Scripture: God's Written Word -- Chapter
By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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Background: Gods Spoken
Word and the Role of Scripture
A. Gods Spoken Word
It is important to recognize that the word of God is first of all the
word God speaks. God communicates: His word goes forth. God speaks in
manifold ways. Let us note where and how this happens.
God speaks His word in and through creation. "The heavens
are telling the glory of God.... Day to day pours forth speech, and
night to night declares knowledge" (Psalm 19:1-2).1
The Psalmist elsewhere says, "For ever, O Lord, thy word is firmly
fixed in the heavens" (Psalm 119:89). The word God speaks in the
heavens is a silent word: "There is no speech, nor are there words...
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the
end of the world" (Psalm 19:3-4). God continually speaks in and
through His creation proclaiming His glory.
God speaks His word in and through His prophets and apostles.
It sometimes came to them in a vision, sometimes in a dream, sometimes
mouth to mouth"2 but in any event it was the word of God spoken
to them. Quite frequent in the Old Testament is some such expression
as "The word of the Lord that came to
That word, in turn, was communicated to others. In the New Testament
the apostles not only on occasion had visions and dreams wherein God
spoke,4 but also they
belonged to the immediate circle that heard the word of God directly
through Jesus Christ and thereby declared to others that word.
God speaks His word in and through His Son. "In many and
various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in
these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" (Hebrews 1:1). Jesus
Himself is the Word of God (John 1:1), and in His person, words,
and deeds communicates the message of God to all mankind. Jesus Christ,
in the climactic sense, is the spoken word of God.
God speaks His word in and through the church. "Through
the church the manifold wisdom of God... [is to be] made known..."
(Ephesians 3:10). The word of God thus is also the word proclaimed by
the church. Peter speaks of "the living and abiding word of God"
and adds that "the word is the good news which was preached to
you" (I Peter 1:23, 25). So Paul can say to Timothy: "Preach
the word" (II Timothy 4:2). The preaching of good news, therefore,
is the preaching of the word of God.
God speaks His word in the heart of the believer. Moses in making
reference to Gods commandment says: "the word is very near
you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it"
(Deuteronomy 30:14). If this was true of the Old Testament believers,
how much more of the Christian believer. For within him is the "implanted
word" (James 1:21), the word that God speaks: it is living and
growing. The continuing challenge was spoken by Paul: "Let the
word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another
in all wisdom" (Colossians 3:16). Ever and again God speaks His
word within the believer who is open to what God has to say.
Thus in many waysin creation, prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ,
the church, the believerGod speaks His word. The word of God thereby
is the spoken word of God.
B. The Role of Scripture
From what has been said, it is apparent that the word of God is not
simply identical with the Scriptures. The word of God in creation, the
incarnate Word of God, the proclaimed word by the church: none is directly
Scripture. Even the word that came to a prophet or an apostle was not,
as such, Scripturethough it became that when set down in writing.5 The word "in the heart" may be Scripture,
but it also may be an "implanted" or "engrafted"6
word that is Gods peculiar word and work in a particular individual.
In all of this, however, the Scriptures occupy a crucially important
role. First, we may speak of the indispensability of Scripture.
In relation to the word spoken in creation, the Scriptures make for
clarification and discrimination. From a purely natural perspective
there are aspects of creation today in the visible heavens and the earth
that do not seem to proclaim God and His glory, but rather randomness,
disorder, and evil. Nature does not always seem benign in the face of
upheavals of earth, violent storms, ravages of wild animals, and the
like. The "glasses"7
of Scripture are needed to truly apprehend Gods handiwork in it
all, and to accurately hear what God is saying. The Scriptures are indispensable
also in that they are the only record available of the word spoken through
the prophets and apostles, and incarnated in Jesus Christ. Without Scriptures
we would be dependent on oral tradition with all its ambiguities and
uncertainties. The Scriptures, further, are indispensable as a guide
for the proclamation of the church. Without the original witness, the
message preached and taught would soon lose its bearings. Concerning
the matter of the word in the heart, unless there is the constant check
of Scripture there is danger of confusing Gods word with ones
own personal experience.
This leads, secondly, to a recognition of the normativity of
Scripture. Since the Scriptures are the written record of the prophetic,
incarnate, and apostolic wordnamely, the special revelation8
of Godthey are the norm of all Christian faith and practice. Whatever
does not measure up to biblical teaching, or departs therefrom, is a
foreign intrusion. Scripture thus is "for reproof, for correction"
(II Timothy 3:16). It is both governor and standard: governor of true
belief and practice and standard by which all is judged. Everything
must be put to the test of Scripture.
