Is the Bible the word of God?
A brief note on the form of things:
Last April I wrote a post titled The Bible is NOT the WORD OF GOD: a polemic against Christendom. The article was meant to be a provocation towards rethinking the way we speak about the bible. The reaction it received was very interesting as it seemed to indicate a sharp divide between those who agreed and disagreed with the premise.
In general, I make it a point to avoid apologetic type argumentation when it comes to what I write. This method of discourse is rarely fruitful, and usually involves two people talking past each other. However, I also understand the importance of the “idea” as manifested within the individual. This can only properly occur when the individual is able to apprehend the idea.
Anytime one writes on a theological/philosophical topic and chooses an alternative form of discourse there can exist a dissonance between the writing and the reader. One might even wonder why such a method is employed if dissonance is what you are trying to avoid. In general, poetic expression grants enough creative license within the discourse of choice to create a depth that more “sophisticated/academic” approaches cannot. Therefore, as a result, it is sometimes better to use this sort of method in order to provoke (for example) a certain emotion as part of the overall premise.
What follows is not an apology for detractors, but a postscript in order to clarify the idea.
The bible is NOT the Word of God, or is it?
We have all heard it in a sermon, read it in a theological book, or perhaps said it ourselves: “the Bible is the Word of God.” Sometimes I wonder how often Christians step back and think about what they say and challenge themselves to question why they say it.
What are we saying when we make this statement? Two things really: first, God’s word is limited to the text itself and nothing else. (Side Note: I should say that the phrase itself doesn’t imply this, but rather how the phrase is used implies it.) Second, it places the writer’s intentions secondary to “God’s intentions” (I have also heard it said “God’s intentions trump the author’s intentions”) – though it’s not entirely clear how one has the ability to know “God’s intentions”.
It is also not clear when the idiom became part of the vernacular in its present form. However, in general, it seems that the mistake is an anachronistic reading of the bible and history (go figure).
Did the early church fathers believe in “scripture” as being the Word of God? No. First, there was nothing remotely similar to what we use today. There existed various canons throughout a widespread region until the council of Nicea in 325 AD began to organize one canon for the church.
The purpose of the canon was to collect authoritative sacred texts that were useful for instruction as the sole rule of faith and life. It is here that you might wonder what is meant by the word “authoritative”. This is not to be confused with “God inspired”, but rather, an appeal to the actual author’s authority and whether or not they would be privy to the information they were writing about (first-hand information). In the case of the New Testament – were the authors a witness to the life of Christ.
What makes the bible the Word of God? Is it because the bible says it is the Word of God? To believe that one can establish the authority of a text simply because the text “says it’s authoritative” is absurd on the face. This idea is often referred to as the “self-authentication” principle (a term used regarding legal documentation). When one says the Bible is self-authenticating they are making assumptions about its form (inerrancy) and function (inspiration), which ultimately results in circular reasoning (trying to prove a premise by using the assumption of the premise as proof).
However, let’s assume that there exists some world where these sorts of assumptions are acceptable. The follow-up question is: does scripture claim to be the Word of God?
The use of “scripture”.
“Scripture” simply means “religious text(s)”. A passage (verse) often quoted to me is 2 Timothy 3:16
…All Scripture is God breathed useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…
When Paul refers to his own writings he describes them as letters, not scripture. Why? Because Paul does not think he is writing “scripture”. Instead, he believes he is writing letters to fellow Christians in order to encourage/rebuke/instruct them relative to their particular situation.
When the term “scripture” is used, it is often in reference to the sacred documents of the Torah, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament.
The use of “Word”
There are two Greek words that are used for the word “Word”. The first is Rhema. This is used most often to denote what we commonly understand to be typical forms of communication, such as: language, speech, conversations, etc.
The second term that is used is “Logos”. This word is a bit more complicated as it has a long philosophical history to it. Therefore, to play it safe, we will define it conservatively. In order to view this term properly, we need to see how it functions. The best example of its function is the familiar passage John 1:1:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
In stoicism (this is where it seems that John is borrowing the term) the term Logos is used in conjunction with what Stoics called “Divine Reason”. This was the idea that “…the only true divine philosophy is when it co-exists with action.” The function most commonly associated with this use of the term is “revelation” or “to make known”. Therefore, a proper reading of John 1:14 “…the Word became flesh…” forces us to understand the divine Logos this way: Jesus came to “reveal” God through the “action” of the incarnation (and later his life, death, resurrection, etc.)
The use of “Word of God”
How then are we to understand passages like Hebrews 4:12?
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
The Word of God as mentioned here and in other passages throughout the New Testament vary in meaning depending on their context. However, most of them are in reference to the way in which God revealed Himself to the Jews. God revealed himself in writing (the commandments); in word (visions and dreams) in person (Angels of the Lord, fire, and other strange figures).
The point of the Hebrews passage (and other similar passages): what God said and did then, is still useful for us today. This has nothing to do with “the bible”.
