Modern Art and the Bible (I)

July 15, 2016

I’m in Phoenix and visited the Phoenix Art Museum.  I was struck by the points of contact between modern/contemporary art and biblical interpretation.  So, here is the first in a series of very short comments on some pieces of art and some thoughts about interpretation.

Flowing forms

George Condo, Tumbling Forms

Here’s a piece, Tumbling Forms.  What struck me was the way in which the artist piled gobs of paint in layers.

Here’s an example:IMG_20160714_144026357

 

 

 

Another example:IMG_20160714_143953980

Whatever else this painting is doing, it is calling attention to itself as a painting.  Its caption tells the observer that it depicts something–tumbling forms–but its technique reminds the reader that it is a painting.  It enforces, in other words, a careful distinction between its being a depiction and its being a thing that self-consciously depicts.  By having the gobs of paint turn the painting into a three dimensional object that rises from the surface of the canvas, the artist ensures that the observer is not too deeply immersed in the object depicted, but instead attends to the painting as a painting, as something graphic.

This reminded me of the way in which the Bible sometimes calls attention to itself as writing, even as it directs the reader’s attention to the subject matter that is narrated or discussed.

For instance:

  • Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain” (Deuteronomy 5:3-4, NRSV).  Deuteronomy knows that the people who met with the Lord at Mount Horeb were all dead and that none of those being addressed in these verses were alive when the covenant was first made.  But it deliberately ignores that historical reality to make the point that the covenant is renewed in each generation.  It thus calls attention to itself as something other than narrative, even as it engages in narration.
  • Consider the preface to the gospel according to Luke.  Here the (implied) author steps out of the text to address the implied reader.
  • Finally, there is this passage in John’s gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah” (John 20:30-31, NRSV).  Here the author drops the pretense of simple narration and tells the reader why the narration exists.

In each of these instances, the Bible directs the reader’s attention away from what seems like a straightforward historical narrative and toward the text as something written–as the creation of a writer.

Like the painting above, the Bible wants the reader to be mindful of the way in which the Bible is a written work, even as it seeks to engross the reader in its subject matter.  In other words, it wants the reader to carefully attend to the scribal, graphic features of the Bible.

Why I Hate the New International Version of the Bible

July 4, 2016

As readers of this journal may know, I am writing a book on how to read and interpret the Bible.  So, I’m thinking a lot these days about hermeneutical matters.  Yesterday provided me with a shock that somehow has to find its way into the book.

Vittore_carpaccio,_vocazione_di_san_matteoMy Sunday School class is studying Mark’s gospel.  Yesterday’s lesson was on Mark 2.  In one episode, Jesus calls the publican, Levi, to be a disciple (2:14).  In the next episode, Jesus is eating in “his” house, along with many publicans and sinners (2:15).  In class I made the point that in Mark’s gospel it is not clear in whose house Jesus is eating.  Luke’s gospel removes the uncertainty by telling the reader that the meal occurs in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29).  I wanted the class to notice that Mark sets the two episodes side by side without directly connecting them.

I then learned that the NIV Bible takes it upon itself to connect what is unconnected.  It translates Mark 2:15 thus: “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house. . . .”  In other words, the NIV gratuitously adds to the biblical text, thinking that it thereby helps the reader.  (I learned this because most of the class uses the NIV.  Some years ago it became the translation unofficially endorsed by my denomination.)

The clods responsible for the NIV, thinking that they have done the reader a favor, have, in fact insulted the reader.  The NIV consistently assumes that the reader is stupid and needs the translator to clarify whatever in the biblical text is unclear.

The NIV approach fights against the very thing that is most needed, namely, for Christian disciples to read the Bible very carefully and slowly.  The NIV hinders such careful reading by making the biblical text more familiar–in this case, by importing information from Luke into the translation of Mark.  Doing so eliminates the need for the reader to linger over the text, puzzling about its narrative flow or lack of flow.

Speed_bump_(asphalt)

The NIV refuses to acknowledge that sometimes lack of clarity is a good thing.  Lack of clarity in the Bible functions like a speed bump, slowing the reader so that reading becomes more laborious but also more careful.  The problem for many Christians is that, having read and/or heard the Bible for many years, they are overly familiar with it–it contains no surprises.  One way of getting them to read more carefully is to draw attention to the surprising points of unclarity in the text–the places where it doesn’t make sense or says something different from what we think it says.