There is always the danger of tradition becoming a second norm, orworse
stillthe primary norm. Such, unfortunately, is the case in Roman
Catholicism where tradition is placed on a plane of equality with the
Scripture,9 and as such in time becomes the dominant factor. Thus
growing traditions with little or no recourse to Scripture, such as
papal infallibility, the immaculate conception, and the assumption of
Mary, are finally declared to be "revealed dogmas."10 Scripture has ceased to be the norm, whatever claims
may verbally be made about it. But this also happens in any church,
often in subtle ways, when a confession or creed is viewed as the standard
for the churchs faith and practice. Thus, for example, unreserved
commitment to the creeds of the early church councils or to the confession
of a particular denomination11 is once againwhatever the claims to the contrarya
way of going beyond the normativity of Scripture. Hence, it is essential
that creedal and confessional statements, for all their importance,12 remain secondary to Scripture.
Also there is the danger of lessening the normativity of Scripture
by giving acceptance to later supposed revelations that actually contravene
or supplement the special revelation in the Bible. In a quite radical
fashion this occurs, for example, in the Muslim religion (Islam) where
a presumed additional revelation from God (Allah) is given that, despite
frequent reference to the Scriptures of Old and New Testaments, becomes
the final authority: it is no longer a matter of what the Bible teaches
but what the Koran says. Of course, in the case of the Muslim
religion there is no pretense of being or remaining Christian. A less
radical example is that of Mormonism which claims to be Christian but,
like Islam, has an additional sacred book, The Book of Mormon,13
that is held to have been given by revelation. Thus the Bible becomes
only a part of revealed truth; and, by virtue of The Book of Mormon
being more recent, the normativity of Scripture is totally eclipsed.
This may also happen within recognized Christian bodies wherever there
are claims to revelation that go beyond Scripture or purport to be authoritative
interpretations of Scripture. An example of this is a book on angels
wherein "direct messages" interpreting Scripture were presumably
given by angels, and the claim made that "part of the special work
of God is doing is a broader revelation of Himself through messages
by angelic visitation."14
A "broader revelation"whatever the claims to the primacy
of Scripture, or that such revelation is only a fuller understanding
of Scriptureis actually going beyond Scripture. If an angel
speaks, his message surely must be the norm by which Scripture is to
Another, often more subtle, danger is that of allowing cultural conditioning
to become the norm of truth rather than Scripture. For example, the
present day concern on the part of many for self-realization, or self-achievement,
has frequently led to viewing the Gospel as the guide to that end. The
Bible becomes practically a handbook to achieving the self-fulfilled
life. Under such cultural conditioning the message of Jesus about self-denial,
taking up a cross, and following Him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke
9:23) is not only translated into a contemporary key but it is transformed15
into something entirely different by the cultural setting. The Scripture
ceases to be normative.
Likewise, personal experience, particularly of a striking kind, can
lead to a departure from the rule of Scripture. For example, this occurred
at the time of the Reformation when some of the "left-wing"
Reformers claimed that "having the Spirit" they no longer
needed the Scripture and its rule. Similarly, various forms of pietism
later exalted feeling in Christian experience so that while the Bible
generally was regarded as the word of God, the actual norm for Christian
faith and practice became the inward experience. In the twentieth century
one form of this has been demonstrated in "existential" approaches
to the Bible where existentialist analyses of human existencee.g.,
the individual in his anxiety, search for freedom, desire for authentic
existence, and the likebecome the touchstone of Scripture and
We may now, in the third place, speak of the authoritativeness of
Scripture. Because of the fact that the Scriptures are both indispensable
to the Word of God spoken in multiple ways (through creation, prophets,
Christ, apostles, and church) and are normative for the special revelation
(in prophets, Christ, apostles), they are authoritative for Christian
faith and practice.
The authoritativeness resides, for one thing, in that what is spoken
through the multiple ways described is given clarification (the word
in creation), expression (the word in prophets, Christ, and apostles),
and direction (the word in the church). Hence Scriptures, by virtue
of this comprehensive role, occupy the place of authority. Only they
can be turned to as the authority for what is declared in and through
all these media.
