On The Hardest Question, Nadia Bolz-Weber makes the point that when the writer of Hebrews refers to the Word of God, he presumably doesn’t mean the letter he’s writing. He only partially even means “scripture,” which in this case would mean the Hebrew scriptures. Instead, Bolz-Weber asks what it would mean for us to understand that the Word of God is the Christ, God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth (see John 1). As it happens, we’re way ahead of her on this one.

The Swiss and Scottish Reformers, our spiritual ancestors, embraced a very high view of scripture as the word of God, the divinely inspired witness to the Word incarnate. Poorly understood, this has made for some heavy-handed biblical literalism. However, it’s not quite enough to say that our tradition understands the Bible as the word of God, even in the sense of being a witness to the Word. Rather, the Reformers insisted that the word had to be preached, applied properly to the needs and concerns of the day. When God speaks to the people through right preaching, then the preaching itself becomes the capital-letter Word, God’s own effective self-expression in the world. I wonder sometimes how much of this quasi-sacramental view of preaching was developed as a way of keeping people like me employed, but more often I’m humbled by the idea of bearing God’s message on my own lips.

By the 20th century, we had come to a more nuanced understanding of scripture. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) still seeks the “unique and authoritative witness” to Christ in the Bible, but we know that witness to be borne in the words of particular human beings writing in particular historical contexts. Retrieving the Word of God from these human words takes intelligence, imagination, humility, and divine guidance. More and more, we are learning that God may speak differently to different people in different circumstances, and that even the same set of biblical words might carry more than one message.

In all this richness of meaning, we still seek a fresh word from God when we read and engage the Bible together. We still hold preaching in especially high esteem, although the “sermon” needs to be less of a didactic monologue and more of a meditative conversation. We still study with the best resources of history, philosophy, and church tradition. We still read and reflect individually. And we still – we must – trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to shine light in our darkness and reveal Christ the true Word among us today.

Here’s how the Confession of 1967 fleshes it out:

The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel. The church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as prophetic and apostolic testimony in which it hears the word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.

The New Testament is the recorded testimony of apostles to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and the sending of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The Old Testament bears witness to God’s faithfulness in his covenant with Israel and points the way to the fulfillment of his purpose in Christ. The Old Testament is indispensable to understanding the New, and is not itself fully understood without the New.

The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.

God’s word is spoken to his church today where the Scriptures are faithfully preached and attentively read in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit and with readiness to receive their truth and direction.

Perhaps there isn’t an ultimate difference between understanding Christ alone as the Word and seeking God’s word in scripture, study, and preaching. If the Holy Spirit could make a human life into God’s self-expression of love, it could presumably also make written or spoken human words into expressions of that same love. But there’s one more thing: if the Spirit can do all that, then it can also make our own lives into the same kind of self-expression. If the Holy Spirit made the Word of God incarnate in Jesus, it can turn our lives into the same loving word.

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