Tag Archives: Bible

Theology as Discipleship 3

In chapters four and five Johnson turns his attention to scripture, providing a functional account of biblical authority. Because God elects his witnesses and identifies with their words—as Christ does with his own witnesses in the New Testament—and because God continues to use scripture as a medium of revelation, it is authoritative. Through these words the ancient witness and the contemporary hearers are linked in the one story and activity of the gracious God.

God’s movement of grace in the past, and the biblical authors’ obedient response to it, reverberates here and now as God uses the authors’ past actions to produce our faith and obedience in the present. In this way, Scripture itself ties God’s various saving acts together to form a single story, a unified history of God’s grace and our response to it (93).

Despite this beginning, Johnson’s description of biblical authority quickly passes over to an ontological and christological account. Scripture is inspired by God—breathed out by God as God’s own very speech, and as such is God’s Word in human words. Even more specifically, Jesus Christ is this inspiring God, who thus stands at the centre of scripture and is therefore, the criterion of all biblical interpretation. Theology, therefore, is learning to think in accord with “the mind of Christ,” illuminated by the Spirit and guided by the scripture.

Scripture’s purpose is not to help us fit God into our lives but to see how our lives fit into what God is doing in history through Christ and the Spirit. Rather than trying to insert Scripture into our reality by figuring out how we might apply it to our lives, our task is to reinterpret our lives and the whole of reality in the light of Scripture (106).

An implication of this view is that interpretation of scripture is not a free-floating, ad hoc, or reader-centred enterprise. Christians and theologians alike are to learn to speak of God appropriately by being inducted into communities and practices of interpretation, and participating with the community of faith in the present activity of God. Thus Johnson identifies three key interpretive principles. First is what he calls the Augustinian principle: all true biblical interpretation will lead to deeper love of God and neighbour. That is, interpretation is measured by outcome rather than by content alone. Biblical interpretation is itself oriented toward discipleship. Second is the ecclesial principle: we read and listen with others, including the tradition of the church. Believers continue to give their attention to (a) the message of Christ, (b) that of the apostles, and (c) the present work of the Spirit. In fact, Johnson suggests that interpreters start with the present work of the living Lord and Spirit as an exercise in hearing, following and participating now in the life and work of God. This, he suggests, is theology as discipleship. But both poles of this interpretive scheme are necessary. Unless we give our attention to the message we are in danger of drifting. Yet the present work of the Spirit also opens the possibility of new and surprising interpretations that we might never otherwise have noticed. This leads finally, to the third christological principle which insists on interpreting all scripture in the light of Jesus Christ as the criterion of interpretation.

Scripture, then, is central to the work and practice of theology. It is the chief creaturely means through which God speaks (110).

Our calling is to help the church think and speak about God correctly so the church can partner with Christ in God’s saving plan for history, and we interpret the biblical text in light of this calling. Our primary goal is not to extract isolated doctrinal truths from the text and then use them as the building blocks of a theological system. Our goal is to help the church interpret Scripture faithfully so that the church can follow Christ as the Spirit leads. This means we interpret each passage in light of how Christ and the Spirit are prompting us to live in relation to God and neighbor right now … We engage in this task knowing the text will be interpreted properly only in light of the living Christ. …Our proper response is to read it with humility, openness and the expectation that God might surprise us (129, original emphasis).

Why Study the Biblical Languages?

MelanchthonIn her The Roots of the Reformation Gillian Evans devoted many pages detailing the recovery of the biblical languages by the Renaissance and Christian humanists which played a decisive role in the Reformation. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) claimed that Hebraei bibunt fontem, Graeci rivos, Latini paludes—“the Hebrews drank from the spring, the Greeks from a river, the Latins from a swamp” (Evans, Roots, 264).

For a thousand years Western Christianity had relied on the Latin Vulgate and the numerous commentaries and glosses that had arisen around that translation. Copyist errors, traditional and philosophical interpretations, and certain translational decisions by Jerome in the fourth century all muddied the waters of biblical interpretation. Hence the humanist and Reformation cry, Ad fontes!—“Back to the sources!”

