The “Word of God”
The Church has, for most of its existence, confessed that the New Testament is not simply a human book. It is in some sense the “Word of God.” In the 19th and 20th centuries more traditional Christians have re-affirmed this confession as a central part of their life and faith. For Protestants, the Reformation call to understand God, the world and ourselves based on “Scripture alone” only makes sense if these writings are understood to convey something more than a human reflection on our religious experience. Sola scriptura presumes that in these texts we hear the voice of God. Yet believers have often been so concerned to preserve this ‘high’ view of the New Testament that they have not stopped to ask what it really means. The modernist challenges to Scripture as the “Word of God” have persisted because believers are often confused about two questions. First, what would it mean for God’s word to be contained in a text with human authors? Second, why would Christians believe this about the texts in the first place?
Fully Human Writings
So what have Christians traditionally meant when they say that the New Testament is the “Word of God”? One thing Christian theologians have not meant is that the book fell straight out of the sky, or that an angel was whispering in Luke’s ear while he took dictation. (The persistence of art depicting angelic dictation to the evangelists reflects popular conceptions that have never been endorsed by the theological tradition.) Muslims understand the authority of the Qur’an to be rooted in divine dictation. They believe that an angel met Muhammad in a cave and recited Arabic poetry to the prophet, who simply memorized the words. The prophet contributed nothing to the wording or the content of the Qur’an. He was merely a kind of secretary, recording what the angel said. In contrast, Christian theology has always affirmed that, whatever else they are, the New Testament writings are fully human books. Paul and Luke and Mark were genuine human authors. They thought for themselves about their subjects and recorded their ideas. They chose their own words and shaped for themselves the language to express their understanding of Christ and his implications for life. At least some of the New Testament writers do not even seem to have been conscious of writing “Scripture” at all. They were simply writing down their best understanding of things in order to address the situation at hand.
So when Christians have confessed that the New Testament writings are “inspired,” they have not usually meant that God somehow short-circuited or overrode the normal human processes of composition and authorship. The English term “inspired” is actually misleading here. I say it is misleading because the “in-” at the beginning of inspiration suggests to English speakers that somehow God put ideas “into” the minds of the New Testament writers. It tempts us to simply move the dictation model of authorship inside the brains of the human authors, where the Holy Spirit sits speaking the contents of Scripture while the writer’s sub-conscious takes notes. The “in” in the English word “inspiration” suggests to us that the New Testament writers were all prophets in the same sense as Isaiah or Jeremiah, receiving the divine word by direct revelation and simply passing it on. Yet the early Church did not talk about the New Testament authors as prophets. In fact, Christian writers of the second and third centuries drew a clear distinction between “the Prophets” of the Christian Old Testament and the “Gospel” and “Apostles” composed within the Church.
The English talk about Scripture as “inspired” originated with the statement in 2 Timothy 3:16 that such Scriptures are theopneustos. Jerome translated this Greek word with the Latin inspiratus, which came into English as “inspired.” But the underlying Greek word theopneustos means “God-breathed.” The picture it paints is one of God breathing out, speaking the New Testament writings. In one sense, this suggests an even more radical view of the New Testament as Scripture. It is not simply that God gives the human writers ideas, which they then have to express in their own words. Rather, these documents are God’s own speech. If these books are theopneustos, then when we read them we are confronted directly by the divine voice. Such a radical understanding of Scripture as “God-breathed” also poses a problem, though. How can a text be a fully human product, produced through all the normal processes of human authorship, and at the same time be the speech of God? How could it be that when we hear the voice of Luke or John we are at the same time hearing the voice of God? This perplexity is one root of the modern skepticism, even within Christianity, about the church’s traditional view of the New Testament. Why should we continue claiming to believe a doctrine when we can’t even articulate what it means?
One understandable reaction to that skepticism has been the stubborn insistence that Christians “just have to believe it.” This has often bred a brittle and defensive attitude toward traditional beliefs about Scripture. Believers have been afraid to think creatively about the New Testament’s connection with God because, at bottom, we have been afraid that there is no rational basis for it. Yet creeds and confessions from the first thousand years of Christianity did not include statements about the Bible’s inspiration. There was no emphasis on the need for such confessions because the idea made sense to people. It did not seem paradoxical or irrational. Somewhere over the centuries, though, the idea that Scripture is “God-breathed” lost its intuitive sensibility. If we now go back to the basic convictions that drove early Christian thought, can we recover something of the logic that motivated belief in Scripture’s inspiration in the first place?
