The Bible – The Word of God – Three Views: Part 3

This is part three of “The Bible – The Word of God.” Today we will be looking at the “interesting” views of David Law regarding what he thinks the “Word of God” means. This is part 1 of the subsection “Three Views on What it Means to Say that the Bible is the Word of God.”


Three Views on What it Means to Say that the Bible is the Word of God

I. David Law

            In Inspiration of the Scriptures, David Law gives us the first theory about what it means to say that the Bible is the word of God. Although his book is primarily about the inspiration of the scriptures we can draw out what it means for David Law to say that the Bible is the word of God.

Law begins his book by drawing a distinction between two senses of the word inspiration: the objective and the subjective sense. The objective sense of inspiration “is the consequence of the alleged divine input into the biblical writing,” while the subjective sense of inspiration is a claim about the impact the biblical texts have upon a reader.[1] Having drawn these distinctions within what we would call inspiration, Law goes on to make even more distinctions within the notion of objective inspiration; word-centered theories of inspiration and nonverbal theories of inspiration. He goes on to say that “Word-centered theories of inspiration situate the inspiration of the Bible in the words of the Biblical text. Such theories are characterized by a greater emphasis on the word as the medium of divine communication”[2] Among various theories of inspiration, word-centered theories would include instrumental theories of inspiration, dictation theories of inspiration, theories of verbal inspiration, and plenary theories of inspiration. Typically verbal and plenary theories go hand in hand. Besides word-centered theories of inspiration there are also non-verbal theories of inspiration. “Non-verbal theories of inspiration situate inspiration not in the words but in some other aspect of the Bible such as the biblical message or the process that led to the Bible’s composition.”[3] These theories would situate inspiration in things like the moral or spiritual teachings of the Bible, Biblical images, or tradition.

After examining numerous word-centered and non-verbal theories of inspiration Law concludes that all of these objective theories ultimately fail to adequately explain inspiration. Thus he is forced to say that “the impossibility of an objective approach to the question of inspiration means that we must take subjectivity as our starting point.”[4] Having realized that subjectivity should be our starting point he goes on to elucidate a theory of inspiration that begins with the reader’s relationship to the text.

In trying to construct a reader based theory of inspiration he begins with a problem that he believes faces all human beings, namely the existential problem of ambiguity and finitude. He realizes that the way these problems play out in human beings is in their search for meaning. However being finite creatures human beings are not naturally in possession of the resources that would give his or her life meaning, thus the human being is  compelled to look beyond his or herself for the source of existential unity.[5] However this problem presents the human being with another problem, namely that human beings cannot deal directly with Transcendence.[6]  So how can human beings overcome this problem, and come to know Transcendence? Law believes that the key is in a concept he calls “ciphers.” Ciphers have two functions: 1- they create or provide an avenue to Transcendence and 2- they shed light on human existence and thereby facilitate the human being’s journey towards authentic existence. So for Law the Bible is inspired because it provides the human being with ciphers of Transcendence.[7] Ciphers in the Bible would include the concept of God and Incarnation. So the biblical ciphers shed light on human existence and point us towards Transcendence[8] However we must remember that God, being Transcendent cannot be the source of these ciphers. Law articulates this claim by saying that “God is not directly involved in the production of the biblical texts, however, but God is the reality to which the authors of the text respond. The texts are the result of the author’s relation to Transcendence. There is no special commission to write.”[9]

So for Law to say that the Bible is the word of God is actually to say that the Bible contains ciphers which point us towards Transcendence. In other words to say that the Bible is the word of God is to say that the Bible contains words, concepts, or ciphers about God. Thus Law takes “the word of God” in the objective genitive sense.

[1] David Law, Inspiration (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001), 36-7.

[2] Law, Inspiration, 45

[3] Law, Inspiration, 46.

[4] Law, Inspiration, 143.

[5] Law, Inspiration, 163.

[6] Law, Inspiration, 168.

[7] Law, Inspiration, 178.

[8] Law, Inspiration, 191.

[9] Law, Inspiration, 194.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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