One of the Reformers, Philipp Melanchthon insisted that learning the biblical languages was essential:

Led by the Holy Spirit, but accompanied by humanist studies, one should proceed to theology . . . but since the Bible is written in part in Hebrew and in part in Greek—as Latinists we drink from the stream of both—we must learn these languages, unless we want to be “silent persons” (Evans, 264).

john1118greekwordle

Likewise Martin Luther, according to biographer Scott Hendrix:

Erasmus need not have worried that Protestant reformers would destroy good scholarship. All the leading reformers were trained in the classics and most had earned advanced degrees. They had no intention of abolishing the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, since the knowledge of those languages helped to make the reformation possible. Writing to a familiar supporter in 1523 Luther emphasized that point:

“Do not worry that we Germans are becoming more barbarous than ever before or that our theology causes a decline in learning. Certain people are often afraid when there is nothing to fear. I am convinced that without humanist studies untainted theology cannot exist, and that has proven true. When humanist studies declined and lay prostrate, theology was also neglected and lay in ruin. There has never been a great revelation of God’s word unless God has first prepared the way by the rise and flourishing of languages and learning, as if these were the forerunners of theology as John the Baptist was for Christ” (Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 169).

Luther’s final sentence is well worth considering. I have often repeated to my students a comment my former Greek professor made to me: “If you can learn to read the Scriptures in the original languages you will gain 20-25% additional insight into the text.”

Why Read Barth?

Barth at his DeskThe other day one of my students asked me, “In one sentence, why do you like Karl Barth?” There are probably many answers to that question but what came out of my mouth was, “When I read Barth, I find the gospel comes alive for me.”

And just now, I read this at Out of Bounds:

The other day I ‘caught’ a student in our library ‘just’ reading the Bible and when I jokingly questioned her she said ‘reading Barth makes me read the Bible.’ 

When a theologian has that effect on a student—as Barth did on me—the theologian is worth reading.

Earliest Draft of King James Bible Found

Draft KJVAn American scholar, searching in the archives of a Cambridge University library, was looking for an undiscovered letter from the early seventeenth century. He found what he was looking for. He also found something else: the earliest working draft yet discovered of a section of what later became the King James Version of the Bible. Dated to between 1604 and 1608, the notebook is the work of Samuel Ward, master of Sidney Sussex College, and in the 1980s had been catalogued as “verse by verse commentary” with “Greek word studies and some Hebrew notes.” As Professor Miller tried to decipher what passages Samuel Ward was commenting on in the seventy or so pages of notes, he realised it was not commentary but a draft.

“You can actually see the way Greek, Latin and Hebrew are all feeding into what will become the most widely read work of English literature of all time,” Professor Miller said. “It gets you so close to the thought process, it’s incredible.”

More Facebook Theology

AnchoriteJust yesterday another question popped up on Facebook and again I have attempted to answer it, however inadequately. I should note that this is a very good question but also one with very demanding implications. There are actually two questions and I am aware that I have not addressed the second question specifically, but I think my answer to the first will provide indications of how I might address that second answer. As it happens, I am also in the midst of marking a series of graduate essays on precisely this question: “What is systematic theology, and what use is it?” Some of the essays have been excellent, and I may ask a student if I may reproduce their essay here. In the meanwhile, here is the question posed and my answer:

Christians have been discussing theology for nearly 2000 years. If systematic theology is “faith seeking understanding” then what understanding has been revealed through all the discussions (in all the seminaries, in all the towns, in all the world)? What do we understand now that we didn’t understand when Jesus completed his earthly ministry?

Ah, dear friend, you need not have worried that your question would in some way offend me – I love it when students ask questions! Still let me address your question, though I suspect as you will note, that you already know the answer!

The irony of your question is that you are doing theology in the asking of it. What relation does a man who lived two millennia ago have to do with us today? What is his significance? On what grounds is that significance based? Why is this Jesus not lost in the mists of history as were so many of his contemporaries? Why should anyone today pay the slightest attention to him? The answer to any and all of these questions involves the doing of theology. This, of course, must be done afresh in every generation.

