What counts as the word of God? - the role of written Scriptures

My husband and I are having some interesting dinner conversations based on a discussion he was involved in on a linguistics/translation forum. I would be interested in what people here think about some of the questions that were raised. I have not read the original debate, so what follows is more a summary of some of the things my husband and I were discussing.

Basically, some people asserted that the written text of the Scriptures was somehow primary. So, if you communicate the message of the text orally or with drama or art, that is derivative, and does not carry the same authority or import or sacredness as the written text of Scripture. Those communication acts are not “the word of God” in the same way the written text is the word of God.

That idea is not one I like, but I am trying to identify why not.

I have some ideas related to orality (Walton does a good job explaining how written texts served different functions in the oral societies that produced our Scriptures in the book The Lost World of Scripture.) and where the authority of Scripture comes from (is it really the words themselves that are vested with authority?) but I’m interested in hearing other people’s thoughts first.

There is the old joke that Baptists believe in the Trinity: Father , Son, and the Holy Bible. It is sometimes functionally not that far off, being a lifelong Baptist.
I suspect the difference in how we feel relates to the permanency and unchanging nature of ink on paper or papyrus. Perhaps that is also why those of us who pull out our iPhones and raise them when asked to hold up our bibles get funny looks also. Hum, there are probably some common issues there with resistance to electronic media bibles and oral tradition.
While the written word has the advantage of being relatively fixed, the danger arises of vesting in it special properties, leading to an idolatrous view where the printed words takes the place of relationship. We are an idolatrous people.
I look forward to hearing the various voices on this, as it is not something I have considered.

1 Like

Some related questions are:

When did the word of God become the word of God? When it was voted into the canon? When it was recognized by a community of faithful as authoritative? When it arrived in the final form we have access to (since its obvious especially in the OT that texts were compiled, redacted, and modified from earlier sources we don’t have access to now? When someone first put quill to scroll? If the written word records something that was originally a sermon or song or prophetic word, was that original communication act not God’s word? Is it the actual words themselves that is God’s word, or is it the message those words communicate or the response those words inspire? All of us are reading translations, I presume, and even if we study the original languages we don’t have access to all the details of the original context, so even the original words may communicate differently now than they did then.

I think all this is relevant to the faith/science discussion because I think most people who are committed to a very literal reading of Genesis see it as an “authority of God’s word” issue before they see it as an interpretation issue. So maybe if we unpacked this idea of what it means to respect the authority of God’s word a little, we would find a better starting point for discussions.

Yeah, all good questions. Questions like these were part of the reason I moved away from my Conservative Baptist upbringing in how I view the Bible, and why I stopped considering myself an evangelical. (Also, the evident tendency of cultures to ascribe sacred status to ancient religious texts gave me pause.) Now, if you tell me that the Bible is a tool that God uses, or that the Holy Spirit reveals God to people when they approach him through the Bible, then I’ll listen.

I’m pretty sure that won’t be reassuring to those worried about liberals undermining the authority of the Bible, however.

More fundamentally, what a text means depends on the reader – on his or her personality, intelligence, attitude, experiences. The meaning is different every time, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. If it’s the meaning that is God’s word, whose meaning?

I wish I could find the source for the exact stat, but a significant percentage of person to person communication is clarifying and asking for clarification. The idea that we have pretty good access to another’s thoughts through the vehicle of a shared language is a fiction; it takes a lot of collaborative work. If one’s view is that God is only communicating to individuals via his recorded written word, that sounds like a bad plan. If you don’t factor in the Holy Spirit, and Christ in others, and the corporate wisdom and insight of the church, you don’t have a very good recipe for effective communication, in my opinion.

1 Like

What counts as the word of God? The answer is clear - Jesus Christ is the word of God and the revelation of God. How should Christians view the bible? We view ti exactly as it is presented to us, as records of what the Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists and Saints said, did, endured, understood.

