In confronting the “new atheists,” Dr. Edward Feser offers Scholasticism (or “new scholasticism”) as the proper answer. I like his ideas. I have my own ideas of the role and place of apologetics, and often I struggle with its importance in comparison to other forms of witness, but it’s still important.
I want to explore a common misunderstanding.
Question: Is it true that the author of the letter to the Hebrews proclaims the Bible to be “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”? I grew up believing that it is, and I hear today from some Christians, mostly Protestants, that it is. But is that what this verse means?
No. That is a misinterpretation of that passage.
If we read Hebrews 4:12 in its context (see all of chapter 4 below) it becomes apparent that the issue at hand is whether the readers of this letter will enter into the “sabbath rest” because they have heard the word of God and obeyed it, or whether they will fail to enter that rest because, after hearing that word, they reject it and fall into disobedience. The author of Hebrews draws the connection up front: “For good news came to us just as to them”. And the problem of those who failed to enter God’s rest is because the good news “did not meet with faith in the hearers”. The author makes the comparison with those of the past ages by bringing up the creation story, Joshua, and David. When he says, “and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience,” he wants his readers to understand the history of this good news, that it has been there from the beginning, is here today, and that all are called to respond. He wants his readers to respond positively and enter into God’s rest. He even says, “let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.”
So why is this “word of God” not the Bible? First, we should remember that the phrase “word of God” is often used in Scriptures to mean Christ; see John’s Gospel chapter 1: “In the Beginning was the Word…” and “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. The phrase is more often used to mean the Gospel, or message of salvation: “And the word of God increased…” (Acts 6:7), “But it is not as though the word of God had failed.” (Romans 9:6), “…are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear.” (Philippians 1:14), “But the word of God is not fettered.” (2 Timothy 2:9), and many more. None of these passages diminish the Holy Scriptures, but it is clear that in the minds of the Apostles the phrase “word of God” has everything to do with what has been proclaimed by God since the beginning and what was being proclaimed to the world by the apostles, namely Christ.
If this is true, then we should ask what does it mean that this word of God “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Think of how many times in the New Testament, particularly in the Acts of the Apostles, that upon hearing the Gospel people respond (remarkably, miraculously) with belief: the Gospel is proclaimed and, along with the work of the Holy Spirit, the hearers are cut to the quick, convicted of their sins, repent, and seek reconciliation with God. That is the power of this Gospel. The author of Hebrews says, “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” To be open to that “word” is to be on the path to God’s rest. The other option is to harden one’s heart and turn away in disobedience.
Does the Bible proclaim the Word of God? Absolutely! Are the Holy Scriptures one the “tools” God uses to convict sinners of their need for repentance, as well as of the incredible mercy of God? Yes! The Bible is our primary source for the teachings of the prophets of God, of the Apostles, and of Christ Himself. But, according to the author of Hebrews, the word of God is “living”, that is, it is the continuing proclamation of the Gospel through the ages, actively promoted by the Holy Spirit through the words and witness of the followers of Christ. The “word of God” is the good news, the promise of salvation, the Gospel. And that good news is is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.
¹ Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,
“As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall never enter my rest,’”
although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this place he said,
“They shall never enter my rest.”
6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he sets a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,
“Today, when you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. 9 So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; 10 for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.
11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Growing up a Protestant I know the lingo and presuppositions that pervade that sub-world, and lifting up the scriptures above all else is a big one. Now, Christians have always had a high view of the Holy Scriptures, and this is as it should be. For “God is the author of Sacred Scripture. ‘The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.'” (CCC 105) Protestants often claim to have a higher view of the Holy Scriptures than non-Protestants. Sola Scriptura is the classic rallying cry of Protestantism. Hebrews 4:12 is one of the popular texts frequently used to argue for this unique place of scripture as against tradition. Perhaps other arguments can be offered for this perspective, but Hebrews 4:12 offers none.
Why bring this up? Recently I have had the privilege of being in the midst of a debate on how to teach the theory of evolution within a Christian Classical Education context. Central to the debate is how we are to interpret scripture. All involved proclaim the importance of the Bible and see it as the inspired word of God. Not all agree, however, as to the specific nuances of what that means. I am inclined to see Holy inspiration as being more mysterious and unknowable than some. But the real crux came not about whether the Bible is the word of God, but rather what method of interpretation should one employ. In other words, some assumed that a literal interpretation — especially in regards to the first chapter of Genesis — was required in order to also assume inspiration and infallibility (an assumption that doesn’t make sense to me), and were surprised to realize that not everyone, including the tutor, held their perspective. In fact, the subtext, which remained barely below the surface (and not really below the surface at all) called into question the “authentic belief” of those who were not literalists. At one point Hebrews 4:12 was tossed on the table with almost the wave of a hand in order to champion the high place of Holy Scripture. The irony was that the true meaning of Hebrew 4:12 — that is, the deep and profound embracing of the Word of God through the conviction of the Holy Spirit resulting in a heart that loves truth and loves God — was evidenced by the non-literalist tutor in the responses given to serious accusations.
Perhaps the tendency to see the Bible as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” is because some like the idea of the Bible being a weapon against the world, of cutting others to the heart, of fighting the good fight. But to see this living, two-edged sword instead as the Word of God, as that which convicts and lays bare, as that which calls each of us to repentance, is to weep and call upon God for mercy. One perspective attacks, the other welcomes; one pushes away, the other embraces; one emerges out of fear, the other out of love.
My desire is that I would be someone who embraces the word of God. As a parent I am faced continually with the question: How do I model this for my children, how do I live it before them?
