For more than a hundred years, Christians in America have debated the nature of scripture. Terms such as “Evangelical,” “Fundamentalist,” and “Liberal” get thrown around, marking various stances. Two years ago my church, the Church of the Nazarene, felt compelled to issue a statement on the nature of the Bible.
I’m very happy that my church does not share the Fundamentalists’ view of the Bible; however, official statements go only so far. We all have built-in assumption that may get in the way of our understanding the Bible. Some of those assumptions relate to the idea of the word of God.
The Christian tradition identifies the Bible as the word of God. This is the ground of the Bible’s authority. It is not “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16 [all biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version]) or a “human word” (1 Thessalonians 2:13), but God’s declaration.
So, if we are to understand the concept of scripture, we have to answer the question, What is the word of God?
In our culture, we usually use words to convey information; the transfer of information is a critical matter. That is why universities have academic departments of communication. The president of the United States has a press secretary to manage the flow of information. Most tellingly, we have “information technology.” This shows us that information is so important in our culture that we have made it the object of technical expertise.
We are thus tempted to identify the word of God with the communication of information. In other words, we easily assume that the Bible reveals facts that God wants us to know–that God has lodged information in the Bible and told us to locate that information by reading, just as a journalist may publish an article because he or she wants the public to know some important information.
However, when we identify the word of God with the communication of information, we are projecting a modern understanding of “word” onto the Bible. It is very easy and natural for us to engage in this sort of projection. For example, in my experience of teaching, I have seen how difficult it is for us, who live in a culture that celebrates individuality, to see that people in biblical times lived in collectivist societies–the primary reality was the group; individuals had existence and meaning only because they belonged to a group. Faced with this collectivist culture, so different from ours, we normally just project onto the Bible our individualistic understanding of church and salvation.
So, it is not surprising that, when we hear the phrase “word of God,” we immediately assume that God’s word performs exactly the same function that words perform in our culture.
But what did “word of God” mean for the biblical writers?
Here are some biblical texts that speak about the word of God:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Hebrews 4:12: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
The first chapter of Genesis
1 Thessalonians 2:13 “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”
These texts declare that the word of God is another name for God’s acting: God creates by speaking; God’s word is at work in believers; it accomplishes God’s purpose; it is living and active, dividing and judging. In these texts the word of God is not about communicating information. It is instead the expression and means of God’s creative power. That is why the ultimate manifestation of the word is Jesus Christ, the word become flesh.
The lesson for us is that, when we affirm that the Bible is the word of God, we are affirming that the Bible is an instrument of God’s creative and saving power. It really isn’t an encyclopedia of facts that God has revealed.