by John M. Frame
Over the next fifteen years, I am sure, the biggest news event will not be space exploration or the first woman president or the invention of the digital mousetrap. No, indeed. The biggest story of the next fifteen years will be, what else? The arrival of the twenty-first century! It is, of course, a non-news event. Everyone knows it’s coming; nobody can stop it. But, of course, the news business thrives on non-news: the twentieth anniversary of this, the official announcement of that. So we will be up to our ears in attempts to sum up the meaning of the twentieth century and, much more, to anticipate the twenty-first. The hype starts here. Advertisers will vie with one another to show that they have anticipated the needs of the next century. And, of course, Westminster Seminary is no exception.
Well, can Westminster tell you what will be the great theological, apologetic and ethical issues of the year 2000? Honestly, I must say no. Futurology is a fascinating science to some people, but its record is not very encouraging. Os Guinness, in his generally excellent book, The Dust of Death, published in 1973, quotes one futurologist, apparently with approval, as saying that “art and literature as we know them” will have vanished by 1984. You may think that art and literature are dead today, but believe me, they weren’t so great in 1973 either. The difference really hasn’t been much.
And what futurologist, even as recently as 1979, would have predicted that unleaded gasoline today would cost $1.10 a gallon, or that inflation would be reduced to 4% annually from 1981-85, or that Ronald Reagan would be the most popular, and in terms of his own purposes the most successful, American president since Roosevelt? Who would have dreamed that by 1986 even a House of Representatives dominated by Democrats would support aid to anti-communist “freedom fighters” and would be resigned to cutting back, rather than expanding, federal social programs? Who would have imagined that the Soviet Union would be gone by 1990, and that the iron curtain would be torn open? Iremember the ’60s and ’70s and I can tell you that no one during that period, myself included, had any clear idea of what the ’80s would be like.
That shouldn’t be too surprising to Christians. Scripture tells us that the future is largely closed to us. I say “largely,” because God does reveal to his people some future events. But those revelations are rare and are closely linked to his redemptive purposes. Also, Scripture does recommend to us a certain amount of prudent planning: don’t build a tower unless you count the cost and have a reasonable expectation of being able to complete the project (Luke 14:28-30). But the Bible is very hard on those who seek detailed information about future events, the astrologers, diviners, soothsayers, spiritists (Deut. 18:9-13). And it rebukes even those who have a bit too much confidence in their own prudent planning: the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21, those who boast of tomorrow in Prov. 27:1 and James 4:13-17. On the whole, the future is God’s project, God’s secret. And, according to Deut. 29:29, the secret things are his business, not ours. So I neither know, nor am I able to know, nor will I be so foolish as to try to find out, the theological trends of the year 2010.
Well, you might ask, how, then, can we possibly be prepared for ministry in the next century? Let me read the whole of Deut. 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of the law.” We cannot govern our lives by futurology; that is a broken reed. The alternative is to govern our lives, and our ministries, by God’s Word.
Now you might expect to hear that at Westminster. We are famous, in a way, for our strong confidence in biblical authority and inerrancy. And coming from such an orthodox bastion, this answer may sound overly pat and perhaps distasteful. The future, after all, is not easily conquered; it is a serious challenge. To meet the challenge with the authority of Scripture: is this not merely to turn one’s back on the challenge? Is this reliance on the Bible a mere traditionalism, which prefers to meditate on a simpler, more comfortable past age, rather than to plan for a potentially painful confrontation with the future? Does a Bible-centered faith amount to irresponsibility in the face of the great needs to come?
Now that sort of criticism would be cogent if I were urging you to build your ministry on some old book other than the Bible, such as Lucretius’ The Nature of the Universe or Homer’s Iliad or Sophocles’ Antigone or even Plato’s Republic. Great books as these are, they are not, I think (though some Plato lovers will disagree) adequate to prepare us for the challenges of the next century. But Scripture is something else altogether, something really different from all these. The difference is not merely that Scripture is inerrant and these other books contain some errors, though that fact is important. More than being inerrant, Scripture is qualified to lead us through the centuries because of a certain dynamism. Scripture is, as it calls itself, a living Word in a sense that sets it apart from any other human writing.
In describing that “dynamic,” the “life” of Scripture, let me summarize it with the adjectives used in the title of this lecture: Scripture is “timeless” and also “timely.”
I. The Timeless Word
First, Scripture is timeless, in some important senses. Of course, Scripture was written in time and describes temporal, historical events. In those ways it is temporal, and that temporal character is important to the understanding of Scripture. But in other ways it stands beyond our temporal experience. Isaiah says, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever” (40:8). The Apostle Peter reiterates: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God. For ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of the Lord stands forever’” (I Pet. 1:23-25). Cf. also Psm. 119:89, “Your Word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens,” and verse 160, “All your Words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.”
