November 2008 - Vol. 24

The Written Word of God

Do you read the Word of God as if 
your life depended upon it?

by Steve Clark


When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really it, the word of God. - 1 Thessalonians 2:13
The Word of God
In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:1-4) there is a description of the evangelization of the city of Thessalonica in Greece by Paul and Silas:
Now when they had passed through Amphip'olis and Apollo'nia, they came to Thessaloni'ca, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ." And some of them were persuaded, and joined Paul and Silas; as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 
Paul, with the help of Silas, began by speaking to the Jews at the local synagogue. Over a period of three weeks he argued with the Jews about what we would now call Christianity. He insisted that Jesus had died and risen again and that he was the Christ. He spent much of that time giving arguments based on Old Testament texts to back up his assertions.

Paul's work resulted in the beginning of a Christian church. It also resulted in the rejection of Christianity by many Jews in that city, a rejection which led to persecution of the apostles and the new Christians. The accusation presented by the Jews, who charged the apostles with what we might term "sedition," was complimentary to the power of the message they brought. They said, "These men have turned the world upside down!"

There was more that happened during that time. Not only did Paul and his coworkers reach Jews and Gentiles who had become believers in the one true God; they also reached those who still worshiped pagan gods. In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul referred to his initial evangelization of Thessalonica by saying,

You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true  God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. 
-1 Thessalonians 1:9-10
After reminding them of his labors, he explained the source of his success in these words,
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of  men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. - 1 Thessalonians 2:13
Paul, in other words, spent something under a month in Thessalonica and left behind a Christian church. During that time he argued with Jews about Scripture and explained to them what Christianity was. He also worked with Gentiles, proclaiming the message to groups of them "in power and in the Holy Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 1:5) and sharing the gospel with individuals in some kind of follow-up (1 Thessalonians 1:8). In the above summary of his and Silas' efforts, he held that the decisive occurrence in all this was that the Thessalonian Christians accepted the word of God.

Despite how human the process may have looked to some, there was something else going on when Paul spoke. In his arguments with Jews about the Old Testament, and in his proclamation to the pagans, God's word was at work, producing a spiritual change so that people could come to know him and live a new life. As Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, the gospel is "the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith" (Romans 1:16).

We still have the Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians and the one to the Romans, as well as the rest of what we call the New Testament. We have them because the early Christians knew that Paul's understanding of these writings was true. The Christians wre not a society for historical studies. They were not even a society for religious studies. They were a group of people who knew that they had received new life when they heard certain words, and so they kept some of the writing that preserved what they had heard so that they could continue to receive life from them.

The first copies of these writings that we now obtain and read so easily were written out by hand, the only way of duplicating texts at that time. They were owned by Christian communities, carefully guarded, and read at worship services. People memorized portions of them as they were chanted, the normal way of reading in a public situation. To use the phraseology of Deuteronomy, they "laid up" the words of Scripture "in their heart" or, as we would be more likely to put it, they stored them in their memories as they heard them read repeatedly.

When they gathered as a community, the early Christians had two important purposes in mind. They gathered to hear the words that they believed were the word of God, the writings that we would call the Old Testament and, as time went on, the ones we call the New Testament. And they gathered to partake of special food, the Body and Blook of the Lord. They did both so that they might obtain life, better life here and now, but even more, unending life. And they did both so that they could take home what they had received, bearing it inside of them, and draw life from it in the course of the week.

In doing this Paul carried on a practice that, in its essentials, was the same as that of the first Christians in Jerusalem after Pentecost. They had "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). What the first Christians did in the beginning was based in turn on what the Jews did before them, as we shall see further on, but changed in important ways because of Christ. 

The Scriptures - the Written Word of God
The word scriptures means "writings." "The Scriptures" is short for "the Sacred Scriptures" or "the Holy Scriptures." Adding "sacred" or "holy" means they come from God. The Scriptures, then, are "the holy writings," the writings that come from God.

We sometimes refer to the Scriptures as The Bible, which translated literally from the Greek means "The Books" and in English means "The Book," or perhaps even "The Book of Books." The Scriptures, then, are the most important book ever written, the one book human beings cannot do without. It is the writings in this book that are the word of God.

The word of God is a literal translation of a Hebrew phrase. In the English language, we usually use "word" to mean a single word. The Hebrew equivalent could be used for a single word, a statement, or a lengthy discourse. If we are going to look for one word in English that would convey the range of meaning that "word" has in Hebrew, we might pick "message" or perhaps "communication."

In Christian theology, "the word of God" could refer to all that God wishes to reveal to us (his communication as a whole), or to Christ, the concrete embodiment or fulfilment of what God wishes to communicate to us, or to the Scripture itself. It is the Scripture that is our concern here. If, then, we were going to retranslate, "The word of the Lord!" more idiomatically, we might translate it, "This is what the Lord is saying to you!" or, "This is the message that the Lord has for us!" The response "Thanks be to God," then, would mean, "We are very fortunate that God has been willing to say this to us"—or say anything at all to us for that matter. With full justice he could have ignored us.

