Thursday, March 24, 2016

Word Up!

            Since the end of January, I've been writing about how human beings wrote the words of Scripture as well as how they compiled and canonized those texts. Most people, I think, are aware of this reality; they recognize that the Bible didn't just drop from Heaven. Yet for some, there's still something a little unnerving about the human origins of something considered so sacred. How can we say this is the "Word of God" when clearly humans were generating and sanctioning these texts?

            To approach this, I must appeal to the Vatican II document, Dei Verbum. In 1965, the Church officially put forth this document (a.k.a. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) which explains the Church's long held – and sometimes not so well clarified – understanding of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. It asserts that the Scriptures "have God as their author" but that "in composing the sacred Books, God chose and employed certain men, who, while engaged in this task, made full use of their faculties and powers..." (DV, paragraph 11). Now I'll admit, that does sound rather convenient to simply say, 'well God is still the author, but he used men kind of like scribes to get his message across.' If that was the case, you'd think the Scriptures wouldn't have so many embarrassingly violent laws, prophecies, and stories in them. But that isn't what Dei Verbum is getting at. The Scriptures were inspired, yes, but I don't think it means the human authors had the Holy Spirit whispering to them the exact words to write.

            One of the first things I think we need to understand is that God's Word is more encompassing than mere words on a page. God's Word is powerful. Consider that in ancient times when a king spoke, his word alone had the power to effect change. The king spoke, and schtuff got done. Sure, maybe the action was carried out by other people, but it was only because the king said it – as Pharaoh iconically says in the movie, The Ten Commandments:  "So let it be written. So let it be done." Likewise God speaks, and schtuff happens: "'Let there be light.' And there was light" (Genesis 1:3). God's Word is effective and creative! As it says in Isaiah: "Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth... So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11).

            Interestingly enough, I find that urban and prison slang has a better sense of the term "word" for our purposes today. In such contexts word can mean an "affirmation" (yep, mm-hmm, I agree), "approval," "truth," or "to speak the truth."[1] For example:

Me: That moment when Edith finally tells off Mary on Downton Abbey was priceless!

Fellow D.A. Enthusiast: Word!

            I would put a link to, so you can get an even better sense of the slang usage of "word," but there's some inappropriate language on that page, and I wouldn't want to scandalize my mother who I'm sure is reading this right now. (Hi, Mom!) You can type in the web address and can check it out at your own risk if you want, or just take my word for it. (No pun intended.)

            The point, however, is that 90s urban slang has its finger on the pulse of what "word" in the biblical sense is about, because in both cases it means more than just human language. From the perspective of Urban Dictionary, God's Word is like a resounding "Yes!" permeating all that is – "God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good" (Gen 1:31). God's Word is Truth. God's Word is positive. God's Word is living!


            Both the Greek and Hebrew terms for "word" have multiple meanings. The Greek word, logos – from where we get our word logic – can mean a lot of things: "reason," "divine utterance," or an "expression of a thought" being some of them.[2] Likewise, the Hebrew word dabar can mean a matter, event, or affair and also has a connection to reason.[3] God's Word isn't just the words that God speaks or those written down in Scripture; it's all of the reason, truth, thoughts, and ideas that are behind and communicated through those words. God's Word is God's self-communication! And what Dei Verbum is saying is that God used human beings, in a particular time and place, and of a particular culture with its own limited language, to communicate God's self in the Sacred Scriptures.

            Admittedly though, the fact that human beings were so closely involved in the process of divine revelation might drive some people nuts. With so much human particularity how can the scriptures communicate such an ultimate and universal message like the Word of God? But then – oh, and I just love this – this is precisely what happens in the incarnation, for Jesus is the Word made flesh (i.e. the Incarnate Word)! Jesus Christ is God revealed to us in a particular and limited time (early first century CE), place (Palestine), culture (Palestinian Jewish), gender (male), and age (I don't think Jesus lived much beyond his early thirties).

            One of the greatest and most delectable mysteries of the incarnation is that the infiniteness and universality of God was willingly emptied and made limited in time and space in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness... (Philippians 2:6-7a). So just as Jesus is God's self revealed in a human way (in weakness and with limitations), so too the Scriptures are divine revelation communicated in limited human language and culture. Or, as Dei Verbum so beautifully puts it, "For the words of God, expressed in human language, have become like unto human speech, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like unto human beings" (DV, paragraph 13).

St. Francis in Prayer Before the Crucifix, El Greco, 1585-1590

            By the way, as a Franciscan and a graduate of the University of the Incarnate Word, incarnational spirituality is a particular fancy of mine almost by default.

Chapel of the Incarnate Word at UIW. Go Cardinals!

            I guess the bottom line of what I'm getting at is that God's word is fleshy business, and the Word of God is revealed to us in two very human ways: obviously in the human person of Jesus, but also in the very human language and culture of Sacred Scripture. Either way, though, the word of God is more than the words on a page. It is living, and God wants to write it on our hearts. As a biblical studies nerd, I am fascinated by all of the humanness of Sacred Scripture, and I'm eager to learn more about its historical, anthropological, and literary context. Yet for all of its human qualities and limitations, I do not criticize it as irrelevant or even dated. I know that the Word of the Lord continues to speak the Truth; It continues to reveal God's self. But in order to listen to it, I must look upon and accept the human face of Scripture, and, likewise, I must look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is the human face of God.

            I know that this week is Holy Week and that it would be all the more appropriate to recommend to you readings from the Passion or Resurrection narratives of the Gospels.* So, if you have the time, by all means please sit with those passages! Of course, I also recommend attending the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter where you will also hear those readings. However, it makes sense, given today's topic of word, to read John 1:1-18. Yes, I agree, this reading seems out of place for Holy Week, but whatever. I've got to run with the inspiration I'm given. It's a short passage, but as you read it meditate for just a bit on that profound mystery of the very Word of God becoming flesh. Consider how God spoke through the Law and Prophets, yet finally in Jesus was fully revealed. Consider also how Jesus fulfills the Scriptures and is the very lens for interpreting them. Contemplate, especially as we enter deeply into the sacred mysteries of Christ's passion, death, and resurrection – what we call the Paschal Mystery – how these events in the life of Christ reveal God's grace, truth, and glory.

            As always, I welcome questions and comments on Facebook, Twitter, e-mail (, or in the comment box below. I pray that you all enjoy these high holy days of the Christian calendar and have a blessed Easter. I leave you today with the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians for you to consider the next time you hear the lector at Mass say, "The Word of the Lord."

           "We too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe" (1 Thessalonians 2:13).


* Passion and Resurrection Narratives:
Matthew 26:1-28:20
Mark 14:12-16:20
Luke 22:1-24:53
John 18:1-21:25

[1] Urban Dictionary, "Word," last modified October 14, 2005, accessed March 20, 2016.

[2] Bible Hub, "3056. Logos," accessed March 20, 2016,

[3] Bible Hub, "1697. Dabar," accessed March 20, 2016,

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