Finally, let us remember with humility, as the passage in Hebrews above begins, that “while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.” The clear implication is that some of us will start of this journey to God’s rest and then fail to enter it. Perhaps that is because we hear the Gospel, embrace it at one level, but fail to love others as Christ loved us. God have mercy.
Charles S. Peirce wrote the following in the late 1890’s:
I have often occasion to walk at night, for about a mile, over an entirely untravelled road, much of it between open fields without a house in sight. The circumstances are not favorable to severe study, but are so to calm meditation. If the sky is clear, I look at the stars in the silence, thinking how each successive increase in the aperture of a telescope makes many more of them visible than all that had been visible before. The fact that the heavens do not show a sheet of light proves that there are vastly more dark bodies, say planets, than there are suns. They must be inhabited, and most likely millions of them with beings much more intelligent than we are. For on the whole, the solar system seems one of the simplest; and presumably under more complicated phenomena greater intellectual power will be developed. What must be the social phenomena of such a world! How extraordinary are the minds even of the lower animals. We cannot appreciate our own powers any more than a writer can appreciate his own style, or a thinker the peculiar quality of his own thought. I don’t mean that a Dante did not know that he expressed himself with fewer words than other men do, but he could not admire himself as we admire him; nor can we wonder at human intelligence as we do at that of wasps. Let a man drink in such thoughts as come to him in contemplating the physico-psychical universe without any special purpose of his own; especially the universe of mind which coincides with the universe of matter. The idea of there being a God over it all of course will be often suggested; and the more he considers it, the more he will be enwrapt with Love of this idea. He will ask himself whether or not there really is a God. If he allows instinct to speak, and searches his own heart, he will at length find that he cannot help believing it.
Pierce is often called the father of pragmatism. Interesting.
I like Bill Nye the Science Guy. If you have kids you probably have seen his show at one time or another. He is a great science teacher within the context of television (which has limitations, but can have a place as well). Bill Nye has a wonderful, goofy shtick that is engaging and somewhat effective. His goal, it seems to me, is to get kids excited about science. It’s possible that he succeeds in this, though real science if quite different in terms of personal experience. Regardless, it is clear that Nye loves science and is keen to promote it. So I am not surprised by his comments in a recent Popular Mechanics article. The article presents some statistics about the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. The numbers tend to show a surprisingly low level of embracing of evolution by teachers, at least in terms of confidently teaching evolution as scientific fact. Nye responds by saying this is horrible. No surprises there. But then he goes on to say:
Science is the key to our future, and if you don’t believe in science, then you’re holding everybody back. And it’s fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don’t believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don’t believe in science, that’s a recipe for disaster.
What struck me about this quote, which seems rather straightforward, is that it presupposes a naturalist/materialist philosophical position which is false. The idea that “science is the key to our future” comes out of the Enlightenment project which has both a deep power and fundamental flaws. This is even a bigger issue than whether evolution is scientific theory or fact. On the other hand, it is fair to say that “science is the key to our future,” but in a way not intended by Mr. Nye. Science has provided so much that we love and value, but it has not changed the human heart. In that sense science will bring about at least as much pain as good. Nye has forgotten that not many years ago people lived in fear of total earth annihilation from atomic bombs and radioactive fallout. The reality of that potential scenario is still with us. But that is not the real problem. If we continue to live and act as though science will solve our problems then our ultimate undoing will come from science in service of the human heart. The 20th century was the century of blood. Science made that possible. That will be our scientific future.
I support much of what Nye says. We must support science in the classroom. The problem is that science is one of the lesser subjects. The humanities, history, language, philosophy, and theology, social studies, literature, and rhetoric, are all more important subjects than science. That is a bold statement, but science must be in the service of those subjects, of that kind of education, first than put out front as something “solid” and powerful that is foundational. Physics and biology are not a foundational subjects of study. Our problems do not come from the inability to understand, manipulate, and subdue the natural world. Woe to the society that advances in subduing the earth ahead of knowing why to do so. Woe to us, for we are there.
Another way to say this is that believing in science, as Bill Nye would have us do, is fine as long as one first and foremost believes in a morality that guides that science. I would argue that that morality must over-arch all of life, including science, but also including relationships and all human action. I would also posit that morality must, necessarily, be metaphysical in origin. I am a Christian and I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I do not see another metaphysical origin to morality that can compete. On the other hand, to “believe in science” is, on the whole, laughable. That’s like saying I believe in Higher Criticism or Semiotics. One can speak of their relative value, but one cannot believe in them in the way one can believe in God. Science cannot prove or disprove God, but neither can science address what Christians really mean by believing in God. Such belief is not so much a question of existence, though that is a part of it, rather it is like saying, “I believe in you.” It is about trust and character, two necessary aspects of human existence that science cannot begin to explain or provide a satisfactory alternative.
Bill Nye, thanks for much of what you do. I love your show. But do not unwittingly lead us down a path to destruction, even in the name of something as appealing a science.
Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future’s endless stair:
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us,
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.
Wrong or justice in the present,
Joy or sorrow, what are they
While there’s always jam to-morrow,
While we tread the onward way?
Never knowing where we’re going,
We can never go astray.
To whatever variation
Our posterity may turn
Hairy, squashy, or crustacean,
Bulbous-eyed or square of stern,
Tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless,
Towards that unknown god we yearn.
Ask not if it’s god or devil,
Brethren, lest your words imply
Static norms of good and evil
(As in Plato) throned on high;
Such scholastic, inelastic,
Abstract yardsticks we deny.
Far too long have sages vainly
Glossed great Nature’s simple text;
He who runs can read it plainly,
‘Goodness = what comes next.’
By evolving, Life is solving
Ail the questions we perplexed.
On then! Value means survival –
Value. If our progeny
Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
That will prove its deity.
(Far from pleasant, by our present
Standards, though it well may be.)