The Medium Is The Message: Text and Incarnation
I’m generally not a fan of referring to the Bible as “the Word of God” as many evangelical friends like to do. I happily call it Scripture. I’m not in any way denying that it was breathed out by God and is authoritative, useful for teaching, discipline, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). I also don’t necessarily argue that there is anything inherently heretical or sinful about what most people mean when they use the phrase to talk about the Bible: simply that God inspires its words (like I just said).
The Bible Says…
But I still won’t use that phrase myself and I would generally suggest that others steer away from it. The simple answer for why is that the New Testament doesn’t identify itself as the Word of God. Again, it will talk about authority or usefulness or inspiration. It will cite Old Testament texts and other authors of the New Testament clearly implying that they consider those texts to be an authority (sometimes with some really different interpretations than the authors would have meant). But the label of The Word of God is reserved for Jesus:
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
2 The Word was with God in the beginning.
3 Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.
What came into being
4 through the Word was life,[a]
and the life was the light for all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
14 The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5,14 CEB)
The Word was and is God. The Word was there with God in the beginning. The Word became flesh in Jesus. The Word did not become a collection of books, not our translations and manuscript copies and not even the originals. Those are incredibly useful – my day job is even with a Bible Society trying to make these Scriptures available to more people (views here not those of CBS) – but they are not the Word. The Word is Jesus.
It goes deeper than throwing around the texts, though, of course. Unfortunately it often carries with it a lot of faulty assumptions. The reality is that many Protestants have made the Bible effectively a part of the Trinity (usually in place of the Holy Spirit). Of course they don’t say directly that the Bible is God, but they sure treat it that way. They might talk about following the Bible, being Bible-believers, or getting their nation back to the Bible. Sometimes they mean that they use the Bible as a valuable tool to follow Jesus, be Jesus-believers, or get others around them closer to Jesus. But they don’t usually say it that way which inevitably creates a lot of confusion around the lie that we are a religion of the book. Referring to the Bible as the Word of God instead of Jesus I think creates similar problems. This routine language makes the Bible equivalent to Jesus, whether or not we say it.
The Medium and the Message
There’s another problem with making the Bible the Word of God. Marshall McLuhan famously said:
The medium is the message.
Not all mediums are created equal. This was the groundbreaking idea of McLuhan’s maxim. Reading a book has different effects than watching TV, even if the content is identical. It engages different parts of the brain, strengthening some and weakening others. Much research has been done on the effects of the electronic age, even differences between reading an eBook vs reading the exact same book on paper. It does us good to pay attention to these consequences of our mediums and weigh which medium is ultimately the best for us.
When we use the phrase Word of God, we are talking about media. We are talking about the fundamental form of communication. That’s what a word is. So what are we saying is the primary medium of communication from God to us? Some say the Bible. I say Jesus.
It makes a difference because the medium is (at least a significant part of) the message. We can’t say that it doesn’t really matter because really the message is the same thing anyway. That simply isn’t true.
It shouldn’t take that big of a study to see why. It isn’t a coincidence that those Christians most loudly and proudly proclaiming how important the Bible is as the Word of God are usually the ones that are most ignoring Jesus in that same Bible. We see blog posts from Christians effectively arguing why Jesus was wrong on questions like loving your enemy, using prooftexts from elsewhere to ignore the direct command from Jesus, even though he blatantly said he was overturning those other texts to lead us to something better. If we take Jesus seriously as the Word of God, we have to think God wants us to love our enemies. If we take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, we can pit passages off against each other and then side with whichever one seems to most benefit us at the time. Sadly, the latter is often the story in Protestant history and particularly in evangelicalism today.
Making static text the primary communication method from God makes God static. When that text is made God, God is reduced to nothing more than text. Some even directly say this, eliminating the Holy Spirit from any practical function in our day-to-day lives. We lose sight of the story of God and his people that Scripture is all about, then we lose sight of the God it was inspired to point us toward and how we are called to play our parts in the story.
I worship a living God. I worship a God who made his central form of communication with us becoming flesh in Jesus. I worship a God who tells a powerful and beautiful story through Scripture but is not bound by Scripture (or my interpretation of it), still active today in bringing about our a new creation.