If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, September 8, 2014

Word of God: Written, Spoken, Cosmic, Inner, Incarnate: Acts 4:31; John 5:39-40; Psalm 19:1-4; 1 Cor. 2:9-16; Hebrews 1:1-3

I grew up in a southern fundamentalist church tradition that believed that the Bible is the very Word of Gaawd, in capital letters. That was understood to mean that the Bible, preferably in the King James version, came to us unencumbered by human error, dictated by God into the minds of those who first penned its words. The “Word of God” was shorthand for the Bible. This idea was made visible when the preacher held up his large floppy, leather-bound Bible and said, “The Word of God says...” And those of us who listened knew he meant we must believe every word jot and tittle.

But, this notion of the Bible being the Word of God is not exclusive to fundamentalists. In liberal, mainline liturgical traditions you will hear the Bible read on a Sunday morning followed by the congregation antiphonally responding with this traditional litany: This is the Word of the Lord/Thanks be to God. Admittedly, the texts that are read are from a three year lectionary cycle, which does a bit of censoring, or should I say “editing,” of some of the more problematic biblical texts. That part of Psalm 137 about dashing babies’ heads against the rocks doesn’t seem to “cut the mustard.” Ironically, the lectionary also excludes these words from Revelation: “if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life”? Holy Shibboleth, Batman! And an old voice echoes in my head, “You cain’t take anything away from the Word o’ Gaaawd!” But, is the Bible all we mean by the “Word of God”?
Understanding the meaning of the “Word of God” is key to placing the Bible in its broader context of God’s diverse and delightful forms of communication with humanity.

One of the primary forms by which God communicates with us is through the written Word. When we refer to the Bible as “the Word of God,” we mean something other than its words come directly from the mouth of God. The old self-assured saying, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” reflects this understanding of the Bible as the literal words of God. Everything in the Book, God said it. In this view the Word of God and the words of the Bible are equated.

Truthfully, the Word of God is a metaphor that refers to something much broader and deeper than the Bible. Like every statement about God the phrase, “Word of God,” is metaphorical and not literal language. As a metaphor, the “Word of God” has within it a creative tension by being both like and unlike that which it seeks to describe. God’s Word is both like and unlike human words. The metaphor “God’s Word” attempts to depict God’s communication with us as being like the way in which we communicate with one another. At the same time it is unlike human communication. Words are part of human speech that is created through our physicality; brain, breath, mouth, tongue, lips, and body. Words are audible. They are human creations used to communicate our inner thoughts with one another. Speech, voice, words, language are terms that represent this unique form of communication between humans. Words represent human interaction.
Since God is Spirit, metaphors like Word of God, God’s voice, God speaking, cannot be taken literally. God has no mouth or tongue with which to speak. God’s voice is not audible, though it may be depicted as such in scripture. And yet, we believe God communicates with humanity. The “Word of God” is a rich metaphor that points to the diverse forms of communication by which the unseen God reveals or communicates God’s self to us.

Scripture is one of those mediums of communication. God speaks through the scriptures. Again, this is a metaphor. As NT Scholar Marcus Borg says, “The Bible is the Word of God, not the words of God.” By that I think he means that the Bible is a conduit of God’s self-revelation, not the literal words of God. To understand the Bible as the literal Word of God is to destroy the metaphor and its creative tension between “like and unlike.” It also tends to destroy sound theology! The real danger with religious metaphors is to literalize them by forgetting the “unlike” part of the metaphor. This happens with such a metaphor as “God, our Father.” The very shock when hearing the metaphor “God, our Mother” indicates we have thought of “God, our Father” much too literally. Remember, God is not a male with a human body and…and…all those “things” that make a male and a father. God is like and unlike a human male and father. As well, God is like and unlike a human female and mother. The Bible as the Word of God is like and unlike the human Word.
To say that God speaks through scriptures means that God, the sacred Mystery of Being, communicates to us through the broken and beautiful stories, parables, texts, images and words in that collection of books we call “the Bible.” The Word of God rides upon the frail human words of the biblical texts. The divine Word is within and yet distinct from the human words. It is a transcendent Word alongside, beneath, and emerging through our common words. A Word different from and yet like our words.

