowledge of God in this life. The mediator is Christ, so the question becomes how can we have knowledge of Christ. "Christ comes clad in his promises" (Calvin), that is, in Scripture. Hence Scripture is the supreme & ultimate authoritative witness to Christ.

      Ro Mody, Bournemouth

    2. That's right Ro. In 1 Timothy 3, Scripture makes you wise to salvation.

      Also, if we, the church, define Scripture, who defines us, the church? The Bible defines church i.e. there is a doctrine of church that can be discerned. Who says who the Church is, Andrew? An other?

      Darren Moore

  10. Mike Smith points us to John 10.34 for the idea that Jesus called scripture the "word of God." But that's not exactly what it says. It says, "Those to whom the word of God came" were called gods by scripture. Which seems to makes a distinction between scripture and the word of God.

    Think of all the times in the Old Testament (especially in the prophets) when it says "The word of the Lord came to X" and "Thus says the Lord" and lots of other similar cases. Not everything written is the same or has the same status.

    For example, the word comes to Jonah (1.1, 3.1), but most of the text is what Jonah says to God, or description of what happened (e.g. the great fish). This is not to say that only speech which is described as the word of God has any value, but rather that the picture has to be more nuanced.

    I suggest that for "Word/Logos" we should understand "self-expression". How do we know about God? Because he has expressed himself. Above all in the person of Jesus, but also in his Law and other dealings with humanity. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a lived human life is worth about a ga-zillion, which is why Jesus is The Word.

    But if the Son was in the beginning, and all things came into being through him, then it is no surprise that we find God's word in more than just the physical incarnate person of Jesus. Scripture then really does proclaim the Word - and of course it is meaningful to say that the proclamation of God is the message, so scripture is the Word since it proclaims the Word.

    Moreover, if the Word is found in the proclamation of the Word, then the Tradition of the Church (i.e. the proclamation of Jesus as Lord) is also the Word. Indeed, the Bible is part of the Tradition, just as the foundation is part of a house.

    That's what I think, anyway.

  11. I put a post answering Andrew on the other thread about the word/Word.

    But let's see if I've got Mike Smith straight. If Andrew is right, Jesus must be wrong, re: the Scripture as the word of God. Right?

    Darren Moore

  12. Andrew Godsall, Exeter2 May 2013 at 15:28

    Binary thinking Darren - it won't really get you anywhere.....

  13. For some reason, Andrew, I saw your comment and thought of this:

    Wow man, so what's wrong with it is it's binary thinking!

  14. Andrew Godsall, Exeter3 May 2013 at 10:54

    It's a great clip John! Thank you for the smile :)

    I have just spent a faacinating 24 hour seminar looking at Pentecostalism. Interesting to see how lightly they sit to the Scriptures, whilst being very clear about the word of God. Very helpful indeed.

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