Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Word of God

Sorry I haven't posted much recently, people visiting, running quizzes, etc.

In a recent post, I commented about how I came to realise that God's supreme revelation isn't the Bible – it's Jesus. One tendency I've noticed among those who stress this is that they tend to say that the phrase “word of God” mostly applies to Jesus rather than the Bible. Simon made a comment on my post, with a link to a piece on his blog arguing strongly that the phrase “word of God” should only be used of Jesus in the New Testament. The usual argument for that uses John 1, where the Word is clearly Jesus. But Simon's comment and his post got me thinking...

As he suggested, I've restricted myself to looking at the use of the Greek phrase ‘ο λογος του θεου as there are several Greek phrases translated “word of God” in the Bible, and λογος is the word used for Jesus in John 1. I want to look at how that phrase is used, and whether it applies to Jesus, the Bible, or something else.

Surprisingly, it's only used once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is in 2 Samuel 16:23, where we're told that Ahithophel's advice was like consulting the word of God. That could be talking about either, though they didn't know about Jesus back then.

Paul's Use

Paul uses the phrase seven times in seven different letters.

In Romans 9:6, Paul says that the word of God has not failed. In the context, it looks very much like he's talking about God's promise to Abraham, but I suppose there's a very outside chance it could be Jesus.

In 1 Corinthians 14:36, Colossians 1:25, 1 Timothy 4:5, 2 Timothy 2:9 and Titus 2:5, it could actually be about the Bible or Jesus – either would make sense in the context.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, however, it is contrasted with the “word of men” and seems to be a propositional message that Paul preached rather than the person of Jesus.

John's Use

John is generally very careful how he uses words, and was after all the one who identified the λογος with Jesus in the first place. But he only actually uses the expression “word of God” seven times, 5 of which are in Revelation.

John 10:35 and 1 John 2:14 could be about either Jesus or the Bible. In Revelation, the phrase “word of God and testimony of Jesus” is used three times (1:2; 1:9; 20:4) and seems to be speaking about a message. Rev 6:9 is similar, except it's the word of God and the witness of the martyrs.

Revelation 19:13 is, as far as I can tell, the only verse in the whole Bible which explicitly uses the phrase “word of God” to describe Jesus.

Other Letters

Hebrews 4:12 could be either, but 13:7 has “word of God” as the direct object of “spoke”, which suggests it's a message rather than a person. 1 Peter 1:23 and 2 Peter 3:5 could both be speaking about either Jesus or the Bible.

Gospels and Acts

In Mark 7:13, Jesus describes the Pharisees and scribes as “making void the word of God by your tradition”. The passage is well worth a look, because it is clear in context that the Pharisees were using their own regulations to change the teaching of Scripture. So “word of God” here refers to the Old Testament.

Luke uses the phrase “word of God” 15 times, seemingly to refer to Jesus' preached message. Luke 5:1 could either be referring to Jesus' teaching or to Jesus himself. In 8:11, the word is something that is preached. In Luke 8:21, Jesus says “those who hear the word of God and do it” rather than “who hear the word of God and obey it”, implying that the word is the message that's preached rather than the preacher. 11:28 is similar, but with “keep” instead of “obey”.

In Acts 4:31, the people “speak the word of God” (accusative not genitive – it's the message rather than the content). Likewise in 6:2; 13:46 and 18:11.

In Acts 6:7, the word of God “increases”, as it does in 12:24, where it also “multiplies”, both of which strongly suggest it's a verbal message...

In 8:14 and 11:1, it is “received”, which could apply to Jesus or the message. Likewise in 13:5, where it is “proclaimed”, but in 13:7 it is “heard” (accusative, not genitive – it's the message again). In Acts 17:13, the word of God is proclaimed, but it's in the nominative, so could be Jesus or the message.

Summary

There are then, lots of passages in the New Testament which require the phrase λογος του θεου to mean a verbal message, and only one, itself heavily apocalyptic, which requires it to be Jesus.

I therefore conclude that using the phrase “word of God”, or for that matter “Word of God” to describe the Bible or part of the Bible is absolutely fine. Yes, Jesus is the Word in a stronger (and less literal) sense, but that doesn't mean we can't follow the guys who wrote the Bible in calling it the “Word of God”.

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