There are likely many ways of approaching this task, but a time-tested and proven way is to approach the task historically. This works well for several reasons, not least of which is that we are all very unoriginal and manage to come up with the same problems, questions and errors that have been raised time and again in the history of the tradition. The tradition gives us exemplary answers to some questions; shows the limits of our ability with respect to other questions, indicates exemplary and less-than-exemplary methods in approaching these questions, highlights the fact that the very questions we ask are often contingent on our own place in history, and shows us many, many bypaths that are best avoided. For example, the innocent idea (delusion?) that one can simply read the Bible for oneself and come up with the unsullied truth.

One can, of course, simply read the Bible and come up with faith, and this too is a wonderful thing. But even that faith will generate a range of questions that will then be answered with a host of better and worse answers. And so theology begins…

Further, virtually everything we know of this Jesus comes from a very small collection of a ancient sources, written in ancient languages, in ancient contexts so very different from our own. Thus all kinds of hermeneutical issues are raised – afresh in every generation. Get two people reading the same biblical text and you will end up with two – or likely more – possible interpretations of what the text means and what its significance is and what the range of its applications might entail. Thus theology is inevitable, again, as a fresh work in every generation…

But you know this already – I suspect it is the implications of it you avoid. But, alas, you cannot and will not avoid them even if you take the life of an anchorite. Or you could become a fundamentalist of one kind or another…that always remains an option!

Kevin Vanhoozer, Again

Vanhoozer at MooreThank you Jamie, for letting me know that the Kevin Vanhoozer lectures from the Annual Moore College Lectures have now been posted online. The lectures can be accessed here.

(See my earlier post on the first lecture here, including my comment about the question I asked Kevin.)

I was present for the first (public) lecture on Friday night, and my question can be found at about 1 hour, 10 minutes of that lecture. Listening to Kevin’s answer again, I still think he misunderstands my question, but perhaps not so drastically as I thought on the night. He still suggests that the problem with interpretive pluralism as Smith presents it, is located in the biblicist interpreter who wants the Bible to address questions it was never intended to address. This is certainly an aspect of Smith’s argument, and I agree with Vanhoozer on this point. Smith, however—and this is the question that Kevin did not concede—does locate interpretive pluralism in the biblical text itself, however, in addition to the problem of the biblicist interpreter. The biblicist approaches the Bible as though its meaning was univocal, as though it speaks clearly with a single voice and meaning. Smith continually suggests, however, that this approach is itself inadequate:

If these descriptive accounts and analogies about how the Bible is actually read and made sense of by real Christians are essentially correct and revealing, then that tells us something very important. It tells us that the Bible is multivocal in its plausible interpretive possibilities: it can and does speak to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things. […] Whatever biblicist theories say ought to be true about the Bible, in their actual, extensive experience using the Bible in practice, Christians recurrently discover that the Bible consists of irreducibly multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent texts (polysemy means “multiple meanings” and multivalent means “many appeals or values”) (Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, 47, original emphasis).

Or again:

The ideas of biblical multivocality, polysemy, and evidential under-determination may not fit the biblicist theory about scripture. Biblicists instead tend to assume the single, univocal meaning of biblical texts. […] The multivocality and polysemy of the Bible, and the diversity and division to which they give rise, are undeniable, historical, empirical, phenomenological facts.  It is not that multiple possible meanings are necessarily read into scripture by readers’ subjectivities (although sometimes they are) but rather that, even when read as good believers should read the texts, the words of scripture themselves can and usually do give rise to more than one possible, arguably legitimate interpretation. This very biblical multivocality and polysemy is exactly what explains a great deal of why Protestantism in particular—the tradition that, as the historical champion of sola scriptura and biblical perspicuity, has primarily fostered biblicism—is itself extremely fragmented doctrinally, ecclesiologically, and culturally. […] To deny the multivocality of scripturure is to live in a self-constructed world of unreality (Smith, The Bible, 52-54).

My question to Kevin was asking for his response to this claim. I would still like to hear it, and I will listen to the lectures with interest to see whether he does address it in one of the later sessions. To me, Smith’s contention has more than a grain of truth, and if anything, makes Kevin Vanhoozer’s project all the more necessary. We need carefully devised hermeneutical principles for reading scripture well. Kevin’s proposal for a gospel-oriented (the five solas) and ecclesial (the priesthood of believers) model for biblical interpretation will be, I believe, an important contribution to this essential discussion.

