A Biblical fundamentalist, responding to my last blog, asked me to explain John 1:1-14.
Apparently he thought the picture (with the Bible telling a worshipper that it can’t save them) meant that I didn’t believe the Scripture and went on to declare the Bible as being “the only road map we have to salvation.” Which, ironically enough, is in direct contradiction to what is actually recorded in Scripture.
Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, that the “Spirit will teach you all things” and that he (not a book) was the only way to the Father. It is a very clear pattern, throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters, that it is the Spirit that “quickens” (John 6:63, Romans 8:11) and that it was the Spirit that led Jesus (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1), and this:
But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. […] But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:7, 13-15 NIV)
If you believe in the Spirit then you won’t settle for a road map. If you believe that then you will receive the GPS—which is to say the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and the only thing that will make Scripture useful. Because, lest we forget, those who rejected Jesus also believed in the Scripture and looked to it for their salvation:
And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37-40 NIV)
These people “diligently” studied the Scriptures yet did not have “his word” dwelling in them and rejected Jesus as Savior. They were using Scripture as their “road map” and failed to recognize Jesus as Lord.
How can it be?
Well, it is simply this: The Bible, while “inspired by God” according to 2 Timothy 3:16, does not provide its own interpretation. Scripture is written in human language, translated by human translators and requires the reader to correctly understand the words which it contains.
Peter warned the early church:
[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16b)
Think about it.
Again, Scripture does not provide its own interpretation. It can be misunderstood and distorted. It did not lead those who diligently studied it to recognize Jesus as the source of life and the book itself testifies that we should expect something much greater than a book to lead us to all truth.
What is the most misunderstood word in the Bible?
There are many things in the Bible that are difficult to understand. There are many words and phrases in it that are misunderstood and misused. But there is one word that stands out above the rest. It is the “Word” found in John 1:1-14:
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. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14 NIV)
First off, we should consider the intent and context. John, in this dramatic introduction to his narrative, is making a thesis statement that establishes the divinity of Jesus. He uses “Word” to create a link between the Spirit of God that was present from the beginning of time to the perfect incarnation in Jesus.
Second, John wrote in Greek, not English.
The “Word” used by John is “Logos” in the Greek. It does not mean the same thing as the English word used by translators. Logos is a word originally coined by Greek philosophers; it is a word used to describe the order of the cosmos, spiritual principles or divine reason. John, borrowing the terminology of the Greeks, used “Logos” to describe God’s divine reasoning that created the universe, that is behind all events, and became flesh in Christ. To reduce such a rich and powerful concept to merely written text is a crime against language.
Logos ≠ Bible
John says that the Logos “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” but he never claimed that it became text. Nowhere in the Bible is “Logos” described as being synonymous with Scripture. Many, their assumptions formed by an English translation and fundamentalist commentators, read “word of God” to mean Scripture. However, there is no evidence in the Bible to support this assumption and an unbiased look at the descriptions of the “word of God” in Scripture would lead one to believe otherwise:
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
Do an experiment: Take your Bible, set it on a shelf and don’t touch it for a week.
Will it be “alive and active” if you do that?
The book will not chase you or cause you to do anything unless you read it and that is quite different from what we read about God’s word.
The “word of God,” according to Scripture, is something that can’t be shelved. Jesus once said that “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40) if his disciples were to remain silent about his being Lord. We read about Balaam’s donkey speaking in Numbers 22:22. There is also the amazing conversion of Saul, whose vast knowledge of Scripture had prevented him from accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. He was confronted on the road to Damascus by a light from above and a voice. The “word of God” is clearly not a kind of word that is constrained to a page.
The “word of God” is something heard and obeyed, not read and studied. Again, in John 5:37-40, we read where Jesus confronts those who diligently studied Scripture and yet never had “his word” dwell with in them nor did they “hear his voice.” If the phrase “word of God” was synonymous with reading Scripture then Jesus would be contradicting himself by saying what he did. Scripture is “inspired” by God, but it is not God. God’s word, according to the book of Isaiah, does not “return void” and we can’t say that about the Scripture read by those who rejected Jesus.
