IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 17, June 21 to June 27, 1999

Part 1 of 3: “Introduction” and
“The Nature of the Word of God”

by John M. Frame

Note (1999): These chapters were lectures given at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1988 in honor of Kenneth Kantzer. They were published by P&R Publishers with the above title in 1990. I am republishing them with their permission. My four-volume Theology of Lordship will eventually include, Lord willing, a volume on the Word of God and one on the Christian Life. This little book will help readers to see in advance the general approach I intend to take to these subjects. In this way, the book supplements the present volumes of the series, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and the (I hope soon) forthcoming Doctrine of God. –JF


I am very thankful to you for the invitation to speak here at Trinity. I’ve long respected the extraordinarily high level of scholarship among the faculty here and the strength of your stand for the authority of Scripture and for the evangelical gospel of salvation by Jesus Christ. I hope you will look to us at Westminster not only as academic colleagues, but as comrades-in-arms in the battle for human lives and human society, as we seek to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

Before we get to our specific business for today, let me give you a brief overview of what I hope to accomplish in the entire series of three lectures. I gather that your invitation to me reflects some interest here in my book published about a year ago, called Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.1 In these lectures, therefore, I will be developing some of the ideas of the book: not simply repeating things I’ve said there, but making some fresh applications of the book’s basic perspective. I hope to publish some of these fresh applications in later books and articles, and so I’m anxious to get your feedback during the question periods to help me with the formulations. By way of introduction, therefore, I will summarize some of the main ideas of the book, and then I will go on to the further developments I mentioned.

In my book I attempted to develop a Christian epistemology, or theory of human knowledge, based on the Bible. This project was based on the conviction that our God, through his Word, desires to rule all aspects of human life — not only our worship and evangelism, not only what is usually described under the headings of personal and social ethics, but simply everything: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). This implies that even our scholarship, yes, all our thinking, must be uniquely Christian; it ought to be significantly different from the thinking of the non-Christian. I am not saying that we must disagree with everything that every non-Christian says. But even when we agree with the non-Christian, even when we hold views in common with him, there will still be a difference between us and him. In holding those common views, those agreements, we will have different goals, different motives, and we will be acknowledging different criteria.

So there is a distinctively Christian theory of knowledge, a view of human knowledge that is not shared with unbelievers.2 The Christian may find himself agreeing at points with non-Christian philosophers, psychologists, geologists, biologists, but he may never take such agreement for granted. He must constantly be on the alert to avoid the wrong turns of secular thought, even when those wrong turns may appear at first glance to be insignificant. God calls us to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

Therefore, in my book, I did not adopt a kind of Christianized variation on some secular theory or theories of knowledge. Rather, I began with Scripture and tried to determine what it says to us about matters epistemological. Of course, Scripture is not a treatise in epistemology, any more than it is a textbook of biology or auto repair. But I felt that my first responsibility, like the responsibility of the Christian biologist or auto repairman (repair-person?), was to determine what God had to say about my particular discipline. I could not, therefore, follow any of the main traditions of secular philosophy: rationalism, with its idolatry of the human intellect; empiricism, which adopts human sense-experience as its ultimate criterion of truth; or subjectivism, which denies the objectivity of truth altogether in favor of human feeling or inwardness. Nor was any combination of these acceptable for a Christian epistemology.

In a Christian theory of knowledge, God himself is the ultimate criterion of truth, and therefore his Word to us, his revelation,3 is the standard by which all truth claims must be judged. It is true, however, that we apprehend God’s revelation by means of human reason, human sense experience, and the whole range of hard-to-define intuitions, feelings, consciousnesses which we call “subjectivity.” None of these, in itself, gives absolute knowledge. If it did, we would not need God’s Word. But these human faculties work together, in mutual dependence, to lead us toward that truth which is absolute and final, God’s Word to us.

