Here is a sample of quotes I picked off the internet recently:
“The Word of God is the basis of our faith. If you don’t have a true copy of the Word of God, forget about faith”
“Each pastor in the room represented literally thousands of believers who longed to have a copy of the Word of God… As each man briefly held the whole Bible, the poignancy of the moment would often overwhelm him before he tearfully passed it on to the man beside him….Once all of the pastors had an opportunity to hold the Bible, it was placed back on the table. A white cloth was then laid over it, and the 25 pastors kneeled on the hard floor around the table and spontaneously began to pray.”
“LBC will send you your own Bible, absolutely free! No strings attached… We simply want to provide you with your own copy of the Word of God. “
“There is nothing more important than your copy of the word of God, and equally as important is your ability to believe in the reliability of your English-translated text”
“God’s Word For The Family (Burgundy Genuine Bonded Leather Gold Edges) “
“all you have to do is paste the following code into the HTML of a page on your website and your users will be able to search The Word of God, the Whole Word of God, and Nothing But the Word of God “
“The Entire Word of God in 365 Short Readings”
Underlying all these quotes is a particular set of assumptions – assumptions so engrained into the fabric of some versions of Christianity that it is very difficult to actually step back and examine them carefully. They are…
1. That “The Word of God” means the Bible. The Word of God is an object consisting of printed letters on paper, bound in leather with gold edging. The Word of God is an object you can (and should) own.
2. Everything printed in the Bible is the Word of God, and ONLY what is printed in the Bible is the Word of God. The text of the Bible is the complete, comprehensive, exhaustive and entire communication of God to man.
We are all familiar with this point of view. But WHY do some Christians adopt this point of view? I believe the answer to this question is a bit complex. One thing I believe we can demonstrate – it is NOT because this point of view represents the attitude of Jesus, the early Christians, or even the authors of the Bible text itself. Let’s start by examining the Bible at face value. According to my count, the phrases “Word of God” or “Word of the Lord” appear, in the King James translation at least, 435 times. I took an hour or so to examine these verses. In how many of them, do you suppose, does the phrase “Word of God” or “Word of the Lord” apply, without any ambiguity whatsoever, only to specific WRITTEN scripture? As far as I can tell, not once. It’s possible I’ve missed one, and I’d be happy to correct myself if someone wants to point one out. But it’s clear that “The Word of God” never or almost never explicitly refers to the WRITTEN word, but often explicitly refers to something else.
So what IS the “Word of God” (according to the Bible) if it is not the written word? The Hebrew used for “word” in these phrases is usually “dabar” and refers quite clearly to a SPOKEN word. Occasionally the word “peh” is used, meaning “mouth” (again indicating a spoken word). Occasionally, “millah” is used, also meaning a “saying” or spoken word. In the Greek New Testament, several words are used – “rhema”, which again, refers to a spoken utterance, and “logos”. “Logos” also means a spoken word. It also has many complex meanings in the various Greek philosophies. It can mean “truth”, “form”, “pattern” and can represent the underlying structure of reality itself, and the first emanation of the kosmos from the primal unity. The writers of the New Testament take advantage of these meanings and several times refer to Jesus as the Word (logos) of God. Many of the usages of “Word of God” in the Bible make it entirely clear from context that the “Word” is spoken, and heard – not written and read.
Isa 1:10 Hear [not read] the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear [not eye] unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
Isa 39:8 Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, Good is the word of the LORD which thou hast spoken [not written].
Hos 4:1 Hear [not read] the word of the LORD, ye children of Israel:
Jon 1:1 Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying [not writing],
Luk 11:28 But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear [not read] the word of God, and keep it.
Rom 10:17 So then faith cometh by hearing [not reading], and hearing by the word of God.
Heb 13:7 Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken [not written] unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.
There are hundreds of such examples. But isn’t this a technicality, asks the literalist? If the phrases recorded in scripture were the “Word of God” when they were spoken, aren’t they just as much so when they are written down? I believe there is a key difference. The Bible regards the “Word of God” not as a simple collection of syllables, but a divine, creative, spiritual force that enters into a person, “comes upon” them, and allows them to communicate powerfully – something that lives in people and grows. [Note, in reading these passages, remember that “word” means “spoken word”)
Num 11:25 And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease.
Eze 1:3 The word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.
Act 4:31 And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.
Act 12:24 But the word of God grew and multiplied.
