- Job 23:1-9, 16-17
- Psalm 22:1-15
- Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
- Psalm 90:12-17
- Hebrews 4:12-16
- Mark 10:17-31
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…
What is the Bible? What is the Word of God? Usually, the only time I hear this verse quoted in sermons is in as scary context: something about using the Bible as a weapon against our enemies. Do a Google on the phrase “the word of God is living” and see what sort of things you come up with. I found this page that talks about fuzzy theology being based on pulling together only a few verses… and then promptly pulls together only a few verses without understanding a single one…
I have friends – conservative, “fundamentalist” or “evangelical” friends of either the Christian or Atheist sort – who will tell me that if I fail to do Christianity their way, then I’m doing it wrong. But when they want me to be a literalist… and then use a bad understanding of the Bible, I can’t do that.
What is the Bible? What is the Word of God? are those two questions even the same question? The Bible doesn’t say so. The Bible doesn’t use the phrase “Word of God” to refer to itself even though some of its texts (mostly all prophecy) make the claim to be sourced in the Word of the Lord. (Isaiah says “the word of the Lord came to me…”)
To some religions, the text is all there is: the Sikhs, for example, believe their sacred text is their Guru. Muslims and Jews alike are taught that before the creation of the world their sacred text was, as a whole, present in the mind of God. Mormons, too, are taught their text exists, engraved on Golden Plates, in Heaven.
The text becomes all, there is nothing along side of it in that context. You are, seemingly, expected to adhere to the text. Truth be told, however, the texts in all those religions is subject to interpretation and application. That’s expected. But the Christian texts are treated differently, at least in some traditions: the text is not seen as if it fell, whole cloth, from the sky. Admittedly, some Protestants act as if it did fall so, leather cover, King James translation and Scofield reference notes and all. Some seem to imagine that the “Authorised Edition” is authorised not for the Church of England, but rather by God. (For this they conveniently forget that the original 1611 Authorised Edition contained the “other books” of the Bible like the Papists use.)
Nothing could be further from the Truth, for the Word of God in the Christian understanding, is not the Bible but Jesus, himself. If you read the text of the Bible trying to understand the book to be talking about itself, it becomes very difficult. Phrases like “the word of God came…” and “the word of God increased…” and even “the word of God is a sword…” all make no sense if the are discussing a book; a book which did not even exist yet! But these phrases make sense if “word of God” is seen as some sort of mystical idea, especially when the Greek tends to use in most (not all) cases, the Logos of God, implying not a written text, but rather a Greco-Roman philosophical concept. The Logos being the concept, the idea, the content of God, rather than the Form. It might be present in a written text, or a prophetic utterance. But ultimately, in the Christian Context, the Logos of God becomes flesh in Jesus.
Look at this passage today, in Hebrews. Between verse 12 and verse 13, there is only one sort of pronoun used. In Greek it can mean she, he or it. If you read v12 to mean the text of a book called the Bible it has to be “it” but v13 brings us to “him to whom we must render an account” which is certainly not the Bible, but, rather, God. The entire book of the Hebrews is an argument about Jesus’ place in the plan of salvation. To read v12 (and really, only v12) to be about the book of text rather than the Messiah is a huge mistake. It is reading into the text what is not there… and reading out what is. If we replace the bad pronouns with direct readings this is what we get:
Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until he divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; he is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.
Let’s replace the pronouns with proper nouns and see what we get, in the fundamentalist language, first:
Indeed, the Bible is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until the Bible divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; the Bible is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before Jesus no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of Jesus to whom we must render an account.
And then in the way I’m suggesting:
Indeed, Jesus is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until Jesus divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; Jesus is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before Jesus no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of Jesus, to whom we must render an account.
Makes a lot more sense, I think. It is also the way that Church has traditionally understood the Bible, as a conveyor of the teachings of God, an Icon, if you will, of God. Perhaps even the most privileged conveyor of those teachings short of Jesus himself. But not the word of God in the sense contained in today’s reading (active, sharp, etc).
St John Chrysostom, in his commentary on Hebrews, says as much:
“For the Word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and pierceth even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” In these words he shows that He, the Word of God, wrought the former things also, and lives, and has not been quenched.
But the footnote to the translation I linked to says:
St. Chrys. here understands the λογος of the Second Person of the Trinity. It is now generally interpreted as a personification of the spoken or written word sent forth by Him.
The translator gets away by saying “now generally understood” without adding, “by Protestants”.
It is important to note that exception – short of Jesus, himself. The Bible’s teaching (see?) that the Church is the Body of Christ, filled with Christ’s spirit, makes the church the thing that, in this world, is the “Ground and pillar” of the Truth; the Church is the thing that, in this world, “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”, the λογος of the Trinity. She is not, however, any more perfect than the book that she wrote: an ongoing and historic record of the way God uses fallible humans to do his work in the world. She includes all the understanding of all the humans she always was. We are limited by culture, by our current science, by our own biases: but we are called to be the word of God, the “λογος of the Trinity.”
Today’s Gospel speaks of Rich People and how hard it is for them to enter the kingdom of heaven. It would be easy to turn that to a sermon about wealth, and – in today’s climate – healthcare. I’ve blogged as much recently. But we need to recognise that, in America, even the poorest of our poor has far far more stuff than, in some cases, the wealthy of Jesus time. Wealth is not a statement of the number of things one has: if it were, we’d all be doomed. Wealth is a statement of relationship. That man valued his stuff more than the people around him. He had a “personal relationship” with his money instead of a relationship with the people God had placed in his lives.
But with God, all things are possible.
How do we move (we the Church and we the Rich People of the Gospel) into a deeper co-operation with the Word of God, present, living, sharp and active? How do we become that sword?