Theological Prolegomena and the Three Forms of the Word of God


Ever since Karl Barth stirred the embers of Protestant theology with his massive Church Dogmatics, new life has been blown into discussions regarding the threefold form of the Word of God.[1] Barth freely admitted that this doctrine had not originated with him. As Barth himself said, “The doctrine of the three forms of the Word of God in the sketch attempted here is not new. We have seen in detail how revelation, Scripture and proclamation have from the very first stamped themselves on Christian thought as special forms of God’s Word.”[2] Barth is not alone in this assertion. Romish and Protestant historical theologians attest to the antiquity and interconnectedness of this doctrine.[3] With that in mind, the following is a brief exploration of the scriptural basis for the three forms, and their relationship to, influence upon, and potential reorganization of theological prolegomena.

The Three Forms of the Word of God

In Scripture, the phrase “Word of God” refers to three, distinct yet inseparable aspects: there is a (1) hypostatic Word of God; there is a (2) written Word of God; there is an (3) uttered Word of God. The scriptural basis of each of the three forms can be clearly established by the plain reading of the Scriptures.

Scriptural Basis for Hypostatic Word of God[4]

John 1:1-18 clearly reveals that the preexistent Son of God came and became Incarnate as Jesus Christ. Prior to creation and redemption “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1), but when the “Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), the “Word” that God has always been speaking, now through the “Word” God spoke “grace and truth” to fallen man (John 1:17). God definitively speaks through the hypostatic Word, fully disclosing himself in the accomplishment and commensurate proclamation of redemption in his person and work (Hebrews 1:1-3). The hypostatic Word is the divine messenger sent from God to proclaim a salvific message of “grace and truth” (John 1:17), but he is also the message, i.e., “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Therefore, in Jesus Christ, the mind of man and the mind of God are joined. This is the basis of man’s accommodated, ectypal knowledge of the Triunity of God. Through the hypostatic Word, the true and living God condescends and speaks to us; and, because of the hypostatic union of the divine nature and human nature in the one person Jesus Christ, the mind of God in an accommodated form is made known by the Holy Spirit to those sharing union and communion with Jesus Christ.[5]

Scriptural Basis for the Written Word of God[6]

Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). In the immediate context, Paul is referring to the scriptures of the Old Testament, but what he says is equally applicable to the inscripturated rule of faith contained in the New Testament. As Peter explains, the origin of the Scriptures is the will of God and not the will of man (2 Peter 1:20-21), and so the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God. As Thomas Watson put it, “The two Testaments are the two lips by which God has spoken to us.”[7] And what is the message of these “two lips”? Jesus Christ; the hypostatic Word of God. Recall the two men on the road to Emmaus taught by the resurrected Christ: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). All of Scripture points to Christ who is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). Thus, Paul exhorted Timothy, “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). As one author noted, “God’s word is so closely identified with God himself that Scripture presents his word as eternal (Ps. 119:89).” [8] Scripture is the source of theology because “God gives himself by giving us his word.”[9]

Scriptural Basis for the Uttered Word of God[10]

The “uttered” form of the Word of God is also called the “sacramental” or the “proclaimed” form, and it is the Word of God preached. Consider 1 Peter 4:11: “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth”. Peter is talking about teaching and preaching in the church, a seemingly human utterance but which is in reality an utterance of God. Looking at Romans 10:13-17, it is evident that the Paul believed likewise:

For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent . . . So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

Consistent with this view of preaching, elsewhere Paul celebrated the saints in Thessalonica who “received the word of God which ye heard of us” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Christians in Thessalonica heard preaching, and by this they “received the word of God.” In this, Paul the preacher was Christlike. Jesus was the anointed preacher of God (Mark 1:38; Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2). At his ascension he commissioned the church to teach and preach on his behalf (Matthew 28:18-20). The disciples were anointed to be “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). If the word of God is preached faithfully, that is, if the full “counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) contained in the written Word is preached, then, Scripturally speaking, it is to be considered truly and fully the Word of God. Saving knowledge is given in this preaching of the written Word of God; as Paul says, the “gospel of Christ” — which ministers preach — “is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16). The proclamation of the Word of God is “quick, and powerful” precisely because preaching is an action of the Living God, and the proclaimed Word of God has the power of God Himself (Hebrews 4:12). It comes “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

The Three Forms in Theological Prolegomena

Prolegomena is the traditional term used to denote what theologians discuss first with the aim of doing theology. It comes from the Greek words pro (before) and lege (to speak), and so refers to that which is said before the task of theology begins.

