A religion of the Word, not of the Book

A couple of weeks ago, I commented that there is a distinction between how Lutherans and other evangelicals use the term, “the word of God”, and how we understand God as speaking.

For Lutherans, the word of God is principally the proclaimed word: the word spoken aloud in the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments; whereas for most other evangelicals, the phrase “the word of God” most immediately evokes the written (or, more precisely, printed) word of the Bible.

This difference in understanding is illustrated by the Pyromaniacs’ post for Reformation Day, in which Dan Phillips argues that Luther’s fundamental message in the Reformation was not justification by faith but sola scriptura, Scripture alone.

Phillips contrasts this with the approach taken by the Roman Catholic bishop (and close associate of the pope), Salvatore Fisichella, who has called for Christians to reject the idea that ours is a “religion of the Book”. Fisichella writes:

Many believers, when asked what the phrase “Word of God” means, respond: “The Bible”. That response isn’t wrong, but it’s incomplete, or at least it reflects an incomplete perception of the richness present in the expression, and as a consequence it tends to identify Christianity as a “Religion of the Book”.

This leads to Christianity being identified with Judaism and Islam as one of three “religions of the Book”. However, Fisichella insists that:

Christianity is properly understood as a “religion of the Word”.

Fisichella continues by insisting on the need to see Scripture as “a living word”. Otherwise:

we run the risk of humiliating the Word of God by reducing it exclusively to a written text, without the provocative capacity to give meaning to life.

The problem is that Phillips is misunderstanding (or misapplying) the concept of sola scriptura. Sola scriptura is a statement about what the church can say, not a statement about how God speaks to us; it is a limit placed on the church, not a limit placed on God. It tells us that the church cannot bind our consciences with beliefs or practices that are not derived from the Bible. It does not tell us that God only speaks by means of the written words found in the Bible.

On the contrary: as we have seen, the most important means by which God speaks to us is through the verbal proclamation of the gospel. To be sure, that proclamation must be founded on what is written in the Scriptures. Indeed, one of the main reasons for the Scriptures’ being written was to ensure the verbal proclamation would remain faithful to the original. (See, for example, 2 Peter 1:12-15.)

However, it remains true that the Luther who posted the 95 Theses is the same Luther who (as we saw in my earlier post) observed that Jesus did not “command his disciples to go into the world and write books”, but rather to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation”.

And that sounds closer to Bishop Fisichella’s understanding of the “word of God” than to Dan Phillips’.

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5 Responses to A religion of the Word, not of the Book

  1. Laura says:

    This is reason #255 why I sometimes wish I were Lutheran.


  2. Phil Walker says:

    Only he is an orthodox teacher who rightly distinguishes from each other the formal and material principles.

    Did I quote that right? 😉

  3. Ryan says:

    In seminary (Concordia St. Louis) the dictum we’ve learned is that the written word (i.e., the Bible) is “master to our doctrine, slave to our proclamation.” That pithy phrase encapsulates your sentiments nicely.

  4. paul bowman says:

    I’ve appreciated your homing in on this set of distinctions. Thought-provoking & helpful for me.

  5. Bob Longman says:

    Books proclaim, but none as meaningfully as Scripture’s books. That’s where the Spirit teaches and leads. That’s what Evangelicals know.

    Books proclaim, but not like a living being who’s right there with you. That’s the key to verbal proclamation – that’s how the Spirit hits a person personally. That is what Luther knew by heart.

    There are too many Lutheran pastors who don’t use the Scriptural books to keep their verbal proclamation right. And too many who think proclamation is primarily the work of pastors at pulpits in church buildings.

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