|IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 17, June 21 to June 27, 1999|
In the previous lecture, I argued that God’s Word, according to Scripture, is the self-expression of God’s lordship, of his control, his authority, and his presence.
Now, how does God’s Word get from him to us? That is the question of “media.” All of God’s Word to us is mediated, in the sense that it always reaches us through some creaturely means. This is true even on those occasions in which it seems that revelation is most “direct.” For example, even when God spoke to the people of Israel gathered around Mt. Sinai, and they heard the divine voice from heaven, even then God’s Word reached the people through creaturely media. For one thing, God spoke human language. For another, he used the normal earthly atmosphere to transmit the sounds to the eardrums of the people. Further, it was the people’s brain cells which interpreted the sounds as words and interpreted the words as God’s message. God’s Word, therefore, never lacks media when it is spoken to human beings.
What kinds of media are there? Well, here comes another threefold distinction. You may be thinking by now that these threefold distinctions are getting to be a little too schematic, too neat; I think so too, but I find them hard to avoid. Sometimes I think that I’m hooked into some mysterious Trinitarian deep structure of Scripture; other times I think it’s just a useful pedagogical device. Perhaps it all comes from sleeping through too many three point sermons as a child.
At any rate, I will say that God reveals himself through events, words and people. If you’ve been following me, you will see a rough correlation here with the previous triads (control-authority-presence and situational-normative-existential). When God reveals himself in events, he particularly displays his control, his power. When he reveals himself in words, he expresses his authority, his norms in a focused way. And when he reveals himself in people, he is obviously present with them in a profound way. At the same time, we should beware of making these correlations too precise. God’s control is not seen only in event-revelation, but in revelation coming through all media. His authority is expressed not only in word revelation, but in all forms of revelation. And he is present, not only when the medium is a person, but in all his speech.
Let us look more closely at the media:
1. Event media: God reveals himself through what he does in our world. God’s acts include:
(a) Nature and general history (Gen. 9:12-17; Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:1; Pss. 19; 46:8-10; 65; 104; 147:15-18; 148:5-8; Acts 14:17; 17:26-28; Rom. 1:18-32). Karl Barth to the contrary, God does reveal himself in the world as such, not only to believers, but to unbelievers as well, as the references in Acts and Romans indicate. Creation and providence do show that God exists and they also reveal his character, his righteous standards for human life and his holy wrath against human sin. Natural revelation is not itself a saving revelation. None of these texts indicate that someone could learn the gospel of grace from nature and general history alone. Rather, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). But natural revelation does convey certain realities which people must know if they are to understand and respond to the gospel.
(b) Redemptive history (Exod. 14:31; 15; Deut. 8:11-18; Pss. 66:5-7; 135; 136; 145:4,12; John 2:11; Acts 2:12,15,22; Rom. 1:4; Heb. 2:1-4; Rev. 15:3ff.). These are the “mighty acts of God,” which he performs so that human beings may “know that I am the Lord.” These are acts of both mercy and judgment. Israel is delivered from Egypt; the Egyptian army is destroyed: but in that event, both Israel and Egypt come to know that God is Lord. In these actions he demonstrates the attributes of Lordship: his control, his authority and his presence.
(c) Miracle. This is perhaps a subset of the previous category, though some scriptural language suggests that the two categories are identical. All of God’s acts of redemption and judgment, whether within or beyond “natural law” in our modern reckoning, are “signs,” “wonders,” “powers.” At any rate, miracle, like redemptive history in general, displays God’s lordship: his control (dunamis), his authority (semeion), and his awesome presence (teras).
My category of event-media is not quite the same as the traditional concept of “general revelation.” If we are to divide all revelation between “general” and “special,” I would have to say that redemptive history and miracle are in the “special” category. This indicates, perhaps, that we need more distinctions than the traditional categories provide.
2. Word-media: God also reveals himself by speaking in human words. Notice that at this point I am beginning to speak of the “Word of God” in a second sense. Originally, I defined “Word of God” as the self-expression of God’s lordship. In this sense, the Word of God is expressed in all media. Now we can use “Word of God” also in a somewhat narrower sense: a self-expression of God’s lordship delivered to us through a particular kind of medium, the medium of human words.