Theological prolegomena follow a well-established systematic order and division of dogmatics. According to this division, the fundamental principles of doctrine are enunciated first, of which there are two: Scripture and God. The order prioritizes the doctrine of special revelation; theologians first discuss Scripture, and then they proceed to God himself and the commensurate articles of the faith. However, in light of the inseparability of the three forms of the Word, we must concede that a theologian cannot discuss Scripture (the written Word), and the commensurate preaching of Scripture (the uttered Word), without some degree of reference to God, and therefore to the hypostatic Word. If the three forms are discussed in prolegomena, then there must also be some reference to both Christology and the hypostatic union. Yet typically, theological prolegomena do not venture into the doctrine of God – Cornelius Van Til being another prominent exception.[11] However, if the threefold form of the Word of God does rightly belong in theological prolegomena then perhaps what has traditionally been an exception will, over time, become the rule. Indeed, there are other more traditionally Reformed theologians who have done just this, such as Michael Horton and Alister McGrath.[12]

Are there good reasons to encourage this pedagogical reorganization? I believe so. The chief reason is this: the hypostatic Word of God is the touchstone for contemplating all the deep things of God. Believers are saved by the hypostatic Word of God (Jesus Christ), through the ordained means of the uttered Word of God (the preaching of Gospel), which is the proclamation of the written Word of God (the Scriptures). The hypostatic Word of God is the center of the written and uttered Word of God, and reveals the Triune God behind election and redemption.

A second reason to reorganize our prolegomena to include the three forms of the Word is this: even our theological prolegomena will be overtly Trinitarian. As Fred Sanders has recently written:

But it is not enough to say that the mystery of the Trinity is in the Bible unless we recognize that the thing we are calling the Bible is a set of texts that were written, redacted, and canonized to prepare for and report on the missions of the Son and the Spirit. To somebody about to comb through the texts to find elements of the doctrine, we have to say: the Trinity is in the Bible because the Bible is in the Trinity.”[13]

Sanders goes on to discuss the relationship between verbal revelation, salvation, and our knowledge of the Triune God:

“The triunity of God has always been, was once concealed, but is now revealed. The manner of its revelation should establish the order and structure of the doctrine concerning it, as well as the order and structure of adjacent doctrines like revelation and salvation.” [14]

If Sanders’ statement that “the doctrine of the Trinity is more fundamental and more comprehensive than the doctrine of Scripture,” is true, then there is good warrant to revise traditional prolegomena and the synthetic order of dogmatics. This revision and reorganization of traditional prolegomena would reflect, as Sanders contends, the “organic hierarchy of theological truths.”[15]

It seems that a clear understanding of the inseparable threefold form of the Word of God supports Sanders’ contention. The doctrine of revelation is traditionally viewed as a fundamental principle of theological prolegomena which ought to be discussed first. But that theological preference, that “way” of doing and ordering theology, may indeed change if theologians continue to discuss the threefold form of the Word of God. The doctrine of revelation is traditionally viewed as a fundamental topic of theology that ought to be logically discussed prior to the articles of the faith. However, with contemporary discussions of the threefold form of the Word of God increasingly bringing Christological and Trinitarian topics to bear upon traditional theological prolegomena, one wonders if that will remain to be the case.

Christopher C. Schrock (M.A., Belhaven University) is an ordained minister. His academic writing has been published in Christian Scholar’s Review, and his poetry has been published in The Curator. He lives in Billings, Montana, with his wife, Julie Lynn, and six children. 

  1. For Karl Barth’s discussion of three forms of Word of God, see Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley, T. F. Torrance (New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 88-124. A helpful summary of Barth’s presentation of the three forms can be found under subheading “Revelation in Contemporary Theology” in “Revelation” by C. Brown (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3, “Pri-Z”, gen. ed. Colin Brown [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978], 325-337). Discussions on Barth and the three forms of the Word of God, see the following: Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 126-127; Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 128-129; Daniel J. Treier, “Scripture and Hermeneutics,” in Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Backer Academic, 2012), 80-82. Special attention should be given to “Revelation” by Trevor Hart in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 37-56.

  2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, sec. 4.4 (121).

  3. “Verbum Dei” in Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995), 324; “Word of God” in Gerald O’Collins, S.J. and Edward G. Farraugia, S.J., eds. A Concise Dictionary of Theology (New York/Mahwah, NJ: 1991), 265.

  4. John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-16; etc.

  5. On the mind of God being made known through Christ, see John Brown of Haddington’s Questions and Answers on the Shorter Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 111.

  6. 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; Psalm 119:89; etc.

  7. Thomas Watson, A Complete Body of Divinity: Sermons upon the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1878; repr., Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2016), 18.

  8. Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 202.

  9. Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 202.

  10. 1 Peter 4:11; Romans 10:17; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Matthew 28:18; 2 Timothy 4:2; 2 Corinthians 5:20; etc.

  11. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, 2nd ed., William Edgar, ed. (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing Co., 2007).

  12. See footnote 1 for examples of Horton and McGrath’s work.

  13. Fred Sanders, The Triune God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 44.

  14. Fred Sanders, The Triune God, 68.

  15. Fred Sanders, The Triune God, 90.


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