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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Year of the Bible: What is the Word of God?

word of god

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

The Bible is often called the “word of God,” which means, among other things, that it has final authority over the life of the Christian. The following passage from the anonymous book of Hebrews seems to make that point rather clearly. 

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

The author of Hebrews has just finished a lengthy reflection on Psalm 95 and how that psalm speaks a word of encouragement to his readers who are suffering some persecution. And note how the word of God is said to “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Strictly speaking, the Bible doesn’t judge—God does. But aligning the Bible and God so closely tells us something about how important the Bible is to this writer.

Of course, we have to remember that “word of God” was limited to the Old Testament for this writer, since there was no New Testament—and wouldn’t be for a good long time, several generations, in fact. 

But surely this writer does not mean to say that God’s speaking is simply to be equated with the written Scripture. In fact, this writer begins this letter by saying the exact opposite:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (Hebrew 1:1-2)

How God spoke long ago (through the prophets) is not the same as how God is speaking “in these last days,” which is “by a Son”—namely Jesus. Without building a wall between these two ways of speaking, the writer is nevertheless saying that God’s Son is beyond this written word. The Son is, after all, 

heir of all things, 

the one through whom God created the worlds, 

the reflection of God’s glory,

the exact imprint of God’s very being,

the sustainer of all things.

In fact, if we keep reading throughout Hebrews, we’ll see that this writer is quite determined to show how God’s speaking through Jesus is the true and final authority for his readers.

All of which brings me to my point. I sympathize with calling the Bible the “word of God,” but I wonder if we are not too quick to simply collapse the Bible with the—what words do I use?—deeper, truer, more excellent, Word that is always present with us.

John’s Gospel begins in much the same way. There we read that the “Word” was present at the beginning of creation. This Word was with God, and in some mysterious way “was God.”  All of creation exists because of this Word, and this Word is a light that shines in the darkness—an unmistakable echo of God’s words on the first day of creation in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Nothing of what is said about Jesus the Word can be said of the Bible as the word. And to remind myself of that, when referring to Jesus I would use the capital Word of God, and lower-case word of God when referring to the Bible.

For Christians, the Word is what the word is pointing us to.

The word is not the same thing as the Word, but points us to the Word whom we can experience in our spirit. Or to put it another way, the word is a thing; the Word is a living being. The word is not the Word, but serves to bear witness to the Word.

Christians organizations are calling 2020 “The Year of the Bible,” and that’s a fine idea, but they are also talking about the Bible as if it’s the only word of God. In my experience, collapsing the word and the Word, as if “the Bible” is the end focus of our life of faith rather than Jesus, sells the Bible short and is a common problem within Evangelicalism.

If I had my druthers, I would rather see 2020 be The Year of Christ (or some more dignified title), where the goal is to help people see the kind of Jesus that Hebrews and John talk about—Jesus who fills all of creation, not just the pages of a book.

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