“Help us to hear your Word as it is, not as we imagine it to be.”
The one praying knew what he was asking, for he offered his petition in a room crowded with differing theories of biblical interpretation. New Testament scholars, church historians, Old Testament exegetes, and systematic theologians knelt around the hollow square of committee tables before picking up their work for the day. A thousand years of Adventist ministry and scholarship paused to confess with the apostle Paul, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12, NRSV).2
The prayer is fundamentally biblical and essentially Adventist. It also acknowledges an enduring challenge for a people who have for 150 years maintained that they have no creed but the Bible: how do we remain open to the fresh insights of the Spirit—and simultaneously loyal to “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3, NRSV)?
Our dilemma grows from the very devotional habits that anchor individual Adventists in the truths of Scripture. Each time I pick up my Bible—in whatever version, at whatever time of day—I bring to it my accumulated history of reading God’s Word, my usual ways of understanding how to faithfully interpret and apply that Word, and even my personal preferences for some passages of Scripture over others.
From my father I learned a fondness for the Psalms, as he had from his father. My seminary professors communicated their passion for Paul’s epistles: my heart still sings the great assurance of salvation by faith in Jesus I found in early-morning classes. I love Luke’s narratives of Jesus’ healing miracles. I celebrate the Lord who tailored His restoration to the unique needs of each hurting man and woman.
But it would be an incomplete gospel and even a distorted view of Scripture if I never read the books of Moses or winced at narratives of Uzzah, Saul, and Achan. My preference for the Psalms doesn’t preclude my need to read the prophets—major and minor—or ponder the sweep of God’s activity in history through Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation. My affection for the accessible Jesus of the parables ought never make me miss the soul-shaking image of “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple” (Isa. 6:1, KJV).
Hearing God’s Word as it is—and not as we imagine it to be, or remember it to be—requires both the structure of all the Spirit has taught us about how to read His Word and the suppleness to learn things the Spirit may yet seek to teach us. Ideally we come to read the Word with both full seriousness and full humility, neither clinging to a past interpretation of the Word when the Spirit urges change, nor abandoning “the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history”3 because of some momentary enthusiasm.
Just here we learn how much we need each other in the task of staying faithful to both Scripture and the Spirit—why Jesus gives His Word to His church rather than only to individual believers. The careful listening to each other that happens when we study Scripture prayerfully; the humility that allows for the possibility that our earlier understandings may have been incomplete—these are the hallmarks of a people who live reverently with the Word and with each other.
In such a room we pray to hear again a mighty rushing wind. In such a room we pray to trace again the tongues of flame that set the world on fire.