If a picture is worth a thousand words, then why does God work through words? Wouldn’t it better suit his purposes to employ, say, visual media or, better still, set aside all mediums and accomplish his purposes within us directly? This latter option seems to resonate with our post-rational, post-modern age, in which we are told that truth and faith, indeed, even God is something you find within.
The Word is God
The answer as to why God works through words is simple and yet profound. God works through words or, to be more accurate, through the Word because God is as his Word and his Word is as him. Simply, the “Word” (Λόγος, Logos) constitutes God. So there’s a necessity to God making himself known through the Word, in the Word, and as the Word. John put it this way:
In the beginning was the Word (ὁ λόγος), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος). He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (1:1-5)
There is no beginning to the word, but at the beginning of creation there is the word and the Word is God. John testifies that the Word created. The Word is life. The Word is a person — he was in the beginning; in him was life. The Word is the light, illumination, wisdom, and truth that dispels the darkness of ignorance, deception, foolishness, and lies. In whatever way the “Word” is to be understood, it clearly carries a one-to-one correspondence “with God” and, significantly, in how God does things (like create and dispel darkness) and how he makes himself known. Who God is and how God reveals himself is inescapably word-centered.
Put differently, God necessarily works or, better, is active through the Word because of what makes God, God. The Word, then, presents us with a first theology — the foundational principles by which we may apprehend God as he is in himself. Consequently, the word-centeredness (logocentricity!) of divine revelation and action becomes the distinguishing hallmark that we are dealing with the one and only true and living God, the Creator of all things. If it is not through and about the Word of God, then all confidence that we might be experiencing or receiving something from God is lost and becomes guesswork. The Word is the stamp of divine authenticity.
What is a Word?
But more on that in a moment. Let’s start with the translation and definition of Λόγος. “Word” is a good translation, although there’s a lot packed into it. It means “message” or “saying” but such that carries specific “reason” or “rationale,” “meaning” and “significance,” even a specific “narrative.” That last synonym is helpful to appreciate that the Word is God’s speaking or narrating himself. Keep that in mind, namely that the “Word” is, to say the least, content rich, content that consists of and conveys divinity.
Returning to “first theology,” it may help to consider how humans generally understand a word. A word is a sign that represents a concept, a way in which we think about some thing. So, there is some (1) real thing (an entity) that gives us an (2) idea (mental concept), which has some (3) designation (a word!). Notice how we progress from real thing, to an idea, to a word for that real thing.
In God’s case, things work differently in the order of (2), (3), (1). At the time of creation, God perfectly knew (2) what he wanted to create. Then he spoke the Word (3), e.g., “Let there be light”; and a reality resulted (1): “And it was so.”
Now let’s take this understanding and consider the Holy Trinity. God the Father, as a perfect being, has perfect knowledge of himself. But in order for that knowledge of himself to be perfect, it would also have to be substantial — it couldn’t be just an idea. It would have to exist and eternally exist as the perfection of the Father. So the generation of the Son is the one, perfect, full, substantial, real and eternally existing enunciation of the Father. The Son is the eternally begotten Λόγος of the Father; the Father’s self-narration. Similarly, the love between the Father and Son is perfect, full, and substantial: hence, the eternal spiration of the Holy Spirit.
God’s Self Narration
Understanding the eternal generation of the Son as the full enunciation by Father brings us to John’s use of Λόγος, Word. This Word is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). Paul echos this first theology when he writes in Colossians 1:15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Again, the “Word” isn’t a thing, it is a person, the Son of the Father, who with the Holy Spirit is one God.
Yet there’s another sense by which we can understand the Word as first theology when we consider that God is a personal communicative agent. The Father may be identified as the locutor (speaker), the Son as the elocution or enunciation (the Word spoken), and the Holy Spirit as the illocution (intention of the Locutor) and perlocutionary force (power or efficacy of the Word).
