word of god

The Word of God for the People of God

But the word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the word that was preached to you.

1 Peter 1:25

As part of my theological school experience, I was an intern for a small church on the coast of New jersey. Three of us were assigned to three small churches and asked to rotate between them each Sunday. Andrew was one of the three, and he was by far the most radical. During his first Sunday sermon, I visited the church he was preaching at to observe. He used his smartphone when he read from the Bible.

Immediately after the service, many in attendance protested the use of his phone to read the Word of God. They viewed it as inappropriate and a slight against the Bible.

As I listened to the loud voices, I reflected on the history of the Bible and whether was Andrew wrong or if this was a matter of defiled tradition. None of the congregants knew the history of the development of the Bible; they just knew this was different. Trying to soothe those who were angry, I stated, “That the Word of God was for the people of God and that was what was most important.” That didn’t work in calming them down; they just wanted their Bible readings done the way it had always been.

A New and Radical Way

What many don’t know is that Christian writings were created in a new format called a “codex” and is essentially the book format we have today. Many of the first Christian writings, including the New Testament, were created in this new and radical format. The current form or “codex” and was developed in Rome. But prior to this, almost all documents were written on scrolls made out of papyrus. The Bible itself was one of the first documents written using the page format we have today.

By 300 AD, half of the material produced was written in the codex format with the other half using the old scroll papyri. The codex format is considered the most important advance in the development of writing, leading to an easy transition to the printing press and bookbinding.

The codex used parchment paper and was first sealed with wax. Later, as parchment became better quality, waxing the paper was no longer needed. The codex was superior because of its durability, compactness, and ease of reference. Early Christians developed this format, and the first Bible was written in the codex format.

Scrolls were the traditional format, and many objected to the new codex format. But scrolls only lasted fifty years or so because they were written using plant-based materials, like papyrus. To maintain the information on them, it was necessary for scrolls to be rewritten by scribes. It wasn’t uncommon for a scribe to complete a scroll and start rewriting immediately after it was completed, knowing what they had written would fall apart sometime in the future. Many scribes worked on only one document their whole lives.

Needless to say, many began to use the codex format, especially Christians. However, it wasn’t until 600 AD that the codex became the standard format for all writers.

The first version of the New Testament was written by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD and canonized by the councils of Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397 AD). The earliest copy in existence today is in the Vatican library and dates back to the fifth century.

Communicating the Word of God

For many years, the Bible was only written in Latin, and it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation that the Bible was translated into native languages. Martin Luther had Bibles in Germany written in German, and John Wycliffe was the developer of the English Bible. The complete Bible has been translated into 670 different languages.

So what had Andrew done by using his smartphone to deliver his sermon? Was it similar to the conversion from scrolls to the codex or akin to delivering the message in a person’s native tongue? Is it sacrilegious to read from our phones or from print in the codex format?

Personally, I don’t think God cares. I think this debate may rage on for a while, but to me, it’s more about communicating the Word of God for the people of God in whatever format it takes.

Certainly, new technology has improved the storage of information and made it easier to reference. I have the entire English Standard Bible in my phone. I can use it to research passages. It can take me directly to an intended verse. And I can even make notes! The Bible is even a free app we can all get on any smartphone. But what should we do during a church service?

I have seen pastors read from their iPads and phones. In Catholic churches, a well-adorned Bible is used by the priest.

I am not a traditionalist, but I do understand the importance of tradition. For some, tradition is soothing and invites people to listen. Railing against tradition can have the unintended effect of causing some to not listen.

My advice to Andrew was to use the traditional Bible for the flock he tended. But that didn’t mean he shouldn’t privately read the Bible from his phone or in other context use his phone. But his primary goal was to “Deliver the Word of God to the people of God.”

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

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