Christ: The Centre of God’s Speech
For the first Christians, God’s communication with humanity was centred, not in a text, but in a person: Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel texts of the New Testament were authoritative at first only in the secondary sense that they allowed their readers to see and hear Jesus. Christianity is grounded in the basic conviction that God was acting in Christ to rescue the world. Since Jesus himself spoke, both in words and in symbolic acts, this divine intervention in Jesus must include an element of communication. So it is in Jesus that we find the centre of God’s speech in the world, and it is in hearing the earthly Jesus that early Christians believed they heard God’s voice.
“The Apostles”: The Medium of God’s Speech
Now, most early Christians could not hear God’s voice in Jesus directly. While they believed that the risen Christ was still speaking through God’s Spirit to his people, the early church was very clear that such ongoing “words” from Christ take second place to Jesus words and actions during his earthly career. It is otherwise too easy to mistake one’s own imagination for divine revelation. Yet even in the first century most Christ-followers did not have the opportunity to listen to Jesus in person or watch him move through Galilee. Instead, God’s voice in the earthly Jesus was mediated, carried across the years, by the apostolic circle. When the early church set the texts of the “Apostle” alongside the “Gospel,” they expressed their confidence in the apostolic circle as preservers and interpreters of their encounter with the earthly Jesus. In fact, the same confidence is also implied in the church’s acceptance of the “Gospel” texts themselves, since the Gospels are, in their own way, interpretations of Jesus’ significance as much as they are records of his words and works. So the New Testament texts were regarded as “God-breathed” because they allowed later generations to hear—albeit indirectly—the “message” God spoke in and through the life of Jesus.
Jesus’ Inner Circle
Why did the early church assume that the apostolic circle remembered and interpreted Jesus properly? Our early Christians sources do not explain, perhaps in part because their confidence in that circle was never a matter of debate. Common sense suggests that Jesus’ hand-picked inner circle were the ones most likely to understand the Master whom they had followed. Yet the early church understood this circle of reliable “apostolic” witnesses to include more than just the Twelve. Why was it assumed, for example, that Paul’s missionary teaching provided an accurate understanding of Jesus? After all, Paul appeals very seldom to the life and teachings of Jesus, and by his own admission his understanding of Jesus was formed in relative isolation from the Twelve in Jerusalem (Gal 1:11-2:10). Why did Christians accept so quickly and universally that Paul, too, was a reliable “medium” of God’s voice in Jesus?
The Apostles Guided by the Spirit?
One answer that has been offered since the second century is that the Holy Spirit guided the apostolic circle. God’s active presence was at work in the first century, ensuring that the divine word in Jesus was handed on faithfully. This is, we are told, a different kind of guidance than the church has received since the apostolic age. When Montanus and his followers, at the end of the second century, claimed that the Spirit’s guidance made their teaching authoritative, the rest of the church responded by insisting that God’s communication through the broad “apostolic” circle was unique. No one since can claim the same complete reliability as an interpreter of Christ.
Yet this emphasis on the uniqueness of the Spirit’s action in the apostolic generation pushes us to ask why the early Christians came to believe the Spirit had acted in this way. It is one thing to say that God could preserve the purity of his message in Christ through the apostolic age. It is another thing to show why we should believe he did. Again, the early church did not feel the need to reflect much on the point. The Spirit’s involvement seemed so obvious that no discussion was needed. So we need to push past the bare affirmation that the Spirit guided the apostolic church to ask why such an idea seemed so obviously credible. Appealing to the Spirit’s help for the reliability of the wider “apostolic” circle simply pushes the questions one step further back. Why think that these first-century teachers had the Spirit’s guidance in the first place?
