On Scripture, 2: the Word(s) of God, a First Complication
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | September 26, 2019Hi friends, it’s common practice for us to refer to the bible as the Word of God. After readings on Sunday, we say, “The Word of the Lord.” The first half of the Holy Eucharist, which involves reading heavily from scripture, is subtitled “The Word of God” in The Book of Common Prayer (pg. 355). Today, I want to try and highlight one complication inherent in affirming the bible as God’s Word.
If we begin by affirming the bible as God’s Word, we do not get very far into the New Testament before the bible itself complicates this affirmation. Consider:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him….And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)
No sooner have we affirmed the bible as God’s Word than this book itself has pointed us elsewhere: towards something in the “flesh,” towards someone with “the glory as of a father’s only son.” The Word, the bible tells us, is a Person. The Word is not just a Person (there is no such thing as a generic or abstract ‘person’), but is a person in a particular kind of relationship: a Son possessed of the glory of a Father.
This is what I meant last week when I said that my operating assumption is that there is an articulable distinction between the bible and Jesus. Or, put differently, between God’s Word-as-text and God’s Word-as-person. Not only is there a distinction, but something like a hierarchy: person over text, Christ over bible.
Note that none of this is specialized work: if we begin with an assumption that the bible is God’s Word, then the very plain sense of these verses from John oblige us to distinguish text and person. Not to would be unbiblical.
If we are in search of God’s Word, then opening the bible is a bit like opening a Russian doll: no sooner have we opened it than we’ve found another! The Word of God points us elsewhere, and this ‘elsewhere’ is to the Word of God Incarnate. And once we arrive at this son-like Incarnate Word, we are presented with the Father to whom this Son relates. The bible points us towards the Word. And if this Word is a Son, we cannot help but ponder the Father. (We’re getting into Trinity stuff now, which is largely beyond the scope of this series.) What we see here is something like a chain of reference. The bible refers us to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ refers us to God, His Father who art in heaven.
These opening verses from John’s Gospel are some of the most powerful for calling attention to this chain of reference, but they are not the only ones. Mark’s Gospel, for example, begins simply by saying, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). Whatever else happens after that, it’s all about Jesus. All over the letters of Paul, which do not claim to give a narrative account of Christ’s life and ministry, we find the apostle beginning and/or ending his writings with his wishing for his interlocutors grace from the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 4:23, 2 Cor. 13:14, Eph. 1:2, Gal. 1:3, etc.) Never mind all the Christ-centered instruction contained in the body of the letters! The coherence of Paul’s project depends upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
My point is that everywhere the New Testament directs us towards Christ. Even in the midst of seemingly generic ethical instruction like “love your enemies,” the speaker is Christ (Matt. 5:44). In verses that seem to be nothing more than reasonable advice, we find a context in which Christ is central: “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” sounds like the kind of thing any wise grandparent would say. But it is followed by, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:23-24).
Again, what we see at work is a deliberate referral: what the New Testament does is point us towards Jesus of Nazareth. Opening the New Testament is a bit like stepping onto one of those moving walkways in airports: when we read it, we’re never standing on stationary ground; we’re moving somewhere. The bible is not an end but a means.
Near the end of John’s Gospel, we again get a clear sense of what these scriptures are for: “these [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”(20:31). What I am arguing is that for Christians, even a plain sense reading of the bible seems to suggest that the real point of all this is not reading a book but encountering a Person; one serves the other. It seems God has given us these scriptures with a why attached to them.
If this is true, then it follows that for Christians to refuse the bible’s ‘referral’ is to misuse the book itself. To deny the bible’s referential nature is to turn it into something other than the bible. The Word-as-text is only God’s Word when it refers us to the Word-made-Flesh, Jesus Christ. This is its purpose, its proper use, so to speak. Moving walkways in airports are out of order when they’re standing still.
It is no surprise, then, that, on Sunday mornings, the bible-centric part of the service called “The Word of God” leads us—moving walkway like!—into the Peace, in which we physically greet other persons, and ultimately up to the altar, where we encounter Christ’s body and blood. Word-as-text leads to Word-as-Person.
Two issues need pointing out. First, for the sake of clarifying the relationship between scripture and Christ, I’ve seriously flattened this topic. I’ve talked about the bible’s referential quality as its “use,” its “why” for existing. But the bible is not simply a tool with a straightforward use in the way that a can opener is; thus, our misuse of it is not always clear to us. On a moving airport walkway, we can see ahead of time where we’re going. Furthermore, the bible is (amongst other things) both beautiful and a source of beauty. Even in a secular context, the bible contains and inspires great art. To flatten art into mere use is both uninteresting and dangerous. I’ve simplified things for the sake of talking about the Word-as-text and the Word-as-person.
Second, we’ve tried to dodge, stumbled into, and positively stepped in a whole pile of other questions, not the least of which is, “Well, doesn’t all this assume that we have other ways of meeting Jesus against which we can judge our reading of the bible?” (The short answer is yes, of course we do.) Another is, “So are you saying that there’s only one way for any particular passage to refer us to Christ?” (Nope. That would be incredibly boring.) Most important, perhaps, is “What about the Holy Spirit?” (This is a great question!) Hopefully, I’ll address some of these, and others, in this series.
To summarize: based on the witness of the New Testament itself, for Christians it is not a straightforward thing to affirm the bible as God’s Word, as though ‘what God means to say’ is as simple as the Big Red Book on my bedside table. To stop with that Big Red Book would not take that Book seriously enough. This textual Word refers us to Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son. This person is what we’re after because this person refers us eternally to His Father in heaven, of whom He is the perfect image. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus says (John 14:9). The bible is God’s Word, then, because it is a literary icon of Christ the Word. Moreover, we can arrive at this conclusion simply by taking the bible seriously. We’ve not done any interpretive gymnastics to arrive here. To affirm the bible as God’s Word necessitates a second and more fundamental affirmation: the Word God speaks is Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made Flesh, who lived and died as one of us.
That the Word-made-Flesh lived and died as one of us in physical time and space will help us make sense of a second complication, namely that the New Testament at times seems to be aware that, despite its referential nature, it doesn’t say everything there is to say about this Word-made-Flesh. We’ll explore this next time.
 I’m indebted to Dr. Anthony Baker from Seminary of the Southwest for this phrasing.