Archives For How is Scripture the Word of God

1101620420_400One of the problems I had with the Bible before I became a Christian and one of the problems I’ve continued to have since I became a Christian are those nooks and crannies of the Bible (which usually don’t come with red letters) that seem to have nothing to do with who God has shown God to be in Jesus Christ.

You know those passages I mean.

You can usually find them on bumper stickers or in the comments to blog posts. They’re the parts of the Bible most often used in ways that only by willing cognitive dissonance can one imagine Jesus using those passages in the selfsame way.

You know what I mean.

Think of the picket signs: ‘God hates fags’ -Romans 1.26-27

Here’s another of those Bible turds:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

It’s from 1 Timothy 2.

Admittedly, my religious and professional life is lived in the left-of-center world of MainSideline Christianity yet I’m still amused- shocked, my wife would prefer me to say- that there are Christians in 21st America who still labor over how to apply such a passage literally to their life.

John-Piper2Here’s a recent example of “renown” Calvinist Baptist (there’s an unexplored oxymoron) pastor, John Piper, doing just that, picking apart the implications of 1 Timothy 2 with the deprecision of a Pharisee.

Have a listen. Then after you’ve picked your jaw off the floor, you can continue reading.

      1. John Piper's an Idiot

In case you didn’t actually listen: John Piper’s radio show received a breathlessly sincere question about whether 1 Timothy 2’s admonition forbids Christian men from reading biblical commentaries written by women. In response, Piper didn’t come down with a hard yes but that it even took him several minutes to answer should tell you that he’s fielding questions way, way out in right field.

The logic of Piper’s conclusion nets this nifty corollary:

Women can write sermons. They just can’t preach them.

Unless, of course, no one in the congregation has a johnson.

Seriously, Piper- just as many other Christians do- approaches scripture like strict constructionists do the Constitution, as an absolute, unchanging law book.

But here’s my question:

How does Piper’s use of the word of God in this particular case in any way glorify or point to the One Word of God, Jesus Christ?

You see that’s the problem with treating the Bible the way Antonin Scalia treats the Bill of Rights.

It flattens scripture. If it’s all the literal, infallible word of God then every part of the Bible is equally authoritative.

The holiness codes in Leviticus telling us about fabrics, shellfish and homosexuality are as authoritative as the Sermon on the Mount telling us about forgiveness, enemies and turning the other cheek.

In other words, understanding the Bible as the literal, infallible word of God relativizes the Word of God.

Jesus Christ.

I bring this up not just because I think John Piper is a morally repugnant cretin.

I bring it up because this exactly what Karl Barth is after in the Church Dogmatics 1.4.3 when he writes that:

“The Bible is God’s Word as it really bears witness to revelation (Christ)…the Bible is not in itself and as such God’s past revelation” (108).

The Bible, says Barth, is only God’s Word when the Holy Spirit commissions it to witness to the revelation of Christ.

“Witnessing meaning pointing in a specific direction beyond the self and on to another” (109).

crucifixionBarth makes the analogy to the famous Grunewald painting wherein John points with his finger at the Crucified Christ.

Like John, scripture “becomes” the Word of God only as it points to the Crucified and Risen Messiah.

If it doesn’t do that, its not the Word of God. It’s words on a page or empty syllables on a preacher’s lips.

Barth’s doctrine of scripture creates the freedom for me to say (faithfully) that John Piper’s explication of 1 Timothy 2 is not the Word of God.

It’s crap.

But Barth didn’t have John Piper in mind when he wrote CD 1.4.3

No, what’s going on here with Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God is a motif my teacher (in both theology and beard growing), George Hunsinger, called ‘Actualism.’ That is, for Barth, God’s being is defined in terms of Event and Relationship. hunsinger-george-(200x220)

This is contrary to the ancient philosophers who conceived of God’s being as ‘substance’ and contrary to modernist liberals who thought of God in terms of ideas or universal principles.

For Barth, God’s Being is Event and Relationship.

The Trinity, for example, shows that God, at the core, is an ongoing friendship of Father, Son and Spirit.

As Trinity, God is both Event and Relationship.

I know that sounds abstract so I’ll land the plane.

For Barth, scripture is never the Word of God in itself.

It can only become (Event) the Word of God when graced by the activity of the Holy Spirit in our midst (Relationship). 

Scripture as the Word of God must always be a happening because God, as Father, Son and Spirit, is eternally a happening. 

So stick it John Piper.

1101620420_400Favorite Quotes from §1.4.2 Barth’s CD:

‘…in Holy Scripture, too, the writing is obviously not primary but secondary. It is itself the deposit of what was once proclamation by human lips.’ (pg 99)

     In other words:

Barth contradicts those who treat the biblical texts themselves as the infallible, literal Word of God. They are instead the ‘deposit’ of the prophets and saints. I love Barth’s use of the word ‘deposit.’ It connotes well the notion of something precious worth saving.

‘Exegesis (interpretation of scripture) is always a combination of taking and giving, of reading out and reading in. Thus exegesis…entails the danger that the bible will be taken prisoner by the Church.

All exegesis can become predominantly interposition rather than exposition and to that degree it can fall back into the Church’s dialogue with itself.’ (pg 103) 

In other words:

It’s called ‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ It’s biblical studies jargon implying that interpreters must always be wary of the assumptions, values, expectations, perspectives that they bring to the biblical text and often impose upon the text.

For example, even if you believe the bible is the infallible, literal word of God, you’re still a sinner and can’t possibly presume to appropriate scripture’s meaning free of error or ego.

Barth’s humility of interpretation no doubt owed much to his experience of watching German Christians unquestioningly underwriting a nationalism that was idolatrous.

