The word of God comes to us in three forms: the personal word, the spoken word, and the written word. This article will explain what each form is and what God accomplishes through each form of the word.
Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God and that his exemplary life, his miracles, his teachings, his death, burial, and resurrection all serve as credentials to verify” those claims. Jesus also affirmed the accepted text of Scripture among his people, the Jews, to contain eternal life and proclaimed that their words testify about him. He also promised that when he returned to his Father in heaven, he would send the Spirit of Truth to his apostles who would remind them of everything he had taught them. Because Jesus of Nazareth is God in the flesh, we can trust that he knows best what words, spoken or written, accurately reveal who he is, what he expects of humanity, and what he has done for us – what words are from him and what words are ultimately his words of revelation. This is why the Church has trusted Jesus at his word, recognizing that the Bible (the Hebrew Scriptures of Jesus’ day and the New Testament texts that originated from within the apostolic circle) is God’s written word of divine revelation – written so that we might believe Jesus is the Son of God and that by believing in him we might have life in his name.
What I have described is wholly unique to Christianity. In no other religion has God become a human being to personally speak to his creation and save his people from death. Jesus, the Son of God, sent by God the Father, born of the virgin Mary, was God’s deputy. He was given authority to speak on his Father’s behalf (authorization) and he spoke all that he had received from his Father to speak (superintendence). If people saw Jesus, they saw the Father, if they heard Jesus, they heard the Father, because Jesus is the personal word of God. With his words, Jesus spoke the truth of God and proclaimed the forgiveness of sins in his ministry of reconciliation to restore creation back into a right relationship with God.
The ministry of reconciliation continued with Jesus’ apostles, who he deputized to teach everything he had taught them. As stated previously, Jesus promised that the Spirit of Truth would remind them of everything he had taught them. This means that we can trust that the words they spoke were all that Jesus had taught them and that the words they proclaimed were true and forgave sins, just as Jesus’ words were and did. The Apostles were therefore speaking the word of God. The apostles deputized other believers into this ministry of reconciliation, giving the Church the authority to teach what Jesus taught according to the witness they gave and to forgive sins in continuity with the proclamation of the Gospel (good news of Jesus Christ) they declared.
From within the apostolic circle, arose certain written texts that were typically written at the request of those who heard the apostolic message and wanted their words in writing, to preserve the teachings of the apostles, or to serve as reminders of what was spoken in person. Because these texts were the written form of what the apostle’s spoke on the authority of Jesus, the personal word of God, and because they arose from within the apostolic circle (either from apostles themselves or people who wrote based on the directly received spoken word of the apostles), the Church came to recognize these texts to be the definitive versions of the apostolic proclamations in written form. The collection of these texts is the New Testament Canon; this written form of God’s word is the revelation of God that guides and norms the Church’s spoken proclamations of God’s word today.
In summary, three forms of God’s word have been presented: the personal word of God, the spoken word of God, and the written word of God. The personal word of God is Jesus as God’s word to us. The spoken word of God is the proclamation of God’s word to us through the prophets, apostles, pastors, teachers – all Christians – in preaching, evangelism, and through the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. This form of God’s word is the “means of grace” word; it is the spoken form that has “causative authority” to create faith, as Scripture clearly states that faith comes from hearing. In that last sentence, the function of the written form of God’s word was at work. Scripture has “normative authority” to be the rule and guiding principle for all of God’s spoken word and it is the definitive standard by which all teachers’ and preachers’ words are to be judged. Put another way, the written form of God’s word is the norming norm and the spoken form of God’s word is the normed norm.
In conclusion, these three forms are to be distinguished, but not separated. Jesus is the personal word that gave the apostles the words they spoke and later wrote. In the 21st century, we read the revelation of God in the written form, which serves the spoken word that proclaims God’s commands and promises, which delivers the personal word – all for our salvation and the restoration of God’s creation.
Credit: This article is largely based on class notes from Professor Nafzger’s lecture entitled, “The Word of the God of Word” given on Sept. 24th, 2018 at Concordia Seminary and the class discussion of the lecture on Sept. 27th, especially the use of the deputizing language and the descriptions of the type of of authority attributed to the spoken and written form of God’s word.