Rhema & Logos – What’s the Difference?
While it is true that knowledge is power, it is also often the case that a little bit of knowledge can be a bad thing. This is frequently the case when it comes to referencing the original languages of the Bible. Far too often, those new to the task of exegesis (responsibly drawing intended meaning from a text) can become so enamored of their ability to reference the original languages that they end up saying things that simply cannot be supported by the evidence at hand. Certainly there are times where there is great insight to be gained from drawing attention to, and expounding the significance of, various linguistic, grammatical or syntactic observations in the original Greek or Hebrew of the Bible. But this is not always the case.
Just recently I was asked about the significance of the Greek words rhēma and logos. Both of these terms are typically translated with the English “word”, as though they were synonyms, but some interpreters think that there is a tremendous difference between the two terms. Among our more charistmatic Christian brothers and sisters, it is common to distinguish the two words as follows:
- rhēma = spoken word, usually referring to additional revelation that extends beyond the written word of Scripture
- logos = written word, usually referring to revelation as found in the Old and New Testaments
This is a very interesting and potentially significant distinction, provided that the biblical authors intended their readers to understand the words in this way. However, close inspection of the usage of these two terms both in the Bible and in extra-biblical materials makes this distinction rather hard to maintain. Rhēma sometimes refers to written text (cf. Ex 34:1) and logos to spoken words (cf. Heb 2:2), the exact opposite of what is being claimed by some teachers today. On the whole, the two terms seem to be used interchangeably throughout Scripture.
This is not to say that there is never a meaningful distinction between the two words, however. It is particularly interesting when certain writers shift between rhēma and logos within their writings. The author of Hebrews, for instance, uses logos most frequently (some 12 times), but does employ rhēma to a limited degree (4 times). That author does seem to use rhēma in a way that almost associates the “word” of God with the activity of God (cf. Heb 1:3, 6:5, 11:3, 12:19) which lends some support to the charismatic distinction mentioned above. However, two things must be noted: first, this distinction is more pronounced in Hebrews than in most other biblical texts so that even if there is a legitimate distinction of terms here, this same distinction cannot be read into works by other authors. Second, even if the author of Hebrews did use rhēma to signify the activity of God, this divine activity is not obviously related to revelation. If anything, the above-mentioned uses of rhēma in Hebrews signify creation (Heb 6:5), sustenance (Heb 1:3, 11:3) and, possibly, judgment (Heb 12:19), but they have no obvious relationship to God’s ongoing revelatory activities. In fact, in Hebrews it is logos which has the stronger connotation of revelation (cf. Heb 4:2, 4:12) in both its written and spoken forms.
So, even where one biblical author uses rhēma and logos in a way which may be distinct, the distinction is subtle at best. I am not convinced that there is no meaningful distinction between the two words, but if there is one, it is not at all obvious. In any event, the idea that every use of rhēma in the Bible refers to God’s continual revelation of Himself beyond Scripture simply cannot be supported by biblical investigation. I’m not a cessationist, mind you. I do believe God continues to speak to His people today (though always in ways which are consistent with the revelation given to us in the Bible), so our inability to distinguish between these words need not be taken as a denial of the claim that God still speaks. All I’m saying is that the argument for God’s continued revelation must be made on other grounds. The distinction between rhēma and logos in Scripture is simply to hazy to make it a foundation for doctrine.