A Sermon for Sunday – Psalm 77

hot-coffee & beansIntroduction 

Many years ago I was living in Geraldton and one weekend had to get down to Perth. A friend flew up to Geraldton, picked me up in a light aircraft to fly me back to Perth. During the flight he turned the autopilot off and handed the controls over to me. One of the dials I had to keep an eye on was the attitude meter – which measures the orientation of the aircraft in relation to the horizon. Keep the nose up or you’ll crash and burn! Keep your attitude up! How?

Easier said than done, especially for an introvert! An introvert is someone who lives inside their own head. The busy brain is always at work, observing, hearing, seeing, processing, thoughts whirling around and around. And all this is okay as long as everything is on the up-and-up. But of course, real life has its downs as well as its ups…

Lament

Psalm 77:1-3
I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered you O God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint.  Selah

Psalm 77 begins as a psalm of lament, the cry of the people of God in days of darkness and distress, despair and desolation. Here the psalmist is recounting his story: urgent, persistent, prolonged prayer, and yet the prayer seems to go unanswered. And the more he thinks, the lower he gets: I mused, and my spirit grew faint. Sometimes all you can see is darkness…

Psalm 77:4-6
You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.

Notice how much mental energy is going into this. The brain is busy, the mind consumed. I remembered, I mused, I enquired. So much so that he cannot sleep and cannot speak.

Psalm 77:7-9                                                             
‘Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favour again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?         
Has his promise failed for all time?     
Has God forgotten to be merciful?      
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?’

Six heart-aching, heart-breaking rhetorical questions. The psalmist has fallen into a pit of despair, distress and depression. The psalmist is filled with doubts, sleepless and weary. The very thought of God is painful. This is not simply one bad circumstance that caused this sorrow: his whole life has been defined by anguish. He longs for days gone by when life was a praise and God seemed so close. Now, it seems that God has rejected him; his unfailing love has failed; his limitless compassion has exhausted itself and found its limit; his promise has fallen to the ground, empty and broken. As he surveys all this evidence he comes to a conclusion:

Psalm 77:10 (NASB)
Then I said, ‘It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’

The psalmist is in the midst of spiritual depression. The tide has gone out; life is empty, emotions are flat and days are endless. Notice the amount of energy turned inward – how the focus is only upon himself. How will he ever find any hope if he believes that even God is against him, has forsaken him?

Hope

But as so often in the psalms, lament turns to hope and praise.

Psalm 77:10-15
Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.           (NIV)

The great change of mood in this psalm comes when the psalmist begins to remember, to meditate and consider the works and goodness and power of God. He has lifted his eyes from himself to the Lord. He is still musing and meditating, but the direction of his meditation is different. Our life tends in the direction of our dominant thoughts. His distress is still real, but the sting of his grief has been pulled—the sense that he is alone, alienated and abandoned. In the midst of his distress and without denying the reality and pain of his circumstances, he turns his attention toward God, towards God’s faithfulness, towards God’s goodness, towards God’s power. The holy God is also a mighty God, and the holy, mighty God is also a faithful God: faithful to his people! He redeems the descendants of Jacob—including the psalmist! We are drawn towards that upon which we meditate; we are drawn in the direction of our dominant thoughts. This is why we must praise and pray and meditate: so that we might be drawn more deeply into God, into God’s purposes and promises, God’s plans and priorities, God’s power, peace and provision.

What is the content of the psalmist’s meditation? Obviously he is recalling previous blessings. But more than that, he is meditating on the Scriptures, the Bible, the Word of God. More specifically, he is meditating on the story of God’s redemption of his people from slavery in Egypt and the power of Pharaoh.

Psalm 77:16-19a
The waters saw, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea…

The psalmist had turned to the Scripture and from the Scripture was drawing a new hope. He was a descendent of Jacob! He was a member of God’s people.

