Scripture: God's Written Word
Chapter 1 - Background: Gods Spoken Word and the
Role of Scripture
A. Gods Spoken Word
It is important to recognize that the word of God is first of
all the word God speaks. God communicates: His word goes forth.
God speaks in manifold ways. Let us note where and how this
God speaks His word in and through creation. "The
heavens are telling the glory of God.... Day to day pours forth
speech, and night to night declares knowledge" (Psalm
Psalmist elsewhere says, "For ever, O Lord, thy word is
firmly fixed in the heavens" (Psalm 119:89). The word God
speaks in the heavens is a silent word: "There is no speech,
nor are there words... yet their voice goes out through all the
earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Psalm
19:3-4). God continually speaks in and through His creation
proclaiming His glory.
God speaks His word in and through His prophets and apostles. It sometimes came to them in a vision, sometimes in
a dream, sometimes mouth to mouth"2 but in any event it was the
word of God spoken to them. Quite frequent in the Old Testament
is some such expression as "The word of the Lord that came
saying."3 That word, in turn, was communicated to others. In the New
Testament the apostles not only on occasion had visions and
dreams wherein God spoke,4 but also they belonged to the immediate circle that heard the
word of God directly through Jesus Christ and thereby declared to
others that word.
God speaks His word in and through His Son. "In
many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the
prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a
Son" (Hebrews 1:1). Jesus Himself is the Word of God
(John 1:1), and in His person, words, and deeds communicates the
message of God to all mankind. Jesus Christ, in the climactic
sense, is the spoken word of God.
God speaks His word in and through the church. "Through
the church the manifold wisdom of God... [is to be] made
known..." (Ephesians 3:10). The word of God thus is also the
word proclaimed by the church. Peter speaks of "the living
and abiding word of God" and adds that "the word is the
good news which was preached to you" (I Peter 1:23, 25). So
Paul can say to Timothy: "Preach the word" (II Timothy
4:2). The preaching of good news, therefore, is the preaching of
the word of God.
God speaks His word in the heart of the believer. Moses
in making reference to Gods commandment says: "the
word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so
that you can do it" (Deuteronomy 30:14). If this was true of
the Old Testament believers, how much more of the Christian
believer. For within him is the "implanted word" (James
1:21), the word that God speaks: it is living and growing. The
continuing challenge was spoken by Paul: "Let the word of
Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another
in all wisdom" (Colossians 3:16). Ever and again God speaks
His word within the believer who is open to what God has to say.
Thus in many waysin creation, prophets and apostles,
Jesus Christ, the church, the believerGod speaks His word.
The word of God thereby is the spoken word of God.
B. The Role of Scripture
From what has been said, it is apparent that the word of God
is not simply identical with the Scriptures. The word of God in
creation, the incarnate Word of God, the proclaimed word by the
church: none is directly Scripture. Even the word that came to a
prophet or an apostle was not, as such, Scripturethough it
became that when set down in writing.5 The word "in the heart" may
be Scripture, but it also may be an "implanted" or
"engrafted"6 word that is Gods peculiar word and work in a particular
In all of this, however, the Scriptures occupy a crucially
important role. First, we may speak of the indispensability of
Scripture. In relation to the word spoken in creation, the
Scriptures make for clarification and discrimination. From a
purely natural perspective there are aspects of creation today in
the visible heavens and the earth that do not seem to proclaim
God and His glory, but rather randomness, disorder, and evil.
Nature does not always seem benign in the face of upheavals of
earth, violent storms, ravages of wild animals, and the like. The
"glasses"7 of Scripture are needed to truly apprehend Gods handiwork
in it all, and to accurately hear what God is saying. The
Scriptures are indispensable also in that they are the only
record available of the word spoken through the prophets and
apostles, and incarnated in Jesus Christ. Without Scriptures we
would be dependent on oral tradition with all its ambiguities and
uncertainties. The Scriptures, further, are indispensable as a
guide for the proclamation of the church. Without the original
witness, the message preached and taught would soon lose its
bearings. Concerning the matter of the word in the heart, unless
there is the constant check of Scripture there is danger of
confusing Gods word with ones own personal
This leads, secondly, to a recognition of the normativity of
Scripture. Since the Scriptures are the written record of the
prophetic, incarnate, and apostolic wordnamely, the special
Godthey are the norm of all Christian faith and practice.
Whatever does not measure up to biblical teaching, or departs
therefrom, is a foreign intrusion. Scripture thus is "for
reproof, for correction" (II Timothy 3:16). It is both
governor and standard: governor of true belief and practice and
standard by which all is judged. Everything must be put to the
test of Scripture.