Again, authoritativeness inheres in the fact that the Scriptures are
records set down by those who were participants in Gods special
revelation. They ring with the authority of participants in this revelation,17
being first-hand witnesses or in close proximity to those who were.18
Since the Scriptures occupy such a position, they have an authoritative
Finally, the authoritativeness of Scripture is a result of their being
a written record. To be sure, the oral word may also have authority
and be handed on to others. For example, the Scriptures by no means
contain all that Jesus said and did;20 hence, the apostles who were with
Him undoubtedly passed on other of His teachings. Indeed, between the
first proclamation of the Gospel and the first writing of what came
to be New Testament Scripture, there was at least a generation when
the only authority was the oral word or tradition. Paul writes to the
Corinthians: "I commend you because... you maintain the traditions
even as I have delivered them to you" (I Corinthians 11:2). Hence
the oral word preceded the written word, and doubtless both accompanied
and followed it. However (as earlier mentioned), in time the oral word
or tradition inevitably becomes uncertain and ambiguous. Thus the importance
of Scripture as an authoritative record increases with the passage of
1 Revised Standard Version (RSV). This translation will be
used throughout unless otherwise noted.
2 E.g., Numbers 12:6-8"Hear my words: If there is a prophet
among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision, I speak
with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses
With him I speak
mouth to mouth."
3 See, e.g., the opening statement in Jonah and Zechariah. Also note Jeremiah
4See, e.g., Acts 9:3-9; 16:9-10.
5 Reference here, of course, is made to those prophets and apostles whose
writings became Scripture. There were also prophets in the Old Testament,
and the apostles and prophets in the New Testament who surely heard
and spoke Gods word but who left behind no scriptural record.
6 James 1:21, King James Version (KJV).
7 John Calvins expression in his famous Institutes of the Christian
Religion, Vol. I, Chap. 6, Sect. 1.
8 The word spoken in creation is a general revelation of God to all mankind,
and the word spoken in the heart of the believer is an individual word.
But neither of these is the special revelation which God gave through
His biblical prophets and apostles, and preeminently through His own
Son. (The reader is invited to see my Renewal Theology, Vol.
I, God, the World, and Redemption, Chap. 2, "The Knowledge
of God," for a fuller discussion of general and special revelation.)
9 According to the official statement of Vatican Council II: "It
is not from sacred Scripture alone that the church draws her certainty
about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition
and sacred scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same
sense of devotion and reverence" (The Dogmatic Constitution
on Divine Revelation, Chap. 2, Sect. 9).
10 E.g., The Dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was so declared
in 1950 by Pope Pius XII: "By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ,
of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our own authority, we
pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that
the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed
the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly
11An illustration of this is to be found in one of the ordination questions
of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church: "Do you sincerely receive
and adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of
this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy
Scriptures?" If such church statements contain "the
system of doctrine," they are likely to become the norm above Scripture.
12 There is no intention here to deny the importance of doctrinal statements,
or even of subscription thereto. "The Bible is our creed"
sounds superficially good, but the Bible as such is not a creed,
or even a confession. Consequently there may be good reason to draw
up a statement of faith to declare a churchs stance. However,
when the claim is thereafter made, in some way or other, that such a
statement is the truth of the Bible, Scriptures normativity
has been transgressed. The only proper way to go is to recognize that
any doctrinal formulation, whether of creed or confession, must always
be subordinate to Scripture and is subject to correction thereby. (On
this last point, see The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. 3, "Concerning
Synods and Councils.")
13 In addition, The Doctrine and the Covenants and The Pearl
of Great Price are acclaimed as authoritative.
14 Angels on Assignment by Roland Buck (Houston: Hunter Books,
1979), p. 9.
15 "Translation" is always to be desired. Theology needs constantly
to present biblical truth in such fashion (e.g., by making use of modern
terminology) that it "gets through." "Transformation"
takes the additionaland unfortunatestep of allowing the
culture to re-shape and thereby transform the message. On this, see
New Directions in Theology Today by William Hordern (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1965), Vol. I, Introduction, Chap. VII,
"Theology in Dialogue."
16 Tillich in his development of an existentialist theology and Bultmann
in his attempt at New Testament "de-mythologization" are primary
17 In the Old Testament, for example, whether it be history, prophecy,
psalms, or wisdom literature, everything is declared with a vigorous
note of authority.
18One of the later tests for inclusion of a book in the New Testament canon
was apostolic authority. Do the presumed Scriptures, or a particular
Scripture, represent the original apostolic circle?
19 We are speaking of the Scriptures that make up the canon. By "canon"
is meant the list of books in the Old and New Testaments that are recognized
as authoritative. They include 39 books in the Old Testament and 27
in the New Testament (Roman Catholicism includes a number of other books
known as the Apocrypha in the Old Testament; however, Protestantism
does not recognize the Apocryphal books as canonical [none of the Apocryphal
books are found in the official Hebrew canon]). The word "canon"
means "rule" or "standard," hence the list of 66
authoritative books in the Old and New Testaments.
20 Cf. John 21:25.
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