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The Canon – Part 10: Is the Bible ‚the Holy Scripture’ or ‘the Word of God’?

By Christian

In the last part of this series I had said that with terms like ‘the Holy Scriptures’ or ‘the Word of God’ some assumptions and ideas are unconsciously linked. At the very least, we should be clear about exactly what we mean by the terms ‘God’s Word’ and ‘the Holy Scriptures’ when we use them. And most importantly, are these terms even used in the Bible itself? Let’s look at that, much like I did in the article and video: Should we (let ourselves) be called Christians or anointed ones? or Should we (let ourselves) be called brothers of Christ.?

‚The Holy Scripture‘

Let’s start with the fact that the Bible is often called ‘the Holy Scripture’ in German – and to some extend in English. If you search for ‘holy scripture’ in some German Bible translations, e.g. in the ERF Bibleserver (in German), you will find – nothing! This is not quite true. I found one passage in a translation which also shows the reason why we do not find this in the text of the Bible:

The Jews in Berea were not as prejudiced as those in Thessalonica. They responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ with great readiness, and they studied the Holy Scripture daily to see if what Paul taught was in accord with what the Scriptures said.

Acts 17:11 Neue Genfer Übersetzung.

Now these, who were more noble than those in Thessalonica, received the word with all readiness, on every day examining the Scriptures, whether these things were so.

Acts 17:11 Berean Literal Bible
Acts 17:11 Interlinear Greek

In the Greek here namely γραφὰς (graphas) noun, accusative, feminine, plural (Strong’s) is written. Strictly speaking, the Greek text even says only ‘the writings’ – already the word ‘holy’ is added. Interestingly, all the English translations on biblehub.com render this as ‚Scriptures’. I also examined the few other passages where it is translated ‘holy scriptures’. In fact, it is only twice in the Greek text:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God — the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures (γραφαῖς ἁγίαις, graphais hagiais)
Paulus, Knecht Christi Jesu, berufener Apostel, ausgesondert für das Evangelium Gottes, das er durch seine Propheten in heiligen Schriften vorher verheißen hat.

Romans 1:1,2 NIV

and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures (ἱερὰ γράμματα, hiera grammata), which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture (γραφὴ, graphē) is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …

2 Timothy 3:15, 16 NIV

And immediately something stands out, which I had already analyzed in detail in parts 2 and 8: With ‚Holy Scriptures’ here quite clearly the old testament, the Tanakh is meant.

Incidentally, the word γράμμα gramma used in 2 Timothy 3:15 is used only 15 times in the New Testament and always describes something written, usually a letter. Strong’s states, “From grapho; a writing, i.e. A letter, note, epistle, book, etc. plural learning.” Here it is in the plural: writings. Whereas in verse 16 the word γραφή graphé (without the suffix ‚holy’) is used, which is used 51 times. Strong’s states, “(a) a writing, (b) a passage of scripture; plur: the scriptures. A document, i.e. Holy Writ.” By the end of the explanation, we already see how it moves from explaining the language to interpreting it. Incidentally, if one calls Strong’s Greek 1124 directly on biblehub.com, the part “A document, i.e. Holy Writ.” is missing.

Instead of an explanation, you can find even more interpretation. For example, in HELPS Word-studies:

The addition “, i.e. the inspired, inerrant writings of the Bible (the 66 books of Scripture, 39 in Hebrew, 27 in Greek)” has nothing to do with the Greek word used in the Vers. And in the previous part 9 of this series we talked at length about inspiration and also the claim of infallibility of the text. And in part 8 we talked about the origin of the canon of the New Testament and how many books the Bibles of different branches of Christianity have. Why the important second part is only in brackets is not explained. Whereas the reference is important that in the New Testament γραφή graphé is always used for the Old Testament.

Let’s compare this with the NAS Exhaustive Concordance. And let’s take into account that its name contains ‘exhaustive’:

The whole ‚exhaustive’ explanation is: ‘a writing’. More detailed explanations are often found in Thayer’s Greek Lexicon:

Here one finds the main meanings grouped together and also immediately with their use in the text. These explanations are given: “(a) a writing, thing written (from Sophocles down): πᾶσα γραφή every scripture namely, of the O. T., (b) ἡ γραφή, the Scripture κατ’ ἐξοχήν, the holy scripture (of the O. T.) — and used to denote either the book itself, or its contents (some would restrict the singular γραφή always to a particular passage; see Lightfoot on Galatians 3:22) (c) a certain portion or section of holy Scripture.” I found it interesting here how it moves from “every scripture namely, of the O. T” to “the Scripture” and then to “the holy scripture (of the O. T.)” without further justification. But at least the Old Testament is correctly spoken of.