As I mentioned earlier in connection with James Barr’s argument, it is quite unscriptural to represent revelation as taking place only through events and not through words. Review the passages mentioned earlier in connection with God’s “authority” in revelation. To Adam, Noah, Abraham, and so on, God spoke words which carried the authority of his lordship.
It will be edifying for us to distinguish several types of word-media:1
(a) The divine voice. By this phrase I refer to those instances where God speaks “directly” to people. Under this category I would include God’s utterances at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19–20), the divine utterance at the transfiguration of Christ (Luke 9:35), before his passion (John 12:28), and at other times (Gen. 1:28ff.; 2:16; etc.) God’s Words to the prophets would be in this category, but not his Words through them, which we will mention later. All the words of Jesus during his earthly ministry would be in this category.
I put quotes around the term “directly” above because, as I indicated earlier, no revelation of God to us is “purely” direct. Even the divine voice is mediated to its hearers by the wind currents, the hearer’s brain cells, etc. Also, it should be noted that the divine voice speaks a human language and thus places itself under the limitations of what that language can express. In the divine voice, God “accommodates” himself to his hearers, lisps with them as Calvin says. One may say that even when God speaks with his own lips, not the lips of a prophet, there is still a “human element” in his communication.
Nevertheless, this accommodation does not diminish in any way the authority with which God speaks (or, indeed, the power and presence of his Word). Who among us, when confronted by the divine voice, would dare to disobey it? God’s people are under obligation to obey all the Words which proceed from God’s mouth.
(b) God’s Word through the prophets and apostles. In this word-medium there is, we might say, even more “accommodation.” In the prophetic Word, God speaks, not only in human language, but through a human messenger. Nevertheless, it is clear that what the prophet says is nothing less than God’s very Word. A prophet is one who has God’s Word in his mouth (Exod. 4:10-16; Deut. 18:15-22; Jer. 1:6-19). The religious veneration offered to the Word of God in the Psalms is directed toward the Word of God given through Moses (Pss. 12; 19:7ff.; 119). An apostle is one whom Jesus appointed to bring his gospel to the world (John 14:23-26; 15:26ff.; 16:13). The apostles claim a divine source for their message (1 Cor. 2:10-13; 4:1; Gal. 1:1,11ff.,16; 2:2; Eph. 3:3). Paul’s word is the test of anyone who claims to be a prophet or “spiritually gifted” (1 Cor. 14:37).
(c) God’s written Word. The writing of revelation is not a merely incidental feature of its history. From the very beginning, God had a specific purpose for the writing of revelation, and he authorized that writing explicitly. Meredith G. Kline’S2 The Structure of Biblical Authority argues cogently, in my opinion, that the writing of revelation corresponds to the ancient custom of producing official documents as witnesses to suzerainty treaties, what Scripture calls “covenants.” But however we may evaluate Kline’s correlation of written revelation with extra-biblical customs, Scripture itself leaves no doubt that God is the author of the written revelation.
The Ten Commandments, written on stone tablets, are identified as the covenant between God and his people (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9,11,15). In them, God speaks as the author, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2). Not only is God the literary author, he is also the publisher. The Ten Commandments are “tablets of stone, inscribed by the finger of God,” (Exod. 31:18; cf. 24:12; 32:15ff.; 34:1; Deut. 4:13; 9:10ff.; 10:2-4). Although Moses himself played some role in the production of the tablets (Exod. 31:18; Deut. 31:24), it is clear that God is regarded as the author of the words in their written form. Other words of Moses (Deut. 31:24-29), and later of Joshua (Josh. 24:25ff.) were added to the Decalogue and placed beside it near the holy ark, identifying those words also as Words of God and establishing a pattern for the future development of the canon. The New Testament, in such familiar passages as Matthew 5:17-20; John 10:33-36; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:19-21 attests the identity of the entire Old Testament with God’s written Word.3
It is clear that from the beginning of Israel’s existence as a people (and perhaps even before that, as the “books of generations” in Genesis may attest), God has desired to rule his people by a book, a written constitution. The concept of a written Word of God, bearing the full authority of God, is not a product of twentieth-century fundamentalism, or seventeenth-century rationalism, or medieval scholasticism, or post-apostolic defensiveness, or Pharisaic legalism. It is embodied in the very constitution of the people of God and is assumed throughout Scripture. Modern theologians have opposed this idea by saying that the Word of God is too transcendent or too dynamic to be kept in a book. Barth argued on such grounds that revelation cannot be “preserved”; but in Scripture God explicitly calls upon his people to preserve the Word from one generation to another (Deut. 6:6ff.; Jude 3). There is a “tradition,” a permanent “body of truth” to be handed down (1 Cor. 15:2ff.; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6; 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:12ff.; 2:2; 2 Pet. 2:21).4
And there is certainly no difference in authority between the divine voice, the prophetic Word, and the written Word. Almost every page of Deuteronomy contains admonitions to obey all the “statutes, ordinances, testimonies, words, commandments, decrees, stipulations, laws” (all that rich redundancy!) which are written in the law of Moses. The religious reverence given to the Word of God in Psalm 19:7ff.; 119 and elsewhere, is directed toward the written Word of God, the statutes and ordinances made known through Moses. Like all forms of the Word, the written Word deserves the honor that belongs to God himself.
