But what [do the Scriptures] say? “The word is near to you, on your lips and in your heart.” – Romans 10:8
Last night I attended a Bible study in Congress Heights. Those in attendance were from different Christian backgrounds. Besides me, there was a Methodist, a person who grew up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting and is now attending a Roman Catholic church, as well as several people who are members of a local Churches of Christ congregation, including their pastor. This evening, the pastor was leading our Bible study.
At the previous Bible study, I had gotten into a fairly lively discussion with the pastor about the role of Scripture in relation to the role of the Holy Spirit, the scriptural basis of women in ministry, and other rather intense topics that should not be discussed over dinner. So, I braced myself when the pastor announced that our study that evening would be on the authority of Scripture.
He guided us through about a dozen Bible verses from the New Testament, explaining the scriptural basis for the supremacy of the Bible as the rule for Christian life. In his understanding, the Bible – the Old and New Testaments together – is the written Word of God. As a Quaker, my understanding of the role of Scripture is different from his, and I struggled with how to engage with his (and his fellow churchgoers’) understanding of the Bible.
In my reading of Scripture, I see the term “word of God” used in two ways. First, it is used as a name for the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who is the creative force behind the universe (For examples, see Revelation 19:13; John 1; 1 John 1:1-3). Most Christians – including my brothers and sisters at the Bible study – would not deny that Jesus is the Word of God. They can read the plain meaning of Scripture just as easily as I can, and it’s hard to deny the textual evidence for giving this title to Jesus, the creative power behind all of creation.
But there is indeed another sense in which the term “word” is used in Scripture. The Word of God can, without a doubt, mean Jesus; but it is also used to mean the commands and teaching of God. A prime example of this usage of “the word” is found in the Torah, one of the foundational texts of Judaism (and, by extension, Christianity):
Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. – Deuteronomy 30:11-14
In this passage, Moses explains that the commands that the Hebrews have received from God are not simply a code of regulations that are written down on scrolls. On the contrary, God’s law and teaching are available to every person and every community. The teaching of God is not a once-and-for-all event; instead, God continues to guide each one of us through the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our midst as the Church. The Word of God never changes – Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) – but we, God’s people, do change. Our needs change; our context changes; our challenges are different from day to day. God, in great mercy and compassion, continues to walk beside us and show us how to live in our present context.
The apostle Paul remarked on this phenomenon of Christ’s direct guidance within the human heart, pointing out that following God is possible without having any knowledge of the Scriptures or of the Christian tradition. He explained, “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves. They show what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…” (Romans 2:14-15). Though the Scriptures and the Judeo-Christian tradition are of great help in walking in the Way of Jesus, the ultimate foundation of our faith and life in Christ is our inward experience of Christ’s presence, God’s law written on our hearts.
I was saddened to hear one of the members of our Bible study say that she was envious of the people she read about in the Old Testament, who had full access to God. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in Eden, and Abraham and Moses had regular conversations with the Almighty. She wished she had a similar “direct line” to God. How I longed for her to experience the living presence of God today, and that continual, personal relationship that each of us can have with our Creator! I wondered whether her church’s teaching that the Bible is the “written Word of God,” presented a stumbling block to her having that kind of intimate, direct relationship with Christ. How could it not be a barrier to have your religious community tell you time and time again that all connection with God must be mediated through the Scriptures?
I struggle with how to communicate the centrality of Christ’s inward presence with my non-Quaker brothers and sisters. The Scriptures are very precious to me, and I would never want to denigrate their usefulness in helping us grow in our relationship with Jesus. Nevertheless, I question this over-emphasis on the perfection, completeness and God-like authority of the Scriptures. I fear that many of my brothers and sisters risk losing sight of the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, and substituting a dead letter – “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).
I pray that we discover the living, inward presence of Christ, so that we can say with Paul: “…I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…” (Romans 1:16). The true gospel is not merely the words that have been written under divine inspiration; Jesus and his gospel cannot be fully captured by any text (see John 21:25).
Rather than seeking to assure ourselves that we have pinned Christ down, let us humbly confess that we understand now only in part, but that as we continue to be led by the Holy Spirit we will be brought into the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom (1 Corinthians 13:12). I pray that the eternal, living gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ may come to you, “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction…” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).