I’ve already written about wanting to explore the Trinity more in my time at college. It was a hole I felt in my theology. This next issue, word and spirit, came out of my experience and was much more personal for me.
When I was in uni, a guest speaker at a church camp suggested that I get to know the God ‘behind the Bible’ rather than seeking him in the Bible. He said I was a bibliolater and didn’t know the real God, that I wasn’t open to the working of the Spirit. That threw me quite a bit and last summer’s project about Scripture and my essay earlier in the year on Karl Barth‘s doctrine of Scripture have been part of my quest to hammer out some of these issues.
At the time, one thing that older evangelicals whom I respected told me was that the speaker had made a false dichotomy. Rather, word and spirit work together. Which made sense to me, seeing they’re both from God. But I didn’t just want to believe it because trusted evangelicals told me. I wanted to see it for myself, in an in-depth, evidenced based kind of way, not just a few proof texts or the general vibe. I wanted to know that this wasn’t just an evangelical agenda that I had to subscribe to. I wanted to own it because I was shaped by what the Bible said, not what others said. So when I saw that ‘What is the relationship between word and spirit in Ezekiel?’ was one of the topics for the Exilic Prophecy essays, I jumped at the chance to explore the issue.
Exilic Prophecy is a Hebrew exegesis course, which means that while you write all your essays in English, you’re working from the Hebrew text to do it. And the first thing I discovered is that when it comes to talking about word and spirit, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t work in clear and distinct categories. So the word for spirit can mean spirit, Spirit, breath or wind. And sometimes there’s mention of ‘the word of the Lord came to me’ and then ‘he said’ but it’s not entirely clear who the ‘he’ is – the Lord? the word? someone else in the narrative? I realised that trying to ascertain the mechanics of revelation is pretty far from the Hebrew mindset.
My basic methodology was to take all the passages where the ‘word’ and the ‘spirit’ turn up together – which you can pretty much do with a word search – and then to see how they functioned in relation to each other. I found that when word and spirit were together, they generally did one of five things: explicit inspiration, implicit inspiration, making the promises of God, giving life and bringing obedience. There are two basic schools of thought on what that means for how they relate: either it’s a relationship for inspiration or a relationship for transformation. However, I was unhappy with both suggestions: the inspiration category didn’t seem to account for the transformation experienced after the word was given; and the transformation category concentrated on the Spirit to bring change but overlooked the centrality of the word in those passages. Word and Spirit fed each other in a mutually beneficial way; there was a sense of dynamic interdependence. I called the relationship ‘symbiotic’.
There were a few other places where ‘word’ turned up without spirit but whenever there was transformation, the spirit was on the scene. I think spirit was always accompanied by word. I feel like I’ve seen with confidence for myself that to take knowing God by the Spirit away from his word is to depart from God’s normal way of operating. The Bible doesn’t give us all the exceptions or delineate the categories in a modern framework but I have seen enough to be confident that word and Spirit are not opposed to each other. Their relationship is such that they complement and reinforce each other. Which means I can be confident of the Spirit’s work in me as I read the Bible! I imagine that such a conclusion is not a surprise for many readers here but for me, it was immensely freeing.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.