Jared Witt l October 5, 2017
When I say that the Bible reveals the “word of God,” I don’t mean the same thing as your average TV preacher means when he says it.
He (sometimes she but typically he) means flatly that the words in his leather bound Bible were more or less dictated by the the alpha and omega of the universe, and the human hands which physically penned those words were employed solely for secretarial purposes. If you were to suggest to this TV preacher that human brains, let alone those subsets of brain activity which we refer to as imagination, learning, prejudice, agenda, and the like were engaged in this purely stenographical procedure, it would be an offense bordering on heresy. His worldview requires him, as much as possible, to eliminate the middle man between God's mind and the biblical page.
If he were to learn that I, as an occasionally humble Lutheran pastor with no TV following, don’t mean what he means when I refer to the “word of God” in scripture, he’s likely to accuse me of needing to “go back” or “return” to the “tradition,” as if his way of reading the Bible is the ancient way, whereas I am just capitulating to modern intellectual trends.
But he has gotten this exactly backwards. It is actually his way of reading the Bible that is a relatively new innovation. He comes to his Bible with a set of assumptions or dogmas in his head, that certain reactionary types, who are generally uncomfortable with the modern world, began to codify and cling to in the late 19th century. Their way of reading the Bible became the relatively modern invention that we refer to as “fundamentalism.” It is neither ancient nor traditional.
The traditional way to read the Bible has always required a lot more mental agility and common sense than all that. The 16th century German monk, turned enemy of the state, turned church reformer, who is the namesake of my tradition, Martin Luther, put it this way: The Bible is “the swaddling clothes and the manger in which the Christ child lies.”
To understand what Luther means, it might be helpful to start with what he is not saying when he refers to the “word of God” in scripture. He is not saying that the Bible is primarily valuable as an infallible history of events, a moral instruction manual, or some kind of religious talisman. Treating the manger as if it were the infallible Christ child himself would be idolatrous. The Bible is valuable to Luther because, somewhere in there, Christ can be found.
Luther also does not imply that Christ can be found on every squiggle of every page of scripture. This would be comparable to someone hearing that there are good moral lessons to be found in the Harry Potter series, opening to a random page about Draco Malfoy, and blindly emulating his actions. No church leader with any gift for common sense would have ever claimed that the Bible should be used this way up until this brand new breed called the TV preacher. Luther was comfortable suggesting we might even throw out entire books of scripture, like James and Revelation, if they did not adequately point us to Christ, because he had no such devotion to the book itself.
In fact, the Bible, for Luther, wasn’t even the primary thing that the phrase “word of God” referred to. In order of importance or primacy, that phrase refers to:
Understand the importance of subordinating each of these to the one(s) that preceded it. This means that only Jesus, the Christ, himself can be unqualifiedly and unambiguously referred to as the Word of God—the revelation of God’s character and agenda in the world. The spoken proclamation and the Bible are only "word of God" insofar as they stick to proclaiming Christ. So all those sermons which devolve into petty moralism or pop psychology or eight steps to improving your marriage, without speaking Christlike words of unconditional grace, are not the word of God. And that part of scripture about the genocide of the Canaanites? It’s neither here nor there, because "word of God" has to do with Christ.
There is nothing special about this manger if the Christ child isn’t laying in it.
The other thing that becomes clear in Luther’s order of operations is that “word of God” does not primarily refer to objective information going on outside of us. The assumption, when a TV preacher holds up his Bible and uses it to back a whole list of informational claims about the origin of species, about the afterlife, about the timing of the apocalypse, or any other pseudo-factual tangents, is that this book is primarily important for the claims it makes about things going on outside our personhood.
But for Luther, word of God is the word of God because of the effects that it has on our subjectivity. To use less technical language, the word of God is the word of God when it changes me—when I feel differently about myself, relate differently to God, and engage differently with the world, having heard it.
If a child is told she is unloveable her whole life, she might be very mousy and try to disappear in social settings, or she be cripplingly timid in her workplace because of it. A word of Gospel, telling her that God loves her unconditionally, won’t change her objective reality (God loved her either way, and the world around her hasn't changed for it) but may change how she interacts with it.
So why have a biblical canon at all if “word of God” is not primarily an informational truth but is a relational exchange where Christ’s love is shared between people? For Luther, the reason isn't rocket science: because otherwise “we might forget the spoken word of grace.” There is not some magical divinity to the Bible which we must venerate. It's not the fourth person of the Trinity (Quadrinity?). The Bible’s importance to the church is functional. It reminds us of Christ.
Common sense dictates that not every word on every page reminds us of Christ—certainly not the slaughter of the Canaanites. In fact, none of the words remind us of Christ, if they are used to shame, or hurt, or destroy. But generations of Christians have found him somewhere in there, nonetheless. So we keep it around and keep flipping through its pages just as we might keep listening to a grandparent who has lots of really important life lessons to share, even if they’re interspersed with little politically incorrect asides, which we might choose to drain with the bathwater. What matters is the baby.
Cheers and Peace,
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