I grew up doing sword drills. The Sunday school teacher or youth group leader would yell out a passage, chapter and verse, and we would scramble to find it first. It was important to the churches I grew up in and the evangelical subculture I was raised in that we were “Bible people.”
Years later, when I began a doctoral program in political theology, I joined a church in a different tradition than the one I’d grown up in. My new church was still fairly “low church” in many ways—no smells or bells or vestments and a plain church building. But in this context, I encountered sword drills of another sort in the form of liturgy—words meant to engrain God’s Word in our hearts.
After the reading of Scripture, the pastor says, “This is the Word of the Lord,” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” In those two short phrases, I have found a rich theology of Scripture that directly addresses our anxieties about how to use the Bible in a theologically and politically fraught world.
As theologian Brad East writes in his book The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context, the liturgical designation of a text as “the word of the Lord” alerts the gathered community that what they hear is “for them the living speech of God.”
This miracle of human and divine words is possible because God delights in using humans for redemptive purposes beyond themselves. While people are “like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field,” as 1 Peter 1:24–25 says, “the word of the Lord endures forever.”
Our familiarity with this miracle might conceal how incredible it is. While the books of the Bible were written “by human hands” as theologian J. Todd Billings describes it, “the church’s affirmation of the Bible as the word of God is not a simple case of transferring authorship from a creature to the Creator.”
Instead, we say together as the community of faith that Scripture’s primary author is God, who chose to use humans for his greater purposes of communicating to his people. “This is the word of the Lord” does not merely communicate a recognition of the value or truthfulness of Scripture; it roots that value and truthfulness in God’s decision to communicate and create a community.
When we respond to the reading of Scripture with “Thanks be to God,” we aren’t merely agreeing with the designation of the words read as the “word of the Lord.” We are echoing 2 Corinthians 9:15: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
In a way that the best rhythms, liturgies, or spiritual disciplines can work, this regular language has grown in me an instinctive posture of thankfulness. Even when the passage is confusing, sounds strange, or seems contradictory, this one little practice has made it natural for me to respond “Thanks be to God” when Scripture is read.
If this sounds too passive, it’s probably because we’ve grown accustomed (especially in American evangelicalism) of seeing in Scripture a repository of helpfully transcendent language, symbols, and stories tinged with divine authority, that we can wield at will. We see people—pastors and politicians alike—use the Bible like a weapon that they have total control over.
Facebook posts and church potluck conversations give us plenty of examples too: of people using Bible verses to justify themselves, support their political parties, or harm others with supposed divine authority. The Bible has been so deeply abused, we might be tempted to forgo biblical authority altogether.
But the simple practice of expressing our gratitude to God for His Word reminds us that the Bible is not a static artifact that we stand over—whether with a personal or political agenda—but a word of authority that stands over us.
Biblical scholar Ellen Davis says much of our reading of the Bible is done merely to confirm our presuppositions, and that is sinful. “It is an act of resistance against God’s fresh speaking to us,” she writes,” an effective denial that the Bible is the word of the living God.”
“This is the word of the Lord” reminds us of whose word it really is—and of the sovereignty of the God who graciously reveals himself to his people.
We have always been prone to “battle over the Bible”—sometimes because of important and worthy questions of interpretation, but often because we want to claim the mantle of divine authority for ourselves.
Our doctrine of Scripture, rehearsed in these two short sentences, reminds us that God has always used fallen and finite people for his greater purposes. Our response should be not to wield his words like a weapon but to give him praise for this gift. Thanks be to God!
Kaitlyn Schiess is a doctoral student in political theology at Duke Divinity School and the author of The Ballot and the Bible(forthcoming from Brazos Press, August 2023) and The Liturgy of Politics(IVP 2020).