Last month we began to look at the subject of personal revelations – subjective experiences that many interpret as God speaking to them without employing Scripture. In this article we shall consider more closely two specific ‘new kinds’ of revelation that have become popular today.
Our first concern is what some claim to be New Testament prophecy but which is nothing of the kind. I will call it ‘imperfect prophecy’. In Colossians 2:18-19 Paul addresses a people confused by mystical experiences. He was opposing the forerunners to the Gnostics who were teaching that a few elite had received the gift of direct inspiration through the Holy Spirit.
These moments of inspiration allegedly took place through visions, dreams and encounters with angels. The effect of this teaching was to divide the church into two classes, the haves and the have-nots – those who imagined themselves as truly spiritual and those who lacked these experiences.
This kind of problem has not faded into the past and is almost identical to the teachings found within various elements of the Charismatic movement today. For example, Jack Deere a leading Vineyard theologian writes:
‘God can and does give personal words of direction to believers today that cannot be found in the Bible. I do not believe that he gives direction that contradicts the Bible, but direction that cannot be found in the Bible.’
How do they know?
But how does a person know if he is really hearing from God? Wayne Grudem, another Vineyard theologian, answers:
‘Did the revelation seem likesomething from the Holy Spirit; did it seem to be similar to other experiences of the Holy Spirit which he had known previously in worship? Beyond this it is difficult to specify much further, except to say that over time a congregation would probablybecome more adept at making evaluations … and become more adept at recognising a genuine revelation from the Holy Spirit and distinguishing it from their own thoughts’.
Grudem is a careful and well-respected Charismatic theologian. He taught Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, for twenty years. Yet, the best he can devise in answer to our concern is, ‘Did it seem like the Holy Spirit?’ and, ‘A congregation would probably’ get better at discernment over time.
While we are trying to decide if something felt like the Holy Spirit (nothing in the Bible helps us here) and hoping that we will get better at discerning the voice of God, others such as Henry Blackaby tell us that we dare not even make a move until we are certain we have heard from God!
Less than Scripture?
At this point, Blackaby, Deere and Grudem would cry foul. They would claim that when God speaks apart from the Bible today, these revelations are not on a par with Scripture. That is, God speaks today but not with the same authority as he did in Scripture.
But this raises another issue. Does God ever speak in a non-authoritative manner? In the biblical record we find that God did speak in a variety of ways (as Hebrews 1:1 testifies) but his Word was always authoritative.
It was nothing less than a word from God – one that could be understood and must be heeded and obeyed! But we are being told today that God is speaking in a different, less authoritative, even ‘impure’ way.
This is how Wayne Grudem explains it: ‘There is almost uniform testimony from all sections of the charismatic movement that prophecy is imperfect and impure, and will contain some elements which are not to be obeyed or trusted.
‘The Anglican charismatic leaders Dennis and Rita Bennett write, “We are not expected to accept every word spoken through the gifts of utterance … but we are only to accept what is quickened to us by the Holy Spirit and is in agreement with the Bible … one manifestation may be 75% God, but 25% the person’s own thought. We must discern between the two”.’
Prophesy, old and new
But where is Grudem taking us? To support his thesis he contends that New Testament prophecy is different from Old Testament prophecy. Old Testament prophecy was a direct revelation from God and thus infallible, with the prophet forfeiting his life if he was in error (Deuteronomy 13:5; 18:20-22).
But New Testament prophecy (which he extends to include modern-day phenomena), says Grudem, can be fallible. A ‘New Testament’ prophecy could be partially from God and partially from ourselves – the Christian must attempt to discern where God leaves off and man begins.
But this is not New Testament prophecy at all! Paul tells us that the gospel itself was revealed ‘by the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets’ (the context requires that these are New Testament prophets; Ephesians 2:20-21; 3:3-5).
I believe Grudem to be in serious error. Nevertheless, his view is gaining popularity even among conservative theologians and leaders.
The inner voice
Consider, secondly, what some call ‘the inner voice’. While never denying the authority of Scripture, many, including key evangelical leaders, regularly point to mystical experiences as the basis for what they do and believe.
But, as David Wells’ observes, ’Granting the status of revelation to anything other than the Word of God inevitably has the effect of removing that status from the Word of God. What may start out as an additional authority alongside the Word of God will eventually supplant its authority altogether’.
John Armstrong concurs, ‘Direct communication from God, by definition, constitutes some form of new revelation. Such revelation would, at least in principle, indicate that the Scriptures were not sufficient or final’.
God spoke to Abraham
Critics of my position will point to cases in Scripture where God seemed to be speaking all the time to all sorts of people. But we sometimes forget that what we can read in minutes may have covered large periods of time.
Abraham, for example, heard the voice of God in Genesis 15 and again in Genesis 17, but at least 14 years passed between the two utterances (possibly more; compare 16:16 with 17:1). Many years passed with no communication from God at all – even to Abraham, the friend of God!
Furthermore, when God did speak it was almost always to prophets and key players in the biblical story, not just anyone. Yet many today act as if God speaks to everyone all the time – and prop up this view by appeal to Scripture. But the Bible simply does not support this idea.
A third observation that is often missed is of great importance to this discussion. When God did speak in Scripture he did so with specific words. You will search in vain for some inner voice from God speaking through promptings or hunches.
No one said, ‘I feel the Lord leading me to do such and such’, or, ‘I have the peace of God in this decision’. In other words, Charismatics have created a means of communication from God not found in the Bible. Yet we are asked to believe that this is the norm today.
The origination of Scripture
But there is an overriding argument against ‘inner voice’ revelation. When God spoke without Scripture in biblical times it was in order to create Scripture! We cited earlier Ephesians 3:3-5: ‘By revelation [God] made known to me the mystery which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets’.
Paul is here speaking of the origination of Scripture. He is describing the process by which things that were previously ‘not made known’ were revealed to men like himself – apart from or in addition to existing Scripture – in order that they might be written down as Scripture.
This was exactly the same process by which the Old Testament Scriptures came into being (see 2 Samuel 23:2-3; Hebrews 1:1; 1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:21). Clearly, no Scripture could come into existence unless God first revealed truth to an author without using previous writings.
But this means that claims to extra-biblical revelation today cannot be justified by reference to the experience of men like Abraham, Moses, David and others, without also claiming that today’s ‘revelations’ are, in effect, new Scripture.
Many are telling us that God is speaking in a third way today, a way never found, described or hinted at in the Bible. God is speaking today, they say, but his word is not authoritative – what we think we are hearing can be weighed, examined and even dismissed. And those who feel certain they are hearing from God still believe that the revelation may be partly in error.
It remains a mystery to me why people are attracted to this view of revelation. Surely it is not an improvement over ‘Thus says the Lord’. Surely the uncertainty of this teaching pales in comparison to the certainty of the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:19-21).