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.