Heb 4:12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
Even in the Bible itself, there are several scriptures that indicated that it is not the actual words of preaching or scripture that are of primary concern, but the animating spirit behind them:
2Co 3:6 Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
But didn’t the prophets and Jesus and the apostles regard the written Old Testament as God’s word? I believe there are conflicting indications. Let’s start with the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah says:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. (Isa 1:11-14)
Hear the prophet seems to be condemning the very observances of the law that the five books of Moses make clear are God’s direct commandments. But is it perhaps simply that God is displeased with these observances because of the hypocrisy of Israel? That argument could be made, but look at what Jeremiah says on the same topic:
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Put your burnt offerings unto your sacrifices, and eat flesh. For I SPAKE NOT unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: (Jer 7:21-22)
Isn’t that interesting. Jeremiah clearly says that God did NOT speak to Israel in the days of the Exodus and command burnt offerings and sacrifices, yet the book of Exodus clearly puts these commandments into the mouth of God – for example:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold. An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. (Exo 20:22-24)
It sounds very much like Jeremiah is accusing Israel of INVENTING the sacrificial system as a human tradition and placing it into the mouth of God. Later, when we step back from the face-value approach to the Bible, we can talk about the sources that went into the Old Testament and their conflicting agendas – but to return to the Bible, it appears very much as if Jesus says the same thing as Jeremiah. At the beginning of Exodus 20, God begins a long discourse of “his” laws It begins: Exo 20:1 And God spake all these words, saying,… and continues for several chapters, with the grammar making clear every few verses that it is still God talking (ie Ex 22:23) An even longer list is found in Deuteronomy. The Lord begins speaking to Moses in Deu 18:17 ( And the LORD said unto me,) and continues non-stop for many chapters. And yet, Jesus directly contradicts several of these commandments, or at least teaches that they are the commandments of men, not of God. Compare, for example:
Then shall an oath of the LORD be between them both, that he hath not put his hand unto his neighbour's goods; and the owner of it shall accept thereof, and he shall not make it good. (Exo 22:11)
And Moses spake unto the heads of the tribes concerning the children of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded. If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth. (Num 30:1-2)
As opposed to…
Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; … (Mat 5:33-34)
“God” directly commands oaths for certain things, Jesus prohibits them. Also notice that Jesus doesn’t attribute these commandments to God, but to “them of old time” Next –
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, (Exo 21:24)
As opposed to:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Mat 5:38-39) Again, not only does Jesus contradict Exodus, he downplays Exodus as simply a tradition – something that “hath been said”
Then there’s divorce:
When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. (Deu 24:1)
As opposed to:
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Mat 5:31-32)
They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. (Mat 19:7-8)
Again, Jesus contradicts Deuteronomy, and also makes this a human commandment of Moses, whereas Deuteronomy portrays it as the word of God.
Here’s another interesting indication of Jesus’ opinion of scripture. It’s a verse often quoted by “Bible only” Christians to show the importance of scripture – but the irony is usually missed. To the “pius” who rejected him, Jesus says this:
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. (Joh 5:39)
Notice, Jesus doesn’t say “search the scriptures, for in them ye HAVE eternal life” he says “for in them YE THINK ye have eternal life”. Jesus makes it clear earlier that these people don’t have the TRUE “word of God” – they only have the dead letter of scripture:
And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not. (Joh 5:38)
The “ye think” uses a Greek word (dokeo) which is often used not only of opinions, but often of manifestly false ones. For example:
Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought (dokeo) that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. (Joh 11:13)
It’s clear that Jesus is criticizing his opponents for honoring the scriptures, but NOT having living word of God. What of the scriptures that are traditionally sited to justify the Bible as the Word of God? Most of them become completely unconvincing when it is realized that “word of God” in scripture generally refers to the spoken word and it’s unique spiritual power – for example:
But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (Mat 4:4)
The “word” here is clearly the spoken word (rhema). The fact that Jesus is quoting scripture to Satan is not particularly persuasive, as Satan responds by quoting scripture right back. In fact, several verses imply that scripture can be put to dangerous uses (such as 2 Peter 3:16)
About the best remaining verse that can be salvaged is:
And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. (2Ti 3:15)
Unfortunately, while the scriptures (and the author here must mean the Old Testament, since it would have been the only scripture available to Timothy) may have been sufficient to save Timothy, they apparently were NOT enough for many other Jews who studied them from childhood. The conversion success among the Jews, who HAD the Old Testament scriptures to work with – was quickly eclipsed by the growth of Christianity among the gentiles – most of whom had NOT studied the Hebrew scriptures.
But wasn’t it God’s plan, and Jesus’ purpose – to found a church that would be based upon and rely upon the Bible? If so, why is there no record of Jesus ever writing anything down (except in the sand)? Why is there no record of his instructing his apostles to write anything down (with the tenuous possible exception of a brief letter at the beginning of Revelation)? Why did no original manuscript in Jesus language of Aramaic even survive? Why was it not until the next century that any lists of which books were scriptural was even contemplated? Why was it not until several centuries later that any collection resembling our current New Testament appeared? For centuries after that, only churches and the wealthy could afford a hand-copied edition of the scriptures. Not for 1,400 years (and the invention of the printing press) would a bible be commonly available. Not for hundreds more years would the literacy rate be high enough that most European Christians could read one.
The modern image of every Christian running around with a Bible under their arm is a very strange and unusual situation in the history of Christianity. Yet this image has imposed itself upon our mentality so strongly that many Christians can’t hear the phrase “the word of God” without instantly thinking of a thick book, bound in leather, with gold edges. We have become the Pharisees Jesus warned us about 😉
If time permits, I’d like to continue with this examination, stepping back from the direct scriptural approach.