Biblical Inspiration part 4 – Rightly Dividing the Word

I have contended in previous posts that the conventional Christian position designating the entire Biblical canon to be the “Word of God” is in error. But this is not to say that we do not have the Word of God available to us. . .quite the contrary. The role of the “workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15, KJV)” is to understand what, out of all the Biblical writings, is God’s own word, and be sure to live by it.

If we simply let the Biblical texts speak for themselves, this isn’t really terribly complicated. First and foremost, of course, as John makes abundantly clear at the beginning of his gospel, the ultimate word of God is Jesus himself, the Word become flesh. Anything we presume to understand from the written Biblical texts (or for that matter from anywhere) must be subjected to the character of Jesus as he lived and taught while present on earth. In any case where there is any perceived disagreement or discrepancy, Jesus wins because Jesus is the fullest revelation of God in history. So for example, when Jesus taught a variety of “you have heard it was said. . .but I say to you” throughout the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), it doesn’t really matter whether what he was doing was clarifying an earlier point that God had revealed, or correcting a human doctrine. Either way, Jesus’ own authority was and remains paramount. It is impossible to make a Biblical case for rejecting or discounting a teaching of Jesus, and it is equally impossible to be obeying Biblical teaching in any way that leads one to live or behave contrary to Jesus’ character.

In this regard, we must operate under the faith position that Jesus’ words and actions, as represented in the four gospels, are faithfully recorded. Without these, Jesus is no more than a significant historical legend who may or may not have taught certain things or done certain deeds. The various revisionists that try to parse out the “historical” Jesus from that recorded in the Gospels may be performing an interesting academic exercise, but faith in Christ depends on a faithful account of who Christ was.

(I should note here that there are plenty who get into the subject of apologetics to determine the historicity of Jesus. This is an interesting subject, and one I may take on at some point. But it’s not the point of this series. I am speaking here to those who accept–or at least are willing to entertain the possibility of–the divine nature of Jesus’ life and work on earth. My argument is which parts of the Biblical text are to be taken as the word of God, which PRESUPPOSES that there is a God, there is a word of God that must be followed, and so on. This is hermaneutics, not apologetics).

Parenthetics out of the way, what am I saying? Very simply, if there is a “word of God” at all, at the very pinnacle it must be the words of Jesus, God’s incarnate son.

After Jesus, there are other places where the Biblical texts explicitly say that what they are relating are the words of God. We find this mostly in the prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others say over and over in their texts “this is what the Lord says,” or “the word of the Lord came to me,” or similar phrases. These designators–highlighting that here it is no longer merely man’s thoughts but God’s own communication–are followed by very clear condemnation of evil, occasional praise for faithfulness, and unmistakable directions for action.

Frankly, if our churches spent as much teaching and study effort on these parts of the Bible where it actually says it’s God’s word, instead (or even in addition to) their emphasis on other parts that make no such claim, we would be looking at a radically different faith. The troubling, encouraging, exciting thing is that the places where we have these words recorded, tend to be passages that talk a lot about justice and right behavior, and not so much about belief in doctrinal propositions.

On the other hand, and in stark contrast to these declaratory passages, the Psalms are a man’s words. They are full of David’s praise to God, as well as his prayers, the venting of his frustrations, and so on. In many ways it might be accurate to look at parts of the Psalms as David’s “prayer journal.” But the Psalms also relate plenty that is flat-out un-Godly. Probably the best examples of this are the so-called “imprecatory psalms” such as Psalm 109.

When he is tried, let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin. May his days be few; may another seize his position. May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. (v. 7-10, NRSV)

When David is saying these things he’s being bluntly honest with his feelings toward his enemies. But no one who’s paid any attention to the character and teachings of Jesus can make the case that these feelings are remotely Godly–certainly they’re not something we are taught to emulate or bring about.

So are they in error? No, it’s not an error to have included them in the text. While God may not have inspired David to write those words (evil thoughts like those have a very different inspirational source), I do believe God inspired the canonical council to include them. They are profitable for teaching, because they give us an unvarnished look at the range of feelings–perhaps the range of depravity–of a man who served God faithfully for much of his life. But this rant cannot in any stretch be characterized as God’s word. It is, in fact, antithetical to God’s very being.

So study your Bible, and learn to “rightly divide” that which is God’s word from that which is also profitable for teaching. We’ll talk more about what this division may mean in future posts. Peace until then. . .

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