But think even today of the debate around marriage and homosexuality. Just from reading Facebook posts of friends on both sides of that question, it’s clear that all of us are guilty from time to time of reading our own inclinations into scripture and reading out of scripture what we want to read. One side of the debate cites Leviticus holiness codes or Romans 1 while another side cites the boundary-breaking, outcast-embracing ministry of Christ or the Genesis 1 stipulation that we’re made in God’s image.

It’s when we forget or refuse to admit to ourselves that we’re constantly reading in and reading out that the bible becomes a prisoner to the whims of the Church.

‘The exegesis of the bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible…the defense against possible violence to the bible must be left to the bible itself.’ (pg 104)

In other words:

Stop worrying about protecting God, protecting the bible, protecting ‘Christian’ values. Let God worry about God. You just worry about you.

‘The Church’s recollection of God’s past revelation has the Bible specifically as its object because in fact this object and no other is the promise of future divine revelation…’ (pg 104). 

In other words:

Here Barth skillfully navigates a middle way through thinking about scripture and revelation.

Against liberals, who affirm the presence of revelation apart from the Word of God, Christ, as testified to in scripture, Barth reasserts the bible as the sole, specific object of our thinking about God’s revelation.

Against conservatives, who often treat God’s revelation as closed and confined to the pages of scripture, Barth argues that one of the primary reasons scripture is important is that its our only reliable clue as to what God is doing in the world today and will do in the future. That is, it’s only by knowing what God has done that we can faithfully know what God will do.

‘Holy Scripture is the the word of men who yearned, waited, and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it.’ (pg 105) 

In other words:

I think this is a great summary statement for the Old and New Testaments, as longing for Immanuel (Old) and testimony of Immanuel (New).

‘The statement that the Bible is God’s Word is a confession of faith, a statement of faith which hears God himself speak through the biblical word of man.’ (pg 107)

In other words:

Quoting bible verses at a non-Christian or making appeals to God’s eternal decrees to persuade an unbeliever are ultimately a fool’s errand. It’s not God’s word until it is received as such.

The Wesleyan in me (Barth would roll his eyes now) would argue that Barth’s point gets at the need for Christians to embody the Gospel in our lives before we can ever persuade someone to hear the Gospel as the Word of God.

And again, thinking that ‘the Bible is God’s Word’ is confession of faith (which, of course, semantics aside we all know is true…it is a faith statement) begs the question: To what extent can Christians impose their biblical values, through legislation, upon a culture which shares not their beliefs about the bible.

 

1101620420_400I’ve falled behind on my Reading Barth with Me schedule. I caught up this morning and will be posting in the days ahead.

§1.4 is Barth’s unfolding of his 3-Fold Form of the Word of God.

To give context to those sections, I thought it would be helpful to repost an earlier reflection I wrote this summer on Barth’s understanding of scripture as the word which testifies to the Word.

According to Barth, when Christians use the term ‘the Word of God’ we’re actually referring to multiple forms. John’s Gospel, after all, refers to Jesus as the Word of God, does it not?

How are we to think of Jesus-as-the Word in relation to scripture as God’s Word? 

Barth used the image of three concentric circles, which he called the three-fold form of the Word of God. In the inner, centermost circle Barth places the Logos, the eternal Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Next, Barth places the Word of God as testified to us by Israel, the prophets and the Church, which we call scripture. Finally, in the outer circle Barth places the Word of God as its proclaimed and interpreted in the worship and ministry of the Church.

By arranging the Word of God in this way, Barth successfully illustrated that while Christianity is indeed a revealed religion, the revelation of the Word of God is a mediated revelation.

Our access to the Logos comes to us only by way of scripture and the Church. Scripture therefore is not revelation.

The pages and printed words in your bible are not, in and of themselves, the Word of God.

They are our testimony to God’s Word as its been disclosed to Israel and the Church. They require the event of God’s grace to make them a faithful testimony to the Word.

Because of that testimony, scripture is authoritative for us and it is sufficient for communicating all we need to know of and follow this God.

At the same time, one’s testimony is never identical with the person of whom one testifies.

Scripture’s testimony can only partially and provisionally capture the mystery of the eternal Word.

Barth’s model provides the framework for Christians to concede that scripture is not without error.

Scripture does contain geographical and historical errors.

The Gospels do have different and at times contradictory chronologies.

Its depiction of God is not always consistent or easily juxtaposed with other texts.

Translators make decisions, not always without an agenda for their own.

Traditions have different canons.

There are many questions we ask that scripture is simply not interested in answering.

 

None of this should be threatening to Christians, however, precisely because the Word is a mediated revelation. Testimony can be imperfect without jeopardizing the perfection of the One to whom scripture testifies.

In other words, Barth’s three-fold form secures our recognition that we do not believe in the bible; we believe in the One to whom the bible testifies. We worship Jesus Christ not the bible.

Barth’s three-fold form also gives us grounds for both humility and pride.

It gives us cause for humility in that it forces us to recognize how our apprehension of the Word is mediated to us by the proclamation and interpretation of the Church.

In the same way that scripture contains textual errors, it should surprise no one that the Church contains fallible people. The Church has included both saints and sinners from the very beginning.

Our access to the Word both is enabled and limited by those who have come before us (and those among us today). Our convictions about ‘what scripture says’ are never without the residue of historical, cultural and personal bias. As Paul writes, we never cease seeing the Word through a prism darkly.

That the Word is mediated to us through something so fallible as the Church, however, is a cause for joy too for by God’s own choosing we have a role in the revelation of God’s Word. God has chosen to disclose his Word through the matrix of humanity, first by taking flesh in Christ and second by taking flesh in us. No Church, no Word of God.

Scripture, then, is no less incarnational than Jesus.

In scripture and its proclamation, the eternal Word takes on the finitude and fallibility of followers like you and me.

And just as this gives us pause in all our certitudes, it is also good news.