Protestants and others sometimes refer to the bible as the “Word of God.” As a boy, I became used to using that term to refer to the text of the Sacred Scriptures. But the Holy Bible I take from my shelf, hold in my hands, and read — in what sense is the book itself the Word of God?
Archimandrite Daniel Byantoro says that for Islam, the Quran is the Word of God made text. The Quran, the Word made text of Islam, existed from eternity with God, but is separate from God. For Christians, by way of contrast, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Our Bible says the Word made flesh was from eternity with God, and was God. Within the triune Godhead are three persons in eternal and interpersonal communion — which communion the Word made flesh (the incarnate Son of God) shares with us. (Byantoro 2008) As evidence of the Christian view, John’s gospel is quite clear: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Joh 1:1, 14).
The Old Testament has a strange relationship with the concept of the Word. In many cases the Word is most readily understood as a reference to the Mosaic law, the law of the Deuteronomic Covenant — being the covenant made with the Hebrew nation before they entered the land of promise. But as we know, for Christians the Old Testament is always interpreted in light of the Christ event, as Christ Himself taught Cleopas and the unnamed disciple[i] on the Emmaus Road:
Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27). (d’Hyères 2006)
One of the best ways of understanding the use of the term “Word” in the Old Testament is to examine Ps 119, the psalm whose purpose is to (according to Matthew Henry) “magnify the Divine law, and make it honourable.” Of the ten ways of speaking about the “Divine revelation”, Henry notes that “Word” represents “the declaration of His mind.” (Henry 2014) John Calvin notes the connection between Ps 119’s use of the term “Word”, and the New Testament’s use of the term “Logos” when he writes: “The term here rendered word means the Λόγος, or Word of God, in its most divine sense; the announcement of God’s revealed will; his command; his oracle; at times, the special communication to the prophets.” Interestingly, Calvin says the ten terms for the divine revelation used in Ps 119 are basically synonymous; thus, whenever we read the terms law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgments, saying, and way, we can think of them as the Word, the Logos of God. This makes the meaning of “Word” quite important. (Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms – Volume Fourth n.d.)
Matthew Henry and John Calvin seem to view the Word in the Old Testament as different than the Word as expressed in John’s Gospel — as part of the Old Covenant rather than the new. And yet Jesus made it clear that we are to view the Old Testament in its Christological context. I contend this is the easiest and most logical way to view Ps 119, as a reference to Christ as the Logos, the divine self-revelation of God and the express image of the Father (Heb 1:3).
I remember one verse from this Psalm being drummed into us children, and which we were told was a reference to the Bible, the Word of God. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Ps 119:11). This was used as a means to motivate us towards memorizing Scripture, which is certainly commendable. However, this verse discloses something else — that the Word of God was to be hidden in our heart, our spiritual consciousness, and not our intellect. We may consider this verse through its New Testament counterpart: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Mat 12:35). So what is this “good treasure of the heart?” Interestingly, the commentaries of John Calvin skip over this verse, for reasons that are unclear. (Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 2 1999) However, the commentary by Blessed Theophylact makes no mention of the “good treasure of the heart” being the text of the Sacred Scriptures. Instead, as Blessed Theophylact notes in his comments on the parable of the hidden treasure (Mat 13:44), the treasure is “the preaching and knowledge of Christ.” (Blessed Theolphylact 1992)
There are examples in Ps 119 where the Word quickens or strengthens, where it is a source of mercy, of kindness, or of comfort — all of which is more suggestive of God Himself, rather than a text. But the most telling when the psalmist says the Word is eternal. “For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven” (Ps119:89). If the Word described here is a text, then we have arrived at a very Islamic interpretation of the Word made text, rather than the Word made flesh.
There are some places in the New Testament where it could be interpreted that the phrase “Word of God” refers to the inspired text. However, it is clear from the context, and from the other places where the phrase is used, that “Word of God” includes the content contained within the text, but is not the text itself.
This can be illustrated most clearly in the book of Hebrews. We read in chapter 11, the so-called “roll call of faith”: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” [emphasis added] (Heb 11:3). The Word of God in this passage is clearly a reference to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for as the apostle John wrote: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh 1:3).
Given that Hebrews uses the phrase “Word of God” to refer to the Christ, the Son of God, what do we make of the following passage, also from Hebrews, one which is often interpreted as referring to the Bible?
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. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do [emphasis added] (Heb 4:12-13).
If you stop with verse 12, then considering the “Word of God” to be scripture is reasonable. Once you move on to verse 13, which continues the thought, it is clear the author is not talking about a book, but a person — indeed, the person before whom all creatures are made manifest, and before whom all things are naked and open. The author goes on to say this person is He “with whom we have to do.” Thus, this entire passage is obviously a reference to Jesus Christ, revealed by the Holy Spirit. This revelation is made through the pages of Sacred Scripture, yet it is clear that it is the person of Jesus Christ who is the “Word of God”, not the actual peculiar combination of marks on paper — both in the Old and New Testaments.
Blessed Theolphylact. The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew. Translated by Christopher Stade. House Springs: Chrysostom Press, 1992.
Byantoro, Daniel. “Christ the Word Become Flesh.” Christ the Eternal Kalimat. Ancient Faith Radio, August 30, 2008.
Calvin, John. Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 2. Translated by William Pringle. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1999.
—. Commentary on the Book of Psalms – Volume Fourth. Translated by James Anderson. Vol. 4. 5 vols. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.
d’Hyères, Sylvie Chabert. “WHO WAS CLEOPHAS’ COMPANION?” Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis: The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. January 2006. http://codexbezae.perso.sfr.fr/comm/jacob_en.html (accessed January 22, 2014).
Henry, Matthew. “Psalm 119 – Matthew Henry’s Commentary – Bible Commentary.” Christ Notes: Bible Search & Bible Commentary. 2014. http://www.christnotes.org/commentary.php?com=mhc&b=19&c=119 (accessed January 22, 2014).
[i] Tradition holds that this unnamed disciple was none other than Luke himself. Perhaps the best evidence of this, apart from the tradition, is that Luke is a careful historian, yet names only Cleopas as one of the two disciples. This could be considered a historian’s way of writing himself out of the story.