First, notice that these passages are not talking about some mysterious Word of God other than Scripture, other than the written Word. In Isaiah and Peter, the Word is clearly the message that God has given to his people, the good news, the gospel. In Psm. 119 it is the law of God, given to Moses on tables of stone. It is the written Word, the Bible, which is eternal.
What does this mean? Is this “eternity,” perhaps, only a metaphor for biblical reliability or inerrancy? Certainly the passages cited do emphasize the reliability of the word. But it seems to me that here eternity is not so much a metaphor for reliability as it is the source of reliability. For the eternity of the Word is one of a remarkable series of doctrines about the Word, little noticed in contemporary theology, which are of vital importance for our time.
Eternity is only one of the divine attributes that is attached to the Word of God in Scripture. In Psm. 119, the Word is also faithful (verse 86), wonderful (129, a divine title in Judges 13:18, Isa. 9:6 and elsewhere), righteous (137: in context, the righteousness of God himself), truth (160, John 17:17). The Word is omnipotent: it can accomplish anything God wants it to, Isa. 55:11 (cf. Gen. 18:14, Luke 1:37, “Is any Word too wonderful for the Lord?”)
Furthermore, the Word performs actions that are uniquely divine. By the Word of the Lord the heavens and earth were created (Gen. 1, Psm. 33:6, 9, John 1:3). Providence, God’s continuing government and direction of his creation, is by the Word (Psm. 147:15-18, 148:8). Salvation comes by the power of the Word (Luke 7:1-10, Rom. 1:16, I Pet. 1:23, James 1:18). Judgment is by the Word (John 12:48, II Pet. 3:5-7).
Even more remarkably, the Word of God in Scripture is an object of worship. “I praise his Word,” says the Psalmist (56:4, 10). He trembles in awe of God’s laws (Psm. 119:120, 161f).
Therefore, it should not surprise us too much when we come to John 1 in the New Testament and read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “Word,” there, of course, refers to Christ, as we see from verse 14. But it also refers to the creative Word in Gen. 1, as we can tell from the phrase “in the beginning” and from the reference to creation in verse 3. There is a mysterious unity between the Word of God, Jesus Christ and God himself.
In our course at Westminster on the Doctrine of the Word I try to explore this mystery a bit. Here, however, let me make just one obvious application: to hear the Word of God is to hear God. To hear Scripture is to hear God. Among all the books ever written by men, and Scripture was written by men, the Bible is utterly unique; for in the Bible we hear the voice of God speaking to us. And we owe Scripture, therefore, the same attention, the same respect, the same awe and wonder, that we owe God himself. I am not advocating bibliolatry. We are not to bow down before paper and ink. But the message, the Words, expressed by the ink on the paper are a message worthy of religious praise and awe.
In the Bible, therefore, we hear the voice of one who is not limited by time, one to whom the future is not a secret. Governing our lives by Scripture, therefore, is not antiquarianism, not an irrational preference for the quaintness of the past. It is, indeed, our surest preparation for the future.
II.The Timely Word
But how can this eternal Word speak to the needs of our time? Much has been said about how the Bible reflects its own particular time and cultural setting. It does not discuss, explicitly, at least, many of the things we are most concerned about today: nuclear war, organ transplants, use of electronic media, the role of government in welfare. We often wish it were more direct in addressing even more obviously theological areas: infant baptism, the place of tongue speaking, church government, liturgy.
But that kind of question misses, again, something important about the dynamic of Scripture as the living Word of God. We can hear about that in Rom. 15:4: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and so on, were written to teach people who wouldn’t be born until, in some cases, thousands of years later! That is the purpose of Scripture, Paul says: to encourage, comfort and teach the whole church from creation to the last day.
A remarkable claim. But is it really credible, in view of what we know about Scripture, in view of its own cultural setting and its inexplicitness about matters important to us? Surely it is possible to know Scripture very well at one level and yet not to see its relevance to our lives today.
The Jews of Jesus’ time were like that. Many had memorized vast amounts of Scripture. Indeed, more than that, they thought that they were pretty good at applying Scripture to their own time and their own problems. They had accumulated a great body of tradition by which the law was applied to current ethical issues.
Jesus, however, was not greatly impressed by their learning. Nicodemus, the Jewish teacher, came to Jesus for a rabbi-to-rabbi discussion, but Jesus interrupted him in mid-thought by telling him he couldn’t even see thekingdom of God without first being radically changed (John 3). In John 5:38-47, Jesus tells the Jews that although they diligently study the Scriptures, the Word of the Father does not dwell in them, for they have missed the central theme of the Bible, Jesus himself.
