The Word of God: Relevant and Powerful
by Margaret Ralph, Ph.D.
When you hear the phrase, "the Word of God," what comes to mind? Many of us think immediately of Scripture.
When you hear the phrase, “the Word of God,” what comes to mind? Many of us think immediately of Scripture. After all, when we proclaim Scripture in a worship setting we conclude by saying “The Word of the Lord,” and those gathered affirm this truth by saying “Thanks be to God.” However, Scripture is just one of many expressions of and meanings for the Word of God. In this article we will first explore five meanings of the phrase “the Word of God.” Then, based on this broader understanding, we will discuss just why the Word of God is so relevant and powerful in our lives.
The Meanings of the Word of God
Have you ever asked yourself, “If there were no Word of God, what would be different?” The answer might be more catastrophic than you have imagined. If there were no Word of God, nothing would exist, including us. This is true because two meanings for the Word of God are: 1) the pre-existent Word that existed before anything else existed, and 2) the creative Word through which everything else that exists came into being.
We read about the pre-existent Word of God in John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John then goes on to say about this pre-existent Word: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). This creative Word of God is described in Genesis 1:1—2:4. In this story, God’s creative word is spoken at the beginning of each of the six days of creation. What God speaks becomes a reality: “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). “God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the water…’ And it was so” (Genesis 1:6).
Still a third meaning for the Word of God is Jesus himself. John goes on to tell us that “…the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14). Jesus is the pre-existent Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.
Two additional meanings for the Word of God refer to two of the ways in which the Word of God continues to dwell among us. These are Scripture and Tradition. Through Scripture God reveals to us what we need to know for our salvation. Through Tradition the Church echoes (the meaning of “catechesis,” to echo) those truths that God has revealed to each succeeding generation.
Scripture and Tradition have a totally interdependent relationship. Were it not for Tradition, there would be no Scripture. It is the people of God, both Jews and Christians, who, filled with the Spirit, decided which books would be included in Scripture, that is, which books would be considered canonical and which ones would not. At the same time, the Church (the people of God) is not above Scripture but is ruled by Scripture. The Second Vatican Council document Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) states that “…the entire Christian religion should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture” (n. 21).
What does “the Word of God” mean? Among its meanings are: the pre-existent Word; the creative Word; Jesus Christ; Scripture; and Tradition. As we will see, there is nothing in our lives more relevant or more powerful than the Word of God.
The Relevance of the Word of God
We have already observed that were there no Word of God nothing would exist. Nevertheless, just for the sake of discussion, let us affirm the first two meanings of the Word of God, but not the other three. What would our lives be like if the Word had not become flesh, if there were no Scripture, and if there were no Tradition? As we probe the answers to these questions we will discover the profound relevance of the Word of God in our lives.
Jesus, the Word of God, is the fullness of God’s self-revelation to God’s people.
Because the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, we know that God is love; that God loves every single person; that love, not legalistic obedience to law, is what God asks of us; and that we are not slaves to sin—we have been redeemed.
As catechists we will want to thank God every day for becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Had the Word of God not become flesh we would not be able to teach the truths that we almost take for granted. How do we know that what we teach is true? Because our source for those truths is the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
What if there were no Scripture?
If there were no Scripture, Jesus’ contemporaries could have received the revelation that he offered but subsequent generations would not have been able to receive the same gift.
Of course, much of Scripture—what we now call the Old Testament—took form before the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is not that the existence, the presence, or the power of our Trinitarian God became a reality with God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. It is that the human race was able to comprehend these truths through the revelation of Jesus Christ.
As catechists—echoing the Word of God through every generation—we must be lifelong students of the Bible. Remember, “…the entire Christian religion should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture” (Dei Verbum, n. 21) not by just the New Testament, not by just those parts of the Bible that appear in the Lectionary. How can we be faithful catechists unless we have read and studied the entire Bible?
What if there were no Tradition?
Through Church Tradition the truths that Jesus made known to the human race, and to which Scripture gives witness, are faithfully passed on and applied to new contexts for every generation. It is the responsibility of the Church, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret Scripture and to apply the truths taught in Scripture to new social settings.
Through Tradition the Church teaches and guides every generation to live in fidelity to Jesus Christ and the gospel in very different social settings. As catechists, we pass on this Tradition with authority. We do not teach simply to pass on our own understanding of things, but to pass on the truths revealed by the Word of God through Jesus Christ, through Scripture, and through Church Tradition. What could be more relevant to the well-being of our world, our local communities, our families, and ourselves than echoing the Word of God with fidelity?
Both Scripture and Tradition Are All-Important
If we had Scripture and not Tradition—that is, no authoritative voice to interpret Scripture—Scripture would be open to constant misinterpretation. History has taught us this lesson, and we do not want to repeat the errors of the past. An example will make this point clear.
During the United States Civil War, well-meaning Christians supported the social institution of slavery by quoting the Bible: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5). Can we, as Christians of the twenty-first century, use this passage to support slavery?
We cannot. The Church has spoken with authority on the way we are to interpret Scripture. (This topic will be addressed at length in a future article in this series). It is part of Church Tradition that we interpret every scriptural passage in the context in which it appears in the Bible. We must consider the literary form, the beliefs of the time of the original author and audience, and the fact that Scripture presents us with a 2,000-year process of coming to knowledge in order to determine the intent of the original inspired author. Only then can we put the authority of Scripture behind our conclusions.
