The Word of God and God's word
Several years ago I was driving very late at night and needed something to keep me awake. I couldn’t find any appealing music on the radio and settled for listening to a rebroadcast of Jerry Falwell’s sermon that Sunday. He was preaching from John 1. It started out fine. He was talking about the Incarnation, and the Son of God, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Good stuff.
He continued talking about the Word, and that we as Christians should believe in the word because it was our only hope of salvation. He then said that we should believe every word in the word, because God Himself had spoken the word. It was with God from the beginning, referring to John 1:1. "Huh?" I thought.
He went on. We Christians don’t really read the word anymore, let alone believe it. We’ve got to believe in the inerrant, infallible word of God or we have no way to know God’s will. We have to defend the word against the secular humanists who say it is only a myth. . . . etc.
Well, it took several miles before it finally dawned on me what had just happened. Right in the middle of an otherwise good sermon about Jesus, he had just made a huge jump from talking about Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God to talking about the Bible as the written word of God. Everything that John 1 said about Jesus, he took to be saying about the Bible. And apparently he didn’t even realize that he had radically changed topics!
Now, the point here is that Jesus and the Bible are not the same thing. I definitely want to affirm the Bible as the word of God, but it is certainly not the same thing as Jesus himself, although we sometimes elevate the Bible to similar status. God has spoken through His Son, according to Hebrews, and we also believe that He speaks through the Bible. But it is an extremely important point of theology that we do not confuse the two. There is only one Word of God who is the incarnate Son of God. The Bible as the word of God bears witness to that Word. The word bears witness to the Word. I make that distinction by only capitalizing "Word" when it refers to Jesus.
I think in trying to fight a "battle for the Bible," (a battle that really didn’t ever need to be fought except to protect certain ideas people had about it) some have adopted the idea that the Bible itself is somehow absolute Truth. And in so doing, I think we have misunderstood its role, and ended up spending far more time and energy trying to fight that battle than we have in trying to understand Scripture and live by it!
Although the Bible is certainly true and bears faithful witness to the Truth, I don’t think the Bible is absolute Truth, not in the same way that Jesus is the Truth. I don’t think the Bible is the Word of God (note, Word), but I do think it is God’s word that bears witness to the Word. (See Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture).
John’s use of the term logos, or "word," was nothing less than a stroke of genius. I wouldn’t even hesitate to affirm that God may have helped John find a way to express this. Yet, as a Wesleyan who believes that God works through redeemed humanity, I can just as easily affirm that John used the intellect God gave him to find ways to express the truth about Jesus that God had helped him get his mind around.
The term logos has roots in both Greek and Hebrew culture. In Greek culture, in comes from philosophy. There it has several specific meanings, depending on the philosopher, but all are related to a single larger concept. The logos is the unifying principle between the ideal plane of existence, the world of ideas and perfection, and the level of the imperfect physical world where human beings and all physical matter exist. The logos is the creative principle of reason or intellect that allows any connection between the two planes of existence (this idea is taken up in late Old Testament and intertestamental writings where Wisdom fills the same role).
Since this perspective had become a common world view in Greek culture, most any Greek would have immediately understood the implications of applying that concept to Jesus, especially connecting it as John did with creative activity. Greeks would have heard him say that in Jesus we have the connecting link between humanity and God (cf. Paul in Colossians 1). Jesus is the creative expression, even agent, of the governing power in the universe. It is in Christ that we have any possibility of "seeing" God, of understanding who He is, and even entering into relationship with Him, an idea that went far beyond Greek philosophy!
But the term logos also had roots in Hebrew culture, where in the Greek version of the Scriptures (the Septuagint) it translated the Hebrew term dabar (this is a soft b, pronounced like a v). In Hebrew, the term "word" takes its significance from Hebrew prophecy, from phrases like "the word of the Lord came to the prophet Jeremiah" or "Hear the word of the Lord, you people of Judah." The "word of the Lord" spoken by the prophet was more than just a message from God; it was nothing less than God’s will for humanity expressed in the cultural language of Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews.
In the Near Eastern culture, there was even a deeper dimension to the spoken word. Words were understood to have some effect in shaping events, something communicated by our modern concept of a "self-fulfilling prophecy." That is, saying something had some effect in bringing it into existence. This is the cultural background of the idea of curses in the Old Testament (for example, the Balak story in Numbers). Invoking the "word of the Lord" was an assertion that God was present and active in the world.
So, Jews from a Hebraic cultural background would have heard John say that Jesus is the intermediary between God and humanity, that in Jesus God is again revealing His will for His people. Because of this new word of God spoken, there was already at work the beginning of a new light in the darkness of the world. God is present in our world, and that presence opens up new possibilities. There was no question in the Hebrew tradition of relationship with God, but the incarnational overtones of John’s Gospel here would have broken new ground for them.