Thursday, August 28, 2008

Incarnation or Inlibration?

The following is the unedited version of an article that appeared in the Biblical Recorder, state paper of NC Baptists.

There’s been some conversation lately in the Biblical Recorder about a song children were asked to sing in Vacation Bible School this summer. It seems, someone has suggested, that the song employed a subtle attempt at indoctrinating children into believing that the “Word of God” (Greek, Logos) alluded to in the Prologue of John’s Gospel was the Bible rather than Jesus.

In point of fact, John’s Prologue (and his Gospel) asserts and affirms that Jesus is the Logos of God to which he sings his song (John 1:1-18 is lyrical in Greek, and some scholars believe it was an early Christian hymn). John 1:1-3 says: In beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This one (demonstrative pronoun referring to the Logos) was in beginning with God; all things came to be through it (Logos), and apart from it (Logos) came to be not even one thing that has come to be (my translation). John is deliberately echoing Genesis 1 wherein God creates the world merely by speaking it into existence: “And God said: ‘Let there be light!’ and there was.” In both the Hebrew and Greek worlds the concept of the Logos, the “creative word,” was a rich and highly evocative idea. Ancient peoples, fascinated by the power of the spoken word, speculated on its creation and character. Indeed, most believed that a word, once spoken, took on a life and vitality of its own apart from the speaker who gave it expression. Like an arrow set in flight from a bow, the spoken word took off, distinct from the speaker, and could not be recalled. Remember how in Genesis blind old Isaac speaks the paternal blessing “word” over the wrong son, blessing Jacob rather than Esau? But once spoken, the “blessing word” could neither be retrieved nor abrogated. If that were true of human speech, how much more must it be true when God speaks, the Hebrews speculated. And so the concept of the Word of God became something of an hypostasis, an alternative expression or manifestation, of God Himself. This made the concept of the Logos the perfect metaphor for John’s reflection on the Incarnation in his Gospel, and especially in the Prologue (1:1-18). Jesus, John asserts, was the Word (Logos) God spoke way back there when he called the cosmos out of chaos, the essence, the “exegesis” (John’s word in 1:18) of God.

But that is not the only sense in which John uses the word “word” (logos) in his Gospel. Logos occurs 40 times in John, falling into six categories (or uses). (1) Three times it refers to Jesus as the “Word” (Logos) of God in the sense suggested above, twice in the Prologue and once in John 5:38. In the latter passage, Jesus answers his Jewish critics by saying that the Father had sent him (Jesus) as “his word” (Logos) but they did not hear it, even though they “…search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life, but these are they that bear witness to me” (5:39). Note: Here is a clear usage of “word” (logos) in the same context as “the Scriptures,” and yet it means Jesus, not “Scripture.” (2) Three times it just means “word” in the ordinary sense. (3) Three times it means a “saying” or “statement.” (4) By far, John uses logos to mean a “testimony” or “witness,” as in the sentence: “I give you my word” (23 times). (5) At least four times it means “God’s word” in the sense of his revelation to the prophets or others to whom He has spoken. (6) And three times (10:35; 12:38; 15:25) it does indeed refer to the Scripture as God’s “word” (logos). Of course, “Scripture” here means the Old Testament, not the Bible we have today.

And so, Baptists, who typically hold a rather high view of Scripture, do not err when we speak of the Scriptures as “the Word of God.” Indeed, as demonstrated by the usage analysis above, John himself so employs the term logos in at least three places (10:35; 12:38; 15:25). Moreover, a high view of Scripture demands it. As my late teacher, Dr. George R. Beasley-Murray, used to say: “There’s all the difference in the world between one who says that the Bible merely contains the Word of God, and one who says that the Bible is the Word of God. If it merely contains the Word of God, then we are free to pick and choose what parts of the Bible we believe to be the Word of God. But if the Bible is the Word of God, then we are not free to pick and choose, but must obey it both when we like what it says and when we don’t.”

But we make a grave mistake when in our haste to affirm a high view of Scripture we move from “The Bible is the Word of God” to “The Bible is God.” This John in his Prologue will not do. He reserves that use of Logos for Jesus, not the Bible. He is the Incarnation (in-fleshing) of the Eternal Word (Logos) to which the Word (Scripture) witnesses (“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and these are they that bear witness to me,” John 5:39).

Now, to be sure there are religious traditions that affirm “The Scripture as God,” Islam being foremost. While Christians affirm that God’s definitive self-revelation was in the Incarnation (Jesus as the Incarnate Logos of God), Islam asserts that God’s definitive self-revelation came in the form of the Holy Book, the Koran. Islam’s theology of God’s definitive self-revelation is not, as in Christianity, incarnation, but inlibration , literally, “in Book.” God, it is believed, has manifest Himself in “The Book,” the Koran, “God in Book,” inlibration. Christians do not believe in “inlibration,” no matter how high a view of Scripture we hold. Our theology of God’s final and definitive self-revelation takes the form of “incarnation,” God in flesh, the Logos “exegeted.” One ancient creed put it this way, “very God of very God Who for us and our salvation came down.” Or, if you prefer John’s words about the Word: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The photo above is the star in the crypt beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem believed by many to mark the spot where the incarnation occurred. For more on the place of Jesus' birth, see Chapter 8 on the Church of the Nativity in my Where Jesus Walked: A Spiritual Journey Through the Holy Land.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Dr. Stacy,

I really appreciated your comparison of what I think is commonly called bibliolatry to Islam's understanding of the Koran and the role that the Koran plays in Islam.

I am concerned about two things:

1. Why have more Baptists, both conservative and moderate, not raised questions about the song? Do you really think that some conservative Baptists really hold this position in their theology?

2. Why have LifeWay and/or some other SBC officials not commented, offered apologies for the song.

I wrote a comment on a previous Biblical Recorder post in which I said that overall the song is not bad, but that its use of John 1 completely misrepresents the theology of John.

Thank you for the thoughtful post.

Grace and peace,

Tim Marsh