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Just Words? Paul Helm’s New Book on Revelation and Scripture (part 2)

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 (see part one here). 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 TimeThe Beginnings: Word and Spirit in ConversionHuman Nature from Calvin to EdwardsThe Providence of God, and Calvin and the Calvinists.

This stress on the words of the Bible is sometimes misunderstood. Those who misunderstand give the impression that this focus on the linguistic detail of Scripture somehow gets in the way. ‘In my need I am seeking the help and assurance of God and you keep talking about a book, and its assertions and questions and commands. I don’t want words, I need God!’ And the idea is given that words are offering to needy people of a stone when what they are asking for is bread.

But this is an unfortunate misunderstanding. Basically, it is not the words themselves that we are focusing on, like lexicographers or students of linguistics do, but what the words depict. For words have senses, and employed in sentences they can refer to the realities they pick out. If you ask me where the milk is and I reply, ‘It is in the fridge,’ you don’t then proceed open a word ‘fridge’ and drink the word ‘milk’. Quite the opposite. The words facilitate you going to the fridge, opening it, and getting the milk. Likewise, when a person believes that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, she does not focus exclusively on the word. Rather, since the words are not just about Jesus, but are of true of him, they have a kind of transparency. To trust the words is to trust Jesus because Jesus is made known through the words.

And though Scripture does not present itself like a paper on nuclear physics, or a piece of philosophical reasoning, its readers must use their reason to receive its message. As we saw earlier when Paul points to the ‘true and rational words’ in which he spoke to Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26, he is referring to matters which were intelligible and verifiable, and which they had heard about. The Bible has to be interpreted by the use of our own resources, and with the assurance of his help when we do so.

We must try to read the Bible with the correct expectations. Scripture is not an encyclopedia, nor a book of science, nor a cookery book, nor a commentary on ancient. If we are tempted to think it is, then we shall come to the Bible with the wrong sort of outlook, expecting things that we will not find. We shall wander, looking for the wrong things, to the neglect of the main plot or narrative. The Bible is focused, and so there are matters which it does not mention or handle. We must not be tempted to twist it into something it was never intended to be.

A Paradox

So, there is a kind of paradox here.  The location of the action which the Bible records is very defined, particular. All that it has to say took place in the Middle East, most of it in Palestine and ancient Mediterranean world.  Most of the participants were Jewish. But its message is not confined to these places. Just as what happened in Runnymede at had a definite location (in the Thames basin) and time (1215); nevertheless, through the Magna Carta, it had an impact which resounds down the centuries and an international significance. So it is with the Bible, only more so. Its particular narrative has a universal importance, transcending the Middle East, but never leaving it behind, because of what happened there. To have such an impact is part of the story, as we have already noted in connection with Jesus’ Great Commission, and the charge to make disciples of all nations, teaching them about his own authority, and being assured of his presence through the ministry of the Holy Spirit accompanying his disciples wherever he might lead them.

The Bible is set out in roughly historical sequence, which is part of its character. One thing leads to another thing. Which is not to say that it is nothing but history. And by and large, it uses words not specially defined for their place in it, or specially tuned, but as they are used in the surrounding culture. So that in the reading of the Bible the earlier is taken account in the later writings. It is not only secular history, but includes supernatural intrusions and an overriding supernatural purpose.  As well as record divine actions, the purpose of the history is to record the failings and successes of the people of God and their enemies, how they respond to, or fail to do so the Word of God. So we must have a very good reason to take the Bible out of sequence. To place ourselves into the history, for example, is a weird undertaking.

The New England pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), records the example of a man seeking guidance from the Bible as to whether or not he should go abroad. Suppose that after praying, the following verse (from Genesis 46) should ‘suddenly and extraordinarily’ come into his mind: ‘fear not to go down into Egypt….and I will go with thee; and I will surely bring thee up again’,  and is taken as God’s direction for his life. The original meaning of the verse refers to Jacob; the man gives it another meaning. Edwards comments that to understand the Scripture ‘is rightly to understand what is in the Scripture, and what was in it before it was understood… and not the making of a new meaning.’

Paul Helm

Paul Helm is Emeritus Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London, and publishes online at his blog Helms Deep. the author of several books including Eternal God: A Study of God without Time, The Beginnings: Word and Spirit in ConversionHuman Nature from Calvin to EdwardsThe Providence of God, and Calvin and the Calvinists.

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