The living Word in creation

This is one of the common Christmas readings in carol services:

Εν αρχή ην ο Λόγος, και ο Λόγος ην προς τον Θεόν, και Θεός ην ο Λόγος. Ούτος ην εν αρχή προς τον Θεόν. πάντα δι’ αυτού εγένετο, και χωρίς αυτού εγένετο ουδέ εν ό γέγονεν.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (Jn. 1.1-3)

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0021.JPGI’ve been re-reading John Walton and Brent Sandy’s book, The Lost World of Scripture, which majors on the difference between the oral culture of the biblical world, and the post-Gutenberg textuality of our own. The arguments are lengthy (I reviewed it here last year), but well worth studying if only for an understanding of the way that we moderns fail to get a full sense of power and immediacy of speech and personal contact when we hear of “the word of the Lord” in the Old Testament or “Logos” in the New.

To ancient cultures, even as late as Roman times, the word as spoken was considered more useful and authoritative than the word written. The authors go into how that relates to authoritative texts like torah, which were originally seen as official records or testimonies of messages received and customarily proclaimed reliably from memory (what the authors call “oral texts”). Even when consulted as documents, almost invariably they were read out loud and glossed to bring out the message within the text (as, for example, Jesus did in the synagogue in Nazareth – and as even Western readers continued to do in their own reading well after the invention of printing).

Sandy, the NT scholar, uses such arguments to show why it is not a problem that the four gospels were compiled decades after the events they described – authoritative “oral texts” would have been known to hundreds or thousands of people, as were the “rules” allowing for variation or insisting on uniformity in their rendition. Though the Evangelists had their own literary and theological perspectives, they were essentially making the living word of Jesus, continually spoken by the apostles, available for scattered audiences. The gospels would be publically judged as soon as they became available against the common “deposit” of the spoken message, and so are as reliable as the “living spoken word” itself.

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Original artwork: Frank Wagner

Maybe this personal hearing of an authoritative witness, as opposed to our modern idea that reading a book is better than hearing a person, is the significance of some of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in relation to Scripture. It is the Spirit of God himself who spoke the word to the prophets and apostles, and who lives in us to bring the Bible alive in its power and authority. This is not revolutionary of course – “Word and Spirit” is the motto of many a church – including that of my pre-retirement fellowship, expressed in its logo.

Such ideas probably also underly the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on the power of the word proclaimed in preaching. God may well use a Gideon’s Bible left in a hotel room or a prison cell, but the word spoken by a human being conscious of speaking “as one who speaks the very words of God” carries the personal presence of the Spirit of conviction and faith. Even a video of a great preacher has less potency than the interaction of flesh and blood, voice and hearing.


 

And that brings me to my meditation on the Logos as Creator. If Walton and Sandy’s case is a good one, we should think of the creation that the Lord “speaks” not as the covenant of law written permanently in tablets of stone, but as the alive and active word of God’s present power, “sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow.”

The early modern scientists had a very forensic, textual, view of the Mosaic law, which they transferred to the sciences in the way they viewed “Nature’s Laws” – distant, abstract principles deposited, perhaps, in God’s heavenly ark and ruling the inert stuff of matter with an iron rod. This concept led eventually to Deism, in which God himself was aloof from the operation of his laws – as it were resting his feet on the footstool of the Universe in the earthly temple and watching it unfold.

But following on the theme of God’s active, providential involvement in creation – and especially in evolution, in which he constantly brings “new things” into being, I invite us this Christmas to consider the word as, like Paul’s Corinthian believers, “a letter from Christ the Logos, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of living, active beings.”

The season’s blessings to all our readetrs from the land of The Hump!

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Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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14 Responses to The living Word in creation

  1. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Thanks for this post, Jon.

    It seems to me that Protestantism itself — or at least, a certain style of Protestantism — has to take much of the blame for what you have called the post-Gutenberg way of reading the Biblical text. Many Protestants, especially in America, focus on the words of the text in a bookish and mechanical way, and “I believe in the Bible” for them lacks the oral-background sensibility you are describing. This is especially the case with sectarians such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but even in more “mainstream” denominations within the fragmented world of American Protestantism, the text is often read in a “dead” way.

    In Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, this happens less often, in part because the text is usually presented within a matrix of tradition; the bare words by themselves are not thought of as telling the whole story.

    To some extent this is true of Judaism — one Jewish writer described the Hebrew Bible as merely the “Cliffs Notes” of Jewish faith, meant to be understood in light of the Oral Law (which existed alongside the text for centuries before it was codified in Talmudic writing). I’m told, however, that Judaism has its own small wing of literalist fundamentalists; and the “Bible Code” sort of enthusiasm which insists on secret meanings behind the exact arrangement of Hebrew letters (e.g., according to some, the laws of quantum mechanics, and according to others, details of later world history, are found in the exact sequence of letters if you read the passages vertically, diagonally, backwards, etc.) seems to imply a sort of robot-controlled notion of textual authorship which is a far cry from the freedom of four different Gospel writers to use varying arrangements of Greek letters to tell the story of Jesus. (If the laws of quantum physics are hidden in some sequence of consonants in Mark’s Gospel, the variations in Matthew and Luke would erase them.)

