Does “the word of God” not mean “the Bible” in the Bible?

In my last two posts I have reviewed Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014) and examined one of the key exegetical claims he makes in support of his view that “we hear God’s voice as we listen to scripture’s words” (p. 131, emphasis added).  That is, Hamilton believes that the Bible is not the word of God, but it becomes the word of God on those occasions when God speaks to us through it.

In this post I would like to consider another of the exegetical claims Hamilton advances in support of his view: that among the forty-one biblical “passages that speak of the ‘word of God,’ few seem to refer to something written down in a scroll or book. Most often, the phrase refers to a message about God that is heard–either spoken or preached” (p. 148).  (He says that the same thing holds for the equivalent phrase “the word of the Lord,” i.e. “the word of Yahweh,” which occurs 260 times.)

Now what Hamilton says  is quite true.  In the Bible, the phrase “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord” does tend to refer to something spoken, not written.  But this is not because the contents of Scripture do not constitute the word of God, so that even the biblical authors are distinguishing carefully between the written word and the “voice of God” that we may hear in or through Scripture.

Rather, these phrases simply reflect the original form of Scripture. “The word of God” is something spoken, not written, even in the Bible, because the biblical books were as a rule composed orally with the intention that they would be delivered orally.

To give a simple and clear example, Paul dictated his letters out loud; there is even a greeting at the end of Romans from the scribe who recorded that letter:  “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” And these letters were meant to be read out loud; Paul says at the end of Colossians, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans.”

The real issue is not whether the phrases “the word of God” and “the word of the Lord” in the Bible describe something spoken versus written. The issue is whether they are used to describe the contents of Scripture, rather than something that is mediated through Scripture.  And when we examine these phrases with that question in mind, we see quite clearly that the Bible equates “the word of God” and “the word of the Lord” with the oral compositions that were eventually written down as the Bible itself.

The clearest example is found in the prophets.  The essential building blocks of the prophetic books are passages that begin (for example), “This is the word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought.”  The word that God spoke to the prophet for the people on the named occasion is then recorded, and these “words” are put together to make up the prophetic book.  (One of the simplest places to see this is in the book of Haggai, which comprises the “word of the Lord” that came to that prophet on just four occasions.) 

These word-of-the-Lord units, we see, constitute the contents of the prophetic books.  Nothing further is needed to demonstrate that the authors or compilers of these books did not see the “word of God” instead as something that might later be mediated through some of the prophet’s words.  But in at least one case, the Bible draws for us an even more direct connection between the “word of the Lord” that was spoken to the prophet and the written book we have today.  At the end of each of the four major units in the book of Jeremiah, there is a depiction of his words being recorded in a book or scroll.  We are allowed to witness the composition process itself and see how the spoken “word of the Lord” became the written Scripture.

The same thing can be seen in other parts of the Bible.  The basic building blocks of the law of Moses are passages that begin (for example), “The Lord said to Moses,Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.”‘”  Now this is not precisely the formula “the word of the Lord,” but it is clearly another case of what is spoken by God being recorded in the eventual written Scriptures, becoming their contents.

It is true, as Hamilton documents, that in places the Bible uses the phrase “the word of God” to mean something other than the written Scriptures.  In the book of Acts, for example, the phrase means essentially the same thing as “the gospel” or “the good news about Jesus.”  The phases of the church’s expansion in Acts are all marked off by variations on the phrase “the word of God grew and multiplied,” meaning not the Bible, but the community that had embraced this good news.

So if the biblical writers, in such places, aren’t using the phrase “the word of God” to refer to what we know today as the Bible, what would they call the Bible?  Characteristically, they use the phrase “the Scriptures.”   But this does not mean that they did not consider “the Scriptures” to be “the word of God.”  Once again, what they had in mind was simply the form:  by “Scriptures,” they meant the messages spoken by God for his people that had been written down in the Bible. (“Scriptures” means “writings.”)

