Monday, January 12, 2015

What does the Term “Word of God” as applied to the Bible Signify?

The word "Bible" means simply "books."  The term is applied to a Jewish collection of books (ta Biblia) in the ancient Greek translation of Daniel 9:2.  These books included Jeremiah, which was treated as a prophetic book with special hidden meanings.
            In the early first century the content of the Jewish Bible was debated.  All Jews accepted the Torah as word of God.  Pharisees also included Prophets and Writings in their Bible, but Samaritans and Sadducees did not. When Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, in the postwar reconstruction of Judean religion led by the Pharisees, the Jewish Bible came to include: Law, Prophets, and Writings.  These Books were regarded as divinely inspired.
            Early Christians used the Jewish Bible in Greek translation (i.e., the Septuagint) as their Scripture.  The Septuagint also included certain other texts not in the Jewish Hebrew Bible.  Christians referred to the Greek collection with the additional writings as the sacred Scriptures (2 Tim 3:15-16), which were inspired by God.
            Early Christians associated these books with the "old" covenants that God had made with ancient Israel.  They conceived of themselves, however, as a people with whom God had established a new covenant (Hebrews 8:8-12; quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34).  On the basis of Jeremiah's "prophecy" the old covenants were found to be obsolete, meaning "inadequate" for the new covenant people of God.  Nevertheless they retained the Old Covenant books (i.e., Old Testament), since they considered them inspired, reading them from a Christian perspective.  Eventually a new collection of Scripture emerged for the Christians; it included the Old Testament Books plus a smaller collection of New Covenant books (i.e., New Testament).  The New Testament Books used today were first listed by Athanasius in 367 CE.  The Old Testament collection of the Protestant Bible was brought into accord with the Hebrew Jewish Bible by Martin Luther in his 1534 German translation.  Collecting the non-Hebrew language texts in the Old Testament at the end he designated them "Apocrypha" ("hidden), a designation Jerome had used.
            Hence the Bible is comprised of three parts (Law, Prophets, and Writings), if you are referring to the Jewish Bible.  It is comprised of two parts (Old Testament, the same as the Jewish Bible, and New Testament), if you are referring to the Protestant Bible.  It is comprised of two parts (an expanded Old Testament, which includes the Apocrypha, and New Testament), if you are referring to the Roman Catholic Bible. The Apocrypha was declared to be inspired in all its parts at the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1560.  Today Protestants do not include the Apocrypha in their Scriptures, although it was part of the Old Testament in the first edition of the King James Version of 1611.
            The expression "word of God" appears in the New Testament, although it is unclear in many instances what the phrase signifies.  In those instances that are clear "word of God" refers to a number of things: to something preached (Acts 4:31; 11:1; 13:5, 46; 1 Thess 2:13; Heb 13:7; 1 Pet 1:23-25), to the word God spoke in creating the world (2 Pet 3:5-7), to the resurrected Christ (Rev 19:11-18), to God's son Jesus (Heb 1:1-4), to the Torah (Mark 7:13).
            In an essay entitled "In Praise of Books Richard Aungerville, Bishop of Durham (1287-1345) refers to "Scripture inspired by God."  In his introduction to the 1382 English translation of the Bible John Wycliffe referred to the Bible as the "Word of Truth," and in the later version of 1388 as "Holy Writ."  William Tyndale in 1534 refers to his translation of the New Testament as "Scripture" and "word of God."  The Coverdale Bible of 1535 on its title page refers to the Bible as "the word of God."  The introduction to the King James Version of 1611 and 1769 says: the Bible "contains the word of God, nay is the word of God," but also seems to regard the act of "preaching" as the "sacred word." Another statement suggests the idea that the Scripture communicates the word of God, apparently meaning that the Scripture in some way contains the "word of God."
            During the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the reformers (Luther and Calvin) referred to the Bible as the Word of God, but they "did not mean that the book and the revelation were the same."  The authority of the Bible as the Word of God derives from its content.  "There was no acceptance of the Bible simply as 'sacred book.'"  To put it differently: the word of God is contained in the biblical content; the Bible is not a written icon.
            This hasty and incomplete survey through Christian history suggests that that the phrase "word of God" can refer to a number of things: writings containing the word of God, an act of preaching, Jesus, the word God spoke at the act of creation, the resurrected Christ, the Torah.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition the term Holy Scripture or inspired Scripture is applied in one tradition exclusively to the Jewish Bible, in another exclusively to Jewish Bible and New Testament, and in another exclusively to Jewish Bible, Apocrypha, and New Testament.
            It appears that the phrase "Word of God" can be applied to whatever one wants.  If you believe that it (whatever it is) is the word of God, then so it is.  As applied to a collection of books, the phrase "word of God" carries with it a claim that books so designated are special religious literature, having an unspecified divine authority.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

For the Reformation see Dillenberger and Welch, Protestant Christianity (Scribners, 1954), 45-46.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie. Good inquiry. Personally, I take all writings to be "graven images" and thus cannot be, of themselves, the "Word of God." Taking them as such violates the 2nd Commandment of Moses (Exod 20:4--5). I don't go so far as to say that there should be no writings, only that "bowing down to them or worshiping them" breaks that commandment. Hence, in worship services, after the reading of scripture, I never join the congregational response, "The Word of God." For me, our scriptures are priceless writings. They, themselves cannot constitute the world of God, which cannot be captured or frozen in stasis, but remains spiritually creative, as in the prologue of John's Gospel.

Ed (Edward Reaugh Smith)

bobinberea said...

Thanks, Charlie. I have saved this and will send it to one of my classes after a while. Keep up the good work!

Bob Fowler

Dennis Maher said...

Charlie, this is a fine and concise summary of this issue. It would be interesting to continue it with fundamentalism beginning in the 19th century which cemented this thinking in the US today. Barth inverted this discussion to insist that Word primarily meant Christ as revelation of God (along with written and proclaimed Word). Then, most interesting in our time was the split of the Missouri Synod Lutherans in the '70's. There must be a good book on this: the controversy about the gospel being "in" the scriptures or "merely" witness to the gospel. Martin Marty probably did it. Another angle is how Reformed confessions such as Westminster begin with the Bible as Word, whereas the early creeds began with God the Father. Heidelberg begins with Christ (or his personal impact on the believer). It wasn't til the Presbyterian Confession of '67 that Barth's take was used: Christ, God, Spirit, World.

Anonymous said...

Herein I'm equating Word of God with Ultimate Value. My contribution would be to add two words: What Does the Term 'Word of God' Applied to the Bible Signify "For Whom." If someone meets up with the bible in some transformational way, then that individual might ascribe some ultimate value to the bible or some expression or interpretation of it. If one has made the ultimate decision of choosing to be a Moses-follower or Jesus-follower, how could the bible not have ultimate value since it contains the oldest material about these figures. Of course the word of God may be a less complex and more direct experience, without the bible as an obvious intermediary, the words of my father sixty years ago are a good example, "Gene, I hope that you and your brother never smoke or drink." Since that 'word' was delivered in spirit and not by law, it was a successful message.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, pa.