One result of the Gutenberg printing revolution is that today when Christians hear the phrase, “the Word of God”, a Bible comes to mind. Yet for the vast majority of Christian history to this point, the printed Bible as we now envision it or carry it around, did not exist. Prior to the printing press, what did Christians bring to mind when they heard the phrase, “the Word of God“?
They may have thought about sometime very real, and physical, but it may have been a Who rather than a what. For Christians since the time of St. John’s Gospel have imaged the Word of God as Christ, not as a book. Even God in the Old Testament does not appear to have envisioned a book as the natural way to contain, envision and express His Word. Jeremiah the Prophet gives us this word from the Lord:
“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
God does not see the tablets of stone, let alone papyrus or paper as being the rightful material upon which to record His word. Ultimately, God wishes His word to be embedded deep within each human – written on our hearts; rather than being printed on paper and external to us, God’s word is meant to be recorded within each of us. With God’s revelation written on our hearts, to know the Lord does not even require a printed bible. Rather each of us becomes a living bible with whom all other humans can interact.
St. Maximos the Confessor takes the prophecy of Jeremiah to heart, and says that it is the pure and humble heart upon which God fulfills His prophecy:
“When God comes to dwell in such a heart, He honors it by engraving His own letters on it through the Holy Spirit, just as He did on the Mosaic tablets (cf. Exod. 31:18).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 15522-24)
“A pure heart is perhaps one which has no natural propulsion towards anything in any manner whatsoever. When in its extreme simplicity such a heart has become like a writing-tablet beautifully smoothed and polished. God comes to dwell in it and writes there His own laws.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 15528-30)
God’s word is kept best in the heart of humans. This is no doubt why our Lord Jesus Christ chose disciples to go into the world, rather than writing any books and handing them out. The Apostle Paul says:
“You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor?” (2 Corinthians 3:2-8)
The written code can remain lifeless and inert, whereas the word written on the heart is Spirit which enlivens each person who receives it. And what God writes on the hearts of people is not dependent on the perishable copy of a book. Even for people who have no access to bibles, this is no limit to God’s spirit who is able to transcend such limits and can inspire the hearts of those ignorant of the printed word.
“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts …” (Romans 2:14-15)
The New Testament sees in Christ Jesus the fulfillment of all of the prophecies and promises of God. Jeremiah’s life-giving word which is written on the receptive heart is completely fulfilled in Christ’s Body.
“But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:
“The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I paid no heed to them, says the Lord. This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:6-13)
The covenant written on inert matter – whether stone or paper – is passing away. The covenant written on our hearts is the everlasting covenant in which we become the witnesses to Christ in the new way, just as the written word is a witness to Christ in the old.