The Word of God for the People of God, Part II

For the previous post in this series, click here.

The Constitution of the United States of America is often referred to as a “living document.” We use this term because, by some miracle of foresight, careful drafting or the simple adaptability of the generic, the Constitution remains responsive to changing societal conditions. The same document has governed this nation from a time of agrarian society where industrial power was provided by the sweat of draft animals to the digital age.

When Supreme Court justices interpret the Constitution, they often speak in terms of “discovering” new doctrines of law rather than creating or adopting them (the doing of which might be a violation of the Constitution). While we’ve amended the document on many occasions, the principles of the core of the Constitution remain the foundation of American government and jurisprudence. It seems that the Constitutional well never runs dry when faced with new and difficult questions—questions that would never have been considered by the nation’s founders.

If the Constitution is a living document, the Bible is even more so. Given its length and breadth, there’s a lot of material to draw from, but even the same passage read repeatedly on different occasions will reveal different things to the same reader. This layering of meaning in the text of the Bible is one of its most defining features, I think.

Partially, this is a matter of the rich metaphors used by the Biblical authors and by the style of the writing itself. However, I believe that the multiplicity of meanings in and the always-something-new attribute of the Bible runs deeper than the skill of its writers—this is where I would say that the Bible is God-breathed, that it has a mystical way to speak to us afresh and to address our own situation no matter what that situation may be.

The Bible is more alive than the Constitution. The Constitution is alive because we return to its principles as we expand the law to deal with new social, legal and technological issues. In that sense, the Constitution is also dead—without the necromantic power of the person reading and interpreting the document, it is simply words on a page. Interpretation is uncertain, perhaps dangerous even, and best combined with a healthy bit of skepticism and careful evaluation.

The Bible, though, is alive in a different way. The true power of the Bible is that, in reading it, studying it, and living with it, one might have an encounter with the Living God, a personal encounter that transcends words on a page in meaning and power to change a person and a life. That was my experience.

For all of my intellectual theologizing, I did not understand Christianity (to the extent that I do at all) until I personally encountered Christ while reading the Bible—and that occurred only a few years ago. For all my talk of mysticism, that was only one of a very small handful of experiences in which I can say I had a direct encounter with the divine in my life. And yet, it changed me in ways that can never be undone, and neither would I want them to be.

Without the intervention of the divine upon the reader, the Bible does not possess the full power that it might. It would be a collection of wisdom, of valuable words, of a truth not fully containable within words, but it would be dead. The Bible is alive because our God is alive.

As Barth might put it, the Word of God (Christ) often comes to us through the medium of the word of God (the Bible), but the two are not the same and do not always coincide. Priority must be given to the Christ.

That is a difficult thing. How do we discern what an encounter with the divine really means? How do we interpret the messages we believe we’ve received from God, particularly when God has such a mastery of the subtle? We can argue fairly about the meaning of a passage of scripture; it becomes much harder to argue with someone about the Truth with which they feel they’ve been convicted.

If that feels dangerous, it’s because it is. For a historical example of the worst potential from those who claim to hear the voice of God but who act in ways clearly against God’s desires, go listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Series called “Prophets of Doom.” (While you’re there, stay a while with Mr. Carlin; his podcasts are terrific).

On the other hand, much has been done with the Bible itself that is counter to God’s desires, without a need for God’s involvement at all. See Gary Oldman’s character, Carnegie, in The Book of Eli for a (fictional) example of that.

While we must deal with the problem of interpretation of the divine message, that problem exists whether received in text or direct experience of the divine. The existence of such problems really does not change the way we prioritize the person of Jesus Christ and the scriptures.

As I’ve argued in other posts, the human mind is limited in its ability to understand the divine. Nevertheless, Christianity is a religion (despite its many fractious denominations) deeply focused on orthodoxy, that is, proper belief. But perhaps we ought to focus more (as Christianity also attempts to do) on the substance of the relationship with the divine, which is transformational even without being understood.

To that end, perhaps we ought to talk about the Bible as a kind of entheogen.

The Word of God for the People of God, Part I

It is a phrase we Methodists hear every Sunday after the scripture lesson: “The word of God for the people of God.” This phrasing is not used just by Protestants; its origin is probably in the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, the Catholic Church’s liturgical document governing the celebration of mass, where the reader of scripture ends by saying, “Verbum Domini,” and the congregants respond, “Deo gratias.”[1]

The phrase troubles me somewhat, not in and of itself, but in the implications it seems to intimate, particularly for American evangelicals predisposed to literalist and infallibilist positions regarding the Bible.

The Bible itself makes no claim to be “the word of God.” In fact, the Gospel of John opens by identifying Jesus Christ as the Word. Now, Paul does tell us that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. 2 Timothy 3:16. I do not mean to call that statement a falsehood (I don’t think it is one), but let’s pull at the strings a little.

