Cliff's Edge

Of the Human and Divine

Clifford Goldstein
Of the Human and Divine

I’ve long harbored sympathy for the “Judaizers,” a term of derision (with a nuance of antisemitism, maybe . . . ?). They had, I think, a point. The earliest Christian believers were Jews, part of Am Yisrael (the People of Israel), who, because of their faith in Jesus, the Hebrew Mashiach (Messiah), never viewed themselves as anything but Jews continuing to worship and serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as their ancestors had since Sinai. And when a Gentile wanted to join Am Yisrael, the males always had to be circumcised. 

So—why not now?

Because, however logical their reasoning, the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13),1 Paul, under divine inspiration, cautioned that those who demanded circumcision jeopardized “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:5, 14). To the Gentiles who submitted to circumcision, Paul warned that “Christ will profit you nothing” (Gal. 5:2). After all, if you can work your way to heaven, who needs a Savior, which was why Paul said that those trying to be justified by the law “have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). Some of the great Reformation texts that we Protestants love to quote —“no one is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal. 3:11) or “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith” (Gal. 2:16)—originally had nothing to do with papal indulgences, of course, but with circumcision, even if the principle is the same. 

So passionate was Paul on the subject that he wished those pushing circumcision “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12, NIV).2 What? And Paul then tells his readers to “serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:13-15, NIV).

Excuse me! Using an image to castigate opponents that had I used in the Adult Bible Study Guide would have put me into retirement, Paul then eased into uplifting language about love and not devouring each other? Except, obviously, those who believed in following a divinely mandated practice since Abraham. 

How do we understand this?

It’s easy. We are not verbal inspirationists. Otherwise, what? God had dictated, word-for-word, how Paul should express his desire to castrate brothers as one would horses? 

“The Bible is written by inspired men,” Ellen White explained, “but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen.”3  

Obviously not.

So, Paul, self-proclaimed “chief” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), dredged up from his own broken essence an image that expressed his frustration with those who threatened the truth of the gospel. But that Paul, right after his crude outburst, should revert to love, a theme that dominates his preaching, is not surprising. It’s how inspiration often works.

The Bible is the Word of God expressed in the words of men. Other than verbatim dictation, how else could it be expressed? Fallible men articulate—in their own words, with all the limitations of language—infallible truths. And though, in this case especially, Paul’s humanity came through—so what? He made his point, his divinely inspired point, poignantly, too: we are saved by faith, without the deeds of the law (including circumcision). 

Though we don’t believe that the Bible was word-for-word dictated, as Muslims believe of the Koran, some take the human element to extremes. The Bible, they argue, is the writings of kings, shepherds, fisherman, priests, poets, and others who shared their understandings and conceptions of God, of nature, and of reality the best that they, in their time and place, understood them. 

Really now? Why should I, living in the twenty-first century—a time of the James Webb Space Telescope, the Human Genome Project, and AI technology—care about some sheepherder’s 3,000-year-old conceptions about God or reality? Whatever historical and philosophical interest I might have in their thoughts—as I might in those of a Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1050 b.c.) poet or of a fifth-century b.c. Ionian philosopher—I would not live my life now, nor certainly base my hope of eternity, on their musings. Are you kidding? If Scripture were the mere thoughts, no matter how deep and intelligent, of human beings reflecting on the world as they understood it, the Bible would mean no more to me than would The Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Kabbalah. 

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16); that is, all Scripture, as in every verse—including Galatians 5:12. The humanity of the Bible writers, far from taking away from the “inspiration of God” (theopneustos, which means “God-breathed”), makes it more relevant to us because God is speaking to us—flawed, hurt, and fallen people—through other flawed, hurt, and fallen people. Whether Paul’s frustrations with the “Judaizers”; David’s praises of God’s greatness; Job’s laments over his woes; or Jude’s reviling false believers as “brute beasts”—the “God-breathed” truth of Scripture is revealed through the “human-breathed” expressions, emotions, and even (at times) crude outbursts of sinners who, like us, have their flaws; even if, unlike us, theirs become immortalized in Scripture.                                                   

1 Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

2 Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. 

3 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), book 1, p. 21.

Clifford Goldstein, editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide.

Clifford Goldstein