Three Concepts You’ll Need To Settle the Domain of the Word

Domain of the wordMost Christian doctrines don’t make sense unless you’re thinking properly about a whole bunch of other doctrines. The recent LA Theology Conference made that point about atonement. Unless you’ve got a good handle on the nature of Jesus’ incarnation or the creation, you probably won’t be able to keep Christ’s atonement in its proper biblical shape. Things go wonky without them (not to mention a few others).

John Webster argues the same thing is true of the doctrine of Scripture in his fairly recent and highly-praised work The Domain of the Word and his earlier, excellent little offering Holy Scripture. Unless you have certain elements in the doctrine of God, the church, and providence in proper order–who God is, how he acts, and what he happens to want to do with the texts–our reflections on what the Bible actually is will inevitably fall short. You have to approach the Bible “indirectly”, as it were, by appreciating its place in the broader scope of the Triune God’s creative and saving communicative activity in history.

While I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of Webster’s rich, subtle reflections on this point, I thought it would be worth roughly and very inelegantly summarizing a small segment early on in the first chapter of The Domain of the Word (pp. 13-17), where he elaborates on the importance of thinking of Scripture with three central concepts in mind: providence, sanctification, and inspiration.

The Word and the Word 

To begin, though, he sets up a bit of a contrast. For about as long as there’s been doctrinal reflection on the nature of Scripture, people have tried to think of it along the lines of an incarnational analogy. Just as Jesus is the Godman, comprised of both Divine and human natures, so the Scriptures are something of a lesser incarnation. The divine Word or words, are given to us in fleshly, human form. Hebrew, Greek, human linguistic structures and mediums are the housing for a message that transcends far beyond that.

Now, this analogy can go in all sorts of directions. Classically, it has been used as a helpful way of understanding the simultaneous humanity and perfection of the Scriptures. Just as Jesus was both human and yet perfect because divine, so God’s written Word is given through human means, yet nonetheless perfect as having come from the mouth of God. More recently, others have used it to talk about Scripture’s usefulness as a divine text that, nonetheless, exhibits the limitations and, in some constructions, errors and sins of all humanity (much to the chagrin of anybody who’s paying attention to the Christological implications).

In order to avoid undue divinizing of Scripture, creating an unfortunate blurring of the Creator/creature distinction, as well as a host of other difficulties, Webster points us in a different direction, and suggest that we locate our idea within the three concepts we already mentioned. In this way, Webster wants to capture the way Scripture fits in God’s various workings, beginning from the most general (providence) to the most specific (inspiration).

Three Key Terms

First, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the doctrine of providence reminds us that the various words, passages, texts, and books of the Bible were written in the midst of the history over which God is Lord. A sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without the Father’s consent, how much more the Scriptures which form his self-testimony? In other words, we need to desecularize our view of the processes of culture and history which produced these texts (and all other texts for that matter). This isn’t to deny the human, cultural and historical influences on the way Scripture came to be the way it is, but it is to remember that all of history’s movements come together under God’s hands. When you look at the historical process, you need to realize you’re not seeing all the action when you’ve accounted for human psychological, political, and even theological motivations. Father, Son, and Spirit rule over history governing, preserving, and upholding all its activities–even that of the production of Scripture. God’s providence doesn’t compete or deny the natural and the human, but sustains and underlies it.

Second, locating our doctrine of Scripture with relation to the idea of sanctification reminds us of the important work of the Holy Spirit in the lives and histories of the writers of Scripture. Humans can be sanctified by the Spirit, set apart as holy, in order to serve as God’s ambassadors and mouthpieces. So can the human words of those apostles and prophets that God called and commissioned to proclaim his words to the nations. For Webster, the Spirit’s work of sanctification is the middle term between providence and inspiration, and speaks of the Spirit’s preparation and setting apart of the particular persons and processes of the production of Scripture (events, literary elements, redaction, reception, etc). The Spirit set apart the prophets (Jeremiah, Paul), cleanses their lips (Isaiah), and specifically teaches them how to speak his words (Peter). He does this, not by denying their humanity, but calling it, redeeming it, and perfecting it by way of purification. Scripture is Holy because of the Spirit’s work in consecrating these instruments (humans and their histories) for his own.

Third, we come to the final term of ‘inspiration.’ This is the final and most specific term which refers, not to God’s broader process, or some generic notion of inspiredness that all literature falls under. Instead, it is this specific superintendence and supervenience of God in and through his human servants who speak specific words as the Spirit moves them. Webster says we must be careful not to separate this from either providence or sanctification as if God’s inspiration is some intrusive overturning of human, creaturely processes. It’s not a detached miracle that competitively suspends the human dimension, resulting in a mechanical activity, but an organic movement by the Spirit to heal particular authors, Paul, or Peter, so their specific word given in Scripture can be those through which the Spirit addresses us.

Webster concludes this section by noting that the resulting words provided by the Spirit are not some arbitrary deposit of ‘inspiredness’ that does its work all by itself apart from God’s continuing use of it. Instead, they are a settlement of the Word. After God has breathed out these words of Holy Scripture, we have reached a definitive stage in the publication, or revelation of God’s Word that determines all future hearing and receiving of the Word. After this, we don’t need more inspiration, or a more comprehensive supplement that goes further on beyond what the apostles have written. Rather, we need the renewal of heart that leads to listening and receiving the Word that has already been spoken for what it is.

Of course, in looking at this inadequate little summary, the key doctrine underlying all three of these terms is thinking through the nature of divine activity. God is the ultimate root of all Christian doctrine. Human epistemic limitations due to finitude and sin, social formation of language, history, and so forth, are not the final, determining factors here. It’s not that we ought not consider these realities, but as we do, we dare not forget that it is the Triune God sets the limits to the Domain of the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 thoughts on “Three Concepts You’ll Need To Settle the Domain of the Word

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I haven’t heard of John Webster before, but this looks like a really helpful approach to help struggling Christians understand the relationship between God and his Word.

    I love that Webster points us to inspiration by way of providence and sanctification. It seems like some of the postmoderns pushing against inerrancy try to force a false dilemma between a trance/transcription view of inspiration and their “incarnational” approach – over which, I guess, God would have spent a few centuries saying, “Oh, come on! Don’t put that in the Bible!” Emphasizing that God 1) is sovereign over even the smallest matters and 2) consistently consecrates the people through whom he speaks helps show the false dilemma for what it is.

    On a side note, could you tell me a little about your ministry/study/writing schedule? I’m in full-time ministry too and trying to cultivate writing as well as study; you have a pretty substantial output, and I’d just like to hear how those pieces work together for you.

  2. Your summary of Webster on scripture in The Domain of the Word doesn’t sound very Barthian. Has his position shifted at all since his book Holy Scripture?

    • Well, realize I’m only summarizing about three pages of the book. There is a whole lot more going on in even just the first chapter. as for the difference between this book and Holy Scripture I would say that he has filled things out quite a bit.

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