The Word of the Lord?

I note that Jack Spong is on a rant recently about our liturgical custom of concluding reading from scripture with “The Word of the Lord.” And the expected response: “Thanks be to God.” The precipitating event was attending his local parish church several weeks ago when the First Reading was the story of the prophet Nathan condemining David for his sins (2 Samuel 12).

The story is great. But the concluding line? “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”

“The Word of the Lord!” “Thanks be to God!”

I must say I have some sympathy with Jack’s position on this. I have no difficulty declaring that I believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God. In fact, I have declared that publicly at least four times — once at each ordination and once by voting for a General Convention resolution attesting to the same.

But that is different from saying that every verse, story, and chapter of the Bible is “the Word of the Lord.” The Bible itself contains progressive revelation and is, in some sense, self-correcting within its very pages.

Perhaps you have shared with me the same experience of having to stifle a smile or some embarrassment by loudly proclaiming “Thanks be to God” after the reading of some lesson in which thousands are slaughtered or babies killed by God.

I think there is a solution to this. Rather than selectively deciding which passage of scripture should be designated as “The Word of the Lord” (a very dangerous undertaking!) perhaps we should just retire the use of such a concluding statement altogether. “Here ends the Reading (Epistle)” is rubrically permitted. As is, I might add, simply letting the reading trail off into silent reflection since the rubrics are permissive (“After each Reading, the Reader MAY say…”)   

Silence is often the best response to the readings. Lectio divina can also include “arguing with” scripture in good Hebrew fashion as well as letting it convict, convert, and save us. Let us not be afraid to wrestle with scripture even as Jacob wrestled with the angel!

Thanks be to God! 

17 Responses to “The Word of the Lord?”

  1. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    i dislike “here ends the reading” but for a different reason than perhaps the usual. the western liturgical history has ended readings with “thanks be to God” for a very long time, and it’s this that i don’t want to lose.

    “the word of the Lord” was an RC invention in the 60s, with the realization that when you want the whole congregation to say the response to the reading, some recognizable tag must be given to prompt “thanks be to God.” the episcopal church, desiring to re-enter the western liturgical tradition in the 70s, borrowed the whole thing.

    i would not object to a different prompt (“here what the spirit is saying to the churches” is popular, but a little wordy to my ear), because the important thing is the thanksgiving. to me, at least.

    but i’m not angling for any change, really. surely these things are teaching moments. if we affirm that this is the Word of the Lord, then how do we deal with Words which are ugly, jangling, or even offensive? a view in which one avoids saying “the word of the Lord” in response to ugly, jangling, or offensive words, simply because they are ugly, jangling, or offensive, is untenable to me. Jeremiah’s words were ugly, jangling and offensive, and they were the word of the Lord.

  2. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    oh, and what is ugly, jangling, and offensive to one hearer may well be life-giving and truly the Word of God to that person in that moment. what most jangles me about things like Jack Spong’s current rant is his casual and easy assumption that his reaction is simply the only plausible one out there. the liturgy (including the readings) means more than any one hearer or community can perceive.

  3. ecubishop Says:

    I’m not talking about “ugly, jangling, or offensive words.” I am talking about uncritically “elevating” a story or even historical record to the status of God’s Word, God’s self revelation, even to “what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.

    (But I do agree that Jack Spong does often assume that “his reaction is simply the only plausible one out there” — and pray that my comments may never give that impression!)

  4. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    i’m not sure i understand what it means to say that the Scriptures are the word of God, but that the individual parts of it are not. i guess i can see ways of cashing that out which are problematic and ways which are not; but the ways which are not problematic would also sanction the use of the liturgical acclamation.

    if the objection is not to the ugly, jangling, or offensive words, then i don’t understand why the details of 2 Samuel 12 are relevant to the issue. is your concern one which applies equally to 1 Corinthians 13 or Matthew 5?

