From God's Mouth
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (Matt. 4:4)
When I was growing up I attended a suburban Episcopal Church where all the singing and praying were done out of a book. It never occurred to me that you could pray extemporaneously (at least not out loud), much less that God might answer. I was set straight by the woman who cleaned our house. Lucy moonlighted as a minister in a small Pentecostal church that my mother dismissively referred to as the "Holy Rollers." I had only the vaguest idea what Holy Rollers did, as opposed to Episcopalians. I gathered most of it would have been regarded as a shocking breech of decorum in my regular place of worship. In any event, I once asked Lucy how she got to be a minister in her church, and she matter-of-factly answered, "God called me on the phone."
It was, of course, news to me that the Lord used modern conveniences like a telephone, since all the stories I had heard about God dated from biblical times. Looking back on this little incident now, I can't say for sure whether Lucy was just trying to explain her calling in terms a child could understand, or whether she really believed God had called her on the phone. Having long since dispensed with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I remember being more than a little skeptical about her story even then, although Lucy always seemed perfectly sincere to me.
The issue, then and now, is not so much whether God uses modern conveniences like the telephone, but whether he still talks to people at all. Orthodox believers have long insisted that God has closed the book on revelation. Just as all philosophy is said to be a footnote to Plato, all permissible religious discourse is now mere commentary on Scripture. The truth has already been imparted, and our only remaining task is to make sure it is correctly understood.
This view presents obvious difficulties – not the least the fact that the Bible contains a detailed blueprint for conduct and religious practice in a tribal culture that has not existed for two millennia. The Hebrew people kept slaves, practiced polygamy and prescribed death by stoning for offenses that are now regarded as trifling. Their religion was advanced for its time but still centered on blood sacrifice.
The early church fathers sidestepped any difficulties by interpreting Scripture allegorically. However, as the gulf widened between ancient practice and the modern world, a curious thing happened. First, Protestants asserted that Scripture trumped religious tradition, and then fundamentalists insisted on a literal interpretation of the Bible. This seemingly cleared up any ambiguities, but it only heightened the original problem. Biblical passages that could not be squared with current religious practice or modern sensibilities were simply ignored.
The problem goes away only when you abandon the notion that Scripture alone is the final word on truth. The Pharisees were the literalists in Jesus’ day. The Apostle Paul started out as a Pharisee but then thought better of it. He discovered there was no final word on truth, only an ongoing conversation. Or, as he is quoted in the King James Version of the Bible: “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.”
Truth is like the manna that nourished God’s people in the wilderness. The ancient Hebrews woke up each morning and found manna lying on the ground. They were instructed to gather it up and consume it that day. If they tried to horde it, the manna spoiled. Truth, like manna, is always served fresh. There are certainly truths that endure but also many that have been allowed to linger beyond their “sell by” date. They become dry and brittle with time and crumble easily. Truth is meant to be consumed on the spot. For the prophet Ezekiel, this was literally true. In a vision, he was handed a written scroll and commanded to eat it. He thereby discovered that even bitter truth tastes sweet.
2 Corinthians 3:6