I’ve just started reading what turned out to be Jaroslav Pelikan’s final book, Whose Bible Is It?: A history of Scripture throughout the ages.
While this is a history of the Bible – i.e. the written Word – Prof. Pelikan begins his book by emphasising the priority of the spoken Word. As he points out, the Bible begins by telling us that “In the beginning … God said, ‘Let there be light'”, and eighty chapters of divine speech pass by before we first find God writing something.
Even where – as with Jeremiah – we find prophets writing the Word of God themselves, the spoken Word always comes first (“Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you”, Jeremiah 30:2). What’s more:
[T]he prophet writes the words in the book precisely for the purpose of their being spoken words again at some future time.
The same is true of the New Testament, and Pelikan cites Luther in support of this:
As Martin Luther once observed, nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus command his disciples to go into the world and write books, not even the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. Rather, as the New Testament itself is at pains to attest, “he said to them: ‘Go to every part of the world, and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.'”
Indeed, Pelikan points out that Luther preferred to restrict the term “Scripture” to the Old Testament, with a better term for the New Testament being “proclamation” or “message”.
This then leads to an important linguistic distinction between how Lutherans and other evangelicals use the term, “the Word of God”. As I’ve commented before elsewhere, when non-Lutheran evangelicals say the Word, they tend to have the Bible in mind. However, when Lutherans say the Word, we tend to have preaching and the sacraments in mind: that is, the proclaimed Word rather than the printed Word.
Indeed, with my recent “join the conversation” post in mind, I’d encourage non-Lutheran evangelicals to give greater weight to this “Lutheran” understanding of the Word of God as a verbal proclamation. Individual Bible reading is a good thing, but something that could only become normative for Christians in an era of cheap printed Bibles and mass literacy. What’s more, it tends to lead to an individualistic reading of Scripture, in which the question is: “What is God saying to me as I read this?”
However, when we associate “the Word of God” principally with the Word that is proclaimed in the public reading of Scripture, in preaching and in the sacraments, then this leads us to see the Bible as being the means by which the Word once spoken by the prophets and apostles can be spoken again to the people of God today. This in turn encourages a communal interpretation of Scripture in which the question is: “What is God saying to us as we hear this?”