This is the eighth in a series of posts on Understanding the Bible in the 21st century.
We have looked at what Jesus, the Bible and the Bible authors say about the Bible and how they used their scriptures. Now it is time to see what we can conclude about the Bible, and whether some claims about the Bible can be sustained.
First, is it correct to describe the Bible as ‘the Word of God’?
The meaning of ‘Word of God’
By ‘Word of God’, most people mean that the Bible is actually God’s words, communicated through the human authors. But is this true?
What ‘Word of God’ means in the Bible
According to BibleGateway.com, the phrase “Word of God” occurs 39 times in the Bible, mostly in the New Testament, and the phrase “Word of the Lord” occurs 230 times, mostly in the Old Testament. These references mostly fit into the following categories:
God speaking in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, both phrases almost always mean that God spoke to one or more people, either directly or through a prophet – i.e. verbal rather than written communication. Example: 1 Chronicles 17: 3: “But that night the word of God came to Nathan, saying ….”
The phrases almost always cannot mean the written text of the Old Testament, because it wasn’t written at that time, and the context clearly shows it to be a spoken word.
God speaking through Jesus or the Holy Spirit
In the New Testament, the phrases sometimes have a similar meaning, as Jesus or the Holy Spirit speak to people. Example: Luke 5:1: “One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.”
In a very small number of cases, “Word of God” means Jesus. Example: Revelation 19:13: “He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.” John 1 calls Jesus “the Word” but doesn’t actually use the phrase “Word of God”.
The message about Jesus
But the most common usage of these phrases in the New Testament is to mean the message about the coming of Jesus, spoken by the apostles and obviously not yet written down in the form we now have it. Example: Acts 12:24: “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.”
What ‘Word of God’ doesn’t appear to mean
I cannot find a single place where the Bible is unambiguously called “the Word of God”. The closest include these:
- Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” This passage is often applied to the Bible, but the text doesn’t make that connection. In fact the context talks about God’s sight, suggesting that the passage is about God speaking and seeing, not about a written text.
- Matthew 15:6: “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” Jesus could indeed be speaking here about the Old Testament, but he could equally be talking just about the Law given by God, which is only a part of the Old Testament.
- John 10:34-35: “Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, “I have said you are gods”? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came – and Scripture cannot be set aside …”. Jesus here quotes Psalm 82:6, which he clearly describes as “Scripture”, and it could be that he uses “word of God” to also mean Scripture, but this isn’t clear. This is probably the closest that the Bible gets to calling Scripture the word of God.
Some misleading statements
In researching this, I have come across several christian websites that say that the Bible clearly describes itself as the word of God (see for example CARM, Bible.org and Got Questions). But none of them actually quote a passage that says this. Instead they quote passages that describe the Bible as Scripture or inspired, which is not the same thing.
Two arguments are sometime used to justify the description of the Bible as the word of God:
- The Bible many times records where God has spoken to people. It is claimed that this makes the Bible the word of God. But this is clearly an incorrect argument. Many christian books may quote the same occasions where God spoke, but this doesn’t make them the word of God. No, all we can say about these passages is that they show that the bible records the words of God on many occasions.
- Many christians argue that the Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), so this must mean that it is the word of God. But we have seen (What does the Bible say about itself?) that the meaning of inspired (literally “God breathed”) is not clear, and while it may mean that God “breathed out” the words, it is perhaps more likely that it means that God breathes into the words, or that God breathed into the authors. So, again, the argument does not necessarily follow.
Some counter arguments
As we saw in How Jesus and the apostles interpreted the Old Testament, Jesus and the apostles did not quote and interpret the Old Testament as if they were the literal and unchangeable words of God, but flexibly and creatively.
So it doesn’t seem like the Bible is God’s actual words, given to the authors. The authors have different styles, some use less correct grammar than others, and they don’t make any explicit claim to be writing the exact words God has said to them. Rather, they claim to be recording what they have seen and heard, or what others have seen and heard (see for example Luke 4:1-4). Some of what they record is claimed to be the actual words of God, but they don’t claim this for their writings.
These conclusions are reinforced by Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, where he carefully distinguishes between advice which comes from “the Lord” (v10) and from himself and “not the Lord” (v12, 25). It seems Paul is claiming that some of the things he writes are not directly from the Lord, although he has the Spirit when he makes his judgment.
I conclude then that the Bible cannot be said with any confidence to be the “word of God” in the sense of the actual words of God. It doesn’t make this claim in any clear way. It clearly had human authors, who believed they were recording important words or events that revealed God. That God inspired them and led them is clearly a reasonable conclusion, but it is by no means clear that God gave them the exact words.
If we want to be Biblical in our terminology, we will use “word of God ” to describe (i) actual words of God, or (ii) Jesus or (iii) the general message about God’s salvation through Jesus. It may be that describing the Bible as the “Word of God” in sense (iii) is an acceptable statement of faith that God speaks through the Bible, but we should be careful to distinguish what we mean by this, and not allow misconceptions to creep in.
This is not a radical conclusion
Some christians may be fearful about this conclusion, but it really changes very little. The Bible is still the written revelation of God’s actions in jewish history and in Jesus. We will still have disagreements over interpretation whether we believe it is the Word of God or not. It will still require faith and obedience to believe and act on what the Bible tells us. We will consider these outcomes in a later post.