In Matt. 22:23-33, the Sadducees ask him a strange question: if a woman has seven husbands during her lifetime, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus might have dismissed this question, as modern theologians tend to do, by calling it “speculative” and saying that Scripture is not interested in that sort of thing, and that answer would have been basically right. But Jesus took a strangely different tack: he tells them, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” And, Jesus says, Scripture does have an answer to their question, in the text “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God is not, he adds, God of the dead but of the living. The Sadducees, for all their detailed knowledge of the text, did not really understand the Bible, for they were unable to understand its true application to their problem. Even though Scripture did not reflect on that problem explicitly. Even though the solution to the problem is rather surprising. Jesus teaches here that the student of Scripture is required to take the deep principles of Scripture and to apply them to all of his questions and problems, regardless of how little the Scripture may say explicitly about that problem. If we don’t do this, we may claim to have learned a lot of Bible verses, but we have not learned what we really need to know.
Even Jesus’ own disciples sometimes missed the boat here. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus rebuked two of them because they had failed to expect the resurrection! “How foolish you are,” he said, “and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25). Moses and the prophets spoke of the resurrection, and the disciples should have known that! Where? Jesus shows them. Do you know? If not, maybe you too don’t know the Bible as well as you think you do. Maybe you should come to seminary for a few years! For that’s the kind of Bible knowledge we most want our students to learn: a Bible knowledge that sees Christ all through the Bible, his deity, his incarnation, his death for sinners, his resurrection and ascension, his coming in glory.
We might well sympathize with the Emmaus disciples, perhaps even with the Jews. After all, the name “Jesus” is not given to the messiah in the Old Testament. Many things about the messiah don’t seem to be as clear there as we would like them to be. But they are there. And the heart that loves Jesus searches him out, throughout the pages of Scripture. The Holy Spirit, also, is given to us so that our search is not merely a function of scholarly attainment. Under his guidance we see things in the Bible that otherwise would be quite obscure.
And as we come to see Christ in the Bible, we come to see the answers to our own questions as well. Christ, after all, is the answer, just as the bumperstickers say! The answer to what, we might ask? The answer to every question that really requires an answer, the remedy for all our ultimate needs. He answers the Sadducees’ question about marriage in the resurrection. And he says much to us about abortion, nuclear war, the use of television. It may take time for us to learn what he wants us to know. But he does not want us to walk in darkness (John 8:12).
Sometimes a Spirit-led, Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture will be rather peculiar from the standpoint of the usual academic scholarship. Paul quotes Deut. 25:4, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain” to prove that ministers of the gospel ought to be paid (I Cor. 9:9, I Tim. 5:18). Did Moses have that application in mind? Probably not. But Paul goes beyond the mind of the original author and draws out the logical implication: If God rewards the oxen, how much more his own laborers?
In Gal. 4:21-31, Paul refers to the story of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah in Genesis 21, and makes it into an allegory. Sarah represents the freedom of Christ, Hagar the bondage of Judaism. Doubtless the Jews were not happy about this comparison, proud as they were of their freedom and their descent from Sarah. Was this in the mind of Moses? Was this part of “the intention of the original author?” Probably not. But to the Spirit-led Christian who reads Scripture in terms of Christ, the allegory is perfectly appropriate.
Scripture has its way of surprising us, of being relevant to our problems when we least expect it to be. In one sense, Scripture, like every text, has a fixed meaning. But in another sense, we don’t know what it will say next. It is so rich, so full of the eternal wisdom of Christ, that we can never exhaust it. And so down through the years of church history it has surprised the church over and over again. It taught Luther justification by faith. Calvin and his followers learned from it the covenant lordship of Christ over all of life. William Carey surprised everyone by teaching the responsibility of believers to send the gospel throughout the world. Abraham Kuyper found in Scripture teachings about the authority of family, church and state and the limits on those authorities. Scripture taught Van Til the Lordship of Christ over human thought: that we must obey Christ even when we philosophize, indeed, even when we defend the faith against unbelief. Studies of redemptive history or “biblical theology,” year after year bring forth new insights about the connections and manifold perspectives within Scripture, insights wonderful to meditate upon. The work of theology, you see, is not merely to repeat the theology of the past. It ought to be conservative in holding to Scripture; but in applying Scripture, there is enormous scope for spirit-led creativity.
Some of that work is being done here at Westminster. Again, we’d like you to “Come and see” (John 1:46).
But the overall point is this: Since Scripture is the eternal Word of God, it is also timely. Since it is transcendent, it is immanent. Since it is the very voice of God, it addresses all our deepest needs, all the needs of the heart. It is not only inerrant; it is living. It gets into our very insides and discerns the thoughts and intents of our hearts. Nothing is hid from its sight (Heb. 4:12f). There is a dynamic about it that surprises us, speaking to our needs when we least expect it to. The Word of God, that is to say, behaves like God himself—in his mysteriousness, sovereign power and unmeasurable love.