“The Word of God” is a common expression for revelation. In biblical tradition, the term is first applied to prophecy and later comes to describe the Law as communication from God; in the New Testament, it is used for scripture and also for the gospel and the person of Jesus Christ. In Christian tradition, the expression occurs in a loose, popular sense that implies the inspiration of the Bible, and in a stricter way, particularly in modern Protestant hermeneutics (see below).

In preexilic Israel, the phrase “the word of Yahweh” denotes the source of prophetic inspiration, not necessarily its character as verbal or rational. The word may be received in visionary form by a prophet whose own mental processes are temporarily suspended (Num. 24.4). In the exilic prophets and exilic redaction of earlier traditions, however, the transcendence of the divine self‐disclosure comes into sharper focus. Thus, Jeremiah can speak of his struggle with God's word (Jer. 20.8–9), and Second Isaiah contrasts its effective purpose with the transience of human nature (Isa. 40.8). While for Jeremiah the prophetic word and the Law remain distinct (Jer. 18.8), in Deuteronomy they are brought into closer conjunction (Deut. 30.14). In the postexilic period, the word of God becomes an overarching concept comprising revelation through abidingly valid legal commandments, through prophetic interpretation of historical experience, and through creation (Ps. 147.15). The latter two understandings are especially prominent in apocalyptic literature and in Hellenistic Judaism, respectively.

In the New Testament, the word of God, along with equivalents like “God says,” “it was spoken,” and so on, is used in connection with biblical quotations (e.g., John 10.35; Rom. 15.10, and Mark 7.13, where the phrase implies the idea that written law is superior to the oral tradition of the scribes). Echoing prophetic language, in the prologue to Luke's gospel, the motif of a new era of active prophecy is evoked by the coming of the word of God to Simeon and John the Baptist (Luke 2.29; 3.2). Moreover, the word of God, or variants such as “the word of the Lord” or “the Word,” is applied especially in Luke‐Acts (but frequently elsewhere as well) to the gospel message of salvation through Jesus (Mark 4.14, cf. Luke 8.11; Acts 4.31; 8.25; 11.19; 1 Thess. 1.6; 1 Cor. 14.36; 1 Tim. 1.15). Because of this it is occasionally difficult to decide whether the word refers to Jewish scripture or to the gospel (e.g., Heb. 4.12; Eph. 6.17). The word in the sense of the gospel message is closely paralleled with the person of Christ as the content of preaching (Rom. 10.8, 1 Cor. 1.23). It is therefore but a small step to identify Jesus himself as the divine Word or Logos incarnate (John 1.14; cf. Rev. 19.9).

Throughout postbiblical tradition, the word of God is regularly found as a pious periphrasis for the Bible. At the Reformation, however, the phrase acquired a new, controversial emphasis, and often carries the implication of the supremacy of scripture over both tradition and the sacraments in the theology and practice of the church. Whereas Luther, following Augustine, still maintained a distinction between the transcendent Word of God and the biblical text, holding the preaching of the gospel to be its essential mediation, other reformers tended to identify the two more closely and saw revelation as conveyed inwardly to the individual through the text itself. As a result, in the following centuries, the word of God came to be understood in terms of a propositional view of revelation and the verbal inspiration of scripture. In the twentieth century, this understanding was challenged by dialectical theology, which is sometimes known as “the Theology of the Word of God,” associated especially with Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. They emphasized the contrast between God's Word as sovereign address and human response to it in faith. While Barth attempted a complex system of interrelation between the Word of God in three senses, Jesus Christ, the witness of scripture, and preaching, Bultmann's existentialist philosophy led him to stress preaching as the occasion for actualizing the divine word. Recent developments have tended in different directions, emphasizing variously the historical and eschatological or the linguistic and symbolic aspects of revelation, so that it is no longer possible to speak of a coherent concept of the word of God in Protestant thought.

John Muddiman