On July 15, three of us bloggers intended on publishing articles answering the question, “Does God still speak to individuals as He did in the Bible and, if so, does He do so in the same way?” Like a good hardworking and dedicated writer, Scarytino delved into several of the arguments for and against both cessationism (the belief that mystical experiences largely ended at some point in church history) and continuationism (the belief that mystical experiences continue even to this day). Likewise, Church Mystic tackled this issue and offered some really great, really practical ways to listen to God and actually know it is God you are hearing. And for my part… well, I didn’t get my post done on time. A heavy cocktail of prior commitments and procrastination led me to missing our publishing date by a few days (twenty-seven to be precise).
Anyhow, be sure to check out these other blogs to read some insightful insights into this issue.
Since I have the advantage of writing my post well after my two colleagues, I have already read their posts and so I want to intentionally approach the question from a different angle. Instead of asking, “Does God still speak to individuals as He did in the Bible?” I want to ask, “Does God still speak through literature as He did with the Bible?” But before we get into whether or not He still does this, we need to take some time to discuss how it was that God used biblical literature.
Most Christians seem to have this idea that when God wanted a book written, He would go a human author, have them write the book, and violà!, you’ve got yourself an inspired text. Sadly, this simple story of biblical inspiration is simply untrue. For one thing, when we consider different ancient texts and say, “This one is inspired, that is not,”1 we are usually leaning heavily on a certain tradition’s views of the different texts. It may surprise some Protestant readers to know that the New Testament canon with its 27 books wasn’t fully and officially formalized until about the 15th century.2 Even the Hebrew Bible (what we often call the Old Testament), which Jesus and the New Testament writers were obviously familiar with, wasn’t even set in stone until the second century CE (several decades after Jesus!). Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran (1946 CE), biblical scholarship as a whole has come to accept3 that even individual books had a significant breadth of variation in the centuries leading up to Jesus.4
You see, the collection of manuscripts that we often use for the Hebrew Bible is the Masoretic text, which didn’t come about until between the 7th and 10th centuries. However, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, we now have samples of a somewhat different textual tradition dating as far back as 4th century BCE. Additionally, the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) dates from about the 3rd century BCE. And believe it or not, as much as every pastor and Bible college professor teaches from the Masoretic text, both the scroll at Qumran and the Septuagint actually represent an older tradition.
To make matters even more complicated, many (most?) of the styles and paradigms presented in these ancient writings aren’t even original to their Judeo-Christian authors. For example, the book of Deuteronomy follows the pattern of 2nd millennium (BCE) Hittite treaties in which a conquering king would outlined the history, law, blessings, and curses of his relationship with the vassal people.5 Also, even though animal sacrifices play a significant role in the Old Testament, when they first show up in the story of Cain and Abel (Gen 4) there is no explanation as to why they started doing this. Why is that? Well, because Genesis presupposes an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) worldview in which sacrifices were as common as a trip to Walmart. As I’ve mentioned before, the flood story in Genesis 6-9 is also just a retelling of a much older narrative found in plenty of other ANE texts. Even the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, which many believe to be entirely unique and foundational to the Judeo-Christian faith, borrows rather heavily from many of the elements found in other ANE creation myths.6
So basically what we have in our current Bible is a collection of ancient ideas and stories that have been customized into various traditions, which were then narrowed down to one tradition, which was then bound together and presented to people as the Bible. Now back to the original question, does God still do that? Does God still take pagan literature and revise and revamp it to communicate what He wants? Does God still work with a body of writings that is broad enough for variation and even discrepancies?
I would like to say YES!
I think that God can (and does) use anything and everything He can get His hands on to communicate His message of love to people. And if that gets you thinking, “yeah, but the Bible is the Word of God… so that’s different,” then I would like to offer what I think is a helpful idea. Are you ready for this? The Bible that you hold in your hand and read every Sunday morning is not the Word of God.
What!? Now I know you’re a heretic.
No, seriously. Your English translation, no matter what it is, is not the Word of God. The Masoretic text is not the Word of God. None of those textual traditions are the Word of God. You see, Jesus is the Word of God. This isn’t my idea – the apostle John explicitly refers to him as the Word of God (Jn 1:1, 14; Rev 19:13). Conversely, the Bible very rarely mentions the “word of God” when referring to a specific text.7 A quick read through all the instances of “word of God” (or similar variations) will quickly reveal that almost always it obviously refers to God’s message as something other than a written text, and on several occasions it couldn’t possibly refer to a written text. That’s why we read about how “the word of God came to” someone (cf. 1 Kgs 12:22; 1 Chron 17:3). It isn’t as though a book or scroll came flying toward John the Baptist in the wild (Lk 3:2). Rather, God’s divine message came to him. For this reason, I think it is best to think of the “word” as (to borrow from the Geek logos) the account, message, teaching, reason, logic, and rational of God. And the reason that we sometimes colloquially refer to the Bible as the “word of God” is because it is an expression of God’s message to mankind.
By that understanding, anything and everything that communicates the love, reason, and truth of God could rightfully be considered the word of God. Anything. If you come to a belief in God through a book by William Lane-Craig, then that is the word of God coming to you. If you fall in love with Jesus because you heard a song by U2, that is the word of God coming to you. And if you learn to appreciate the cosmic consequences of sin because of a Yahwistic retelling of a pagan flood story, then that is the word of God coming to you. Because it’s about the message, not the means by which it is communicated.
And for that reason, I think God still speaks to people like He did with the Bible.
What do you think?
1: Which is what we are doing when we exclude texts like Jubilees, the books of Enoch, and the Life of Adam and Eve from being considered inspired Scriptures.
2: Although the fourfold Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were pretty well established by the time of Irenaeus (c. 180 CE, see Against Heresies 3.11.8), and quite possibly Justin Martyr (c. 150-160 CE). Also, though not “canonized” per se, the 27 books were generally recognized as authoritative at least as far back as the 4th century CE.
3: sometimes begrudgingly
4: For a helpful and accessible discussion of this, see Timothy Law’s awesome book, When God Spoke Greek (Oxford University Press, 2013), 19-32. If you have the time, do yourself a favor and just go ahead and read the whole book. Law does a great job of explaining how the Greek Septuagint (LXX) is not a shoddy mistranslation (as is often supposed), but actually a representation of another ancient biblical tradition, possibly older than what we find in the Hebrew Masoretic texts.
5: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2006), 110-12.
6: One day in the (hopefully) not too distant future, I will devote a blog series the creation story. But that is going to be pretty massive project, so don’t get too excited just yet.
7: The few possible exceptions would be Jn 10:35, and maaaybe Mt 15:6 (Mk 7:13) and Prov 30:5.