My book also explored some of the relations among these human faculties. God has set us free from trying to find an absolute authority or criterion within ourselves, and so we do not need to idolize human reason, sense-experience, or subjectivity. Thus we are set free to consider the possibility that these human faculties are mutually dependent. So I argue in the book what, perhaps, may appeal to your common sense: that reason, sense experience, and subjectivity are dependent on one another, that they work together in producing human knowledge. Indeed, it might be better not to distinguish these from one another in any rigid way. Rather, they should be seen as aspects of, or perspectives on, any human act of knowing.

Related to the distinction between reason, sense and subjectivity is another threefold distinction which plays a major role in the book. In any act of knowledge there are three crucial elements: (1) an object of knowledge, something that is known; (2) a subject of knowledge, the person who knows; and (3) a norm, criterion or standard, by which we justify our claims to knowledge. In the book I argue that these three also are mutually dependent: none of these ever exists without the other two, and each may be defined in terms of the other two. The object and subject are what the law says they are. The norm and the subject are objects, facts to be known. And the object and norm are elements of subjective experience.

We can therefore look at any piece of human knowledge in three ways: (1) as a correspondence between idea and object; (2) as a state of warranted cognitive satisfaction in a subject; and (3) as human thinking which accords with God’s laws for thought. In my technical vocabulary, to look at knowledge the first way is to look at it from the “situational perspective,” the second from the “existential perspective,” and the last from the “normative perspective.”

In the book I make a number of applications of this scheme, especially to apologetics. We can get some insight here, for instance, into the disagreement between presuppositionalism and evidentialism in apologetics. The presuppositionalist looks at apologetics from the normative perspective, insisting that when we argue with the unbeliever, we must above all obey God’s laws of thought, we must be faithful to the Lord. In that respect, I am emphatically a presuppositionalist. But the evidentialist has a point to make also, from the situational perspective. He says that we must offer evidence; we must be willing and able to show a correspondence between our theology and the real world. I gladly acknowledge that point, so you can call me an evidentialist as well as a presuppositionalist! But I do not think those two insights are incompatible. On the contrary, I believe that they are both true and that they are both important to apologetics. They appear incompatible to some, because some people do not see the perspectival relation between the norm and the situation. And so I can also find some value in the “subjectivist” apologetics found in Pascal, Kierkegaard and others, writers who tend to look at knowledge from the “existential perspective.” I think John Calvin is also rather “existential” in his epistemology, but that’s another story.

My final introductory point is that this threefold scheme is based, ultimately, upon the threefold relationship which God himself sustains to the world. God is Lord in Scripture (Yahweh, adon, kurios. And his lordship involves at least three elements: (1) He is the creator and controller of the world; he governs all “situations.” (2) He is the rightful and ultimate authority over all his creatures. (3) As covenant lord, he commits himself to his creatures, making them in his image, granting them inescapable knowledge of himself, entering relationships with them, making covenant promises, distributing blessing and judgment. As such, God is intimately present, personally involved with all aspects of his creatures’ lives.

God’s control is the source of our situational perspective: God makes the situation, the object of knowledge, to be what it is. His authority is the supreme norm of knowledge, making possible our human normative perspective. His presence is the source of our existential perspective, for it means that we can find God’s reality in the deepest recesses of ourselves as his image. God’s control, authority, presence: these are, ultimately, the sources of all our knowledge.

Up to this point, everything I’ve said is in the book and is more fully developed there. In the remainder of this lecture, and in the two succeeding lectures, I intend, for the most part, to go beyond the book, hoping to show how the above framework is fruitful for other kinds of theological discussions. I have chosen here to focus on a topic closely related to the knowledge of God, namely the source of that knowledge in God’s Word. In my classes at Westminster Seminary, I deal with the Word of God before I get into Christian epistemology, and I think that is the proper order. So in these lectures, I will be giving you a kind of “prequel” to the book: a propaedeutic or introductory discussion which, nevertheless, is influenced by the epistemology presented in the book itself. The rest of this lecture will deal with the nature of the Word of God. The second lecture will deal with the media of the Word, the means by which God’s Word gets from him to us. The third lecture will deal with the role of the Word in Christian ethics.

