Reviewing The Living Word of God Chapter I
Reviewing The Living Word of God
by Dr. Ben Witherington III
Chapter I – Seeking the Word of God
“Fancy writes, ‘Mary had a little lamb’; inspired imagination writes, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.'” – Eugene Peterson
Mankind hungers for a word from God. We appreciate how hard it is to truly observe life and reality and to share those observations truly, so voracious readers and passionate communicators enjoy ruminating on the writing of others. What we don’t need is invention.
What Dr. Witherington gives us is interesting and challenging observations about the Word we have from God. After clearing off the table and giving us some hints about the menu in the Preface, he now begins to set the table by dealing with a most interesting aspect of God’s Word – the relationship between oral texts and written texts — in the first section, Holy God and Holy Words.
The written word has ruled Western culture since shortly after it became affordable to print. I believe an interesting discussion could be had about whether we are shifting into a visual/aural culture again (with the popularity of YouTube and podcasts and the gentle decline of established media). Still, by comparison to biblical cultures, the written word still rules ours.
This is important to examine because the New Testament presents us with the phenomenon of oral texts – written words that were meant to be read. Dr. Witherington may perhaps be best known in theological circles for positing and defending this point of view – that most of the documents we call the New Testament are crafted according to the oral rhetorical schemes of first-century Greco-Roman culture and that we will understand them best only when we understand how they are put together. This, I’ve learned, is called the Socio-Rhetorical school of thought. It is not mentioned so much as understood in this chapter as the author discusses sacred texts in an oral culture. He points to the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures about the ark of the covenant (esp. 1 Sam 4-6 and 2 Sam 6) as important biblical examples of the reverence with which sacred texts were treated. He says:
“My point in this discussion is simple: ancients did not think words, and especially divine words, were mere ciphers or sounds. The ancients believed words partook of the character and quality of the one who spoke them, especially when talking about God’s words, and not surprisingly oral culture puts a premium on the oral word. The living voice was generally preferred, except when it came to holy words spoken to unholy people. Then there might well be a preference for a mediated conveying of God’s word, a reading or proclaiming of his word by a spokesperson… When the living Word was proclaimed by a living voice, whether God directly or through God’s messenger or emissary, things were likely to happen. Imagine what would be the conclusion if it was thought that God’s special anointed one, the Messiah, was doing the proclaiming of God’s word as well? Would they not have expected the words of the Messiah to be clearly from God, having especial power and efficacy as well?”
Dr. Witherington points to Mark 12:36 as an important passage where that Messiah himself expresses a particular understanding of inspiration. “…Jesus is not just referring to an inspiration of persons, like David himself, but an inspiration that results in an inspired text which Jesus could quote as still having divine authority — a Holy Scripture, not merely sacred speech or oral tradition.”
The next section, The Viva Voce — The Message about Jesus as the Spoken Word of God and Jesus as the Word made Flesh, analyzes four major passages to help us understand this relationship. They are 1 Thess 2:13; 1 Cor 4:36-37; Hebrews 4:12-13; and 1 Peter 1:23. Throughout the section he points also to references in Acts (4:31; 6:7; 12:24) of how the word of God grows, and causes and creates life and community. Having started the foundation by explaining how ancients understood holy communication, he now builds onto that with the understanding that the message about Jesus was clearly understood to be the Word of God. I believe Dr. Witherington is also hinting towards the upcoming dialogue with Peter Enns’ “incarnational” understanding of the Bible.
He follows with The Word made Scripture, where he offers an exegesis of what everyone must have known was coming in an argument about inspiration in the NT – 2 Tim 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:20-21. I will not reproduce that exegesis here, but will offer some highlights.
1) “One could also read the verse to mean, ‘every inspired Scripture is useful…,’ but against this view is the more natural approach of taking the two qualifying adjectives as relating to the noun in the same way as in 1 Timothy 4:4.” This pokes a credible hole in one of my understandings.
2) “We are not given an explanation of how inspiration works. This text [2 Tim 3:16-17] by itself does not explicate a theory of inspiration or its nature. Does the Spirit lift the mind of the writer to see, understand, and write, or is it a amtter of mechanical dictation? These questions are not answered here. Rather, whatever the process, the product is God’s word, telling God’s truth.”
3) “Neither Paul nor the author of Hebrews views the OT as an example of what God once said, relegating the revelation and speaking to the past. No, God’s word still has the life and power and truth of God in it, and it still speaks in and to the present.”
4) “The author [of 2 Peter] thinks there is a meaning in the prophecy iteself that makes a claim on the listener, and it is not for the listener to determine the meaning of the text but rather to discover it. Indeed he even means it wasn’t up to the prophet to interpret or add his own interpretation to it. He was constrained by the source of the information to speak another’s words and meaning — namely God’s.”
He also briefly touches upon the passages in Hebrews where the preacher quotes the Hebrew Scriptures in the present tense. “What Scripture says, God says, and the God is is said to be speaking these OT texts is Father, Son, or Spirit…. the author enunciates a hermeneutic of progressive revelation from the very beginning of the book…. some sort of symbiotic relationship is envisioned between the word written, the word proclaimed, and the Word Incarnate.”
Dr Witherington’s conclusion thus far is that the idea called “the living word of God” in the New Testament includes an oral message about Jesus, an Incarnate person, and finally a text, specifically (so far) the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. “Some NT writers even reached the point of being able to talk about Jesus being the Word of God incarnate, come in the flesh, such that when Jesus spoke on earth, he not only spoke for God, he spoke as God and indeed spoke about himself.” We’ve talked about Jesus as the climax of revelation, but how do ordinary words BECOME God’s Word?
Stay tuned next Friday for Dr. Witherington’s offer of an answer!