What doe this mean? It means that we seek to understand what is true, what our conscience shows us, and the persons we become as a result of the faith in God.

Examinations of biblical text, history, traditions all stand or fall on how these serve God’s Church.

To me, trying to live a life according to the Gospel is a life time endeavour and one that shows my many failures and errors. I cannot find any reasons to pass my failures to biblical texts, or debates about linguistics. However for those who need their faith bolstered by textual arguments or scholastic/scientific views, the bible still tells us to seek the truth - so I guess the responsibility falls on each Christian, and collectively on the Church - but all looking to Christ for guidance and faith. And yes, that too can be found in the bible.


I used to hold that the entire Scriptures were ‘God breathed,’ and commonly used the apologetic that this applies to the New Testament as well as Peter seems to equate Paul’s writings with the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16). But certainly I was always deeply troubled by Paul’s own admissions in 1 Corinthians 7 about his own advice vs. the Lord’s. And then in the head covering conclusion (1 Cor 11:16) always confused me (it’s either no such custom or no other custom depending on your translation). Either way, it’s almost as if Paul is very flexible in his ‘absolute’ teachings as I understood them. Needless to say, this was a suppressed conflict within me for many years.

So what then are the exact words of God? I would argue that we are getting glimpses into the work of God in men and women of history (mostly men unfortunately). This is really consistent with the idea of evangelism. In evangelism, one thing people do is tell others what God is really like and what He has been like for them. And I would throw in, if relationship ultimately is the goal of the Father, then words spoken out of that relationship are the most important ‘words of God’ for an individual. The words of Scripture are how others either interpreted God or how God actually spoke to people who had a certain worldview at a certain time in history. Thus Paul’s ‘commands’ about women were relevant and addressing a potential problem, but really should not be authoritative doctrine in today’s world.

I like what you said though it does create some discomfort, especially with the evangelical mind. Of course the Princess Bride quote pops into my head (paraphrasing- I do not think that means what you think it means). I would say that getting into the stories yields beautiful insight and powerful revelation of who God truly is. One such example that is actually explained in Scripture is of course the classic Ruth 3:7 where the significance of cultural context was explained. Another example would be the Hebrew notion of feeling emotions with the kidneys and thinking with their hearts. Deuteronomy 6:5 is the famous command that exhorts Israel to love God with their hearts, souls and might. However, the Synoptic Gospel clarify, including both the heart and mind instead of just heart (Mt 22:37, Mk 12:30, Lk 10:27). Unlike the Hebrews, the Greeks rightly identified the mind as the seat of the intellect. Clarifying for their audience the Gospel writers explain the Hebrew concept of heart to their readers. This is perhaps why I like books like The Biblical Cosmos by Robin Parry so much, giving me a ride through the Hebrew world of the Cosmos and finding ourselves in it today.

Anyways, this was a long aside that affirms your insight. I tend to also refer to the Scriptures in matters of metaphysical truth, but not physical truth that can more assuredly be tested via science (instead of men trying to interpret words written thousands of years ago by a pre-scientific people).

I agree.

I agree with that too.

I have been drawn to narrative theology approaches for a number of reasons. And I’ve slogged through what were the interesting parts to me of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is there meaning in this text? and other stuff he has written on ‘theodrama’ and the Bible as speech act and found that very helpful. And I keep going back to this old N.T. Wright lecture on biblical authority. I accept that the Bible is God’s authoritative and inspired revelation to us and one of the primary tools the Holy Spirit uses to bring conviction and form our characters. But the question of how the Bible is authoritative and how we should respond to that authority as we contextualize the gospel (or re-enact it, if we go with the theodrama imagery) in our particular culture and history is still an open question for me. Or maybe it’s more that I have some answers, but I don’t necessarily like them all or think they are all good ones.

1 Like

Great questions! I am going to try some of them on my pastor!