There are also two theological dangers in an appeal to the Spirit’s guidance as the sole basis for confidence in the apostles. First, this focus encourages a slide toward the idea that God simply dictated the words of Scripture to the human writers, or at least that the Spirit poured ideas into their minds like wine into an empty cup. Yet, as we saw above, the church has never accepted this simplistic model of divine communication. In order to guard against this kind of “dictation” model of inspiration, we need to ask how the Spirit was thought to have guided the apostolic circle. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if one depends too much on the Spirit’s guidance to guarantee the apostles’ reliability, one begins to lose the early church’s emphasis on Christ’s centrality in God’s communication. Where early Christians insisted that Jesus himself was the centre and origin of God’s voice in the world, it is easy to depict the Spirit as the one who does the talking. Christ is reduced to being the passive content of the message. So if we want to recover the logic of belief in “God-breathed” human writings, we need to move beyond the bare assertion that the Spirit guided the apostolic generation.
A Message Geared for the Disciples’ Ears
A more promising starting point is the initial Christian confession that God was acting (and so speaking) in Christ. What might early Christians have inferred from God’s decision to speak in the person of Jesus? When we communicate with one another we gear our message to our audience. If I speak to my four year-old daughter, I use language and concepts that she will be able to grasp. I will speak very differently to a group of adults, because I can assume that they have a broader vocabulary. Similarly, I speak differently to a good friend than I do with a stranger, keeping in mind whether my hearer will understand my in-jokes and catch references to past experiences. In short, when we speak we do not just think about what words to use. We also think about the background that our hearers bring to the situation. We form a strategy for communicating which takes the preparation of that specific audience in mind. Early Christians were much more aware than we are that a message must be shaped for its target. Rhetoric, the art of skillful persuasion, was an obsession in the Roman Empire. It was the core of elite education and the stuff of popular entertainment. Just as our lives today are pervaded by the power of advertising, early Christians could not avoid the constant reminders of what a gifted orator could achieve if they knew their audience.
Could it be, then, that early Christians simply assumed God was at least as good a speaker as Dio Chrysostom? Beginning from the conviction that God had spoken in Christ, it would have been almost unthinkable that the divine speaker’s rhetoric would have failed. Steeped in a rhetorical culture, they would have assumed that God, too, had spoken in a way that Jesus’ apostolic audience could grasp. Jesus would not have used language or concepts that were beyond them. If Jesus were to use symbols, he would use them in a way that was accessible to his hearers. God’s message in Jesus may not always have been immediately clear or obvious. The textbooks used in ancient rhetorical training describe how speakers can use indirection to lead their hearers gradually, setting the audience up to fit the final pieces of some new insight together for themselves. So, too, Jesus’ words and actions seem at first to have mystified his closest disciples. For early Christians, though, this would hardly have raised doubts about the understanding of the Twelve. They would have presumed that God was simply a skillful communicator whose message would in the end be grasped.
This would not have meant for early Christians that everyone who heard Jesus was presumed to understand equally well. Some had only listened in on a speech or two in Galilee. Some only heard him once or twice in the temple courts of Jerusalem, just before Jesus was killed by the Romans. But if God intended to communicate with humanity in Jesus’ life, then that divine message would have been shaped so that Jesus’ hand-picked inner circle of disciples, his close followers, would be able to understand. If we, as human beings, can usually shape our message so that our hearer catches our meaning, then surely the God who knew those disciples to the depths of their selves could shape the words and actions of Jesus so that they would understand. Again, this need not mean that the disciples understood everything right away. Some pieces may only have been put together years after the crucifixion of Jesus, as the disciples continued to reflect on those events. Nor does it mean that the disciples understood everything about what God was doing in Jesus. But if God intended to speak to them through Jesus’ life, then early Christians would simply have assumed that the apostles’ basic conclusions about the meaning of that life were sound. This assumption would only have been reinforced by the apparent consensus among the Twelve about Jesus’ meaning.
The Apostles in God’s Broader Speech
Here, I think, we can begin to understand why the apostles’ teaching would naturally have been assumed to express God’s message in Jesus. But those apostles themselves did not think God had intend this word for a small group of Jewish men and women in first-century Palestine. They were agreed from the start that Jesus was God’s message for all of humanity. This would mean that God intended the disciples to pass on their memory of Jesus and their understanding of his meaning. Otherwise the divine word in Christ would have died in the first century. If God meant to speak beyond that immediate context, then the message would have been shaped so that the first disciples who understood it could also convey their memory of Jesus and their understanding of their Lord with relative ease. That word would have been shaped so that the broader circle of communities organized more-or-less loosely around Jesus’ original disciples would also come to understand Jesus properly. God would also have had this broader audience in mind when he crafted his word in Christ to be understood.