Wrinkled_Paper_Texture_Free_Creative_Commons_(6816216700)The NIV subverts this process by smoothing out the wrinkles in the Bible, making for a smoother text and a faster read–exactly the thing that is least needed today.  That is why the New American Standard Bible is superior–when the biblical text is unclear, its translation is unclear; when the biblical text lacks coherence, the translation lacks coherence.

Trying to increase biblical literacy in the church is a daunting task today.  It’s too bad that the translation that is most popular in my church makes the task more daunting.

Galileo: The Man Who Made the Bible Safe for Science (continued)

July 1, 2016

Scientists as workIn my journal entry of June 28, I discussed Galileo’s notion of the two books, viz., the Bible and the book of Nature.  Galileo’s goal was to prevent theological and ecclesiastical inference in scientific research.

Pictured: Scientists at work, happily free from ecclesiastical interference

 

To achieve his goal, Galileo limited the message of the Bible to one issue, salvation.  As he said in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany:

The Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side. . . .  Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation?

NOMA

A modern form of this view was offered by Stephen J. Gould.  Gould advanced the notion of non-overlapping magisteria.  Gould, neither a Christian nor a theist, discovered at some point in his life that not all Christians were anti-scientific dolts.  In particular, he seemed appreciative of John Paul II’s efforts to reduce the tension between the scientific community and the theological community.  In response, Gould articulated the NOMA principle, a sort of division of labor between science and religion.  In Gould’s words:

If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

The truce between science and theology thus called allows each to work undisturbed by the other.  Fuzzy but sincere lines of demarcation are established between the domain of science and that of theology.  Each agrees to work its own side of the street:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.

Two circles black white 2

Non-overlapping Magisteria

Gould’s view represents a vast improvement on the idiotic picture that many scientists seem to have of theology’s relation to science, a picture of unrelenting hostility caused by thick-headed religious believers who willfully refuse to accept the results of science.

Distinguishing, as Gould does, the domains of theology from those of science performs a practical service.  As the long, sad, and baffling history of biblical creationism has shown, trying to extract scientific knowledge and theories from the Bible is futile. It is, moreover, a hindrance to the scientific enterprise when adopted into scientific education.

At the same time, I’m not convinced of the wisdom of limiting the Bible so one-dimensionally to matters of salvation.  Gould’s approach gives us a workable strategy for reducing conflict between science and theology, but can the Bible so easily be restricted to “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectHere’s what I’m getting at: the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) makes assertions about the non-human portions of the universe: sun, moon, and stars; animals; natural forces and processes; and so on.  Only Fundamentalists want to continue the preposterous agenda of squeezing scientific information from these biblical assertions. But are such assertions one and all expressions of “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Here’s a good cliffhanger on which to end.  More to come shortly.

Galileo–The Man who Made The Bible Safe for Science

Two books (Bible and nature)

Two Books and the Man Who Separated Them

June 28, 2016

Back at work after a hiatus occupied with grading and other necessary tasks.

In March I gave a short presentation at the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.  In it I talked about the way in which my church (the Church of the Nazarene) and many other Christians have enthusiastically embraced a view of the Bible that goes back at least as far as Galileo.

Among other things, Galileo is famous (among people who read such things) for an essay

Christine_of_Lorraine_Medici4

Christina, happy to hear from Galileo

(the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany) in which he argued that the purpose of the Bible is strictly to reveal the way to salvation.  Put differently, it is not the Bible’s purpose to reveal anything about the natural world.  Galileo cleverly used a metaphor to get his point across–God has spoken in two books, the Bible (for knowledge about salvation) and the book of nature (for knowledge about the world).

 

Judging from my experience in the dialog between science and theology (a curiously one-sided dialog), my sense is that many Christian thinkers are attracted to Galileo’s way of dividing the intellectual pie.  This embrace is due to the perception that too much unnecessary controversy between the theological and scientific communities has ensued because of faulty assumptions about the Bible. Fundamentalists, in particular, are known for their trust that the Bible delivers to us accurate knowledge about everything, at least everything mentioned in the Bible.