  • Here we see a difference between Christian meditation and other forms of meditation which encourage us to empty our minds, to centre ourselves deeply within ourselves. Christian meditation fills the mind with Scripture and rises up out of ourselves towards God. The great spiritual masters of the Christian tradition agree that there is no real depth of spirituality or spiritual maturity without the practice of meditation in God’s word.
  • See also Psalm 1; Joshua 1:8; Isaiah 26:3; John 8:31-32; John 15:7; Colossians 3:16;
  • Spiritual transformation—two analogies: The coffee analogy – the water runs through the beans absorbing the colour, flavour, aroma and taste of the beans. So, too, we allow the Word to run through our minds over and over again until we take on its aroma and character. The ‘engrafted’ word (James 1:21, KJV) – a farmer friend grafted four kinds of citrus onto one plant, so the one tree bore four different fruits! Engraft forgiveness, courage, love for and confidence in God into your life through meditation in the Scriptures. Meditate on the person and work of Christ and allow Christlikeness to grow in your life.

Psalm 77:19-20
Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Israel was in a hopeless situation and filled with despair. Hemmed in by the desert on each side, the sea in front and the Egyptian army approaching behind. They had no hope, no escape, no resources, no future. But God’s footprints are ‘in the sea’ – where there is no possibility of footprints. His way is often hidden from us, and when we cannot see the path we must trust the shepherd. God shepherded his people in the days of Moses and brought them through the sea. Is that what Asaph grasped when meditating the Word? That he too was a descendent of Jacob? That he too was a member of the covenant people? That God would be faithful to him too? That as God had shepherded the people then, so he would also shepherd Asaph now?

And what about us? We, too, have a shepherd – Jesus is the good shepherd who gave his life for the sheep. He is the great shepherd of the sheep who will shepherd us all the days of this life and into all eternity.

Revelation 7:9-10, 13-17
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb…And they cried out with a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ …

 Then one of the elders asked me, ‘Who are they and where did they come from?’ I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said,

 ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

My point today is not to make light of the terrible heartache and grief that we sometimes feel: this is real. But friends, God is a God of hope, and he wants to give his people a future filled with hope. One of the means by which he will cause that hope to arise is through his word. Will you take it up and read, meditate? Will you resist spiritual depression and go forward?

Kevin Vanhoozer Sings “Sola”

Vanhoozer at Moore

When in Sydney last week I took the opportunity to head out for the first of this year’s Annual Moore College Lecture, to hear Kevin Vanhoozer address the theme, “Mere Protestant Christianity: How Singing Sola Renews Biblical Interpretation.” It was the first of six lectures and I would have liked to have heard the whole series which finished just this morning. At some point the whole series will be available online to download.

The lecture began with a question: “Should the church repent of or retrieve the Reformation?” Vanhoozer surveyed some recent opinions which suggest that the Reformation was responsible for the development of secularism (Brad Gregory), scepticism (Richard Popkin), and schism (Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart). I even learnt a new word during this section: fissiparous, which means—in a non-biological context—having a tendency to divide into groups or factions. Vanhoozer recognised the partial truthfulness of these charges though he also noted that (a) the Reformers never sought division or thought it desirable; and (b) that at least part of these unintended consequences of the Reformation were due to the revolution Luther instigated with respect to biblical interpretation, including allowing individual Christians to read and interpret Scripture. He cites McGrath at this point, suggesting that this is “Christianity’s dangerous idea.”

But, has the Reformation also set interpretive anarchy in play? What are we to make of the fact of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (Christian Smith)? If the Holy Spirit is guiding our interpretation—as so many claim—why are we not led to identical or at least similar interpretations of Scripture? Here Vanhoozer displayed the intent of his lectureship: what is needed is a viable criterion by which we can arrive at a warranted interpretation of Scripture. For Vanhoozer, an over-reliance on sola scriptura when mixed with an individualistic understanding of the priesthood of all believers has resulted in interpretive pluralism. Thus he wants to rethink biblical interpretation in light of the Reformation solas, a corporate understanding of the royal priesthood of all believers, and a commitment to the catholicity of the church.

Nor does all this entail a traditioned interpretation frozen in time. Theology is not simply repetition of positions held in the past, nor repristination whereby previous interpretations are simply dusted off and dressed afresh for presentation in a new environment. Retrieving the gospel requires translation, a style of biblical interpretation and theology which not only looks back with appreciation to explore, understand and retrieve the tradition of the church, but which also looks forward, bringing the word of the gospel in present contexts in light of future hope. Overall the lecture was a great entrée, and I look forward to hearing the whole series to see how Vanhoozer works out these themes in detail.

