Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Word of God as Message

(What follows is an excerpt from a book-length manuscript that I am composing, tentatively titled, Understanding the Biblical Message. I welcome any feedback, pro or con, either as a comment at this blog or as a private email, to ereflector@bellsouth.net, as it will aid in the composition process.)

The primary difference between the monotheistic religions of the world—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and the religions of the East is that the monotheistic religions claim that "God" is not identified with Being itself but with a personal Being—the Creator—who has revealed himself to the human creation through human language. (The mystical lines of thought within monotheistic traditions that have tended to equate God with impersonal Being testify to the influence of Eastern religious and Greek philosophical thought on monotheism throughout religious history.)

To call God "personal" and to refer to God in terms of masculine personal pronouns (he, him, his, himself) is to speak metaphorically in that the term "person" and any corresponding pronouns, whether masculine or feminine, come out of a human frame of reference, that is, from the world of human experience. "God," in the sense of Creator, transcends both personhood and maleness, which are empirically—that is, observably—confined to human persons. (Even the word "God" is a metaphor in that it was borrowed from the religious language of the nations surrounding ancient Israel whose "gods" preceded the revelation of Israel’s God [whose name was Yahweh] to Abraham, the original patriarch of Israel. So, "God" was the available metaphor with which to identify the existence of Yahweh.)

Metaphorically speaking, then, the biblical God is like a person in that God communicates with words. In biblical terms, God is also like a father, in that he provides for and disciplines human beings; like a king, in that he rules human beings; like a judge, in that he justifies and punishes human beings. These biblical God-metaphors reveal God-in-relation-to-humanity (albeit humanity as it existed in the ancient world) in order to make the biblical God understandable to human beings. This accords with the purpose of the biblical writers: to persuade readers to believe the word of God and thereby to enter a covenant relationship with God that provides hope.

On the other hand, the biblical writers make no attempt to reveal God-in-and-of-Godself. In the first place, no words exist in any language that could do so. When it comes to God, biblically speaking, metaphor is as close to reality as truth can get. (The same is true, by the way, of other invisible realities; witness scientific metaphors like "particles" and "waves" to define microscopic realities of physics.) In the second place, if such God-words did exist, they would not serve the purpose of creating a relationship between God and human beings. Instead, they would amount to rhetorical fodder for philosophical and theological debate. (Witness the convoluted and contentious history of the ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity, which originated in the fourth-and-fifth-century attempts of Greek-philosophers-cum-Christian-theologians to describe God-in-and-of-Godself as three-Persons-in-one-Being.)

Chiefly, the biblical God is like a person in that God promises. At the same time, unlike people in general, God invariably and unfailingly keeps his promises (covenant faithfulness being the biblical definition of righteousness). While God is invariably defined and described by the biblical writers in metaphorical terms that establish a likeness between God and humanity—which God created "in his own image" (Gen. 1:27)—the unlikeness of God to his human creation is expressed by the biblical word "holy."

Just as the biblical God is, primarily, the promise-maker-and-keeper, the biblical definition of faith consists, in its simplest terms, of believing God’s word of promise and behaving accordingly.

The promises of God, according to the biblical writers, were entrusted to various persons in the form of visions and dreams, through the agency of angelic messengers ("angel" originally having been a transliteration of the Greek, angelos, of which the English translation is "messenger"; whether the word refers to a human messenger or a non-human messenger [typically rendered "angel"] is usually clear from its immediate biblical context). Those biblical persons who received the revelations of promise from God through the angelic mediators were called "prophets," whose prophetic calling consisted of speaking God’s word of promise to God’s people and calling their hearers to believe the promise and to behave accordingly.

So, throughout the biblical story, the word of God was spoken and heard, and only later, in the form of oral traditions, committed to writing in the form of scripture.

By comparison, the tradition of ecclesiastical Christianity defines "the word of God" as the Bible, equating the word with a written artifact. This, however, is to misconceive and misconstrue the biblical testimony. By this definition, any sentence selected at random from the Bible can be called "the word of God." This amounts, in effect, to equating the Christian view of the Bible with the Islamic view of the Koran. The Islamic belief is that God revealed the Koran to Mohammed by a kind of dictation, every word proceeding, as it were, from the mouth of Allah himself and, therefore, constituting the very words of Allah.

