The Bible and the Word of God
Gordon Oliver (Holy Bible, Human Bible, DLT, London 2006) identifies four different senses in which Christians use the phrase ‘word of God’. For Christians the Bible is the word of God but there are different ways of understanding this phrase. The Bible may ‘be’ the word of God, it may ‘reveal’ the word of God, it may ‘contain’ the word of God, and it may be a ‘sacrament’.
The Bible ‘is’ the word of God
This idea implies that the Bible is identical to God and this is extended to both the Old Testament (or Hebrew scriptures) and New Testament. Scriptural references which support this are found in 2 Timothy 3:16a ‘All Scripture is inspired by God’, and also in the references to Jesus saying that he is speaking words given from God the Father (John 8:26; 12:49 etc.). The view is that certain people are given the Holy Spirit for the purpose of their speaking words that are Divine in origin, and these have been gathered in the Old and New Testaments. Such a view requires the understanding that God is working also in the minds of the translators. A consequence of this is that the Bible is without error. One advantage of this view is that it is straightforward and uncomplicated. One should listen to the word of God and understanding is straightforward. However a number of areas may cause difficulty with this view. First, there are issues to do with certain attitudes which appear racist or sexist and which seem to be expressed in the Bible. Secondly, there are questions about the relationship between the Bible and scientific understanding. Thirdly, there is the question of different interpretations. What happens if different listeners, perhaps from different cultural or linguistic backgrounds, hear the word in different ways? This points to the question of the listener in relation to the word.
The Bible ‘reveals’ the word of God
With this understanding the word of God is not identified as the Bible but rather that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit as a whole and so reveals God’s Word. At certain times certain texts may seem to be particularly important for groups and individuals who see specific meanings and feel the word speaking to them through those texts at certain times. For example, reference to the goodness of creation and the idea that salvation is for the whole world brings special significance through the perspective of environmental ethics at a time of concern for global warming. This perspective allows both for a historical and literary-critical perspective on texts but also the spiritual and mystical understanding of them. The word of the past speaks to the present. Experiences of suffering or injustice in the Bible help connect the listener to experiences of suffering and injustice in their own lives today and offers spiritual insights into those experiences. Thus there is a conversation between the listener and the Bible which reveals the word. Such a view does not remove some of the issues arising out of the question of different interpretations. The dynamic quality that comes out of the idea of a conversation between listener and Bible raises the possibility of quite different meanings, so what happens if this leads to opposite or inconsistent conclusions?
The Bible ‘contains’ the word of God
This idea suggests that the Bible has within it the doctrines or beliefs, and also guidance on ritual. For this reason certain passages are more commonly used in worship, as these may be thought of containing the Word of God in an especially important way. This in turn suggests that some passages might not be so important and here the question may be asked, which are the more important bits and which are the less? In addition, we might ask what about the belief that God continues to speak to us, after the end of the New Testament, for instance through nature, or through the worshipping community of Church? The sense that the Bible contains the word of God may also point to the idea that the listener can enter into the world of the Bible, or the country of the Bible.
The Bible ‘as sacrament’
The idea of sacrament, a holy mystery which is a gift from God and a sign of the divine working in the world to transform it, is also associated with the Bible. Hearing the words of the Bible can be connected to a sense of receiving the sacramental gift of those words. This can help to provide a way of seeing the different interpretations and meanings that different Christians perceive at different times. This is the sense of a dynamic quality of sacramental transformation, a way in which the encounter between the person and God can occur through scripture. For example the story of the woman at the well in John’s Gospel is used within one Christian tradition to support people who are preparing adults to be baptized. In the story the woman enters into dialogue with Jesus and through that conversation and his words, she has an experience of transformation that leads to her own conversion. In reading this story adults preparing to become Christians may find themselves drawn into a conversation with God that can also lead them to receive the gift of the sacrament of the Bible (John 4:1-42).
Consider a passage you are studying through each of these perspectives and try to identify the different ways in which that text may be understood as the word of God.