Christians hold a very high regard for the notion of ‘The Word of God’ and rightly so. But it does seem to me at least, that we confuse categories and blur boundaries.
There are three Words:
- The Word that is Scripture
- The Word that is Christ
- The Word that is Preaching
Evangelicals (and I count myself among them – the UK ones at least) in particular are especially bound to such a high view of Scripture that they call it ‘inerrant’ and a ‘final authority.’ I think this often leads to a classic confusion of the written Word usurping the enfleshed Word, Christ. It calls for great hermeneutical care to allow the three Words to be what they are in themselves, independent yet inter-related in very complex and subtle ways.
P. T. Forsyth said that the third word, preaching, is “the Gospel extending and prolonging itself out into a congregation.” In this sense it is a mediated word, via Scripture, by the Holy Spirit, in the study and theological method, and all that graft. Scripture reveals God, but it isn’t God. Jesus as Logos reveals the God the Father as God the Son. In this way, I. Howard Marshall is right in his Beyond the Bible, that the Scriptures carry the word of God. And this idea of carrying is important because it is a guard against Scriptural sloganeering, which evangelicals do love to do. In fact, Scriptural sloganeering, whilst sounding to the theologically illiterate as wisdom, is in fact a pagan form of magic – but with a Christianised twist – so that is sounds biblical and feels wise. Whilst all along, it is words without content, devoid of depth and empty of all power to set people free.
In a very useful book ‘The Modern Theologians’ that is, theologians since 1918, Anthony Thiselton writes a chapter on ‘Biblical Interpretation – Texts, Truth, and Signification. After an introduction he surveys Karl Barth’s contribution.
“In the Dogmatics (I:1) the Bible is not identical with the Word of God, since Christ is primarily God’s fullest Word. Nevertheless, the Bible witnesses to revelation and is inseparable from the divine Word, for God’s Word is his own action and presence. God “speaks” when, where, and how it pleases God to speak (sect. 3). “God may speak to us through . . . . a blossoming shrub or a dead dog” (p. 55). To open a Bible cannot force God to speak (emphasis mine). Nevertheless, the Bible is the foundation that “impresses itself” upon the church and continuously constitutes it as a church. “The canonical text has the character of a free power” that is to be distinguished from human commentary or preaching. What makes it the canon? “It is the canon because it imposed itself on the Church as such, and continually does so” (sect. 4, p. 107). The church did not decide what writings were canonical, but recognized where the Word of God made, and continued to make, a Christ-centred impact. . . .
. . . Barth places his view of the Bible as divine address within a framework of trinitarian doctrine and Christology, The incarnate Christ witnesses to the Godhood of the Father; the Bible witnesses to Christ; the Holy Spirit activates and actualizes scripture to mediate God’s presence and promise (emphasis mine). “The Word of God is God Himself in Holy Scripture. . . Scripture is holy and the Word of God because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become . . . a witness to divine revelation” (II: 2, sect. 19, p. 457). The church no more “controls” this word than it controls the sacraments; it draws its life from them. Humankind is not “autonomous.”