How accurate one has to be with one’s prepositions! Perhaps it was a preposition wrong that set the whole world awry.—Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion
The truth is, I’m not much of a stickler for grammar. But I do love this passage from Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion. I love the prospect of all of history teetering precariously, balanced on the back of a couple innocuous looking letters. And I love thinking about whether Williams could actually be right. Could a mere “without” where there should have been a “within”—or perhaps an “above” that should have been “below”—really set the whole world out of joint?
The prepositions under discussion in this part of Williams’ novel are “of” and “in,” but the preposition I have in mind right now is “through.” In particular, I’m interested in the last little bit of the Nicene Creed devoted to the Holy Spirit. “I believe in the Holy Spirit” it reads, “who has spoken through the prophets.”
“Through the prophets” is not only a creedal expression, but a biblical one as well: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets.” (Hebrews 1:1) So from one source or the other we may have heard the phrase often enough that it no longer strikes us as unusual. But it is. We speak of people, to people, and about people. If we aren’t careful we sometimes speak over them or past them. We speak for those we want to assist and against those we want to resist. We may speak down to someone we don’t care for or into a situation we care about very much. But—apart from a president dispatching an ambassador, or a foreign visitor employing a translator—we are unlikely to speak through someone. Nevertheless this is how scripture describes the work of God’s Spirit in the prophets: “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me,” King David declares on his deathbed. (2 Samuel 23:2) What sort of significance, if any, attaches to this particular preposition?
One way of reading “through the prophets” might be to construe the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the prophet as more or less the same as one of the examples I just cited. Perhaps the Holy Spirit speaks through the prophet the way a foreign speaker speaks through her translator. But this isn’t very satisfying. A translator is, more or less, a necessary evil. In almost every instance we would prefer that the speaker be able to address her audience directly, but the barrier of differing languages means she cannot. And so she employs a translator, whose job is essentially that of a courier, shuttling words from the speaker to listener by the most direct route possible (and preferably, not touching or tampering with the package along the way!). In a situation like high level government negotiations for instance, the perfect translator (we might imagine) would be the one who adds nothing at all of his own voice. We don’t want the translator hammering out delicate international policy. That’s the job of the government official. The translator needs to keep his own voice out of things. Is this how it works when God’s Spirit “speaks through the prophets,” then? Again this isn’t very satisfying.
First of all, if God is able and willing to speak (and speaking is pretty much what we see God doing throughout scripture, from the “Let there be!” of Genesis 1 to the concluding invitation: “Come!” of Revelation 22); if God is able and willing to speak, then why would God have to employ the “necessary evil” of a courier service? I remember standing with my parents outside the sanctuary of our church while an adult friend asked Mom and Dad some question about me. I was a boy of eight or nine. “So what does Steven think about . . . ?” Dad smiled and looked at me. “I think he’s probably big enough to speak for himself. What do you think Steven?” Isn’t God “big enough to speak for himself”? So why the prophets?
Plainly, God is able to speak directly, without an intermediary; there are plenty of instances in scripture where we see just this happening. And yet, God delights, God chooses, to speak through others. God is pleased that we should hear the word of God through a human voice. Which brings us back to the matter of prepositions. God, in his freedom, has not only determined to speak to us, but through us. We are not just projects, but partners in God’s work of creation and redemption. So, no: the through of “through the prophets,” is not the “through” of an interpreter; a paid courier. It is the “through” of breath.
As we’ve been considering over the last few posts, Spirit (in both Greek and Hebrew) also means breath (or wind), and certainly, speaking through the prophets is one of the obvious ways the activity of the Holy Spirit is breath-like. How then do wind and breath create sound? Not independently, certainly. We do not hear either wind or breath “by itself,” so much as we hear the objects over which and through which (there it is again) they pass. This is the case whether we are talking about the wind moving through the trees in my yard or the breath passing through vocal folds in my larynx. The wind does not “have” sound, but “makes” sound, collaboratively, as it were; in conversation with its environment. In the same way, theologian Etienne Vetö writes that the Holy Spirit “rarely speaks directly but rather . . . inspires others to speak.” So for instance, “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: ‘Rulers and elders of the people!’” (Acts 4:8) The early opponents of Christianity found they were unable to stand up against Stephen and “the Spirit with which he was speaking.” (Acts 6:10) Paul’s “message and . . . preaching were . . . a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4) Jesus refers to “David . . . speaking by the Holy Spirit” (Mark 12:36) And he begins his own public ministry by declaring: “The Spirit of the Lord . . . [has] anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. . . to proclaim release to the captives . . . . To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19) There is a deferential quality to the Spirit’s work, whereby the Spirit empowers others to speak.
