The following is a guest column by Thomas Howard, associate professor of English, Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts.

CHRISTIANS, AFFIRMING as they do that the Bible is the Word of God, will naturally look into this book with a set of expectations that they do not bring to any other literature, no matter how exalted, noble, or elevated that literature is. To be sure, Sophocles and Dante are “inspired,” if by that we mean that every gift, including poetic genius, is from above, and is given to men by the Father of Lights. A keen mind, a lithe body, a glorious soprano voice, a quick ability with sums, a green thumb, a special efficiency in housework—these, surely, are all gifts to us men from heaven.

But the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are unique, somehow, on the Christian view. Historic orthodoxy has ordinarily had it that they are the Word of God. Efforts to lessen the difficulties that this affirmation raises for our imaginations have been persistent and inventive. The Scriptures “contain” the Word of God, or they “become” it, or they “witness to” it. All these ways of phrasing it are fair enough, as far as they go, of course, and they are attempts to grasp more realistically the dynamic nature of God’s Word to us men than formularies of, say, dictation, could do, with their efforts to safeguard the uniquely divine character of the Bible.

The trouble with any theory of mere dictation as a description of the dynamics of biblical inspiration is, for most Christians, evangelical and otherwise, that it does violence to our perception of how God appears to work in all other situations. He seems to operate, that is, paradoxically—via the humanity of his human agents. The great patriarchal and prophetic and apostolic figures in Scripture, who were singled out to obey and enact and exhibit in their lives the special activity of God, were far from being ciphers. Abraham was no nonentity. Jacob, surely, was no wallflower. Moses was no pawn. And so forth, with David and Ezekiel and John the Baptist and Paul, to say nothing of the post-biblical figures who loom in church history: Athanasius and John Chrysostom and Augustine and Francis and Luther and Knox and General William Booth.

The point about this survey of characters is that they, and a host of others like them (no—unlike them), with all their oddities and inclinations and limitations—cultural, temperamental, physical, and intellectual—with all their humanness, in a word, have functioned somehow, in the annals of the people of God down through history, as bearers of the Word to us. In their experience, or by their preaching or writing, or whatever it has been, they have disclosed God to us in one way or another. In all of them, we could see God at work; but that work did not ride upon the flattening out of the human figures via whom it went forward.

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We can never, of course, quite work out the paradox. The work is all of God, all of grace, we say; and that will be the song of the redeemed at the final consummation of things, when we are given to see the whole sweep of the work of God. It is, in fact, all of God. But the other pole of the paradox is that it was, indeed, that man who did that work. It was his obedience that responded to the call of God; it was his arm that wielded the sword, or his feet that walked from Ur to Canaan, or his mind that constructed the sermons, or his voice that sang. And the work had that particular flavor and hue because of that man. Savonarola, Zwingli, Calvin, Menno Simon—the work looked like that because the man was like that. Perhaps there is a clue here.

Perhaps it can be said that at every point where the eternal touches the temporal, or where the divine touches the human, or the ultimate the proximate—however we want to phrase it—perhaps at that point we have a mystery that can never quite be unscrambled by human efforts at explanation. So that we can never, for example, “explain” the Protestant Reformation by looking into Luther’s personality, with all of its oddities; any more than we can, on the other hand, talk as though it were all a purely divine action of the Holy Ghost in the Church, engineered from above, with no reference to the kind of mind and emotions Luther had.

Or again, we can never get very far with questions that ask how much of a man’s salvation is to be attributed to anything he did, and how much to God’s activity. Neither of the two extreme explanations will do at all; but exactly where the nexus of the divine and the human is to be found, no one can say. Or again, when we speak of our own responses to Scripture, say, in the process of sanctification: how much of it are we to see as a matter of sheer obedience to Scripture, and how much of it does God bring about in us?

The question itself becomes paralyzing, and hence nonsense. It cannot be a quantitative matter. It cannot be a matter of sorting two separate things out from each other. It is a paradox—the paradox you get every time the eternal touches the temporal.

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Perhaps it is this way with the Scriptures themselves. They are, most assuredly, what anyone can see them to be: an odd collection, made over hundreds of years, of various sorts of writings—such as poetry, parable, history, epistle—by an astonishing assortment of hands, and got together eventually by who knows what procedure. Textual studies and archaeology and so forth can uncover this and that about them. But these pursuits can never quite establish the divine nature of these writings, any more than gynecology can quite yield the mystery of the Incarnation to us, or geometry can plot the trajectory of the Ascension. The very phrase makes us wince with the awareness that we have somehow, suddenly, got into an absurdity. “That’s not what we’re talking about when we say we believe Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s nothing any lens can scrutinize.” “Oh, well, then, you don’t really believe it was anything real. Just a sort of spiritual metaphor?” “No, no! Christians do, in fact, believe that the man Jesus of Nazareth really did ‘ascend into heaven,’ to quote their creed. But that event brought us to the edge of the divine mysteries themselves, like the Incarnation, or even the Creation: what is the relationship between the eternal and the temporal? We affirm the mysteries, and the reality of what the mysteries proclaim.”

Perhaps the Scriptures exist on that same frontier, so that, just as we do not hesitate to describe the Incarnate Word as a provincial Jewish boy brought up under the instruction of Joseph the Carpenter, and thereby affirm a great mystery, so we do not hesitate to describe the written Word as a peculiar collection of all sorts of literature got together in a very odd way, and thereby affirm a similar mystery. Perhaps the paradox of the one gives us a clue to the paradox of the other.

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