Many Christians, particularly evangelicals, refer to the Bible as ‘the Word of God’. What does this really mean?
By using this title are we saying that God dictated the Bible; literally spoke or sanctioned all of its words? That it’s a flawless and complete record of all that God has ever wished to communicate to us? That it’s fully accurate in all details, including historical and scientific ones? That everything contained in it is literally true and universally applicable?
This has certainly not been the view of most Christian thinkers throughout the ages. Jesus, not the Bible, is the true incarnate ‘Word of God’ (as spoken of in John 1:1); he is the divine and eternal ‘Logos’. Jesus, not the Bible, is Truth embodied, Truth personified (John 14:6). And Jesus alone is ‘perfect’ and ‘complete’.
Jesus said to the Pharisees ‘you diligently search the scriptures, believing that in them you will have eternal life; but those very scriptures point to me’ (John 5:39). The Bible’s primary purpose is to point us and lead us to Christ.
I accept that the Bible contains ‘words of God’. Most importantly there are the words directly spoken by Jesus, though of course these are always reported and often differ between the various gospel accounts – and even the original manuscripts are translations, as Jesus didn’t address his followers in Greek. But they are as close as we can get to Jesus’ actual utterances, so they’re highly significant.
There are also God’s messages apparently directly communicated through his prophets. However, these only account for a small proportion of Scripture, and the extent to which even these are direct divine ‘dictation’ is questionable.
The rest is very much human in authorship, so not obviously God’s Word in any straightforward sense. However, it may of course still be divinely inspired – so what does this actually mean and how might it work?
Inspired by God?
There’s the common meaning of inspiration, which Peter seems to be referring to in 2 Ptr 1:21: ‘prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’. It’s ‘inspired’ utterance, being caught up in the Spirit and giving voice to ideas and thoughts that seem to have (or actually have) come from beyond or outside yourself.
We know Thomas Edison’s quotation about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. But there are occasions when the proportion of inspiration rockets up to nearer 99%; when writers, artists and composers – or prophets – feel lifted and carried along by something bigger, more real, more powerful than themselves, and for a brief time their work flows almost effortlessly.
When theologians speak of the Bible authors being ‘inspired by God’, something like this may be part of what they mean. The authors are caught up in God, carried along by him; they cannot help but speak and write. It isn’t divine dictation, or automatic writing like some spirit medium – the words are their own, but they write as they have seen and felt and known, as the creative Spirit of God moves and flows through them.
Secondly, there’s the idea of ‘breathed’ or ‘breathed into’ – which is the direct translation of ‘inspired’ as used in the classic 2 Timothy 3:16 proof-text (‘All Scripture is God-breathed’). As I understand it, the idea is that God breathed into the words of Scripture – in-spired (‘spire’ refers to breath, as in respire). It’s actually the same picture we have in Genesis when God breathes his Spirit into the man Adam and he becomes a living, thinking being. And of course when Adam dies, he expires – i.e. God ‘removes’ his breath of life from the man. So humans are also ‘God-breathed’.
With Scriptural inspiration then, it’s not necessarily that God breathed out all the actual individual words, but that he breathes into them now as we read them, giving them life and power, energy and meaning.
God’s (potential) Word
So I believe the Bible can become the Word of God when it’s used by God to speak to us here and now. It’s in our reading of it, our engagement with it led by the Spirit that it becomes God’s Word.
A great symphony is only truly music when we hear it and (crucially) when it communicates to us; until then it’s just dots on a page or a background noise. The Bible is only God’s Word when we have ears to hear; when God speaks to us through its words and we are changed by the encounter.
Which means that the ‘meaning’ of the Bible may not always be the plain surface meaning of the words, but may sometimes be something more personal, even subjective.
To quote from an old post: ‘The Spirit of God hovers over our reading of the scriptures to interpret them to us anew. The reason we have a changeless 2000-year old book is not so that we can learn its for-all-time set-in-stone meaning, but so that we can let the ever-new God re-read it to us. As he does so, he brings new colour to the old pictures; brings out new harmonies and resonances in the old score.’
God’s two books
All this also means that God’s communication isn’t necessarily limited to Scripture. He can in theory speak through anything he chooses, and it becomes God’s Word to us as we receive it and as it changes us. The Bible may be the primary or normal means by which God communicates, but it’s by no means the only one.
So I would argue that the natural world of God’s creation can also be seen (in a sense) as God’s word. There’s a long Christian tradition of the ‘two books of God’, Scripture and Nature. God spoke the world into being and breathed his life into its creatures. His creative word forms and sustains his creation. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect; certainly not now, and perhaps it never has been (Genesis 1 notwithstanding). And perhaps the Bible isn’t either. But God can still speak through both his books.
Next time – is the Bible perfect and inerrant?