The Word of God Incarnate and the Written Word

John ArmstrongBiblical Theology, Christ/Christology, The Church

Some years ago I was working on a theme for one of our quarterly journals. As some of you know we published a quarterly journal of 200-plus pages for nearly fifteen years. In some ways this was how my present ministry began. While still a pastor I began this journal, which was itself the overflow of my work over the course of a decade among pastors in the west suburban area of metro Chicago. That fellowship, called the Whitefield Ministerial Fellowship, attracted pastors and lay leaders from many churches and over time this led to my being commissioned to serve the church at large, here in Chicago and as far as the Lord would (and did) take me. I thus left the active pastorate in May of 1992.

When I was working on the theme "The Word of God" I realized how my own thinking had been so impacted by a kind of evangelicalism that was very unbalanced, even unhealthy. When I laid out the articles and authors for this theme I soon realized that when I thought of the subject "The Word of God" my mind automatically went to the subject of Holy Scripture. This was a mental process but it revealed to me,  in one of those ah-ha moments we all know about, that I was imprisoned in a kind of theological box. Frankly, the first thing that should have come to my mind, as many of you would have known far better than I did then, was "The Son of God." I quickly tried to make some mid-course corrections in my planning for the journal but the balance of the articles ended up being about the written Scriptures.

I learned something from this experience. I still value the written word very highly. Indeed, I believe it is "a gift divine" and a "chart and compass . . . that still guides, O Christ, to you." But the greater wisdom is not found by knowing the Scriptures but rather in the Word of God incarnate, the one to whom all Scriptures point us and the one revealed on the pages of the sacred Scripture. I genuinely believe many evangelicals, with their great emphasis upon Bible study and expository preaching, miss this point and the results are often tragic. We argue about the Bible and all too often we miss Jesus.

This story came back to me in my daily worship this week because I sang the song "O Word of God Incarnate" in my little worship chapel in my back yard. This hymn text, written in 1867 by William W. How, expresses my own faith well,. It puts that faith into song and worship which makes this theology live in a very powerful way, as all theology should live in our minds and hearts. How wrote:


O Word of God incarnate, O Wisdom from on high,

O Truth unchanged, unchanging, O Light of our dark sky:

We praise you for the radiance that from the Scripture's page,

A lantern to our foot-steps, shines on from age to age.


The church from you, dear Master, received the gift divine;

and still that light is lifted o'er all the earth to shine.

It is the chart and compass that all life's voyage through,

Mid mists and rocks and quick-sands, still guides, O Christ, to you.


O make your church, dear Savior, a lamp of burnished gold

to bear before the nations your true light as of old.

O teach your traveling pilgrims by this their path to trace

till, clouds and darkness ended, we see you face to face.


Look at these words several times. I think every Christian could/should confess these words with joy. These are not specifically Protestant words or Catholic words. They are deeply thoughtful Christian words, words of confession and personal faith. They are words of deep hope and affirmation. Verse two says that the church received the gift divine. We argue about how this happened (canonicity) but we can all agree that the church received this gift from Christ by the Spirit. We can also agree that by these Scriptures we have a compass and a chart to lead us, to guide us, until we see the Word of God himself. We clearly interpret it differently but in the end we can all come here and seek the living Christ through the pages of Holy Writ. Why? These words lead us to Christ, "mid mists and rocks and quick-sands."

But notice that William How asks God in a final prayer to make the church a "lamp of burnished gold." There is a deep love of the church here, not just a love for the Bible alone. And the prayer of the last sentence asks that we pilgrims see Christ, our lovely redeemer, "face to face." Who cannot hope for such an end if they truly love the Word of God incarnate and the Word of God we find in the Holy Scriptures, written words which point us to Christ as a lamp in this dark world.