WORD OF GOD NOT THE BIBLE
I am a committed, convinced Baptist, but I am also a freethinker. Thus, I reserve the right to criticize any custom or tradition in Baptist life with which I disagree. This is my priestly prerogative. Now, this being said, I really don’t find much to take issue with. There is, however, one Baptist tradition that I find irritating, and that is the continual reference to the Bible as “the Word of God.”
The Bible never calls itself the Word of God. How could it, when it did not exist at the time its component parts were being written? Whenever the term is used in Holy Writ, it never signifies a finished volume of Scripture. In some places the phrase “word of God” means the divine edict by which the world was made (Heb. 11:3, 2 Pet. 3:5). In other passages the phrase means His divine law (Deut. 4:2, Josh. 14:10, Ps. 147:19, Isa. 5:24). Other places pertain to God’s majestic decree (Isa. 45:23, Jas. 1:22), God’s promise (1 Ki. 8:56), God’s religion (John 8:31), God’s prophetic message (Deut. 18:18, Num. 23:5, 1 Chron. 17:3, Jer. 18:18, 34:5, Ezek. 33:30, Luke 3:2), God’s oracles by Urim and Thummim (Num. 27:21, 2 Ki. 1:16), His theophanic appearances (Gen. 15:1,5), His apocalyptic revelation (Luke 1:38), His miracles (Matt. 8:16, Luke 4:36), His guidance (Ps. 119:67,105, Matt. 4:4), His gospel (Mk. 4:14, Acts 4:31, 6:7, 1 Thess. 2:13), or His inspiration (Ps. 119:25).
One of the most widely misinterpreted passages in the Bible is the place in Ephesians 6:17 that speaks of “the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.” The Baptist understanding of this verse is illustrated by the gripping passage in The Pilgrim’s Progress in which the hero, Christian, is battling the demon Apollyon, only to have his sword fall from his grasp. The lesson intended by the Baptist author, John Bunyan, is that any champion of the faith will be defeated if he ever loses his hold on the Holy Scripture. Like most interpreters he condenses the verse in Ephesians to a concise equation, “the sword is the Word (Bible),” but the true meaning is “the Spirit is the word.” In other words, “the Spirit-sword is God’s word in the believer’s mouth.” This is summarized in the promise of Jesus: “When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt. 10:19-20).
The sharp, two-edged sword that is given the Christian comes out of his mouth (Rev. 1:16). This powerful weapon is the spoken word of God that convinces any hearers of the truth of the Gospel.
Baptists have been so taken by the principle of Sola Scriptura that they have practically made for themselves a paper idol. Preachers elevate the Bible in the pulpit like an object of worship and intone the Baptist shibboleth “Word of God, Word of God, Word of God” over and over to a congregation intent on belief in some tangible manifestation of deity.
In a day when The Baptist Faith and Message has assumed the form of a creed for some, I can only be grateful that its original drafters were perceptive enough not to define the Bible as “the Word of God.” Doubtless they understood that the scriptural meaning of the term was rightly restricted to the eternal Word of God, the Logos, Jesus Christ.
Richard L. Atkins