In these lectures we have intentionally belabored the question of communication between God and man because much of the modern world believes that there is no possibility that God exists, or if God exists, there is no possibility that God can speak to creatures that he has made, or if he can speak, there is no possibility that he can speak clearly, or if he can speak clearly, there is no possibility that anyone can hear clearly enough to represent his words. If these things are true, then there is no point in attempting to understand the New Testament materials. But if the underlying theological presuppositions of the New Testament materials are true – that Christ is language and that Christ is the very Son of God, then the apostolic literary materials are but one step removed from a cameo appearance of God within his own creation. And it is therefore crucial that we understand the nature of the literature in which he is portrayed.
But it is precisely here that we must come to an important distinction about the divine nature of the New Testament. Although the apostles believed that language is Christ; that is, all language is God-breathed, the apostles consciously knew that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God in some special sense, uncommon to man. They all say it. Jesus says to his apostles: “ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.” These men believed that they were giving legal testimony about what they had seen and heard – and that the Holy Spirit was helping them so to do in some special way.
The Apostle John extends this line of thinking in his Gospel even further as Jesus says: Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak. And it is here that we get our first glimpse of what would eventually become obvious to the disciples: that the revelation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was progressive. The revelation of Jesus Christ during his three-year ministry with the apostles was just the beginning. In order to hear the rest, these men must first mature as Christians. The entire community must mature – as a community. Near the close of his physical ministry with the apostolic community, Jesus himself very clearly said: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.”
What was not so clear to the apostles, at least to judge by their unassuming editorial dialogue with us, is that they seemed to be wholly unconscious of the fact that not only would their individual dialogues – their personal testimonies – be especially inspired and divine – but that taken together, the apostolic community dialogue would also be inspired and divine. And if there is anything of divine significance that the post-apostolic Church has given to the world, it is this: the idea that the New Testament is a literary body. It is not only canon – it is corpus. There is not just the Pauline corpus and the Johannine corpus. There is the New Testament corpus. However unconscious, however clumsy, however accidental or serendipitous, the formation of the canonical corpus occurred. The modern church takes this formation for granted, but no one in the apostolic age did. And surely no individual writer of the New Testament materials did either.
The implications of this are profound. Because without this kind of corpus criticism, biblical “interpretation” is essentially contextless and thus, ultimately, useless. Could we not consider that though the individual writers of the New Testament are wholly conscious in their literary efforts, which precludes any idea of inspiration by “divine dictation” (as many Evangelical Fundamentalists have maintained), they are (as may be expected) wholly unconscious of the existential fact that the divine Spirit of all human communication is behind another, meta-dialogue with the world by means of the community interconnectedness of their individual dialogues? And thus, what the Church has naïvely assumed for centuries is far more profoundly true than could have been first imagined: that the New Testament materials – taken together, as a body – are a special incarnation of the Holy Spirit?
Again, the implications of this are profound. If the New Testament materials are a specific, special incarnation of the Holy Spirit – as the human body of Jesus was the incarnation of the Son, then we should expect his revelation to be weak in places and strong in others. This is merely to affirm what the Apostle Paul himself has said about the body itself: “Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.” Nevertheless, in most Evangelical theories regarding Biblical inspiration, these materials have been reduced to an un-systematized, homogeneous, contextless mass of disconnected words and sentences, the logic of which has been pushed up into a gnostic, “upper story” religious dimension which is not accessible to ordinary literary methods.
This conventional Protestant theory of Scriptural inspiration has produced a kind of “paper pope” bible which has in turn produced a host of conflicting theological prejudices, and a flood of complex, systematic theologies which have become less and less convincing as systems. And this is because they are fundamentally disconnected from their presumed, underlying source – the very logos which has orchestrated this corpus, not by any human systematic theology, but by its own divine schema.
Against the Evangelical view of the New Testament materials is a species of Liberal, linguistic docetism, or Gnosticism, which maintains that God cannot truly speak in human language without his truth becoming immediately and necessarily tainted with untruth. In this view, the words of Christ and of his Apostles are entirely provisional – conditional upon the artifacts of this creation. When she passes away, these words will also pass away as subjective, temporary, irrelevant and meaningless. This is flatly contradicted by Christ: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”
The Apostles maintain a third alternative. They maintain that their words have the same authority as the words of Christ – and that the words of Christ are the very words of God. This idea first occurs in Exodus 4:15-16: “And thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do. And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.” This may be coupled with Deuteronomy 18:18 “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.” Jesus claimed that his words had been expressly given to him by his Father: “…whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak.” And the Apostles claim that their words had been expressly given by Christ: “For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me.”
Furthermore, the Apostles maintain that the revelation of Christ is indeed a project of the Apostolic community. Again, if the Holy Spirit has incarnated himself into the New Testament materials, we should not be surprised that his body should be found in both the unity and the diversity – the individual and the corporate – of the Apostolic community witness: “For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.” And just as we should not be surprised to see the New Testament materials grow in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man, so also we should not be surprised to see the parts of that Apostolic body growing together, informing each part. For God has so arranged the parts of the body that no part may stand alone. His tempering is such that the theology of one Apostle must be informed by the theology of another, and from that interdependency, the expression of that corpus becomes clear and perfect – and its authority, eternal.