In this, the final article of his series, John Woodhouse looks at the connection between the Word of God and The Bible. Are they one and the same? Does God speak new words today?
Where there is the word of God, and faith in God because of that word, there is the totality of Christianity (Briefing #10).
That, of course, is a paradoxical statement. But I have put it like that to highlight the fundamental and essential character of our faith. The Christian life of faith, in both Old and New Testaments, and in the experience of believers down the centuries and across the world, is brought into being and nourished, and brought to maturity by God’s Word.
In the last issue of The Briefing we looked at the objection that this is too narrow a view of how God works—that it neglects the work of the Spirit. We saw that God’s Word comes to us by God’s Spirit, just as (forgive the foolish analogy) my words come to you by my breath. That makes them my words. In this third and final article we come to a question that, in a sense, should have been first on our agenda. What is this ‘Word of God’?
Does ‘the Word of God’ mean ‘the Bible’?
Is it correct to assume—as I may seem to have done—that ‘the Word of God’ simply means ‘the Bible’?
We should not move too quickly to that identification. It is not as obvious as we might assume. Certainly in the Bible the phrase ‘the Word of God’ does not always mean ‘the Bible’. When Paul said, “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”, he did not mean “Pick up your Bibles”!
The issue here is not whether the Bible is the word of God. Upon that most of us agree. But at the present time there is an uneasiness with the proposition that the word of God is, for us, no more than the Bible. What if God is speaking other things, not, of course, at odds with the Bible, but nevertheless independent of the Bible? Are we guilty of quenching the Spirit and rejecting prophecy if the only word of God we hear is the Bible? Do we really have all of Christianity where there is only the Bible word of God, and the faith in God it brings about?
The question, in other words, has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture. This is the issue that gave rise to Martin Luther’s slogan sola scriptura—scripture alone: that not only is Scripture the Word of God, but only Scripture is the Word of God. This is a much neglected issue, which has received very little recent attention from evangelicals. What is the basis, and what are the implications of the Reformers’ view that the Word of God is the Bible and the Bible alone?
It depends what you mean by …
We need to begin by clarifying our terms. Before we ask, “Is God speaking new words today?”, we need to work out what we mean by “God speaking”. An illustration might help.
Suppose a Christian friend says to me, “I think your sermons are too long”. Is God speaking to me? Since God is in control of all things, they are certainly the words he wants me to hear at that moment. Is it God’s will that I take notice and shorten my sermons? Could well be! God is certainly accomplishing his purposes by controlling speaking events, because he is accomplishing his purposes by controlling all events. However, is may be more pleasing to God if I take up with my friend his slack attitude to the teaching of the Bible—and keep preaching just as long. That is at least a possibility!
Is God speaking new words today? It depends somewhat on what you mean by God speaking. What would not be right, however, is to describe my friend’s wise and helpful comment as ‘the Word of God’.
There is an event in the New Testament which illustrates this point. In Acts 21:4 we find that some Christians in Tyre “through the Spirit urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem”. But Paul was not disobedient to God when he did go on to Jerusalem. These words, which in some sense were through the Spirit, were not what the New Testament calls ‘the word of God’. The word of God is, as Peter put it, “the word that was preached to you” (1 Pet 1:25). It is what is elsewhere called ‘the gospel’.
So we must ask another question.
What does the Bible mean by ‘the Word of God’?
This is an important and not a self-evident question. What did Paul have in mind when he wrote “take the sword of the Spirit”? If he didn’t mean “pick up your Bibles”, neither did he have in mind something vague and indefinable. He (and his readers) knew what he meant. And it was clear and precise.
1. ‘The Word about God’ and ‘the Word from God’
Firstly, the phrase ‘the Word of God’ can have two senses. Both of these are to be found in the New Testament. It is the Word about God, but it is also the Word from God. In some contexts one of these senses will be more important than the other.
2. ‘The Word of God’ is the apostolic gospel
In the New Testament ‘the word of God’ is that which has been received from the apostles (see such texts as Acts 6:2; 11:1; 18:11; Col 1:25). That is the word of God which is the sword of the Spirit. That is the word of God which Paul says is at work in the Thessalonian believers (1 Thess 2:13). The Word of God is, as Peter put it, “the word that was preached to you” (1 Pet 1:25).
