January 2007 - Vol. 4
The Written Word of God
The Scriptures contain God's revealed truths that make it possible for the lives of human beings to go well, especially in the long run
by Steve Clark
The word scriptures means "writings." "The Scriptures" is short for "the Sacred Scriptures" or "the Holy Scriptures." Adding "sacred" or "holy" means they come from God. The Scriptures, then, are "the holy writings," the writings that come from God.
We sometimes refer to the Scriptures as The Bible, which translated literally from the Greek means "The Books" and in English means "The Book," or perhaps even "The Book of Books." The Scriptures, then, are the most important book ever written, the one book human beings cannot do without. It is the writings in this book that are the word of God.
The word of God is a literal translation of a Hebrew phrase. In the English language, we usually use "word" to mean a single word. The Hebrew equivalent could be used for a single word, a statement, or a lengthy discourse. If we are going to look for one word in English that would convey the range of meaning that "word" has in Hebrew, we might pick "message" or perhaps "communication."
In Christian theology, "the word of God" could refer to all that God wishes to reveal to us (his communication as a whole), or to Christ, the concrete embodiment or fulfilment of what God wishes to communicate to us, or to the Scripture itself. It is the Scripture that is our concern here. If, then, we were going to retranslate, "The word of the Lord!" more idiomatically, we might translate it, "This is what the Lord is saying to you!" or, "This is the message that the Lord has for us!" The response "Thanks be to God," then, would mean, "We are very fortunate that God has been willing to say this to us"—or say anything at all to us for that matter. With full justice he could have ignored us.
However, the "message that the Lord has for us" that we read above was actually spoken in Greek by Paul close to two millennia ago. Perhaps we might hear a reading from the prophet Jeremiah. That would have been spoken about six hundred years earlier in Hebrew.
There is a famous story about an early president of Yale University who insisted that all Yale graduates needed to learn Hebrew, a requirement that has long since lapsed. When asked why, he explained that he wanted them to know the language when they got to heaven. But does God speak in Hebrew?
Perhaps Paul made mistakes in his Greek. Would that mean that God made mistakes in Greek? Some have said that Paul's Greek and his way of speaking and writing would not have been good enough for him to pass a modern writing class. If so, did God speak poor Greek?
While such criticisms of Paul are something of an exaggeration to make a point, especially since the people in his day would not have subscribed to many of the rules taught in modern writing courses, he himself tells us that others criticized him by saying that "his speech [is] of no account" (2 Cor 10:10). He also admitted that he did not try to use "lofty words" (1 Cor 2:1), perhaps what we might term "elegant speech" or "literary speech." For the sake of the example, let us grant that Paul made grammatical mistakes and wrote and spoke low-quality Greek, somewhat the way some foreign person who has recently immigrated to the United States or Britain from some country with a different language might speak English. Does that mean that God communicates poorly?
God does not speak Hebrew or Greek or even English, although he understands all the languages in the world and can communicate to every human being in a way that human beings can understand. Nor do mistakes or inelegancies in what we proclaim to be "the Word of God" mean that God makes mistakes when he speaks or speaks inelegantly. But to communicate to us he does use the words of human beings who speak Hebrew or Greek or English and who sometimes make grammatical mistakes or speak without literary ability. In an analogous way, when we speak to others through translators, the words our hearers receive have many of the characteristics of the translators, even if they translate accurately.
This brings us back to the incarnational principle. The Lord uses things that exist in the space-time world to make contact with us. When he wishes to communicate, he most commonly uses human speech. But he has no tongue, lips, or vocal cords, since he transcends space and time. Therefore he makes use of human beings who do have them to convey the message or communication he wants us to receive. Otherwise he would need to produce miraculous skywriting or something similar.
Just as the burning bush no doubt had the normal characteristics of a desert bush of its kind, so those human beings who spoke or wrote the words we have in the Scriptures probably had the normal characteristics of speakers or writers of their time. Because those words come through the communication medium of human speech, they must have many of the characteristics of the channel through which they come. But that is not all that can be said of them.
The writings in the Scriptures, then, are human words with human characteristics. But they are not "merely" human words. The word merely is used in this and similar contexts to acknowledge that we are dealing with something that is human, or at least truly part of this space-time world, but is not only that. It comes from God or is united or joined in some way to God so that it is not only human and created. In the case of the Scriptures, the message we receive is usually a human message. Nonetheless, it is not only human. It is, more importantly, God's message that comes to us.
The Importance of Scripture
Christian teaching over the centuries has made use of various terms to help us understand what it means to say that words like those of Jeremiah or Paul can be God's word. One of the most important is revelation. We say that the scriptures, and the words in them, "contain revelation," God's revelation.
