Christians from all the traditions of the Church – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – believe that the Bible is the Word of God. That is why in most traditional Churches, the declaration, ‘This is the Word of the Lord’, is made after the lector reads the assigned portion of the Bible in the lectionary. What do Christians mean by this statement? At the most fundamental level, to say that the Bible is the Word of God is to somehow relate it to the revelation of God. Christians believe that God has disclosed himself to man through various ways. Without this revelation, it is impossible for human beings to come to a certain knowledge of God because God is not an object of this world, and is therefore inaccessible to human senses.
Christians believe that God has revealed himself through creation. Just as an artist discloses something of himself through his work of art, so God the Creator reveals himself through the things that he has made. Christians also maintain that God has revealed himself through his acts in human history, particularly through his dealings with the people of Israel. And finally and supremely, God has revealed himself through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Christians believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments faithfully and accurately record these revelations of God. Therefore Scripture in this sense can be said to be revelatory because it bears witness to the revelation of God in Israel and in Jesus Christ. And insofar as the Bible bears witness to the revelation of God, it may be said to be the Word of God.
It must be pointed out that when theologians use this phrase ‘Word of God’ they use it to refer primarily to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. As the eternal Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ is the supreme revelation of God. We might say that he is God’s Word in the primary sense. But the phrase ‘Word of God’ is also used to refer to the Bible, albeit in a derivative and secondary sense, because the Bible bears witness to Jesus Christ. This is the teaching of the early Fathers of the Church. It is the understanding of the great Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially Martin Luther and John Calvin. Because the Bible is the Word of God in the secondary and derivative sense, Christians do not worship the Bible – they are not guilty of bibliolatry. Christians worship Christ who as God’s Eternal Word is therefore of one being (Greek: homoousios) with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
When Christians say that the Bible is the Word of God, they maintain that the Bible is not simply a library of the writings of human beings. To be sure, the Bible comprises the writings of men and women of different times and places. But Christians maintain that the Bible cannot be reduced to the works of its human authors. When Christians claim that the Bible is the Word of God, they insist that its formation is inspired and guided by God himself. According to the Christian Faith, the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit. This means that the Spirit guided and superintended the work of the human authors of the Bible to produce the resulting work.
Therefore, contrary to the claims of liberal theologians who argue that the Bible consists of merely the religious writings of man, the orthodox teaching is that the Bible was written under the special guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we read in 2 Timothy 16-17: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work’. Space does not allow a fuller discussion of what this inspiration entails. We will have to address this question in another article.
Does this mean that the Bible is inerrant? Before answering this question, we must be clear in our minds about the nature of the books that make up the Bible. The Bible is not a scientific document or a textbook that provides a scientific account of how the world came into being. Some aspects of the debate between (for lack of better terms) ‘evolutionists’ and ‘creationists’ are muddled because both sides fail to appreciate this. In the same way, the Bible is not strictly speaking a history book, although it describes many historical events. The Bible is primarily a book that focuses on God’s dealings with the world. It reveals God’s intentions and purposes for the world and for humankind. Put differently, the Bible is a theological book: it has to do with God and his salvific will for his creation. Through the use of many different literary genres, the Bible describes God’s saving acts in history, and in so doing bears witness to him.
It is only when we understand the true nature of the Bible that we can answer the question regarding its inerrancy. As a book that has to do with God and his will for the creation, the witness of the Bible is not only inerrant but also infallible. Thus, the Bible is not mistaken when it reveals that God is the Creator of the world. Its witness regarding God’s love and the grace, and his unconditional offer of salvation is impeccably true. The Bible does not err when it points to Jesus of Nazareth and bears witness to the fact that he is the incarnate Son of God, the only Saviour of humankind. It is precisely in this sense that the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible is the Word of God because it bears inerrant and infallible witness to the Triune God who has made available the gift of salvation to all who would call on his name.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in Word@Work (December 2012).