There is always the danger of tradition becoming a second
norm, orworse stillthe primary norm. Such,
unfortunately, is the case in Roman Catholicism where tradition
is placed on a plane of equality with the Scripture,9 and as such in time becomes the
dominant factor. Thus growing traditions with little or no
recourse to Scripture, such as papal infallibility, the
immaculate conception, and the assumption of Mary, are finally
declared to be "revealed dogmas."10 Scripture has ceased to be the
norm, whatever claims may verbally be made about it. But this
also happens in any church, often in subtle ways, when a
confession or creed is viewed as the standard for the
churchs faith and practice. Thus, for example, unreserved
commitment to the creeds of the early church councils or to the
confession of a particular denomination11 is once againwhatever the
claims to the contrarya way of going beyond the normativity
of Scripture. Hence, it is essential that creedal and
confessional statements, for all their importance,12 remain secondary to Scripture.
Also there is the danger of lessening the normativity of
Scripture by giving acceptance to later supposed revelations that
actually contravene or supplement the special revelation in the
Bible. In a quite radical fashion this occurs, for example, in
the Muslim religion (Islam) where a presumed additional
revelation from God (Allah) is given that, despite frequent
reference to the Scriptures of Old and New Testaments, becomes
the final authority: it is no longer a matter of what the Bible
teaches but what the Koran says. Of course, in the case of
the Muslim religion there is no pretense of being or remaining
Christian. A less radical example is that of Mormonism which
claims to be Christian but, like Islam, has an additional sacred
book, The Book of Mormon,13 that is held to have been given by revelation. Thus the Bible
becomes only a part of revealed truth; and, by virtue of The
Book of Mormon being more recent, the normativity of
Scripture is totally eclipsed.
This may also happen within recognized Christian bodies
wherever there are claims to revelation that go beyond Scripture
or purport to be authoritative interpretations of Scripture. An
example of this is a book on angels wherein "direct
messages" interpreting Scripture were presumably given by
angels, and the claim made that "part of the special work of
God is doing is a broader revelation of Himself through messages
by angelic visitation."14 A "broader revelation"whatever the claims to the
primacy of Scripture, or that such revelation is only a fuller
understanding of Scriptureis actually going beyond
Scripture. If an angel speaks, his message surely must be
the norm by which Scripture is to be interpreted!
Another, often more subtle, danger is that of allowing
cultural conditioning to become the norm of truth rather than
Scripture. For example, the present day concern on the part of
many for self-realization, or self-achievement, has frequently
led to viewing the Gospel as the guide to that end. The Bible
becomes practically a handbook to achieving the self-fulfilled
life. Under such cultural conditioning the message of Jesus about
self-denial, taking up a cross, and following Him (Matthew 16:24;
Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23) is not only translated into a contemporary
key but it is transformed15 into something entirely different by the cultural setting. The
Scripture ceases to be normative.
Likewise, personal experience, particularly of a striking
kind, can lead to a departure from the rule of Scripture. For
example, this occurred at the time of the Reformation when some
of the "left-wing" Reformers claimed that "having
the Spirit" they no longer needed the Scripture and its
rule. Similarly, various forms of pietism later exalted feeling
in Christian experience so that while the Bible generally was
regarded as the word of God, the actual norm for Christian faith
and practice became the inward experience. In the twentieth
century one form of this has been demonstrated in
"existential" approaches to the Bible where
existentialist analyses of human existencee.g., the
individual in his anxiety, search for freedom, desire for
authentic existence, and the likebecome the touchstone of
Scripture and its interpretation.16
We may now, in the third place, speak of the authoritativeness of Scripture. Because of the fact that the Scriptures are
both indispensable to the Word of God spoken in multiple ways
(through creation, prophets, Christ, apostles, and church) and
are normative for the special revelation (in prophets, Christ,
apostles), they are authoritative for Christian faith and
The authoritativeness resides, for one thing, in that what is spoken through
the multiple ways described is given clarification (the word in creation), expression
(the word in prophets, Christ, and apostles), and direction (the word in the
church). Hence Scriptures, by virtue of this comprehensive role, occupy the
place of authority. Only they can be turned to as the authority for what is
declared in and through all these media.
