Volume 7, Issue 4: Doctrine 101
Listening to the Word of God
I grew up in a Presbyterian church. My memories of it are vivid: the quaint
brick building had a high-peaked roof with a steeple, and the pastors wore
black academic gowns just like Calvin did. I still love to sing many of the
old hymns that I learned from those maroon-bound hymnals, and the words of the
pastor's weekly benediction are still fresh in my mind.
Among my most striking memories of the old church is that of the Scripture
readings. At a certain point in the service every Sunday, the pastor stood at
the pulpit, opened to a marked place in his Bible, and prefaced, "Listen
for the Word of God," before reading the text. The words still turn about
in my memory: Listen for the Word of God.
This exhortation carries an assumption about the nature of Scripture which
should be brought to light. Most importantly, notice that it does not identify
Scripture itself as the Word of God. Rather, God's Word is seen as
something that accompanies the words of Scripture. According to this
exhortation, Scripture is but a conduit or catalyst that helps in the process
of God revealing Himself to man. Or perhaps Scripture is a container for
God's revelation. In either case, Scripture itself is not that
If Scripture is not God's Word, then what is? The common answer is that,
ultimately, the Word of God is the Christ within us; thus revelation emanates
from within us. What is Scripture's role? When it is read, the Word of
God within us is somehow awakened. Advocates of this view have taught that the
Bible is only as good as the person (or community) who embraces it. So then
how do we know what is true? or good? The basis for such determinations is
within each of us. And for each unique person there is a unique Word of God,
and thus a unique system of truth and of ethics. One pastor happily proclaims,
quite consistently, that there is no such thing as Christianity--there are
On this view, the true meaning of Scripture is in the eye of the beholder. It
is no wonder that the communion in which I was raised ordains youth, women,
evolutionists, abortion and sodomy advocates, and those who deny such doctrines
as the virgin birth, original sin, hell and everlasting judgment, and even
Christ's substitutionary atonement.
The practical and doctrinal problems resulting from the position outlined
above are obvious. One person will find the text to teach Christ as the only
way to the Father, and another will see in the text that Christ is not the only
way to the Father. Any interpretation is possible. Such problems emerge from
the notion that truth--God's Word--is subjective. Fundamentally,
this is idolatrous: God's judgments are replaced with those of men. While
it is true in some respect that Christ is within us, His Word does not emanate
from within us. It is objective, written in Scripture.
We may easily criticize modernists for the lack of objectivity in their
theology and the incoherence that it breeds. But be careful: we critics must
be clean of the error we expose in others, lest we bring condemnation upon
ourselves (cf. Rom. 2:1-3). As we approach Scripture, do we heed it as the
very Word of God, or do we undermine its authority by listening for the Word of
Among evangelicals, many popular methods of Bible study actually mishandle the
Bible. Most pitfalls include reacting to or applying a text before its
original intent is understood. "What does it say?" should be the
first question asked of a passage being studied, not "What do you
think?" or "How does it relate to you?" Some published Bible
study guides are especially poor in this regard, prompting the reader to ask
questions that cannot be answered from the text: "How do you think Moses
felt?" "What would you do if you were in Gideon's predicament?" "What would
have happened to Peter had he not denied Christ?" Such questions encourage
the student to search for answers in his imagination, and not in the text.
These are not Bible study questions, they are self study questions.
In principle, there is no difference between this approach to Scripture and
that of the modernist.
The careful Bible student will first ask these sorts of questions when
approaching the text: "What is the antecedent to this pronoun?"
"Does context supply a definition to this term?" "Where is
Capernaum?" "Which pagan poet is Paul quoting here?" [*]
Such matters must be settled before a passage can be applied.
Today I am more presbyterian than I ever was. I attend a church that shares
many things in common with the one in which I grew up. But it espouses a high
view of Scripture; thus there is a marked contrast in the Scripture readings of
the church of my youth and my church today. It was displayed a few weeks ago
when an elder prefaced the morning's Scripture reading with these words:
"Listen to the Word of God." What a glorious exhortation!