The Lutheran Difference: Q & A — A Word on the Word

So we’re continuing our look at the Lutheran Difference. More specifically, we’re answering your questions about the way Lutherans understand things. This week, we’ve got a question from Paul Lee, who asks this:

Does Lutheranism have any concept of the Word of God in any broader sense than the Bible — and also in the John 1:1 sense, which I think most denominations would acknowledge?

I’m thinking of “Word and Sacrament” — yesterday I heard a Christmas sermon on John 1, and there are so many inter-related concepts regarding Christ as the Word, Scripture as the Word, and the concept of the Word being communicated to us somehow…. it’s always been fascinating to me as a media major. And probably related to Christian Existentialism — I understand Kierkegaard was Lutheran (though I haven’t read him).

So what is the Lutheran understanding of the Word of God? Well, the short answer is this: Lutherans understand that the Word of God refers both to the Bible and to Jesus Himself.

The Bible is the Word of God because that’s what it contains. And Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, just as it says in John 1:1. Now I could go into the Greek and Hebrew concepts that are loaded in the Greek word logos (which is translated as “Word”), but that understanding isn’t unique to Lutheranism. So instead, I want to touch on two separate issues that are tangentially related to this question. The first question is this: how do we know God? And second: does God speak to us outside His Word?

How do we know God?

So how do we know who God is? How do we learn what He’s all about and what He’s like? Lutherans say that there are two ways of learning about God.

The first way is via what we call the natural knowledge of God. There are two ways that God reveals Himself to us. The first is through creation. When we look out there, at the world around us, we see evidence that someone put all of this together. The second way is through our conscience. We all have that pesky little voice inside us that urges us to do the right thing and avoid the bad. And if we get enough people together and ask them what their consciences say is right and wrong, we’re going to find that they mostly agree (with certain outliers, sure).

So what does the natural knowledge of God tell us about Him? Well, if He created the universe, He must be pretty powerful. And if He speaks to us through our conscience, then He cares about what we do in our lives. That means that an insanely powerful being has a stake in how we behave. But what else does He think about us? Is He happy with us? Have we done enough good? If all we have is the natural knowledge of God, it’s not enough.

That’s where the second kind of knowledge comes into play, and that’s the revealed knowledge of God. Again, there are two ways this works, and both can be summed up as “The Word of God.” In the Bible, we see how God interacts with human beings throughout history. We see how He ministers to them and us, and we see descriptions and teachings about His grace and intentions for our lives. Through the Bible, we get a clearer picture of who God is and what He’s all about.

But God’s Word also refers to Christ Himself, and it is through Christ that we see the clearest picture of who God is and what He does for us. Christ is the lens that we use to look at the rest of God’s Word (again, Lutherans understand Scripture as being Christocentric, meaning that He is at the heart of the entire book and that the Bible is best understood in light of who He is and what He has done for us). Jesus Himself says that we can come to know God better through Him.

Think about it this way: suppose the only thing you know about me is my name. What does that actually tell you about me? Very little: I’m a man, probably of German descent, given my last name, but that’s about it. But by coming to this blog and seeing what I have to say, by reading my other books, you get a better idea of who I am and what I’m all about. The same thing is true if we were to spend some time face to face. That interaction would give you a better picture of who I am and what I’m all about.

It’s the same way with God. Without His Word, we can’t come to really understand who He is or what He’s all about.

And that leads us to the other point I wanted to touch on:

Can God speak to us outside His Word?

A lot of Christians would answer this question with a resounding, “Yes.” They would tell stories of how, at certain times in their lives, they felt the presence of God in their lives and are absolutely sure that He communicated something to them in a very real way.

But Lutherans tend to be a little wary of these sorts of stories. We understand that, yes, it’s theoretically possible for God to speak to anyone outside of His Word. But our concern is basically this: “How can you know for certain that it was God speaking to you?” If I get a strong sense that something is a message from God, how can I be sure that it’s really Him and not my own imagination or a coincidence or something like that?

Okay, maybe I need a more concrete example. Let’s say that one day I’m feeling kind of down on myself. The world seems to be arrayed against me and I go for a walk, during which I ruminate on my present situation. Am I okay? Will I be okay? Or is everything just a long slog toward nothingness?

Then, as I walk, the clouds part and a ray of sunshine falls upon me, warming me. Some might see this as a message from God, a reassuring nudge that lets me know that everything will be okay.

But what if that ray of sunshine never came? What if it’s a trick of meteorology, not a divine missive? What if what I’m contemplating isn’t just my own self-worth, but some major life change and, because of a trick of the weather, I assume that I’ve gotten direct information from on high about what I should be doing? What if, after following a ray of sunshine that I thought indicated God’s will, I wind up making a big wreck of my life?

For Lutheran Christians, we get very wary of any message from God that comes from some other means than the Word of God. At the very least, we feel that such messages have to be backed up by what God says in His Word. If these supposed messages can’t be confirmed that way, then we tend to tell people to proceed very cautiously because they can’t be absolutely certain that those thoughts and ideas come from Him.

So that’s it on God’s Word. Not exactly what Paul was asking, maybe, but it’s still Lutheran stuff.

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One Comment:

  1. Thank you for addressing my question!

    Christocentricity makes some difference, I think. And I guess it is about epistemology and uncertainty. I think that’s why theories of the Sacraments are related to theories of the Word. Because a sacrament is something physical that you know objectively, and it means something symbolically, and thus takes on the role of language — i.e., the Word.

    And it seems strange that God could speak outside of His Word. Because, everything that God says should actually be His Word, at least conceptually — and I can’t ever separate concepts from the alternate meanings that people try to give them. That’s why I had such a hard time accepting that the Word of God could be both the Bible and Jesus Christ, because once I learned about John 1:1 I started reading “Jesus Christ” into the Bible every time I came to understand that the concept of logos was referenced.

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