God’s Word in Human Words

First Place, Student Essays in Christian Wisdom

The fifth annual Student Essays in Christian Wisdom competition attracted papers from a range of students at Anglican seminaries and university divinity schools. As ever, our judges evaluated the papers blindly, with no knowledge of the name or institutional affiliation of the author.

Lyndon Jost, a student at Wycliffe College in the University of Toronto, took the top prize with his paper, “God’s Word in Human Words,” which The Living Church is pleased to publish in this edition. The other winners were:

  • Second place: Kevin Stewart Rose, Duke Divinity School: “Eating One’s Fill and Throwing It Up: Food as Outpouring of Worldview in 14th and 18th Century Europe”
  • Third place: John Zambenini, Duke Divinity School: “The hope we don’t have and the hope we do: A reflection on Philippians and being alive today”

We are most grateful to the judges of this year’s competition, who gave sacrificially of their time and wisdom:

  • The Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement
  • The Rev. Yejide Peters, rector of All Saints, Briarcliff Manor, New York
  • The Rt. Rev. Dabney Smith, Bishop of Southwest Florida

By Lyndon Jost

I was born and bred in a conservative evangelical family and church community whose understanding of history and science was informed by young-earth creationists like Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovin, and whose eschatology was informed by proto-Left Behind Christian rapture movies. The earth was incontestably 6,000 to 10,000 years old, and the only question we had left about the eschaton was “Pre-trib?” or “Post-trib?” If the Bible said it, we believed it, and that settled it — and there was always a way to prove it.

In our estimation, God had revealed the earth’s geological secrets to the writer of Genesis 1, the word-by-word account of Peter’s speech to the writer of Acts 2, and the play-by-play of the world’s end to the writer of Revelation. The gospels gave exact historical and chronological descriptions of Jesus’ life, and could thus be harmonized seamlessly. In fact, to regard these gospels as anything less than “historical” (in the strict modern sense of the word) would be to undermine their divine nature and authority. Scripture was God’s word, unfettered by humanity’s limitedness.1

During my undergraduate studies in religion, however, I began to see in Scripture something unsettlingly different than what I had previously seen. As I became engrossed in the study of the gospels from a historical-critical perspective, I came to see that each gospel was a deeply culturally embedded writing. Each author had a distinct style, wrote with distinct purposes, and crafted his narrative in a way that suited these purposes. The authors did not transcend culture or history, but wrote in ways familiar to their social contexts, using the ideas, terms, and even philosophies of their day. At times these authors’ accounts of Jesus’ life would be at odds with one another. Initially, the humanness of these texts — with all of their particularities, inconsistencies, and creative liberties — posed a major problem to my understanding of these texts as Scripture. It all seemed far too human to be God’s word — that is, until I began to realize that this is just how God’s word has always come to humanity: humanly.

What I had functionally been ignorant of all these years was that the Bible was not only the divine word of God but also the human word of man. And while my church tradition worked hard to cling to the divine nature of Scripture (by clinging to a literalistic reading of it), it seemed to have lost touch with the humanity of Scripture — thereby diminishing Scripture’s authority by using it to make claims that it could not (and should not) make or defend. It might be said that mine was a tradition of scriptural Docetists, who would read and treat Scripture as though it had come to us with the mere semblance of human authorship, but without any real humanity in the text. It was as though the contents of Scripture had bypassed all human faculties and, with the help of mere human hands, God had written divine revelation. However, because Scripture is a human book, God does not bypass the authors’ human faculties, styles of writing, cultural-literary norms, or worldviews. Rather, God chooses to take particular human beings as human beings, and their writings as human writings, and make them instruments of his very own self-revelation. Indeed, Scripture is a distinctly human book, yet its humanness in no way diminishes the fact that it is the word of God.

Barth and Billings both suggest an incarnational understanding of Scripture, comparing it to Christ’s dual nature.2 For Barth, Scripture remains uncompromisingly fully human, even in its role as the word of God.3 Much like Christ’s humanity was not compromised by his deity — as he experienced real limitations (hunger, thirst, exhaustion, even death) — in a similar way Scripture’s humanity need not be compromised in order to maintain its status and function as the word of God.

As with Christ, we must not try to purge Scripture of its humanity but embrace it, just as God has embraced these human words, sanctified them, and spoken them as his very own — to be read and spoken in turn: in, to, and through the Church.

In the terminology and phraseology of George Hunsinger’s “Beyond Literalism and Expressivism,” we should say that the humanness of Scripture is present precisely in (1) its “mode of textual reference” (analogical) and (2) its “mode of literary representation” (legendary witness).4

1. While the literalist-inerrantist trend has been to claim that the “semantic force” of the text of Scripture is univocal (i.e., the words refer unambiguously to a particular referent), human words in fact never absolutely refer to their referent. Words are not that which they refer to. The word table is not a table, and is only useful insofar as it refers correctly to that which the speaker intends, and insofar as it is understood as that to which the speaker intends to refer. There will always be space between human words and their referents, and all the more when the referent is “wholly other,” God himself.5

Nevertheless, while the assertive force of the scriptural text can never be absolute, especially regarding him who is wholly other, God did choose to claim and use this text in order that he might truly be revealed. In this sense, one can be assured that the words of Scripture, though they are distinctly human words hence not univocal in their reference, are certainly “analogical” for expressing to humankind who God truly is.6 Thus, the humanness of Scripture is evident in its analogical “mode of textual reference.”

