The written word and the Living Word
Sola scriptura will not get the job done. In fact, it can do more harm than good when fundamentalist idolatry of the written word hinders true worship of the Living Word.
Yes, the written word can be invaluably powerful in its reverberations across time and space, connecting us to those whose immediate presence we do not presently enjoy. But notice how the very description of its capacities simultaneously underscores its limitations: implicit in the potential of the written word to reach across time and space is the fact of that word’s generation in a particular time and place. It was enwombed in particular understandings, and birthed for particular purposes.
Necessarily, then, the link provided by the written word is tenuous, fragmentary, blurred, asynchronous. To some extent, all letters are dead letters: dead on arrival, and subject to decay. As a shadow, a relic, a trace, an echo, the written word is a valuable starting clue, an initial igniting spark, a provisional first step, a precious open invitation.
We rejoice in the instances the Lord has peeled back a corner of eternity, given glimpses of the shape of things to come, and allowed them to be recorded — in part. And we treasure the new life He miraculously breathes into voices from the dust. We appropriately reverence them by binding them in leather and pondering them daily.
However, these prophecies of the future and translations of the past, while necessary, are far from sufficient. As we have been told — if we would listen — a remarkable feature of sacred words is their power to point beyond themselves, to model and then catalyze a sacred and ongoing engagement with the Word that is both personal and communal. To serve as a nexus between sign and signified: this is what it means to be meaningful.
And, behold, thou art my son; wherefore look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease.
And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever.
Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them; and thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands.
Neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.
He laid the [scriptures] in front of him, one by one, so everyone in the room could see. “I would not give the ashes of a rye straw for these three books,” he declared, “without the living oracles of God.” Lacking a latter-day prophet, he said, the Saints were no better off than they were before God revealed the gospel.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
The idea that scripture reading can lead to inspiration and revelation opens the door to the truth that a scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today. Even more, scripture reading may also lead to current revelation on whatever else the Lord wishes to communicate to the reader at that time. We do not overstate the point when we say that the scriptures can be a Urim and Thummim to assist each of us to receive personal revelation.
As we gather to hear the words the Lord has inspired His servants to deliver, I invite you to ponder a promise the Lord made. He declared that ‘whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning … and the wiles of the devil, and lead the [disciple] of Christ in a strait and narrow course.’ I pray that you will choose to lay hold upon the word of God as it is declared during this general conference.
Neither have angels ceased to minister unto the children of men… And the office of their ministry is to call men unto repentance, and to fulfil and to do the work of the covenants of the Father, which he hath made unto the children of men, to prepare the way among the children of men, by declaring the word of Christ unto the chosen vessels of the Lord, that they may bear testimony of him. And by so doing, the Lord God prepareth the way that the residue of men may have faith in Christ, that the Holy Ghost may have place in their hearts, according to the power thereof; and after this manner bringeth to pass the Father, the covenants which he hath made unto the children of men.
Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost? Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do… For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray, ye would know that ye must pray.
What — or rather, Who — the words of the Lord’s servants past and present point us towards is the Living Word Himself, whose direct words come alive today in living individuals, composing a living revelatory community, engaged as fellow servants with Him whose work this world is. As we more perfectly seek, understand, and know the Word, this covenant people — the family of God — will come to see eye to eye as we are gathered from near and far and from past and future, seeing as we are seen, and knowing as we are known.