The Third Mystery?

Sherlock Holmes, with all his powers of observation, will not solve this one!

Along with some ruminations on Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible.

Several summers ago a friend and former student dropped by. In the course of our conversation he asked, “How do you explain the Son of God becoming a human fetus?” My answer was something like this: “I don’t explain, I worship.” There are three mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith. Agatha Christi doesn’t write about these mysteries. They are not the kind of mysteries that Sherlock Holmes, with all his powers of observation, could solve, for they are mysteries that pertain to the nature of the infinite God, the Creator of the Universe. First, these mysteries are not based on human speculation but upon divine revelation. Second, they are impenetrable just because they do reveal the one and only infinite God. Third, although we cannot penetrate them, we can, and must, speak rightly about them if we would worship this God aright. The three mysteries are the incarnation of the Son of God, the Trinity, and God’s self-revelation in the Bible. Although the focus of this article is the third mystery—the Bible, we will offer a paragraph on the other two by way of introduction.

The first and central mystery of the Christian faith is the incarnation. The Son of God assumed our humanity without surrendering His deity. Thus the faith affirms that Jesus was and is not half-God, half-human but one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human. The confession of the Christian Church has witnessed to this truth by insisting that, although the incarnate Son of God is one Person, he has both a human and divine nature and a human and divine will. This mystery is at the heart of the Christian faith because the incarnation is God’s ultimate self-revelation and means of redemption. When we speak rightly about it—though with limited comprehension—all the rest of Christian faith—creation, revelation, redemption, and ultimate salvation—come together in a beautiful whole. The earliest Christians confessed the deity and humanity of Christ on the basis of their empirical encounter with him.  The doctrine of the Trinity, what we might call the ultimate mystery of the Christian faith, is based upon and derived from a proper understanding of how we should speak about the incarnation.

Let us turn now to the third mystery—Holy Scripture. As Christ is the incarnate “Word” of God, so the Church has affirmed the Bible to be the written Word of God, the channel through which God’s self-revelation that climaxed in Christ has come to us. Yet it is also obviously the word of human beings. Thus many theologians have used the analogy of the incarnation to speak about the Bible—the Bible, though one grand revelation, is fully the word of God and fully the word of human beings. In his recent book, Making Sense of the Bible, Adam Hamilton has dispensed with this third mystery, the mystery of a divine/human book, by denying that the Bible should be called the Word of God.[1] He argues that the writers of the Bible were no more inspired than people are today when they preach the Gospel. They were, of course, according to Hamilton “closer to the events” the Bible records.[2] Furthermore, the Church throughout the ages bears witness to the significance and usefulness of their writings. Thus Hamilton would still give the Bible a place with some prominence though denying that it is God’s word. It contains eternal truth, it also, according to him, contains instructions that were appropriate only for the time of writing, and, finally, it contains some things that were never binding because they were merely human misconceptions. According to Hamilton, only the incarnate Son of God should be called the “word of God.”

Hamilton’s removal of the mystery—and the tension—of the divine/human book is an instance of simplistic reductionism that solves nothing. Hamilton and others like him often ridicule Evangelical Christians for referring to the “original autographs” of Scripture or to Scripture as “originally given” as the ultimate standard of accuracy since, “we don’t have the autographs.” Yet they make an even more egregious move when they deny the full trustworthiness of Scripture in favor of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Through textual criticism we can be ninety-seven percent certain what the “original autographs” said. We have NO access to the incarnate Word Jesus Christ aside from the Bible in front of us! Indeed, if we did have direct access to Jesus, if we had been his original disciples, that immediacy with Him would not have solved anything. Those earliest disciples were convinced of his deity by his character and actions—the authority of His teaching, of His power over Satan and demons, of his healing, of his control over nature, and especially of His Resurrection.  Yet they knew He was also completely human. I think it is C. S. Lewis who asks somewhere if we are to imagine that Christ never asked a question for which he did not know the answer.  We might add, do we think that he never had a slip of memory, stepped on someone’s toe, or spilled a bucket of water? If so, Lewis goes on to affirm, his humanity was so different from ours that it could hardly be called the same thing. We cannot penetrate the union of the divine and human word in Scripture any more than we can penetrate the theandric union of the divine/human Jesus. Yet to dissolve this Scriptural union is almost as perilous as to dissolve the union of the divine/human Christ.

We must speak rightly about, and live with the tension of, this mystery. The Bible is the Word of God through which God reveals Himself by both word and deed with the purpose of delivering human beings from bondage to sin and bringing them into fellowship with Himself as a new and redeemed people of God. It is an accurate record of God’s revelation in history culminating in Christ, of His redeeming grace, and of his instructions as to how his people are to live in accord with His character. At the same time it is a human word, written over millennia by many people, and thus containing various tensions and seeming contradictions. As the word of God its words have been chosen and arranged through divine oversight to communicate God’s message. As the word of human beings its words and their arrangement reflect the personalities of its writers and the vicissitudes of textual transmission. And yet it is less than accurate to speak of the divine and human in Scripture in separation from one another as we have done in these last sentences. Both are necessary for divine revelation—and ultimately for human redemption. As the human will of the incarnate Christ is subject to the divine, so the humanity of Scripture serves God’s revelatory purpose. Thus the Bible, as the Word of God, when rightly understood in its totality, cannot be relativized by attributing some aspect of its teaching to its human authors apart from God.

[1] Contrary to what Hamilton says, the Bible has been affirmed as the word of God from the beginning of the Christian Church—even if the exact expression has not always been used. It is obvious that Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament writers believed that the Old Testament was the completely trustworthy revelation of God. Despite Hamilton’s protestations to the contrary, the New Testament writers wrote with the conviction that what they were recording concerning the fulfillment of the Old Testament had authority equal to that which it fulfilled. Hamilton’s argument is particularly faulty when he refers to the Thirty-Nine Articles affirmation that “all things necessary for salvation” are found in Scripture as evidence that the Bible was not thought to be the word of God. All sides in the controversies of the Reformation period believed that the Bible was the completely true word of God—what they disagreed on was the relationship between the Bible and Church tradition.

[2] This is a particularly lame argument. While it is significant that the Gospel writers were close in time to the events they recorded, this argument has little relevance to much (perhaps most) of the Bible. Even the Chronicles, which were books of historical narrative, were written several hundred years after the most recent events that they record.

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