For example, there is a physician, Dr. Mel Mulder (http://www.muldermel.com/author.html), who has a radio show (“Beyond Intelligent Design”) whose tagline is that the Bible is our only source of truth.  This is farther than many Fundamentalists would go, suggesting as it does that the sciences are not at all sources of truth.  Nonetheless, most Fundamentalists would say that the results of scientific study are valid only as long as they do not contradict the Bible.  The assumption is that the Bible does indeed reveal to us certain vital truths about the natural world.  If scientific theory disagrees with the Bible, too bad for science.

Galileo thus provided Christians who are anxious to preserve the autonomy of science with an alternative to Fundamentalism.  Instead of assuming that God lodged truths about nature in the Bible, many, perhaps most Christian thinkers, have embraced Galileo’s division-of-labor approach.  We go to the Bible if we want to know about salvation; we go scientifically to nature if we want to know about the world.

Adopting Galileo’s view carves out a space in the anxious world of Christian universities, a space that, in principle if not always in practice, allows scientists to go about their work without ecclesiastical interference.  This space allows worried university administrators to permit more-or-less untrammeled scientific teaching and research with a good conscience–at least until scientists annoyingly encroach on recognizably theological topics such as the soul and ethics.  Nonetheless, as long as Christian scientists abide by the rules of the Galilean game, the only people complaining are Fundamentalists, who reject the game.  The existence of Fundamentalists, however, is actually a blessing in disguise for Christian universities.  They enable the Christian university’s scientists and administrators to engage in self-congratulation for bring broad-minded and enlightened (compared to Fundamentalists) and also authentically Christian (compared to those afflicted with liberal theology).

Oddly both Galileo and Fundamentalism have proven to be blessings for the Christian university.

Although it is not uncommon for scientists today to play up Galileo’s controversy with the Renaissance papacy, the truth is that he laid the foundation of much contemporary Christian thinking about how faith and theology relate to the sciences.

However, I for one am not happy with Galileo’s depiction of the Bible.  In particular, the notion that the Bible is strictly and only about salvation seems questionable.

However, I’m typing this book on scripture and need to maintain momentum, so I will continue this journal entry on Galileo shortly.

Progressive Revelation

Work in progressThe
Christian faith affirms the reality of progressive revelation; without it, the New Testament would be, not new, but only a different version of the Old Testament. For Christians, the New Testament bears witness to a revelation that is more complete than what we find in the Old Testament. And even in the New Testament we can see some developing insight into revelation, as when the church, after considerable discussion, came to see that God does not require male Gentile converts to be circumcised.

What usually worries us about the idea of progressive revelation is the possibility that there could be a revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ or a witness to revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The Church of Latter Day Saints, for instance, professes to have a revelation that goes beyond and adds to the revelation of Christ to which the New Testament bears witness. Muslim theology claims that Mohammed received from God the ultimate revelation that gives the true interpretation of Jesus Christ’s significance. It is these sorts of beliefs that make the idea of progressive revelation problematic.

Jesus Christ is the
ultimate revelation of God

It is a bedrock element of the Christian faith that there is no revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ and no witness to that revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The basis of this belief is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the
Logos, the word of God, incarnate. Before Jesus Christ there were many preliminary expressions of the word of God, such as Moses’ law or the declarations of the Old Testament’s prophets, but Jesus Christ is the word of God itself, and not merely an expression of that word. It is also a fundamental conviction of the Christian faith that the New Testament is the unsurpassable witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ and is so because it rests on the testimony of Jesus’ apostles.

However, revelation is not only something sent but is also something received. Revelation that is not received by human eyes and ears and minds is not yet revelation. There can, accordingly, be a development in the human understanding of revelation–a growing awareness of the implications of revelation. So, although in one sense no revelation can surpass Jesus Christ and the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ, there is a developing history in which God’s revelation is understood with increasing insight.

The possibility of such a developing history is grounded in the fact that the revelation of Jesus requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches disciples (John 14:26) and guides them into the truth (John 16:13). This Johannine theme reminds us that revelation must be received and that our minds must be suitably disposed by the Spirit to receive it. History shows us that the Spirit’s attempt to lead the church into truth is progressive, even if the pace of progress is frustratingly slow and uneven.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND:  SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