However, the "message that the Lord has for us" that we read above was actually spoken in Greek by Paul close to two millennia ago. Perhaps we might hear a reading from the prophet Jeremiah. That would have been spoken about six hundred years earlier in Hebrew.

There is a famous story about an early president of Yale University who insisted that all Yale graduates needed to learn Hebrew, a requirement that has long since lapsed. When asked why, he explained that he wanted them to know the language when they got to heaven. But does God speak in Hebrew?

Perhaps Paul made mistakes in his Greek. Would that mean that God made mistakes in Greek? Some have said that Paul's Greek and his way of speaking and writing would not have been good enough for him to pass a modern writing class. If so, did God speak poor Greek?

While such criticisms of Paul are something of an exaggeration to make a point, especially since the people in his day would not have subscribed to many of the rules taught in modern writing courses, he himself tells us that others criticized him by saying that "his speech [is] of no account" (2 Cor 10:10). He also admitted that he did not try to use "lofty words" (1 Cor 2:1), perhaps what we might term "elegant speech" or "literary speech." For the sake of the example, let us grant that Paul made grammatical mistakes and wrote and spoke low-quality Greek, somewhat the way some foreign person who has recently immigrated to the United States or Britain from some country with a different language might speak English. Does that mean that God communicates poorly?

God does not speak Hebrew or Greek or even English, although he understands all the languages in the world and can communicate to every human being in a way that human beings can understand. Nor do mistakes or inelegancies in what we proclaim to be "the Word of God" mean that God makes mistakes when he speaks or speaks inelegantly. But to communicate to us he does use the words of human beings who speak Hebrew or Greek or English and who sometimes make grammatical mistakes or speak without literary ability. In an analogous way, when we speak to others through translators, the words our hearers receive have many of the characteristics of the translators, even if they translate accurately.

This brings us back to the incarnational principle. The Lord uses things that exist in the space-time world to make contact with us. When he wishes to communicate, he most commonly uses human speech. But he has no tongue, lips, or vocal cords, since he transcends space and time. Therefore he makes use of human beings who do have them to convey the message or communication he wants us to receive. Otherwise he would need to produce miraculous skywriting or something similar.

Just as the burning bush no doubt had the normal characteristics of a desert bush of its kind, so those human beings who spoke or wrote the words we have in the Scriptures probably had the normal characteristics of speakers or writers of their time. Because those words come through the communication medium of human speech, they must have many of the characteristics of the channel through which they come. But that is not all that can be said of them.

The writings in the Scriptures, then, are human words with human characteristics. But they are not "merely" human words. The word merely is used in this and similar contexts to acknowledge that we are dealing with something that is human, or at least truly part of this space-time world, but is not only that. It comes from God or is united or joined in some way to God so that it is not only human and created. In the case of the Scriptures, the message we receive is usually a human message. Nonetheless, it is not only human. It is, more importantly, God's message that comes to us.

The Importance of Scripture
Christian teaching over the centuries has made use of various terms to help us understand what it means to say that words like those of Jeremiah or Paul can be God's word. One of the most important is revelation. We say that the scriptures, and the words in them, "contain revelation," God's revelation.

Using an old distinction in Christian theology, theologians often contrast "revelation" with "reason." "Reason" in this sense is the natural human ability to know and understand things. Knowledge we have by reason, then, is knowledge we human beings have acquired by our own efforts. Knowledge we have by "revelation," in contrast, is knowledge that has been given to us by God?

In principle, God might reveal to us things that we could come to understand by ourselves. According to Columbus in his Book of Prophecies, "With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies." If his account is accurate, because he believed he had the revelation of God that such a journey was possible, he was motivated to attempt it. He then discovered for himself that the Atlantic Ocean could be crossed and so discovered the existence of the American continent, landing initially in "the West Indies." The same fact, in short, can be learned by human effort ("reason") or by the revelation of God. We are mainly interested in those truths in the Scriptures that could only have been known by God's revelation.

God might have decided only to reveal facts about insects and reptiles that died millennia ago and left no records. Biologists then would be the ones mainly interested in the Scriptures. In fact, however, he revealed tremendously important truths about human life. He revealed who he himself was, how dependent human beings were upon him, how they could relate well to him, how they could achieve the purpose for which they were made, and how he himself would help them fulfill it.

God, in short, revealed truths that make it possible for the lives of human beings to go well, especially in the long run. Without this revelation, human beings are in serious trouble. Sometimes this is summed up by saying that God revealed truths "necessary for salvation." For that reason, we all should be interested in what the Scriptures say. The phrase "the Scriptures contain God's revelation," then, tells us why the Scriptures are so important.
Steve Clark is President of the Sword of the Spirit. This article is adapted from Steve Clark's book, Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction, Chapter 1, published in 2000, available from Tabor House.

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