The Unsettling Encounter with the Word of God

This semester I am teaching a course, BIB 101 Old Testament History and Religion. Today I introduced a unit on the prophets. At the same time, students have a weekly assignment to read the book of Amos and write about what they’ve learned.

Today, while talking about the prophets, a student asked whether the prophets’ words were God’s words. It’s a perfect question to ask. Unfortunately, it’s not the right time in the course to give a good response–I want students to do more reading of the biblical text before we get to that student’s question. So, I gave a few vague, preliminary words, indicating that we would address this issue more fully in a few weeks.

So, what is the relation of God’s word to prophets’ words? What is the word of God? As I’ve been saying in these posts, the word of God is not information–it is not intellectual content. The truth is, we don’t need God to reveal truths such as are found in the Bible. The truths of the book of Proverbs, profound as they are (“Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people [Prov. 28:15]), do not require divine revelation. They are truths that everyone knows. Not even the prophets’ words–their denunciation of inequity and lack of justice and faithlessness to God–need divine revelation. Many in ancient Israel must have felt what the prophets declared. We thus don’t need God to give us information or even insight. The prophets could discern evil and denounce it without a special divine gift of information.

It is better to say that the word of God is God’s use of human words to effect God’s purpose. The word of God is an event in which we encounter God. As we hear or read the prophets’ words, which are genuinely their words, God confronts us with words of judgment and grace.

For instance, take the man (in Luke’s gospel, chapter 9) who wanted to follow Jesus, but who first wanted to bury his dead father. Jesus told him to let the dead bury the dead. In this confrontation with Jesus and his strange words, the word of God happened: this man and those who read and hear this story are confronted with the demand of the kingdom of God, a demand that differs from and takes precedence over the demands of conventional morality. In this confrontation, they are judged but also receive grace. It is similar with the ruler (Luke 18) who obeyed all of God’s commands, but is taken aback when Jesus tells him to give away all of his money. Jesus is here not presenting an addition to the law or commanding a new law. Like Paul (Philippians 3), the ruler was blameless according to the demands of the law. Jesus was not about increasing the burden of the law. Instead, in Jesus’ words the ruler experienced the challenging encounter with God. He was judged (he was the inadequacy of obeying the law) but also received grace (he was invited to follow Jesus). The word of God is the encounter, the disturbing confrontation with God that unsettles our conventions and assumptions about what it means to follow God.

It is important to emphasize the existential meaning of the word of God because doing so defines human beings as beings who are addressed by God. There are many ways of defining humans–biologically, psychologically, sociologically, and so on. But theologically considered, we are hearers–or potential hearers–of the word of God. Thus in Job 38, God confronts Job: “I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (38:3). In the world of the Bible, humans are responsible to God–we are called upon to respond to God’s address. Sometimes God commands; sometimes God questions. To be human is to receive the divine command or question and to respond.
This is why it is important not to equate the word of God with communications of information. The speech of God is not the imparting of information or truths of which we are ignorant. To think in this way is to reduce God to the status of divine encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are good, but they cannot judge and offer grace.  They cannot save.

The Word of God and Spirit

I want to begin where I ended my last journal entry and ask, Why is it important to affirm that the Word of God, i. e., revelation, is something other than information?

It is important to do so because information is inert; it cannot save us. It is true that we can make use of information for our good. If I am on a diet and learn that a piece of bread contains 100 calories, I may be deterred from eating it. If I am told that investing in a certain way will increase my wealth, I can use that information. But information, in itself, does nothing. It is simply available for use.

Contrast this with the Bible’s affirmations about the Word of God. It is living and active; it works; it accomplishes God’s purpose. Information is not living and active; it does no work; alone, it accomplishes nothing. It thus cannot save us.

The living and active quality of the Word of God explains why the Bible associates the Word with Spirit. Consider these texts:

  • John 6:63: It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
  • Psalm 33:6: By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath [literally Spirit or spirit, ruach] of his mouth.

Consider also how Word and Spirit are coordinated in Genesis 1: God speaks the creative word; the Spirit of God rushes over the void.

The coordination of Word and Spirit explains as well the Gospel of John’s teaching that, after Jesus (who is the Word of God) returns to heaven, the Spirit will continue the ministry of the Word: the Spirit will teach the disciples everything, reminding them of what Jesus has said (John 14:26) and will guide the disciples into the truth (John 16:13).

These texts tell us that the Word of God is spirit-ual; filled with the Spirit of God. Because the Spirit is creative, the Word is creative. That is what it means to say that the Word is living and active. Information may be interesting, useful, and important, but it cannot be filled with God’s Spirit. It cannot save us.

It is important to deny that the Word of God is information for another reason, one that bears on the way in which we read and interpret the Bible. For too long, Christians have treated the Bible as though it were a big encyclopedia of true statements–as though God wanted us to know some facts and caused the biblical writers to write those facts for our benefit. The result of this approach has been crazy and unsustainable interpretations of the Bible’s creation stories, as well as astonishingly stupid interpretations of the Bible’s eschatology. It all comes from treating the Bible as a huge store of facts, instead of approaching it as the principal way in which the living and active Word of God comes to us with creative and saving power.

So, we honor the Word of God when we receive its saving, transforming power–when we hear its message of judgment and deliverance. We do not honor it by ascribing to it the sort of petty truth that facts possess.

Revelation, Information, and Action

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:

Isaiah 55:10-11
“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.