But then in the question time a funny thing happened. In forums such as these my natural caution (pride issuing in fear?) often keeps me from asking a question. In this lecture, however, because I am familiar with Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible which Kevin addressed explicitly, I asked for his comment on Smith’s assertion that the Bible is inherently “multivocal and polysemous,” that is, inherently capable of various meanings and interpretations because it speaks with multiple voices. At this point Kevin, it seemed to me, back-pedalled. He did not answer my question but instead launched into a brief defence insisting that he did not think that Smith was claiming the Bible had “errors,” for if he had done so, that would be “easy to refute.” Rather, he was taking Smith’s critique to heart to make his own task more difficult. Perhaps Kevin misunderstood my intent, and conscious of his environment (Moore College), felt he needed to utter a defence of inerrancy. I had opportunity the next evening to chat with someone else who was there and who had wondered about Kevin’s response to the question, not understanding why he said what he did.

Nevertheless, the very fact that Vanhoozer seeks a “viable criterion” and is developing a sophisticated hermeneutic for the people of God suggests that the meaning of the Bible is simply not as plain as we often like to believe. It is precisely this kind of simplistic belief, so prevalent in some sectors of the church, that needs urgent redress, and I wholeheartedly support Kevin’s efforts in this direction. Biblical interpretation is an ecclesial rather than merely an individual practice, deeply respectful of Scripture’s provenance and authority, informed by practices of interpretation in the history of the church, and oriented toward a clear re/presentation of the gospel for the church and wider world in its present context, and robust Christian formation in the same context.

“Alive & Powerful” – The Old Testament as the Word of God?

Bible Reading

The other day one of our students posted this on the student Facebook page:

Good quote from Keller: “God acts through his words, the Word is “alive and active” (Heb 4:12) and therefore the way to have God dynamically active in our lives is through the Bible. To understand the Scripture is not simply to get information about God. If attended to with trust and faith, the Bible is the way to actually hear God speaking and also to meet God himself.” (Timothy Keller, Prayer p 54)

Another student responded:

On what grounds do you claim that ‘word of God’ in Heb 4 refers to the Bible? … I don’t think that the writer of Hebrews can possibly be talking about the Bible. I have to say that I don’t know what it means to say that the Bible is alive and active. However I do believe that God is alive and active and that he speaks through the Bible.

I found this a very interesting question. Hebrews 1:1 sets the theme of the whole book: God has spoken in many ways, and has now done so decisively through his Son. Yet Hebrews 2:11-13 says that Jesus (implied subject) speaks – and then cites Psalms and Isaiah as Jesus’ words. Psalm 95 is counted as “it is said,” the Holy Spirit said, God said, David said (3:7; 3:15; 4:3; 4:7). All the way through the “it” that speaks seems to refer to the Bible. Jesus’ word is then cited as biblical texts. “God said” is applied to biblical texts. “The Holy Spirit said” again references a biblical text. Over and over the writer of Hebrews cites biblical texts as authoritative and in a number of places attributes it to God. So when we get to 4:12-13, it seems we must do two things:

(a) Read it in the light of this overarching theme or practice in the book, especially deriving from 1:1; and
(b) recognise that verse 13 then personifies the “word of God” – nothing is hidden from his sight.

Yes, 4:12-13 are a difficult text. No, it couldn’t mean the Bible as we have it today – it was not in existence at that time. But it is not beyond imagining that the author has the Old Testament scriptures – the Hebrew Bible – in mind when he uses the phrase, but the Hebrew Bible finding its goal, completion, climax in Jesus, and indeed being seen as the message of Jesus. It would be an interesting study in Hebrews to check every time it references a biblical text, the words “Word”, “says”, “message”, and any other term which signifies speech, proclamation, etc.

This is an outstanding example of theological interpretation and a christological reading of the Old Testament, already in the New Testament period, and an indication that historical-literary approaches, so dominant today (and not without good methodological warrant) are not the only way to read Scripture, and perhaps not the most “biblical” way to read Scripture. People in the Bible didn’t read the Bible the way we often insist on reading the Bible!

