Updated: Nov 6, 2021
When people think about the Word of God, they tend to think about sacred writings. Christians believe there are such writings. But that’s not where they start.
They begin thinking about the Word of God with Jesus. This follows the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-2, 14). Jesus, the Son of God from all eternity, is the Word of God through whom all things were made and by whom God makes communicates with us. We might call him the personal Word of God.
Christians also recognize that, from the beginning of the biblical narrative to the end, God makes himself known as a God who speaks. Beginning with Moses, God usually speaks through specific individuals he sends (see Deut. 18:15-22). Led by the Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:10-11), they spoke in many and various ways to communicate God’s living and active Word to his people. When the time had fully come, God spoke definitively, ultimately, decisively, and for all time in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Both through his teaching and his works, Jesus communicated God’s truth and accomplished God’s will. The people of God did not accept him, however. They rejected his message and put him to death. Had Jesus remained dead, his claims to speak for God would have been proved false and our faith in him would be in vain (see 1 Cor. 15:14). But he rose from the dead, vindicating both himself and the Scriptures. As John writes, “When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22). After his resurrection, Jesus’ apostles recalled his words about the inviolability of the writings we now know as the Old Testament (John 10:35). They also obeyed his command to teach everything he had instructed them (Matt 28:20). Like the prophets who came before them, they (and their associates, the church) proclaimed the spoken Word of God.
Eventually, the apostles also began writing letters (epistles) and accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (Gospels). Those who heard and believed this apostolic message began gathering together the writings that were consistent with the apostles’ witness. By the middle of the second century, a clear and consistent collection of apostolic writings was recognized by all Christians. We call this the New Testament. Together with the Old Testament, they are known as the written Word of God.
It is important to understand the role the Scriptures play in God’s plan of salvation. They were not written to answer every question we might have. They were not written to address directly the specific details in our lives today. Even though they address some historical, scientific, and ethical issues, they were not written to serve as history, science, or ethical textbooks. Instead, they were written to create and sustain faith in Jesus. As John writes at the end of his Gospel, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
In summary, we might say that the Scriptures (the written Word) serve the church’s proclamation of the commands and promises of God (the spoken Word) so that everyone would believe in Jesus (the personal Word) and have life in his name. We believe they are faithful and true because we believe that Jesus is risen from the dead.
Peter Nafzger, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Practical Theology and director of Student Life at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
For Professor Nafzger's full treatment of this question:
Nafzger, Peter, These are Written: Toward a Cruciform Theology of Scripture.