First, Trawick writes, “Martin Luther and John Calvin, when they used the phrase ‘Word of God’ were rarely referring to the Bible.” This appears to be an historical and mathematical claim suggesting it is inappropriate to regard Scripture as the Word of God. Short of noting the Reformers’ every use of the phrase and tallying any meanings (which Trawick does not do), suffice it to say that sometimes they did use this phrase to refer to the Bible.
John Calvin, in Institutes of the Christian Religion, writes of the Scripture in this way:
Before I go any farther, it is worth-while to say something about the authority of Scripture, not only to prepare our hearts to reverence it, but to banish all doubt. When that which is set forth is acknowledged to be the Word of God, there is no one so deplorably insolent — unless devoid also both of common sense and of humanity itself — as to dare impugn the credibility of Him who speaks. …
But a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church. As if the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended upon the decision of men! (Battles translation, Westminster Press, 1960, I.7.1)
And yet, it is precisely upon such a decision that Trawick intends to thrust us.
Second, Trawick writes, “We will not be able to discover the objectively right reading of a passage of Scripture.” This ostensibly humble but sweeping dismissal is itself an arrogant and pernicious violation of the “objectively right reading” of the eighth commandment, which rules out theft. Does not the Scripture say that God created the world? Does not the Scripture say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Does not the Scripture say that Jesus Christ was born of Mary? Does not the Scripture say that Jesus Christ was crucified, dead, and buried? Does not the Scripture say that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead? Does not the Scripture say that Jesus Christ is Lord? But Trawick presumes to deprive the church of all of this.
Third, Trawick writes, “Only by allowing the Bible to function as a living text can we possibly be faithful to it as our forebears were.” We do, of course, understand and often refer to the word of God as the living word of God. But what we mean is that it is the life-giving word of the living God, not that the word is plastic and malleable.
As we engage in the debates Trawick referenced, it might help to hear from more recent theologians, also, about the role of Scripture in the life of the church. Karl Barth writes: “The Word of God does not effect only the founding of the Church, but also its continual preservation. … Without Scripture it would inevitably dissolve at once into nothingness” (Church Dogmatics, I/2:688, emphasis added). Note how the two are related.
Although it consists entirely of human beings, the Church is not a human polity, monarchial, aristocratic or democratic, in which the discharge of the witness to Jesus Christ committed to it is left to the good pleasure of its members. The Church is governed. And as it is created and maintained by the Word of God, it is also governed by the Word of God: by the Word of God in the form of the testimony to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ set down in Scripture. To say that Jesus Christ rules the Church is equivalent to saying that Holy Scripture rules the church. (CD I/2:693, emphasis added)
We cannot pretend to know the will or mind of Christ apart from, and certainly not in contradiction of, the Scripture. It is in and by Scripture that Christ is known. It is in and by Scripture that Christ rules the church.
In conclusion, let us return to Calvin’s high regard for the Scripture as the Word of God:
Let this be a firm principle: No other word is to be held as the Word of God, and given place as such in the church, than what is contained first in the Law and the Prophets, then in the writings of the apostles; and the only authorized way of teaching in the church is by the prescription and standard of his Word. (Institutes, IV.8.8)
James C. Goodloe IV is executive director of The Foundation for Reformed Theology (www.foundationrt.org) in Richmond, Va.