The Power of the Word of God
It is one thing to “know.” It is another thing entirely to have the power to do something about that which we “know.” Through the Word of God, through Jesus Christ, we have the knowledge of how to live so as to please God. We also have the power to do so. We name this power in various ways. Sometimes we call this power the “Holy Spirit.” Sometimes we call it “grace.” No matter what we call this power, the effect is the same: We are able to talk the talk and walk the walk.
How is the Word of God power in our lives? There are many ways, but we will discuss four of them. The Word of God has power in our lives because of its authority; because Scripture is a living word that can be a light unto our paths; because the Word of God nourishes us in Eucharist; and because the Word of God sends us on mission.
Because of its authority: Christians are to be ruled by Scripture. Why do we give this one expression of the Word of God such authority in our lives? Because we believe that, in one sense, God is the author of Scripture and that through Scripture God has chosen to teach us the truths that we need to know for our salvation.
When you think about it, this is an amazing claim. Why should we, limited as we are, believe that we know how to live so as to please God? What makes us think that we understand the moral order? What gives us the conviction that our lives have purpose and meaning? Why do we hope and believe that there is life after death? The answer to all of these questions is that we believe that the Word of God—God’s self-communication through Jesus Christ and through Scripture—has taught us these things with authority.
Because Scripture is a living word: In addition to teaching eternal truths with authority, Scripture is a living word. That is, it can speak to each of us individually about the most personal and private aspects of our lives. It can teach us how to walk in Christ’s ways.
It is because we believe Scripture is a living word that we proclaim it in liturgical settings. We want to invite those in the community to experience the power of this living word in their own lives. It is because we believe Scripture is a living word that we teach catechumens and candidates how to break open the word. We are inviting them to hear this living word in conversation with their own inmost thoughts.
It is because we believe Scripture is a living word that we incorporate it into prayer services, use it as the basis for faith-sharing groups, and make it central to all of our catechetical lessons. Scripture, as a living word, can empower change in each of us individually, in our communities, in our whole world.
Because the Word of God nourishes us in Eucharist: We are not only to be ruled and guided by the living word, we are to be nourished by the word. How does the Word of God nourish us? In addition to giving us Scripture as a living word, the Word of God nourishes us through Eucharist. Remember that one of the meanings for the Word of God is Jesus Christ. Jesus continues to become flesh and dwell among us through Eucharist.
Through Jesus we not only have a companion on the road (companion means “one with whom we break bread”), we are nourished by Christ. We receive the word into ourselves and we become what we receive: the Body of Christ. Just as physical nourishment empowers our physical bodies, so does this spiritual nourishment empower us to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because the Word of God sends us on mission: At the end of our Eucharistic celebrations, the celebrant often dismisses us with the words, “Go forth to love and serve the Lord.” We are sent on mission. What is our mission? In John’s Gospel Jesus explains the mission with these words: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
Those who live out this mission raise families, serve the poor, work for justice, and try to transform the world through the power of the Word of God that dwells within them. They also become catechists. As catechists who echo the Word of God, we can do no better than to model ourselves on Mary. Our constant prayer must be: “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Dr. Ralph is the author of 13 books on Scripture including the best-seller And God Said What? and the three-cycle series Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors (Paulist Press).
Dr. Margaret Ralph explores the depth and breadth of the meaning the Word of God. How often do we call upon this phrase in our liturgical celebrations, prayers, catechetical ministry, or spiritual conversations? In this article, the reader is grounded in a few fundamental ideas that are strongly articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the National Directory for Catechesis. It is a non-negotiable that catechists need to place Scripture and the Eucharist at the center of their lives. Nurturing a reflective and prayerful scriptural life empowers catechists to echo the Good News authentically.
1. What are two meanings for the Word of God as described by Dr. Ralph? How does her explanation support or enhance my current understanding? Why?
2. How do I experience the Word of God in Scripture and Tradition? How has it influenced my life? How do I daily nurture these experiences? Be specific.
3. What does Ralph mean by “were it not for Tradition, there would be no Scripture”?
4. Dei Verbum (the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) states that, “…the entire Christian religion should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture” (n. 21). What does this mean for my personal life and my vocation as a catechist?
5. What would my life be like if the Word had not become flesh, if there were no Scripture, and if there were no Tradition?
1. Describe a current social issue that is impacting your community. Begin by reviewing all media for specific accounts or stories. What factors do you need to consider to fully understand the depth and breadth of the situation? How might our understanding of Scripture and Tradition enable us to reflect upon, interpret, and respond to social issues?
2. Identify an experience you could create in your catechetical ministry that animates the religious imagination of your students for appreciating or understanding the meaning that Scripture is a living word. Be specific.
3. How could you creatively break open the word so that your students experience the Scriptures as dynamic and life-giving in their everyday lives? Be specific.
4. How did you present Scripture in your past three catechetical sessions? What moved you most in your presentation? How was Scripture received by your students? Did it move or awaken them? Why?
5. If you are not already engaged in reading Scripture each day, pick up the Scripture for five minutes a day and prayerfully read a few phrases. Recall the phrases throughout the day and strive to allow them to take root in your life and experience the power of the Word of God.
* Lineamenta: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. This is the working paper for the 2008 Bishops Synod called by Benedict XVI to explore re-discovering the Scriptures in our lives today (vatican.va)
* Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in their Biblical Contexts for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors, for Cycles A, B, and C (Paulist Press)
* United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, chapters 2 and 3 (USCCB Publishing)
* Catechism of the Catholic Church, chapters 2 and 3
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