2. Literalists tend also to guard against claims of the human finitude of Scripture by claiming the narrative force of the text to be “factual report.” As mentioned above, one of the problems with this kind of facticity is that not all cultures have the same standards and expectations for what constitutes fact or history. For example, it is highly doubtful that the history-writers around the time of the New Testament era held to the same standard of history-writing as today.7 The modern reader, then, cannot approach the New Testament texts as factual reports in the same way that we understand factual reports today. Instead, as Barth insists, the “narrative force” of Scripture must be understood as “legendary witness.”

But what does it mean to read Scripture as “legendary witness”? For Barth, it is to recognize the space between human history and human testimony. For him, there is no point in trying to locate divine revelation historically, since such history is ultimately impossible to recover and we can only presently access such revelation through the witness (or testimony) to such revelation.8 To call this witness “legendary” is not to diminish the reality to which it testifies, but simply to recognize that the role of this witness has less (perhaps nothing) to do with recovering, or uncovering, a historical event, but has everything to do with testifying to revelation that is “utterly real.”9 In this view, the text of Scripture testifies truly to the event of revelation. But in what sense, then, might we deem the Scriptures true? Can the Scriptures, according to this view, be trustworthy in their historicity?

C. Stephen Evans suggests that the truthfulness of legendary witness has less to do with the text itself and more to do with the reader. In other words, our reading of the biblical text is not so much about our control of it, or what we can make of or do with it. Instead, it has more to do with the text’s control on us, the readers. For Evans, the important thing is that the reader is left with an accurate view of the person, situation, or teaching conveyed. As long as the reader is left believing the truth about the person, situation, or teaching, it seems the written history is reliable.10

In all of these ways, the Word of God comes to us in the words of men, and the words of men given us in Scripture come to us as the very Word of God. Although Scripture might thus be said to be ordinary human writing, such humanness need not diminish the authority of Scripture any more than Christ’s humanness diminishes his authority over all things. As Billings says:

Just as God uses ordinary water in baptism, and bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, God sets aside (“makes holy”) the words of Scripture. This divine choosing takes the creaturely into the triune work of God: through Scripture the Spirit works to bring the church into conformity with its head, Jesus Christ, who speaks as the Word of the Father.11

Lyndon Jost is a third-year Master of Divinity student at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.


1 In Vanhoozer’s summary of Barth’s view: “the miracle is not that the human authors spoke infallibly, but rather that God uses fallible human words to speak his infallible Word. … God, Barth says, is not ashamed to speak through the foolishness (1 Cor. 1:21) and fallibility (1 Cor. 1:25) of men. This is the ‘impossible possibility’ that must be accepted on faith.” See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation,” in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Baker, 2006), p. 42.

2 As Billings says of the authorship of Scripture, “we need to think in an incarnational and Trinitarian way about this human act” (see J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture [Eerdmans, 2010], p. 93).

3 In Barth’s view, “Holy Scripture is like the unity of God and man in Jesus Christ. It is neither divine only nor human only. Nor is it a mixture of the two nor a tertium quid between them. But in its own way and degree, it is very God and very man, that is, a witness of revelation which itself belongs to revelation.” See Bruce L. McCormack, “The Being of Holy Scripture is in Becoming” in Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, ed. Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguelez, and Dennis L. Okholm (InterVarsity, 2004), p. 68.

4 See Hunsinger, “Beyond Literalism and Expressivism: Karl Barth’s Hermeneutical Realism,” Modern Theology 3 (1987), p. 225 (in honor of Hans Frei’s 65th birthday).

5 MacCormack, p. 68.

6 “The God who is wholly other and therefore wholly incomprehensible posits, in the event of self-revelation, an incomprehensible analogical relation between human word and divine referent” (Hunsinger, p. 220).

7 “God’s truth was not at our disposal, Barth urged, but our truth was at God’s disposal. In God, who was the truth, all truth found its unity. When God selected certain metaphors, concepts, and words from our sphere and allowed them to correspond to the divine being, there was a sense in which God was not selecting something alien, but something which belonged originally and properly to God as the Creator” (Hunsinger, pp. 217-18).

8 See Stephen C. Evans, “The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: From What Perspective Should It Be Assessed?” in The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, ed. Richard Bauckham and Carl A. Mosser (Eerdmans, 2008), p. 95: “[In] a world without tape recorders or shorthand stenographers, it is understandable that historians of the period felt free to attribute to speakers discourses capturing the gist of what was said rather than being verbatim accounts. Similarly, if there was a general understanding during the period that historians had a degree of freedom to arrange their narratives so that events were sometimes grouped together from some thematic purpose rather than being related in a strict chronological sequence, then historians who follow this practice are not being deceitful or even inaccurate relative to contemporary standards.”

9 “Revelation is in history, but it is not of history. While the resurrection is a historical event, Barth distinguishes between the sheer occurrence of events and God’s self-revelation in them” (Vanhoozer, p. 50).

10 Vanhoozer, p. 49.

11 Billings, p. 94.

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