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Dr. J. Rodman Williams
THEOLOGY
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THEOLOGY

Scripture: God's Written Word -- Chapter 1

By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
Theologian

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

 


Chapter One

Background: God’s Spoken Word and the Role of Scripture

 

A. God’s Spoken Word

It is important to recognize that the word of God is first of all the word God speaks. God communicates: His word goes forth. God speaks in manifold ways. Let us note where and how this happens.

God speaks His word in and through creation. "The heavens are telling the glory of God.... Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge" (Psalm 19:1-2).1 The Psalmist elsewhere says, "For ever, O Lord, thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens" (Psalm 119:89). The word God speaks in the heavens is a silent word: "There is no speech, nor are there words... yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Psalm 19:3-4). God continually speaks in and through His creation proclaiming His glory.

God speaks His word in and through His prophets and apostles. It sometimes came to them in a vision, sometimes in a dream, sometimes mouth to mouth"2 –but in any event it was the word of God spoken to them. Quite frequent in the Old Testament is some such expression as "The word of the Lord that came to… saying."3 That word, in turn, was communicated to others. In the New Testament the apostles not only on occasion had visions and dreams wherein God spoke,4 but also they belonged to the immediate circle that heard the word of God directly through Jesus Christ and thereby declared to others that word.

God speaks His word in and through His Son. "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" (Hebrews 1:1). Jesus Himself is the Word of God (John 1:1), and in His person, words, and deeds communicates the message of God to all mankind. Jesus Christ, in the climactic sense, is the spoken word of God.

God speaks His word in and through the church. "Through the church the manifold wisdom of God... [is to be] made known..." (Ephesians 3:10). The word of God thus is also the word proclaimed by the church. Peter speaks of "the living and abiding word of God" and adds that "the word is the good news which was preached to you" (I Peter 1:23, 25). So Paul can say to Timothy: "Preach the word" (II Timothy 4:2). The preaching of good news, therefore, is the preaching of the word of God.

God speaks His word in the heart of the believer. Moses in making reference to God’s commandment says: "the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it" (Deuteronomy 30:14). If this was true of the Old Testament believers, how much more of the Christian believer. For within him is the "implanted word" (James 1:21), the word that God speaks: it is living and growing. The continuing challenge was spoken by Paul: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom" (Colossians 3:16). Ever and again God speaks His word within the believer who is open to what God has to say.

Thus in many ways—in creation, prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ, the church, the believer—God speaks His word. The word of God thereby is the spoken word of God.

B. The Role of Scripture

From what has been said, it is apparent that the word of God is not simply identical with the Scriptures. The word of God in creation, the incarnate Word of God, the proclaimed word by the church: none is directly Scripture. Even the word that came to a prophet or an apostle was not, as such, Scripture—though it became that when set down in writing.5 The word "in the heart" may be Scripture, but it also may be an "implanted" or "engrafted"6 word that is God’s peculiar word and work in a particular individual.

In all of this, however, the Scriptures occupy a crucially important role. First, we may speak of the indispensability of Scripture. In relation to the word spoken in creation, the Scriptures make for clarification and discrimination. From a purely natural perspective there are aspects of creation today in the visible heavens and the earth that do not seem to proclaim God and His glory, but rather randomness, disorder, and evil. Nature does not always seem benign in the face of upheavals of earth, violent storms, ravages of wild animals, and the like. The "glasses"7 of Scripture are needed to truly apprehend God’s handiwork in it all, and to accurately hear what God is saying. The Scriptures are indispensable also in that they are the only record available of the word spoken through the prophets and apostles, and incarnated in Jesus Christ. Without Scriptures we would be dependent on oral tradition with all its ambiguities and uncertainties. The Scriptures, further, are indispensable as a guide for the proclamation of the church. Without the original witness, the message preached and taught would soon lose its bearings. Concerning the matter of the word in the heart, unless there is the constant check of Scripture there is danger of confusing God’s word with one’s own personal experience.

This leads, secondly, to a recognition of the normativity of Scripture. Since the Scriptures are the written record of the prophetic, incarnate, and apostolic word—namely, the special revelation8 of God—they are the norm of all Christian faith and practice. Whatever does not measure up to biblical teaching, or departs therefrom, is a foreign intrusion. Scripture thus is "for reproof, for correction" (II Timothy 3:16). It is both governor and standard: governor of true belief and practice and standard by which all is judged. Everything must be put to the test of Scripture.