Again, authoritativeness inheres in the fact that the
Scriptures are records set down by those who were participants in
Gods special revelation. They ring with the authority of
participants in this revelation,17 being first-hand witnesses or in close proximity to those who
were.18 Since the
Scriptures occupy such a position, they have an authoritative
Finally, the authoritativeness of Scripture is a result of
their being a written record. To be sure, the oral word may also
have authority and be handed on to others. For example, the
Scriptures by no means contain all that Jesus said and did;20 hence, the
apostles who were with Him undoubtedly passed on other of His
teachings. Indeed, between the first proclamation of the Gospel
and the first writing of what came to be New Testament Scripture,
there was at least a generation when the only authority was the
oral word or tradition. Paul writes to the Corinthians: "I
commend you because... you maintain the traditions even as I have
delivered them to you" (I Corinthians 11:2). Hence the oral
word preceded the written word, and doubtless both accompanied
and followed it. However (as earlier mentioned), in time the oral
word or tradition inevitably becomes uncertain and ambiguous.
Thus the importance of Scripture as an authoritative record
increases with the passage of years.
1 Revised Standard Version (RSV). This
translation will be used throughout unless otherwise noted.
2 E.g., Numbers 12:6-8"Hear my words: If there
is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a
vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant
With him I speak mouth to mouth."
3 See, e.g., the opening statement in Jonah and Zechariah. Also note Jeremiah
4See, e.g., Acts 9:3-9; 16:9-10.
5 Reference here, of course, is made to those prophets
and apostles whose writings became Scripture. There were also
prophets in the Old Testament, and the apostles and prophets in
the New Testament who surely heard and spoke Gods word but
who left behind no scriptural record.
6 James 1:21, King James Version (KJV).
7 John Calvins expression in his famous Institutes
of the Christian Religion, Vol. I, Chap. 6, Sect. 1.
8 The word spoken in creation is a general revelation of God to all mankind,
and the word spoken in the heart of the believer is an individual word. But
neither of these is the special revelation which God gave through His biblical
prophets and apostles, and preeminently through His own Son. (The reader is
invited to see my Renewal Theology, Vol. I, God, the World, and
Redemption, Chap. 2, "The Knowledge of God," for a fuller discussion
of general and special revelation.)
9 According to the official statement of Vatican Council
II: "It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the church
draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed.
Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred scripture are to be
accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and
reverence" (The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine
Revelation, Chap. 2, Sect. 9).
10 E.g., The Dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary
was so declared in 1950 by Pope Pius XII: "By the authority
of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul,
and by Our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to
be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God,
the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly
life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."
11An illustration of this is to be found in one of the
ordination questions of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church:
"Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster
Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as
containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy
Scriptures?" If such church statements contain "the system of doctrine," they are likely to become the norm
12 There is no intention here to deny the importance of
doctrinal statements, or even of subscription thereto. "The
Bible is our creed" sounds superficially good, but the Bible
as such is not a creed, or even a confession.
Consequently there may be good reason to draw up a statement of
faith to declare a churchs stance. However, when the claim
is thereafter made, in some way or other, that such a statement
is the truth of the Bible, Scriptures normativity
has been transgressed. The only proper way to go is to recognize
that any doctrinal formulation, whether of creed or confession,
must always be subordinate to Scripture and is subject to
correction thereby. (On this last point, see The Westminster
Confession of Faith, Chap. 3, "Concerning Synods and
13 In addition, The Doctrine and the Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price are acclaimed as
14 Angels on Assignment by Roland Buck (Houston:
Hunter Books, 1979), p. 9.
15 "Translation" is always to be desired.
Theology needs constantly to present biblical truth in such
fashion (e.g., by making use of modern terminology) that it
"gets through." "Transformation" takes the
additionaland unfortunatestep of allowing the culture
to re-shape and thereby transform the message. On this, see New
Directions in Theology Today by William Hordern
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), Vol. I, Introduction,
Chap. VII, "Theology in Dialogue."
16 Tillich in his development of an existentialist
theology and Bultmann in his attempt at New Testament
"de-mythologization" are primary examples.
17 In the Old Testament, for example, whether it be
history, prophecy, psalms, or wisdom literature, everything is
declared with a vigorous note of authority.
18One of the later tests for inclusion of a book in the
New Testament canon was apostolic authority. Do the presumed
Scriptures, or a particular Scripture, represent the original
19 We are speaking of the Scriptures that make up the canon. By "canon"
is meant the list of books in the Old and New Testaments that are recognized
as authoritative. They include 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New
Testament (Roman Catholicism includes a number of other books known as the Apocrypha
in the Old Testament; however, Protestantism does not recognize the Apocryphal
books as canonical [none of the Apocryphal books are found in the official Hebrew
canon]). The word "canon" means "rule" or "standard,"
hence the list of 66 authoritative books in the Old and New Testaments.
20 Cf. John 21:25.
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Content Copyright ©1998 by J. Rodman