Monday, May 25, 2009
The Ordinary Means: The Word
What do we mean by "the Word"?
We may mean various things by the "word." John calls Christ the Word of God. (John 1:1-17) Jonah is given a word to preach to Ninevah (Jonah 1:1). The message of Paul's gospel is called the word. In the church we call the Bible the Word of God. Do these all mean the same thing?
To some degree yes, to some degree no. There are typically three categories of the word, written, preached and incarnate. Yet, these three are all related in meaning.
Looking first at Jonah, we can see the basic meaning. Jonah is given a "word" to proclaim to Ninevah. Here, we can see that Jonah is not told to proclaim the Torah or Scriptures to Ninevah, but to relay God's message. The word, or message, is God's, but God uses Jonah to deliver the message. God speaks to Ninevah mediately, not immediately. God could merely speak Himself audably to Ninevah, He had no need of Jonah. Yet, God chose to include Jonah, not for Ninevah's sake, but for Jonah's sake and Jonah's privledge (even if he didn't see it as such).
The principle we derive from Jonah's story is that the ministry of the word, the way that God has chosen to relay his message, is mediately, not immediately. God does not ordinarily speak directly to a person, with Jonah, Moses and a few others being the exceptional cases, not the ordinary cases. This is why there is a division in the way we speak between the extraordinary means and the ordinary means. In the ordinary means, there is a mediator.
This is different from what we mean by Christ being mediator, for Christ mediates from us to God in prayer and sacrifice, but the ordinary means mediate the word of God to us, now that Christ is absent. Yet do we not have the Spirit as the mediator? Does the Spirit speak directly to us immediately?
No. Today, the Spirit is found accompanying the Word. Even throughout the events of the Spirit we might find strange in Acts, the Spirit was accompanying the Word in the mouths of the Apostles. Look at Acts 4:31 or Acts 10:44:
"While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. "
Conversion was never immediate, meaning: conversion happened by the Spirit accompanying the Word. There is never a wordless Spirit. People do not convert apart from the Word. The Spirit accompanies the Word.
This is why Paul writes in Romans 10:14:
"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? "
Paul teaches that faith is created in the event of the preaching of the word. God condescends to use the word through human agents to communicate faith to the people. Without human agents, Paul sees no faith being cultivated by the Spirit. The Spirit does not work immediately (directly, without an intermediate means), but mediately through the word, especially preached.
This is the first form of the word: The Preached Word. The other two forms are the Word written (The Scriptures) and the Word Incarnate (The Lord Jesus Christ).
They are all different, yet all work together. The guidance of the preached word is the Word written, for the messager must have the form of the Word given to him in order to faithfully communicate the Word. And the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ, is the object, end and content of that message.
But what comes first, is there a primary Word? Temporally the question winds in circles. Christ came before the message of the church preached or written, but preaching existed before Christ came in the OT, yet also pointed to Christ. Our sake, it may be helpful to think of the order in this way. Christ is the eternal word of God, the word of creation and of redemption. From this reality, the word is given to be preached, to prophets and to apostles. From this received message, the word receives written form in Scripture.
The Word is given first to the apostles, then communicated by the preaching of the church and the book of the church. The word is found in and proclaimed in the church. The primary ground of the communication of God's word is the community of the church. This is different from what we as Americans usually think. We think firstly of an individual, having an immediate encounter with God, then freely associating with other Christians in a church body, in as much as that person can bring forward their assistance to other individuals. Conversion and spiritual growth are envisioned as individual tasks, with communal consequences. The pattern of the Christian life, however, is communal first. The message is proclaimed in the community in the church, from the church's book, of the church's Lord, and these are the means by which the word is communicated to us, that the Spirit uses to cause us to grow in grace and understanding.
The Spiritual Life is Churchly Life. It does not end in the church, and personal, private growth is essential. Yet this personal growth is feed by the corporate feeding. The Christian first encounters God in the church and then takes the Word into the world. That is why it is true that "there is no salvation apart from the church" for the church is the arena of the Word and salvation is both initial and growing, both justification and sanctification. They are indivisible, and where we go for one, we go for the other. We learn by the Church who Christ is and God's revelation from the church's book. For otherwise, "how then will they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of Whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? " (Romans 10:14)
[Next: so why are the sacraments talked about with the word? Why is the church not just the ministry of the word rather than word and sacrament?]