Is Jesus or the Bible the Word of God and Does It Matter? by Austin Fischer
“Saying the Bible isn’t the Word of God because Jesus is makes as much sense as saying humans aren’t the image of God because Jesus is.”—Derek Rishmawy
Derek Rishmawy tweeted that last week, and I take his point. After a brief Twitter interaction between us, he linked a blog he had written on it a ways back, so I read and agreed with much of what he said (read it here).
In essence, it has become standard hat in many circles to point out that “the Bible isn’t the word of God because Jesus is the word of God”, and to do so in a way that seeks to denigrate Scripture by pitting Jesus against Scripture. And I agree with Derek—this is often done and it’s often done sloppily. For example, I often see arguments for homosexuality that run something like this:
-Jesus was loving, kind, and compassionate.
-Telling homosexuals that acting on their desires is sinful is not loving, kind or compassionate.
-The Bible might condemn homosexuality but Jesus, not the Bible, is the word of God, so he overrides the Bible’s teaching and teaches homosexuality is ok because he is loving, kind, and compassionate.
To be clear, there are much stronger arguments for homosexuality, but, at the popular level, I frequently see a variation of this argument. And to say the least, it’s quite non sequitur and wrongly pits Jesus against the Bible in the sense Derek is pointing out.
That said, is there something “serious” here in the distinction between Jesus and the Bible as the word of God—something to be probed and explored—or is it, as Derek says, “a rhetorical sleight of hand, passing itself off as serious theology”? While agreeing it is often a mere rhetorical sleight of hand, I do think there is something serious here. A few thoughts on why…
At the risk of simplification (because it could probably be further divided), there is at least a clear, 3-fold sense in which Scripture uses the phrase “the word of God.” First off, the Bible speaks of Jesus as the word of God (John 1:1-3, 14-18). It is important to note that when the NT writers speak of Jesus as the word of God, they are picking up a Hebrew idea, because throughout the OT we see “the word of God” coming to people (1 Kings 12:22, 1 Chronicles 17:3, Jeremiah 23:29, Ezekiel 16:1, Isaiah 55:10-11, etc.).
Clearly, this word of God is not a written scripture—it’s more alive than that. As N.T. Wright says, “Throughout the Old Testament, we find the elusive but powerful idea of ‘God’s word,’ not as a synonym for the written scriptures, but as a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating…the word of God is like an enormous reservoir, full of creative divine wisdom and power, that the prophets and other writers tap into by God’s call and grace.” We get to John and it would seem the claim being made (at least in part) is that this word of God that creates, judges, heals, and recreates is, in fact, Jesus the Messiah.
Hebrews 1:1-3, though not using the phrase, “word of God,” certainly seems to be saying this and implies a certain superiority of God’s “speaking” through Jesus in relation to his speaking through “the fathers in the prophets.” What is this superiority and what does it mean and what does it mean for how we read both the OT and NT? These are very important questions.
Second, the Bible speaks of the gospel as the word of God. I’ll list these verses so the point will not be missed.
- Acts 6:2,7- So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables”…The word of God kept spreading and the number of disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem.
- Acts 8:4-5,14 – Therefore those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them…Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John.
- Colossians 1:3-5- We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel…
- 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2:9,13- You have also become imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit…For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working day and night so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God…For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which performs its work in you who believe.
Although this sense is often lost on people, the “word of God” referenced in the NT is usually the gospel, meaning the story of Jesus—his death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). Wright is again helpful: “Before there was any New Testament, there was a clear understanding in early Christianity that the word of God…was the story of Jesus, particularly his death and resurrection.”
So at this point we have clearly distinguished two senses in which the Bible talks about the word of God, neither of which is the Bible.
Third, the Bible, and more importantly, Jesus himself, does speak of Scripture as the word of God: “Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GOD’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came…” (John 10:34-35). Examples could be multiplied. And surely related to this is 2 Timothy 3:16 and its teaching that all Scripture is theoneustos, puffed out by God, inspired by God.
