Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Evangelicals have traditionally affirmed the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures. The Word of God is the word of God, i.e. it is God’s revealed and recorded word. Having revealed himself as a talking God, it is fitting that his talk, his words are recorded/written. These words are living and active (Heb. 4:12) and are our life (Matt. 4:4).
Today there are some Evangelicals who would agree with this understanding of the Scriptures but they seek something more, something direct, something personal. This is, I believe, related to a misunderstanding of the Word of God and that for some it reflects a view of the insufficiency of the Scriptures in their own personal lives.
Much more could be said about this, but I allow David Pao, professor of New Testament and chair of the New Testament Department at TEDS, to address this important matter. Pao wrote the lead article in the recent release of EFCA Today on the theme “Hearing from God.” Pao’s excellent article helpfully centers and frames the discussion by grounding it in the Bible: “God Speaks: A Biblical and Theological Framework.”
Pao introduces his article by rightly placing God’s speech at the center of the Christian faith. He also addresses the temptation that many face when one desires a direct and personal message from the Lord since this impulse often leads to making it say what we want it to say in justification of my decisions.
The fact that God speaks lies at the very center of our Christian faith, and His message demands that all creation give heed. If we do not situate this act of hearing within a proper biblical and theological framework, however, seeking a message from God can easily become an attempt to justify our own self-seeking decisions.
The Scriptures are inspired by God with the purpose of teaching, training and transformation. This affects, Pao notes, the way we hear from God.
Any certainty in the act of hearing and knowing can only be anchored on the Scripture that is “inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
How does this affect the way we hear from God? God has provided us with the written Word, through which we can enter into a living relationship with God. This Word centers on God’s climactic work in His Son, who is Himself the center of God’s communication with human beings. All voices taken to be originating from God are therefore to be grounded in and mediated through the Word, centered on Christ, and aimed at the sanctification of believers, who are to glorify the Sovereign Lord in aligning their will with His.
Not only is the Word the of primary importance of how we hear from God, but it is also the foundation upon which all acts of hearing are grounded, discerned and ascertained.
Most would agree that the Word is of primary importance as we seek to hear from God. It is misleading to affirm, however, that the Word is merely the first among many ways we hear from God. Instead, the Word is the foundation upon which all acts of hearing are grounded, the criterion through which all such acts are to be judged and the guide by which all such acts are to be appropriated.
Evangelicals affirm that sola Scriptura (this is not solo Scriptura), Scripture alone, is also absoluta Scriptura, the absolute authority, and any attempts to subtract from, add to or bypass the centrality and sufficiency of the gospel are idolatrous and lead to spiritual weakness or death. Though there various ways and means the power of the Word can be revealed, states Pao, sola Scriptura must repeatedly be declared.
The doctrine of sola Scriptura reminds us that attempts to hear from God that bypass the gospel of Jesus Christ are idolatrous acts, and such attempts only distract us from the centrality and sufficiency of the gospel. God has provided His people with various means through which the power of the Word can be revealed, but the paradigmatic significance of the Word should be repeatedly affirmed.
With the sufficiency and significance of the Word as the foundation, Pao points to various roles used in the hearing of the Word and the revealing of its power: (1) the role of the Spirit in the illumination of the Word; (2) the role of the community in faithfulness to the Word; (3) the role of prayer in worship through the Word; (4) the role of wisdom in the appropriation of the Word; and (5) the role of divine intervention in the fulfillment of the Word.
Pao concludes with an example in the Word illustrating these “five ways God speaks to His people through His Word.”
In Acts, Luke describes how the Holy Spirit called the church to send Barnabas and Saul as messengers of the gospel message (Acts 13:2). After confirming this call through prayer, the community responded by being obedient to this call (Acts 13:3). Throughout his missionary journeys, Paul used the wisdom granted to him to plan his itinerary. At times God did intervene by prohibiting him to preach in certain areas (e.g., Acts 16:6-7) and by redirecting his itinerary through visions (e.g., 16:10).
Behind these various means lies the wider plan of God that centers on the work of Christ, who Himself called Paul to be “[His] chosen instrument to carry [His] name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
This plan was firmly grounded in the Word, as Paul fulfilled the promises contained in the words of Isaiah: “I have appointed you to be a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47; cf. Isaiah 42:6; 49:6).
This example serves us well as we seek to hear the voice of God through various means that are grounded in and mediated through the Word.
Three concluding thoughts.
First, this is an excellent biblical and theological primer on the Bible, understanding God’s Word and how we understand and live by it today.
Second, I encourage you to read it, then share it with fellow leaders to read and discuss.
Finally, in our day when the Word of God and its authority and sufficiency are theologically affirmed and/or assumed but practically questioned and/or undermined especially when seeking to discern how God speaks personally to me, understanding God’s Word and our relation to Him through it is vital for the spiritual health and vitality of the Christian life and the church.