Finally, the other occasions that we see the Word of God used in the NT are in conjunction with actionable discourse. Take, for example, 2 Corinthians 2:17
Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.
In this case, Paul is neither referring to the Bible nor is he referring to the various ways God revealed himself through the OT. Instead, he is using “Word of God” to mean “preaching the Good News”.
Now, to help us avoid another anachronistic reading of the text we must remember (I know this sounds obvious, but it seems that many do think this way) that Paul is NOT walking around with his red letter edition of the Bible preaching from the book of Mark. Instead, he is preaching from the oral tradition shared with him, as well as (perhaps) some unique divine message received from God.
Does the Word of God exist, and if so what is it?
As stated above, the Word of God is accomplished through the revelatory discourse God has with people. This would include ANY way in which God chooses to reveal himself. Although this COULD include the bible, it is certainly not exclusive to it.
Let us consider John 3:2:
…during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
God speaks and acts through his people. In order for the “Word” to “come”, it must manifest; it must embody; it must reveal. The Word of God is dynamic, active, and sharper than any double-edged sword not because we can quote propositional truths to an “ignorant” world; but because we embody the truth of hope for a “hurting” world. Imagine a world where people understood the “Word of God” as the result of an “encounter” they had with the living God; instead of some academic exercise in exegesis.
Finally, let me leave you with a quote from my original article regarding the Word of God:
The WORD OF GOD is a moment that a human being encounters. It is Jesus Christ in his full glory and revelation. The WORD OF GOD occurs through a compilation of acts that bring forth the WORD OF GOD within the individual – prayer, reading and meditating on sacred scripture, fellowship, and worship.
DARRIN KIMPSONJanuary 17, 2014
Some more great conversations bro. Lots of great stuff that make sense to me. I do think there was something special and unique when the canon was decided and made the bible more special than any other book because I believe God was in the center of it and directed it. You might be saying that or you may not?? We will chat more.
Eric EnglishJanuary 17, 2014
Thanks for the note Darrin. I would say more for sure. In fact, that is part of my point is its unclear to me how the same Holy Spirit who directed the early church to compile scripture is somehow different than the Holy Spirit who moved the writers to write certain things.
I do believe scripture is PART of the manifestation of the Word of God within the individual. One aspect of multiple things necessary for the Word of God to come into being within the individual.
But yes…I am sure we will chat more about this.
By the way thanks for the inspiration…LOL
as little childernJanuary 18, 2015
still waiting for this to be happen in the life of most human
Heath AchatzSeptember 9, 2014
I realize this post is quite old, but I have to question ” what would Christianity look like today if there were no written text or guidelines in the formation of it?”
Eric EnglishSeptember 9, 2014
Heath…thanks for commenting.
The simple answer is: I have no idea. But..I am also not sure if by “Christianity” you mean the “Church”; or if by it you mean “ones personal faith” (being a Christian).
It is certainly an interesting question, but not sure how the question applies to this particular article.
bkmFebruary 18, 2015
strapbootFebruary 19, 2015
@ Eric English, I have been quietly following your post since the day I saw it on Patheos.com 2 years ago. I have also read all the responses too. Many will just disagree by just going through the title and not digesting the content you wrote. I am agreeing with you not just because it’s is the same here. But is the truth. The sad and irony thing is that many theologians who know this truth dare not speak about this because excommunication will be impose on them. This is the reality.
Why this is good:
1. It will clean bibliolatry and Bibliomancy
2. Break the denomination/doctrinal barriers
3. Even solve the the burden of answering the problem of evil and so the existence of God.
Eric EnglishFebruary 21, 2015
Strapboot…I appreciate your willingness to speak out. Everything you have stated is absolutely correct. Especially to the point that many people don’t actually read the article. The irony is that my view actually makes scripture greater than weaker because it is to be understood and used as intended. To superimpose our presuppositions upon it is to make it’s truth false.
Your final points are also right on. The question of the existence of God almost entirely consists of arguments against scripture (and the actions of the church). Also to the problem of evil you are spot on. All arguments against God based on this premise are wrapped up in Christian theology (what it means for God to be good, etc.)
This has been a significant burden of mine. I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts and hope to hear more from you in the future.
markjuaneApril 14, 2015
Eric, I know I am so late to the conversation but I am glad I found your two posts. I must say that I tend to resonate with what you have written. I was wondering if you could point to a couple of resources where your main idea is expanded upon and clarified?
My theological training comes from a very iconic conservative evangelical institute. We used to say that “Bible” is our middle name. Years into my post Bible college years, I have come to suspect that the foundational approach to the Bible that I was trained in seemed a little “off.” But I couldn’t explain why. Your posts have given me a way to articulate that now. Thanks!
Now, I’d like to dig a little deeper.
Eric EnglishApril 24, 2015
Mark, would love to speak to your more about this, please go to the contact page and send me a note so I have your email.
Jay KNovember 10, 2015
> When Paul refers to his own writings he describes them as letters, not scripture. Why? Because Paul does not think he is writing “scripture”.