If anything, Hamilton’s argument shows us that we today can use the phrase “the word of God” to refer to more things than the written Bible.  I find it encouraging and empowering, in fact, to envision the proclamation about Jesus as the “word of God” going forth to share good news with the whole world.  But just because the biblical authors model such uses for us, this does not mean that they saw the Bible itself as anything less than the word of God, which might only become the word of God if the Spirit picked out a part of it and used it to speak to us.

“All Scripture is God-breathed”: An allusion to God breathing life into Adam?

In my last post, in response to a reader’s question, I gave my general “take” on Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014).  While I found much to appreciate in the book, I respectfully disagreed with Hamilton’s view that that Bible is not “inspired” to any greater degree than sermons, devotional books, etc. might be today.

Hamilton actually believes that “the most important dimension of inspiration may be how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us” (p. 142).  “The biblical documents,” he says, “were written and edited by persons who were addressing the needs of the people of their time . . . in and through them, God continues to speak to us today” (p. 89).

These are Hamilton’s presuppositions.  They are theologically informed and they have a venerable pedigree.  As Hamilton himself acknowledges, “This view of inspiration is in some ways similar to that proposed by Karl Barth and the neoorthodox movement in the twentieth century” (p. 319 n. 5).  This view is specifically, as I understand it, that the Bible not so much is the word of God, as that it “contains” or “conveys” the word of God.  “We hear God’s voice,” Hamilton says, “as we listen to scripture’s words” (p. 131, emphasis added).

There is no debating another person’s presuppositions; you either share them or you don’t.  But Hamilton also advances some specific exegetical claims in support of his position, and these can be evaluated.  I’d like to look at several of his claims in my next few posts, starting in this one with Hamilton’s interpretation of Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God.”

Hamilton observes that the phrase typically translated “inspired by God” in this statement “is just one word in the Greek: theopneustos. . . . Paul appears to have created this word himself.  It appears nowhere else in the Bible, and, to our knowledge, nowhere else in the Greek language until after Paul’s time (pp. 133-134).

So what does it mean?  Since it is a combination of the Greek words for “God” (theos) and “to breathe out” (pneō), Hamilton suggests it could mean “God-breathed” or “God-exhaled.”  (Compare NIV “God-breathed,” ESV “breathed out by God.”)  Then Hamilton asks, very intriguingly, “What if Paul, in using the word ‘God-breathed,’ is drawing upon the Genesis story of Creation?”  This story says, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

Hamilton sees here an analogy for his paradigm for Scripture: “When God first forms man out of clay, he is not yet a living being. God breathes into him and he becomes animated–he is now alive.  Paul knew of scripture’s human authors.  Was he suggesting that God breathes upon the human words of scripture thereby animating them, making them ‘living and active’? The words come alive in the moment when God, by the Spirit, uses these human words to speak to us” (p. 134).

This is brilliant, original exegesis. (Hamilton does not note any sources for the idea of an analogy between theopneustos and the Genesis creation account, so I am assuming that the idea is original with him.)  I agree with almost all of it.

Paul is believed to have coined original words by allusion to the Greek Old Testament elsewhere in his letters, so there is every reason to believe he may be doing the same thing here.  (The Septuagint has the verb emphusaō, “breathe into,” instead of pneō, but we can still take theopneustos as a general allusion to this incident in the creation story.)

This is certainly the most memorable episode of God “breathing” anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. (About the only other one I can think of is God telling Ezekiel to call to the wind/breath to “breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again,” which is similarly a case of God animating a lifeless body, and it may be meant to echo the Genesis creation account itself.)  So if Paul was indeed trying to describe the nature of Scripture by coining the word theopneustos as an allusion to something in the Old Testament, I agree that the story of God breathing life into Adam is the likely reference.

So what don’t I agree with?  Look at how Hamilton summarizes the parallel he believes Paul is drawing between the creation of Adam and the nature of Scripture (pp. 134-135).  In Genesis, Hamilton says:

1. God forms the man.
2. God breathes into him.
3. He becomes a living being.

And “in the case of the scriptures,”

1. Authors write scriptures.
2. God breathes on them.
3. The words come to life.

This is not really a parallel.  While the second point in each case is a divine action, and the third point is a creature’s response, when it comes to the first point, Hamilton is trying to substitute a human action for a divine action in order to account for the origin of the Scriptures. For this to be a true parallel, the first point in the second case should say, “1. God forms the scriptures.”

