Reposing in His Word

Deut 4:12 Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.

In his challenge to Israel as they ‘tread the verge of Jordan’, Moses recalls the people to the encounter with God at Mt Sinai that had taken place some forty years previously. However, this is not merely to remind them of an extraordinary event in the past. Rather, it binds them to a relationship with God in the future, for on that earlier day God had said ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children so’ (Deut 4:10). Thus the people had approached the mountain, which ‘burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom’ (Deut 4:11). However, the encounter with God himself, as Elijah found centuries later, was not in these phenomena but in the sound of a voice speaking words (Deut 4:12, cf. 1 Ki 19:11-12).

And this past encounter became definitive of Israel’s future spirituality, for it was because the earlier generation of Israelites saw no form on the day that God spoke to them out of the midst of the fire that future generations were never to make a form for themselves through which they might seek to encounter God (Deut 4:15-16). The terms of God’s self-revelation meant that Israel’s spirituality was to remain word-centred. Not that God cannot or does not encounter his people other than through words (e.g. Ex 40:34). But the word, which ultimately issues in Scripture, is established as the normative means of encountering him, which requires both a dependence on and a humility towards past generations.

And this, of course, flies in the face of postmodern and sub-Christian thinking. When John writes at the beginning of his gospel that the Word which was in the beginning with God was himself God, he affirms that as we approach God we become more, rather than less, verbal. Even the incarnation of the Word does not alter this situation. The miracle of the incarnation is that the Word became flesh so that, as it were, it could literally be seen what it meant. But the Ascension removes the Word from sight so that the generation of the New Covenant is once again dependent on words.

Nevertheless, the message of Deuteronomy is that generations of God’s people who depend on the word are no less able to encounter God authentically. In the same tradition, John writes at the beginning of his first epistle, ‘that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3). Through the word, subsequent generations can enter into the essence of the earlier encounter with God (albeit without the ‘special effects’). Indeed, Jesus himself affirmed that these later generations who have not seen and yet believe through the word are counted as particularly blessed in relation to their apparently more privileged forbears (John 20:29).

The alternative to a trust in God’s word as the means to an authentic encounter with him is a desire for experiential mysticism. Yet the mystical encounter must either be tested by the Scriptural word in order to be pronounced ‘orthodox’ (and hence is ultimately superfluous to Scripture) or it will be endorsed independently of Scripture, in which case it will end in error.

John Richardson Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London