The Bible presents the “perlocutionary force” of the Word as a consequence of the inherent authority of the locutor (the Father). A king stating that such and such a thing is the state of affairs is an example of perlocutionary force: the king’s word actuates or instantiates a new reality, that is, the decree obtains because of the inherent authority of the king. So, too with God, but now we are dealing with the One who has all authority in heaven and Earth (cf. Matt 28:18). The Word of God has unlimited authority and so entails unlimited power. The reason, then, that creation obtains “in the beginning” is because the inherently authoritative locutor—the Father—cannot but utter an inherently authoritative Word (Λόγος) with perlocutionary force (the Spirit). A new state of affairs obtains as the Spirit gives efficacy to the Word of the Father.(1) Viewed through the Bible’s metaphor of kingdom, the first three verses of Genesis depict God enthroned, establishing his heaven-and-Earth kingdom, speaking the divine Word as he issues forth the royal decree within the forum of creation where the Holy Spirit supervenes: “Let there be light,” to which the only response can be “and it was so.” The Word performs. The Word actuates. The Word is the ultimate authority. As Jacob Preus once put it, “the Word is not a unidimensional, flat, interior, intellectual word. It is a dynamic, eventful Word that goes forth form God into the real world with powerful effects…. When spoken or read, words make something happen. Communication through words is an event” (Jacob A. O. Preus, Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel, 17). This is why God works through the Word. The Word is the action of God through self-narration.
But there’s still more.
What the Word Gives
To communicate is to impart, to give something to another. What God desires to give to humanity is himself. There can be no greater gift. And, as we have seen, the sum of all God’s perfections are the Word and the Spirit. This means that if God were to give us his grace, salvation, righteousness, holiness, truth, love and life, then he would give us the Word and the Spirit. This is why God works through the Word: The Word constitutes the communicative self-giving of God in all his glorious perfections. Nothing else could. God communicates and self-gives through the Word. To receive the Word of God is to receive God’s grace, salvation, righteousness, holiness, truth, love and life. This is why God works through the Word — to give us himself (John 17:3-17; 20:31).
The self-giving communication of God through the Word comes by way of rendering the Word Scripture (inscripturation!) and in human flesh (incarnation!). Both preserve the objectivity of the self-giving of God and safeguard against subjective claims about God. This is why God works through the Word, namely so that the truth about God and the experience of God may be perpetually objectified and, so, may be communal, indeed, so that it may form a community (the Church!) around his Word (Acts 2:14-42). His objective Word allows him to have exclusive “say so” about himself and gives us a standard, a canon, by which to adjudicate any and all claims about God and spiritual matters (1 John 4:1-6), as well as disabuse excesses and depreciations. Working through the Word refines and defines God’s self-revelation and self-giving (Rev 22:18-19) so that it may be clear and clearly shared.
It makes sense that if human beings have been made in the image of God and that there is an analogy-of-being between the divine being and human being (e.g., God is rational, willing, and passionate and, analogously, so are we), then God would communicate in categories that accommodated his creatures. And the category of communication that humanity best understands is human categories: hence the Word is given in comprehendible languages and the Word translated into humanity itself — Jesus Christ (John 1:14-18). Both embody the same intent of divine self-giving. The Word given as Scripture can be understood as the Word inscripturated, that is, the Word rendered into Holy Spirit-inspired words for the purpose of divine self-giving (Gospel) and communicating the divine intent and standards (prophesy and law); while the Word made flesh is literally the event of “God so [loving] the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). The inscripturated Word and incarnated Word belong to the same self-revelation of God and the self-giving of the God for the benefit of humanity in ways perfectly suited to our reality and understanding.
The Scriptures and the Incarnation converge in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jacob Preus reflects on this and says, “There is a connection between the Word Incarnate—the God-man, Jesus Christ—and the Word about the Word Incarnate, the Gospel” (Preus, Just Words, 19). This Word of the Gospel is given extra nos (from outside us) to preserve its objectivity and divine origin, but it is also give pro nobis (for us). The God who objectively lives outside of us gives himself to us in and as the Word of the Gospel or, synonymously, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And the communication of the Word doesn’t end there. He puts the Word in our minds and mouths so that we might share the eternal life with others, again, in a way suited and adaptable to our reality and understanding. We trade in words. Likewise, the Gospel is given in words and consists of the Word.
With the “Word made flesh” God goes further than we could have ever hoped for by accommodating our need beyond auditory and written forms of communication for visual communication and confirmation of his Word-centered self-revelation and the truth that, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he is for us (John 1:14; 1 John 1:1-3).
The Word proclaimed and the Word sacramented complete our understanding of God working through the Word. These too exist outside of us and so resist domestication and perversion. These too bring the self-revelation and self-giving of God in a way perfectly consistent with the narrative of God as the promise-making, promise-keeping Redeemer in Jesus the Son. The Word sets forth God in his promises and a promise cannot be received except by faith. And that is why God works through the Word: that we may know God is as his Word and his Word is as him — a powerful Word of promise that cannot be broken because he stakes his very divinity on keeping his Word. Faithful and truth. Loving and merciful. Holy and righteous.
- This sketch emerges from Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002).