There is always the danger of tradition becoming a second norm, or—worse still—the primary norm. Such, unfortunately, is the case in Roman Catholicism where tradition is placed on a plane of equality with the Scripture,9 and as such in time becomes the dominant factor. Thus growing traditions with little or no recourse to Scripture, such as papal infallibility, the immaculate conception, and the assumption of Mary, are finally declared to be "revealed dogmas."10 Scripture has ceased to be the norm, whatever claims may verbally be made about it. But this also happens in any church, often in subtle ways, when a confession or creed is viewed as the standard for the church’s faith and practice. Thus, for example, unreserved commitment to the creeds of the early church councils or to the confession of a particular denomination11 is once again—whatever the claims to the contrary—a way of going beyond the normativity of Scripture. Hence, it is essential that creedal and confessional statements, for all their importance,12 remain secondary to Scripture.

Also there is the danger of lessening the normativity of Scripture by giving acceptance to later supposed revelations that actually contravene or supplement the special revelation in the Bible. In a quite radical fashion this occurs, for example, in the Muslim religion (Islam) where a presumed additional revelation from God (Allah) is given that, despite frequent reference to the Scriptures of Old and New Testaments, becomes the final authority: it is no longer a matter of what the Bible teaches but what the Koran says. Of course, in the case of the Muslim religion there is no pretense of being or remaining Christian. A less radical example is that of Mormonism which claims to be Christian but, like Islam, has an additional sacred book, The Book of Mormon,13 that is held to have been given by revelation. Thus the Bible becomes only a part of revealed truth; and, by virtue of The Book of Mormon being more recent, the normativity of Scripture is totally eclipsed.

This may also happen within recognized Christian bodies wherever there are claims to revelation that go beyond Scripture or purport to be authoritative interpretations of Scripture. An example of this is a book on angels wherein "direct messages" interpreting Scripture were presumably given by angels, and the claim made that "part of the special work of God is doing is a broader revelation of Himself through messages by angelic visitation."14 A "broader revelation"—whatever the claims to the primacy of Scripture, or that such revelation is only a fuller understanding of Scripture—is actually going beyond Scripture. If an angel speaks, his message surely must be the norm by which Scripture is to be interpreted!

Another, often more subtle, danger is that of allowing cultural conditioning to become the norm of truth rather than Scripture. For example, the present day concern on the part of many for self-realization, or self-achievement, has frequently led to viewing the Gospel as the guide to that end. The Bible becomes practically a handbook to achieving the self-fulfilled life. Under such cultural conditioning the message of Jesus about self-denial, taking up a cross, and following Him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23) is not only translated into a contemporary key but it is transformed15 into something entirely different by the cultural setting. The Scripture ceases to be normative.

Likewise, personal experience, particularly of a striking kind, can lead to a departure from the rule of Scripture. For example, this occurred at the time of the Reformation when some of the "left-wing" Reformers claimed that "having the Spirit" they no longer needed the Scripture and its rule. Similarly, various forms of pietism later exalted feeling in Christian experience so that while the Bible generally was regarded as the word of God, the actual norm for Christian faith and practice became the inward experience. In the twentieth century one form of this has been demonstrated in "existential" approaches to the Bible where existentialist analyses of human existence—e.g., the individual in his anxiety, search for freedom, desire for authentic existence, and the like—become the touchstone of Scripture and its interpretation.16

We may now, in the third place, speak of the authoritativeness of Scripture. Because of the fact that the Scriptures are both indispensable to the Word of God spoken in multiple ways (through creation, prophets, Christ, apostles, and church) and are normative for the special revelation (in prophets, Christ, apostles), they are authoritative for Christian faith and practice.

The authoritativeness resides, for one thing, in that what is spoken through the multiple ways described is given clarification (the word in creation), expression (the word in prophets, Christ, and apostles), and direction (the word in the church). Hence Scriptures, by virtue of this comprehensive role, occupy the place of authority. Only they can be turned to as the authority for what is declared in and through all these media.

