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#720 What Does the “Word of God” Refer to?

February 21, 2021

Dr. Craig,

I have what I expect is an odd question for you. Is there a biblical argument for the notion that where "word of God" is used in the Bible, it is referring to the Bible itself? The most popular examples are Ephesians 6:17 and Hebrews 4:12. Note, this is not a question of arguments that the Bible is from God, or inspired. Unfortunately that's what all of the articles I have been able to find address in answer to the question "Why is the Bible the word of God." The question is why does the term used in the Bible refer to the Bible itself in the context of those examples and given the context of the other uses of the phrase?


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Dr. craig’s response


Lest I be misunderstood, Robert, it’s important to reiterate that your question is not about arguments for biblical inspiration or the Bible’s status as God’s Word. I’ll be addressing those questions in my systematic philosophical theology, which I have previewed in QoW #713. Rather your question is what the biblical authors themselves are talking about when they use the expression the “Word of God.” Does that expression ever refer to the Bible itself?

The answer to that question is, obviously not, since the Bible did not exist prior to the completion of its latest books! There literally was no Bible to refer to. Only after the Bible was finished could it be referred to.

Jesus does, however, refer to the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, as the Word of God:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10.34-36)

Notice that Jesus begins by asking, “Is it not written in your law. . .” but then cites, not the law proper, but Psalm 82.6, and equates the Word of God with “Scripture.”

Moreover, Jesus regarded the Gospel of the Kingdom which he preached as the Word of God. In his parable of the sower Jesus explains, “The seed is the word of God” (Luke 8.11). Likewise, Luke records that “the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God” (Luke 5.1).

So when it comes to the apostolic preaching following Jesus’ death and resurrection, we find that the apostles similarly regarded the Gospel they preached as the Word of God. Paul reminds the believers in Thessalonica, “when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (I Thessalonians 2.13; cf. II Timothy 2.9). Context suggests that Ephesians 6.17 and Hebrews 4.12 similarly refer to the Gospel (Ephesians 1.13; 6.14, 19-20; Hebrews 4.2).

By the time I Timothy was written, the traditions about Jesus and perhaps even Luke-Acts itself were regarded as Scripture. For the author of I Timothy, commanding that double honor be accorded to church elders engaged in preaching and teaching, provides as his justification, “for the scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (I Timothy 5.17-18). The first of these scriptural quotations comes from Deuteronomy 25.4, but the second derives, not from the Old Testament, but from Luke 10.7! While one might try to peel off the second quotation as a non-scriptural addendum, leaving the reference to Scripture to Deuteronomy 25.4 alone, there is no reason to make such a differentiation, and we have early, extra-biblical examples of Jesus’ words being cited as Scripture.[1] In any case, what is undeniable is that for the author of I Timothy the second citation is invested with the same authority as the Old Testament. I. H. Marshall comments, “A written source is surely required, and one that would have been authoritative.”[2] That points to Luke’s Gospel in some form. Thus, by the time of the pastoral epistles, whatever their date, canonical Gospels were likely already being treated as Scripture by the early church.

The Pauline epistles eventually came to be regarded as Scripture, as we see from II Peter 3.15-16: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” The author of II Peter puts Paul’s letters on a par with the Old Testament Scriptures already mentioned in II Peter 1.20-21. The author of II Peter is not trying to establish a canon; there may well have been other apostolic writings besides Paul’s that counted as Scripture, but Paul’s are mentioned here because the addressees had received at least one Pauline letter, which they evidently regarded as authoritative. “The inclusion of Paul’s letters in this category certainly means they are regarded as inspired, authoritative writings (as v 15 in fact says), ranked alongside the OT and probably various other books, including other apostolic writings.”[3]

While we cannot tell how early the Gospels and apostolic epistles were being regarded in the churches as authoritative Scripture, toward the end of the first century they evidently were so regarded. Thus, at a strikingly early date, the central books of the New Testament were being treated as Scripture on a par with the Jewish Scriptures. This is about as close as one could come to the Bible’s referring to itself as the Word of God.


[1] Epistle of Barnabas 4.14: “as it is written, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen’” (citing Matthew 22.14) and II Clement 2.4: “Again another scripture says, ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (citing Mark 2.17).

[2] I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary (London T. & T. Clark International, 1999), p. 616.

[3] Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary 50 (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1983), p. 333.

- William Lane Craig