Can God speak directly to us? Should we be listening for a “still, small voice,” not necessarily an audible voice but a mental voice, to direct our lives? Should “listening” ever be a part of our contemplative prayers? Or is the Bible the only way that God will ever speak to us, and is listening in any other way a dangerous practice?
I think that any mature Christian worth his or her salt (pun intended) will be wary of what extra-Scriptural direct revelations he or she receives. God, after all, is not the only voice out there. However, I have been startled lately by just how many Christians believe that revelation is completely closed, now, and exists only within the bounds of Scripture. I have heard lately that we are wrong to think that we can hear directly from God, at least in any way other than cracking a Bible.
This concerns me. Allow me to explain why in a long-winded and circuitous manner.
Part One: The Nature and Purpose of Scripture
It’s not my purpose in this blog to make a ground-up argument for the divine inspiration of Scripture. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that either you’re a Christian who already believes that Scripture was divinely inspired by God, or you are willing to temporarily posit such a stance for the sake of argument.
The Scripture was given to us in waves. First, the five Books of Moses were given, which became revered by the Jewish faith as the Torah. Then, centuries later, the writings of various prophets slowly became accepted as authoritative and scriptural. A few more centuries later, a collection of various historical and poetic writings (including the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, etc.), which were already revered as important historical documents, became officially accepted as Scripture by the Jewish faith. (Their acceptance was not official until after the time of Jesus: in the Gospels you will often see Jesus refer to “The Law and the Prophets” but not to “The Writings” as well, though he does quote from them.) Around the same time, as Christianity branched out from and re-interpreted Judaism in the light of who Christ was, the letters written by the apostles became accepted as scriptural, though their official recognition would not be for another two hundred years. Then the gospels, as they were written, and the other New Testament writings, with Revelation and Hebrews being in dispute until they were finally accepted via church council.
During each of these waves, as new revelations were given by God, God’s direct revelations coexisted concurrently with existing Scripture. That is, though the ancient Israelites had the Torah, they also had prophets bringing specific messages from God, and people (even wicked people) would receive visions and dreams–or hear voices–that were sent from God. And again in the early church, although they had the Torah, the K’tuvim, and the N’vim, as well as the writings of Paul (which were already being accepted as Scriptural, see 2 Peter), still had an active ministry of prophecy. Paul twice describes “prophets” in his list of the spiritual gifts, and Luke describes several prophets functioning in the church in the Acts of the Apostles. So, at least while Scripture was still being created, direct revelation was occurring.
Several writers of Scripture speak of that which was already considered Scripture at the time of writing. It is good to look at these passages, as the way that Scripture writers handled and uses earlier Scripture is logically indicative of how we should use and handle Scripture today. When the New Testament authors spoke of the Old Testament, they spoke of it as though it were the directly revealed Word of God (see Acts 4:24-25, 2 Peter 3:2). In addition, several New Testament writers wrote of their own works, or the works of other New Testament writers, as being authoritative, even at one point calling them “scripture” (1 Corinthians 14:37, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Peter 3:14-16).
One of the best passages which explains the purpose of Scripture within the Church is 2 Timothy 3:16-17. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” So the primary purpose of Scripture is to teach, train, and equip the Christ-follower.
Another important passage is found in John. Jesus, speaking to a disbelieving Jewish crowd, exclaims, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” Here is a crucial concept: that Jesus is on every page of Scripture, and that the purpose of Scripture is to point to Jesus. Jesus himself is often referred to as “The Word of God,” the same title given to Scripture–and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The purpose of Scripture is to show who Jesus is. John underscores this regarding his own gospel in John 20:31 — “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So Scripture is revealed by God, but it is a revelation with a specific purpose.
This is important to note. It is not Scripture’s job to be the comprehensive revelation of God, the complete and total revelation of God. In fact, there are many things which are deliberately NOT in Scripture–such as the time of Christ’s return, or what the seven thunders said in the Revelation. The Bible has a specific purpose, and it tells us things toward that purpose, but this does not mean that there are not other revelations to be had. Deuteronomy 29:29 reads, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” And John 20:30 tells us that Jesus did and said many things that did not make it into the gospels. God reveals things to us in Scripture specifically for our instruction. Scripture is not the exhaustive Word of God, though it is sufficient for salvation.
