What do we mean in Church when we say, “This is the Word of the Lord”?
As a lifelong American protestant, it has always been taught to me that the fundamental bearer of truth is the Scriptural text. If ever I had a question relating to theological matters, I was directed to the text of Scripture. I have been told all my life that reading Scripture in a daily morning devotional (followed by prayer) is constitutive of true “walking with God.” When Sunday came around, one critical aspect of discerning whether or not the sermon was “good,” was to what extent the pastor exposited and explained what was said in the text chosen for that particular Sunday gathering. I was taught not to simply “preach the Times,” as did many dead lifeless mainline churches. As a Baptist, we never actually used the phrase, “This is the word of the Lord,” after the reading—but it was implied by the act of standing when the Bible was read, typically by the pastor, before the sermon. Every single congregational act had some connection to the Bible.
If I ask the question, “What is the Bible?”, most people will think that I’m rather dense. For protestants, it is the 66 books from Genesis to Malachi and Matthew to Revelation. To state the obvious, it will be English, the language of this essay. With a little bit of prodding, many protestants will be able to tell you that the Bible was originally composed in Hebrew and Greek, typically ignoring the portions written in Aramaic and the small number in Latin. A very small minority of protestants, typically ministers, or other professional Christians will have studied Hebrew or Greek.
The Bible has reached this central place in American Christianity due in large part to the Reformation in Europe during the 16th century. Martin Luther’s famed dictum sola scriptura basically implied that any dispute amongst rival theologies should be settled by appeals to Scripture, rather than experience, tradition, or reason alone—all of which were tainted by sin. In response, a fascinating split occurred in the nascent protestant form of Christianity. In order to most faithfully render the Bible into the vernacular so that all people could read Scripture and decide for themselves matters of doctrine, the Reformers sought out better Hebrew and Greek texts as the basis for new vernacular forms of the Bible.
Erasmus of Rotterdam might be the most famous among them. He created the “Textus Receptus,” the basis of the King James Version of the Scriptures. Erasmus was unable to find a Greek version of Revelation and translated it into Greek from the Latin Vulgate. He also included what is now known as the “Johannine Comma,” a section of 1 John 5 that more overtly mirrors the 4th century explanation of the Trinity. Erasmus never tried to create his own vernacular version. Luther used the work of Erasmus and others to create his own German version. As we now know, the split in the West between Protestant and Roman Catholic can be traced to this point, but the question remains for both traditions, is the Word of the Lord, the Verbum Domini, the translated vernacular or the copies of the Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic and Latin)?1
I started thinking about all of this in response to an article by a Catholic theologian, Paul Griffiths, who writes:
“What does interest me is that the words proclaimed, whether from (Old Testament or New, are marked liturgically with complete straightforwardness and lack of ambiguity as spoken by the Lord to his people. Those words are, that is, verbum Domini. The exact words of the lections, in whatever language is used in that particular celebration (English, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and so on), are, without reservation, flagged to be heard by the people and treated by the homilist as exactly what the Lord says to his people here, today, now.”2
Griffiths argues that for Catholics the parishioner does hear the word of the Lord proclaimed from the lectern because there is a declared acceptable English translation, the New Jerusalem Bible, agreed as the only appropriate English version for the Sunday Mass. But, what about for Protestants who—across the board—have varying English versions and typically have pastors who often speak as if the true word is not in the language spoken from the lectern, but from the original Greek or Hebrew autograph? Is it possible that when the reader stands to read the Bible to the congregation and boldly proclaims, “This is the Word of the Lord,” we should hear it as if it was said with a wink? As if to say, “Well actually, this is just a translation of a recently compiled version of the original autographs, which are actually the Word of the Lord.” If this is the case, then the average American on Sunday morning has never actually heard the “Word of the Lord.” The way some recent seminary graduates preach, you would think that the actual words were not in English but in the Greek. This is what the pastor is doing if she tells you, “the Greek actually says x.” You are getting but a distant version of the true Word of the Lord.
This also raises the question of what to do with theological works composed in the intervening period between the Vulgate and the Luther Bible, which was dependent on the Latin text of Scripture. Was all of that theology done in vain because it did not reference the true Word of the Lord? Many famous and frankly foundational theological dictums come from Latin translations of Scripture, “credo ut intelligam” and “in quo omnes peccaverunt.” I believe in order that I might understand and the doctrine of Original Sin are in large part dependent on what might be called (in other contexts) bad translations. What if those translations could equally be called verbum domini? What if we did not decide that, in fact, Greek and Hebrew are the true words of the Lord and instead simply exposited Scripture in the translation decided by the community to be valid for worship gatherings? Could the Holy Spirit be at work in those translations that could be done, at times, in translational error—but used by the Holy Spirit for theological edification?