There is a deferential quality to the Spirit’s work, whereby the Spirit empowers others to speak.Steve Guthrie
This observation helps us think through another concern that has been raised about the Spirit speaking “through the prophets.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge was uncomfortable with the traditional doctrine of biblical inspiration (as he understood it), because it seemed to him that it obliterated the voices and the personalities of the human authors of scripture. In the Bible, he writes, we find writings of extraordinary beauty; “heart-awakening utterances of human hearts—of men of like faculties and passions with myself, mourning, rejoicing, suffering, triumphing.” But if we say that these writers were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, he complains, then we make of God “O bear with me, if I say— [a] Ventriloquist.” We turn authors like King David, “the sweet Psalmist of Israel [into] . . . a mere instrument . . . an automaton poet.” If we say that it is God’s Spirit “speaking through” the authors of scripture, then the Bible becomes not a living breathing chorus of human voices, but simply “a hollow passage for a voice, a voice that mocks the voices of many men, and speaks in their names, and yet is but one voice, and the same; and no man uttered it, and never in a human heart was it conceived.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit)
But it seems to me that this objection doesn’t take the biblical language of breath—or the Holy Spirit’s role as the Breath of God—nearly seriously enough. If we really take our bearings from the statement that “all scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), then we will be pointed toward a very different sort of understanding of scripture than the one Coleridge warns against. For breath (as we’ve already said) does not “have” a sound, so much as it sounds in collaboration with all that it passes through. We might ask then: when someone speaks, do we hear the sound of their breath? Or of their vocal folds? Or of the resonating cavity of their mouth, lips, tongue, and nose? The answer, of course, (just as it was when you were back in school) is: “D. All of the above.”
Coleridge worries that talk of “inspiration” (being en-spirited, or “breathed into”) turns someone like King David into “a mere instrument.” The metaphor of “instrument” belongs to Coleridge, not the Bible, but it’s still worth considering for a moment. Over the last couple of years my daughter Lucy has been learning to play the bassoon, but recently she discovered an old trumpet we had brought back from my parents’ house, and decided she wanted to try to learn to play that as well. Whether playing bassoon or trumpet, the same breath—Lucy-Breath—is at work. Neverthless (you will be unsurprised to learn) the sound of our newly acquired trumpet remains entirely different from that of the bassoon. There is no danger of mistaking one for the other. Indeed, when we took the trumpet to a local band store to be serviced, the technician spent several minutes telling us the reasons why this particular trumpet would have this distinctive sort of sound. (It turns out the trumpet is from the 1920s! Not worth much money, but still!) Again, as I said, the “player and instrument” metaphor isn’t one that scripture uses to describe how the Spirit speaks through the prophets. The point is simply that Coleridge tosses out the phrase “mere instrument” altogether too easily. Try talking with a professional violinist or guitarist about their “mere instrument.” There is no such thing.
So we return to a different version of the same question I posed earlier: when I hear Lucy practicing in her room, do I hear Lucy, or do I hear her bassoon? And again, the answer is: Yes. And in just the same way, we might ask: When we read Isaiah, or Galatians, or a Psalm, do we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit or the voice of Isaiah, Paul, and David?
Of course, scripture, and God’s work in inspiring scripture, is unique. And likewise, it would be wildly presumptuous for any of us to put ourselves on a level with Isaiah or Paul. And yet, there is a sense in which this “through the prophets” reveals something of how God works among his people generally. In the Old Testament, Moses tells Joshua: “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29) On the morning of the first Pentecost, Peter declares that Moses’s wish has been fulfilled: “this [the events of Pentecost] is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’” (Acts 2:16-19) Now, we who follow Jesus also have God’s Spirit. Now we who follow Jesus are also those whom God speaks through.
A preposition, as Charles Williams’ character suggests, can change the very character of the world. The preposition matters, because prepositions tell us about the nature of the relationship between one thing and another: “Prepositions, so called because they are commonly put before the words to which they are applied, serve to connect words with one another, and to shew the relation between them.” (Robert Lowth, A Short Introduction to English Grammar) This little syllable tells us something about the kind of relationship God desires to have with the world he has made. Living in the Spirit, Etienne Vetö writes, means a way of being in which “each of our acts has two actors.” And so Paul can say “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” Is it Paul who labors, or God? Does Paul strive with all his might, or is it God mightily at work? Yes, indeed. The Spirit draws us into a world of more than one voice sounding at once—out of the realm of opposing alternatives and into the world of through.
Dr. Steve Guthrie is Professor of Theology at Belmont University, a Rabbit Room board member and Hutchmoot speaker, and also was for many years a member of a Beatles cover band (which we don't hold against him).