We Need to Talk About the “Word of God”: Adventures in Missing the Point of the Bible

There’s a scene I’ve witnessed unfold far too many times online in the past decade or so. It often begins with some conservative U.S. Christian church leader who believes they need to take a stand against some threat, whether real or contrived, to the dominance of their particular expression of Christian faith. This inevitably involves a direct appeal to the “Word of God.” For these leaders, this means the Bible. They believe they have the Bible on their side, and if people would just ‘get back to the Bible,’ their influence would be secure and all would be right in their world.

(I’m tempted at just this point, to launch into a detour about how the very fact of mass accessibility to the Bible in the vernacular, and as a direct source of Christian teaching, is also the primary cultural, historical, and ecclesiological development that has made it possible for so many competing expressions of Christian faith to exist. Thus, an appeal to the Bible as a means of retaining uniformity is self-defeating. But I must resist such a digression.)

The equally inevitable response to such an appeal is that Jesus is the “Word of God,” not the Bible. This response not only comes from the presumed enemies of the conservatives: progressives, it also comes from those who have decidedly chosen not to participate in the Culture Wars which lie beneath this disagreement. Conservatives have staked out the territory in which “the Bible is the Word of God,” with little or no overlap into the territory of “Jesus is the Word of God,” while progressives live primarily in Jesus is the Word of God territory (if they believe in any Word of God at all. A subject for another time). Both “sides” overlook either intentionally or unintentionally, that the “Word of God” is its own concept that is applied to both sides at varying times and in varying ways.

What We Talk About When We Talk About the Word

Put simply, the word of God is divine revelation.

Revelation is that which is revealed of God, by God. Christians believe God is self-revealing. Christians believe God has revealed Godself in nature, for example. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” writes the psalmist and for millennia the Sun, moon, and stars have inspired belief in God or gods. Take as an example the story of the Magi that the church recently read during Epiphany. Some kind of astronomical event, whether one considers it “natural” or “supernatural” (which are not categories that existed in the ancient world), revealed the birth of the Judean king. Then, this revelation was aided by an interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. (Matthew 2) The “word of God” led Gentiles to the Jewish Messiah through nature and Scripture—and still does. The word of the Lord was also said to have come to many Hebrew prophets. They didn’t possess a Bible, because one didn’t exist, and nor was Jesus yet born. So, what “word” was it that visited them?

In fact, even when Jesus is born, how do the shepherds hear this Good News? Did they read about it in a book? How did Joseph receive the word from God to flee with Mary to Egypt? Which book was he reading?

Not to belabor the point much longer, but the Gospel doesn’t begin to be written down for two decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Cities throughout the Roman empire receive the word of God and go on to send missionaries before there’s even one written example of the Gospel. Before the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are written and collected into one canon, the word of God about Jesus and the Kingdom of God is verbally communicated.  

Revelation from God comes in a variety of ways. All Christians acknowledge this on some level. But there are certain sorts of encounters with that word that make conservative Evangelicals nervous. Who will vet such experiences to make sure they’re authentic? Who will make sure the ‘word’ that’s received doesn’t upset the apple cart, atop which white, male, heterosexual, cis-gender, Christians ride? Enter: the battle for the interpretation of the Bible.

Whose Face Are we Using to Get a ‘Face Value’ Reading of the Bible?

The conclusion of conservatives is that if the “word of God” is limited to the Bible (1) then the proper guardrails will have been placed on what is revealed about God. But is that really true?

Has the Protestant insistence on “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone) and belief in the Bible’s perpiscuity (self-understanding clarity) proved to a successful means of preventing non-uniform expressions of faith? I think the tens of thousands of highly diverse expressions of Protestant faith in the U.S. alone exposes this belief as unwarranted.

What happens instead is that the church leader making the appeal to the Bible completely ignores their own social location and presuppositions, entirely mistaking their interpretation of Scripture for “what the Bible says,” even “plainly” or “obviously” or “clearly.” As I’ve said many times (whether I heard this someplace else now, I cannot recall): Denial of an interpretive lens is a hallmark of Fundamentalism. In reality, what may seem “plain” or “obvious” or “clear” to one person about what the Bible says, is often decidedly not.

The authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes state this emphatically:

“There is no purely objective biblical interpretation. This is not postmodern relativism. We believe truth is truth. But there’s no way around the fact that our cultural and historical contexts supply us with habits of mind that lead us to read the Bible differently than Christians in other cultural and historical contexts.” (2)

Much more could be said (and should be said) about why it is so often those speaking from within the dominant cultural group who are most often blind to their own subjectivity and idiosyncratic interpretations. Suffice to say for our purposes here: those who most often appeal to the Bible to settle disputable cultural matters are often those who have suspiciously conflicted interests in the maintenance of the status quo.   

Missing the Point of the Bible

This anxiety about direct access to the word of God can lead conservative Evangelicals to place the Bible in a role in which it does not belong. When the Bible is elevated to a place where only God belongs, that’s called idolatry (or Biblolatry).

In a recent Desiring God post, John Piper exhorted his followers to “marry the Bible.” Is that an appropriate idea? Are followers of Jesus covenantally wedded to a book? Or, does the very Bible itself point elsewhere?

John of Patmos received the word of God directly from God while exiled for the Gospel he received directly as well. The word of God he received was later written down in a book that (with not a small amount of controversy) was included in the New Testament canon. That book, which is called Revelation says,

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’” (21.1-3)

The people with whom God dwells in the new creation are a “holy city.” They are covenantally joined with Christ as a husband is joined with a wife. With the Spirit, the bride of Christ invites all into the future of shalom (22.17)

The apostle Paul too speaks of this covenantal relationship between the people of God and God himself through Christ.

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you also died with respect to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you could be united with someone else. You are united with the one who was raised from the dead so that we can bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7.4 CEB)

The “uniting” with the Resurrected One is a covenantal uniting. Paul’s preceding metaphor was that of marriage. It is the same metaphor he uses when writing to the church at Corinth.

“I’m deeply concerned about you with the same concern that God has. As your father, I promised you in marriage to one husband. I promised to present you as an innocent virgin to Christ himself.” (II Corinthians 11.2 CEB)

Ephesians also contains this metaphor:

“After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (5.29-32 NIV)

Where would Paul get such an idea, if not from Jesus himself through the Evangelists: Matthew 9.15, Mark 2.19, and Luke 5.34.

The teaching of the New Testament, from Matthew to Revelation, is that the people of God are covenantally wedded to Christ himself, not to any book, not even the Bible.

Pietism Can Help

When confronted with this truth, some Evangelicals resist by pointing to their statements of faith, which venerate the Bible as “inerrant” or “infallible.” They claim the Bible is the only sure foundation for truth in the church. My own denomination is Evangelical but has decidedly chosen not to take this approach, instead opting to remain independent of the battle for the Bible. Part of the reason is because it was founded by Swedish immigrants who remained closely connected to their European cultural roots while other American denominations were split down the middle by the Fundamentalism/Modernism cultural upheaval. Another reason is because my denomination’s roots are in Piestism, a movement of Christians who rejected Scholasticism or “dead orthodoxy” for a living faith, dependent on the Holy Spirit, and centered on a direct relationship with God through Christ.

Here’s how my denomination speaks about the relationship between faith and Scripture:

“The culmination of revelation is in the events recorded in the New Testament which center in and about Jesus Christ—his birth, his life, his ministry, his teachings, his suffering, his death, his resurrection and ascension, the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Here, in these concrete events occurring at a particular period in time, and in this particular Person, God has chosen to make fully manifest the mystery of his being, his faithfulness, his righteousness, his love, and his saving power.” (3)

“Jesus Christ is preeminently and supremely the Word of God—faithful, dynamic, powerful, and able to save.” (4)

For Covenanters, the Bible is an important means of encounter with God. As the Covenant’s forebears have said, it is an “altar where one meets the living God.”

“For us the revelation comes in and through the words of the Bible, but, as we all know, it is entirely possible to read the words without hearing and responding to the Word of God. The dynamic, life-giving revelation is received only when the Holy Spirit opens mind and heart to accept the Word of God which is Jesus Christ.” (5)

Pietism can help to heal the divide between Fundamentalists and Modernists by returning the Bible to its proper place—one of facilitating our direct, covenantal relationship with God. The Bible is invited to the wedding—in fact, it can be in the bridal party—but the bridegroom is Christ.


  1. By “the Bible,” conservative U.S. Evangelicals typically mean the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible. I will resist another digression into the convoluted reasoning which makes this seem obvious to them.
  2. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (InterVarsity Press, 2012), p.12.
  3. Donald Frisk, Covenant Affirmations: This We Believe (Covenant Publications, 2003), p.18.
  4. Ibid., p.19.
  5. Ibid., p.21.