And that makes perfect sense to me.  Just as God formed the man from the common elements of the earth, but then breathed life into him so that he became a living being, so God formed the Scriptures through the common process of human literary composition, and then breathed on them to make them “living and active.”  But God was the ultimate creator of the Scriptures even in that first step.  While it appears from our perspective that they came about through “people addressing the needs of their time,” Paul’s analogy to the Genesis creation account through the term theopneustos shows us that God was actually superintending and guiding this process, just as God formed the body of Adam from the dust of the ground, in order to bring us Scriptures that would truly be the word of God, from start to finish.

Orthodox Christian icon of God breathing life into Adam



Is it the readers, not the writers, of the Bible who are inspired? A review of Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible

Q. I’m reading quite an eye-opening book called Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. I have some issues with it, but I am enjoying it! What is your take on this book?

Thanks for bringing Hamilton’s book to my attention.  When you asked about it, I checked into it, and I was so intrigued that I immediately got a copy and read right through it.  So let me now give you my “take” on the book.  (I will reference page numbers from the hardcover edition, New York: HarperOne, 2014.)

I have only one real disagreement with what Adam Hamilton writes in Making Sense of the Bible, although it is a significant disagreement, which I will discuss shortly.  Apart from this, I found the entire book valuable, useful, and quite cogently presented.

Hamilton’s goal is to help people who aren’t familiar with the Bible, or who are troubled by certain passages in it, to “make sense of it.”  To this end, he begins very helpfully with the crucial question, “What exactly is the Bible?” (p. 7). He explains that it is not what it is often considered to be:  an “owner’s manual,” a source of random guidance, a collection of data for systematic theology, a science and history textbook, or a treasury of “precious promises.”

Hamilton then provides historical, geographic, and literary overviews of the Bible to orient readers to its background and contents.  These will be valuable and helpful resources for the many today who don’t start out with a basic knowledge of the Bible.  Hamilton addresses some questions about the nature of Scripture and then devotes the last half of the book to “making sense of the Bible’s challenging passages.”

I found that over and over again I came out pretty much where Hamilton did on the interpretation of these “challenging passages.” Indeed, most of the things he says about them, and in the rest of his book, are things that I could have said myself, and actually have said, in my own books or in posts on this blog.  For example, he explains that many of Jesus’ most puzzling sayings are hyperbole or intentional “exaggeration designed to make a point” (p. 244).  After outlining the four major approaches to the book of Revelation (pp. 284–285), he advocates a preterist interpretation, one of whose implications is that Nero Caesar may be the name represented by 666.  Hamilton even takes up the subject of tattoos and concludes that these are fine for followers of Jesus today so long as they are not “permanently marking their bodies as a way of honoring a pagan god” (p. 263).

Indeed, as I read through the book, there were chapters that I found very meaningful personally.  Hamilton’s testimony in Chapter 24 of how he “came to love Jesus” by reading the gospels is poignant and beautiful.  And I would recommend his reflections on suffering in the preceding chapter to anyone who is going through difficult times:  “Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. . . . Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened.  God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved” (p. 226).

So if I like the book this much and find myself so closely in agreement with it at so many places, what’s my one disagreement?  It’s with Hamilton’s answer to the question of what the Bible actually is.  He says it is a collection of books “written by men seeking to express what they believed was God’s will.  They were writing in a given time and culture, and they were writing to address the needs of the people of their time” (p. 262; similar summary statements are offered on pp. 89 and 173).

Notice that in this formulation, the Bible is described as essentially a human product.  Is it also the inspired word of God?  Only in a qualified sense, according to Hamilton.  “The divine inspiration of scripture was . . . God working in the hearts of the biblical authors in a way not dissimilar to how God works in the hearts of modern-day preachers and prophets and laity . . . through a divine prompting felt in the heart, focused in the mind, and spoken with the lips or the pen” (p. 173).  In other words, “that divine influence on the writers was not qualitatively different from the way God inspires or influences by the Spirit today” (p. 143).