I used to think this too, but then a friend pointed out 2 Peter 3:14-16 to me, which pretty clearly links Paul’s letters to scripture.
Eric EnglishNovember 13, 2015
This is a wonderful point. I have taken a couple of days to consider it and pray about it. Here is my response.
The 2 Peter reference regarding the formation of scripture
within the lives of the Apostles is an interesting one. Especially given the fact that it is clearly the case that the author of 2 Peter is saying that Paul’s letters are “scripture”.
So…to the question of, does the author know they are writing
scripture? My answer is still no. Peter’s declaration of Paul’s writing is only his own – Paul does not necessarily share them. Since by the time of 2 Peter (assuming a conservative early dating) most of Paul’s letters are already written. Just as the early Church fathers all declared which letters held authority and which did not, so too does Peter do the same.
Also, this perspective seems unique to Peter. What’s more,
he does not equate his own writings as scripture, just Paul’s.
Paul nowhere indicates that he believes he is writing scripture. In fact, just the opposite. First, his letters are incredibly personable, addressing sometimes specific people, but always addressing specific situations. Second, Paul believed in the Divine Logos. That is, Paul understood the Torah as still being authoritative as scripture. But, he also believed that Christ was the revealed Word of God and that this Word existed inside of the individual as given by the Holy Spirit. Romans 10 is a great example of how Paul understands the nature of Scripture.
Jay KNovember 15, 2015
Thanks for the reply. I agree, it seems likely none of the NT epistle writers thought that he himself was writing Scripture.
I agree with the thought pattern behind the meat of your post, actually. The Bible is no longer serving as the Word of God when quoted to put others down or spread hatred.
A quick search of “word of God” in the NT, though, shows that most occurrence refer to parts of the Hebrew Bible, with only arguably one (in Rev 12) being Jesus, so I don’t think it’s _unfair_ to call the bible “the Word of God” – though I’d say (and I think you’d agree) that “the written Word of God” would be better.
Eric EnglishNovember 16, 2015
Yes, I think I mostly agree with your characterization. However, I think because the Church has already created a culture that inaccurately defines the Word of God and because I don’t think the average layperson cares to make that distinction, we have to create a new way of characterizing scripture that both accurately reflects its purpose/content while still maintaining authority for the Church.
I think the other important point (and the problem with using “written”) is that there is no room for the role of the Holy Spirit. It is my belief that the Word of God is not present within scripture apart from the role of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the reader to its truth. I think Scripture has to be a part of the larger process within the life of the believer. This is why I say that the Word of God becomes present anytime we might encounter God, whether that is through reading scripture, prayer, worship, etc.
I do agree with your understanding of the Word of God within the NT. However, in addition to the ways you outlined one must understand that when the Disciples went around from town to town they believed they possessed the Word of God within them. Their “evangelism” was to testify to the Word that existed within them; and to whom walked the earth. This is why Hebrews says the Word of God is “active”.
Thanks for you interaction. Cheers.
Dre'as SanchezNovember 30, 2015
Im so glad to see people care to make the distinction. I’ve been back and forth with my Professor about this very issue. @Eric would you be interested in chatting… Maybe a Google hangout session, I’d like to run some things by you
Tammy JessenMarch 8, 2016
This post was almost over my head. Very deep thinking. The title got me worked up, wondering how you could possibly state that the Bible isn’t the word of God. After reading all of your article I think that I understand what the purpose was of this article. Really messed with my belief on what the Bible is to me. Most definitely challenges me to rethink how I view the bible and it’s use in my daily life.
Eric, you make my head hurt at times thinking about things like this differently than I have before. It’s a good thing though. God does want us to question our thoughts, what we read, our beliefs, etc. Compare them to Jesus’ life and teachings to see if they line up. Makes sense too.
Eric EnglishMarch 9, 2016
Tammy…thank you for your kind words. Perhaps if you went through and read the articles in order it would make more sense to you. At the top of the page is a link to the first article.
I am glad you found the articles challenging and thanks for taking the time to pass on your thoughts.
Tammy JessenMarch 9, 2016
I did go back and read them in order. Just a lot for my brain to take in, I’m still digesting!
SynaesthesiacJune 15, 2016
Thank you so much for this post! I almost began to cry because you are actually the first believer who put down the words in my head so accurately. It’s always hard to believe something quite different to how the majority understands it, and although I know that in the end it’s up to me alone, how seriously I take the bible as God’s word, it’s still very relieving to see that I’m not entirely alone with this perception of the whole situation!
According to me the testimonies in the bible are as significant as blogs like this one, that were written down only in the 21th century but still are a testimony of God and that’s what it is about, isn’t it?
Really, thank you! Have been searching for such an article for over a year now!
Eric EnglishJune 25, 2016
Synaesthesiac…Thank you so much for your honesty. I found your comments to be of great encouragement. If you have not read part 3 yet, I would encourage that as well. https://www.ericsenglish.com/the-bible-is-not-the-word-of-god-part-3/ Blessings! e.