For example, take the practice of slavery. Paul wrote (in Galatians 3:28) that in Christ there is neither slave nor free person. The revelation of Jesus Christ, in other words, means that God is overcoming the distinction between slave and free. Yet the New Testament writers took slavery as a fact of life. They did not and, in their cultural situation, could not envision an end to slavery. But over the centuries, the Christian church came to understand that slavery is contrary to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It took more than 1800 years, but the Spirit finally succeeded in helping the church grasp this important truth. There has thus been progressive insight in the meaning and implications of revelation. Or, take the ordination of women into the ministry of the church. It took Christian churches more than 1800 years to grasp the point that the oneness of men and women in Christ implies the propriety of ordaining women. Most churches still do not acknowledge this point, but some do. Finally, consider the centuries-long Christian belief that the Bible teaches that the earth lies at the center of the universe. It took the labors of astronomers to convince the Christian community otherwise. In this case, astronomy was useful in helping Christians gain insight into what God’s revelation teaches and what it does not teach.

These examples show us that revelation is one thing and the human understanding of revelation, of its meaning, significance, and consequences, is another thing. It is good for us not to confuse the two. When we forget this distinction, we identify our finite, fallible interpretations of scripture with the declaration of scripture itself; we think that our understanding of revelation is revelation itself.

There is no such thing
as generic revelation

What about the phenomenon of Christian prophecy? We read of prophets in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 11:27; Acts 13:1; Acts 15:32; Acts 21:9-11; 1 Corinthians 14:29). These prophets may deliver a revelation (1 Corinthians 14:6, 26, 30). Do these new revelations transcend the revelation of Jesus Christ? The book of Revelation shows us that such utterances of Christian prophets are new revelations, but are not thereby progressive revelations. They do not constitute a revelation beyond Jesus Christ, but they are fresh occasions of revelation in new contexts. Because revelation must received and because this reception always takes place in particular historical and cultural circumstances, there is no such thing as generic revelation. Revelation is always the intersection of God’s speech and human situation. That is why we read the repeated refrain in Revelation, “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (e.g., 2:7; 2:11). The revelation of Jesus Christ is, in a sense, a treasure. Those who are trained for the kingdom of God can bring from it both what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52). Expressed differently, the Spirit of God may have a new word to speak to the church–new because the church dwells in ever-changing contexts that require fresh adaptations of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Three theses on biblical prophecy

prophecy chart

A Chart Explaining Biblical Prophecy and Its Fulfillment

I
have taught the same adult Sunday School class for more than ten years.  From time to time we have studied the Bible’s prophetic writings.  I remember distinctly when we studied the Old Testament’s minor prophets.  A recurring experience of the members of the class was exasperation as, week after week, they failed to find any prophecy in these prophets.  They expected to find in these writings detailed predictions about Jesus Christ and the end of the world.

What they instead found was discourse about the problems of ancient Jews.  For instance, Haggai harangues Israel about its failure to rebuild the temple after its destruction by the Babylonians.  Amos keeps relating God’s demand that Israel practice justice for the poor.  Where is the prophecy? The assumption was that prophecy is prediction about things in the prophets’ distant future and that there is an exact correspondence between prophetic word and historical fulfillment.

In response, over the years I have developed three theses about prophecy in the Bible:

First,
biblical prophecy operates within a fairly near time horizon–the anticipated time between prophetic word and fulfillment is at most a matter of decades, not centuries or millennia.  Thus:

  • Isaiah 1-11 is speaking about most directly about the war between Judah and Israel.  Its hopes for a king who will rule in righteousness (7:10-16 [the sign of Immanuel], 9:1-7, 11:1-9) relate to the son of the current king, Ahaz, not to a messianic figure hundreds of years in the future.
  • Ezekiel’s promise that God would give to Israel a new heart and spirit (36:25-27) is a hope bound up with the return from exile in Babylon.  The book of Ezekiel thus expects a fulfillment within a few years.
  • The book of Revelation is best understood as a warning to Christian churches to maintain moral and spiritual distance from the Roman empire and Greco-Roman culture.
Prophecy is a response to
the immediate situation.

In short, biblical prophecy is a response to the prophet’s immediate situation, whether war with Israel, Babylonian exile, or the Roman empire.  This is not everything that we must say about prophecy, but it is the first thing.  We gain nothing by pretending that the prophets were talking about events in the year 2016.

Second,
prophecy often is not fulfilled according to the time expectations of the prophet and usually not in the manner expected.