In fact, as Hamilton sees it, the divine inspiration of the Bible is actually something that occurs more in its readers than it did in its writers.  “The most important dimension of inspiration may be how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us today. . . . We may read a passage of scripture and hear nothing at all.  Then we read it again prayerfully, and we hear something we did not hear before.  We sense God speaking to us” (p. 142).

However, Hamilton says that he has experienced this same kind of “inspiration”—a seemingly divine prompting to say something or to do something—while reading a novel, listening to classical music, or “sitting in a Broadway musical.”  “These are all means by which God speaks to us” (p. 147).

So is there anything that makes the Bible itself a distinctive repository or vehicle of divine inspiration, so that its message to us is more authoritative than what we might hear from other sources?  Hamilton asks this very question: “What gives the biblical writings greater authority?” “Not a greater degree of inspiration,” he responds, “but closer proximity to the events described in the Bible.  Just as importantly, the scriptures are the foundational documents of the Christian faith and have been found faithful, helpful, inspirational, and useful to the community of faith over the nearly two-thousand-year history of the church” (pp. 173-174).

Hamilton offers the U.S. Constitution as an example of a similar “foundational” document, “written by the founding fathers of our country” (p. 174) that has “stood the test of time” and that has been “found to be useful and helpful” (p. 180).  But, he notes, while the framers of the Constitution “believed it was the best thing they could come up with at the time . . . they also knew that circumstances would change, and there needed to be a way to amend the Constitution.”  In the same way, he argues, “God knew that the problem with . . . laying down moral absolutes is that situations change.  While most of the absolutes might remain intact forever, at least some of them would need to be changed or dropped in the light of a changing world” (p. 181).

And so, Hamilton suggests, there must be a way to “amend” the Bible, just as we amend the Constitution. He writes that while “the bar should be very high for laying aside any clear command, practice, or teaching of scripture . . . I believe there must be a way for the church to continue to recognize that though God does not change, the needs of communities sometimes do” (p. 181).

Hamilton illustrates a method for “amending” the Bible this way at a couple of places in his book.  He considers the so-called imprecatory psalms, in which the psalmists pray for God’s vengeance on their enemies, and suggests that we should not think God wants us to do anything similar today because these passages “don’t sound like things we would expect the Holy Spirit to inspire,” since this is “the opposite of Jesus’ command to love our enemies” (p. 136).  Later in the book he argues that we can similarly set aside the “biblical condemnations of same-sex relationships” because they “seem out of sync with God’s will as we understand it today” (p. 271); they “do not seem to reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus Christ” (p. 272).

I do agree with one aspect of Hamilton’s approach here.  As I’ve already said on several occasions on this blog (quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth), “Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.”

Nevertheless, I still have a significant concern about Hamilton’s approach.  If “the most important dimension of inspiration” really is “how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us today,” then anything we find in the Bible that doesn’t square with what we think God is saying to us now in light of Jesus can be considered something that the human authors of the Bible believed was God’s will for their own place and time, but which is not necessarily God’s timeless will for all people (and may not actually have been God’s will even for the original audience).

And so if we are troubled, for example, by the places in the Old Testament where God supposedly tells his people to go out and completely destroy their enemies, we can conclude either that “the passage may reflect the culture, the worldview, or the perspectives of the human author of scripture” (p. 216)—who thought God was telling the Israelites to do this, though God really wasn’t—or that “these stories were written down long after their time to inspire others to courage and absolute commitment to God” (p. 215), but they didn’t really happen as described (a view I discuss in this post.)

And so, in Hamilton’s view, the Bible can be “wrong” in one of these two ways:  by interpreting actual events not according to the “timeless heart, character, and will of God” (p. 216), or by reporting events that did not actually occur. And this is where my concerns and objections really come in.

