The Word of God - Threefold Meaning

That the Scripture is the ‘Word of God’ is addressed in various ways in related entries on this website. To further develop an understanding of what this might mean, the reader is encouraged to locate reading material that is more comprehensive than can be found on this site. As always, the aim here is to present a few salient points intended to provide some stimulus for thought. 

Here we reflect on the different nuances of the phrase ‘Word of God’. The purpose of this is to demonstrate the multi-layered meaning of that phrase, each layer contributing to a more rounded understanding of what these words intend.

We begin by noting that a simplistic ‘black and white’ response to the Scripture is deeply unhelpful. It is no more appropriate to relate to the Word of God that way than it is to relate to a living, breathing human being in that fashion. As with any relationship, there are hidden depths to be discovered, and close attention is to be paid. It is why we must all learn what it means to contemplate the Scriptures. We are in a relationship with the Word of God.

That the ‘Word of God’ can be understood in three distinct, yet deeply connected, ways highlights the wonder of the relationship into which we have been invited. By ‘Word of God’ we mean 1. The Second Person of the Trinity, 2. The Good News of our Salvation, 3. You and me and all creation. To have any hope of understanding the Scripture (meaning two) we must have some understanding of meanings one and three.

The primary meaning of ‘Word of God’ is as the Second Person of the Trinity. St John puts it this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) We are dealing with a very profound theological point here; one that we cannot hope to do justice to in its entirety. However, we can say this: the Word is the Father’s expression of himself, the full articulation of everything he is, except the fact of being ‘Father’ or ‘Origin’. The Father speaks who he is, and the Son is the embodiment of that speaking: he is the Word that is spoken. As God exists outside time (God exists in eternity) there was never a time when this Word was not spoken. The Son is as eternal as the Father.

However, we are time-bound. So at a particular time, the Word was spoken into human time and events. He was foreshadowed by the prophets; expressed in their Spirit-inspired attempts to address God’s words to human beings. In the fullness of time the Word was spoken into the life of the Virgin of Nazareth: a Word to which she responded ‘yes’. So we have the person of Jesus Christ, the perfect human expression of the eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, fully human and fully divine. He is God’s expression of himself in human language so that we might understand and learn of the invitation God has extended to us: to be reborn as the sons and daughters of God. For this is the word (the Good News) that the Word of God came to offer us; that we may be reborn in him and thus enter into the eternal life of the Trinity. So we have the second sense of ‘Word of God’ – the Good News of our redemption and salvation grounded in the love God has for us, a love so deep that he sent his only Son (cf. John 3:15) so that his Word might dwell in our midst. It is this Good News that comes down to us in the Scriptures.

These two senses of ‘Word of God’ (the Second Person of the Trinity and the Good News) are deeply connected, as both are the articulation of all that is true as spoken by God. This is where we come in, and we begin to see that in a certain sense, we too are ‘the word of God’. What we mean here is that we are called to live in the light of the truth God speaks and to be transformed by it. In this transformation (offered to us in baptism and nurtured by a life in the Sacraments) we participate in Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Word to the world. The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).

We are called to witness to the Good News. As members of the Body of Christ, we are called to speak to the world in the way he did: each in accord with our particular vocation. The only way we can do this is if we stay intimately connected to the first two meanings of the “Word of God” - the person of Jesus and the Good News he brings.

God prefers to work through the human

In light of all this, we hold that the Scriptures are the pre-eminent manifestation of God’s revelation of Godself and God’s plan of salvation, second only to the person of Jesus Christ himself. That both are considered to be the ‘Word of God’ is not without significance here. Both represent the intersection between the divine and the human. To speak about the human is not to diminish the divine.

The Word of God (Jesus Christ) was born into a particular People with a particular history and a particular way of seeing the universe. While he was the revelation of something new, this revelation built on a long and deep history – the experience of a People as God worked in, through and around them for millennia. This Word of God belonged to this People, and they belonged to him. He was, in a genuine sense, the product of human forces outside himself, which he could not help but integrate and to which he could not help but respond.

The same is true for the second Word of God (the Scriptures). That God utilised human means to communicate his Word should not be surprising to any who hold to the doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, God sets up a paradigm that extends both backwards and forwards in time like ripples in a pond. Jesus is the divine stone, dropped into the human pond, whose very existence changes everything: everything before this event and everything after it. The divine and the human henceforth cannot be seen as being mutually exclusive. In fact, because of Jesus, Christians come to understand that the human is the medium through which the divine is revealed. Therefore, to say that the Scriptures were written by human beings is not to downplay their divine origins. The two go hand-in-hand in the Christian experience of God.

Conclusion

To relate to the Scripture in any other fashion is to fail to understand what the Scripture exists to do. The Word of God has been given to us to inspire and guide us in our relationship with the One who caused it to be written in the first place. We have been given God’s Word so that that Word can become incarnate in us.

God speaks his Word to us individually but calls us into communion, as a reflection of God’s own communal life – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To understand and so live his Word, I must pray, reflect and share my faith with those who are on the same journey. If I try to go-it-alone I ultimately threaten to undermine the communion into which I have been called.

I may believe that the Scriptures are historically accurate in every detail, or I may be sceptical about that. However, whatever I think on that score, I remain committed to discovering in this sacred text what God is revealing to me about himself and about who I am (and who we are) in response to who God is.

I may not know every passage of Scripture off by heart, but I know that I am called to contemplate his Word and by so doing learn what it means to live my vocation to bring God’s Word to the world.

Sacred Scripture is the written testimony of the divine Word, the canonical memory that attests to the event of Revelation. However, the Word of God precedes the Bible and surpasses it. That is why the centre of our faith isn't just a book, but a salvation history and above all a person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. [Pope Francis, Address to Pontifical Biblical Commission, April 12 2013]

Acknowledgements
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Photo of Hands on Bible by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

NIHIL OBSTAT
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019

IMPRIMATUR
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019

Reviewed
30 October 2019