Nor can it be argued that although the Old Testament is a “religion of the book” or a “religion of the Word,” the New Testament is a wordless “religion of the spirit.” Certainly the New Testament describes an unprecedented outpouring of God’s Spirit upon his people which exposes the inadequacy of any legalistic religion (2 Cor. 3:6). But as we have already seen, Jesus gave to his disciples, and the apostles gave to the church, words revealed by God, words by which we live or die. Where are those words to be found? If they are lost in history, then the Christian faith itself, indeed our eternal life, is lost in history; and we who hoped to be saved by Christ are of all human beings most miserable. If these words are accessible only to scholars, then eternal life itself is accessible only to scholars and to those willing to bow before the authority of such scholars. If they are to be found in oral tradition or church dogma, which oral tradition? Which church dogma? If they come by a revelation of the Spirit given individually to each person, then how are they to be recognized, to be distinguished from fantasy or wishful thinking? And how, then, is the gospel to be preached publicly? But of course all of those alternatives, common though they be in modern theology, really deny what God has promised us: words of life, words on which we can rely for our eternal salvation, words we can pass along to our children and our children’s children.
Where, then, are those words to be found? Is it too much to expect that, as with the Old Testament, the New Testament words of life would be located in a book? Surely from what we have seen so far, there is nothing about written words to make them unworthy of God. God has already shown us that he likes to speak to human beings through written words. He prefers, indeed, not to speak to each person individually, though he is quite capable of doing that, but rather to speak publicly, to spread out his speech on the public record, so that all alike can come and see. He prefers to place his Words in a written constitution, so that a people may be formed, a body of individuals, visibly and externally (as well as invisibly and internally) united and governed by their allegiance to a particular text. And he speaks through that text, as we have seen, with the same authority as the divine voice itself.
Yes, we should expect this; and indeed, this is what God provides for us in the New Testament. In the nature of the case, the evidence for the existence of a New Testament canon is more subtle than the corresponding evidence concerning the Old Testament, because the New Testament logically could not, prior to its completion, refer to itself as a finished canon. But the apostles certainly do present their written words as having all the authority of their spoken words (1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Pet. 3:16; cf. Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Thess. 3:14; 1 Tim. 5:18; see traditional evangelical exegetical treatments of these texts). Their words are included in that “deposit” of faith which we are to guard and to pass along to later generations.5
The written Words of God are (perhaps with the exception of the first tablets of the Decalogue which were “written by the finger of God”) also written by human authors. Much has been said about the relation of the divine to the human author, and no doubt much remains to be said. Hermeneutical problems abound here, which I will not seek to address.6 But it is important to remember that whatever problems need to be addressed, however the human authors are to be fitted into the equation, it is not wrong to look at these writings simply as the Word which God has written to us. Any epistemology or hermeneutic which casts doubt upon the authority, clarity or sufficiency of God’s written Words is to that extent itself questionable.