3. ‘The Word of God’ is a given, known message
There is, from the earliest New Testament writings, a sense of ‘givenness’ about the Word of God. It is a message which the apostles realize they have received, and which they authoritatively pass on (1 Cor 15:3ff). This is what they call ‘the Word of God’.
It is the same throughout the Bible. There are moments of history when God makes known his purposes, when he reveals his grace—moments when he speaks. He spoke his promise to Abraham and restated and expanded it at Mount Sinai. He spoke his promise to David. He spoke through the prophets. Indeed,
… in many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son … (Heb 1:1-2a)
And God’s Word once spoken does not fade away, but remains and accomplishes his purposes (Isa 55:11). Once spoken, it is addressed not just to those who first heard it, but to succeeding generations—and just as immediately and directly to them as it was to the original hearers (we saw that especially in Deuteronomy 4 in ‘The God of Word Part I’, Briefing #10). Note how the author of Hebrews introduces Old Testament quotations with “The Holy Spirit says …”—present tense (Heb 3:7; cf. 9:8; 10:15-17).
The New Testament repeatedly speaks of the word of God in this sense—a word that is known, a word that has been received, yet by the work of God’s Spirit a word that continues to be at work. This is the “sword of the Spirit”, the word that brings about new birth, the word which calls forth faith in its hearers.
4. ‘The Word of God’ received from the apostles is complete
Now the question is: Is this the Word of God which was received from the apostles complete? The New Testament is very clear.
But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through the sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thess 2:13-15)
The words in italics refer to what Paul goes on, in 3:1, to call “the Word of the Lord”:
Finally brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed on and triumph, as it did among you.
This word has been given, indeed entrusted:
O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim 6:20)
But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. (2 Tim 1:12b-14)
Of a bishop we read:
… he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict. (1 Titus 1:9)
Anyone who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. (2 John 9)
Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3)
In other words, within the New Testament it is clear that this Word of God is now complete, at least “until that Day”. We cannot add to this Word for the totality of Christianity, any more than we can add to Christ. Where there is this Word of God, and faith in God because of it, there is the totality of Christianity.
5. God continues to speak that Word
The New Testament is clear that in the Christian’s experience God will continue to speak. But the Word he speaks is not something new. In the words of the hymn:
God yet speaketh—by his Spirit
Speaketh to the hearts of men,
In the age-long word expounding
God’s own message now as then;
The age-long word is still the sword of the Spirit. It is that word which is at work in you who believe. It is the gospel. It is the message of Christ crucified, risen, ascended.
What about the Bible?
The word of God once received, and written down, continues to be the living word of the living God—thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit. This is a thoroughly familiar idea in the Bible itself.
The Bible exists precisely because there were those who heeded the apostolic injunction to guard what had been entrusted to them by the Holy Spirit. As we have seen, in the Bible the phrase ‘the Word of God’ does not always mean ‘the Bible’. But the Bible is the Word of God. And it is complete.
To suggest that there is more to the Word of God than the Bible is to suggest that there is more to the Word of God than that which was entrusted to the apostles (an idea contrary to the New Testament) or that they failed to pass on adequately their trust (which is contrary to the evidence).
The question “Is there more to the word of God than the Bible?” can now be seen in a proper light: Is there more to Christ than the apostolic gospel which has been delivered to us in the Bible?
Do we really have all of Christianity where there is only the word of the Bible and the faith in God that it brings about? You might as well ask: Do we really have all of Christianity when we have all of Christ?
- Christian life and ministry will be marked by faith in God created by his word. It will only be possible to persist in such a ministry by that faith. The latest counselling technique or church growth formula will be a challenge to that faith. We are tempted to put our trust in all manner of alternatives to the word of God. That temptation has always been, and always will be with us.
- The Christian life and ministry will be marked by prayer. It is the word of God which I have heard, and which is at work in me. If I believe that, I will pray.
- It is the word of God that is the source of our faith and the content of our ministry. All things must be subordinated to the goal of seeing the word of God heard and understood and believed.