The apostle Paul was likely most active from 30 A.D. to 50 A.D., with his death likely sometime around 67 A.D. Scholars do not have a hard understanding of the time of writing and sequence of the Gospels, but they do have enough circumstantial evidence to build strong theories about the same. The Gospel of Mark was probably the first of the canonical Gospels to be written, appearing sometime between 65 A.D. and 70 A.D.[2]

Looking at those dates, we see that Paul had no access to the canonical Gospels during the time he wrote his epistles (which, since he was writing them, were also not part of any recognizable canon). The oral traditions upon which the written Gospels were probably based were undoubtedly in circulation, being preached by Paul himself, others whose names we have in the Book of Acts and certainly many unnamed missionaries as well, but when Paul wrote the words of 2 Timothy, there were no New Testament scriptures to be included in that statement. Really, what Paul is getting at here is that the Jewish scriptures—the Torah, the chronicles and the stories of the prophets—remain relevant to the Christian and should not be abandoned because of the Incarnation.

Let’s also think about the meaning of “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Human cultures have always (at least as long as they’ve recorded their thoughts) used both positive and negative examples to model behavior for others. We tell stories of heroes persevering and triumphing over adversity to demonstrate those qualities we think best in a human being. Conversely, we tell stories about people meeting unfortunate ends to warn away listeners from behavior we have deemed harmful or anti-social.

Several genres are strongly based in using negative examples to persuade the audience to avoid or adhere to certain behaviors. The Greek tragedies, based as they are upon the hubris of their victim-protagonists, provide one sample. As a more modern (and specific) example, consider Friday the 13th, where teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake are murdered, typically after some carnal encounter with their fellows. The obvious moral: premarital sex will get you killed; don’t do it.

You can find plenty of additional positive and negative examples for instructing in behavior in your favorite literary medium. Without putting too fine a point on it, I mean to say that not all examples useful for instruction are ones we’re meant to follow. Paul isn’t saying, “do exactly what the scriptures say without question;” he’s saying, “when properly considered, all scripture has something worth learning.” I think that we can all agree with that, but it is not an argument for a literal interpretation as it is often used.

The New Testament did not become an official canon until centuries after Christ. Marcion of Sinope (declared a heretic for his dualistic belief that the God of the New Testament could not be the same as the God of the Old Testament—ironically based on a somewhat literal reading of texts that failed to make any attempt at reconciliation or synthesis) gave us the first list of “authoritative” (according to him) scriptures around 140 A.D. More lists, closer to the eventual official canon, existed by the beginning of the 3rd century and became relatively close in selection by the middle of the century. Still, the first appearance of the exact list that would become the canonized New Testament (and described as canonized) did not appear until a letter of Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 A.D.

In contrast, the first ecumenical council, the First Council of Nicaea, occurred in 325 A.D. Prior to that many smaller councils had occurred as early as 50 A.D. (the “Council of Jerusalem” described in Acts; the next known council was the Council of Rome in 155 A.D.) to 314 A.D. Each of these councils answered doctrinal and theological questions, though the pre-ecumenical councils were not dispositive as they led to different regions ascribing to different theologies, something the Council of Nicaea sought to rectify.

The First Council of Nicaea brought us the Nicene Creed (though it was amended in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople into the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed). These creeds, perhaps with minor differences in translation or stylistic variances, are still used in worship today. Admittedly, certain of the doctrines codified in these creeds—particularly Trinitarian doctrine and homoousios—came from disciplined close readings of available scriptural documents, but it is nevertheless important to note that the doctrines were adopted before the official canon, and that it is thus likely (based on human nature) that the official canon selected those books that supported already-adopted doctrine over those that provided arguments against such doctrines.

Did God have a hand in these debates, councils and thinkers who gave us both the doctrine and the canonized New Testament? I have no doubt. Did God fully ordain and control the development of doctrine and the canon? God could have, but that doesn’t match my own experience of how God moves in the world. Of course, I’ve been wrong before…

The point of all of this information is not to discredit the value of scripture in the Christian walk, nor to attempt to answer the ultimate questions of interpretation or theological position of the Bible. Nor do I suggest that we should stop using the “word of God for the people of God” phraseology in our liturgy. God does speak to us through scriptures, although this phenomenon I think is more complex than the reading of the words themselves. It should also be noted that the lack of capitalization of the word “word” in the liturgical phrase “word of God” is purposeful; careful Methodist theology is not trying to conflate the Bible with Jesus Christ. This, however, gets lost somewhat in the hearing of the liturgy.

My goal in this post has been to provide some complicating factors based on history and logic surrounding the creation of scripture to nuance our understanding of the meaning of the words “the word of God” when referencing the Bible as compared to “the Word of God” when speaking of Christ.

This discussion cannot end here, because it does not fully answer questions about the Word of God and the use of scriptures. While I will continue to examine this topic, I’m going to hopefully avoid some pedantry and redundancy by referring you to my early post, “Ambiguity in Scripture, Part IV” for a discussion of the Barthian approach to the Word of God as Jesus Christ, a point I’ll pick up on in the post that follows.

For the next post in this series, click here.

[1] An interesting footnote to this historical point, particularly in the context of this post, is that “Verbum Domini” used to be rendered in English as “This is the Word of the Lord” from 1969 until 1991, when the translation became “The word of the Lord.”

[2] It is possible that the theorized Q source predates Mark and was already in some circulation at the time the Mark was written, but this remains debatable.