Evangelicals seem to spend a lot of time talking about ‘the Word of God’. It is one of our catchcries. Are we mistaken in having this emphasis? What is the place of experience and the Spirit? Does the ‘word of God’ equal ‘the Bible’? In this stimulating series of three articles, John Woodhouse offers some fresh insights into what ‘God’s Word’ is, and what it means for the modern Christian.
You may have heard the complaint that for some, Christianity has become a religion of the mind only. The problem, it is said, comes from the exclusive emphasis on the Word of God. Words are rational, and by themselves words produce rationalists with a truncated view of Christianity, a limited God, a lack of openness to the fullness of God’s blessings, and a religion that is discussed more than it is lived.
It is an objection that is not without substance. There is enough truth in the description for it to be deeply disturbing to many of us.
Have we been guilty of putting undue emphasis on words? Let us look at both the Old and New Testaments to gain some perspectives on the question.
1. God and his word in the Old Testament
There can be no argument that in the Bible the phenomenon of God’s Word is very important. We think of the psalmist, for whom the instruction (‘torah’) of the Lord is more to be desired that much fine gold and sweeter than drippings of honeycomb (Ps 19:10); we hear the voice of the prophet who declares that “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is 40:8); or we remember that most profound description of the incarnation in the fourth Gospel—“the word became flesh and dwelt among us … ” (John 1:14). Wherever we turn in the Bible we find this extraordinary phenomenon: the word of God.
Perhaps we are too familiar with Genesis 1 to notice that the Bible’s description of creation is striking because of this very point: God created the world by speaking. There were many other ways in which the ancient world thought of the gods bringing the cosmos into being. Some saw it as an emanation from the thought of the deity; others saw it as an outcome of the activity of the deity, often in battle with opponents.
But the Bible says that God spoke:
God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Gen 1:3)
Could it be that, at the very moment of the world’s inception, God was indicating what kind of relationship he would have with us? As he brings the world into being, God’s point of contact with his creation is his word. God is not found in creation itself. Neither is God so removed from creation that there is no link. His word is the link, the point of contact. The far-reaching implications of this for man’s knowledge of God become clear in the course of biblical history.
Let us turn to a very clear statement still at a relatively early stage of the Bible’s story.
A reminder of the context: Moses is in the plains of Moab on the south-east border of Canaan after the 40 years in the wilderness. The rebellious generation of Israelites he led out of Egypt is now dead and he is addressing their children, who are posed to enter the promised land under the leadership of Joshua.
In chapters 1-3, Moses has reviewed their history since Sinai and in 4:1-8 he exhorts them to a life of obedience to God. Taking it up at verse 9, we should notice three things:
1. Moses addresses the new generation as if they had been at Sinai.
This is a major aspect of Deuteronomy. “God dealt with you at Sinai”, says Moses to those who had not even been born at the time.
Only take heed, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children—how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, “Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children so.” And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. (Deut 4:9-12)
This manner of speaking is exactly parallel to the New Testament statements: “You died with Christ” and “I have been crucified with Christ”. The Israelites were there at Sinai in the same sense that we were there at the cross.
2. The Israelites’ response to God was to be fully determined by the manner in which God had dealt with them.
Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. (Deut 4:15-18)
God had spoken and the only valid response was to hear and heed.
This is the problem with idolatry. It is not that God is invisible and so cannot be represented visibly. The Greek Orthodox have rightly pointed out that this would deny the incarnation (“If you have seen me you have seen the Father”, said Jesus). The basic problem with idolatry, and this Greek Orthodoxy does not see, is that God has spoken. Making an idol is not only stupid (as the prophets delight in saying), it is corrupt, because it disregards the manner of God’s dealing with us.
3. The consequences of this are radically exclusive.
And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and worship them and serve them, things which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But the Lord has taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own possession, as at this day. (Deut 4:19-20)
We do not meet God in the sun, the moon and the stars because these things are available to everyone everywhere. It is wrong to think that you meet God through the things he has created. This is why mysticism is also corrupt. God is met by those to whom he speaks.
The point is hammered out in the rest of the chapter. Looking forward to the time when the people will fall under God’s judgement, and then return and obey him, Moses poses the Israelites a question.
For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other beside him. Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you; and on earth he let you see his great fire and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. (Deut 4:32-36)
What is the point of all this? That the nature or ‘shape’ of our relationship with God is determined by the nature of God’s revelation. If God has approached us by speaking, then our response must have the character of hearing and heeding.
The biblical life of faith must be ‘word-shaped’. This will not mean that it should be academic or unemotional or dull—absolutely on the contrary. It will mean that Christian life becomes less Christian the less it is lived out from God’s word.
2. God’s word and human faith
There is another angle from which we should explore this. We have seen that God approaches us with words and that this determines the kind of relationship we will have with God. What will it be like to be in a right relationship with a speaking God?
To be more specific: If God’s word turns out to be a promise, how then should we relate to him? Will it not be by believing the promise? So it is that in both Old and New Testaments, God’s word and human faith in God constitute true religion.
This is the meaning of the famous statement in Genesis 15:6, quoted by Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3. After Abraham had expressed his difficulty in believing God’s word of promise, God forcefully reiterates it:
And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Gen 15:5)
Then we read:
And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen 15:6)
This statement is taken by some as suggesting that God is involved in some kind of play-acting. Abraham had faith but was a bit short on righteousness. Since he didn’t have any righteousness to speak of, God pretended that his faith was righteousness. God had nothing to put in the righteousness column of his ‘Abraham’ ledger, so he put down his faith instead.
This view misses the point of both Genesis 15:6 and Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians. At a turning point in the history of the world, God had spoken his word of promise to Abraham. And Abraham believed God. In God’s estimate, that is righteousness.