In one sense, we might understand the Bible as Roman Catholics understand the sacraments. A sacrament is a symbol or ritual which mediates the divine presence to us. As a sacrament the holy Eucharist mediates the grace of God. Sacraments are not in and of themselves that grace, but its channel. Understood sacramentally, the Bible mediates to us the Word of God. Through partaking of the scriptures we receive the grace-full Word of God. Or we might think of the Bible as the finger in the story of Buddha pointing to the moon. The Buddha wanted his disciples to see the moon, not his finger. In the same way, the Buddha’s teachings pointed to the truth, but were not to be equated with it. So, the Bible is the finger that points to God. As the Word of God the Bible becomes a channel of God’s voice.
An elderly woman sits in her rocking chair wearing her blue apron. As she knits she looks out the window as the morning sun shines off the hood of the old Chevy her late husband used to work on, then stares off in space. He’s been gone only four months. The pain of her loss is palpable. She misses him fiercely and wishes she could join him. Family and friends come by less often. Her days are spent alone, lost in memories. How she longs to hear his voice, to be reassured by his presence. Depression often sets in like a cold morning fog. She picks up her husband’s worn leather Bible. It falls open to a passage he had underlined. Behold, I am with you always, even unto the end of the earth. The human words become a divine Word, a finger pointing to a deeper truth. An inner sun breaks through the fog in her heart.

Another form through which God communicates to us is the spoken Word. Before the Word was written, it was spoken. The written word of the Bible was produced within oral cultures. The greater majority of the populations within these biblical cultures were illiterate. Writing and reading were the privilege of a few of the upper class. The primary means of communication of the general population was by word of mouth. Even the written words of the Old Testament and Gospels were first circulated as oral tradition.
So, the Word of God, that is God’s self-revelation, came first through the spoken word. God speaks through the human voice.  The Bible itself witnesses to us that God’s Word came though the voices and words of prophets, sages, teachers, preachers, evangelists, and believers moved by the Holy Spirit. A familiar formula pronounced by the prophets was, “Thus says the Lord.” They spoke as if a mouthpiece of God. Through the human words of these messengers God’s voice was heard, while remaining human words.

Did not the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. sound like the voice of God for our day and time? In the midst of Jim Crow segregation and rampant racism he spoke a word that cut like a two edged sword to the heart and soul of our society. In King’s I Have a Dream speech he quotes the very words of the prophet Isaiah:  one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. He intoned the hopes of an oppressed people longing for the day when the crooked road of racism would be straightened; the rough places of discrimination would be made smooth. A word from another time and context and from another human voice became the Word of God for us, here and now. Was it not God who was calling our nation to equality for all through Martin’s voice?
On a more common level, on a weekly basis preachers dare to take on the role of allowing their words to become the vehicle by which God communicates to the people. Their words may not have the power or tone of a Martin King, but they seek to speak the Word of God for our time and place. And preachers are not the only voices God uses to speak the Word. God can speak through  our own common voices as we each proclaim the good news of Christ, liberty to the captive, call for justice and equity, comfort the bereaved, teach the faithful, or share our faith. God’s voice rides upon our words.

Harold hadn’t been to church since he was a kid. After he left home for college, church was the last thing on his mind. He got married, settled into a small home in the suburbs with his new bride, and they had their first child, a son. When their son was about a year old they started thinking about his moral instruction.  Harold’s own childhood in the church came flooding back to him; weekly worship, Sunday School, church camps, Vacation Bible School. He remembered it as a good childhood experience. The orange and brown leaves were falling on the driveway as he pulled out to go to the local church that Sunday with his wife and son. After so many years away, Harold didn’t know what to expect.
They were warmly greeted by members as they were ushered to a pew. He fumbled with the bulletin and rubbed his son’s head as he lay on his lap. Some of the hymns were familiar from his youthful days. The robed preacher made his way to the pulpit for the sermon. He opened his Bible and stood there silent for a moment. For Harold it seemed an eternity. When the preacher spoke there was something about his voice, his tone, or was it his words that seemed to penetrate deep inside Harold? And when the preacher invited the listeners to renew their faith in God, Harold knew someone else was speaking through the preacher’s words. God speaks through the human voice.

God also communicates to us through the cosmic Word. No, I’m not talking about some hippie-dippie, New Age cosmic consciousness, man. Cosmic is that which pertains to the cosmos, the Greek word for world. We have all experienced the wonder and majesty of creation. The sunset paints the sky with a palette that pales Picasso. A lonely wolf cries on a moonlit desert night that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. A waterfall sprays the rock mountain like a white bridal veil at spring’s wedding. Bluebonnets babble on the hills as if bragging of their beauty. The scent of pine in the air makes you drunk on nature. The glimmering stars spangle the heavens with the jewelry of angels.