Using an old distinction in Christian theology, theologians often contrast "revelation" with "reason." "Reason" in this sense is the natural human ability to know and understand things. Knowledge we have by reason, then, is knowledge we human beings have acquired by our own efforts. Knowledge we have by "revelation," in contrast, is knowledge that has been given to us by God?
In principle, God might reveal to us things that we could come to understand by ourselves. According to Columbus in his Book of Prophecies, "With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies." If his account is accurate, because he believed he had the revelation of God that such a journey was possible, he was motivated to attempt it. He then discovered for himself that the Atlantic Ocean could be crossed and so discovered the existence of the American continent, landing initially in "the West Indies." The same fact, in short, can be learned by human effort ("reason") or by the revelation of God. We are mainly interested in those truths in the Scriptures that could only have been known by God's revelation.
God might have decided only to reveal facts about insects and reptiles that died millennia ago and left no records. Biologists then would be the ones mainly interested in the Scriptures. In fact, however, he revealed tremendously important truths about human life. He revealed who he himself was, how dependent human beings were upon him, how they could relate well to him, how they could achieve the purpose for which they were made, and how he himself would help them fulfill it.
God, in short, revealed truths that make it possible for the lives of human beings to go well, especially in the long run. Without this revelation, human beings are in serious trouble. Sometimes this is summed up by saying that God revealed truths "necessary for salvation." For that reason, we all should be interested in what the Scriptures say. The phrase "the Scriptures contain God's revelation," then, tells us why the Scriptures are so important.
Inspiration and Canonicity
Not everything in the Scriptures is there because it was revealed. Paul wrote a letter to the Philippians in which he explained that he was in prison and spoke about some of the things that resulted from his imprisonment. Those words are part of what we consider to be the Word of God. But Paul must have been able to figure out that he was in prison without getting special revelation from God! The Scriptures may be important to us because they contain revelation, but it is not true to say that everything in them is the word of God because it has all been revealed.
A passage in the Scriptures, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, contains the word that has come to be used to assert that the whole Scripture is the Word of God,
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.The important word here is "inspired." All of the Scriptures have come to us through inspiration.
The English word "inspired" in this text translates a Greek word that means "God-breathed." Scripture, then, is "God-breathed" or "breathed by God." Behind this word is a helpful image. When we speak, we make sounds, sounds that we have come to recognize as words. But we do so by breathing. When we stop breathing, when we "hold our breath," we cannot speak anymore. Only as we breathe out and form the resulting breath by our lips, tongues, and vocal cords do we make sounds that are words. To say that the Scriptures are inspired is to say that they are "breathed out" by God, spoken by him. What results is his word or message.
God "breathes his word out" through human beings. He does so through his own "Spirit." The Hebrew word that is translated "Spirit" could also be translated "breath." God's Spirit is God's breath, so God breathes into or through human beings by the Holy Spirit (the Divine Breath) to produce his message to us. In so doing, he "moves them" (2 Pt 1:21). Perhaps he moves them, as some of the Fathers thought, somewhat as if they were vocal cords, so that they speak what he wants spoken. Or, to use still other scriptural words, he "works" or "operates" in and through human beings by his Spirit to communicate to us (see 1 Cor 12:6). All these are New Testament ways to say that the Scriptures come to us "by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit."
Since we breathe through our vocal cords to produce words, it would be possible to say that our vocal cords speak. However, we rarely if ever feel it useful to say that we had a conversation with a set of vocal cords or that some vocal cords spoke to us. We rather say that another person spoke to us, because that person is the source of the speech. The same thing is true for God's word. To say that the Scriptures are inspired is to say that God is the source of them, the most important source of them. Therefore, he is the one speaking to us, not just the human being he is speaking through.
This does not mean that the human authors of the Scriptures are as passive or receptive in the process as vocal cords are when we speak. After all, God did not write to the Philippians. Paul did—in his own name. Nor did God have Paul write the letter as a mere secretary to tell them that God wanted them to know that Paul was in prison. Paul was writing the letter in the first person, and he was speaking to them about himself. Nor was he giving a prophecy. He was describing his own experience and thoughts to a group of people who knew him and whom he wanted to encourage and thank for sending him money.
To say, however, that the books of Scripture are inspired must at least mean that God is the ultimate source of what is said. It therefore must be true to say about everything in Scripture, however the content came to the human author, that God spoke it. The word "inspiration," then, tells us that the Scriptures originated in some action or work of God that means he is using them to speak to us. As the Second Vatican Council (DV 24) put it,
The sacred Scriptures contain the word of God and, since they are inspired, really are the word of God.The concept or word "inspiration," however, is not enough by itself to explain the nature of the Scriptures, because there are other inspired human words that have come in the course of human history. The Scriptures themselves tell us about true prophecies that are not part of our Bible. For instance, Paul speaks about many prophetic messages in the Corinthian church that he seems to think were real prophecies, and hence from God, which were not recorded and kept (see 1 Cor 14). He even says to the Thessalonians (1 Thes 5:20-21), "Do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good." This implies that when the early Christians gave "prophecies," some of what was said was given by God and completely faithful to imparting a message from God, although some was not.
