Into the World--Chapter Seven: The Voice of God

Prologue and Abstract
Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context
Chapter Three: Today’s Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Five: A Primer—The Bible’s Broadest Theme
Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience

Chapter Seven: The Voice of God

Chapter Eight: The Message of the Cross as Supreme Answer
Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest
Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy
Chapter Eleven: The View from James’ Radical Question
Chapter Twelve: The View from Sartre’s Bad Faith
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—First Part
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—Second Part

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that with Scripture “the things signified by the words also have a signification.”1 And, “That signification whereby things signified by the words also have a signification is called the spiritual sense…”2 But Scripture tells us that Jesus was God’s self-expression, the divine Logos, given human form. (John 1:1-18) Applying St. Thomas’ view of scriptural meaning to Jesus, then, we get a quadruple significance: (1) the words of Scripture, (2) their spiritual meaning, (3) the life of Jesus, and (4) the spiritual significance of Jesus’ life. Using this demarcation, it is the spiritual significance of Jesus’ life that we are considering. What, precisely, is that significance?

Naturally one expects the Logos to appear as a symbol of divine mastery and power. And again, given that assumption, the message of the cross contradicts expectations. We have already seen that the message of the cross forms a foil to our—ex hypothesi—false view of God which has its scriptural origin in the story of the fall, and we now consider whether the voice of conscience may act as Jesus’ voice in a way that supplies the answer to the enigma of Scripture's silence in the face of Pilate’s famous question. These perspectives, however, cannot eliminate the need for language to preserve its meaning when applied to Jesus as the divine Logos.

So once again we confront the challenge that this controlling principle of the universe in human form does not look like he is in control—being sentenced to death by hanging on a cross. Yet to be the divine ordering principle of the universe, Jesus must nevertheless express God’s will and be in control. Nothing less preserves the meaning of the terms used to describe Jesus in the Gospel. How are we to surmount this difficulty?

Frankly, either there is a rationale for Jesus’ silent acceptance on his way to the cross, a rationale that allows us to maintain that he was in control despite appearances to the contrary, or no sense can be made of the claim that the message of the cross depicts the divine Logos. And no spiritual sense can be derived from a text that makes no primary sense. What, then, is the rationale for claiming that God expressed his control in the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion?

It turns out that the text presents a manifold rationale. To begin, it contains this exchange: “Pilate …said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him. ‘You would have no power over me, unless it had been given you from above…’” (John 19:10, 11) The first and most direct evidence in the text, then, is Jesus’ assertion that Pilate’s power to crucify him was God given.

Second, we have the claims, some of them already noted, that Jesus willingly participated in the events that led to his crucifixion. Examples include stopping Peter’s attempt to prevent his arrest, calling the impending events leading to the crucifixion “the cup that the Father has given me,” and the very silence before Pilate that we are considering, since answering Pilate’s questions compellingly would likely have prevented the crucifixion. (John 18:10, 11, and 19:10) Moreover, the entire narrative of the crucifixion story in the second half of the 19th Chapter of The Gospel According to John proceeds so that the writer can repeatedly claim, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled…” (John 19:24, 28, 36, 37) Accordingly, the second rationale from the text is that the story portrays the crucifixion as the manifest will of God the Father for his Son.

Third, the text preserves a domain in which God’s will is manifest. In Pilate we have a man who must confront the cost of doing the right thing; he stated, “I find no case against [Jesus.]” (John 19:4) And yet he failed to do the right thing: “…he handed [Jesus] over to be crucified.” (John 19:16) And as we have already noted, under the circumstance Pilate would have had to have been a very stupid or a very bad man for his conscience to have remained silent. Since we can be sure from the text that he is not to be perceived as either, the only reasonable alternative is that he was troubled by what he was compelled to do. In fact, as noted earlier, the text directly states at one point that Pilate was afraid. (John 19:8) Clearly, the narrative paints Pilate as fully aware of the unconscionable nature of his acquiescence in Jesus’ death. We know, then, that Pilate would have been dealing with the voice of conscience at precisely the time that Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) It has become difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jesus, as depicted in the narrative, used the opportunity of Pilate’s moral dilemma to impress on him that to do the right thing—to listen to the voice of conscience—was to listen to Jesus' voice.

