Saturday, 28 March 2015

People of the Book? Or People of the Word?

When Christians meet with Jews and Muslims and want to emphasise their common heritage, the expression “Abrahamic faiths” is often used. This is an accurate description historically, and it also helps us to remember that our differences of belief are in a sense disagreements within the family.

An expression that is not so helpful is “people of the book”, the description given to Jews and Christians in the Qur’an and often used by Muslims today. It is often hard for us to explain that this does not adequately describe the relationship of Christians to their Bible. It is not true that “just as” Jews have the Tanakh, Muslims the Qur’an, Sikhs the Guru Granth and so on, “so” Christians have the Bible. Christians do not see it in quite this way. Some sects on the fringe of Christianity, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, base their whole system of belief on the Bible as God-given data, and there are perhaps some extreme fundamentalists we can rightly regard as more biblical than Christian. However, even the most conservative of Christian Bible-believers would say that see the heart of their faith and experience as a living relationship with Jesus Christ: the Bible is not the ultimate object of their faith, it is the vehicle that conveys Christ to them. The Christian faith is faith not in a Book but in a Person. Christians do not lose sight of the New Testament statement (John 1:14) that the Word of God is Jesus.

“People of the Book” is thus not a good description of Christians. But perhaps “people of the Word” is nearer the mark. Many people call the Bible “the Word”, but the two expressions are not the same. A book, however sacred, is an inanimate object that remains unchanged. It can be interpreted and discussed, but you cannot ask it what it means and get a direct answer. A word is the utterance of a living person at a particular moment in time. It speaks to the present situation.

A word is not necessarily just a piece of information. It often addresses us at an emotional level: comforting, cheering, encouraging or challenging, making us laugh or cry. A word can be an action: sealing an agreement, making a promise, opening a new relationship or restoring a broken one.

The story of the Jewish and Christian faiths is one of hearing the word of God. In the Hebrew Scriptures a prophecy is often introduced by “the word of the LORD came to …”. The prophets had no canonical Scripture to study and interpret: they believed God had spoken to them directly. Sometimes they contradicted each other: there were “true prophets” and “false prophets”. The only reliable definition of true prophets was that their prophecies turned out to be right, but there was no infallible way of knowing at the time which was true and which was false. Sometimes the prophets themselves argued with God and doubted their own call, or the words they felt God wanted them to say. Just as in human relationships, so in relationship with God, a word cannot convey absolute certainty: it can only be taken in trust, and in the context of a relationship.

 “Word” can sometimes mean promise, as when we say “I give you my word”. When the preacher in Isaiah 40:8 said, “the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever”, he was not referring to Scripture, but to God’s promise to restore Jerusalem. He was quite probably referring specifically to the prophecies of the original Isaiah.

In the New Testament, when we read (Acts 6:7) that “the word of God continued to spread” it doesn’t mean that the apostles went around distributing Bibles! The “word of God” was the message about Jesus. The expression is sometimes still used today, as when a preacher is introduced with words like “so-and-so will now bring us the word”.

No, Christians are not “people of the book”. We are something much more dynamic, more immediate and more challenging: we are “people of the word”.