The biblical writers' own view of both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures is vastly different. Rather than being itself the word of God, the Bible can best be described as the prophetic history of the progressive revelation of the word of God.

To call the Bible prophetic is to affirm that it is God-breathed, that is, inspired by God (the English words inspired and spirit coming originally from the Latin, spiritus, which in English means breath or wind, which is also the literal English translation of the Hebrew, ruach, and Greek, pneuma, both of which are typically rendered "spirit," and "Spirit," instead of "breath" or "wind" in English versions of the Bible). To call it prophetic is, then, to identify the Bible directly with God’s messengers (the prophets) and only then, indirectly, with God’s message. Which is to say that the message can only be heard via the agency of the messengers, but the messengers are themselves distinct from the message (Jesus being the only exception).

Likewise, the Bible is not the message but the messenger of God, more precisely, a history of God’s messengers, who progressively—little by little—revealed the message until it reached its completion, according to the New Testament (NT) writers, in the form of the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God.

To call the biblical revelation progressive is to affirm that "the word of God" is the message that now forms the whole, of which each specific biblical-historical revelation of God formed an incremental part, each part building on each preceding part until the parts finally formed the message in its fullness. As one of the NT writers says, "Long ago, at many times [times meaning, literally, portions, or parts] and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . ." (Heb. 1:1-2a). The Old Testament (OT) prophetic revelations, then, were increments, partially and progressively building towards the whole, the fullness of God’s revelation of "these last days." With the coming of Jesus, the incremental progression of partial revelations formed the whole, and "the word of God" became the NT gospel (Greek, euangelion, literally, good news).

The Bible itself, then, was written about "the word of God" (more specifically, about its progressive revelation), which always initially took the form of a spoken message. By setting the evolving message in its evolving historical context, and identifying the revelations of the message with the interventions of God in the history of Israel (for the purpose of progressively fulfilling his promise), the biblical writers verify the authority of the message as "the word of God."

In the NT synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ message is called "the good news of the kingdom of God" (Luke 4:43) and in the letters of Paul, it is typically called "the gospel of Christ," meaning the gospel proclaimed both by and about Jesus, whose crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation brought Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom to completion. (Critical to understanding the biblical message is understanding the eschatological relationship between the already-ness of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the not-yet-ness of the kingdom of God.) The historical Jesus became, then, by means of his crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation, not only the preeminent messenger of the Bible but also the embodiment of the biblical message itself. (An egregious error of evangelical Christianity has been to focus on Jesus’ death as its message to the exclusion of Jesus as the messenger of the kingdom of God, along with its having reduced Jesus’ resurrection to such an afterthought that it is rarely heard of except in Easter-Sunday sermons.)

That the Bible tells the story of the progressive revelation of the word of God corresponds to the fact that it is a story of promise and fulfillment. The event that serves to launch the story is God’s three-fold promise to Abraham (the stories of the creation and the flood and the tower, in Genesis 1-11, serving as an extended introduction to the Abrahamic promise). God promises to give Abraham a son, through whom God promises to make of Abraham a great nation, through which God promises to bless all nations (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18). The revelation of the word was necessarily progressive because each incremental fulfillment served to move the promise toward its ultimate fulfillment: the international blessing proclaimed in the NT gospel.

The fulfillments of the promise of the son, in the physical birth of Isaac, and the promise of the great nation, in the national birth of Israel (in the promised land) is the story told (and developed in detail) by the OT writers. The fulfillment of the promise of international blessing is the story taken up by the NT writers, beginning with the physical-spiritual birth of Jesus (the promised Messiah, Hebrew for Anointed One, which in Greek is Christos); continuing with his proclamation of the kingdom of God, crucifixion by the Romans, resurrection from the dead, and exaltation to the right hand of God; and ending with the proclamation of his gospel by his apostles throughout the Roman empire (including letters to infant Christian communities about the implications and applications of the message they had heard and believed).

All of which is to say that God's three-fold Abrahamic promise and its progressive fulfillment (especially with reference to the Mosaic law, the Davidic Kingdom and the Messianic faith) is the necessary framework for understanding, and the simplest and clearest way to understand, the biblical message.