The previous chapter ended with that point. How credible is it? Well, it strains credibility for a man under the duress of arrest and false accusations and scourging and the threat of crucifixion to have maintained the presence of mind to focus on the fact that Pilate would be in the clutch of a moral dilemma, and to understand that the moral dilemma would press the voice of conscience upon Pilate in a way that would coincide with Jesus’ mission to bear witness to the truth about God, and to understand that the trial scene would coalesce precisely as needed to set up Scripture’s broadest and most central theme, and—thus— to express the truth about God that foils the Genesis fall; in fact, it strains credibility to the breaking point, unless one has faith that Jesus was the divine Logos, the Son of God incarnate, who came into the world for that purpose; the very claim which led to the crucifixion.

Very cleverly the Gospel sets up the same choice for the reader that Pilate faced when he heard Jesus’ claim to have come into the world to bear witness to the truth: What does one make of the grandiose claim? (I assume here, of course, that Pilate would not have had Jesus crucified, if he had believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Thus, the question of belief in Jesus’ claim to have come into the world to bear witness to the truth about God would have been inherent in Pilate’s decision.) The virtuosity of the text here unfolds from its simple prose like a tulip from a humble bulb.

So what does one make of Jesus’ claim to bear witness to the truth about God? We have noted that it comprises a Supreme Irony. We have seen that placing the message of the cross beside the story of the fall sets up the broadest theme in Christian Scripture. And we are now able to consider how, given this broadly informed context, the claim forces a choice between Paul’s “Godly wisdom” on the one hand and “worldly wisdom” on the other: the message of the fall versus its foil in the message of the cross. Furthermore, the text confronts the problem of how to make sense of the divine Logos about to be crucified, and it does so in a way that places the question of whether conscience can be interpreted as the voice of God directly in the reader’s lap.

One can choose to make sense of the scene, because one can choose to believe that John's Jesus intentionally subjected himself to the trial and crucifixion in order to portray the truth about God. And that means one can choose to believe that God was in control, that the Logos—the divine controlling principle of the universe—was working out his will in the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion, with the full force of the Supreme Irony that that entails reverberating in a conscientious reader’s mind. Regardless of one's verdict, clearly a prodigious intelligence works its way through the words of the Gospel text. Yet it is an intelligence that hides behind simplicity and even silence.

Returning to the opening question of this chapter—“What is the spiritual significance of Jesus’ life?”—we see that it is a question that cannot be separated from Jesus’ death, since he chose to sacrifice his life. We also see that it is a question that the text of the Gospel strongly suggests is inseparable from the voice of conscience. Putting those pieces together, we can hypothesize that sacrifice—here the divine sacrifice portrayed in “the message of the cross”—has a central and essential role in forming the voice of conscience. Further, the voice of conscience certainly made itself heard in Pilate’s mind as the dialog with Jesus played out, in accord with a full understanding of the text, as we have seen.

To arrive at a fully formed hypothesis the following must be added. When Jesus spoke the words that prompted Pilate’s famous question, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” the truth to which he referred was this: The voice of conscience is Jesus’ voice and those who listen to his voice will understand that the central and essential role of sacrifice, as portrayed by the message of the cross, represents the truth about God. (John 18:37)

We turn to a more philosophical, as opposed to theological, examination of that idea in the next section (chapters eight through 13). The goal there will be to test the hypothesis against challenges from philosophical theology. If this works, we will have tested the meaning of Christianity's core message and broadest theme.


1. Summa Theologica, I, I, 10.
2. Ibid.

This entry was posted by Tracy Witham. Bookmark the permalink.

