Human words of scripture bear God’s voice

The  rare 400-year-old King James Bible. Photo by Manuwatu Guardian.
Christopher Holmes writes about the power of the Bible.

What is the Bible? Is it God’s Word? These are perennial and important questions. One of the legacies of the Reformation,  500-years old this year, is that the Bible is now widely available in many, many different languages. Martin Luther translated the Bible into the common language of his day. Many others in the generations after him and throughout the world did the same.

As a theologian and priest, I have the delightful task of unfolding the riches of scripture. Christians call the Bible, the scriptures. The Bible is scripture because it bears the voice of the living God. To paraphrase the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), it is the Word of God in the words of men.

Let us think about that. To say that scripture bears God’s voice is to say that these human words become an instrument through which God speaks. The God who called his people out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead, takes his people’s witness to these events, and speaks through this scriptural witness, to call and guide his people still.

God speaks, and scripture is his word to us. This is why the Christian community listens to scripture. The human words of scripture bear God’s voice.

Women and men throughout the ages have converted to Christian faith through hearing God’s voice in scripture. God speaks eloquently and clearly through his written word, in and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christians, however, do not worship the scriptures. Rather, they worship the God who speaks through scripture. Ultimately, the scriptures bears witness to the incarnate word of God, Jesus Christ, the "Word made flesh" (John 1:14).

Karl Barth encourages us to consider "the strange new world within the Bible". Barth’s point is this. Rather than merely containing human words about God, scripture is God’s Word in human words to human beings. God takes these human words, and uses then to speak to his people in each and every generation in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Confidence in scripture’s clarity and eloquence is, sadly, lacking in many Christian communities today. Focused public reading of passages from the New Testament, to say nothing of the Old Testament, is infrequent in many church settings.

One reason may be the acute embarrassment that some church leaders feel with respect to scripture’s unrelenting focus upon Israel. Scripture poses difficult questions. Is God faithful to his promises to his covenant people? Yes. Is the saviour of the world a Jew? Yes. Does God work through his people Israel in order to bless all people? Yes. Learning scripture is a lifelong joy. It is similar to learning a new language. One learns in scripture about a God who promises in Genesis 12 to bless the world through one man, Abraham. One sees that God is faithful to that promise in Jesus Christ, through whom God saves Jews and Gentiles (non Jews).

The world of scripture is largely unknown and unfamiliar. It is strange, even offensive, to us that God should work through a particular people (the Jews) to bless the world. It is news to us that God loves us, and demonstrates that love through Jesus Christ, the Saviour of Jews and Gentiles.

It is indeed strange and new for us to think that God still matters. It is unsettling to think that God is at work, speaking healing words of pardon and forgiveness in Christ.

Scripture makes astonishing claims. It challenges many modern western conventions of thought. For example, hard and fast distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, the private and the public, are foreign to it. Scripture assumes the existence of good and evil, of the angelic and the demonic, of the Holy Spirit through whom Christ is present in the hearts of the faithful. Scripture unfolds a wonderful and fresh new world.

Though Christians have at times disagreed about what scripture says, there has been unity in the essentials of the faith, for example Jesus’ complete divinity and humanity. Scripture’s message regarding the saving centrality of Jesus Christ is universally acknowledged among Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Christians.

I would encourage you to "take and read". You will encounter in scripture a text that bears God’s voice. It is eloquent and clear. The Hebrew prophets and New Testament apostles are God’s mouthpiece, with Jesus Christ himself as their cornerstone.

- Christopher Holmes is associate professor in the department of theology and religion at the University of Otago and an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Dunedin.

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