Word of God and Words of men by Stephen E. Schlarb
“The words of Jeremiah… to whom the word of the Lord came ….”
Stated in the PC(USA) 1967 Confession, Section I.C.2. The Bible:
“The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written.”Later there is this statement:
“The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current.”
To a layman, the above two statements could lead to confusion. “…the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written.” But then: “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men….” That may be clear to a seminarian (tongue-in-cheek). But practical experience in many conversations with various elders and laypeople, as well as listening to the variety of views throughout PC(USA) on the Internet, indicates that there is a wide spectrum of interpretation in our denomination between those two statements. If “the Holy Spirit bears… authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures”, then how can this witness be “the words of men” conditioned by the limitations of time, place, and subjective views of life, etc.? Would not the Holy Spirit’s powerful guidance overcome the cultural limitations of the human receiver? Apparently not.
Beneath the official statements by PC(USA) leaders, in the general membership there is a muddle of conflicting opinions on the veracity of the most relevant texts to the Christian faith. One example I encountered in a church Bible was in regard to whether faith in Christ was necessary to have salvation and a relationship with the Father. There are numerous verses to support this, as well as the older Confessions of the faith, e.g. Heidelberg and Westminster. I quoted 1 John 2:23:
“Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.”
One Ruling Elder replied, “that’s just the words of men”. Another Elder said, “it’s hard to transpose the primitive meanings of that time to our time”. Another Elder said, “Everyone goes to heaven, no matter what they believe”. A lay member of the group added, “Christianity is just for this life”. After that meeting, I asked another respected Ruling Elder about it. He replied, “We don’t know what God’s plan is for all people.” And yet other Elders have said in studies and private conversations, “there are many ways to God.”
On the internet, in various forums, PC(USA) Elders have propounded everything from traditional faith to universalism to atheism. This situation is well-known among PC(USA) members, and it has caused consternation among many general congregation members, some Elders, but especially non-ordained lay members who contribute their time and money to support church activities. Many lay members, including elderly people I know, read and trust basic Christian scriptures to shore up their wounded faith, in order to help them get through illnesses, economic problems, loss of loved ones.
Ultimately, a clever scholar can disparage so much of scripture, that there is little left on which to build a church.
How can a Christian discern when the Bible speaks with the imperfect or even erroneous “words of men”, versus when it speaks accurately with the “word of God”? A layman’s attempt to show the differences is presented below, by giving concrete examples.
In Joshua Chapter 6, there is the destruction of Jericho and the annihilation of every person therein. Killing every man, woman and child in Jericho, and in other tribal conflicts, was the common practice of tribal societies, so as to eliminate the unpleasant prospect of the enemy’s children growing up and then threatening the conquering tribe’s grown-up kids 20 years later. Mass murder is not likely to be the pure revelation of the God of Jesus Christ.
On another occasion, in Joshua 9, the inhabitants of Gibeon used guile to escape annihilation. It turns out that the Gibeonites were useful as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the Israelites. Thus, it was apparently not God’s Word that all people in the area be killed.
Numbers 15:32-36: The killing of a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath.
Verse 35: Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.”
Do you believe that Christ approves of owning slaves?
“The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.”And this gem from
1 Timothy 2:11-15:
“A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet….”
The modern experience of women handling major responsibilities in authoritative positions in the private and public sectors would make a 1st century apostle rewrite some letters. And Jesus himself confronted the prejudice against women by example in the Gospel of John 4: 7 – 42. He spoke his message to a Samaritan woman. In those days, a Samaritan woman was looked down on by Jewish society, and a Jewish rabbi, like Jesus, was not supposed to talk to a woman alone anyway. Jesus delivered to the woman his famous “living water” message. Jesus also told her of worshiping the Father in “spirit and truth”, and not in Jerusalem. He also revealed to her that He was the Messiah, the Christ. These were the most serious spiritual messages that Jesus entrusted to a foreign woman, scorned by men of that time.
She conveyed her experience with Jesus to the men of her village.
“From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman.” John 4:39.
These are just a few examples of what could be reasonably considered the “words of men” in their own time and culture, and not as immutable commands from God.
Jesus himself contradicts at least 7 issues in Torah. Torah is often called the ‘law’; also defined as the ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’ in the first 5 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Torah is also generally applied to the entire Jewish Bible, or the Protestant Old Testament. This is treated by some as the immutable Word of God. Here are the contradictions, or different teachings of Jesus:
1. Dietary laws in Lev. 11, Deut. 14, contradicted by Jesus in Mark 7:18-20, et. al.
2. Divorce law in Deut. 24:1-4, versus Jesus in Mat. 5:31-32 & Mat. 19:3-9.
5. Eye for an eye retaliation law in Exo. 21:24-25, Lev. 17:20, Deut. 19:21, replaced by Jesus in Mat. 5:38-48. Also refer to Luke 6:27-37.
6. Worship in Jerusalem alone as the one acceptable place: Deut. 12:5, 1 Kgs 8:29,30, 1 Kgs. 11:36, 2 Chron. 6:6. This is contradicted by Jesus’ revolutionary statement to the Samaritan woman in John 4:21-24. By endorsing worship of the Father “in spirit and truth” outside of Jerusalem with its Temple, Jesus is negating the Temple sacrifice regime in Torah.
7. Sheol the end point after death, in Gen. 37:35 and Num. 16:33. In the Torah and the wider Old Testament, physical death resulted in the person becoming a barely-existing “shade” in Sheol, far beneath the earth’s surface. In the O.T. after death, there is no eternal life in heaven, no fellowship with God, nor even the remembrance of God. (Ps. 6:5; 88:3-5; 115:17; Isaiah 38:18). It is the end of a person’s meaningful existence.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Unlike the Torah concepts of impersonal death in Sheol, the relationship with Jesus is personal as well as eternal:
“If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3).Most Christians accept Jesus as the authority in word and deed – “the Word of God incarnate” in the 1967 Confession; “the Word made flesh” in John 1:14. Then we may conclude that the 7 refuted points of Biblical teachings (above) are not the immutable and perfect Word of God.
As Christians in PC(USA) we have acknowledged by actual practice that not everything in the Bible that says it is the “Word of the LORD” or the “Word of God”, is literally so. But we are not wandering lost in an unmarked landscape. Nor are we starting over from scratch. It comes down to this: The relevant texts on Jesus Christ must be the Holy Spirit’s “unique and authoritative witness”. Our judgment and faith must be based always on the words and example of Jesus – the living Word of God – as received in the Gospels and defended by the testimony and blood of martyrs for 2,000 years. I accept their witness with the Holy Spirit’s.
G-3.0300 a. “The Church is called to tell the good news of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as the only Savior and Lord….”