17 August 2005

more on the humanity of scripture

Among various Christian authors who have written about the phenomenon of Scripture and have drawn some attention to the human vehicle of God's revelation stands Thomas Aquinas, particularly in his discussion of "prophecy." When Aquinas treats prophecy he does not limit himself to a carefully circumscribed subset of Scripture (and recall that the Jews categorized much of Old Testament history among "the Prophets"), but discusses a wide and diverse range of biblical revelation, using terms as varied as visio, inspiratio, and instinctus (see especially Summa Theologiae II-II, Questions 171-174).

While, for Aquinas, prophecy certainly has propositional content that takes form in proclamation (including the words of Scripture), it is first of all a kind of knowing or perceiving, initiated wholly by God's inspiration, which, in that event, comes to fruition in a proclamation which makes use of the prophet's own language, imagination, and character. But even in the divine unveiling to the prophet's perception, the "supernatural" is neither divided from nor trumps the "natural," since for Aquinas, the "natural" and "supernatural" are not nouns naming differing realities, but are adjectives speaking of the one and same reality from two perspectives.

Thus, revelation uses the powers of the human imagination as the means by which the divine is disclosed. This is so even when the "imaginary forms" present to the mind are the result of direct divine action, though in most cases, Aquinas suggests, God makes use of forms already received ultimately through the senses (whether images, colors, texts, etc.), suffusing them with a greater measure of the divine light in order they might become means of revelatio. It is this divine light that enables the prophet not only to see, but, in the same act, to judge aright regarding divine things.

All of this has bearing on the undeniable humanity of Scripture. While the Bible does, often enough, speak in terms of "thus says the Lord," this word comes through the lips and tongues of the prophets, in human language. And, often enough, Scripture draws attention to its own, everywhere evident, humanity--as Luke does in his prologue (Luke 1:1-4) or Peter mentioning Paul's labors writing his sometimes difficult texts (2 Peter 3:14-15) or at the end of John's Gospel (20:30-31; 21:24-25) and so on.

While the analogy between Scripture and the theanthropic Person of Christ is only an analogy (and thus must account for the important differences between them as well), it does usefully illuminate, I think, the dangers of downplaying the true humanity of Scripture in a kind of scriptural Docetism. We cannot, after all, denigrate the humanity of Scripture without, at the same time, denigrating its divinity, by misrepresenting who God is and how he relates to his creation.

To suggest that the emphasis must fall either upon the humanity of Scripture or upon its divinity (or that the two are somehow in competition) suggests, I think, an "either/or" where Scripture itself only knows a "both/and." This can be considered from several angles:

[1] Scripture does not reveal God simply by revealing facts about God, but in the very form that this revelation takes, in a manner somewhat analogous to the way in which Jesus reveals God to us, not just by what he said about God or about himself as God incarnate, but also in what Jesus did, that is, in the entire form of life by which he lived and died. The humanity of Scripture itself, embedded as it is in human language, culture, practices, imagination, and so on, tells us something about who God is.

[2] To suggest that the humanity of Scripture is somehow a "problem" (or a difficulty to be explained away or something that should be downplayed in light of Scripture's divinity), is to suggest implicitly that God is not the sort of God whom he has revealed himself to be, particularly as he reveals himself in Christ. That is to say, downplaying the humanity of Scripture suggests that God is not a God who should be present and active within his created order or that God is a deity too high and holy to make full use of created means in revealing himself. This is not to say that any revelation of God is exhaustive of who God is, but it is to suggest that there is nothing about the created medium, when taken up into God's perfect providence, that gets in the way of the message.

[3] This indicates that downplaying Scripture's humanity--or positioning its humanity so that it only comes to the fore at the expense of Scripture's divinity--all seems to suggest a basic problem on the level of ontology, particularly the relationship between God and his creation, a problem that pits transcendence against immanence. But if God is the Creator God, so that all things, including human language and culture and so on, proceed from his creative hand (without at all denying secondary causality, etc.), then God's transcendence over creation as Creator is, at the same time, his immanence to all of his creation. After all, it is only if God's creative knowlege, will, and power extend to all things whatsoever, that God can be intimately present to those things and disclose himself in and through them.

In light of this last point, I would suggest that Scripture is best seen not only in terms of the analogy of the incarnation, but also as a particular, unique species of God's general providence and action in the world in all of their analogical manifestations (as Warfield points out). While, in our experience, human sinfulness profoundly clouds our apprehension of God's presence and self-disclosure in the creation, this is a matter of sin and sin's effect, rather then the original order of the world and of humanity within the world, created in perfect relation to God and directed towards God at the final end.

Therefore, to suggest that the humanity of Scripture, in itself, can only be emphasized at the expense of Scripture's divinity, seems to me to assume either [a] that Scripture's humanity is something that partakes of human culture and language as deformed by sin or [b] that the relationship between God and his creation is a problem on the level of ontology. But [a] seems to entail a denial of Scriptural authority, while [b] seems to assume something akin to a gnosticism that rejects the goodness of creation.

I'd prefer to say something like the following. Scripture is manifestly divine because it is the most fully and perfectly human text we have, particularly inasmuch as it, above all, reveals Jesus Christ, who shows us what it means to be truly human.