Friday, August 17, 2012

2 Grudem: The Word of God

Last weekend I started blogging through Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology both as a Wesleyan-Arminian and as a Bible scholar.  This week I continue my summary/evaluation with chapter 2: "The Word of God."
In chapter 2, Grudem identifies several different ways in which God has spoken, several different paths through which the "word" of God has come.  His list includes:

1. Jesus as the Word of God (John 1:1; Rev. 19:13)
You can see hints of him trying to downplay this one without downplaying Jesus. "This usage is not common" (47). It's an implicit put down to theologies that emphasize Jesus as God's Word as central more than the Bible as God's word (e.g., the theology of Karl Barth, the most significant theologian of the twentieth century).

2. The speech of God to the creation in the Bible as the word of God (e.g., 33:6)
Here Grudem is setting up for the Calvinist idea of God's decrees, God's commands that order the creation.

3. Words God says to people in the Bible (e.g., to people)
Here he gets a little into the question of whether human words can be perfect and he predictably believes they can.

4. God's words he speaks orally through humans (e.g., on the lips of a prophet)

5. God's words spoken through humans and written down (i.e., in the Bible)
He speaks of the advantages of getting the words written down: more accurate preservation, opportunity for repeated inspection, accessible to more people.

The focus of his systematic theology is on #5: the Bible.  Perhaps someone told him he had missed something, because he has a tiny, tiny footnote (50 n.1) on "general revelation" or what is sometimes called "natural revelation," revelation through the creation.

It is not so much that Grudem's breakdown here is wrong as that it is anemic and implicitly circular.  For example, the worlds of the Bible were oral cultures, yet Grudem's thoughts in #5 are typical of someone from a literary culture.  Were the words of the Bible really accessible in written form to hardly anyone until after the invention of the printing press in the late 1400's?  No, only to the elite in written form, since hardly anyone could read.  His analysis thus betrays at more than one point an unreflectivity, an inability to see one's own paradigmatic assumptions.

God had been speaking for a very long time before a word of the Bible was written down and presumably continues to speak in countless contexts today outside the Bible.  Here is another point Grudem seems to de-emphasize by only alluding to it.  He mentions that God speaks to individuals but his discussion is focused purely on the Bible.  Is he afraid to say much about the fact that God can speak to you or me today, a word from the Lord to me or you today?

The underlying goal of his analysis is to set up the written Bible as the focal word of God. Certainly, the Bible is the place we should begin to seek God's voice.  Where else would a Christian go to hear God's voice more readily than Scripture?  Would we find God's voice so clearly in nature or in prayer?  Of course, to turn Grudem's own words in a different direction than he does, if God were to speak to you genuinely in nature or in prayer, that speaking would be just as authoritative to you as any word in the Bible.  The problem is more to be able to confirm that it is actually God speaking to you in those venues. God's word is God's word if it is God's word.

However, this is a question of method from where we sit.  It is the question of where we should start to hear God's voice.  Where can we, where we sit today, most easily access God's will?  Where is God's voice most readily available to me today?  Surely the Bible is the answer!

But also from the standpoint of God, surely all of his words are equally authoritative.  Reflect on any inner struggle you might have at this comment.  If God speaks through nature, that speaking is as authoritative as him speaking through Scripture because God is God.  There is no way this statement cannot be true if God is the ultimate authority. If this causes any inner conflict, then you are not fully capable of distinguishing God the person from God as you have constructed him in your mind in the Bible.  You are in danger of idolatry.  You cannot distinguish between God as real and your ability to know God.

Grudem again is not fully able to read the books of the Bible in context, so he tends to see them as a deposit of truth and to miss the thousand year period of their assemblage and the thousands of years of their relative inaccessibility.  Taken in their plain sense, they are individual moments in God walking with his people, speaking at specific times and places. Secondarily, since they were written, the Spirit has also used them as a means of grace, a sacrament of transformation. Neither of these natural functions of Scripture exactly constitutes a deposit of revelation. It is no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation came after the invention of the printing press.

To see the books of the Bible as a singular deposit is to read and project a perspective on them that is different from their own intrinsic categories.  As an example of listening to what the "word" is on the Bible's own terms, behind some of the New Testament's idea of the word of God is arguably Jewish speculation about the divine logos.  God's word in John 1, Hebrews 4:12, arguably Colossians 1, was God's will in action.  Hebrews 4:12 is God's judging word that discerns the heart and dispenses judgment appropriately (cf. Wisdom 18:15) and does not refer to Scripture directly. John 1:14 perhaps implies that the image and will of God became present among his people in the person of Jesus like the glory of God in the wilderness sanctuary.  It ultimately refers to Christ (as Grudem acknowledges) and not to Scripture.

We seem on an idolatrous trajectory if we do not place the books of the Bible as God's words within the context of an overall story of God speaking.  We make the Bible an end-in-itself and the focus rather than the God who spoke, speaks, and will speak, most centrally through Christ.  It doesn't matter that the Bible only refers to Christ as the word relatively few times. This is Grudem's implicit circularity. Assuming that the Bible (rather than Christ) is the central revelation, he determines the central revelation through the number of times the Bible uses "word" in this way. This is the circular fallacy, assuming one's conclusion in one's argument.

But how can anything supersede Christ as God's supreme revelation to the universe?  The Bible has been a sacrament of God's speaking to those who could read in history or who knew some of its content orally or through stained glass. Methodologically, it is our starting point today, we who are privileged to be literate. But God has spoken far more in history than in the Bible and his central speaking to the universe is surely in Jesus Christ.  Any other view of Scripture verges dangerously on idolatry.

God "spoke" the worlds into creation. God spoke and continues to speak to the hearts of all humanity in general through his Spirit.  God spoke to Israel through the prophets and through the Law.  God spoke on earth through Jesus.  God spoke to the early church through the apostles.  God spoke and continues to speak to the church through his saints. These speakings are far more oral than literary and far more "soulish" than cognitive.

Grudem's approach to God's speech is thus anemic also because it focuses on knowledge rather than what God's word does.  As a true heir of Rene Descartes, Grudem assumes that humans are primarily "thinking things." But this is only the surface of our humanity, and God's words are more to our hearts than our heads. The most important revelations of God are transformations in our attitudes and lives, with our heads singing the descant.

A couple other critiques. One is that, in his unreflectivity, Grudem does not take into account the genres of ancient literature.  He has a "what you see is what you get" reading of the Bible that inevitably imports all the assumptions of what he sees rather than the criteria of the audiences for whom the books of the Bible were first written. For him a quote is a quote, when it might have just as well been a paraphrase.

Finally, words don't have to be incorrect because they are human words, but they are subject to certain limitations and finitude. As Joel Green says in Seized by Truth, there is an inevitable limitation that comes from shoving a rich life experience into a string of words.  It inevitably limits the perspective.  It inevitably makes the presentation partial.  It makes it finite in some ways, imprecise even if accurate.

However, human language can compensate by going poetic and figurative.  We can point to profundity by metaphor and non-literal language. Against these sorts of considerations, Grudem's outline of words seems like something a high school student might write. There is more to revelation than is dreamt of in his philosophy.


John C. Gardner said...

I have purchased the Grudem book and will be reading with you. I think your summary of chapter 2 was fair and insightful. Thank you for undertaking this series since it helps this retired professor think about his faith even while trying to live it out in the everyday world.

Martin LaBar said...

It's too bad that some referee didn't tell Grudem what you said in this post, before he started writing.