Again, authoritativeness inheres in the fact that the Scriptures are records set down by those who were participants in God’s special revelation. They ring with the authority of participants in this revelation,17 being first-hand witnesses or in close proximity to those who were.18 Since the Scriptures occupy such a position, they have an authoritative role.19

Finally, the authoritativeness of Scripture is a result of their being a written record. To be sure, the oral word may also have authority and be handed on to others. For example, the Scriptures by no means contain all that Jesus said and did;20 hence, the apostles who were with Him undoubtedly passed on other of His teachings. Indeed, between the first proclamation of the Gospel and the first writing of what came to be New Testament Scripture, there was at least a generation when the only authority was the oral word or tradition. Paul writes to the Corinthians: "I commend you because... you maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (I Corinthians 11:2). Hence the oral word preceded the written word, and doubtless both accompanied and followed it. However (as earlier mentioned), in time the oral word or tradition inevitably becomes uncertain and ambiguous. Thus the importance of Scripture as an authoritative record increases with the passage of years.

Footnotes

1 Revised Standard Version (RSV). This translation will be used throughout unless otherwise noted.

2 E.g., Numbers 12:6-8—"Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses…With him I speak mouth to mouth."

3 See, e.g., the opening statement in Jonah and Zechariah. Also note Jeremiah 1:4.

4See, e.g., Acts 9:3-9; 16:9-10.

5 Reference here, of course, is made to those prophets and apostles whose writings became Scripture. There were also prophets in the Old Testament, and the apostles and prophets in the New Testament who surely heard and spoke God’s word but who left behind no scriptural record.

6 James 1:21, King James Version (KJV).

7 John Calvin’s expression in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. I, Chap. 6, Sect. 1.

8 The word spoken in creation is a general revelation of God to all mankind, and the word spoken in the heart of the believer is an individual word. But neither of these is the special revelation which God gave through His biblical prophets and apostles, and preeminently through His own Son. (The reader is invited to see my Renewal Theology, Vol. I, God, the World, and Redemption, Chap. 2, "The Knowledge of God," for a fuller discussion of general and special revelation.)

9 According to the official statement of Vatican Council II: "It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence" (The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Chap. 2, Sect. 9).

10 E.g., The Dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was so declared in 1950 by Pope Pius XII: "By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."

11An illustration of this is to be found in one of the ordination questions of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church: "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?" If such church statements contain "the system of doctrine," they are likely to become the norm above Scripture.

12 There is no intention here to deny the importance of doctrinal statements, or even of subscription thereto. "The Bible is our creed" sounds superficially good, but the Bible as such is not a creed, or even a confession. Consequently there may be good reason to draw up a statement of faith to declare a church’s stance. However, when the claim is thereafter made, in some way or other, that such a statement is the truth of the Bible, Scripture’s normativity has been transgressed. The only proper way to go is to recognize that any doctrinal formulation, whether of creed or confession, must always be subordinate to Scripture and is subject to correction thereby. (On this last point, see The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. 3, "Concerning Synods and Councils.")

13 In addition, The Doctrine and the Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price are acclaimed as authoritative.

14 Angels on Assignment by Roland Buck (Houston: Hunter Books, 1979), p. 9.

15 "Translation" is always to be desired. Theology needs constantly to present biblical truth in such fashion (e.g., by making use of modern terminology) that it "gets through." "Transformation" takes the additional—and unfortunate—step of allowing the culture to re-shape and thereby transform the message. On this, see New Directions in Theology Today by William Hordern (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), Vol. I, Introduction, Chap. VII, "Theology in Dialogue."

16 Tillich in his development of an existentialist theology and Bultmann in his attempt at New Testament "de-mythologization" are primary examples.

17 In the Old Testament, for example, whether it be history, prophecy, psalms, or wisdom literature, everything is declared with a vigorous note of authority.

18One of the later tests for inclusion of a book in the New Testament canon was apostolic authority. Do the presumed Scriptures, or a particular Scripture, represent the original apostolic circle?

19 We are speaking of the Scriptures that make up the canon. By "canon" is meant the list of books in the Old and New Testaments that are recognized as authoritative. They include 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament (Roman Catholicism includes a number of other books known as the Apocrypha in the Old Testament; however, Protestantism does not recognize the Apocryphal books as canonical [none of the Apocryphal books are found in the official Hebrew canon]). The word "canon" means "rule" or "standard," hence the list of 66 authoritative books in the Old and New Testaments.

20 Cf. John 21:25.


Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

 

Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.

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