The Nature of the Word of God

What is the Word of God? Most evangelicals, when they hear that question, instinctively answer, “The Bible.” That is the answer that most naturally occurs to me as well. But as many liberal theologians will be quick to tell us, there are problems with any simple identification between the Bible and the Word of God. Psalm 147, for instance, speaks this way:

He sends his command to the earth; his Word runs swiftly. He spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes. He hurls down his hail like pebbles. Who can withstand his icy blast? He sends his Word and melts them; he stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow (Ps. 147:15-18).
Consider the difficulty of substituting “Bible” for “Word” in that quotation. Another experiment: try substituting “Bible” for “Word” in John 1:1,14.

“Word of God” in Scripture, therefore, seems to have a broader meaning than “Bible.” It describes the power by which God controls the forces of nature, and in some mysterious way it is also a name of God’s eternal Son.

In order to be sufficiently broad, perhaps we must also be deliberately vague in our definition of the Word of God. Let us say that the Word is God’s “self-expression,” and then specify the various forms of self-expression that Scripture describes as divine speech.

1. First, the Word of God is the power by which God brings all things to pass according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11). It was by speech that God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:3,6; Pss. 33:6-9; 148:5; John 1:3; Heb. 11:3; 2 Pet. 3:5). God’s providence is by speech: he commands, and things happen (Gen. 1:9,11,22; 8:21ff.; Pss. 18:15; 28:3-9; 147:15-18; 148:5-8; Matt. 8:27). His judgments are also the outcome of his mighty voice (Gen. 3:14ff.; 6:7; 11:6ff.; Ps. 46:6; Isa. 30:30; 66:6; Hos. 6:5; 2 Pet. 3:7; cf. Matt. 7:21-27; 25:31-46; esp. John 12:48). And his mercy also is a Word of healing (Isa. 43:1; Luke 7:1-10; John 6:63,68; Rom. 1:16; Phil. 2:16; 1 Tim. 1:10; 1 John 1:1), an “effectual calling,” (Isa. 62:2; 65:15; Acts 2:39; Rom. 1:6ff.; 8:28; 1 Cor. 1:2,24,26; Gal. 1:6).

There is nothing theologically new, of course, in the assertion that God’s Word is powerful; that was a point of discussion among the Protestant Reformers. The idea that the powers of God in general can be called “Word” is harder to find in classic theology; but we should recall at this point the way especially the post-Reformation Calvinists spoke of God’s “decrees” and “counsel.” Following such passages as Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23; 4:28; Ephesians 1:11, these theologians spoke of all things taking place according to quasi-verbal acts of God called “decrees” or “counsels,” thus making all events of nature and history to be the effects of God’s Words.

Oddly enough, those supreme anti-scholastics, those twentieth century theologians who stressed the Word of God while denying propositional revelation, such as Barth, Brunner, Bultmann; the theologians of the “new hermeneutic,” such as Ebeling and Fuchs; the “acts of God” theologians such as G. Ernest Wright; and the “theology as history” school of Wolfhart Pannenberg — all of these, in varying ways, have echoed the decretalism of the seventeenth century. For they have seen the Word of God essentially as a kind of power, an event, or as a force which makes things happen — not, to be sure, as an eternal decree, except perhaps in Barth — but as it were a kind of decree uttered in the present, in the here-and-now. Also, similar definitions of “Word of God” can be found in the writings of the followers of Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd, writers of orthodox Reformed background.4

Nothing in Scripture requires the evangelical to disagree with the assertion that God’s Word is powerful and that God’s powers are verbal. And it is certainly scriptural to say that God’s Word is a power, a force, or an event. It is not scriptural, however, to make the Word merely a power, or to use the concept of power to exclude the dimension of propositional meaning. That is the mistake made by the thinkers listed in the previous paragraph, a mistake devastatingly rebutted in James Barr’s 1966 work, Old and New in Interpretation.5 We should, then, continue to search the Scriptures for other biblical characterizations of or “perspectives upon” the Word of God.

