The notion that Scripture can serve as judge in theological controversies is sometimes subject to soft (or not) ridicule and scorn. Aren’t words, once they are uttered–whether into the air or onto paper–inert, mute, infinitely malleable? How could they possibly adjudicate anything?
The question is one that can be put to human communication in general: do the criticisms gestured towards above apply after the fact to anything men say? I think that they don’t; but let us leave that aside. The question is much more acute when applied to Scripture as God’s instrument of self-revelation and self-communication, by which, in which, and with which the Holy Spirit speaks.
But let us, for the time being, leave aside abstract and theoretical discussion of the latter question as well. The most significant obstacle to the contemptores mentioned in my first paragraph is that they have to reckon with the rather embarrassing fact that Jesus himself attributes much the same judicial potency to the Word uttered.
He does so in John 12.48: ὁ ἀθετῶν ἐμὲ καὶ μὴ λαμβάνων τὰ ῥήματά μου ἔχει τὸν κρίνοντα αὐτόν· ὁ λόγος ὃν ἐλάλησα ἐκεῖνος κρινεῖ αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ (“The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has one who judges him; the word that I have spoken, that [word] will judge him on the last day”).
What, ho! Jesus says that unbelievers have “one who judges” them. Surprisingly, the “one who judges” in this verse is not Jesus himself, but “the word that [he] has spoken.” There is, apparently, a potency in the uttered word itself to judge between man and man; it would therefore stand to reason that it can judge between doctrine and doctrine. For to say that this uttered word could judge a man so as to send him to eternal condemnation, but to deny that that same word has the capacity to judge between articulations of the faith, would be odd indeed.
How can this be so? Perhaps it is not quite correct to say that the potency lies in the written word itself; and this takes us to the last sentence of my second paragraph. That is, it is rather the case that we ought not to view the written word in abstraction from the God who speaks the word: the word uttered and recorded–that is, Scripture–represents what God wills to communicate to us, and thus it must be intimately connected to Jesus himself, as the one who reveals the Father. It does so, moreover, in such a way that we are held accountable for our response to it. Again, it would be odd indeed if God willed to communicate something to us that was de facto unintelligible to us. For it would be a rebuilding of the Tower of Babel: exceedingly strange for the God of Pentecost.
And so we must return again to the basic categories of clarity and sufficiency. The Word of the Lord is clear and sufficient such that men are held accountable–and that without excuse–before its absolutely righteous judgment. Calvin’s comments on John 12.48 are, as often, apt:
It is impossible to give a nobler or more magnificent title to the Gospel than to, ascribe to it the power of judging; for, according to these words, the last judgment shall be nothing else than an approbation or ratification of the doctrine of the Gospel. Christ himself will indeed ascend the tribunal, but he declares that he will pronounce the sentence according to the word which is now preached. This threatening ought to strike deep terror into the ungodly, since they cannot escape the judgment of that doctrine which they now so haughtily disdain.
How, then, are we to know the will of God and the doctrine of God? If we are to take Jesus’ words in John 12 seriously, the answer–indeed, the only answer–must be: “To the law and to the testimony!” For “if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
The Word can serve as judge, then, because it is there that God speaks. It reveals, rather than obscures, what God wills for man to know. It does so in such a way that it separates truth from error, light from darkness, sheep from goats.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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