The second student continued the dialogue:

Right. As I understand it, the phrase “word of God” means a message from God. God spoke, “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness”. Michael – my understanding is that NT writers referring to the OT usually use phrases like “the law and the prophets” or “scripture” or “writings”. Is there another instance of an NT writer using this phrase to mean the OT?

Perhaps there are several. In Acts 17 Paul goes to Thessalonica and reasons with them “from the Scriptures” (v. 2). Verse 11 speaks of those, then, in Berea who “received the word” searching “the Scriptures” to affirm the proclamation. Then verse 13 says that the Thessalonians heard that “the word of God had been proclaimed in Berea also.” This narrative text appears to link your phrase directly with the Scriptures – the Hebrew Bible. Finally in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul reflects on this experience and again says that his proclamation – “from the Scriptures” – was the word of God. (See also Paul’s proclamation in Acts 13:13-49 which includes the biblical narrative generally, specific biblical texts, the Jesus story – and which all is called “the word of God.”)

2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:2 links the terms “Scripture” and “Word.” 1 Peter 1:23-25 speaks of the “living and enduring word of God” which “endures forever,” and which was preached to the hearers. The question arises, how does this word perdure? Peter is citing Scripture and continues to do so into ch. 2, also speaking of those who are disobedient “to the Word.”

Perhaps Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:4 are also relevant where he speaks of every word which proceeds from the mouth of God – and in the entire incident is citing Deuteronomy. In Matthew 15:4-6 he refers to legal texts in Exodus as the word of God. In John 10:34-35 the “law” (actually the Psalms) are called the word of God, with the additional proviso that the “Scriptures” cannot be broken.

I wonder if Paul’s references to the “word of God” and his exposition concerning the Scriptures in 2 Cor 2:17 – 4:2 are relevant? Here he explicitly refers to Moses being read, though the reader is only “unveiled” in Christ. Then, they are beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord. Certainly the glory of God is in the face of Christ (4:6); but where is that face set forth for us?

There is no doubt that many NT references are to the proclamation of the gospel, but some do seem to refer to the written accounts where God’s prior words have been preserved for succeeding generations. Further, as already noted above, the author of Hebrews reads the Old Testament through a christological lens, as finding its goal, completion and climax in Jesus. It seems likely, too, that at least some of the New Testament authors referred to the Old Testament as “the Word of God.”

Meanderings…

Hunsinger, Barth with Charity CoverThe other day I found a few interesting articles while browsing – something I don’t get to do often enough, it seems…

“Barth Wars” at Princeton?
My copy of George Hunsinger’s new book arrived on Monday, and I hope to read it as soon as semester is over and the marking is in. I had opportunity to meet with both George and Bruce McCormack at Princeton during my visit last December. Perhaps the word “war” is a bit rich, but the interpersonal friction between the two eminent Barth scholars is sad. I have learnt a great deal from both and respect them both very highly, even if I don’t agree with them on every point.

On Marriage and Millennials from First Things

To my students, the authors of “What is Marriage?” are making a troubling move, reducing the purpose of marital sex to its reproductive function. What they seemed less able to recognize is that they have inherited the inverse: a view of sex with little meaningful connection to procreation. And once such a view of sexuality is embraced, there is not much foothold, aside from appeals to biblical authority, to support the conjugal understanding of marriage.

Another book that I enjoyed but also found funny was Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. It was funny because his sociological approach highlighted in a humorous way, the way evangelicals often use the Bible. This even-handed review treats the book fairly, and rightly suggests that Smith has caricatured evangelicals as a group. Smith’s attack on the word “biblicism” is perhaps too general, even though he carefully nuances what he means by the term. I still think that “biblicism” is okay, if what is meant by the term is a respect for and commitment to the authority of Scripture. Obviously there are different models for understanding that authority. One weakness of the review is that the author does not really engage with Smith’s constructive chapter on christological interpretation.

Speaking of Scripture, the theme and Call for Papers for next year’s Los Angelos Theology Conference has been announced: The Voice of God in the Text of Scripture. If I lived in North America, I would go. As it is, I will wait for the book…