Weighing the Worth of the Written Word

By Jeff Laird

Human beings learn through many different methods, but some things are best learned, or can only be learned, through one particular method. Among the most powerful learning schemes is reading. Written words are by far the most effective way to communicate higher, more sophisticated concepts. This is partly because reading requires active participation. A person who reads is purposefully acting in order to understand what's being read. A person can passively listen, or watch, but one can't read unless they are doing so deliberately.

Written words are also important because they represent an objective, inherently stable record. Spoken words last only as long as they are heard or remembered, and are greatly influenced by things like inflection and tone. There's really nothing to compare them to, should one believe they aren't being accurately repeated. This is why a verbal contract is said to be "worth less than the paper it's written on." Text can be re-read over and over without changing, and what's on the physical page is not dependent on the person who is reading. It can be copied many times over, and each copy can be an exact duplicate of the original.

For these reasons, God has placed great importance on the written scriptures. When Moses received the Ten Commandments, they were carved on stone tablets (Exodus 31:18, Exodus 34:1). Jesus repeatedly referenced the written word of God during His temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11), and in His earthly ministry (Matthew 12:5, Matthew 21:13, Matthew 26:31, Mark 7:6, Mark 12:10). Jesus also noted that those who would not accept the written words of God were unlikely to accept a miracle (Luke 16:31), and those who did not understand the written scriptures were prone to spiritual error (Matthew 22:29). Paul warned believers not to go beyond the objective standards of the written word (1 Corinthians 4:6), and said all of God's scriptures were valuable for learning (2 Timothy 3:15-16).

It's significant that these references are not about ideas, or teachings, or dogmas, but specifically refer to the "written" words. The concrete, fixed, objective text. Christian faith isn't grounded in the whims of the latest guru, or the pronouncements of the priesthood, or our fickle preferences, or traditions, but in the unchanging statements of the Bible. Our interpretations may change, for better or worse, but His word cannot, because God has preserved it in a concrete form.

Of course, God speaks to us in many ways other than manuscripts (Psalm 19:1, Hebrews 8:10, John 14:16-17). Those communications are both important and essential. But God chose to carve certain ideas out — literally, at times — in order to give us a solid, unchanging foundation for our beliefs. He framed those ideas in the form best suited to the workings of the human mind. He provided us with something objective against which to judge our feelings, experiences, gurus, priests, preferences, and traditions.

At the same time, it's vital to recognize our relationship with God as more than mere knowledge (James 2:19). Reading and writing are powerful tools for better understanding creation. But our spiritual life is ultimately grounded in submissive, repentant trust in Christ, not intellectual sophistication, or broad reading (Matthew 18:2-4). The Gospel is an inherently simple message, accessible to all people, even those who have never read, and may not even be able to read, a single word of scripture. Our commission is to evangelize and create disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), not to print a large number of Bibles.

The Bible says that wisdom and understanding are extremely valuable (Job 28:18, Proverbs 8:11), so we can't sneer at academics, or scholarly study, or ignore our intellect. A "simplistic" faith, which purposefully rejects higher thinking, is neither wise, nor Biblical (1 Corinthians 13:11, Proverbs 10:14, Proverbs 15:14). A "simple" faith, which leads us to diligently study God's Word in a spirit of humility and truth (Proverbs 18:15, John 4:23-24), is both. Reading is valuable to our spiritual development, and necessary for deeper understanding. Those who can read, should (2 Timothy 2:15, Hebrews 5:11-14). Important and powerful though it may be, reading has never been necessary for salvation, or to have a legitimate relationship with Christ.

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TagsChristian-Life  |  History-Apologetics

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Published 1-21-14