  • Isaiah’s hopes that Ahaz’ son would be an ideal king of righteousness were dashed.
  • Ezekiel’s hopes for a renewal of Israel were not fulfilled, at least to the extent that he hoped.
  • Prophecies about the restoration of Jerusalem after the exile were fulfilled in part–Jerusalem was indeed rebuilt after the Babylonian destruction–but not to the degree that oracles such as Isaiah 2:2-4 would lead us to expect.

Additionally, sometimes prophecy is simply not fulfilled.  Ezekiel’s prophecy that God would destroy Tyre by the hand of Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon (chapter 26) did not happen, as the book of Ezekiel admits in 29:17-20.  Babylon simply didn’t have the military might to get the job done.  Likewise, Daniel’s prophecy that the kingdom of God would be established 490 years after the decree to rebuild the temple did not come about.  Indeed, we are still waiting for the fulfillment of that promise.

Prophecy’s fulfillment
is always deferred

To appreciate biblical prophecy, we must acknowledge that the complete fulfillment of its hopes are usually deferred to the indefinite future.  This is why hope is an essential virtue of the Christian life, and why the concept of the future is of such importance.

Third,
the prophetic word is capable of multiple partial fulfillments in different times.  The prophetic word contains a fullness of meaning that is not exhausted in any particular time, short of the eschatological fulfillment.  The prophetic word is thus potent–full of potentiality, capable of speaking, not only to its own time but to future times as well.  The book of Revelation, for instance, although initially relating to the threat posed by the Roman Empire, has the power to speak to Christians of every generation.

The fulfillment of prophecy, therefore, develops over time, as the initial word is re-actualized in new settings.  The task of Christian preaching and teaching is to use the Bible’s prophetic writings in order to discern our situation today, and then to let those writings speak words of judgment and comfort to the church.

 

Narrative and truth

Another experience from teaching New Testament to undergraduates.

I’m trying to help students get the point that in the NT, the narrative serves truth. This sounds innocent enough until we see how it operates in the gospels.

For instance, in Mark’s gospel (chapter 10) Jesus heals a blind man. In Matthew’s gospel (c. 20) Jesus heals two blind men in exactly the same circumstances (outside Jericho, etc.). In Mark’s gospel (c. 5) Jesus casts a demon out of one man who lives among tombs; in Matthew’s version (c. 8) Jesus heals two demoniacs in exactly the same circumstances.

Or, in Matthew and Luke, Jesus heals the son of a centurion. The climax of the story is Jesus’ statement that he has not found this man’s sort of faith even in Israel. In John’s gospel, in a similar story, Jesus performs the same healing but says that people will not believe unless they see signs and wonders.

There are perfectly good explanations for these discrepancies. Matthew’s gospel doubles the number of people healed because, in the Jewish law, two witnesses are required to establish the truth of a matter. Matthew has employed Mark’s stories to say, not only that Jesus can do amazing works of power, but also that there are reliable witnesses to Jesus, thus establishing his validity as the son of God and king of Israel.

Matthew and Luke use the story of the centurion to show that the kingdom of God extends to Gentiles, even to Roman centurions–everyone is invited into the kingdom. Being Jewish does not give one an inside track; even pagans can show exemplary faith. But John’s gospel has a different theological agenda. It wants to show that belief based on miracles is misplaced. The only sound basis of faith is testimony (like the woman by the well’s testimony in chapter 5). So John’s gospel uses the story to make a different theological point.

The gospel writers, in other words, exercise some flexibility when they narrate the Jesus story. They don’t shy away from changing details in the narrative in order to preach their message.

This flexibility is shocking to a culture accustomed to journalistic standards of accuracy. But these standards are not an immutable law; they are simply a cultural prejudice by which we today operate. Ancient cultures knew nothing of this standard and, I suspect, would be surprised by our devotion to it. Although I think that journalistic accuracy is a very good thing, it is a mistake to insist that another culture, such as the Bible’s culture, abide by our 21st century standards.

Part of helping students on this point is to get them to see the importance of treating the NT as they would treat another culture, with its own norms, values, and standards. To appreciate the NT requires that we enter into its cultural world and, at least temporarily, set aside our culture.

The narrative serves truth.

This means that the narration is not an end in itself. The gospel writers show no tendency whatsoever to narrate historical facts just because they are historical. On the contrary, they use and manipulate facts in the service of the message. As Norman Mailer said in an interview, “Something can be true and still be fiction” (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5775/the-art-of-fiction-no-193-norman-mailer).

