Hopefully to assuage the reaction of any critics of my answer to this question let me say up front that I believe the New Testament writings to be the written word of God. I do not think though that the Bible identifies these writings in a strict sense with the word of God. I doubt if the authors wrote their letters with the knowledge that they would later be canonized and constitute what we call the New Testament, a part of the Bible, the written “word of God”. When the New Testament writers used phrases like “the word of God” and “the Word” they did not refer to their writings, but to oral messages, the gospel, or to the person of Christ himself. Robert Richardson noted this in an article he wrote for “The Evangelist “in 1834. So this is not something I just dreamed up on my own.
I think this concept is an important one because ignorance of it has contributed to our problems, especially with regard to unity. In the first place it has contributed to our confusion about the distinction between gospel and doctrine. The New Testament writings are not the gospel per se. They do contain the gospel and references to it. For the most part though the New Testament writings are letters written to persons who had responded to the gospel and were already in covenant relationship with God. Further, the New Testament writings are not the new covenant as some think. People were in covenant relationship with God before any one of these writings existed. Jesus Christ is the new covenant. Through God’s grace manifested in the gospel we came into covenant relationship with God and one another and the New Testament writings were penned to help believers enhance these relationships and live as faithful followers of Christ and be transformed into his image.
Instead brethren have made the mistake of regarding the New Testament writings as a legal code and basing faithfulness, fellowship, and unity upon knowledge of them, particularly specific interpretations of selective subjects. The result was that they twisted salvation into a works-oriented plan and unity into a matter of conformity to an unwritten creed. In turn brethren were left feeling unsure of their salvation and dividing became the modus operandi for solving disagreements.
The New Testament writings, or an agreed understanding of them, was never meant to be the basis of fellowship and unity and could not be. The first Christians were united we are told and they did not have the New Testament writings. How could they be united on something they did not possess? It was at least a couple of hundred years later until there was a recognized canon. Then when this did occur very few people had access to it until the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century. Even then few people had the ability to read.
Over the years we have lost the “word of God” in our concept of the New Testament writings. The entire Bible is a revelation of God pointing us to Jesus Christ. That Person is the reason for our faith, the basis of our brotherhood, and our hope for eternity. Tragically we erred by turning to idols, our opinions. If a book or writings could have saved us God would have not had to send His Son to die on a cross.