This would help to explain why early Christians regarded the wider “apostolic” circle as reliable, including figures like Paul and James the Just. If God intended to speak in Jesus to all of humanity, then he must have spoken in such a way that not only Jesus’ immediate disciples, but the whole first generation of believers gathered around them could come to an accurate understanding of their Saviour. Particularly when the Twelve were still circulating in the network of communities, guiding and where necessary correcting, the other teachers who rose to prominence and wide acceptance would have been seen as an extension of the apostolic audience by whom God had shaped the words and acts of Jesus to be understood.
Of course, not everyone agreed in the first century of Christianity. The New Testament gives us plenty of evidence that different teachers emphasized different ideas in their interpretation of Jesus. Nor did they all accept one another’s approaches. Paul, at least, seems to have spent as much time combating what he saw as false understandings of Jesus as he spent preaching his own message in new territory. In some cases, these disagreements were caused by groups at a distance from the apostles who contradicted their basic understanding of Jesus in an attempt to rationalize it or harmonize it with other systems of thought. Since God’s message in Jesus was spoken in the first place for those apostles’ ears, though, first-century Christians would have trusted the core disciples’ judgement that these more distant groups were off the mark. None of the earthly Jesus’ disciples would have accepted the idea that Christ was a phantom, only appearing to be human, or that he was not really crucified. So when “the Elder” of 1 John rejects such ideas, this was seen by later generations as his healthy preservation and transmission of the word spoken in Jesus. Not everyone in the first century churches would have been expected to grasp the divine word in Jesus equally well. Only in communities with a living connection to the Twelve would it make sense to extend the trust placed in the apostles to the community’s other teachers. Only teachers who achieved broad prominence and acceptance among those communities would have been afforded a trust approaching early Christians’ trust in the Twelve themselves. It is this “apostolic circle” on which believers from the second century onward relied to have heard God’s message in Jesus rightly. After all, if God had intended Jesus as a word to other regions and later generations, it is this circle on which God was relying to pass the message on.
But not all of the early conflicts over the meaning of Jesus can be explained away in terms of “heretical” groups abandoning the apostles’ basic message. In other cases, those within the apostolic circle nurtured fierce disagreements about central issues. Paul certainly did not agree, for example, with Matthew or with Jesus’ brother James about the role of the Old Testament law in the new situation. There seems, though, to be a tacit recognition of this diversity in the early church’s choice to rely on a collection of different voices from the apostolic generation, rather than relying on one authoritative teacher. It was the apostolic circle as a whole that would come to an accurate understanding of Jesus. In some cases, that generation came eventually to resolve their disagreements. Gentile believers were not, in the end, required to keep kosher or be circumcised. On other issues, the diversity remained and is even preserved in the New Testament we read today. It appears that second century Christians believed that diversity, too, was a part of what transmitted God’s message in Christ to them. Perhaps the persistent conflicts mark out the questions which God’s word in Christ does not clearly answer, the issues on which God did not intend to be clear. Or perhaps the diverging viewpoints represent partial understandings that each capture a facet of Jesus’ meaning.
Still, what we easily forget as we read modern New Testament scholarship is the scope of agreement among the members of the broader apostolic circle. They may not have used the same language or place their emphasis in the same places, the surviving witnesses to these first-century communities (both canonical and otherwise) show a remarkably broad agreement on the basics. The uniqueness of Jesus as the Jewish messiah and saviour of the world. The universal human need of this salvation. The centrality of Jesus’ crucifixion in our salvation and the reality of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. All of this and more makes up the common vision of apostolic Christianity in the first century. This agreement makes would have made it that much more natural to assume that God’s rhetoric in Jesus had been a success, that the Twelve and the broader circle around them had got God’s message in Christ right. The voice of God in Christ had been heard in a remarkably consistent way, even as various thinkers explored different resonances and harmonies in this word.