  5. ecubishop Says:

    The issue for me is that I do not believe the God I know through Jesus Christ kills babies to punish their parents…

  6. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    sure, me neither. that’s what i mean by saying that the reading jangles (at least).

    so we have some hermeneutic in which we affirm that this is the word of the Lord, but we don’t understand it to mean that God kills babies to punish their parents. there are many such hermeneutics to choose from.

    so when I say “the Word of the Lord”, I mean that this reading (too) is the Word of the Lord–that it has within it the potency to be God’s Speech, to be a communication from God to human beings as a confrontation, or a liberation, or a transformation, or something else. it is, at least, as Barth put it, the dry channel through which a roaring flood once poured.

    if you have a different hermeneutic which affirms that it is (as part of the Scriptures, after all) the Word of the Lord, but still which doesn’t imply that God kills babies to punish their parents, that’s fine too. there are many to choose from, and we don’t even need to pick once for all.

    but having gotten that hermeneutic in mind, i see no further problem saying “the Word of the Lord’, except that it is perhaps misleading to some.

    that’s why i said it’s a teaching moment. the scriptures say shocking things; what shocked our parents is not what shocks us, but there are still shocking things.

    see, i think that Spong really does not have a hermeneutic in which the Scriptures are the Word of the Lord.

  7. ecubishop Says:

    I think we are in basic agreement here. I’m not going to lead a major effort to effect this particular liturgical change. “Misleading” is what it is — but perhaps more destructive than that (for example, to a couple sitting in the pew who just miscarried).

    And, you have more faith than I that our clergy will take advantage of such “teachable moments.” I’ve sat through too many sermons.

  8. old_and_grey_headed Says:

    And what do you make of the (rubrical) fact that the reading of the gospel
    MUST be followed by ‘The Gospel of the Lord’. There ARE some jangling
    bits of the Gospel (the cursing of the fig tree comes to mind).

  9. ecubishop Says:

    Most of the “jangling bits” in the gospels really do lend themselves — and even demand — homiletic interpretation. Not so, always, the first or second readings. But…I get your point…

  10. Fr.Tony Clavier Says:

    Surely “The Word of the Lord” refers to Holy Writ and is not a comment on a particular passage? +Jack Spong is being his usual “inverted fundamentalist” self, God bless him.

  11. ecubishop Says:

    Well, as I said, I believe (and I do!) the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God does indeed refer to “Holy Writ.” But, when announced after a specific reading (with an alternative being “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’) I have to believe it is indeed referring to a particular passage. But…I’m done with this now. Don’t want to be accused of being on my own rant!! Thanks for the conversation…

  12. rwkachur Says:


    I was graciously at my sister’s wedding and away from the clash of beliefs in TEC for a week. As I consider this issue, I would add the question is hermeneutical. Do you consider Scripture as “individual bits” or a “continuous whole”? My understanding/hermeneutic is that all of Scripture is the story of God’s redemption of his rebellious creation. When considering the off-spring of David and Bathsheba we need to step back and see the forest and stop fixating on the tree. Would God have been “justified” in “smiting” David? What about Uriah, why should he have died? Couldn’t God have stopped that? It would also be like arguing that God killed Ruth and Naomi’s husbands so He could use her to bring about the lineage of Jesus. God procedes forward in mercy despite us.

    This all brings me back to the cross. In the death and resurrection of Jesus we have a reconciliation of God’s creation to Himself. The ultimate “injustice” is the crucifixion of Christ and yet it is the ultimate example of God’s mercy. God says to Moses,”I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” This is a difficult saying on its own. At Calvary God said He would have mercy on us all.

  13. Bro Mark Says:

    hear the prophet

  14. dan Says:

    Careful. Sounds like Marcionism to me.

  15. Dennis Lovin Says:

    Can you tell me where in liturgical/cultural history the phrase “This is the Word of the Lord” and response “Thanks be to God” was introduced? Was this pre- or post-Protestant Reformation?

    Thanks for your help on this!

  16. Lyle Rozeboom Says:

    I prefer to say “The Word of the Lord” rather than “This is the Word of the Lord” to indicate that God’s Word is more than the particular verses just read. Those verses are not the only or the final Word of the Lord. Translations change and the meaning of words change with time. But even more important, the Word became flesh in Jesus.

  17. day after black friday Says:

    day after black friday…

    […]The Word of the Lord? « That We All May Be One[…]…

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