There is no phrase that is more misused, or more contentious, than The Word of God. We might need to take a vacation from throwing the phrase around as a tight summary until we pull it apart and clarify its multiple uses. 

The Word of God, when used properly, carries three layers of meaning:

  • Divine Communication. The prophets used the phrase in the Hebrew Testament to convey weight and authority. They had a message for the people of God that could be encouragement, directive, corrective, or illuminating.
  • Logos – divine wisdom. New Testament believers are treated to a cosmic twist when the Gospel of John prologue draws off the Greek notion of logos and then shockingly says what no Greek thinker could fathom saying: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
  • Revelatory elements in the scriptures. When the Spirit who inspired the original works illuminates the message again for a contemporary audience, it is said to be ‘the word of God’ for the people of God. (Thanks be to God)

For clarity, I will now refer to the first and third meanings as ‘the word of the Lord’ and the second as the ‘Logos made flesh’.

The pitfall that some fall into is that they take this last sense (revelatory elements within scripture) and attempt to make it concrete (or foundational). Doing so is to erroneously confuse the messenger and message, the vessel with the element, the sign for the object.

Calling the Bible the Word of God is as inaccurate as it is accurate. It is not exactly true … but it is true enough that it is tempting. The problem is that it confuses the ‘curves ahead’ road sign on the mountain road for a road-map up the mountain. It is not that they are unrelated – it is that they are not equivalent or interchangeable. The map may be accurate, and trustworthy for the journey, but it is not the landscape itself.

Knowing the map well is not the same as going on the journey.

This is the important difference between a sign and symbol.

  • A sign points to a greater reality … even if it does so imperfectly. The yellow and black ‘curves ahead’ sign on the mountain road is not telling you the exact sequence of twists and turns ahead. It is not map. It is alerting you to something bigger than itself.
  • A symbol, when used theologically, is a sign that participates in the reality that it points to. In this sense, the Bible contains the potential for the word of the Lord, it records instances of the word of the Lord, and it tells us about the Logos made flesh. The Bible is thus not unrelated to the Word of God but is not exactly equivalent either. It records and points to a greater reality (like a sign) and under the influence of Holy Spirit inspiration participates in that reality to which it points (symbol).

One can see the problem in legal court and in Sunday school. It is ironic to place one’s hand on a Bible and swear ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God’. The irony, for those who have actually read the Bible, is that two different New Testament passages say not to do such things. We are not to swear by things but to simply let our yes be ‘yes’ and our no, ‘no’. That should be enough. We don’t need to swear by heaven or earth or anything like God. It is an odd practice. It treats the Bible like a talisman and a fetish[1] full of superstitious power.

Similarly we see things like this in the songs we learn as children:

The B-I-B-L-E,

that’s the book for me,

I stand alone on the Word of God

The Bible is not a book. It is a collection of 66 books by different authors in different centuries representing different histories, perspectives, and opinions utilizing diverse genres of writing. This is part of why you can not say ‘the Bible says’ as the late Billy Graham was fond of doing.

When we say that ‘the word of God is living and active’ or that ‘all scripture is God breathed and useful’ we are right … but we must avoid the temptation of too quickly boiling those three into down into one interchangeable phrase lest we miss the awesome power and invitation provided by the interplay between them.

Now, if we mean that because of what we learn in the Bible, we hear the word of the Lord and believe in the Logos made flesh … that would be fantastic. If, however, we mean that the Bible is equivalent to the Word of God, then we have set our children up to be confounded, frustrated and spiritually impotent.

We have given them a road sign and told them it was the adventure. The word of the Lord propels us on a journey! To walk the way of the Logos made flesh, to know the truth of that which was in the beginning – with God and was God – and to live the life of the ages (eternal life).

To paraphrase a famous line – we are like children making mud-pies out of dirt in the back alley while there are real pies waiting in the kitchen.

Part of the problem is that we have tried to cram too much into the phrase ‘the word of God’ and asked more from it than can be expected from any sign or symbol.

The most helpful thing I have found to address this problem is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The quad is composed of 4 elements:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Experience
  4. Reason

This quadrilateral of values provides an amazing framework for congregational vitality, personal faith, and communal discernment. It is probably the most helpful tool that we have as Methodists for spiritual/religious thinking and discussion in the 21st century. It is not only unique among religious perspectives but it is supremely fruitful for personal development, congregational discernment, cooperate life, as well as ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.