The early church never talked about all of this so explicitly. I would suggest, though, that this line of reasoning may represent the logic behind the early church’s belief that the apostolic circle’s teaching expressed the Word of God. They believed God had spoken a universal word to humanity in Jesus of Nazareth. They assumed that God had crafted that word to be heard and understood by the first-century circle, since it is these teachers that would have to transmit his voice to subsequent generations of believers. And these assumptions were reinforced by the degree of actual agreement among those first-century teachers, notwithstanding the debates that had remained unsettled.
If I have reconstructed this logic correctly, it also implies that God would have taken the interpretive activity of the apostolic circle itself into account as part of his divine act of speaking. God’s voice was centred in the historical person of Jesus and his actions in Galilee and Judea. Christ was thus like the tongue or the mouth of God, the part of God’s own being which moved to begin the event of communication. But when we speak, our voice is carried by the air moved by the vibrations within our throat. It is the response of that air to our vocal chords which conveys our voice to others as audible sound. We rely on the natural patterns of waves produced in our airways to carry our thoughts. Thus the air around us, incapable of thought or speech on its own, becomes our voice as it responds to the movement in our bodies. In the same way, the early church’s thinking seems to imply that God relied on the response of the apostolic circle to convey his voice. Moved by God’s initial word in Christ, the apostolic communities responded with their human attempts to understand, to make sense of this man from Nazareth. In this way the meaning and significance of Jesus became “audible.” In their human words of response and interpretation, God’s voice moved out into the world. They were the air being breathed out by God, not a part of his being, but nevertheless the medium of his speech.
Writing and Canonization: Amplifying God’s Voice
All of this helps us to understand again how the inspiration of the apostolic circle could have seemed obvious and sensible. Given the early Christians’ basic convictions, it would not have been enough for God simply to have Jesus’ of Nazareth speak. The divine message would have had to be shaped rhetorically, so that it would evoke the right interpretive response and set up the right “ripples” through human society. So far, though, I have only talked about the role of people as the medium of God’s voice, the members of the apostolic circle themselves. What about the texts of the New Testament?
I have discussed elsewhere how the New Testament writings were treated by the early church as a “yardstick” precisely because these texts give us reliable glimpses of the faith and practice of the apostolic circle. Through these documents, later generations were able to hear the apostolic interpretation of God’s word in Jesus. Now have seen seen why the understanding of that apostolic circle, taken as a whole, was assumed to convey accurately the divine word that God wanted humanity to hear. The writers of these texts, the people whose faith and life we find reflected there, was thought to have become an extension of the divine voice in Jesus. Hence, when they heard in the texts of the New Testament a sampling of apostolic belief, they naturally believed they were hearing at the same time the voice of God. Christ is the mouth of God, and the apostolic circle is the air which carries the voice outward. To borrow a modern analogy, the New Testament texts would then work like an amplifier. They would be the technological means (written texts) by which the divine voice spoken in Jesus is carried outward beyond the personal, direct influence of the apostolic circle.
God’s Word: The Human and the Divine
If all of this does justice to the early logic behind belief in Scripture’s inspiration, we can begin to make sense of how the New Testament texts could be full human compositions and at the same time function as God’s word. Their status as “God-breathed” need not reduce their (or their authors’) humanity. As human beings, Paul and Mark and Luke could remain just as fallible when they wrote their books as they were when they tied their sandals. They need not have become infallible somehow while they wrote. Rather, it could have been their natural, human capacities that God used to carry his word into the world. Their interpretation of Jesus would then be infallible because God is totally reliable, and God’s rhetoric in Jesus was shaped to be understood and conveyed by them in particular.
Such a model rules out separating the words of the human authors from the inspired ideas which they convey, as if the words were merely a bucket for carrying living water. Still does it allow for a distinction between the divine aspects of an author’s text and the human aspects. For it is precisely in acting as human beings, in responding to the events of Christ’s life and death with their ordinary human faculties and capacities, that these writers and their broader circle were used by God to convey his voice to the world. Their words are truly theopneustos, not because God overrode their humanity or dumped thoughts into their minds, but because the natural responses of these writers were taken into account by God as part of his act of speech in Christ. Here again the metaphor of human speech is useful. The air which carries my voice does not stop being air when I speak. If we choose to focus on its own properties, in isolation from my involvement as a speaker, it can be seen to be perfectly ordinary air. Even as its molecules knock into one another, passing along the pressure waves begun in my throat, the behavior of those molecules can be explained entirely in terms of ordinary physics. There is no mind in the air. No intelligence. And yet, if we look at that air from another angle, taking my act of speech into account, we can see that these ordinary pressure waves are conveying something larger than their own nature, a personal voice encoded with intelligent thoughts. The air is caught up and used in something larger than itself, not by becoming something different, but simply by remaining itself and doing what it always does. In the same way, the apostolic circle (whose ideas are expressed in the New Testament texts) could have remained entirely human, even as its members became a part of God’s act of speaking into our world.
