Biblical Material

The next stage of the investigation is to discover whether there is any precedent in the Bible for “God uses” language in relation to people. There was very little evidence provided for this in the literature review.

Dictionary Work
In order to provide a thorough examination of the Biblical material a two pronged approach was devised. The first stage was to identify the occurrences of “use” in English translations. The second stage was to consult exegetical dictionaries to identify the Greek and Hebrew language behind these verses.

Old Testament
The first thing that became apparent was that this language is very rare in the OT. In the New International Version, the word “use” only appears in 62 verses. This rarity is reflected in the fact that neither of the dictionaries consulted, Vine (1985) and VanGemeren (1996), had an entry for “use” in the index. Neither was there an entry for “instrument” or “tool”. Despite this, one occurrence in the English did stand out as requiring further consideration.

In the NIV, Isaiah 7:20a reads “In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the River —the king of Assyria—to shave your head and the hair of your legs,” Although the verb “to use” is not explicitly present in Hebrew, it is implied. God is described as using Assyria as a razor to administer a humiliating shaving to the King and people of the land. This is seen by Watts (2002, Vol 24, p.178) as part of Isaiah’s insistence that it is God who, for God’s own purposes, uses the nations firstly to destroy and then to restore God’s people.

The corresponding proclamation of restoration is found in Isaiah 44 – 45. Here Cyrus is described as being chosen by God, but contra Watts and Goldingay (2001, p.263), the passage does not explicitly say that God used Cyrus.

From this example, two elements seem to be pertinent to this discussion. Firstly, the language is metaphorical. Whilst a thorough treatment of the use of metaphor in theology is not possible, it is useful to note that the power of metaphors derives from the semantic shock of the pairing, thus maintaining an appreciation of the untruth of the metaphor is fundamental to grasping its meaning. (Stiver, 1996, p.115ff) Furthermore, as highlighted by McFague, (1982, p.20ff) no one metaphor can be allowed to become dominant, they must be considered in multiplicity.

Secondly, although Cyrus is named, the theological thrust of the narrative is not to explore the nature of the relationship of individuals with God, but to trace the purposes of God underpinning the salvation history of the people of God. The sovereignty of God is clearly in view, but it is sovereignty over nations and history rather than one that is interested in the surrender of individual lives.

New Testament
In contrast, there was more NT material available. The most important verb to consider is chraomai, which means “to use, employ, make use of, to treat.” (Balz, 1993, p.471) However, there is no occurrence of this verb, carrying the sense of “to use” having a person as its object. (Appendix D) The key noun is skeuos which means “object, vessel, instrument.” (Balz, 1993, p.250) Of the twenty two verses in which this noun occurs (Appendix E), one (Acts 9:15) explicitly describes a person, Paul, as an instrument of God. A further seven describe people as earthen vessels.

God’s Instrument: Acts 9:15
Balz (1993, p.251) asserts that in this use of the metaphor, it is the instrumental nature of the relationship between God and Paul that is at the fore. This correlates with Bruce (1988, p.187) linking this verse with Paul’s sense of his own call as a slave of Christ, illustrated in verses such as Romans 1:1. Dunn (1998, p.635) argues that Paul’s primary focus in this image is on the obedience of faith exemplified by a slave’s obedience, rather than the objectification of the slave by the institution of slavehood. Dunn (2002, Vol 38a, p.7) also suggests that Paul is seeking to emphasise the continuity between himself, and his message, and those described as servants of God throughout the Old Testament. He does, however, note a secondary intention of reinforcing Paul’s ongoing theme of the revolutionary nature of the Christian’s relationship with God. To a society that prized freedom above all, presenting any form of slavery as an aspiration was scandalous. However, this must be held in balance with Jesus’ declaration in John 15:15 that he does not call his followers “slaves” but “friends”.

Potter’s Vessels
The NT occurrences of the metaphor of the potter’s vessel have their roots in the OT. The most obvious of these is Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house described in Jeremiah 18. Through this acted out parable God makes clear that the Creator has the right to reshape the creation, and that this reshaping takes into account the response of the creation. Craigie (2002, p.245) argues that this parable describes the interaction between God and nations. Clements (1988, p.114) asserts that this principle extends to the relationship between individuals and God. This theme of the Creator’s sovereignty is found again in Isaiah 45:9, where the prophet uses this metaphor to insist that “creatures have no right to protest against the decisions of their creator.” Watts (2002, Vol 25, p.157)

Paul’s use of this metaphor in Romans 9:21-23 takes these prophetic assertions and applies them in his exploration of God’s purposes in election. (Bruce, 1963, p.187ff) In this exploration, the shocking implication is that the community of Israel is currently in the position of the “vessels of wrath.” (Dunn, 1998, p.513) Therefore, as Dunn (2002, Vol38B, p.557) argues, this imagery is more likely to have been intended to be understood at a community level than at the individual level. Paul is exploring the working out of God’s purposes in relation to the communities of the Gentiles and of Israel, rather than to individuals. Fundamentally, the focus is not on the use of the vessels by the owner. It is on the making of the vessels by the Creator, and the subsequent relationship of humility that is therefore appropriate.

The metaphor of God’s people as vessels reoccurs in Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians 4:7. Dunn (1998, p.482ff) suggests that Paul uses the contrast between the images of the fragile container and the powerful light to illustrate the eschatological tension inherent in the power of God both transcending and being expressed through the weakness of humanity.
Spicq’s alternative view is presented as a counter balance to this position by Martin (2002, p.85). It is argued that the vessels Paul has in mind are not rough, clay pots, but the highly decorated and valuable lamps and vases of the period. In both interpretations of the metaphor, the glory and power all come from God. The vessel has none of its own, and the focus is not on its use by God, but on its property of showing forth God’s power.

This metaphor makes a third appearance, with another level of meaning, in 2 Timothy 2:21-22. Here the controlling theme is that of the life of discipleship and ongoing sanctification. (Dunn, 1998, p.330) In order to be fit for the purpose of the ministry that God has called him to, Timothy is exhorted to keep himself free from pollution and sin. (Mounce, 2002, p.530)

1 Corinthians 1:27-28
These verses need to be examined here because they are cited in two of the works in the literature review. However, as is pointed out by Thiselton (2000, p.183ff), the entire thrust of these verses is the inclusion, by God, of all at the edges of society in the Kingdom. It seems ironic that one of the most powerful expressions of God’s purpose to defeat the power structures of the world, characterised by the rich using the poor, should be used as a pillar for an argument that God wants to use people. It seems to me that the choosing by God of the poor and weak is more indicative of God’s preference for the seemingly useless, and is a judgement upon the philosophy that sees a human’s value in his or her usefulness.

This survey of the Biblical material has been brief, as the material is not extensive. That which is present carries theological themes relating to God’s sovereignty. However, it expresses that sovereignty in terms of creation, election (with an emphasis on mercy) and on expressions of power rather than in terms of control. There is a range of levels of application, from that of the community to that of the individual. There is only one example that carries any indication that what is in view is the usefulness of the individual to God, and this bears the sense of being fit for purpose, rather than that of being a tool.

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