The Word is God
This is where the rubber meets the road: To claim that Scripture is equivalent to the Logos of John 1:14 is to claim a book is God. To do that is idolatrous.
The Bible is inspired by God, a written testimony of his work throughout the ages, but it is written in human language and depends on our ability to interpret it correctly in order for it to be profitable. Correct interpretation of the sacred text is virtually impossible without the “mind of Christ” or promised Spirit of truth.
The Logos is infallible.
All human language is fallible.
Human language is dependent on words and words are basically metaphors and never actually the same thing they describe. Words are only an arrangement of sounds and symbolic representations that are assigned to or associated with meanings. These sounds and symbols representing the sounds require proper use and interpretation—words are not always understood as originally intended.
Human language is fallible because it depends on humans for interpretation and we are fallible. Our words fall empty and void of meaning unless our readers or listeners make the same assumptions of meaning that we intend for the representative sounds or letters we strung together. How much we understand depends on both parties “being on the same page” or, in other words, sharing the same assumptions about their words.
So how do we get the correct assumptions about Biblical language?
Correct assumptions come from relationship with the writer or speaker. The better we know a person the more likely we are to understand the language they are using and come to the correct conclusions. However, since even close friends occasionally have moments of confusion, having absolutely correct understanding requires that author and receiver literally share the same mind.
That is essentially what Paul is trying to communicate:
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:6-16 NIV)
Paul emphasizes the need for the Spirit as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture, but Biblical fundamentalism gets that in reverse and tries to find God’s living word through diligent study of Scripture. Yet no amount of study can help a person who stubbornly holds to an incorrect understanding of the words in the book—their study could be a path to destruction.
It is the Spirit that conveys the meaningful content of Scripture. And we don’t receive the Spirit through our own diligent efforts. It is a gift of God’s grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8) and if we aren’t “quickened” (made alive) by the Spirit we will remain dead in our sins and ignorant. Our salvation is fully dependent on God’s grace and therefore is not a product of anything else we have done—that “anything else” including our own human ability to read and comprehend Scripture.
A person can’t understand Scripture without having God’s word dwelling in them first. One must be brought to life through a work of the Spirit because it is humanly impossible to bridge the gap between God and man. There is no theological or intellectual tower tall enough to reach God. God must first reach us and that is something done through his own mysterious means.
Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse and think they save themselves through their reading Scripture. However, if they understood what they read they would know that Biblical language does not provide it’s own interpretation they might be more humble and give God all the credit for their conversion—afterall, we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by our human knowledge or abilities.
Bibliolatry: A modern bull calf of Yah?
Remember the story in the book of Exodus where Aaron, pressured by the people, helped to create a golden calf as an idol to worship?
What you might not know is that in the original Hebrew they used the proper name of God (Yhvh) to describe their idol. In other words, their idol was a false representation of the true God and not necessarily made in honor of false gods. Note what Exodus 32:5 tells us:
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.“ (Exodus 32:5 NIV)
They were using the correct word for God (Lord = Yhvh) in their worship before their idol and it seems very likely that they realized the calf was an object constructed as a symbolic representation of God and not God. But their worshiping this representation in an object was idoltarous because it diminished God—it did not truly bring honor to God.
Modern religious people may think it is absurd that people would worship a golden bull on a pedestal. Sadly many today worship a symbolic representation of God constructed out of human language. Unfortunately, for them, in the same way that Yahwah is not a gold bull, the true “word of God” is not merely language. We are in grave danger of falsely representing God if we turn to written symbols as our path to salvation rather than rely on the Spirit of the living God to guide us.
A person who can’t see the absurdity of putting written text of the Bible on the same level as the one who inspired it doesn’t understand language or God. The Bible does not save anyone and we should never settle for a “road map” when we were promised a navigation system. We need to consider thay 2 Timothy 3:16 and other passages written for the benefit of believers who already had the Spirit—the Bible is only profitable for those who have already been made alive.
In conclusion, we dare not confuse a symbolic representation of God created in human language with God. The Bible should be venerated as something inspired by God—but never worshipped or made equal to God and his Logos. To reduce God’s Logos to the text of a book is idolatrous. It is putting human comprehension first and God second.