Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” -Jeremiah 1:9-10
I’ve written before about the appropriateness of speaking of the Bible as the “Word of God” even though Jesus is referred to as the the Word as well. I was reminded of the discussion as I began Andrew Shead’s new study on the “word” theology of the book of Jeremiah A Mouth Full of Fire. I’m only in second chapter so far, but already Shead’s been making a compelling case that the whole book is structured around the story of the “word of the Lord” that comes to Jeremiah the prophet.
At the beginning of his exploration of the usage of various forms of the word “word”, Shead opens with a helpful comment for those involved in the task of theological exploration and biblical exposition:
..it should be remembered that Jeremiah’s words were ordinary human ones. The notion that human language can be an adequate vehicle for the divine word is a bone of contention among theologians, and yet the remarkable implication of the book’s opening paragraph is that the inescapable imprecision of human language does not prevent it from conveying the word of God. This impression is only strengthened by the striking imagery of Jeremiah 1:9, towards the end of the prophet’s call narrative: ‘Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth. The Lord said to me, “I have just put my words in your mouth.”‘ Clearly, it was not merely a general message that Jeremiah received. we can safely conclude that the message from God came to Jeremiah in words. To put it in theological terms, this act of revelation is verbal.
–A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah, pg. 54
This observation about the passage in Jeremiah (and the theology of the book as a whole) is important for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it acts as a helpful counter-measure to an over-weening skepticism about theological language. Theologians are constantly falling into one of two errors: the first is an over-confidence in the ability of human language to capture the essence of God in human language that fails to forget the finite and fallen character of our speech of God. The other is the sort of agnosticism that comes in and says we can’t know anything at all about God because our human conceptions and speech are so far distant, none of our words can apply to him.
That second option sounds humbling to human speech at first, but it inadvertently makes too little of God the Speaker. Indeed, this passage reminds us that human finiteness and fallenness are not the ultimate reality, or last word, so to speak, when it comes to God’s words. It’s not so much a question of whether small, weak, human words can capture the divine holiness within them. The question is whether God can, in his omnipotence, grace, and condescension, put his own words into human speech. While we would do well to have a more complex account of God’s revelation and speech than a simplistic “divine dictation theory”, Jeremiah’s prophecy stands as a warning for us to hold off from scoffing too loudly at the idea that God could, or would, take the time to “dictate” a message for his people. Certainly we shouldn’t let that lead us to the conclusion that the words of Scripture are inherently the sort of thing that can’t be identified with God’s own word.
I’ll give the last word to Vanhoozer again:
Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.
–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, pg. xvi
Soli Deo Gloria
I suppose a follow up is not necessarily can human words convey the Divine the Word, but are those words faithful? When we talk about ‘theological rigor’ that could mean many things: precise scholastic word-making, only mining the biblical lexicon etc.
I’m sympathetic with some during the Arian controversy who were not Arians, but were wary of introducing non-biblical words like ‘substance’ and ‘being’ to describe God’s life. I would say that the way Bible refers to shadows and realities has some overlap with Platonic thought, but can we appropriate Platonic grammar and remain faithful? When is it too much and a Hellenization, which surely occurred?
I’d be curious to see future thoughts on this. I’m not quite sure myself.