Added to that, if you are in the sort of church which accepts people giving prophetic words today, how do they fit in? Most of us wouldn’t want to say they are on an equal footing with the Bible, yet if they came from God…? I suppose if God said it, then it is God’s message, and we should honour it. The problem with oral interpretations, modern prophecy, or books that didn’t make it to the canon, is that WE are not sure whether the message came through without distortion. So the bits that are God’s message are 100% his message. (And I definitely prefer to think in terms of “message” rather than “words”.) However, in practice, how do we figure that all out? If a person’s prophecy is in the Bible, does that make it 100% accurate? And what of versions like The Message? - where the accuracy and detail can be lost, but sometimes they really bring the message alive! And when God speaks to you personally, and you know so clearly what He is saying, is that the word of God? (Greek helps us there with 2 words!)

I think you are right - this is a very important issue with regard to discussions on creation.

A bit more thinking:

When we say that Scripture is the Word of God, we are making a statement about it being valid for all time. So I suspect that prophets in the Old Testament were already saying God’s message for the situation they were in, but when that got in the Bible, there was a recognition that this was part of a message from God that was going to be valuable for all time.

Another challenge is the Septuagint - a Greek translation of the Old Testament which sometimes differs quite a bit from the original Hebrew. But Jesus quoted from it! So is the original the Word of God? Or the Septuagint? Or both? Or both just when Jesus quotes from it? And maybe He quoted bits that didn’t make it into scripture!

I’m tempted to think that God’s answers to these questions might be quite different from ours.

I think it is important that we know what we believe about these things, but I don’t think we will get far in arguing about this with those who insist on a very literal reading. I don’t think they will be persuaded by logic.

What does the Bible say the word of God is? There’s some very circular reasoning in asserting that the Bible is the “word of God”…especially since it uses that phrase for something other than the canonized text.

And a related thorny issue is that on non-canonized texts that are quoted in the Bible.

And so … when you get a history book from the 1800’s that repeats obvious fictions about George Washington, do you throw the whole book away, and refuse to believe there was even a heroic person known as George Washington?

How can we even endorse any of the current Administration’s positions when his conversations and policies are so full of contradictions - - with other positions and policies in this same Administration?

Are Christians really so weak as to be a complete jeopardy as soon as someone says: “You know, Jonah didn’t spend 3 days in a fish.”??? [<Edit: Job replaced by Jonah]

It was Jonah, and I don’t know what you are talking about. I’m talking about forming a coherent doctrine of inspiration and biblical authority, not whether or not Christianity rests on a strong form of inerrancy.


I guess my sense of humor is too strange; I’ll have to change my reference from Job to Jonah.

But I’m not sure I understand your distinction betwen a “coherent doctrine of inspiration” vs. forms of inerrancy.

I guess the difference is I’m likely to say that the Bible is “in error” here or there, while you or others are more likely to say that the verse in question is not completely understood yet.


I would affirm the Bible got Cosmology ‘wrong,’ and other historical details wrong but that is consistent with how ancient writers thought and wrote. Definitely not a matter of ‘not enough information’ in my eyes.

1 Like

We need to include our understanding of metaphor and genre as well as considering the terms and concepts available at the time. Otherwise, I would be saying that Jesus was “wrong” when He declared himself as a gate! And the Psalms are “wrong” when they talk of a stationary earth. And what do we mean by right or wrong? Some of the quoted opinions are definitely not from God - so we would want to consider them “wrong” even though they are in the Bible! That does not imply that the Bible is wrong in the sense of being unreliable.

1 Like

A doctrine of inspiration and authority just tries to explain how human writers,compilers, and editors were guided or influenced by God so that the resulting writings can be considered in some sense God’s message, one that is unique and authoritative in guiding the life and beliefs of Christians. Many people who do not hold to any form of inerrancy still hold that the Bible is inspired and authoritative. Inerrancy is a deduction from a certain view of inspiration and authority.