But, nature has no voice, or does it? The written Word has no tongue or mouth, but its voice can be heard in reading. Can we read nature? Some would say creation can be read and that it even has its own voice. The psalmist (19:1-3) believed that creation has a voice and words which witness to the glory of God:
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes through all the earth, and their words to the end of the cosmos or world.

The psalmist goes on to talk about the law, or Torah, the central scriptures of the Hebrew people. Creation and scripture are voices through which God speaks.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed the language of creation as God’s revelation in his poem God’s Grandeur. Creation is like an electrical current that flashes forth the power of God.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out like shining from shook foil.

And in spite of human trampling and the stain of toil and trade, God, like a mother hen, incubates the world with the promise of rebirth.
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs---
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods
With warm breath and ah! Bright wings.

But, it doesn’t take a poet to recognize that God speaks through creation. In theology it is referred to as natural revelation. It is the common and natural revealing of God in all that surrounds us. In liturgy we sing it, as in one of our hymns: This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ear, All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.
Then again, God communicates to us an inner Word.  As one who grew out of a context where the Bible was understood to be the very Word of God, I was delighted when I came upon this quote from Anabaptist Hans Denck: 

I value the Scriptures above all human treasures, but not as highly as the Word of God which is alive, strong (Heb. 4:12), eternal, and free. The Word of God is free from the elements of the world. It is God himself. It is Spirit and not letter, written with pen and paper, so that it can never be erased.
Denck makes a clear distinction between the scriptures and the Word of God. Scripture is written with pen and paper. The Word of God is free of those material elements. For Denck, and other spiritualist Anabaptists, the Word of God was both an inner Word and an outer Word. But, the scriptures were considered secondary to the inner Word, the living and active Word, the Word of the Spirit, the voice of God within.

Another Anabaptist in Bavaria wrote:

The Scriptures are merely the witness of the inner Word of God. A man can well be saved without the preaching or the reading of the Scriptures. (Otherwise, what should happen with those who are deaf or cannot read?) We understand God our Redeemer, not through the lifeless letter, but through the indwelling of Christ.
The Word of scripture is inanimate until it is given life through the voice of the Spirit within. God must speak to the heart for the Word to be a living Word. God speaks to the heart.

In the end, the ultimate Word of God is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. The prologue of John’s gospel begins:

In the beginning was the Word (logos). And the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh (incarnate) and dwelled among us.

The language, speech, voice, word, God’s self-communication became human in the person of Yeshua ben Yoseph, Jesus of Nazareth. For the Christian the Word of God proclaimed in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is unparalleled. It is a Word that is clearer and more central to hearing God than the Bible, human speech, creation, and the inner voice. Christ is the measuring rod for the truthfulness and authenticity of the Word that comes through all of these channels. Jesus is the lens through which we read and understand the Bible. We do not preach our own wisdom, but proclaim with our voices the living and liberating Christ. Creation is subservient to the cosmic Christ, The Word through whom all things were made. The inner voice is judged by the Spirit of Christ. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word of God to humanity.
As the author of Hebrews puts it:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways…but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…
Conclusion- So, the Word of God is not to be equated with the Bible. It is much broader than that. God communicates to us through the Bible, but also through the human voice, creation, the inner Word, and most essentially and definitively through Jesus Christ. That is not to say some of these channels of God’s self-communication are totally flawless and unobstructed. The Bible has its errors in transmission and ethically problematic texts. The human tongue is tangled and tainted and cannot be equated with God. Creation brings death and destruction as well as beauty and wonder. The inner voice can be self-centered or silent. Jesus Christ was a 1st century Mediterranean Jew separated from us by time, culture, religion, and worldview. Through the racket of human ego and error, class and culture, time and distance, it’s any wonder that we can hear God’s voice at all. And yet….

The trademark image of RCA Victor Records is of a dog sitting near a gramophone record player with his ear cocked to the side as if listening carefully. It was taken from a painting by English artist Francis Barraud. The fox terrier in the painting, named Nipper, was originally owned by the artist’s brother Mark. Mark died and his brother Frank inherited the dog, along with a belled phonograph and some recordings of Mark’s voice. When Frank would play the recordings of his brother’s voice, Nipper would come close, listen carefully, and recognize his master’s voice. Frank put the image to canvas, which eventually became RCA’s logo with the title His Master’s Voice.
God speaks to us across the pops and hisses, the warp and wobble, the distance and distractions that might distort or drown out the divine voice. And yet…. through written Bible, spoken language, wondrous creation, inner voice, and  most definitively through the earthly life of Jesus the Christ, the Master’s voice can still be heard.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.







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