The Bible’s “Word of God” isn’t the Protestant’s “Word of God”

We’ve got to be careful when selecting the verses we’re going to allow as prooftexts that Jesus thought of the Bible (or the part of it that was available at the time) as “the Word of God” in the popular Protestant understanding of that term.

One passage frequently brought up to demonstrate Jesus’ biblicism is Mark 7.9-13:

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

The Pharisees Question Jesus

There you have it! Jesus castigated the Jewish religious leadership for not taking a couple of verses from the Old Testament, which he called “the word of God”, as seriously as their own traditions. By simple synecdoche, the whole Bible is thus the Word of God.

Not so fast. We can’t just blithely assume that every time we see the phrase “word of God”, “word of the Lord”, or another permutation of those words, it’s referring to the Bible as we think of it. (At least in one notable case, Jn 1.1, it refers to Jesus!)

To my knowledge, there is no evidence that the Christian canon was seen as the primary meaning of “word of God” until the Reformation–give or take a few centuries. The Jews (not to mention most non-Protestant Christians) took a different view of what “word of God” means than inerrantists have co-opted it to mean: for people in Jesus’ time, “the word of God” was “everything that proceeds out of the mouth of God,” which could of course in theory be either more or less than what’s written in what would eventually become the Jewish canon.

When Jesus pointed out a scripture like “Honor your father and your mother” (as above in Mk 7) and upheld it as the “word of God”, he did indeed seem to be affirming the authority and divine source of that teaching. But take a look at what part of the Old Testament he is referring to here: the Law, which clearly purports to have been handed down by Moses from God’s direct revelation. This isn’t a passage from Judges, 2 Samuel, or Job: it’s from a section of Scripture assumed by Jews to be the most authoritative, “thus saith the Lord” passage possible–straight from Mount Sinai. We simply have no evidence that the Jews or earliest Christians believed in some sort of divine dictation (which is what “word of God” implies) of the Old Testament generally, with the exception of the “thus saith the Lord” passages in Torah and the Prophets, and even then the Jews and Christians took quite a while in deciding which of the prophetic books carried divine authority. The “history” books of the Old Testament? Certainly not.

In short, what is referred to as the “word of God” is never talk about God: it’s talk assumed to be directly from God. And do you really believe that the whole Bible was directly, mechanically dictated by God? Not even the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy takes things that far.

The passages in question here in Mark 7 are part of decidedly prescriptive material intended to define acceptable behavior in religious practice, and it’s this context under which Jesus is addressing the Jewish leadership. If what God (ostensibly) told Moses can’t be said to be the “Word of God”, what can? So it’s not surprising that Jesus would cite chapter and verse to illustrate the Pharisees’ hypocrisy when their customs violated the spirit of the Law they claimed to be upholding.

But even granting that, can we then take the next step that some inerrantists do and say that by referring to a teaching from the cultic texts defining the Jewish religion (Torah) as a “word” from God, Jesus was affirming that every Jewish text that eventually got incorporated as the Old Testament was likewise “the Word of God”? Are we justified, or even given any reason at all, to extend that to everything in the Old Testament just because we know that eventually people would string all those scriptures together into a canon (which hadn’t been accomplished in Jesus’ time)? And may we then stretch this out to make it apply to everything that would eventually be called the canon?

The same tendency for conservative Bible readers to make too much hay of a biblical reference to a single part of Scripture frequently rears its head with Psalm 119. Almost every verse of this longest chapter in the Bible praises the Lord’s “word”, “Law”, “commands”, etc. Modern Christians are tempted to read each and every verse as referring to our Bible (especially when it says “Your word”), but this would be foolish: the subject of this Psalm is manifestly Torah, the set of prescriptive laws of behavior and ritual purity governing the Jews and regarded as defunct under Christianity. It’s exceedingly ironic that this huge Psalm is exulting in the one section of our Bible that Christians find to be inapplicable, despite v. 152: “Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever.” Whoops!

So was Jesus at least saying that Torah was the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God?

Even an unqualified “yes” only buys us the Pentateuch and not much else within the Bible except by a stack of other assumptions not related to Jesus’ own recorded words. At most, we can try to recover the view of his contemporaries and accept as the “Word of God” only those passages explicitly stated to be presenting God’s…well, words.

But my answer is either “yes and no” or “no”.

As for “yes and no”, let me quickly say that passages like the above may indeed be implying that Jesus shared his peers’ apparent assumption of Torah’s divine origin and ultimate authority, with all necessary perfection implied, but again, we have no reason to apply the appellation “Word of God” to any specific body of scripture as a technical term as Protestants tend to do. And as I indicated in the prior post on this topic, I’d not be scandalized if Jesus did think of Torah this way.

Next time, however, I’d like to pursue the “no” answer by suggesting that Jesus may be using more rhetoric in his usage of Scripture than appears obvious on a first blush reading. That, or at least that he is occasionally presented as doing this by other Gospel writers.

Next up: Jesus the Tanakh-thumper?

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  • I tend to think of the term “Word of God” in more metaphorical terms. Rather than word = strictly text, I think the term is used to mean the message of God. A word, after all, is the fundamental unit of communication. According to John 1 and arguably a lot of other passages, that isn’t text at all – it’s the embodiment of Jesus. I’m working on a paper right now including the early Anabaptists and they barely said anything about Scripture in their early creeds, but one of the few things they did was distinguish written Word (Bible) from living Word (Jesus), claiming that the primary purpose of the written was to point to the living. Even the most evangelical reformers (Calvin and friends) did not hold to inerrancy of Scripture – it was a doctrine developed in late modernity in response to liberal theology and the Catholic doctrine of infallibility of the pope.

    Otherwise we get a lot of awkward questions. So are our manuscripts the literal words spoken by God to the authors? But the manuscripts are different, so we better just say that the originals were the only ones with that distinction. But then we don’t have those originals, so it is a meaningless point. Plus even those originals were often separated by centuries (in the OT) between when God supposedly dictated it and when it was written down, so did God re-dictate it to the storyteller. Then we have to worry about translations: with how much variation there is in those, we can’t claim that those are the dictated Word of God can we? So even if the original was, we have to speak of the texts we use day-to-day as “translations of the Word of God” at best. And of course there’s the most common critique – the minor, inconsequential factual errors which are often just different human viewpoints on the story. One of the saddest things to me is how many people have left Christianity because they couldn’t answer these questions and they felt like they had to accept inerrancy to be a real Christian.

    We can avoid all of those awkward questions by simply saying that the Word of God is the message of God. It is most fully embodied in a person, not a book, hence why we have a relational faith rather than a propositional one. The book definitely helps us see Jesus better, but it never claims more than to be useful – not the extension of God that modern conservatives like to make it. I personally don’t even feel comfortable calling the Bible the Word of God. I refer to it primarily by what it calls itself: Scripture. I’m ok with saying it contains the Word of God or it helps us see the Word of God but I am cautious about language that puts it on the same language as (or higher language than) the living Jesus.

    • We’re on the same page here. The issue at hand in these posts is that Jesus is frequently presented as using the term “word of God” to refer to certain Scriptures (my favorite term as well), but my argument is that even if he took those particular passages as messages directly from God, that we can’t take the biblicist’s leap to say that the everything in the entire Christian canon is ipso facto God’s direct revelation and message.