A Mouth Full of Fire (Review)

Published: RTR 72, no. 1, 2013

A Mouth Full of Fire: the Word of God in the words of Jeremiah

Andrew G. Shead, New Studies in Biblical Theology, D. A. Carson, series editor, Nottingham: Apollos, 2012. 321pp

One can only but admire the audacious goals of the work: to undertake not only a detailed study of Jeremiah and a presentation of its macro-structure, but to bring the book into discussion with Christian doctrine, specifically the doctrine of the word of God.

Naturally (or, because of the state of OT scholarship), Shead needs to demonstrate at the outset that Jeremiah ought to be brought to the theological task. It is maintained that Bible and Scripture should not be divided, and that there is such a thing as biblical theology. In this discussion, Shead also maintains that biblical theology is not just the Gospel story, either. ‘The proper end of biblical theology is not narrative but theology’ (p. 29).

Coming to Jeremiah itself, ‘the word of the Lord’ is said to be the book’s protagonist: ‘not God himself but a divine attribute and self-communication’ (p. 38). Human speakers are generally eliminated from the narrative. Entire discourses are subsumed under the ‘Disjunctive Heading’: ‘The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord’ (p. 45). Jeremiah is a ‘narrative about a theological idea’ (p. 38). Because of this, Shead believes it is easier than with other biblical books to move to theology without destroying the narrative itself.

Jeremiah is said to divide into four, chs 1-24, 25-34, 35-44 and 45-52 (p. 86). The dominant theme of each section is thus: the word of the Lord announces Judah’s destruction; vindicates its speaker; destroys the nation and plants new life; sends judgement across the earth. Shead finds ‘word’ is used of God’s spoken message, and ‘words’ refers particularly to that which is written down (which, Shead affirms, is divine revelation). Jeremiah is said to be intent on bringing the reader as much as possible back to the historical moment of the original word event, since the ‘word of God is not a written document but the living speech of God himself’ (p. 139).

The word is formative upon Jeremiah the prophet, such that the embodiment of the word in the person of Jeremiah is a form of authentication of the word. Furthermore, the persona of Jeremiah is distilled in the written words, such that ‘we may still affirm that the word of God comes to us embodied in a person’ (p. 143). It is this self-disclosure that is the word of God. It is not that contemporary speakers of the word also embody the word: Jeremiah’s life formed part of the message in a way that has no parallel today. Instead, Shead relates this to Christology.

More could have been said on whether it is possible to bring a reader into the moment of history being witnessed to by the text. Did Jeremiah believe that by vividly recording the original speech event that the reader was encountering the original word event? Would the point not rather be that the ‘word’ and written ‘words’ conflate together? The written ‘words’ not only witness to the spoken word, and do not only become the word, but now are the word, the powerful, personal speech of God.

Shead rather says that ‘when the words of the book are read, their listeners may hear the word of the Lord’ (p. 235. Cf. p. 236, the ‘possibility’ of hearing the word in the reading of the words). This probably does not mean that the words only sometimes become word, but the personal transcends the propositional all the same. ‘In written form they are always words, never word’ (p. 242). However, even if Jeremiah does not say it, he implies by the act of writing that the written words are now the word. He has replaced himself, the original events and prophetic orality with a text. Shead could have made more of Jer. 29:20 (p. 235 – incorrectly put as v. 21), in which the ‘word of the Lord’ is equated with one of Jeremiah’s letters. The NT also envisages that the written words of Scripture are the word (John 10:35, ‘word’ equals ‘Scripture’, particularly if ‘and’ is translated as ‘even’; 1 Cor. 14:36-37).

If it were not for the spectre of neo-orthodoxy, the word/words distinction would amount to little. Under that influence, the distinction becomes overloaded. In wrestling with the scribal activity of Baruch, not termed a prophet, Shead treats inspiration as a ‘property of words rather than their authors’, and so concludes, ‘The words are God’s words because the word they convey is God’s word, not because of their individual properties. …this is not to say that the Scriptures are bound to contain mistakes; rather, the doctrine of the word of God…neither requires nor determines an error-free Scripture’ (p. 262).