9 thoughts on “Into the World--Chapter Seven: The Voice of God”

  1. Traci,

    While it is appropriate to consider "levels of meaning," it seems to me that to ask the question "What is the spiritual significance of Jesus' life?" as, say, opposed to the question "What is the significance of Jesus' life?" is to move into a kind of practical gnosticism foreign to New Testament writers.

    As to the "sacrifice" of Jesus, most atonement theory inferred from the Gospel of John overlooks the text. The narrative presents a politically expedient murder. It seems to me that a more significant question should be: "what does that mean for us?" Particularly in light of today when there will be hundreds of Memorial Day speeches about warriors "sacrificing" their lives so that we might have freedom.


    George C.

  2. Hi George,

    While I do not deserve to compare myself to St. Thomas, I admire the form and style of writing found in his summas: A compact style that can negotiate its way through all worthy objections to each article is an ideal worth striving for... But in striving for that I sometimes set myself up to fail in a big way by asking language to stretch a bit too far, or by abstracting too much from the context of an objector's perspective.

    To your point, precisely because John is thought to be closer to a Gnosticism--with the capital G--than any other NT writing, I should have been more careful not to leave myself open for your reading. My use of "spiritual"--and I am certain that the same holds for Thomas in his point from ST I,I,10--is not intended to contrast with "corporeal." Rather, I intend it to contrast with "literal" without meaning "metaphorical" or "allegorical," etc.

    What Thomas' text opens up is the idea that God can "author" events in the world in a way that makes the text secondary(!). Given that presumption, we need to make sure that we are considering the event(s) and their implications first and foremost--not the description. And that way of reading Scripture serves as an antidote to Gnosticism...

    And about Jesus' sacrifice viewed as a politically expedient murder. It certainly was. But in asking what THAT means for us, it is important to keep in mind that the gospels all agree in portraying the arrest, trial, condemnation, crucifixion, etc. as the will of God and the intent of Jesus in enacting that will. Thus, to focus on the event as "murder" is to miss the larger framework, I think.

    Big questions.


  3. Traci,

    To focus on the larger framework is precisely what Satan wants. It is to minimize or miss the murder and the murder in our hearts and to make God complicit in the murder of Jesus. We need, in the words of Jesus, "go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'"


    George C.

  4. Hi George,

    I guess I'm surprised at your perspective, to say the least. The larger framework puts the narrative of the trial and condemnation of Jesus in full context, which should help us NOT TO miss anything essential to understanding it...

    More importantly, my view in no way makes God complicit in Jesus' murder. My view is that by accepting the cross Jesus accepted the need to depict the truth about God to us. And that truth foils the message of the Serpent in the story of the fall. Chapter Five set up that contrast in detail. The gist is that to be godly means to put loving sacrifice for others above self-interest. Murder means to arrogate the sacrifice of someone else's life for whatever one's own motivation is. I am really sorry to have to put it this way, but you got me almost backwards.

    By the way, my reading of Jesus words in quoting Micah is that it is not the Temple law--of which sacrifices were central--but love of God and neighbor that are central to a godly life. A different kind of sacrifice than my focus...

    Well, I should be very careful in correcting my betters, so I will stop!

    BTW: In a similar circumstance as you are in reading my work, I'd be skeptical too. Hang in there, and if you didn't check out Chapter Five, that's the key to my biblical interpretation.



  5. Traci,

    According to Genesis, a "fall" did not occur. Adam and Eve were expelled. A vast difference from the Augustinian and Calvinistic take of an ontological corruption. In both Old and New Testament sin is behavoral and social, not ontological.

    We use language, especially theological and philosophical, to conceal what we do to God daily--we murder Him by murdering those in His image. Would Jesus crucify Jesus?



  6. Tracy,

    It sometimes takes me a while to overcome a habit once I get started. I apologize for misspelling your name as Traci instead of Tracy.



  7. Hi George,

    Thanks for the comments.

    None of your points affect the direction of my exposition. For instance whether one thinks about the Genesis 3 story as a fall of an expulsion makes no difference to my thoughts--I'm just using the most common tag.