    I guess that the indefatigable BioLogos poster Roger Sawtelle has something vaguely like your distinction in mind when he constantly talks about the difference between “The Word” as Jesus Christ (something living) and the Bible as “the word” of God (i.e., as a book containing a certain set of letters), and arguing that it is the living Word that Christians worship, not the written words. (He would grant that the written words are to be respected as pointers to The Word, but not that they are worthy of worship in the sense that the Logos is.)

    Not only fundamentalists but TEs seem to get caught up in the focus on the out-of-context written word. The TEs often seem as concerned to wrestle the bare words into some possible evolutionary sense (e.g., “Let the earth bring forth”, which many of them suggest adumbrates the evolutionary view), just as the fundamentalists are determined to read them in a “literal” sense. And when they make arguments such as, “We believe in Biblical miracles, but Genesis never uses the word ‘miracle’ to describe God’s creative actions, so God seems to work through natural causes in creation,” they show a “just the bare text, please, Ma’am” fetish which seems ludicrous. Read in the light of many other Biblical passages in Exodus and the Psalms, the Genesis story has the feel of a story about “the mighty acts of God” — whether any word for “miracle” or “intervention” or “tinkering” is used or not. To rest bookishly on “the text never says it was done miraculously” is to miss the forest for the trees.

    These are just my general ruminations on the subject you’ve raised. I’ve not read Walton’s book and they aren’t meant as a commentary on anything he says.

    A Merry Christmas to you, Jon, to all of the Hump’s British and American writers, and to all its gracious and thoughtful commenters, and its silent readers as well.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      I guess that the indefatigable BioLogos poster Roger Sawtelle has something vaguely like your distinction in mind when he constantly talks about the difference between “The Word” as Jesus Christ (something living) and the Bible as “the word” of God (i.e., as a book containing a certain set of letters), and arguing that it is the living Word that Christians worship, not the written words. (He would grant that the written words are to be respected as pointers to The Word, but not that they are worthy of worship in the sense that the Logos is.)

      One of the things that Sandy emphasises, particularly from the prologue to Hebrews, is the falsity of the distinction – God spoke in the prophets – God speaks in the Son. And although the written Scripture is secondary to what was spoken, it is no more so than the “living voice” of those who passed down the vital tradition that culminated in both Old and New Testaments.

      I’ve said to Roger before that John, in particular, is at pains to “confuse” Jesus “the Word” with his “word”, and with the “word” embraced by his disciples (Jn 17.20).

      That the Spirit makes both the voice and the writing lifegiving is a great mystery – but a great truth for Christmas, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and dwells among us still in the same word!

      A peaceful Christmas and proeperous New Year to you, Eddie!

  2. Noah White says:

    Lovely post, Jon. Succinct and cutting through all the junk to really get at what’s important in a good theology of Creation. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Jon–thanks for all you do!

    Also, beautiful pictures–are those of Devon?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Noah, and a great Christmas to you and yours.

      The pics are my son-in-law’s drone views taken south and west from directly above our house, which I modestly left out. Though not today, as the Lord is speaking to us in a 60mph storm at present, rather than the balmier heavens of August!

  3. Stuart Kaye Stuart Kaye says:

    Wishing you Jon, and the Hump fellowship, a joyful Christmas and a blessed New Year, from a warm if somewhat shaky New Zealand. Thank you for so much stimulating and thoughtful writing! Humpology continues to be a wonderful contemplation of Christian reason in an increasingly unreasonable world.

  4. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Merry Christmas to you Jon, and to all who frequent this holy site.

    Sy

  5. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Merry Christmas to all here from me too!

    Thanks, Jon, for your reminder to us about the living, present nature of God’s Word that continues to work in us and on us “sharper than any two-edged sword”. May we be soft and pliable to that work not only during this season but all throughout the next year as well.

  6. Mel says:

    Merry Christmas & happy New Year to all the Humpians! (Humpists? Humpers?)

    Although I don’t post, I do drop in to read, and I consistently find something interesting, something challenging, something encouraging. Given enough time & exposure, the scientism we wade through starts sinking in, and this blog is one of the places I come to be refreshed & reminded.

    A hearty ‘Thank you!’ to all of you who serve God by participating here. Best wishes for “peace to those who are far away, and peace to those who are near”!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Mel, and welcome. Also thanks for your encouragement, which is much appreciated.

      We’re always aware that there are likely to be more people participating in the games from the stands than are actually slugging it out in the arena. To shift the metaphor slightly away from the gladiatorial, in any public presentation it’s what the audience does when they go home that matters more than what happens on the platform.

      So a Happy and World-changing New Year to you!

  7. Jay313 says:

    Merry Christmas, Jon! You inspired me to slightly rework my paraphrase of John 1:14-18…

    So the Word, who was God, donned our flesh and became the tabernacle among us. We saw his glory, a glory that befitted the Uniquely Beloved, full of the Father’s grace and truth. John testified of him: “This is whom I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me outranks me, because he existed before me.’ ” Jesus shared the full measure of God’s grace with us, and with everyone else, too. Moses gave the law, but Jesus the Anointed brought something much greater – God’s grace and truth. No one has ever seen God, but the Uniquely Beloved, himself God, has narrated him to us.

    Peace and blessings to all.

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