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The critics and listening prayer

People like me who believe that God speaks to people using a variety of means and not just Scripture face two frequent critiques: Luther’s tenet of Sola Scriptura and Hebrews 1:1-2. Sola Scriptura, according to Luther, meant “All that man needs for salvation is contained in the Bible.” He was re…
By Seth Barnes

People like me who believe that God speaks to people using a variety of means and not just Scripture face two frequent critiques: Luther’s tenet of Sola Scriptura and Hebrews 1:1-2.

Sola Scriptura, according to Luther, meant “All that man needs for salvation is contained in the Bible.” He was responding to the abuses of the organized church which had come up with a system of indulgences and papal writs that were extra-biblical. These were not necessary for salvation; they were part of a system the official church of the day used to control people. Luther was not making a case for God speaking to man exclusively through the Bible. He was arguing for the primacy of the Scriptures over the interpretation of the Scriptures.
 
Critics who cite Sola Scriptura as a critique of listening prayer are making two errors: They misinterpret Luther’s intent, and in any case, they are citing a man’s interpretation of Scripture rather than Scripture itself – the very practice they are attacking.

A second critique does come from Scripture – Hebrews 1:1-2 “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways. But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”

The critics of listening prayer interpret this to mean that the only way to hear God’s voice is through Scripture.
 
Is that true? Is the writer of Hebrews saying that God only spoke to the forefathers through the prophets? No, we know from the Bible that isn’t true.  He spoke to various people throughout the Old Testament who weren’t known as prophets, the most prominent patriarchs among them. All the writer is saying is that in the past, he spoke through the prophets, not that he spoke exclusively through them. Perhaps it was the most obvious way, but it wasn’t the only way.

Then, in verse 2, in contrast to this customary way in which God spoke, the writer tells his Hebrew readers that God has spoken to them directly through His Son.  This either means that Jesus was the messenger or that he was the message, or perhaps it means both. What it does not mean is that now that Jesus had come, God is only going to use the Bible to speak to people. For one thing, the Bible didn’t exist when the letter to the Hebrews was written. No, all this verse says is, “God has spoken to us by his Son.”

As Hebrews 1 continues, the writer goes on to place Jesus in scriptural and cosmological context by quoting Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah.  He further underscores Jesus’ credibility as God’s Son based upon the evidence of experience.  The writer heard him and God corroborated it through “signs, wonders and various miracles, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit” (2:4).  

In Hebrews 3, the writer appeals not to Scripture as a source of guidance, but to the act of listening to his voice: “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”  To underscore that, he repeats his injunction to the readers in verse 15.  What is happening when we listen for God’s voice? It’s prayer. Some call it listening prayer. Far from obviating listening prayer, Hebrews is actually arguing for it.

In chapter 4 the writer hammers away at the same theme, this time citing God speaking through David and saying the same words, “Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.” Again we see an emphasis not on reading, but on listening.  If the Lord says something three times in Scripture, it’s usually really, really, really important.

Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God is living and active. Is “the word of God” in this context in fact the  Bible itself as some suggest? At best it’s a debatable point – many commentaries suggest that “the word of God” refers to Jesus, in keeping with the theme the writer has been extrapolating which we first read in John 1.

Hebrews 4:14 again points to Jesus saying he’s our high priest.  And the rest of Hebrews builds on this theme.

So the book of Hebrews is not building a case for limiting God’s revelation to men to the Bible  or the New Testament, wherein Jesus is described, [over against the books of the Old Testament where the prophets spoke] and which in any case, didn’t exist at the time, but building a case for Jesus as God’s ultimate message to man.

If we’re to conclude anything about hearing God from Hebrews, it’s not that we should limit our attempts to hear God’s voice to Scripture. Rather, it’s the one that the writer repeated three times. “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

You can find hundreds and hundreds of examples of God speaking to man in the Bible.  It’s his modus operandi.  And he furthermore gives highly detailed instructions and procedures for doing so in both the Old and New Testament.  In contrast, we’ve got this one passage in Hebrews that has been taken out of the context of its Hebraic Christology by critics and used as a proof that God no longer speaks to us as he once did. In trying to underscore their “high view of Scripture,” they are actually twisting it in the very way they criticize.

The onus is on the critics to establish a scriptural basis for their claims. In torturing a meaning from it that doesn’t exist in the text, they are potentially guilty of the very heresy they would guard against.

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