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.


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”.


Simon said...

OK, I take it back. You are right. :)

However, I disagree with your conclusion that "we can't follow the guys who wrote the Bible in calling it the “Word of God”". I think what you proved in your own exegesis is that they were more often referring to the kerygma than the graphos. The "Word of God" is not coterminous with the Bible. One is dynamic, the other static.

Now you've got me thinking about the influence of Islamic theology on modern Christianity. I shall post on that soon...

John said...

I agree that "Word of God" more usually refers to the revealed word than the written word. And more often to the preached word than to either.

I personally don't think we today can say that anything outside the Bible has the status of authoritative revelation from God. Everything else has to be tested against the Bible. Preaching is the word of God inasmuch as its message conforms to the message of the Bible.

"Words of knowledge" or "prophecies" might or might not be the word of God - they are to be tested against the Bible and you can only be sure they are valid if what they say is already contained in the Bible.

I don't for a moment think the Bible is static, but I think the key difference between Christian and Islamic theology on this is that the Bible is all about pointing to Jesus. see here, for example.

Simon said...

I personally don't think we today can say that anything outside the Bible has the status of authoritative revelation from God.

I know you know this, but the Bible did not drop from heaven wholesale. It was selected and compiled by a bunch of humans, went through several revisions, brought in some material, chucked out other material. Several Fathers had their own canon, and they were brought together and a bunch of humans sat down and standardized them. Revelation was a close call, but it made it; the Shepherd of Hermas was in for a bit, but then came out again.

If, as you argue, we can't say now that something is authoritative revelation, how could we say it then? Did people have "more of God" in those days? Has God withdrawn authority from the Church? What year did that happen? Be careful, this way lies madness!

My thought is that "authoritative revelation" is our criterion, not those of the compilers. I think we're being anachronistic with our views of inerrancy. Their criterion was probably more like whether or not the work was useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.

What I mean by Islamic influence is this; our anachronistic idea that "authoritative revelation" is a criterion for canon might also be evidence of such influence.

Susan A said...

good work brother. my biblical-scholar friends often tell our bible study that logos means message.

Susan A said...

ps hope my visit wasn't too distracting for you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, that's useful. However, I'd say that in the Mark 7 passage, the 'word of god' seems to refer to teaching they've got from the past, rather than directly to the Tanakh. Of course, these two could be functionally the same thing, it's just that I know nothing about the Judaism of the time - whether they were a written-down religion or one who relied mainly on some sort of teaching authority structure. Care to elaborate?

John said...

Judaism in the 1st century was very much a religion of the book, the book being the Torah (and with the Pharisees accepting the prophets too).

There were also lots of accretions to the Law, a fair few of which get alluded to, and which were developed beyond the time of Jesus and became the Talmud. Jesus' point there is that they were using their accretions to negate the Torah.

And as regards the canon, the usual picture is that of a child recognising its mother. What the church did was recognise the Scriptures by means of which it had been brought into being. They didn't confer authority on them; they recognised apostolic authority within them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks John, I liked this post as it gave me some more exegetical basis for thinking what I think already ;-D

I am always struck by the fact that NT writers say things like "God says" and "the Holy Spirit says" when they site OT passages - crucially including passages which are not simply reporting divine speech. Suggests that in a very real sense for them the whole of the OT is God's speech, not only his message etc. And who could forget that great Petrine passage: men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

John said...

Is it Psalm 110 which is described as David speaking, the Spirit speaking and God speaking?

Tyrone Ferrara said...

Revelation 13:5 - Are we in this 42 month period?

John said...

Using the conventional sensible interpretation of Revelation (i.e. not the mad Left Behind-type one), then some people today are certainly in that period.