Word of God and Words of men by Stephen E. Schlarb
All Bible quotes NASB.
The Bible is comprised of both the Word of God and the words of men. This is exemplified in Jeremiah 1:1-2a:
“The words of Jeremiah… to whom the word of the Lord came ….”
If there is a perfect God (incorruptible), it must be immutable, for the perfect cannot change to some other state of being that would obviously be not perfect anymore. Any revelations from such a perfect God would, by definition, be perfect themselves – guided by the Holy Spirit. If such a perfect God reveals himself to people, then the effectiveness of the communication is dependent on the perfect revelation of that God as well as on the imperfect reception, comprehension, and expression of the person receiving that revelation.
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.
Examples of “words of men” – murder, slavery, & oppression:
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.