(d) What of preaching as a form of the Word of God? We recall that Karl Barth regarded preaching as a form of revelation subordinate to Christ and to Scripture. The Second Helvetic Confession (I, iv) says that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” Certainly that was true of the preaching of the prophets and apostles. What of preachers today? Scripture doesn’t comment directly on this question, but we may apply some broader biblical principles to it. Surely, if I am right about the written Word as the constitution of the church, we cannot put preaching today on the same level as that constitution. If we do, the constitution loses its unique authority; sermons become as important and as authoritative as Scripture. It is, therefore, important to make a distinction between inspired and non-inspired speech. The Bible is inspired theopneustos (2 Tim. 3:16), but today’s sermons are not. In that sense, preaching is not the Word of God. On the other hand, authentic preaching always seeks to set forth, not the preacher’s ideas, but the Scripture’s. Insofar as the preacher succeeds at presenting, not his own ideas, but God’s, then surely there is a sense in which his sermon is the Word of God. After all, God’s Word does not lose its authority merely by being placed on the lips of a human preacher, any more than it loses authority by being set on paper. Indeed, we may say that preaching, when it is true preaching, when it is authentic preaching, is the Word of God, nothing less. Take heed how you hear! You may not shrug off the biblical message simply because it comes from a human being, perhaps from a preacher you don’t like very much. The Word of God on his lips is God’s Word to you.
3. Person media: God also reveals himself through persons. This type of revelation, like the others, occurs in various forms:
(a) The human constitution. We are made in the image of God, and, whatever that means, it means at least that we are revelation. It would not be scriptural to say that we “are” the Word of God, or that the events of nature and history (category #1, above) “are” the Word of God; only “Word revelation” in the narrow sense, revelation through word-media (category #2, above), can be identified with the Word of God. But the Word of God is made known through each of us.
Theologies differ as to whether the image of God was lost following Adam’s fall. With the Reformed tradition generally, I hold that the image remains (Gen. 5:1; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9), though it is defaced, marred by human sin. God restores that image to believers through Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), so that we become more and more like him. But even unbelievers cannot escape the revelation of God in their own persons, any more than they can escape God’s revelation in the facts of creation external to them. God’s reality is stamped on every fact; it is found wherever we look, outward or inward.
(b) The example of Christian leaders. Leadership, in Scripture, is based primarily upon spiritual maturity (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:6-9), as well as upon teaching ability and doctrinal soundness. A leader is not to teach only with words, but also with his life, to be a particular reflection of Jesus Christ. He is to be capable of “imitation” (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:6; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; Heb. 13:7). Not only the apostles, but all leaders are to be godly examples to the flock (1 Thess. 1:7; 1 Tim. 4:12; Tit. 2:7; 1 Pet. 5:3).
There is something very important here. Important as is the written Word as the constitution of the church, it is insufficient in itself to meet all the needs of God’s people. Note the interesting “travelogue” sections of Paul’s epistles. Over and over again, Paul expresses a desire to address the churches, not only by letter, but in person (Rom. 1:8-17; 15:14-33; 1 Cor. 4:14-21; 5:1-5; 2 Cor. 7:5-16; 12:14–13:10; Gal. 4:12-20; Eph. 6:21ff.; Col. 4:7ff.; 1 Tim. 3:14ff.; 2 Tim. 4:6-18; Tit. 3:12-14; Heb. 13:7ff.,22ff.; 2 John 12; 3 John 13). (I have enumerated these verses at length to indicate the pervasiveness of this theme, which rather surprised me when I first began to study it.) Paul’s personal presence adds something not found in the written Word as such. There is something about Paul’s personal presence that adds power credibility to his Words.
(c) The presence of God himself. God reveals himself also by presenting his own person before us. In Scripture, we find this revelation in theophany. In theophany, God assumes visible form to meet with human beings (Gen. 16:7ff.; 21:17ff.; Exod. 23:31; Isa. 6:1ff.; etc.). But God “meets” with us, not only in theophany, but in all of the previously mentioned forms of revelation. When God speaks to his people, even if there is no visible form (Deut. 4:15), he is surely there. When God speaks through preachers and teachers, his spirit accompanies the Word to achieve his purpose (Jer. 1:12; 1 Thess. 1:5). The written Word is the product of God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16).
The idea of God’s personal presence in revelation leads us immediately to think of Jesus Christ, the living Word of God (John 1:1). Jesus mediates all other forms of God’s Word (Matt. 11:25-28; John 14:6). He is the author of God’s revelation in creation and providence (John 1:3,10; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). He is the content of the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27; John 5:45-47; 1 Cor. 10:4), the ultimate prophet (Luke 4:17-21; John 3:34ff.; 5:20; 7:16; 8:28; 12:47-49; 17:8; 19:24,31, Acts 3:22ff.; 7:37), the ultimate example (Matt. 11:29; 16:24; John 13:35; 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Pet. 2:21; 1 John 3:16). Thus we may say that God — Jesus! — is present whenever God speaks to people.