In part, I’m calling on protestants to recognize the power of tradition to hand on theological truths to the next generations, whether based on good or bad versions of scriptural text. The fact of the matter is, there has never been one complete codex with all original autographs from the pens of the authors of the texts of Scripture. Rather than base our theological reflections on historical conjecture, we should recognize the movement of the Spirit in the communities that gather together to hear the Word of the Lord read and preached.
What would it mean for protestant communities to recognize this fuller dimension of the verbum domini? In many protestant circles, the doctrine of inspiration—what makes the Scripture the word of the Lord, or in their case the Word of God (Verbum Dei)—is typically called verbal inspiration, or sometimes verbal plenary inspiration. This is the tacitly agreed upon definition by most American Evangelicals. This doctrine depicts (some form of) God speaking through human authors to pen the Bible. It gets tricky when one tries to explain exactly what this means. B.B. Warfield mocked an overly literal view of verbal plenary inspiration, writing: “[God] was reduced to the necessity of going down to earth and painfully scrutinizing the men He found there, seeking anxiously for the one who, on the whole, promised best for His purpose; and then violently forcing the material He wished expressed through him, against his natural bent, and with as little loss from his recalcitrant characteristics as possible. Of course, nothing of the sort took place.”3 The major Reformed confession, the Westminster Confession states this, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God,” (I.4). A little earlier, in I.2, after listing the typical 66 books, the Confession states, “All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.” 4 Warfield problematizes the account given in the Westminster Confession by drawing out exactly what inspiration means and how we can reasonably say that God is the author of the Scriptures.
In the article mentioned above, Warfield actually argues that our current debates in the English language concerning what makes Scripture Divine, rely more heavily on the Vulgate than on the Greek word. Warfield goes to great lengths to propose that the word “inspiration,” from 2 Timothy 3:16, matches more closely with the Vulgate translation of theopneustos than the original Greek meaning. The actual meaning of the Greek word more idiomatically implies the breath of God, rather than God breathing into the author by force. This particular issue of word choice could not be more instructive for the present discussion. What is the normative word choice for the current theological milieu in American Evangelicalism? To which source should we turn? Can we reasonably rely on the English translations which often draw more on the Vulgate than the actual Greek text? If they do, they privilege not the “original text,” but rather a translation of it (which was normative for the greater part of Christian history)? Luther, Warfield and others seem to think that, in debates of such significance like this one, in the end, the victory goes to the original language. However, neither the Westminster Confession nor the Warfield article mention the difficulty of deciding which language God was meant to speak through or to use to inspire his author. Here it might be helpful to compare the Qur’an with the Christian Bible. In the typical Islamic explanation, Muhammad receives the direct revelation, in Arabic, which he conveys to his scribe. The Qur’an is only the Qur’an when it is read and received in Arabic. Thus, the proselytizing activity of Muslims typically includes the learning and promulgating of Arabic language and culture. In order to hear God’s word, the verbum dei, one must hear it in Arabic. That is the only liturgically appropriate language for Islam. Muhammad was simply the bearer of the Word of the God. In many pious retellings of his life, he is illiterate. This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which being that he is the perfect bearer of the Word of God because he does not know enough to get in the way of the beauty of the language of God.
Is this what American Evangelical Christians mean when they say that the Bible is verbally inspired in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, or Hebrew? Precisely which language does God speak, and should every Christian learn ancient languages to truly understand how God has spoken to them? Surely the Church can do better and offer more to people than to require the massive amounts of reading and study required for this. This kind of theology creates a Christian culture that has become dependent on pastors, who are typically the only ones who have access to this esoteric knowledge of how God is speaking. It also makes liturgists out to be liars when they say, “This is the word of the Lord.”
What’s equally fascinating is the fact that contemporary theological discourse leans so heavily on the tradition of the Vulgate without acknowledging its formative role in setting the terms of the debate. We will use the English language, in many ways influenced by the Vulgate, as the litmus test for discerning whether someone holds the correct view. This practice excludes the very text that became foundational for the debate itself. The Vulgate is not the word of the Lord, but it has so controlled our reading of the Greek that we cannot escape using it when we have the conversation about which text is the ground of the proclamation in Church, “This is the Word of the Lord.” American Evangelicals should either accept the normative element of the tradition in shaping the terms for belief or start forcing their adherents to learn Greek and Hebrew—to actually hear the Word of the Lord.
(1) I want to point out parenthetically that I am purposefully, at this point, not using the phrase “The Word of God,” Verbum Dei. It is a matter of some debate whether this phrase refers to the second person of the Trinity or to the text of Scripture, or both. I want to bracket this difficult conversation, but it no doubt has a strong bearing on exactly what is meant by the Word of the Lord as well.
(2) Paul J. Griffiths, “Which Are the Words of Scripture?” Theological Studies 72 (2011) p. 703-722.
(3) B.B. Warfield, “The Biblical Idea of Revelation” https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_biblicalrevelation.html