Just Words? Paul Helm’s New Book on Revelation and Scripture (part 1)
Paul Helm’s new book, Just Words?, helps us understand a foundational part of Christian doctrine: Revelation. The book is unashamedly and delightfully doctrinal in nature. ‘Doctrine’ is the body of truths that are affirmed by Christians as comprising the fundamental truths of the Faith. We need to be aware of the framework of doctrine because we always hold an assumed set of doctrines as the lens through which we view life and through which we read Scripture. Basic assumptions about God, Church, sin and salvation inform our understanding of the Bible and are hopefully renewed, challenged and revised as we read and re-read the Bible.
The following is an excerpt from Paul Helm’s new book on special revelation. Paul Helm taught philosophy at the University of Liverpool and was appointed to the Chair of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London, in 1993. He was the J. I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, from 2001 to 2005, when he was appointed a Teaching Fellow. He blogs at Helms Deep and is the author of numerous books including Eternal God: A Study of God without Time, The Beginnings: Word and Spirit in Conversion, Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards, The Providence of God, and Calvin and the Calvinists.
We learn that in God’s dealings with the human race, matter and manner are intertwined, vitally connected. In this study, we are considering God’s book, what we call The Holy Bible. It is a book made up of other books, spanning hundreds of years. This shelf of books itself has a character that is at one with God’s coming down. For what God says in his book, and how he says it, are seamlessly woven together. The Bible tracks what has happened in human history when God came down.
What do I mean? Basically, that the Bible is made up of two elements. There is a record of God’s action. And there is a commentary on that action. Act + commentary. When we hear of commentaries, we might think of journalists who take a line on current affairs, or of pundits who make remarks on what is going on during the match. The commentator is in the studio, and he talks about the game. But this is not how it is with the Bible. God is not simply a talker. The power and authenticity of the Bible lies in the fact that it is the record of actions of God together with his own authoritative commentary on those actions. The Bible is not a record of the acts of God with a commentary from some other source. God is his own commentator. This gives to the Bible an enduring relevance.
One view used to be that THE Bible is the record of how the people of Israel tried to make sense of the acts of God, developing a religion in doing so. But that’s to reverse the arrow, I’m afraid. There are events – God coming down – and the human divinely-provided commentators are part of the total event. There is the event itself and then what we may call a God – authorized commentary on that event. The Bible itself does not say this in so many words, but this is what is borne in us when we start to study it carefully. This needs a word or two of explanation.
If you watch a wordless video with some of your friends, and then discuss what its significance is, you are likely to get various reactions, some of which may be wildly different from others. Why was the man walking down the street into the sunset? Who was he? Where was he? And so on. Words, that is, sentences of various kinds, are needed to deliver intelligibility. That is the job of the commentator.
In the Bible, there are various kinds of divine commentary. Some are very direct: the word of the Lord is said to ‘come to’ the prophets. (See for example Jer. 1.2) Others are more reflective. In such commenting there is a kind of dual authorship. In this situation, God acts, and then later–but sometimes before!–commentators act by speaking. God gives his words to the prophet. Perhaps they come to the prophet in a dream, or in an act of divine authorization. In speaking, God does not only ’own’ what he says. More than that, God so orders the details of the human agent’s life that when he speaks, the distinctives of GOD’S character are evident. Or, if he is a scribe the style of what he has written is like an official document, in which the character of the writer is shielded from us. Several of the Old Testament books of history, such as I and II Kings, are like that. They might may have been put together by a committee. Paul is not Peter, and it shows. Isaiah is not Jeremiah. Matthew is not Mark. Style and temperament and outlook become manifest. God ‘respects’ the person’s individuality. (After all, he has created and sustains them.) He does not ‘flatten’ their individuality into a sort of monotone. The prophet or apostle is not a puppet or simply one who mouths God’s words like a megaphone. Paul (say) speaks them out, the words bearing the stamp of his personality, his education, his thought-processes, and so on. And, yet, his words are the words of God. Sometimes even the message is given the human agent to deliver is an unwelcome one. He’d rather not say what he is impelled to say.
Through this in-breathing of God, the prophet’s words are not only his words, they are God’s words. What the exact mechanism of this is like is difficult to say, since it is the action of our Creator upon his creation, unlike any human-on-human action. So the idea of ‘dictation’ doesn’t quite do the job of what is going on, not usually. When he wrote his letters Paul was not ‘dictated to’ like in the old days when the boss used to dictate a letter to his secretary. At least, Paul’s letters–or Luke’s narratives–don’t read like that, do they?
Think of the well-known story of the young man Samuel. The Lord called to him during the night, but Samuel was at first convinced that it was the high-priest Eli calling, and went to see what Eli wanted. After this had happened a few times, Eli came to the conclusion that it must be the Lord calling, and told Samuel that if it happened again he should say ‘Speak, Lord, for you servant hears’. And the Lord spoke, and stated that he was to punish Eli’s two worthless sons, priests and yet blasphemers.
Of course, the process of bringing the story of Samuel into a history book of the people of Israel is not complete until that book is complete, and that involves another agent, or set of agents, who see to it that this story comes together with other stories of God’s action and commentary, into the form of the book that we know as I Samuel. In fact, you may say the process is not fully completed until that book takes its place in the library of books that make up the Bible. But we must not suppose that the agents–prophets and poets and scribes and compilers of sets of proverbs–have to be conscious of God’s special agency for this to happen. The historians, say, need only to be conscious, of being historians of Israel. Their role, as distinct from that of the prophet, is more like that of a sub-editor than that of an author. This process is also held to be under the superintendence of God, a rather different process than that of the direct inspiration of a prophet. A scribe works among the annals of the people, helping to form one of the sacred books such as the histories of the Old Testament, Judges, say, or the book of Esther.
In the case of Paul’s letters, for example, the process was rather different, more informal, more personal, but written with an awareness of his apostleship. ( I Cor.9.1) The letters may be said, in general, to be comments on the significance of what Jesus Christ did and said and suffered, how his readers should conduct themselves as the people of God, and so on. The letters are affectionate, personal, profound, and plain-speaking, and seem to have been composed in the ordinary way of writing letters, sometimes with a secretary, and (as far as the text indicates) sometimes not. Yet, Paul so thought and wrote or dictated that what he produced was also inspired by God.
You can continue reading this excerpt in part two.