Now read the story of Abraham again, and notice what creates this faith in God. It is not any virtue in Abraham for which he is rewarded with a promise. Abraham’s faith is created by God, by the word of his promise. God’s promise calls forth a response of trust form Abraham.
This is precisely the point that is being made in Deuteronomy 4. In that instance, the language of obedience is used, but biblical obedience is not an antithesis to faith, any more than God’s commands are in contradiction to his promises. Both are expressions of his will. God’s words of command are in fact an expression of his words of promise (a point which is clear in Deuteronomy). Likewise, human obedience to the word of God is the expression of faith in the word of God.
What does this tell us? Since God has spoken, right relationship with God consists in this: his word, and our faith in him, created by his word. Take away his word and you have nothing. You may have superstition that pretends to be faith. You may have traditions that pretend to be Christianity. You may have religious feelings. You may have wise counselling. You may have a diary filled with good works, but without the word of God there will be no faith in God, no right relationship with God.
3. God and his word in the New Testament
Is this any different when we come to the New Testament? Now that the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us and God has poured out his Spirit on all mankind, has the place and character of God’s word changed?
The New Testament gives an emphatic ‘No’. Whatever else is overturned by the incarnation of the Son of God, whatever else can never be the same again, the manner of God’s dealing with us by word is confirmed and sharpened:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach … to proclaim … (Luke 4:18-19)
Repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations. (Luke 24:47)
God’s word to mankind is radically sharpened and clarified, and the boundaries of those addressed by God’s word explode from Israel to all the nations on earth. But it does not cease to be a word.
Yes, for a brief time while Jesus was on earth there seems to have been something more than a word. Jesus did say, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Seeing Jesus is an important theme in John’s Gospel, reaching its climax in chapter 20 with Thomas, for whom faith requires sight.
Unless I see … I will not believe. (John 20:25)
He saw and he believed, but Jesus’ response was,
Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. (John 20:29)
And the writer of the gospel adds:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31).
And as you move from the gospels to the book of Acts, to the epistles and into the book of Revelation, it is as clear as crystal that the word of the gospel, the word of the cross, the word of God is on centre stage. And the intended effect of that word is to bring about faith in God. Notice the note on which Acts concludes:
And he lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered. (Acts 28:30-31)
That is Christianity!
Notice the statement with which Romans begins:
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ … (Rom 1:1-6)
What is the goal of Paul’s apostleship? The obedience of faith among all nations. What is the means? The gospel about Jesus. Notice how Romans concludes:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory for ever more through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom 16:25-27)
Notice the thematic statement of Romans:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” (Rom 1:16-17)
Just as with Abraham, faith is not a sort of ‘instrument’, a means to some other end. The goal of the gospel in verse 16 is “for salvation”; in verse 17 the goal is “for faith”. To risk labouring the point, in Romans it seems that Paul asserts that the gospel word and faith in God brought about by the gospel word is what Christianity is all about.
Let us wander through the rest of the pages of the New Testament and see if this is their story too. Many of these passages will doubtless be familiar, but look at them again. What is the place of God’s word in their thinking?
We might crystallize the point of all this in a simple proposition: Where you have the word of God created faith in God (and nothing else can create real faith in God) there is all of biblical Christianity. Where the word of God is lacking there is no Christianity.
What does this mean for the accusation that evangelical Christianity with its emphasis on words has become an intellectual’s religion? There is, I suspect, some truth in the accusation. However, it is one thing to recognize that our faith and life are less than they ought to be. It is another thing to blame that inadequacy on a particular doctrinal emphasis. Noticing symptoms is one thing; diagnosis is another, and prescription is another again.
If our Christianity has become too cerebral it is not because of an emphasis on words. Words are not the property of intellectuals. To quote Moses:
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it … (Deut 30:11-14)
What was true of the word of God then is true of the gospel word. It is not the prerogative of intellectuals. It is near to all of us.
But the righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:6-9)
The answer to the error of intellectualizing Christianity is not to change its fundamental word character, but to ensure that we do not obscure or complicate or add to the word of God. We must not seek a level of experience other than faith in God crafted by the Word of God. We need to preach and teach God’s word so that every obstacle to the knowledge of God is destroyed (even the obstacle of anti-intellectualism), and every thought taken captive to obey Christ (cf. 2 Cor 10:5).
Evangelical ministry must be flexible and adaptable and imaginative and inventive as far as manner and style goes. But there is simply no liberty for it to be other than ministry of the Word of God:
Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me. (Col 1:28-29)
It is this that distinguishes evangelical Christianity from all other forms of Christianity. It is what makes evangelical Christianity not one Christian party among many, but authentic Christianity. Giving due emphasis to the Word of God is not only the touchstone for evangelical ministry, it is the point of reference for all our failings.
If our Christianity has become dry and dull and dead, it will be because the Word of God does not occupy the place it should. If our churches have become closed cliques with no concern for society and the world around us, it will be because the Word of God does not occupy the place it should. If we have become prayerless, it will be because the Word of God does not occupy the place it should.
It is not that evangelicals emphasize the Word of God while Catholics emphasize sacraments and charismatics emphasize the Holy Spirit and liberals emphasize good works and Anglicans keep it all in balance! The Word of God is not just the evangelical party flag, some arbitrary element that is our particular hobby horse.
Our whole practice and experience of Christianity flows from this reality: that God has spoken. Everything—and I mean everything—is a consequence of that reality.
In the following two articles, John Woodhouse will deal with two objections to this thesis that seem to be urgent at the present time:
- Is this narrow emphasis on the Word at the expense of the Spirit?
- Should the Word of God be identified as no more and no less than the Bible? Is God speaking new words today?