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Living by the Word: Speak My Word Faithfully (Jer. 23:28)

by Kosuke Koyama

>Kosuke Koyama is John D.Rockefeller, Jr., Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity at Union Theology Seminary in New York City. This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 2-9, 1989, p. 716. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord [Jer. 23:28].

Vatican II made important history when it acknowledged that other religions were not telling "dreams." Referring specifically to Hinduism and Buddhism, Vatican II declared:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.

We cannot apply Jeremiah’s contrast to our interreligious situation today by saying that non-Christian religions are only telling "dreams" and "the deceit of their own heart." Hindus explore "the divine mystery and express it both in the limitless riches of myth and the accurately defined insights of philosophy," says Vatican II, while the Buddhists testify "to the essential inadequacy of this changing world."

The Vatican position reminds me of Amos 9:7: "Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?" says the Lord. "Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?" God creates the possibility of new life in each nation’s religious and cultural context (Isa. 19:24-25) Ethiopians, Philistines and Syrians share with Israel a ray of that truth that enlightens all men. The Book of Amos does not advocate what we today call relativism. It declares positively the steadfast love of God toward all peoples of all languages and histories.

God’s universal yet particular love derives from God’s freedom and sovereignty. "Am I a God at hand, says the Lord, and not a God afar oft? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord" (Jer. 23:23-24)

In the light of the God of all peoples and histories, "what is true and holy in these religions" is related to "what is true and holy" in Christianity. "Do I not fill heaven and earth?" God’s "full presence" in heaven and earth, God’s sovereignty, enlightens everyone (John 1:9). No human can control that light. We are to learn to see all things "in thy light" (Ps. 36:9) Thus Christians are warned about their self-righteousness. Jesus expressed God’s sovereignty and criticized self-righteousness in the simple warning, "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged" (Matt. 7:1-2; see Rom. 2:1)

But this saying does not advocate an easy moral relativism. It does not, suggest that there is an artful way to make life smooth. It is different from the Hindu doctrine of karman, retribution. It says that it is ultimately God alone who can judge between false prophets who tell "the deceit of their own heart" and true prophets who have "my word." Yet we must work hard to discern the spirits. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (I John 4:1)

This is a difficult task. How can we distinguish between deceit and the word of God when we may believe with complete sincerity that what we say is the truth? We may quite unconsciously speak a mixture, as it were, of our own deceits and the word of God. Is it possible that the word of God might be proclaimed through words that are unclean with our own deceit? (Isa. 6:5)

What shall we do when we are faced with the disturbing judgment of biblical faith that none of us, even with our great religious traditions and institutions (ecumenical councils, magisterium) , can claim that at all times we speak only "my word"?

Abraham Lincoln said of the two sides in the Civil War:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

Indeed, "let us judge not., that we be not judged" (see Matt. 13:29,30; ICor.4:5) Yet it is important to note that Lincoln also says, "It [is] strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces" -- let’s not believe every spirit.

It is God alone who can decide, ultimately, between the false and true prophets. Yet we are called to participate in the "testing of the spirits." If we neglect this important human task, we will soon be controlled by the unclean spirit.

Professors at Union Theological Seminary in New York are asked at their installation to declare their intention to serve the church and the world by learning, piety and enlightened experience. The occasion is a moment in which the ancient words of Psalm 5:17 become extremely significant: "A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." It is "a broken and contrite heart" before God that prepares us to "test the spirits" and protects us from prophesying our own dreams and deceits. It is such a heart that seeks to say, "in thy light do we see light."


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