What do you mean by the “Word of God”?

Christians mean different things when they say the “Word of God.”

The default response for the “Word of God” is the Bible—God’s Word on paper…or on your electronic device. Roman Catholics, Orthodox believers, fundamentalists and evangelicals agree that the Bible is the Word of God. Mainline churches, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in which I serve, affirm that the Bible is the Word of God.

Christians refer to Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, although they may wobble on relating the incarnate and the written Word of God. The ELCA, unlike most churches, initiates its declaration on the Word of God by beginning with Jesus rather than with the Bible (Point #2 Jesus, Point #3 Bible):
2. This congregation confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.
a. Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.
b. The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
c. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

3. This congregation accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.

Point #3 is emphatically affirmed by evangelicals. Point #2’s threefold understanding of Word of God has a lot in common with Karl Barth.

Point #2B, proclamation as Word of God, is the hardest one for me to figure out. Christians sometimes feel like God has told them, or shown them, something during a sermon. We vary on how we refer to this phenomenon. What is it? Can it be God speaking? The ELCA, charismatics and Pentecostals all lean toward saying yes.

The following three diagrams show my attempt to visualize the “Word of God” as used by:
1. Evangelicals & Fundamentalists
2. Mainline Scholars (Historical criticism)
3. ELCA Lutherans & Charismatics

The Mainline Scholars view is exemplified by the Reverend Doctor Clint Schnekloth in his blog, Lutheran Confessions: “Quite a lot of the way the Bible is read in Christianity today [mainline] Lutherans are troubled by, because it assumes that the Bible is the Word of God itself, rather than the cradle in which Christ lies, the space in which Christ is met.” Note: his view sounds contradictory to his church body’s constitution (C 2.03, p. 19).

What do you mean by the “Word of God”? Time for your comment…

Ken Ranos, student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, OH:”There is a difference between what the Bible says and what the Bible is saying.”

For Lutherans only, here’s a bit more stuff for tribal comparisons:
The ELCA view is shown above by the excerpt from its constitution. This threefold understanding of the Word of God is repeated very closely by the more conservative splinter groups—Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ and the North American Lutheran Church. A qualified version of this view is held by The Association of American Lutheran Churches, an earlier splinter group that now works closely with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

ELCA Confession of Faith (See page 19.)
Excerpt of ELCA Church Constitution with a few annotations
LCMC Statement of Faith (LCMC began in 2001)
NALC Constitution (NALC began in 2010)

TAALC has pulpit fellowship with LC-MS and has a partial version of the threefold understanding of Word of God:
“The preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, is the ‘Word of God’ only in a derivative sense. For all preaching of the Word of God (Law and Gospel) has its only ultimate and infallible authority in the Bible. Therefore, preaching (kerygma) cannot be regarded as a source of the Word of God apart from Scripture.”
TAALC The Doctrine of the Word (TAALC began in 1987)

About Ben Unseth

Migrant executive and professor.
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2 Responses to What do you mean by the “Word of God”?

  1. halfnorsk says:

    It’s not easy (maybe humanly impossible) to make a cut-and-dried declaration about “Word of God,” because God seems to deliberately make it difficult.

    Christians who speak of “the Word” in almost mantra fashion usually mean the ink-on-paper version. However, God complicates the matter by inspiring John to make sure we perceive “the Word” as a person — Logos/Word/Jesus. Jesus affirms this as he castigates the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…” (Jn 5:38). Implication: The Bible is the sole, authoritative lense/window through which we see and understand and come to relationship with the Logos/Word/Jesus person. Thus, the goal is not a relationship with paper-and-ink but with the person of Jesus.

    Confessional and fundamentalist Protestants sometimes embrace the ink-on-paper Word as if it were a talisman, insisting that if we hear, memorize, and meditate on “the Word” enough, all will be hunky-dory. Unfortunately, the Jehovah’s Witnesses fill their heads with Scripture (some of it mistranslated), but they haven’t found the Logos/Word/Jesus. Does this mean that the Logos/Word/Bible in-and-of-itself is insufficient to enlighten a soul? Maybe yes. Maybe no. The attitude of the heart and the work of the Holy Spirit seem to be requisite ingredients here.

    In keeping with Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, we need to objectively understand the Logos/Word/Bible in order to mystically know the Logos/Word/Jesus who invades the believer by divine grace, seeking to display the Logos/Word/Jesus through our human flesh. In fact, Paul says that each believer is, in a sense, a form of Scripture: “..you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3).

    So, there you have it: (1) Logos/Word/Jesus, (2) Logos/Word/Bible, and (3) Logos/Word/believer.

    This leaves me so befuddled that I will go do something simple: Make coffee, oatmeal, and toast. And shower.

  2. Ken Ranos says:

    The Lutheran breakdown is I think very important to understanding the Word of God. After all, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Though it is a comical image, I highly doubt God sat there at the beginning, decided, “I’m going to make the world. Let me look up Genesis 1 in the Bible here so I know what order to do it in!” We need to stop looking at the printed Bible as the beginning of God’s Word–rather, it is the lens through which we see it and the megaphone through which we hear it–it being Jesus.

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