This might seem like a nit-picking distinction between the singular and the plural of a noun, but when it is used to express our understanding of the Bible’s content, it becomes an important distinction. Specifically, we believe, along with all other traditional (i.e. ‘orthodox’) Christians that the Bible is the true Word of God, but also along with all traditional Christians, we reject the notion that the Bible is the words of God. That’s not mere ‘wordplay,’ but reflects the reality of how the Holy Scriptures came to us.
To appreciate the distinction, it’s perhaps helpful to contrast the different ways in which Christians and Muslims understand the nature of their sacred scriptures. In the case of Muslims, the Qur’an (Koran) is believed to be the literal utterances of Allah, as dictated to the prophet Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. Thus, it is not just the meaning, but the very words which are regarded as received from God. Indeed, the Qur’an is understood to be the authentic sacred text only when in the original Arabic.
Christians have rather consistently rejected such a ‘dictationist’ view of Holy Scripture. There are many humorous stories of (usually elderly) Christians who were convinced that God was English, German, Norwegian, etc. because that was the language in which they read the Bible. But beyond the obvious reality that almost all of us read the Bible in translations (rather than the original Hebrew and Greek in which it was written) there is also the undeniable reality that (with a few rare exceptions such as Mark 5:41, 15:34) the exact words uttered by Jesus are not available to us in any writing. Aside from the fact that the technology to make verbatim recordings was far in the future, we also know that Jesus taught in Aramaic, the common language of Palestinian Jews in the 1st century, yet all of the Gospels were originally written in Greek. Thus, even when precisely the same utterance is recorded in more than one Gospel, there can be minor variations in the wording (e.g. Matthew 3:17 vs. Mark 1:11). So from the ‘get-go’ we acknowledge that the New Testament writers were NOT passing down a transcript of Jesus’ exact words, but rather the content of what He spoke.
The important question is then whether the correct meaning has been faithfully transmitted to us. Again, all orthodox Christians of all times agree that the writers of Holy Scripture were inspired (literally ‘God-breathed’) by the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s truth (2 Timothy 3:14-17), but there has been much ink spilled, countless sermons preached, and endless voices raised in debate over precisely what that means – even within Lutheranism. Martin Luther himself didn’t expend much effort discussing the mechanism of inspiration. Rather, his focus was on Scripture as a ‘Means of Grace’ (together with the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion) by which the salvation won on the cross is conveyed to us – a task for which the Bible’s contents are both necessary and sufficient. Luther (along with other notable Protestants such as Calvin and Wesley) viewed the sacredness of Scripture not primarily in terms of its literalness but rather in terms of its effectiveness in bringing the salvation won by Jesus Christ into human hearts. In short, it is not the bare words, but the Holy Spirit working through the words (both their writing and their hearing) which brings us a saving knowledge of God and His plan of salvation.
These few sentences cannot begin to encompass the range and nuances of understanding of this topic held within the Christian Church, within the various branches of Lutheranism, or even within a given congregation! Yet we stand united with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ who hold the Bible to be God’s authoritative Word for our salvation, confident in His faithfulness to have given us in the words of Scripture as we possess it all that we need to be His faithful children. Our faith is not centered on the Bible, but in the One of whom it testifies. As we sing prior to the reading of the Gospel:
“Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” (John 6:68)