Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reflections on the Word of God

Playing off of his reading of Karl Barth, Fr. Chris Epperson recently offered some interesting reflections over at “The Eternal Pursuit” on the relationship between the Word of God Written and the Word of God Incarnate. He writes:

For Barth, as I understand him, theology begins with the Word of God. By this, Barth means Jesus. The ultimate revelation of God comes in the person of Jesus, the Word made Flesh. The Bible, of course, contains the story of the revelation, but the Bible itself is not the revelation. This is a somewhat subtle distinction. ...

Barth was concerned about bibliolatry, making the text the object of devotion, rather than the revelation contained in it. Many Christians seem to understand this, and it seems that many don’t. I love Jesus. I love the Bible. Does the order in rank make a difference?

(Read it all here.)

In response, I wrote the following thoughts which were posted in the comments section of Fr. Epperson’s posting:

I think the order in rank makes a difference, but the distinction needs to be carefully made.

Jesus Christ is THE Word of God (cf. the Prologue to the Gospel according to John), and Holy Scripture is the Word of God in a secondary sense. Scripture derives its authority from Jesus Christ, not vice versa.

I do not believe this distinction in any way detracts from the authority of scripture as the record of God's revelation and as "the rule and ultimate standard of faith" (BCP, p. 877). Indeed, we can know nothing about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior - as the definitive revelation of God's intentions and purposes - apart from scripture. Nonetheless, I think it's important to make the distinction lest we fall into the very 'bibliolatry' you write about.

I find it interesting and disconcerting that some Christians seem to espouse an almost Islamic view of Holy Scripture. Orthodox Islam teaches that God commanded the Prophet Muhammed to "Recite!," and Muhammed obediently wrote down everything God said to him in Arabic. This means that when Muslims recite the Koran in Arabic, they believe they are reciting the very words of God Himself.

This Islamic understanding of the Word of God is quite different from the Christian understanding of the Word of God as preeminently a Person rather than a book (or the words in a book). And yet, there are Christians who conflate the two, making the Bible the Word of God in a sense that arguably rivals or even displaces Jesus Christ as the Word of God.

There are Christians who reject this primary/secondary distinction between Jesus as the Word of God and scripture as the Word of God. For example, here’s what the premillenial, dispensationalist theologian Charles C. Ryrie says about this view:

The neoorthodox or Barthian view of inspiration is that the Bible is a witness to the Word of God, though a Barthian would not be adverse to saying also that the Bible is the Word of God. But this is true only in a secondary sense (Christ being primarily the Word), and his Bible is full of errors because it is merely the product of fallible writers. The Barthian accepts the teachings of liberalism concerning the Bible and then tries to give it a measure of authority on the ground that in a fallible way it does point to Christ [from A Survey of Bible Doctrine (The Moody Bible Institute, 1972), quoted in The Ryrie Study Bible (Moody Press, 1978), p. 1848].

It is certainly true that, in making a distinction between the Word of God that is Jesus Christ and the Word of God that is the Bible, Barth accepts the historically conditioned character of the Bible. But to characterize the Barthian position as one that views the Bible as “full of errors,” and as “merely the product of fallible writers” that “in a fallible way … does point to Christ” is a caricature.

By contrast, it’s worth considering what Barth himself has to say (I’ve emboldened portions for emphasis):

In every age … the Evangelical decision will have to be a decision for Holy Scripture as such. As such, of course, it is only a sign. Indeed, it is the sign of a sign, i.e., of the prophetic-apostolic witness of revelation as the primary sign of Jesus Christ. Of course, the Church can only read Scripture to hear the prophets and apostles, just as it can only hear the latter to see Jesus Christ with them, and to find in Him, and properly, ultimately and decisively only in Him, the prior direct and material and absolute authority from which its [Scripture’s] authority depends, on which it is founded and by which it is everywhere and always measured. But again, it can distinguish between seeing Jesus Christ, hearing His prophets and apostles and reading their Scriptures, and yet it cannot separate these things, it cannot try to have the one without the other. It cannot see without hearing and it cannot hear without reading. Therefore if it would see Jesus Christ, it is directed and bound to His primary sign and therefore to the sign of this sign – if it would see Jesus Christ, it is directed and bound to Holy Scripture. …

If we accept the witness of Holy Scripture, then implicitly we accept the fact that, quite irrespective of the way in which they were humanly and historically conditioned, its authors were objectively true, reliable and trustworthy witnesses. It is not merely that we recognize their opinions to be good and pious, or appreciate their part and significance in religious history. We perceive rather that it pleased God the King of Israel, to whom the power of their witness is pledged as to the Lord, to raise up these true witnesses by His Word and work [Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: A Selection by Helmut Gollwitzer, translated and edited by G. W. Bromiley (T. & T. Clark, 1961) pp. 74 & 77].

