How does God’s word relate to human words? How does God speak in the Bible?
I am currently teaching two sections of a freshman course, New Testament History and Religion. On Wednesday we covered the portions of Luke’s gospel that deal with wealth and contrasted them with what 1 Timothy 6 says about wealth. Luke’s gospel has an uncompromising stance against the wealthy, while 1 Timothy 6 allows for wealthy Christians but urges them to be generous.
One thing I have noticed in teaching the Bible to undergraduates: there is a twofold challenge:
1. The first is getting students to acknowledge and appreciate the contextual nature of the biblical writings. Students easily see this when it comes to passages such as 1 Cor. 11 (where Paul commands Christian women to wear the veil when the pray) or 1 Timothy 2 (which forbids braided hair for women). But they struggle with the thesis that every passage in the Bible is rooted in its cultural-political context–that the biblical writers were not immune to influences from the culture in which they dwelled.
2. The other struggle is this: once students acknowledge the contextual nature of the Bible, there is a temptation, which is constantly reinforced by the general tendency of modern culture, to regard the Bible as irrelevant for us today because of its contextual nature. The reasoning goes: if what the New Testament says about veils and braids is rooted in its ancient culture, then who knows what else is irrelevant to us today? As a result, it becomes easy for students to ignore Luke’s gospels’ words about wealth precisely because they’ve grasped the contextual nature of these texts.
3. This twofold results from the central paradox of the Bible, which is also the paradox of the incarnation: how does the divine relate to the human? Jesus is not simply God appearing in the world. Jesus is God appearing in the world as a human being. By analogy, the Bible is not simply the Word of God spoken in human history. Just as the humanity of Christ is not merely a vehicle for the appearance of the divinity, so the Bible’s humanity is more than a vehicle for the Word of God. It is the Word of God spoken in and through the human words. As Jesus Christ is the inseparable union of divine nature and human nature, so in the Bible we find the Word of God only in its union with human words. The presence of the Word of God in the Bible does not nullify the humanity of the human words.
4. There is, in other words, no Word of God that floats above culturally conditioned human words. We hear the Word of God only by listening to the human words of the Bible. The Bible is culturally relative. And not just parts of it, but the totality. Whether it is Paul’s words about wearing the veil and not braiding the hair, or Jesus’s words about discipleship, the Bible’s words are immersed in the ancient world.
5. But this immersion does not prevent us from hearing the Word of God, anymore than Jesus’ being a first century Galilean prevents us from seeing him as the son of God. In the case of Jesus, it requires us to see that Jesus’ being is not a zero-sum game, in which the more divinity he possesses the less humanity he possesses. On the contrary, in Jesus the divine and the human do not compete. By analogy, we should not see the Word of God and the human word as competing, as though the more divine the Bible is the less human it is. On the contrary, God’s being embraces human being; God’s word embraces the human word.
6. This Christological meditation on the Bible does not solve concrete questions, such as, “What does Luke’s gospel say to us today about wealth?” But it does mean that this gospel can speak the Word of God while being a culturally conditioned human word.