But let’s take a look at the usage itself. The use of this word γραφή graphé is diverse. And sometimes surprising.

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Romans 9:17 ESV

This is really what the Greek text says. How could ‘the Scripture’ speak to Pharaoh? Some translations solve this creatively-interpretatively: „For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, … :“ (NIV), „For he said in the Scriptures to Pharaoh,“ (Aramaic Bible in Plain English) and „In the Scriptures the Lord says to the king of Egypt,“ (Contemporary English Version).

We note:

Nowhere in the Bible does it say ‘the holy scripture’, but only twice in the New Testament does it say ‘the holy scriptures’ and that clearly refers to the Old Testament.

Otherwise, the New Testament speaks only of the ‚Scripture’ or the ‘Scriptures’ and means the Old Testament.

Is this splitting hairs now? I don’t want to make a dogma out of it, but under the surface lies an important question: Is the Bible an authoritative collection of writings, or a collection of authoritative writings? What is meant by this? To put it casually: Did either identify writings as holy and were they then collected? That’s how it was originally with the Old Testament. Or is there a holy collection – the canon – whereby the writings included in it also thereby become holy? If we now recall what we learned in a previous part about the canon of the New Testament, we may better understand why this is important. If the canon, which was not established by the Church until the fourth century, is authoritative, then this decision of the Church has a very different significance. This is exactly how the Catholic Church sees it:

“Apostolic succession is the proof that authority belongs to the Catholic Church alone. She alone is steward and guardian over the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Whoever breaks with Her breaks with the Holy Spirit.”


“The Roman Catholic Church is the one true Church of Christ, Pius XI declares; she is the divinely appointed guardian of revealed truth, which must not be dragged down to the bottom of discussions.”

(Enzyklika Mortalium Animos)

However, the New Testament does not make this statement! And Protestants will contradict it also vehemently. Just as the first quotation is actually about the fact that the Catholic side resolutely contradicts the ‘sola scriptura’ (only the Scripture).

Is it really necessary to burden the scriptures that have been handed down and preserved for us with so many absolute claims that cannot be upheld historically and on the basis of the facts? Must one insist on verbal inspiration, even though that makes no sense (see Part 9 of this series)? Or that the Catholic Church alone is the guardian? Are the scriptures perhaps just a gift from God to help us gain wisdom and live as He wills? This is something that everyone must evaluate for themselves. But maybe I should not just say something like that here. If you publish such a thought as a professor, it can cost you your job at a theological seminary that puts its own tradition above the object of tradition – the scriptures (see, for example, the article about Peter Enns).

If the Bible is for us ‘the [infallible] Holy Scripture’, then we will naturally struggle to accept that it demonstrably contains human aspects, has been revised, and some things have been altered or lost in copying or translation.

This is what I meant at the beginning, that with a term like ‘the Holy Scripture’ we may associate rather far-reaching, unspoken assumptions. And we automatically activate these with the use of the term in mind when we read or think about the Bible.

God’s Word / Word of God

You already suspect it. With the term ‘the Word of God’ it will not turn out differently. Is that a good description for ‘the Scriptures’? If everything is ‘the Word of God’ for us, we expect a certain perfection of the text, don’t we? Is this term even used in the scriptures to refer to ‘the Bible’?

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem was multiplied exceedingly, and a great multitude of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith..

Acts 6:7 Berean Literal Bible

Good. This hardly means ‘the Bible’. Neither it spreads nor there was even one letter of the New Testament written at that time.

For the word of God is living and active

Hebrew 4:12 Berean Literal Bible

That doesn’t sound like ‘the Bible’ either. But gives us a much better, more comprehensive meaning.

And many were gathered together, so as to have no more space, not even at the door. And He was speaking the word to them.

Mark 2:2 Berean Literal Bible

‘The Word’ certainly did not refer to the Bible or the New Testament, which did not even exist yet.

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and every expression of evil, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save your souls.

James 1:21 Berean Literal Bible

 And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,

Ephesians 6:17 Berean Literal Bible

The sword is taken in hand here in the sentence, not the Bible. In fact, a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as I recall, felt called on the basis of this text to lash out with texts taken from the Bible as if with a sword. And I can also remember how many a speaker waved his printed Bible around at this text. But back to the text.

For this is concealed from them willingly, that heavens existed long ago and the earth, having been composed out of water and through water, by the word of God, through which the world at that time perished, having been deluged with water.