How do we put all of this together so that we can think more clearly about what we mean when we say “the word of God”? Here’s a simple categorization I’ve found helpful, borrowing a bit from Barth.The Word of God, capital W, refers, first and foremost to Jesus. One step removed from that, the word of God refers to the gospel, which is the story of Jesus, the Word of God. And one step removed from that, the word of God refers to the Bible because the Bible tells us the story of Jesus (= gospel), who is himself the Word of God. Visually then:
Word of God = Jesus
word of God = gospel
word of God = Scripture
So I agree with Derek: we have good reason to call the Bible the word of God. Without it, it’s certainly fair to wonder if the gospel of the Word of God would have ever come to us. We should affirm and cherish the word of God in all three senses.
And yet, I do think it’s important to spell out these three senses because, in my experience, many people seem to think the Bible exists so they can have a relationship with the Bible. No—the Bible exists so we can have a relationship with Jesus. Handled properly, the Bible points beyond itself to Jesus. As Jesus himself says in John 5:39: “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!” The Bible is the word of God in a derivative sense and I think this is a serious theological point that needs to be made, not a rhetorical sleight of hand.
Additionally, the derivative nature of the Bible’s being “the word of God” raises other questions. To just run with the analogy Derek offers regarding the image of God…
Yes, Jesus being the image of God doesn’t mean humans can’t also be the image of God. So yes, Jesus being the Word of God doesn’t mean the Bible can’t also be the word of God. But the analogy cuts both ways, because:
Jesus is the image of God in a “fuller” sense than humans are.
Jesus is the word of God in a “fuller” sense than the Bible is.
What are the implications of this for theology and epistemology? Scripture and orthodoxy insist that Jesus fulfills Scripture instead of abolishes it (Matthew 5:17), but it is unclear what all this means. Jesus’ “fulfillment” of Scripture cannot be understood in a straightforward sense in which he is simply elaborating on everything else Scripture has said in smooth, linear fashion, basically living and teaching all the same things, providing a bit of clarification. Far from it! Jagged edges abound—“You’ve heard it said…but I say to you…”
Jesus fulfills Scripture, not so much in the sense that he’s only saying what the rest of Scripture already says, but in the sense that he faithfully fulfills the big story of Scripture (Israel’s story) and in so doing casts a light forward and backward on the whole of Scripture. This light brings certain issues to the surface—for example, divine and human violence in Scripture.
I’ll end with a quotation, cited by Derek, from J.I. Packer:
“But who is this Christ, the Judge of Scripture? Not the Christ of the New Testament and of history. That Christ does not judge Scripture; he obeys it and fulfills it. Certainly, He is the final authority of the whole of it. Certainly, He is the final authority for Christians; that is precisely why Christians are bound to acknowledge the authority of Scripture. Christ teaches them to do so.”
I agree with the general sentiment here in large degree, but the phase “Christ did not judge Scripture” is very ambiguous and if it is meant to mean, “Jesus never stands against, questions, challenges things said in the Hebrew Scriptures; he only obeys them”, then I disagree. Jesus’ relationship with Scripture was more complex and aggressive than that, in ways both implicit and explicit.
One need look no further than the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ “revision” (though one might well question whether this term is severe enough) of the lex talionis: “You have heard that it was said ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person…” (Matthew 5:38). And of course, the crucifixion reveals the deepest meaning of this teaching, wherein we learn that God doesn’t merely want to limit our degree of retaliation—God wants us to retaliate with love and would rather us die than retaliate violently. That’s what Jesus did.
So is Jesus “judging” Scripture here? I suppose that depends on what we mean by judging. But at minimum, we are forced to concede that Jesus does not simply sign his name beside everything Scripture says and we are left to ponder the implications. Pitting black letters against red letters is an unhelpful way to frame things, but pointing out that the “red letters” clarify the deepest intention of the “black letters” (often in unexpected ways) strikes me as a particularly Christian epistemological habit that is essential for good Christian theology.
So in the end, I agree and disagree with Derek. Sometimes, asserting that Jesus and not the Bible is the Word of God is a rhetorical slight of hand, but sometimes it is a serious theological claim, even if we disagree about where it leads us.
 By which I mean arguments that it is ok for Christians to act on homosexual impulses.
 From his blog post: “If Jesus is the ‘Word of God’ Can We Call the Bible the Word of God?”
 NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 36.
 Ibid., 48.
 The Message.
 Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, 61-62.