Oh, My Word, Part 2: A Few Thoughts on Word-ology

God the Father inscribed the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. God the Son wrote in the dirt while preparing to respond to a thorny question about law and grace. God the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles, prophets, and evangelists to write sacred Scripture. Indeed, each member of the Holy Trinity revealed divine truth to human beings using human language, the currency of which is words. Moreover, heaven’s ultimate revelation, Jesus Christ, is called ὁ λόγος, “the Word” (John 1:1). 

In his book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books, Tony Reinke notes how Christianity is a Word-centered faith, which stands in sharp contrast to ancient Near Eastern religions—faith systems that typically focused on visual representations of the deities through idols.[1] Contrary to these image-based religions, he argues, Christians are a people of books, texts, and words, a reality that has deep implications for not only what we learn about God and his world but also how we learn it: 

“Words are a more precise way of communicating the meaning behind the images of our world. . . . What is real extends far deeper than what we can see. Our holy God is real. . . . Our Savior is real. Heaven is real. Angels are real. But for now these realities are invisible.”[2] The author of Hebrews might agree with Reinke, at least to a point (cf. 11:1-2).

On the other hand, Dr. Leonard Sweet, with whom I teach on a weekly basis, would bristle at the claim. Sweet thinks it’s high time for the church to emphasize images, metaphors, and stories again. Word-centeredness, he contends, is a product of the enlightenment and modernism. The postmodernism era needs a more image-based approach if believers are to be effective in communicating the gospel in our day.[3] He may be on to something. 

In our visually saturated culture today, the church (and the world) might be well served by God’s people recapturing some of the artistic passion we lost in the Reformation period. Ironically, though, Sweet makes his case for this approach while using words, a point even he is happy to concede. In class he once showed a few story-based commercials lacking anything verbal—until the very end when the company tag line appeared on the screen. “The story always ends with words,” he admitted.[4]

Doctoral programs end with words, too—a lot of them—all carefully poured into a document we call the dissertation. They also feature spirited online interactions and residency conversations by students with vastly different backgrounds and viewpoints. We do well, then, to remember Proverbs 18:21a, which says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” The word “tongue” here is a metonymy for “words.” The proverb teaches that words have the power of life and death. 

With our words we can unleash quarrels and traumatize people’s hearts. We can hurt people’s feelings and multiply their insecurities. We can consternate people and plunge them into despair. We can mislead people into danger and thrust them into war. Words have the power to kill. 

On the other hand, with our words we can motivate people toward deeper thinking and loftier accomplishments. We can help heal the damage done to their wounded souls and restore their faith in God. We can share the good news of Jesus Christ and lead them to find peace in a chaotic world. We can talk them up from the emotional pits they’re in and talk them down from the suicidal ledges they’re on. Words have the power to give life. 

While divine words can bring life into existence out of nothing, human words can bring life into existence out of people’s brokenness. It’s a privilege entrusted to every person of faith. How are we doing in this regard?

If an inventory of your words leaves you feeling down, just find someone to whom you can speak life this day. The journey of a thousand conversations begins with the first word. Make it a good one!

Image Credits: catholic.com; iStock.com.


[1] Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 40-42.

[2] Ibid., 45.

[3]Leonard Sweet, “Envisioning the 22nd Century,” classroom lecture notes, CT80—Explorations in Doctoral Reading and Research (Myerstown, PA: Evangelical Seminary, Fall 2018), photocopy.

[4]Ibid.

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