In the Bible, “Word of God” Usually Means Oral Proclamation

The commonly asserted dichotomy between the Bible and Tradition is an unbiblical tradition.

Charles-François Poerson (1653-1725), “Saint Peter Preaching in Jerusalem”
Charles-François Poerson (1653-1725), “Saint Peter Preaching in Jerusalem” (photo: Public Domain)

In his 2001 book, The God Who Justifies (Bethany House), Reformed Baptist anti-Catholic apologist James R. White sought to establish that the Old Testament Jews believed in sola Scriptura and a Bible Only view (excluding oral tradition).

He cites (on pp. 12-13) Psalm 119:89 and Isaiah 40:8 (“For ever, O LORD, thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens” and “the word of our God will stand for ever” in RSV), and stated that “Psalm 119 is sufficient to demonstrate the reverence for the Word of God held at the time by those faithful to the Lord” (p. 13); and, “their respect for the Scriptures was based upon their belief that these words were God’s words, these teachings were God’s teachings” (p. 13).

What Mr. White seems oblivious to is the fact that “word of God in the Old Testament usually did not refer to Holy Scripture. As far as the terminology “word of God” in the Old Testament, it actually only appears three times in RSV.  In 1 Samuel 9:27 and 1 Kings 12:22 it is clearly oral in nature (right from God to a person who proclaims it) and not referring to Scripture. In Proverbs 30:5 it’s not clear that it is written Scripture, either.

“Thy word” appears more times, and mostly in Psalm 119, and many times (2 Sam 7:28; 1 Ki 8:26; 18:36; 2 Chr 6:17 it refers to oral revelation from God to persons: not originally written as Scripture. It’s not absolutely clear that “thy word” in Psalms 119 must refer to written Scripture. I actually think that it probably does, while at the same time noting that the phraseology is not confined to descriptions of only Scripture.

It’s much more clear with regard to the phrase “word of the Lord”: which appears 243 times in the Old Testament in the RSV. These instances are overwhelmingly oral: usually God speaking to prophets and other notable people: Abraham (Gen 15:1), Joshua (Josh 8:27), Samuel (1 Sam 3:21), Nathan (2 Sam 7:4), Gad (2 Sam 24:11), Solomon (1 Ki 6:11), Ahi’jah (1 Ki 14:18), Jehu (1 Ki 16:1), Elijah (1 Ki 18:1), Shemai’ah (2 Chr 11:2), Jeremiah (2 Chr 36:21), Isaiah (Is 38:4), Ezekiel (Ezek 1:3), Hosea (Hos 1:1), Joel (Joel 1:1), Jonah (Jon 1:1), Micah (Mic 1:1), Zephaniah (Zeph 1:1), Haggai (Hag 1:1), Zechariah (Zech 1:1), and Malachi (Mal 1:1).

Note: “And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” (1 Sam 3:1). And the book of Psalms sometimes uses it in an obviously non-Scriptural way: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (33:6).

Now, with all this “oral communication” going on, clearly, “word of God” / “word of the Lord” / “Thy word” is not  confined to written Scripture. And just because one Psalm (119) seems to refer to written Scripture, it doesn’t follow that these terms always referred to inspired writing. Therefore, plainly “oral traditions” existed in Old Testament times.

In fact, mainstream Judaism believed that Moses received oral tradition on Mt. Sinai alongside the written.  This was what the Pharisees believed (which Paul more than once called himself). The Sadducees, who were sort of the theological liberals of the time (denying, e.g., the resurrection of the body), denied it. They were the Jewish sola Scripturists.

I don’t deny that many references to “word of God” in the New Testament are referring to the written Old Testament or even sometimes, to what would become recognized as the New Testament. But the majority of these instances (as in the Old Testament) clearly refer to oral proclamation, or a more or less private (teacher-to-pupil) passing-on of sacred apostolic tradition.

Biblical confirmation that “word of God / the Lord” even in the New Testament refers far more often to oral preaching, is abundant (Lk 3:2; 5:1; Acts 4:31; 6:2, 7; 8:25; 12:24; 13:5, 7, 44, 46; 15:35-36; 16:32; 17:13; 19:10; Phil 1:14; 1 Thess 1:8).

I showed in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (completed in 1996), “that the concepts of Tradition, Gospel, and Word of God (as well as other terms) are essentially synonymous. All are predominantly oral, and all are referred to as being delivered and received” (p. 12). Here are the biblical evidences for this (for Protestant ears, quite jolting!) that I submitted in support of my assertion:

1 Corinthians 11:2  (RSV) Maintain the traditions . .  . . even as I have delivered them to you.

2 Thessalonians 2:15  Hold to the traditions . . . .  taught . . . by word of mouth or by letter.

2 Thessalonians 3:6  . . . the tradition that you received from us.

1 Corinthians 15:1  . . . the gospel, which you received . . .

Galatians 1:9  . . . the gospel . . . which you received.

1 Thessalonians 2:9  We preached to you the gospel of God.

Acts 8:14  Samaria had received the word of God . . .

1 Thessalonians 2:13  You received the word of God, which you heard from us, . . .

2 Peter 2:21  . . . the holy commandment delivered to them.

Jude 3  . . . the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

I concluded (and still agree with this today: 23 years later):

In St. Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians alone, we see that three of the above terms are used interchangeably. Clearly then, tradition is not a dirty word in the Bible, particularly for St. Paul. If, on the other hand, one wants to maintain that it is, then gospel and Word of God are also bad words! Thus, the commonly asserted dichotomy between the gospel and Tradition, or between the Bible and Tradition, is unbiblical itself and must be discarded by the truly biblically-minded person as (quite ironically) a corrupt tradition of men. (p. 13)