The Role of the Spirit in God’s Speech
So far we have avoided one danger of some models of inspiration, namely the hazard of reducing Christ’s role to that of a passive subject of discussion. In the logic I have outlined here it is Jesus who, first and foremost, is God’s word. It is only as they interpret this divine word in Christ and convey that word to other generations that the first-century teachers came to mediate God’s voice. Some may feel, however, that I have gone to far here. Did the early church not also talk about the Spirit of God as the agent who caused the New Testament writings to carry God’s voice?
There is nothing in the model I am proposing here which would prevent the Spirit from having taken a more active, interventionist role in the production of the New Testament. My point has simply been that a belief in the Spirit’s supernatural intervention was likely not the starting point or motive for the claim that the New Testament writings are God’s word. What is more, the logic of inspiration does not require that the Spirit was constantly and directly influencing the thoughts of the New Testament writers. Of course, if we follow that early logic it may provide some rationale for supposing that the Spirit was also actively involved in the process. If the early church could conclude, on other grounds, that the apostolic circle’s understanding was the vehicle through which God chose to speak, this might also justify their claim that the Spirit was directly involved in supervising the process.
All the same, the original logic of inspiration may push us to think again about what we mean when we say that the Scriptures were “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit’s activity need not be understood crudely in terms of an intervention which breaks the ordinary flow of events in the world. If the Spirit is the divine person whom we meet as God’s active presence in the world, could we not see the Spirit’s work in the way God’s voice is carried through the ordinary human thinking and writing of the apostolic circle? Where we see the Spirit intervening to guide the apostolic generation in the New Testament itself, this intervention takes the form of visionary experiences like Paul’s encounter on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-9; Gal 1:11-17), Peter’s vision of a sheet full of forbidden foods (Acts 10:9-16), Cornelius’ angelic vision (Acts 10:1-8), or Paul’s dream about the Macedonian man (Acts 16:9-10). In none of this does the Spirit override ordinary human reflection. The Spirit provides a new experience to nudge that reflection in the right direction. At most we catch a glimpse of the Spirit bringing to the apostles’ minds specific memories of Jesus, again providing the right raw material for their human faculties (John 14:26; cf. 2:22; 12:16; 16:4). So when Jesus says, in John’s Gospel, that the Spirit will “teach” the disciples “all things” (John 14:26), it is less than clear how this teaching was expected to happen.
What the early church always meant to safeguard in their emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s involvement in Scripture was that in these texts God speaks via the medium of human authors. This claim’s recent rocky history is, I would suggest, a symptom of the fact that Christians have largely lost touch with the logic that made the New Testament’s inspiration seem so obvious to the early church. What I hope I have shown here is first and foremost that this logic can be recovered. I must add that the logic I have described here can only apply to the New Testament writings. The main current of Christian theology has always insisted that the Scriptures of Israel–the Old Testament–are also an expression of God’s voice. But I think the logic behind a belief in the Old Testament’s inspiration is different and would have to be the subject of its own essay. In any case, the Old Testament has the advantage of Jesus himself having embraced its authority, both explicitly and implicitly. It is the New Testament whose inspiration has often seemed more arbitrary. What I hope this discussion has shown is that the early church’s belief that the New Testament books are “God-breathed” is at least coherent. It grew naturally, not from an arbitrary claim about the Spirit overriding people’s thoughts, but from the basic Christian conviction that in Jesus of Nazareth God was speaking to the world. Given that starting point, we can see how it makes sense that the apostolic circle’s ordinary human processes of reflection and writing could produce texts that communicate God’s own Word. So for contemporary believers who share the early church’s core convictions, the “God-breathed” nature of the New Testament can be more than an article of blind faith. It can actually make sense.