Part Two: Direct Revelation in Scripture
Scripture records many ways in which God revealed things to humans–in other words, ways which have functioned as vehicles for God’s Word. Those ways include
–With an audible voice (Genesis 2:18, 15:18, 1 Samuel 3:4, Revelation 2:1-2)
–Through the casting of lots (Proverbs 16:33, Acts 1:26, Exodus 28:30)
–Through dreams (Genesis 20:3, Numbers 12:6)
–Through visions (Isaiah 1:1, 2 Corinthians 12:2)
–Through angels (Daniel 10:12, Luke 2:10)
–Through prophets (Exodus 4:12, Ephesians 3:5)
–Through actual writing (Daniel 5:5)
–Through the test of signs, now often called “fleeces” (Judges 6:37, 2 Kings 20:9)
–Through the messages embedded in nature, particularly in the stars (Psalm 19:1-4, Matthew 2:2, Romans 1:20)
Scripture not only allows for the existence of God’s direct revelation, but knowing that miracles can be faked and prophecies can be false, Scripture provides us with the guidelines for how to test alleged revelation.
For instance, 1 John 4:1 tells us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” So the first test that we place against any claim of hearing from God, any claim of prophecy, is who the prophecy says that Jesus is. Notice, however, that if all direct revelation was going to cease with the formation of Scripture, why would John not have said, “Do not listen to prophecy”? This warning presupposes that the Christian *may* hear from the Spirit of God.
Not only can a direct revelation not contradict the nature of Christ, it cannot contradict the Gospel. Galatians 1:8 tells us, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”
No revelation, no matter how many miracles accompany it, may promote a god other than God. Deuteronomy 13:1-3.
Here’s an important one: if the prophecy involves signs or future events, the prophecy MUST be completely accurate. In ancient Israel, if it was not completely accurate, it was at the expense of the prophet’s LIFE. There was a zero-tolerance policy for fakers. Deuteronomy 18: “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”
Direct revelations must be evaluated by the congregation, and must proceed in an orderly fashion: 1 Corinthians 14:29-33. Prophecy seems to be a regular part of the early church: 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21.
As the sufficient (but not exhaustive) Word of God, Scripture is held in a place of prominence: thus, no revelation from God can go against, negate, or contradict Scripture. God does not lie or contradict himself–it’s against his nature. And thus, no voice from heaven, no message from an angel, no handwriting on a wall, no sign or wonder, no dream or vision, no prophecy or revelation should be heeded if it does not agree with what we know God has said before.
John Wesley says it best (thanks Nic!):
“Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil. Therefore ‘believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God.’ Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it. You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture; yea, or from the plain, literal meaning of any text, taken in connection with the context; and so are you, if you despise, or lightly esteem, reason, knowledge, or human learning; every one of which is an excellent gift of God.”
Yet in all these cautions there is the assumption that a thought, voice, spirit, vision, dream, message, or prophecy *may* be from God. If it were not so, we would not be instructed to test, but rather to reject all.
In fact, because the New Testament talks so much about how direct revelation (such as prophecy) should be used within the church, in order to reject all direct revelation outside of Scripture, we would have to ignore much of Scripture. Without a Scriptural injunction to do so (as with Acts 15 and the kosher laws), that would be counterproductive to a Sola Scriptura approach to Christianity.
God speaks to us in many ways. God, who used the voice of a donkey to speak to Balaam, can use whatever means at his disposal that he sees fit. And while he has given us the gift of Scripture in which we can find his sufficient Word, and while we can hear him speak by simply reading from that Word, it would be presumptuous on our part to say that this is the only way in which he will speak.
Part 3: Counter-Arguments — the Passing of Prophecy
There is an argument that, while God used these other methods of direct revelation in the past, during “bible times,” he will not do so now, because we now have the Bible itself and don’t need direct revelation.
I find several flaws in this argument, not the least of which are the two Scriptures used to support it. You will find no Scripture that says, “And God will not speak directly to humans anymore once the Bible is finished being made.” However, many supporters of such an idea appeal to Hebrews 1 and 1 Corinthians 13 for their support.
The Epistle to the Hebrews begins as follows:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
When I memorized this passage fifteen years ago, it was in the KJV, not the ESV, and there was no “but” between the two thoughts. I suppose I could go to the Greek, and start digging to see if there should be a conjunction there at all. I do not believe this would be necessary, however. Look at what this passage says, and what it does not say.