Thanks, @Christy, for the Vanhoozer links. Narrative Theology. Once again, I discover that there is already a name for something that I was thinking. By way of “payback,” here are some interesting perspectives from Anthony Thiselton’s book on hermeneutics, The Two Horizons, that you and @Mazza_P (at least) might enjoy:

"We have seen that Wittgenstein lays down a very solemn warning
about the power which a picture possesses to seduce us, to lead us astray,
or at the very least to dictate our way of marking out the terms of a
problem. He writes concerning the spell of a picture over his own earlier
work: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it.“ “The
picture was the key. Or it seemed like a key.“ What misleads us is not
simply the power of a model or metaphor as such, but the fact that all too
often our way of seeing a particular problem is wholly dictated by a single
controlling picture which excludes all others. In these circumstances it
exercises a spell over us, which bewitches our intelligence and blinds us
to other ways of seeing the problem.

In the history of the debate about the nature of biblical authority,
often each side has operated with a controlling picture on the basis of
which it makes out the entire ground of the debate. The most obvious
example concerns a one-sided picture of the Bible either as exclusively a
divine Word of God, or else as exclusively a merely human word of
religious men. …

We have seen that for Wittgenstein “the speaking of language is
part of an activity.“ “Only in the stream of thought and life do words
have meaning.“ This means that the actual experience of the authority
of the biblical text is something which occurs in concrete and dynamic
terms. This is seen in many different ways and experienced at different
levels. Biblical authority is not simply an abstract and monolithic concept.
We have seen, for example, that the biblical writers address themselves to
different particular situations, and that, in turn, they write out of their
own particular situations. This means that the biblical text comes alive as
a “speech-act” (cf. Heidegger’s “language-event”) when some kind of
correspondence or inter-relation occurs between the situation addressed
by the biblical writer and the situation of the modern reader or hearer.
This looks at first sight as if it opens the door to subjectivism or at the very
least to what Barr calls a “soft” idea of authority. But to describe such a
view of authority as “soft” is a grave mistake. To recognize the interrelationship
between authority and hermeneutics is precisely to give authority
cash-value and a cutting edge. It means that far from seeing the biblical
message as something packaged up in neat containers and abstracted from
life, it is in the stream of life and thought that it makes its impact, from
situation to situation. The experience of biblical authority is concrete and
dynamic, because it is not experienced outside a given language-game.
There is a danger that both sides in the debate will read too much, or
perhaps not enough, out of this point. We are not saying that the Bible is
authoritative only when it “rings a bell” for the hearer. For we are
speaking here not of authority as such, but of the experience of authority.
At one level, what the Bible says about forgiveness, for example, is
authoritative for the Christian regardless of his situation (in a way which
we shall explain shortly). But at the level of experience, it is when a man
so reads the texts that he hears God, for example, forgiving him that the
authority of the text is fully experienced. In this sense, the language-games
of the Bible embrace a whole range of dynamic speech-acts:
commanding, promising, asking, judging, blessing, warning, pardoning,
acclaiming, and so on. But at another level all these broadly “performative”
acts can be effective only because certain states of affairs are true.
Thus Jesus can say “Your sins be forgiven you” only because he is the
one who can forgive sins. In this sense, the authority of the words of
Jesus rests on something that lies behind the particular speech-act and its

The point which is correct behind the so-called “non-propositional”
view of revelation is that the Bible is not merely a handbook of information
and description, along the lines of propositions in the Tractatus.
But the point behind the so-called “propositional” view is even more
important, even if it is badly expressed in the traditional terms which are
often used. It is that the dynamic and concrete authority of the Bible
rests, in turn, on the truth of certain states of affairs in God’s relation to
the world. As J. L. Austin succinctly put it, for performative language
to function effectively, “certain statements have to be true."


Am currently on Vanhoozer’s section in the “5 views of Biblical Inerrancy” book and am impressed with his writing. Will have to look at his other works.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.