2. The Word of God is also God’s authoritative speech. The difference between “power” and “authority” in my vocabulary (though not always in the English Bible) is that God’s power determines what will happen, while God’s authority determines what ought to happen. The distinction between power and authority is the same as the distinction in traditional theology between God’s “decretive” and “preceptive” wills. That there is a difference between these, that God sometimes decrees to happen what his precepts forbid (see especially Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23; 4:28), is the mystery, the stumbling block underlying the problem of evil in its various forms. My concern here, however, is not to solve these ancient mysteries, but simply to indicate that “Word of God” in Scripture designates both the exertions of God’s power and the expressions of God’s authoritative will.

Throughout Scripture God speaks to human beings, setting forth his will for their lives. All the issues of life hinge on the human response to God’s Word. Adam’s first recorded experience was that of hearing the Word of God (Gen. 1:28ff.). His life or death hinged upon his response to that Word (Gen. 2:17). After the fall, Adam’s only hope was that God would fulfill the promise of his Word (Gen. 3:15). Noah had no reason to believe that divine judgment was imminent — except God’s Word. Abraham’s faith, a model of Christian faith (Rom. 4; Gal. 3:6-9; Heb. 11:8-19; James 2:21-24), was faith in God’s promise, his Word. Israel under the Mosaic covenant was bound to the “commands, ordinances, testimonies, statutes, laws” that God had spoken (Deut. 6; Josh. 1:8ff.; Ps. 119; Isa. 8:20; many other passages). Later, God spoke through the prophets (Deut. 18:15-22; Jer. 1:6-19; Ezek. 13:2ff.,17ff.). Then Jesus came, not to cancel the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-20); and he gives us Words of his own, which we need if we are to have life (Matt. 7:21ff.; 28ff.; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26ff.; 8:21; John 6:63,68; 8:47; 12:47ff.; 14:15,21,23ff.; 15:7,10,14; 17:6,17; 1 John 2:3-5; 3:22; 5:2ff.; 2 John 6; 1 Tim. 6:3; Rev. 12:17; 14:12). The Words of Jesus are the supreme test of discipleship. And the apostles claim that their words are on the same high level of authority (John 14:23-26; 15:26ff.; 16:13; Rom. 2:16; 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:10-13; 4:1; 2 Cor. 4:1-6; 12:1,7; Gal. 1:1,11ff.,16; 2:2; 1 Thess. 4:2; Jude 17ff.).

No one can deny that according to Scripture the Word of God is both power and intelligible content, or that that intelligible content functions as the supreme authority for human life. As Barr argued, however much we may wish, as modern men, to have a revelation of power without meaningful content, we cannot honestly claim that this modern viewpoint is the viewpoint of the Scriptures, Barth to the contrary notwithstanding.

3. But thirdly, the Word of God is also God’s personal presence with his creatures. Even in human language, it is difficult in many circumstances to separate a speaker from his Words. If you are sitting out there thinking that my words are stupid, you are at the same time thinking that I am stupid. If you honor the words of Hemingway, to that extent you are honoring Hemingway. Language is quite central to human life (Prov. 12:18; 13:3; 18:20ff.; 21:23; Matt. 12:34ff.; Jas. 3:1-12), important to human sin (Gen. 11:6; Pss. 12; 57:4; 64:3; 140:3; Prov. 10:19; 12:17-19; Isa. 29:13; Jer. 9:8; Ezek. 33:31; Rom. 3:13ff.) and redemption (Ps. 51:15; Isa. 6; 35:6; 43:21; 45:23; 49:2; 65:19; Zeph. 3:9ff.; Rom. 10:9ff.; 1 Pet. 2:9; Jas. 5:16). Truly if one can control his tongue, he can control his whole life (Jas. 3:1-12).

