Our neighbor George, along with church friends, attended a conference on how to interpret holy scripture. On Sunday morning he worshiped at a local church. He was concerned when the liturgist following the reading of a scripture lesson said, “this is the word of God for the people of God.”
George said this wording seems to indicate that God actually spoke those words rather than words written by human beings inspired by God. George said it would be more honest and biblically correct to say “this is the word from our Holy Scriptures for the people of God.”
The phrase “word of God” appears over 40 times in Holy Scripture and the term “The word of the Lord” appears over 260 times. I understand that Scripture (and some people) uses the term “the word of God” about itself. My concern is that well-meaning people may honestly feel that God wrote the Bible and them handed it down to us. They don’t seem to realize (or find it difficult to accept the fact) that the Scriptures were not written by God but rather by inspired human beings. It is also important to realize that the authors wrote in the context of their cultural experience and brought their own biases to the material.
Serious Bible study helps us discern which passages are timeless, which are culturally bound and which are obsolete today. It also helps us discern which passages have more weight than other passages — they are not all equal.
It helps to understand that “the word of God” was inspired by God but not written by God. Theologian Peter Enns wrote: “The Bible – from back to front – is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living in a certain place and time. ... The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets His children tell the story’ so to speak.”
In most cases when we use the term “the word of God” we use the small letter “w” for word. This reminds us that we are reading a document inspired by God written by humans.
On the other hand when we use the capital “W” it means something entirely different. What is “the Word of God?” For Christians the word “Word” (Greek = Logos) is Jesus (John 1.14 “the Word became flesh and lived among us”). There is a major difference between “the word of God” and “the Word of God.” One refers to the “written word” while the other refers to “the Living Word of God.”
The Bible has been “my book” since I received a copy in Sunday school and a study Bible from my father in my early teens. I love the Holy Scriptures. I have spent years reading and studying them. But I don’t worship them. I worship God in Christ Jesus.
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are sacred to me and filled with wonderful stories (Genesis 1.1-11), powerful prophetic words (Amos 5.18-24)), fascinating history (Exodus 1.1-40.38), caring concern (Deuteronomy 24.14-22) and peaceful messages (Psalm 23). At the same time the words the writers placed in God’s voice can be destructive and violent. It has promoted slavery, how women are treated, violent retribution, wars of conquest and divinely endorsed genocide. Far too often we have used and misused Scripture to defend our position on these and other issues.
Author Brian Zahnd adds: “We need to understand that the Bible is not an end in itself.
If we see the Bible as an end in itself instead of an inspired witness pointing us to Jesus it will become an idol. Idols are gods we can manage according to our own interests. If we want to make the Bible our final authority which is an act of idolatry, we are conveniently ignoring the problem that we can make the Bible say just about whatever we want.
Is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New Testament? Yes, it is the same God. God doesn’t change but our understanding of God does.
I try to take a high view of Christ not a low view of Holy Scripture. I constantly find myself reading Scripture through the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. I do not read Jesus back into the Hebrew Scriptures as they can stand on their own two feet. On the other hand I do believe he fulfilled their hope for a Messiah. He is the living Hope.
Writer Mike Slaughter adds: “God is Lord of life not a god of wrath who wills vengeful death and destruction” and adds “our authority is not Scripture itself, but Scripture enlightened by the living presence of the Holy Spirit and interpreted in the trust and accountability of community.”
“Jesus is the true Word of God not the Bible,” writes Brian Zahnd, “Jesus doesn’t just interpret Scripture he challenges scripture” Many times Jesus will quote Scripture and then add “but I say to you.” He sees his mission not to abolish the Scripture of his day but to fulfill it!
In this regard Peter Enns writes “Jesus often read his Bible in fresh ways that challenge old ways of thinking about God and what it means to be the people of God” and “when it came to reading his Bible, here’s the bottom line about Jesus: he didn’t stay inside the lines the way many Christian readers today assume the Son of God would. Jesus of all people did not feel bound to follow strictly what the Bible said. Jesus was no rulebook reader of the Bible. Jesus was bigger than the Bible.”
Writer Adam Hamilton closes this article with these words: “So is the Bible the word of God? Or is it the words of people about God. I find Karl Barth’s way of answering these questions helpful: The Bible contains the word of God found within the words of human authors.
Let the dialogue continue. We only ask that you think on these things.
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The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis “Lou” Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at email@example.com.