Does “the word of God” not mean “the Bible” in the Bible?

In my last two posts I have reviewed Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014) and examined one of the key exegetical claims he makes in support of his view that “we hear God’s voice as we listen to scripture’s words” (p. 131, emphasis added).  That is, Hamilton believes that the Bible is not the word of God, but it becomes the word of God on those occasions when God speaks to us through it.

In this post I would like to consider another of the exegetical claims Hamilton advances in support of his view: that among the forty-one biblical “passages that speak of the ‘word of God,’ few seem to refer to something written down in a scroll or book. Most often, the phrase refers to a message about God that is heard–either spoken or preached” (p. 148).  (He says that the same thing holds for the equivalent phrase “the word of the Lord,” i.e. “the word of Yahweh,” which occurs 260 times.)

Now what Hamilton says  is quite true.  In the Bible, the phrase “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord” does tend to refer to something spoken, not written.  But this is not because the contents of Scripture do not constitute the word of God, so that even the biblical authors are distinguishing carefully between the written word and the “voice of God” that we may hear in or through Scripture.

Rather, these phrases simply reflect the original form of Scripture. “The word of God” is something spoken, not written, even in the Bible, because the biblical books were as a rule composed orally with the intention that they would be delivered orally.

To give a simple and clear example, Paul dictated his letters out loud; there is even a greeting at the end of Romans from the scribe who recorded that letter:  “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” And these letters were meant to be read out loud; Paul says at the end of Colossians, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans.”

The real issue is not whether the phrases “the word of God” and “the word of the Lord” in the Bible describe something spoken versus written. The issue is whether they are used to describe the contents of Scripture, rather than something that is mediated through Scripture.  And when we examine these phrases with that question in mind, we see quite clearly that the Bible equates “the word of God” and “the word of the Lord” with the oral compositions that were eventually written down as the Bible itself.

The clearest example is found in the prophets.  The essential building blocks of the prophetic books are passages that begin (for example), “This is the word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought.”  The word that God spoke to the prophet for the people on the named occasion is then recorded, and these “words” are put together to make up the prophetic book.  (One of the simplest places to see this is in the book of Haggai, which comprises the “word of the Lord” that came to that prophet on just four occasions.) 

These word-of-the-Lord units, we see, constitute the contents of the prophetic books.  Nothing further is needed to demonstrate that the authors or compilers of these books did not see the “word of God” instead as something that might later be mediated through some of the prophet’s words.  But in at least one case, the Bible draws for us an even more direct connection between the “word of the Lord” that was spoken to the prophet and the written book we have today.  At the end of each of the four major units in the book of Jeremiah, there is a depiction of his words being recorded in a book or scroll.  We are allowed to witness the composition process itself and see how the spoken “word of the Lord” became the written Scripture.

The same thing can be seen in other parts of the Bible.  The basic building blocks of the law of Moses are passages that begin (for example), “The Lord said to Moses,Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.”‘”  Now this is not precisely the formula “the word of the Lord,” but it is clearly another case of what is spoken by God being recorded in the eventual written Scriptures, becoming their contents.

It is true, as Hamilton documents, that in places the Bible uses the phrase “the word of God” to mean something other than the written Scriptures.  In the book of Acts, for example, the phrase means essentially the same thing as “the gospel” or “the good news about Jesus.”  The phases of the church’s expansion in Acts are all marked off by variations on the phrase “the word of God grew and multiplied,” meaning not the Bible, but the community that had embraced this good news.

So if the biblical writers, in such places, aren’t using the phrase “the word of God” to refer to what we know today as the Bible, what would they call the Bible?  Characteristically, they use the phrase “the Scriptures.”   But this does not mean that they did not consider “the Scriptures” to be “the word of God.”  Once again, what they had in mind was simply the form:  by “Scriptures,” they meant the messages spoken by God for his people that had been written down in the Bible. (“Scriptures” means “writings.”)

If anything, Hamilton’s argument shows us that we today can use the phrase “the word of God” to refer to more things than the written Bible.  I find it encouraging and empowering, in fact, to envision the proclamation about Jesus as the “word of God” going forth to share good news with the whole world.  But just because the biblical authors model such uses for us, this does not mean that they saw the Bible itself as anything less than the word of God, which might only become the word of God if the Spirit picked out a part of it and used it to speak to us.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Does “the word of God” not mean “the Bible” in the Bible?”

  1. The culture of the Bible was an oral culture, most were not literate, so there was a special class of scribes that recorded important things so they could be read back later. The authority of the text was based on the authority of the original speaker of what was then written down. In the case of the Bible, we believe that what was written down was inspired by God and that there was a later repetitive process of canonization which recognized texts as Scripture to eventually compile the Bible we have today.

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