Contrary to Ryrie’s charge, Barth says that in spite of the historically conditioned character of Holy Scripture, it points to Christ in a supremely authoritative, trustworthy, and “objectively reliable” way.

In his now out-of-print book Faith and Practice, Episcopal bishop Frank E. Wilson writes about scripture in a way that seems to me to be compatible with the Barthian perspective. Here’s what Wilson says:

The Bible is the record of the revelation of God. God does not reveal Himself exclusively through a book. He reveals Himself in many ways, but chiefly through people and supremely in our Lord Jesus Christ. Books are made by men. God did not make the Bible – men wrote it. Therefore, when we say that the Bible is an inspired book, we do not mean to suggest that it is the result of divine dictation and, for that reason, exempt from the possibility of human blunders. We mean that the men who did the writing were actively seeking God’s will, inscribing accounts of God’s dealing with human life, and that the spiritual reliability of these accounts was tested over long periods of time by the people for whom they were written. Only in a secondary way can the Bible itself be called a revelation of God. It is the record of His revelation which culminated in the Person of Jesus Christ.

The Bible is important because of Christ – not the other way around. Christ did not come to deliver a book. He came to live a Life
[Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1967), p. 45].

We can’t know about Jesus as Lord and Savior apart from the special revelation given in Holy Scripture. But we also cannot elevate scripture to a status more exalted than Jesus. The Word Incarnate is Lord of the Word Written, and He sanctifies that written Word as the means by which (in the words of Thomas Cranmer’s wonderful Collect) “we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life” [BCP, p. 236].


Jendi said...

This is a great post. I've heard popular conservative preacher Tim Keller, for instance, say in his sermons that the Bible is on a par with Jesus, like the 4th person of the Trinity. To back this up, in one sermon he mentioned Christ's saying he had to die "so that the Scripture would be fulfilled" - drawing the conclusion that Jesus took the Bible's authority so seriously that he'd rather die than contradict it. Do you think that is the correct reading of that verse?

Bryan+ said...

Hi Jendi. Thanks for a very interesting comment.

I'm not familiar with Tim Keller, but I find what you've shared about his understanding of the relationship between Jesus and scripture rather odd. It sounds as though, for Keller, Jesus died primarily to fulfill the words or prophecies of scripture rather than to save the world (however one understands what that means - e.g., various theories of atonement, etc.).

It also sounds to me like this views the Bible in terms analogous to a set of detailed stage directions that tell an actor (in this case, Jesus) what to do or what to say at any given part of the performance.

I think we have to bear in mind that the verses in which Jesus says that such-and-such must take place (or had to take place) "so that the Scripture would be fulfilled" are just as much about the early Church's attempt to make sense out of the whole "Jesus event" in light of the only scriptures then available (what we traditionally refer to as the Old Testament) as it is anything which Jesus actually said. After all, Jesus did not fit the traditional understanding of the Messiah as a Warrior King. He did not liberate Israel from Roman tyranny and reestablish the Davidic dynasty. So to believe in Jesus as the Messiah forced the early Christians to re-engage the scriptues in order to try and make sense of it all in the light of the larger story of God's relationship with Israel. When the traditional expectations did not come to pass, what exactly does it mean to believe that Jesus fulfilled the hopes of Israel?

I note also that Paul says that Jesus' death and resurrection were "in accordance with the scriptures" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4), a phrase which appears in the Nicene Creed. According to New Testament scholar Christopher Bryan, the phrase "in accordance with the scriptues" means that Christ’s death and resurrection conform or fulfill the expectations and hopes of the Old Testament. In other words, “the terms and witness” of the Jewish scriptures gave the early Christians the capacity to interpret Jesus’ death and resurrection as the Good News of God [Christopher Bryan, And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today (Cowley, 2002), p. 75].