So it is difficult to separate God from his Words. To obey his Words is to obey God; to despise his Words is to despise him. In many ways, God’s Word is united with his self: (a) God’s Word reveals him (Deut. 4:5-8; 2 Tim. 3:15). (b) God’s Spirit is present with his Word (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 33:6; Isa. 34:16; 59:21; John 6:63; 16:13; Acts 2:1-4; 1 Thess. 1:5; 2 Thess. 2:2; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). (c) God’s nearness is the nearness of the Word (Deut. 4:5-8; 30:11-14; Rom. 10:6-8). (d) God’s ten commandments were placed by the ark of the covenant in Israel, the holiest place of all, the most intense place of God’s presence (Deut. 31:26). 2 Timothy 3:15 also refers to Scripture as “holy,” recalling that Old Testament conviction that God’s Words partake of his own holiness. (e) All of God’s acts are performed by speech, as we saw earlier under “power:” his eternal plan, creation, providence, judgment and grace. (f) God is distinguished from the idols by the fact that he speaks (1 Kings 18:24,26,29,36; Pss. 115:5ff.; 135:15ff.; Hab. 2:18-20; 1 Cor. 12:2). (g) The speech of God has divine attributes: it is wonderful (Ps. 119:129), eternal (Ps. 119:89,160), omnipotent (Gen. 18:14; Isa. 55:11; Luke 1:37), perfect (Ps. 19:7ff.), holy (above; Deut. 31:26; 2 Tim. 3:15). (h) The Word of God is an object of worship (Pss. 34:3; 56:4,10; 119:48,120,161ff.; Isa. 66:5; cf. the praising of God’s name: Pss. 9:2; 68:4; 138:2; etc.)6 It should therefore not be too surprising for us to read in John 1:1 that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Of course this passage refers to the living Word, Jesus Christ. But it is also relevant to the broader biblical doctrine of the Word of God. “In the beginning” alludes to Genesis 1:1; that allusion is reinforced by the reference to creation in John 1:3. Therefore the Word that was “with God” and “was God” was Jesus, and it was also the Word that created the heavens and the earth. In some mysterious way, Jesus, God and the creative Word are one. The doctrine of the Trinity itself can, perhaps, be helpfully formulated in linguistic terms (though of course not only in this way): God the Father is the one who speaks; the Son is the Word spoken; the Spirit is that mighty breath (ruach, pneuma) which drives that Word to accomplish its purpose.

All of this will remind us of the neo-orthodox slogan that “God does not reveal propositions, he reveals himself.” No doubt, God does reveal himself, and we ought to be humble enough to learn from the neo-orthodox about that. They are surely wrong, however, to conclude that the self-revelation of God excludes meaningful content. Quite the contrary: that Word which has divine attributes, which is an object of worship, which accompanies God in the very ark of the covenant is nothing more or less than the meaningful, authoritative Word which God speaks to his people. Indeed, Jesus, the living Word, comes with a message, a gospel.

We may, then, sum up the nature of the Word of God as follows: God’s Word is the self-expression of his Lordship. God’s Word is the expression of his control, authority and presence, God’s self-insinuation into the three “perspectives” of human knowledge. The power of the Word creates our situational perspective; the authority of the Word determines the norms of our knowledge; and the presence of the Word makes God inseparable from our self-knowledge.

1.Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987.

2.An unbeliever may, of course, confess verbally a Christian theory of knowledge. The Pharisees were very orthodox in their beliefs but, Jesus teaches us, devoid of true faith. So a modern Pharisee might grant the truth of a Christian epistemology. But that would be contrary to the deepest inclinations of his heart, an inconsistency with his fundamental unbelief.

3.I prefer “Word” to “revelation” as a broad designation for God’s creator-to-creature communication. I think that reflects the scriptural usage, in which “revelation” tends to be an eschatological or consummative category. There is a sense in which we do not now have “revelation” (cf. F. Gerald Downing, Has Christianity a Revelation? (Phila.: Westminster Press, 1964)), but we do have the Word.

4.For example, A. DeGraaff and C. Seerveld, eds., Understanding the Scriptures (Hamilton, Ont.: The Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship, 1968).

5.London: SCM Press, 1966.

6.Much could also be said about the union between the “name” of God and God himself, “name” and “Word” being closely related concepts in Scripture: Ex. 33:19; 34:6ff.; Ps. 7:17; etc.