History, Revelation, and Calvin’s Theology of ‘Divine Lisping’

Theology

enuma-elish

“For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness” (Calvin, Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 1).

Difficult Questions

Before I was a believer, one of the biggest questions I had about the trustworthiness of the Bible centered around its historicity and uniqueness. In my mind, how could I trust the Bible’s account of things like a worldwide flood, the creation myth, the resurrection, etc if surrounding religious cultures shared similar stories? Doesn’t that somehow nullify the uniqueness of the Biblical account? If the history recorded in scripture simply mirrors surrounding cultures’ account of history, doesn’t that mean that the writers of the Bible are just borrowing from their pagan neighbors; isn’t the Bible just a piecemeal mosaic of Babylonian and Semitic religious myths repurposed for Israel?

What I’d like to offer is a very feeble attempt at making sense of these questions. The reality is, there is a striking degree of similarity between the Biblical accounts and the accounts of Israel’s cultural and religious contemporaries. We can’t deny the degree of continuity between things like the Enuma Elish Babylonian creation myth and the Biblical account of creation in Genesis or Ancient Near Eastern Treaties and the covenants of the Old Testament. If we try and deny the similarities, we run the risk of being stubborn and in denial of reliable history. It can be tempting to assume that the Biblical account was just recorded earlier than other accounts and that pagans were simply borrowing from the Bible. However, when we take an honest look at history, we see this isn’t always the case. In some situations, the Biblical accounts were likely recorded later. So, does this pose a problem for Christians and our claim that the Biblical Story is authoritative and normative for our lives? Does the Biblical account need to be totally unique from other cultures’ accounts of the world, or is this a requirement we’ve imposed on the Bible? I’d like to put these questions into abbreviated contact with John Calvin’s theology of ‘divine lisping’ and offer what I believe to be an orthodox view of the authority of scripture and the legitimacy of Biblical revelation. For those familiar with these ideas, it will be obvious that I am not saying anything new. 

‘Divine Lisping’ and the authority of Scripture

For many of us, we believe that the Bible must be totally unique for it to be authoritative. But is this consistent with the way God speaks to us in history? As Calvin notes, it makes total sense for God to speak to us on our terms. This is where his idea of ‘divine lisping’ makes the most sense in the conversation. For Calvin, receiving divine revelation doesn’t look like a scroll dropping out of the sky. Revelation always comes to us in the form of human language and human culture. As Calvin says, it is as though God is ‘baby-talking’ to us. He gets on our level, meets us where we are, and speaks to us in terms that we can understand. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that God would speak to his people in a way that resembles a culture they are already familiar with. Does this mean that His revelation is somehow ‘borrowed’ and, therefore, illegitimate? It depends on how we understand God’s fingerprint in all of life. Ultimately, if everything is created by God and usable for his purposes, it shouldn’t surprise us that the God of redemptive history interacts with history redemptively. God is about repurposing things for His glory and His purposes. He can take another culture’s commodities and use them to demonstrate His authority and superiority over the gods of pagan cultures. 

For skeptics, this suggests that the Bible is untrustworthy. But why? I would argue that the Biblical account is untrustworthy if God doesn’t use what was immediately familiar to people in their particular cultural context. If he didn’t, it would seem to suggest that God doesn’t value the potential for all of His creation, including human creation, to accomplish his purposes.

If we’re honest, this whole set of questions makes us uncomfortable because we’ve adopted the assumptions of the Post-Enlightenment worldview. In our minds, if God’s word is actually trustworthy, it can’t be creationally and historically situated, but must be utterly distinct and discontinuous with human culture. We’ve kicked divine revelation upstairs and see the divine realm as totally other, far away, and functionally unknowable. But if this is true – if God’s revelation can’t come into contact with the physical, cultural world in some organic sense – how do we make sense of the most important example of God’s revelation: the incarnation of Christ?

Authority and the Incarnation

In Christ, we see that God’s word became flesh. We see that God is willing to accommodate His Word to us fully. Of course, God’s revelation is distinct and unique. He isn’t like the gods of pagan cultures, and, in many ways, he repurposes culture to show that He is supreme over other gods. That much is certain and fundamental to an orthodox view of scriptural authority. But, if we aren’t willing to accept some degree of earthiness in God’s revelation, then we unintentionally will jettison (or manipulate) what makes the incarnation of Christ so important. Like the heresy of Docetism, we will reject the human-ness of Christ because we believe that God’s word shouldn’t concern itself with human creation and culture. Yes, revelation is authoritative because God is distinct and totally other, His word is supreme, and His self-revelation cannot be produced by human craftiness. But, God was also willing to indwell human flesh, subject himself to the totality of the physical world, and is more than capable of redeeming the dirt and grime of broken culture to accomplish His ultimate purposes. We worship a God that loves His creation enough to, like a caring Father, get on one knee, get His hands dirty, and speak to us in a way that we can understand. Or like a teacher, God must meet us where we are as learners. The information we have, the skills we posses, and the language we have mastered are starting points for God. After we have learned from the Teacher, he is able to bend, break, stretch and extend the bounds of his instruction so that we may gain a fuller understanding of who God is. But, He must start somewhere.

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