    As to whether Jesus would crucify Jesus, of course not. But you indicate that "we" do so by "murdering those in his image."

    Care to elaborate?


  8. George,

    I'm going to speak for you, since I think that I can guess what is really troubling you. You do not want theology to, in any way, lend itself to the discredited war in Iraq and the sacrifices we are asking our young servicemen and servicewomen to make for a mistake. Is that it?

    I couldn't sleep last night because I kept wondering what motivated your misconstrual of my thoughts tied to a not-so-subtle implication of complicity in murder (sic.)!

    I'm going to tell a brief story from my childhood that might help us disentangle the issues. I grew up on a registered cattle ranch, where we had a wild, mean-tempered cow that would have been hamburger in a hurry, if she had not had such wonderful "conformity." (That's rancher shorthand for "she physically conformed to a rancher's ideal vision of a cow." Pretty exciting stuff, I know.)

    The day that cow was finally sold I, then a preteen boy, formed part of a semicircle closing in on a group of cows being herded onto a cattle truck, when that bovine devil turned. The cow surveyed the field, and identified me as the weak link in the human chain urging it toward the truck. Had my dad not intervened with a three-foot 2 X 4 to the cow's nose, that cow would have turned me into hamburger.

    My simple story will allow us to look at what I think your concern is without directly connecting it to the--shall we say--"highly charged" issue of the war in Iraq. I'll make just a few brief points.

    1. There is a good analogy between what my dad did for me and what a good serviceman or woman is willing to do for our country: step into harm's way to intervene with force to protect those s/he loves. And on that level there is overlap between the line of argument that I make and what our military personnel do for us. The extent of this overlap will become apparent as we progress through the last chapters, so I will not elaborate.

    2. When a danger is clear and extreme and the needed remedy clearly requires a willingness to accept risk and sacrifice, a person can understand the risk and the need for heroic sacrifice. My dad was fully aware of the extreme danger to me and the risk to himself in intervening with force on my behalf. Presumably many of our heroic young people who joined the war effort after 9/11 viewed Iraq in similar light. But...

    3. ...we as a nation were misled by our President and his administration. For the extreme danger--"weapons of mass destruction"--were a fabrication of an administration intent on war (though to be fair, I think that the administration was so sure of itself that a little thing like fabricating "evidence" didn't bother them much, which is to say that I think that they meant well by their duplicity--and yea, that's only credible because "W" is such a rube).

    When a very bright man of good will, that's you, saddles me with implications that are, frankly, wildly off target, I look for a reason. That I would make much of Jesus' sacrifice as the divine "answer" to Pilate's question--and that in a post over the Memorial Day weekend when we are sacrificing young people for a war whose stated rationale has been completely discredited seems to have set you off. Am I right?

    If so, try to abstract the points made in 1. above from the reality of 3. above as you experience the tragic reality of our entanglement in Iraq.

    I understand that a cold, calculating stance in the face of that tragic entanglement may seem inhumane, but if you can't isolate 1. from 3., how are you going to honor our heroic young people who bravely serve in Iraq from the deeply flawed rationale that placed them in harm's way? And in a much smaller point, if you don't separate those points, you will not be able to understand my exposition either.

    Thanks for being a conscientious reader!


  9. Tracy,

    None of what I was pointing out in my posts vitiates the good intentions and efforts of the men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am sensitive to any kind of language (though I use it myself) that equates murder with sacrifice. Your point #2 is well taken but I would point you to the fact that while it is possible to call Jesus' political murder "sacrifice" as do the gospel and the other new testament writers that they are trying to work out what has happened to their messiah/lord in a world where bloody sacrifice is still happening. How we read the language of scripture, theology, and philosophy can be revealing (apocalyptic) or it can be concealing. My take is that most contemporary theology, philosophy, and hermeneutics conceals the horror of taking life, covering it up and rationalizing it with sacrificial language. Paul's term "living sacrifice (or offering)" is an oyxmoron to attempt to avoid sacrificial language.



Leave a Reply