Word and word: Toward Better Definitions
Every Sunday in my church in Birmingham (and also every time that I preach) we (or I) say the phrase “This is the word of the Lord” at the conclusion of the major scripture reading. The congregation (at least at my church, not so much when I go out preaching in rural Alabama churches) will then respond with “Thanks be to God.” It’s a beautiful, communal expression of our gratitude and respect for the words that have been read to us, but at the same time, it is not an expression of worship.
We do this is to avoid a common theological misconception: the confusing of the Word of God and the word of God. You say semantics; I invite you to consider the history of Christianity. The fate of orthodoxy has rested on similar quibbles before (see the Council of Nicea in 325 for the full details. I don’t have time to explain.) But that’s neither here nor there (though it is important); let’s get down to the heart of the matter: redefining exactly how we use these two very similar terms.
We’ll begin with the bigger W, the Word of God (which is bigger because it’s more important). I’ll make this short and simple, because, essentially, it is. The Word of God, capital W, remember, is, and always has been, Christ. The book of John (one of my favorites) describes him thus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
It’s incredibly clear. The Word is Christ. The simple use of the masculine personal pronoun indicates a person, a being, rather than a thing, a dead scroll or a dusty lexicon. It was through him, the living Christ, and not through a text, that all things were made. It was him, the living Son of God, that made his dwelling with us, rather than a book of instructions. God cared enough about his people that he came to be with us himself, rather than sending any arbiter or middle man. No text would suffice; his love for us is so profound that instead of simply wanting us to live right, he wants us to live with him.
This is why the Word is inherently superior to the word in every way. The Word is God, the full revelation of the character and person of God in Christ Jesus. The word is simply a record of that revelation. When we speak of the word being inerrant or infallible, we can do so only if we mean the Word, because the Word is Christ. He is, as John says, full of grace and truth. There is no falsehood in him, and so he is inerrant.
We cannot speak of little w word in the same manner, largely because it never considers itself to be on the same level as capital W Word. Never once does any writer of the New Testament or the Hebrew Bible consider his own writing to be infallible. God-breathed, maybe, but on the same level as the Divine? Never. To do such, to consider the word to be on the same level as the Trinity, is to engage in the worst form of idolatry: bibliolatry. Ours is not a worship of a book but the worship of a loving and living God. Ours is not a God incarnate en libris but a God incarnate en personam. It is not God nor does it share in his eternal qualities, but the word is incredibly important.
Here we come to another important distinction. Many people in the church today describe the word as revelation. This is horribly inaccurate. Revelation is the direct disclosure of the sacred to the mundane. Simply, it is God appearing to man and disclosing something about himself. An incident of revelation only happens once, to the person or people who witness it, and afterward, when written down, it becomes the record of revelation. This is what little w word is: a record of God’s revelation to humanity. Essentially, the word is the record of the Word, the witness of humankind to the absolutely scandalous inbreaking of divinity into our mundane world.
Because of this, it is incredibly important. From the earliest days of recorded church history, Christians would gather and read portions of whatever records they had (the gospels at the very earliest points, and other documents later). As the church progressed, the documents that were considered useful to be read at mass, that is the documents that were the most edifying and instructing regarding Christ and the Christian life, were considered the most valuable and eventually collected into the codex that we all know and love today. Scripture, the word, is not God, but it is an important record of the ways in which he has shown himself to humanity and acted among us. It bears witness to the eternal Word, but it is not the same substance.
Therefore, let us never again mix up our capitals. Let the Word be Christ, the Son of the Living God, who revealed fully the character of God. Let the word be our treasured record of the doings of God among us, but not on the level of God himself. Let us not pretend that the word is infallible or inerrant, but remember that the Word is. Let us orient ourselves toward the Word by the word, and trust in Christ and his love towards us. Let us join across the centuries with our brothers and sisters and embrace what the word is, and what the word is not. It is a tool, but in the end it is only a tool. It orients us to Christ, who is our object and our life. The beauty of the word pales in comparison to the shining, eternal Word.
So then, dear ones, let us all embrace better definitions.