To put it differently, the sort of truth that the gospels are interested in is not a matter of relating historical facts just for the sake of recording facts. Did Jesus heal one or two blind men? One or two demoniacs? Whatever the historical reality (which of course we can never know), the gospels’ truth does not reside in the facts. It lives instead in the liberating message that the gospels teach.

This is the truth that the narrative serves.

So, it is a mistake to think that Christianity’s primary relationship is to historical events. Theological fundamentalisms having always sought to establish a direct link between the Christian faith and history–the Exodus, the resurrection of Jesus, and so on. But the truth is that Christianity’s primary relationship is not to history but to a book, a story. This book has, I’m sure, some complex relation to the history that it narrates, but there is much about this relation that we can never know.

Christianity is accordingly a religion of a book, a text, a story. Its concern with historical facts is a matter of, at most, secondary concern.

That is why historical narration serves truth.

The Incarnational Paradox of the Bible

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.

A Sermon on Encountering the Word of God

Here is a sermon that I recently delivered.  It’s about the circumstances of life in which we can hear God speak.  It’s an exposition of Luke 9:58-62 (let the dead bury the dead) and a story about my encounter with a homeless couple, an encounter that, I think, put me in the same situation as the man who wanted to follow Jesus but just wanted to bury his father first.

The Unsettling Encounter with the Word of God

This semester I am teaching a course, BIB 101 Old Testament History and Religion. Today I introduced a unit on the prophets. At the same time, students have a weekly assignment to read the book of Amos and write about what they’ve learned.

Today, while talking about the prophets, a student asked whether the prophets’ words were God’s words. It’s a perfect question to ask. Unfortunately, it’s not the right time in the course to give a good response–I want students to do more reading of the biblical text before we get to that student’s question. So, I gave a few vague, preliminary words, indicating that we would address this issue more fully in a few weeks.

So, what is the relation of God’s word to prophets’ words? What is the word of God? As I’ve been saying in these posts, the word of God is not information–it is not intellectual content. The truth is, we don’t need God to reveal truths such as are found in the Bible. The truths of the book of Proverbs, profound as they are (“Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people [Prov. 28:15]), do not require divine revelation. They are truths that everyone knows. Not even the prophets’ words–their denunciation of inequity and lack of justice and faithlessness to God–need divine revelation. Many in ancient Israel must have felt what the prophets declared. We thus don’t need God to give us information or even insight. The prophets could discern evil and denounce it without a special divine gift of information.

It is better to say that the word of God is God’s use of human words to effect God’s purpose. The word of God is an event in which we encounter God. As we hear or read the prophets’ words, which are genuinely their words, God confronts us with words of judgment and grace.

For instance, take the man (in Luke’s gospel, chapter 9) who wanted to follow Jesus, but who first wanted to bury his dead father. Jesus told him to let the dead bury the dead. In this confrontation with Jesus and his strange words, the word of God happened: this man and those who read and hear this story are confronted with the demand of the kingdom of God, a demand that differs from and takes precedence over the demands of conventional morality. In this confrontation, they are judged but also receive grace. It is similar with the ruler (Luke 18) who obeyed all of God’s commands, but is taken aback when Jesus tells him to give away all of his money. Jesus is here not presenting an addition to the law or commanding a new law. Like Paul (Philippians 3), the ruler was blameless according to the demands of the law. Jesus was not about increasing the burden of the law. Instead, in Jesus’ words the ruler experienced the challenging encounter with God. He was judged (he was the inadequacy of obeying the law) but also received grace (he was invited to follow Jesus). The word of God is the encounter, the disturbing confrontation with God that unsettles our conventions and assumptions about what it means to follow God.

It is important to emphasize the existential meaning of the word of God because doing so defines human beings as beings who are addressed by God. There are many ways of defining humans–biologically, psychologically, sociologically, and so on. But theologically considered, we are hearers–or potential hearers–of the word of God. Thus in Job 38, God confronts Job: “I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (38:3). In the world of the Bible, humans are responsible to God–we are called upon to respond to God’s address. Sometimes God commands; sometimes God questions. To be human is to receive the divine command or question and to respond.
This is why it is important not to equate the word of God with communications of information. The speech of God is not the imparting of information or truths of which we are ignorant. To think in this way is to reduce God to the status of divine encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are good, but they cannot judge and offer grace.  They cannot save.