2 Peter 3:5,6 Berean Literal Bible

Here, too, there is obviously no mention of ‘the Bible’ as the Word of God. But what then? Perhaps the text is to be understood as this translation renders it: „and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.“ (ESV)

And isn’t even Jesus sometimes referred to as ‘the Word of God’? Because of this text, for example:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld His glory, a glory as of an only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1, 14 Berean Literal Bible

Let me summarize it this way:

The Bible is not God’s word, but the Bible contains God’s words.

This is a very important difference. It keeps the Bible valuable, even if it’s not as perfect as we might like it to be. When I wrote that down, I thought I had found a nice pithy phrase. But in an email about this series, someone wrote me, “In the 1980s, a brother once told me, “The Bible is not God’s Word, it contains God’s Word!” I was hardly the first. But when several come up with the same thought, it is worth examining more closely.

These are truly the words of God:

The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”

Exodus 24:12 ESV

What about this?

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if …

1 Corinthians 7:12 NASB

When Paul says something, are they exactly God’s words? Well, if he writes it in a letter, which is then in the New Testament … We had already addressed that in the last part about inspiration. And would you say that every word of the Lord – clearly Jesus is meant here – were directly inspired by God. Everything he said and then was written down in the Gospels? So the gospels that we know and which are part of the New Testament?

Returning to the words of God, what about this?

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ”

Matthew 4:5,6 NIV

What the devil says is not from God, is it? So the first part of the verse are not God’s words. Then it gets complicated. The devil is quoting … ‘God’s word’? That’s right. Even the devil can quote ‘God’s word’. But his words are not God’s words, are they?

Ok. I’m certainly not trying to make a dogma or a rule here either. It’s again about a deeper problem with the term ‘Word of God’: it pretty much implies verbal inspiration: no word in the Bible is formed or shaped by humans. But this is not correct, as we saw in the ‘inspiration‘ part of tis series. Even to call the autographs themselves – let alone a translation – ‘the Word of God’ or ‘The Holy Scriptures’ is then going quite far.

Perhaps we are also sometimes too fixated on a ‘Holy Book’. We hope for a written, perfect guide for life and faith. But who had that? For Abraham, this ‘Word of God’ was enough:

Yahweh said to Abram, after Lot was separated from him, “Now, lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, …

Genesis 13:14 World English Bible

Today, God no longer speaks directly to us – at least not to me. Therefore, I am grateful for what I have.

And with that, I delete for myself what does not correspond to the facts but also what creates a false expectation:

“The Bible is the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, fully inspired by God (dictated word for word) and thus contains exactly what God intended. It has been preserved for us to this day exactly as the Bible itself says so, every book, paragraph, sentence, word, comma and period.

It remains: The Bible is. Or better, as I find: the Scriptures are. And precisely because I try not to have unrealistic expectations of the scriptures, I find words of God and wisdom in them and it contributes to a stable foundation of my faith:

The Scriptures – the Bible –, whose utlimative source is God, contain what we need. Enough has been preserved to this day for us to know God and live in wisdom as He desires.

And what do we need, what does God expect from us?

He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? 

Micha 6:8 World English Bible

And with that we are … far from the end of this series! 😀

For example, I have spoken of ‘the Bible’ an incredible number of times. Just a moment ago. Yet we have not even examined the meaning of this term. The German word Bibel comes from the ancient Greek βιβλία biblia with the meaning: ‘books’. The explanation in Wikipedia is quite revealing:

The Bible (from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία, tà biblía, ‘the books’)

The English word Bible is derived from Koinē Greek: τὰ βιβλία, romanized: ta biblia, meaning “the books” (singular βιβλίον, biblion). The word βιβλίον itself had the literal meaning of “scroll” and came to be used as the ordinary word for “book”. It is the diminutive of βύβλος byblos, “Egyptian papyrus”, possibly so called from the name of the Phoenician sea port Byblos (also known as Gebal) from whence Egyptian papyrus was exported to Greece.

The Greek ta biblia (“the books”) was “an expression Hellenistic Jews used to describe their sacred books”. The biblical scholar F. F. Bruce notes that John Chrysostom appears to be the first writer (in his Homilies on Matthew, delivered between 386 and 388 CE) to use the Greek phrase ta biblia (“the books”) to describe both the Old and New Testaments together.

Latin biblia sacra “holy books” translates Greek τὰ βιβλία τὰ ἅγια (tà biblía tà hágia, “the holy books”). Medieval Latin biblia is short for biblia sacra “holy book”. It gradually came to be regarded as a feminine singular noun (biblia, gen. bibliae) in medieval Latin, and so the word was loaned as singular into the vernaculars of Western Europe.

Wikipedia Bible

So ‘the Bible’ is perhaps the best term we can use.

In part 11 we will then deal with this topic: One Gospel – but many Gospels?

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