The “Word” Rightly Understood

Words are funny things. They mean different things to different people. They evolve over time. In some places, words from the same language are understood as entirely different concepts or idioms in different cultures.  Language is tricky and one of the trickiest places we experience the nuances and headaches of language is when we read the Bible.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word WAS God.”  Many of you will recognize that as the Prologue to the Gospel of John.  John takes us out of the numerous details surrounding the Incarnation of the Baby Jesus to approach that same Incarnation from a completely different way.  We see the eternal Christ as the Word, or in Greek, Logos.

The word Logos is a bit more complex.  We think of “Word” as something that is said or is written on a page. Understanding someone as “The Word’ gets a little confusing to us. It is a bizarre title and one that has caused some confusion.

Before I unpack that though, I want us to look at another confusing term that, I think, does a really good job of helping us understand the problem.  How about “Body” In different places in scripture, the gathering of the Baptized is considered “The Body”. In 1stCorinthians, when Paul is discussing the Lord’s Supper, he refers the other blessed Body. They are both referred to by the same Greek word, “Soma”.  I think we get the idea that the Bible can and does use the same word to refer to both the members of the church and the objective presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  It is less mysterious than the concept of word.

This brings me to the often misunderstood Logos used in Hebrews 4 which was just read.  It appears to talk about two different things. So many folks have pulled the first sentence of the first paragraph out of context and made it to be about the Bible.  “The Word of God is living and active” is not divorced from the context of the chapter which describes this self-same Christ as our Great high priest. Jesus you see, is living and active.

Why do you think we got this common misunderstanding.  I think it is twofold.  First, we became good at using phrases from the Bible as weapons of argument.  If I want to convince others, the thought goes, we can pull a phrase out of its larger biblical content.  Theologians call this prooftexting and we as Anglicans wholesale reject the concept.

We are often taught to memorize scripture passages. That is a wonderful practice, but if you are unaware of from where those passages were taken, you stand the risk of thinking it says something that it does not. Hebrews 4:12 is a classic example of proof texting gone incredibly wrong. The “Word” mentioned here is not the Bible, but rather Jesus.

It is not a literal translation to do so, but a better way to understand the verse is “The presence of Christ is living and active. That makes the idea of Jesus as our great high priest all the more powerful.

I said this problem was two fold.  There is another problem that has developed within the last 500 years and that is the failure to see the Bible as a tool for our use, and not see that the Bible is the collection of the writings of fallible human beings that serve an infallible God. You see, there was a time when there was no Bible. When the Letter to the Hebrews was written, the idea of referring to the gathered books of the Bible was a foreign one. They had the Hebrew Scriptures, but most of the New Testament had only recently been written. There was no way that the writer of Hebrews could have understood his writing to refer to an assembling of books as today we understand the Bible.

We got the biblical canon when the Christian community came to the point where it needed to settle the issue of which books commonly considered of merit were to be considered authoritative and which actually pointed to a mistaken or heretical understanding of who Jesus was. So the bishops gathered to hash out the issues of the merits of each book. The first assembling of a canon was called the Muratorian Canon, compiled in AD 170, which included all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and 3 John. The Council of Laodicea (AD 363) concluded that only the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were to be read in local churches. The Apocrypha was later removed by the Protestant reformers, but that is another blogpost.

The principles used by these councils to determine whether a New Testament book was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit were fourfold. First, the author must be an apostle or have a close connection with an apostle. Second, the book must have been accepted by the early church at large. Third, the book had to contain consistent orthodox teaching. Finally, the book had to bear evidence that the Holy Spirit really was the one who was behind its writing.

The human process of collecting the books of the Bible was flawed, but God, in his sovereignty, and despite the shortsightedness of human beings, brought the early church to the recognition of the books that God had wanted us to have.  So, our getting the Bible was a pretty long and complicated process.

In those years, there was a great number of folks who misunderstood concepts like the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the Incarnation or the co-equality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The same questions that caused the church to say which books were and were not part of the Bible was the same reason that the Church gathered to compose the Nicene Creed.

These common struggles of understanding a right concept of God in Christ exist today and some of our denominational separations reflect these issues. Hebrews attempts to sort out all of the complexities of who Jesus was and is.

This confusion helps us to get things straight about a proper view of the Bible. When I say proper, I am not referring to my opinion, but rather to the way that the early Church looked at the biblical texts.

They would never have used the term “inerrant” that you often hear.  That concept is a product of the late Reformation.  That idea infers that everything in the Bible is textual fact and without any error.  As any person who has studied the Bible in its translations and original language can tell you, there are grammatical and translation errors all over the place. And yet, God still speaks through them.

The early church spoke of the scriptures as “inspired”. That word is understood as “God breathed”. That means that they are filled with truths about life, but were not the project of some divine dictation.  There were human filters that saw God at work, heard the still small voice of the Holy Spirit in order to collect a tool for our use. The only time we can claim there to be a divine dictation is in the book of Revelation, where John the Apostle says that he wrote exactly what he was told to write.  In many other cases, biblical books could have been told for thousands of years before either the language evolved to include writing, or scribe actually chose to pen them for posterity.

So yes, the Word of God is active and living. His Name is Jesus. He speaks through the Bible and in the church. He is our great High priest who lives to intercede for us. All of this power is written for us so that we might know that we can trust Jesus, and appeal to him in our hour of need.

So let’s be Christians with a proper understanding of the Word. We serve the Living Word, Jesus, who is both our Lord and God, omnipotent and powerful, as well as the one who intercedes to his Father. He is revealed to us in the Bible. The God-breathed collection of truth and grace given to us to point us to a holy life under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  If you seek to serve the Living Word, Jesus, you can understand how to do that with the help and guidance of the written word, the Bible, the rule and guide of faith and the ultimate testimony of Jesus.