It says that God spoke through prophets to “our fathers.” And it says that he has now spoken “by his Son.” It then goes on to talk about that Son and his attributes.
It does not say, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, which he will never have to do again now that the Son has been sent.” To read it as saying so is to ignore the context of the passage. This author (unknown, but I always like to think Apollos) is writing to Jewish Christians about a particularly Jewish understanding of Christianity. So what revelation is he talking about in these “diverse and sundry manners”? The Jewish Scriptures! He’s linking the revelation of Jesus’ teachings as being firmly within–and the fuller completion of–the revelations found in the Old Testament.
This is a statement of unity with Old Testament Judaism, not a statement regarding the end of direct revelation.
This can be further seen in that Hebrews was written before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, pre-70 A.D. The Revelation of John was probably not written until later, at least 95 A.D. In fact, many books of the New Testament were perhaps not written yet. Prophecies were still occuring in the early church. If we are to read Hebrews 1:1 as meaning that all prophecies will cease now that the Son has come, then we would expect to see no direct revelation occurring post-crucifixion. This is not what we see in the New Testament.
Now let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing… Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
This passage, so often read at weddings, has also been used to say that several of the spiritual gifts (prophecy and tongues in particular) have passed away. I have heard it argued that “the perfect” is the completed Bible: that now that the Bible has come, direct revelations such as prophecy and tongues are no longer needed and no longer in effect.
My problem with this is that again, it’s taking a verse away from what the author was driving at. Context is key, and if you want the context to this talk of things “passing away,” keep reading the passage.
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
I do not think anyone will argue that the coming of the completed Bible is tantamount to knowing God “face to face,” no longer seeing in a glass darkly. No, this is not speaking of the finished Bible, but of the second coming! When we can see and speak with Jesus face to face, of course then prophecies will cease, when we no longer need other people to tell us about him! When He who is Perfect has come, then all those gifts will pass, and our childish understanding of him will mature, and all will be swallowed in love.
And here is the problem. Without any other passage which says that “direct revelation will cease with the completion of the Bible,” I would argue that making such a claim is extrabiblical. And if it is extrabiblical to say that there is no longer any extrabiblical revelation, then either such a doctrine is man-made and false, or it is self-disproving.
Part Four: The History of Direct Revelation in the Church
An Orthodox friend of mine wrote, “Mysticism cannot be separated from Catholicism. Or Orthodoxy, for that matter.” I would agree wholeheartedly. (I’m going with Wikipedia’s definition of “mysticism,” “knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, i.e. levels of being, beyond normal human perception, including experience of and even communion with a supreme being.”) The belief that God can still directly reveal something to a person’s heart has been accused of being mysticism, but I would argue that, as Christians are supposed to commune with the Supreme Being, one can hardly be Christian without being mystic.
Not all Christians receive direct revelation, of course. There are, however, several notable examples of Christians who have.
I am particularly fond of the Catholic Encyclopedia’s statement on prophecy: “The prophetic spirit did not disappear with the Apostolic times, but the Church has not pronounced any work prophetic since then, though she has canonized numberless saints who were more or less endowed with the gift of prophecy…”
A few notable examples of Christians who are alleged to have received direct revelation from God (either through voice, dream, vision, or otherwise) include:
–Caedmon, 680, heard a voice telling him to sing. He was illiterate, and protested that he did not know how or what to sing. The voice told him to sing of Creation, and Caedmon found himself able to sing. The result is the oldest poem we have in the English language.
–Edward the Confessor, 1066, received a vision while has been interpreted (after the fact) as prophesying the split of the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church.
–Abdullah (pseudonym), 1998, Muslim who, after a series of troubling dreams, heard an audible voice which told him, “I am Jesus. I am the way to heaven.” Subsequently converted to Christianity, and was almost executed for it.
The fact is, there is a strong history of direct revelation within Christianity. We should treat such revelations with caution, and always place them alongside Scripture for analysis, testing them for accuracy, but they can and do exist. To say otherwise, I’m worried, might be placing words in God’s mouth–the very thing that those who reject modern direct revelation are trying to avoid.
Plus, I like to remember that direct revelation is a promise given for the eventual future:
“And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.”