There are three important issues to understand aboutthis Wesleyan quadrilateral that illuminate the four core elements themselves.

       The first issue is related to Scripture. Wesley, being from an Anglican tradition, held to prima scriptura – scripture first. This position was in contrast to the more famous (and dominant) position help by many other Reformation protestants of sola scriptura – scripture alone. This distinction is significant for the slight change of emphasis and significant change in ethos that is evident in Wesleyan traditions in contrast to some other more fundamentalist approaches that descended from the Reformation and took root in the soil of North America.

      The second issue relates to experience. Methodists, by adding ‘experience’ to their quadrilateral, depart from the inherited Anglican tripartite formulation of Scripture, tradition, and reason. This recognition of the importance of experience is a key distinction that transforms the formulation from merely a cerebral (intellectual) approach to inherited religious frameworks to a vibrant expectation of personal application and a clear recognition that community’s (or person’s) experience of the divine is a valid location for God’s revelation and our reflection. We recognize the importance of people’s concrete lived realities and not just a set of ideas or abstract speculations and theories. This is especially true when considering the underrepresented voices that have traditionally been marginalized or repressed in Christian history.

         The third issue deals with sequence. The four elements of the ‘quad’ are not perfectly parallel. In fact, the formation works best when addressed in the sequence presented in the above question. We start with Scripture because it provides us a starting point and trajectory for the revelation of God’s work in the world. We don’t start with experience because Christian faith does not begin with us. There is a givenness to the faith that we have inherited. That is why we look to the tradition next. We don’t lead with reason either because ours is a faith tradition centered on incarnation – the embodied presence of the divine – and not merely ideas, concepts, and theories. The sequence is nearly as important as each of the four elements themselves! I would go as far as to say that the sequence is a fifth element and should be discussed (and debated) on its own merit.

My favorite way to present the quadrilateral is to temporarily remove each one and examine how the construct would be impoverished without its presence.

Scripture: Try to imagine a religion or faith that had tradition, experience, and reason. It might still hold together and provide communities and people with direction and connection. It would, however, be lacking something vital and central to the entire enterprise. Scripture provides us with an essential framework for our belief and practice. This is done through the use of narrative and example. The framing stories given to us in Scripture are vitally important both for the precedent that they provide us and for the trajectory they set in expectation for faithful (and faith-filled) continuation. 

Tradition: Without tradition we would be left to try and read this antiquated text which has been translated into modern language and to attempt to import and apply it in our contemporary context without any framework or guidance. Tradition provides us an example of practices, behaviors, approaches, relationships, and applications that we can learn from and be enriched by. This is available to us in both the positive of what to do and the negative of what to avoid. Without tradition we are left with only trial and error and we are poorer without the exemplars of the faith.

Experience: A faith that is not experienced is an empty shell; a corpse with no life in it. The church was birthed in Pentecost and it is Holy Spirit power that animates her life still. This faith must be experienced and allowed to transform our incarnated (embodied and enacted) expressions of it. It is important both that we experience the things that we say we believe and that our experiences inform our beliefs through reflexive praxis

Reason: We live at the far end of Christian history and know well the dangers of an unreasonable faith. Heresies, cults, and genocidal atrocities are the result. We learn a great deal from the legacy of these tragic consequences.  We not want an unreasonable faith that hurts people, causes harm and dysfunction at the personal and societal levels, or contributes to the hatred, vitriol, and violence that plagues our world.

The ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ was formulated as a construct in 1960’s based on historic Methodist teaching and practice.[2] It is notable that this development came about as a result of a period of time which saw the demise in societal certainties, stable cultural norms, and challenges to authority in every arena of life from family to government, from sexuality to religion. This loss of a centralized authority (or hierarchy) in an instructive milieu for the need to develop a tool-box like the quadrilateral that provides a dispersed set of anchor points for communal decision making. This tool facilitates communal discernment in a way that allows multiple elements for informing and empowering diverse perspectives and which honors people’s differing perspectives, insights, experiences, and backgrounds.

The danger of what has been called ‘Bibliolotry’ is not simply that it makes the Bible ‘a paper pope’ or ‘the 4th member of the trinity’ (as bad as those seem). The danger is in missing the way, the truth, and the life that is available to us by instead settling for a road-sign instead of an adventure.

[1] an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.

[2] Albert C. Outler is generally credited with this formulation through a series of published works of Wesley.