For one thing, this approach allows you to dismiss anything in the Bible that doesn’t square with “God’s will as we understand it today.”  As a result, the Bible no longer functions as an objective check on our limited human perspectives; it can no longer expose or critique our time-bound and culture-bound thinking.  This approach effectively condemns us to precisely the same fault that Hamilton finds with the biblical authors, whom he thinks sometimes reflected their own cultural biases rather than God’s timeless will.

For another thing—and this may be even more important—this approach ultimately prevents us from believing anything on the basis of the Bible’s teaching.  This difficulty makes itself felt in the very chapter in which Hamilton shares how he put his faith in Christ after reading the gospels, particularly after he realized that the resurrection had to be a reality, otherwise “darkness has overcome light, hate has overcome love, and death has overcome life” (pp. 240-241).

The problem is, as Hamilton himself acknowledges at the beginning of the chapter, some biblical scholars “believe the miraculous elements in the Gospels,” including the resurrection, “reflect the faith of the early church and not the actual Jesus of history.”  This is a perfectly valid option within Hamilton’s paradigm.  The stories of Jesus, like those of Joshua, may have been written down after their time to inspire others and they may include events that did not actually occur.  So how can we determine whether Jesus rose from the dead or not?

If we have accepted everything Hamilton has said to this point, we cannot simply trust the gospels about this, even though they were written by the people who lived closest to the time of the events they narrate, and even though they are the foundational documents of our faith and have been been found faithful, helpful, inspirational, and useful for so many centuries.  They could still be wrong.  So instead, as Hamilton acknowledges, “the question of the reliability of the New Testament witness to Jesus boils down to whether we can accept the idea that Jesus did things that other human beings are unable to” (p. 238).  Ultimately it is our presuppositions that determine what parts of the Bible we believe.

Now one might argue that it is actually the Holy Spirit, inspiring us as readers of the Bible, who leads us to accept such ideas.  But who can say whether the Holy Spirit did not instead inspire those of the opposite view to recognize and reject the resurrection as a well-intentioned superstition when they read the Bible?  It seems to me that once you let this genie out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in.  So let me suggest an alternative.

Hamilton offers a helpful metaphor of three “buckets” that he believes biblical passages fit into.  Some “reflect the timeless will of God for human beings.”  Others “reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time.”  And still others “reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will”—the biblical authors were simply wrong when they thought this (pp. 273-273).

If you allow for this third “bucket,” anything can be put in it, as I’ve just observed, so that the Bible ceases to be an authoritative source of guidance, no matter how highly one values it (short of it being divinely inspired).  I personally do not feel that this third bucket is helpful or needed (as nice as it would be to be able to put some passages in it!).

Instead, I would argue that from within our own culture and our place in human history and redemptive history, we do not have access, when it comes to certain passages, to an understanding of how what was said to the people of that other place and time could have been God’s will for them, even within their own specific circumstances.  We need to confess frankly that we do not understand how the Bible could say what it does in these cases—that this troubles us and confuses us and embarrasses us, and we regret how this creates an obstacle to faith for many.  We avow that these passages do not express the timeless will of God for all people and that they certainly do not express God’s will for us today.

But even so, we do not claim to have such a comprehensive understanding of God and of redemptive history, even in light of God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus, and even with the help that the Holy Spirit indeed gives us when we read the Bible, that we can say confidently that these things could never have expressed God’s will for anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances.

In other words, when it comes to “making sense of the Bible,” there are a few parts that I think we can’t quite make sense of (though we work very hard to do this, as I trust my posts about such passages on this blog demonstrate).  But that does not keep me from believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God and from relying on what it says, rather than on any inspiration I might receive when I read it, as my guide to life and faith.  Certainly the Bible taken as a whole—its “big ideas and key messages,” as Hamilton puts it (p. 132)—is something we can make sense of and recognize by faith as God’s authoritative and instructive word to us.  This is enough to allow us to trust it despite the few parts that force us to say humbly, “I just don’t understand that.”

This is my general “take” on Hamilton’s book.  But I found the whole book so engaging that I will return to it in some follow-up posts and address the specific exegetical claims he makes about the meaning of the phrases “God-breathed” and “word of God.”