How Scripture is a Partnership with God
by William Yarchin
Partnership with God: we miss the message of Scripture if we don’t get this one thing about it.
Scripture is God’s word. How can the Scripture itself be understood as a “partnership with God”? Strange as it sounds, this is something about the Bible that’s actually easy to demonstrate by paying attention to two things: (1) What the Bible says, and (2) How it says it.
- What the Bible Says About Partnership with God
In the very first pages of the Bible, we read the famous story of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. At first, anything that gets created directly results from God’s own initiative and agency when God alone creates time, the sky, and the terrestrial surfaces (Gen 1:3–10).
But then God speaks to the earth, inviting it to “vegetate vegetation,” which is a literal translation of the Hebrew. The earth responds by bringing forth vegetation (Gen 1:11–13), and then the earth responds to God’s further invitation by bringing forth creatures to live on the land (Gen 1:20–25). These are actions performed by specific parts of God’s creation, and God recognizes them as parallel with God’s own actions: “And God saw that it was good.” When God lastly creates humans, they are endowed with God’s own image as a special partnership for tending the rest of God’s creation as a garden.
So the Bible begins by consistently characterizing the relationship of God with creation as a partnering between God and God’s creatures to maintain and enhance a fruitful world.
Partnerships, however, work best only when all parties work together in collaboration. God’s creatures possess degrees of freedom to make choices about their responses to God’s partnership invitation. According to the biblical story, the God-creation-human collaboration begins to break down as humans make choices that ruin the world with violence. God’s grief over this takes the form of a global catastrophe—the great flood—that ultimately brings about a recommitment to the partnership in “an everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:16).
The story moves on. The people of the earth pursue their own interests, and God works to align their pursuits with God’s own purposes for the earth. For example, the tower of Babel story concludes with the people of the world developing a wide variety of languages and cultures as they spread across the face of the earth. This global human diversity is depicted as something God achieved—“The Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Gen 11:8)—by working through the impulse of (even errant) human decisions—“Come, let us build ourselves a city” (Gen 11:8). Very early on, the Bible establishes a pattern of human ambitions and decisions interwoven with divine purposes as the fundamental framework for the divine-human partnership that will continue through the rest of the story.
In this pattern of partnership, God works through the nitty-gritty realities of life to create possibilities that will advance God’s purposes of blessings for the earth. For example, in Genesis we are told that Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children. In their culture that would be the end of the line for them, leaving no future legacy. But God works with them through a covenant (which is an agreement to partnership), and their family line continued, against all odds. Their descendants eventually came to be known as the Israelites, who also agree to a partnership in covenant with God. According to the Torah, these covenant partnerships assign to the people of Israel a particular purpose among the nations: they are to be a blessing for other peoples (Gen 12:1–3) as a priestly kingdom, mediating the blessings of God’s rule to all the other nations of the earth (Exod 19:4–6). In the light of the Israelites’ solemn declaration at Mount Sinai, it is no stretch to call this a partnership: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do” (Exod 24:7).
From this point onward, the Bible’s larger story line follows the ups and downs of this collaboration. The Israelites are enjoined to align themselves with God’s purposes in keeping with the terms of the covenant agreement in order to know peace and prosperity. But when they chose to turn aside from God’s concern for the vulnerable and the poor—a covenant expectation—the disastrous consequences of their choices worked themselves out, in accordance with the terms of the partnership. This is what the Bible calls “God’s judgment.”
The Old Testament prophets revealed that God’s judgment can open new opportunities for God’s people to make better choices that are aligned with God’s purposes by pursuing justice and righteousness. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” God declared through Jeremiah, announcing the salvation God purposed to bring out of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem (Jer 31:33). Later, when the pagan king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, another prophet announced that God was using that king’s self-interested policies to open up a possibility for the preservation of Israel: “He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose” to restore Jerusalem (Isa 44:28). And once restored, a newly redeemed Israel will understand itself as God’s servant, “A light to the nations, that the Lord’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).
This is missional partnership, something that Jesus liked to call the “kingdom of heaven.” Jesus offered himself as a model of this partnership with God in his self-giving ministry, and he called his followers to do likewise: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . .” (Matt 28:19). We could say more, but we can already see that partnership with God is so huge in the Bible we might even call it the fundamental theme of Scripture.
- How the Bible Speaks about Partnership with God
The Christian Bible speaks in three major modes: as prophetic Scripture, as apostolic Scripture, and as liturgic Scripture.
In the Old Testament, prophetic Scripture begins with the story of the formation of God’s covenant people. As mediated by the prophet Moses, the story itself becomes instruction about how to be God’s people. This instruction is not aimed solely at the Israelites of ancient times, but—even more deliberately—to all who would read the story for generations to come. Story-as-instruction inelegantly but accurately unpacks the word “Torah.” In the Bible, the history books come right after the Torah, and they are likewise part of prophetic Scripture. The writers narrate the extended story of God’s covenant people in order to urge later readers to partnership-alignment with God’s desires for the world’s well-being. Persuading readers into that alignment is also why the orations of Israel’s prophets were written and collected into books bearing their names (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.). In prophetic Scripture, God speaks through prophets—from Moses to Malachi—who obediently declare the word of the Lord, and also through scribes who faithfully copy their words, conveying them to later generations of readers. In short, prophetic Scripture itself is a phenomenon of partnership with God.
In the New Testament, apostolic Scripture begins with the story of the formation of God’s new covenant people through the ministry of Jesus. In the hands of gospel writers like Luke, the story itself becomes instruction about how to be God’s people: “. . . so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:4). The story tells of Jesus sending forth apostles to spread their Lord’s message, to establish churches throughout the Mediterranean world, and to sustain those churches with letters of instruction. Apostolic Scripture (gospels, Acts, epistles) conveys the words of writers who understand themselves as partners with God to advance God’s kingdom. So the record of their words (that is, the New Testament) is itself a phenomenon of partnership with God.
Liturgic Scripture are those biblical books written for God’s people to use during worship. Worship is referenced throughout the Bible as an exercise in partnership with God: God’s people sing prayers and praise as God draws near. Ancient Israelites used psalms to give expression for their struggles in faith (“How long, O Lord?”) and triumphs in faith (“For his mercy is everlasting”). These psalms were written and collected as the book of Psalms with the purpose of extending participation in worship to later generations. Much the same is true of the book of Revelation, which the resurrected Jesus explicitly commissioned John to write for church gatherings, containing powerful words and images of God’s people in worship.
The Christian Bible concludes, then, with a book that is itself the product of partnership with God, written by John to support such co-working. And that is a fairly accurate way of understanding Scripture as a whole. The Bible is itself something that God and humans, working together in collaboration, have created in order to inspire and sustain all of us working in partnership with God. In its pages everyone is invited to join in collaboration with God, manifesting the image of God that makes us human.
Question: How might these ideas about the Bible change the way we read it?
William Yarchin (Ph.D., Claremont Graduate School) is the Dean’s Endowed Professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University. He is the author of History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader (Baker Academic, 2011) and daily rides a bicycle along the California coast.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.