We can read about Christian men and women in past centuries who got messages from God and spoke them to those who came to them—or perhaps to those who did not want to come to them. Nowadays, we can visit meetings of orthodox Catholics who are "charismatic" and can hear messages that purport to be prophecies. Solid charismatic teachers would say that the messages need testing. Some are, in fact, simply not from God. More significantly, some are only partly from God or have been distorted in their transmission. But some of them likely are from God, at least in part, because God still works in human beings to speak through them in a way that is more than just passing on human grace-filled meditation upon Christian teaching or the Scriptures.
We therefore need another word that allows us to describe the difference between the Scriptures and other inspired messages or writings. The word that has been most commonly used in theological writings is canonical. We also would speak about the canon of Scripture.
The word "canon" was originally a Greek word. It meant, at least in this context, ruler or yardstick or standard. The "canon" was the ruler or standard against which other things were measured. The United States National Bureau of Standards contains a yardstick of sorts that is the official "yard." If it were important to find out whether something were exactly an American yard, it could be compared to the "yardstick" that is in Washington, D.C. We might say, using theological language, that that is the canonical yard.
A yardstick measures the length of something. The Scripture "measures," or can be used to assess the math of, writings or speech. If we want to know if something is true Christianity, the truth that God wanted to reveal to us so that we might know how to be saved, we can compare it to the canon of the Scriptures. If some statement or writing does not compare adequately, it is not Christianity. At the very least it cannot contradict what is in Scripture and be considered "orthodox" ("straight" or correct believing) Christianity.
Canonicity tells us something more about what it means to say that the Scripture is the inspired Word of God. First, it tells us that all of it is true or reliable for knowing how to assess what Christianity is. There cannot be anything in it that falsely presents what has been revealed. It is not like some Corinthian (or modern) prophecies, a mixture of inspired words and human fancy, or perhaps a highly distorted transmission of something that began with a genuine inspiration. If it were, it could not be an effective standard.
Second it tells us that the various writings in the scriptures have been recognized by the church as the standard for Christian truth, just as the "yardstick" in the U.S. Bureau of Standards has been recognized as the standard for yards. The early church handed down to us books that were accepted as the inspired word of God and to be used as such. In the course of the process, synods of bishops sorted through the various questions that came up about the status of the books that different churches had preserved and determined authoritatively which ones were to be considered canonical scriptures.
Some of the questions about the canonical status of certain writings came from the fact that there were different versions of the Old Testament that circulated among Jews. Some came from the fact that there were various collections of Christian writings that were attributed to the apostles or at least used for authoritative teaching. By the end of the patristic period there were authoritative decisions by councils of bishops about what books should be in the canonical scriptures, certainly about which books belonged to the New Testament. Catholic teaching would say that any remaining disputed questions about which books should be considered Scripture, mainly which books should be included in the Old Testament, were most authoritatively settled by the Council of Trent, basing itself on synods and papal statements in patristic times. In making such decisions, however, the earlier councils and the Council of Trent did not understand themselves to be adding new books to the canon of Scripture. The canon was closed (completed) in the time of the apostles. The later decisions simply recognized which books that were claimed to belong to the canon of Scripture were to be accepted.
The result is that the Scriptures are, according to the Second Vatican Council, "the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the Word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles" (DV 21).
If they are "the supreme rule of faith," the canon, nothing else can take precedence over them. Although the church authorities or scholars can interpret what they mean, no one can cancel them or override them. They are the supreme rule of faith because they have been reliably discerned to be the inspired Word of God.
Catholics speak of other things as canonical. There is, for instance, canon law. Canon law tells us, to simplify a bit, how to conduct a properly run church. If something contradicts canon law, it is "out of order" or worse. There are also canonical doctrinal definitions, usually made by ecumenical councils. These tell us what opinions in a theological dispute cannot be held without denying something that has been revealed to us. To say that they are canonical is to say that they are the recognized standard in some matter.
Canon law and canonical definitions from ecumenical councils, or any other kind of canonical writings, are not, however, Scripture. They cannot be entered into the collection of scriptural writings, nor may they be read in the liturgy in place of the Scriptures. They are not the canonical Word of God, however authoritative they might be. They do not, according to the above statement of the Second Vatican Council, by their very nature "impart the Word of God Himself."
[Steve Clark is President
of The Sword of the Spirit.This
article is excerpted from Steve Clark's book, Catholics and the Eucharist:
A Scriptural Introduction, Chapter 1, published in 2000, available
from Tabor House.]