The biblical message (the gospel) is, then, God's word of promise: the promise which God has been progressively fulfilling to Abraham through Israel and its Anointed One, whose proclamation, crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation confirm the eventual fulfillment of the promise of international blessing when he comes to raise the dead, judge the world, and bring the kingdom. That promise of international blessing is, according to the NT writers, the hope of everlasting life in the kingdom of God.

8 Comments:

At 8/31/2006 10:15 AM, Blogger jonesy said...

Look forward to the book.

 
At 12/04/2006 11:54 AM, Blogger Theocrat said...

From Alex in London- I know I'm not a good one for keeping in touch but I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your stuff. It's always clear, on point and stimulating. Keep up the good work!

 
At 6/28/2007 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert,
Like your blog.
The metaphor "God", as borrowed from the other religions around Israel, sounds difficult for me. Before the other nations of people developed their "religions" which were a corruption themselves, people still worshiped YHWH, didn't they? Genesis 5:24 And Enoch walked with God;
So, I wonder whom borrowed from whom? The corruption happened, but there had to be something true to be corrupted.
Just my thinking.
Chuck Jones

 
At 8/10/2007 1:15 PM, Blogger Kurt said...

Robert,

I agree with Chuck. It is only logical and reasonable that we must begin with the presupposition that it was the heathen who borrowed/corrupted from God and his standards. Interesting how the heathen had god triads, but still not enough to support the concept of God as a Trinity with no explicit Scriptural support.

 
At 8/11/2007 2:40 PM, Blogger Robert said...

Kurt,

Whether or not the word "God" was borrowed by Israel from the pagan nations is admittedly a matter of speculation rather than revelation. It seems reasonable to me that Israel borrowed it because Abraham, the ancestor of Israel, was a Chaldean, and as such would have had no knowledge of God until God made the promise to him. His orientation to the word "God" (Hebrew, elohim or el) would have, therefore, come from the worship of idols, or "gods" (elohim being a plural word). Since we only know the words for God that were used by the biblical writers, who wrote many centuries after the earliest figures portrayed in Genesis, we can't really know what word or words those early figures used.

In any case, I view it as a matter of interest but not importance.

 
At 9/14/2007 12:09 PM, Anonymous Kurt said...

Robert,

It discredits you to say it's not important when you make it part of your writing. If it's not important, then leave it out! :>)

That being said, I think it is important and so do you and that is why you wrote it. However, it needs to be corrected (remember you asked for input!) because man's view, of who God is and who we think we are, is important and makes this a directly relevant issue. To say that Israel simply "borrowed" from the heathens around them is to imply that the autonomy of man (since the Fall)is true (and that man can decide for himself what is right or wrong), which is a concept contraindicated throughout Scripture. This is the thinking and attitude of Satan and is considered sinful for man.

If the creation account is to be believed, God interacted with the first human beings, Adam and Eve, who must have referred to God by some name that was acceptable to God, who would have more likely told them what to call Him. The heathen had to get to know about the God of Adam later from Adam as they were his descendants, were they not? What came first, the chicken or the egg? God's truth came first and was corrupted. Obviously, Adam (the chicken) was the first man created & who interacted with God. Once again, if you are going to speculate in this matter, better to speculate with a consistent Christian worldview rather than an autonomous humanistic worldview. After all, you are a Christian! :>)

 
At 9/16/2007 10:14 PM, Blogger Robert Hach said...

Kurt,

The only reason I think the question of the origin of the word "god" is important is in relation to our awareness of the time gap between the events written about and the production of the writings themselves. We only know what the biblical writers tell us, and they wrote many centuries after the earliest characters in the biblical story. Their writings were formulated from oral traditions passed down over those centuries. We can only know for sure what the biblical writers themselves called God, as evidenced by the writings they left behind. How would the biblical writers have known what Adam and Eve called God?

On the other hand, God revealed his name as "YHWH" to Moses, and that name distinguished him from the "other gods" that Israel was commanded not to worship. But the word "God" is the same as "gods," so the origin of the Israelite use of that word seems to me an interesting question.

 
At 3/14/2010 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Infinitely to discuss it is impossible

 

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