The Unity of the Word of God
Now in the foregoing discussion, I have enumerated the various “media” of God’s Word under the categories of events, words and persons. Those distinctions are useful, I think, for analysis and for correlation with the “lordship triad” of control, authority, presence. It would be wrong, however, to separate these sharply from one another.
From one point of view, we can say that some of God’s revelations are events, some words, some manifestations of his personal presence. The parting of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds, or whatever) was an event-revelation. The two tables of the Decalogue were word-revelation. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was a manifestation of God’s personal presence.
But in another sense we cannot neatly distinguish these forms of revelation. The parting of the Red Sea is, for us, a part of written Scripture; and, of course, it was a sign of the presence of the Lord in his creation. The two tables of the Decalogue were word-revelation, but their promulgation was a redemptive event, in the context of other redemptive events, in which God was clearly present. And the coming of the Spirit is also a redemptive event, described and interpreted in Holy Scripture.
Even general or natural revelation is a mark of God’s presence (Rom. 1:18) and cannot be rightly used unless it is correlated with the word of the gospel. Apart from faith in Christ, there will always be some suppression of the truth, an exchange of the truth for a lie (Rom. 1:25).
The right use of each form of revelation requires the use of the others. (1) I need Scripture and the Spirit rightly to interpret creation. (2) I need the objective revelation of Scripture and creation to “test the spirits.” (3) I need a spirit-led understanding of creation to apply Scripture to the situations in which I find myself. So understanding one form of revelation involves understanding all forms of it. Our understanding grows, not by looking at the forms of revelation in isolation from one another, but by constantly correlating, comparing, viewing them together.
So the three sets of media are not three different groups of revelations; rather, they are three perspectives on a single unified revelation of God. We can look at that revelation as: (1) a series of events, described in Spirit-attested Scripture, to which we must respond in faith; (2) spoken and written words attested by the spirit, describing God’s mighty acts, which call for us to answer; (3) a person, calling us to himself in Scripture and experience. It is wrong to set these over against one another or to deny one in the interest of maintaining others. Revelation is an organic unity.
The Word of God and the Knowledge of God
The moral of these two lectures is that although “Word of God” in Scripture means (as modern theologians constantly remind us) something more than “Bible,” and although they are right in drawing our attention to the historical and the personal dimensions of God’s speech, still the Holy Scriptures play an absolutely crucial role in the overall organism of revelation, as the covenant constitution of the people of God. It is possible for an evangelical to be a “biblicist” in the sense that he or she, purposefully or not, tends to ignore event- and person-revelation; and we should be humble enough to accept such criticism, even from liberals, when it is rightly due. But it is also possible to be a “historicist,” looking only at “event-revelation,” and looking at it without the guidance of Scripture and the Spirit. Such a historicist will deny what Spirit-attested Scripture says about history. Or one may be a “mystic,” absorbed in the revelation given by the Spirit to our subjectivity, but ignoring Scripture and creation. But none of these positions, biblicism, historicism or mysticism, so understood, is biblically defensible. If evangelicals have sometimes erred in the biblicist direction, certainly non-evangelicals have erred more often in the directions of historicism and mysticism. We should seek to avoid biblicism, without falling into the other traps.
And thus we see also how God’s Word insinuates itself into human knowledge. Our situational, normative and existential perspectives are profoundly affected by God’s Word. (1) Because God’s Word is event, it has radically influenced the situation in which we live. Nature and history are what they are because God has acted on and in them. (2) Because God’s Word is Word, it sets forth the norms for human thought and life. (3) Because God’s Word is his person, and because his Word is manifested in our own persons, he confronts us throughout our own subjectivity. God’s revelation, therefore, is truly inescapable. One cannot think adequately about anything without taking God into account. The rationalist cannot escape because God is the inescapable norm for human reason. The empiricist cannot escape, because God is the supreme fact of experience. The subjectivist cannot escape, because his very subjectivity points to God. But when the believer meditates on all of this, the omnipresence of God begins to take on new meaning.
Underneath me, all around me,
is the current of thy love;
Leading onward, leading homeward,
to thy glorious rest above.7