Written by: R. Fowler White
Evangelical Protestant faith has always affirmed, as a central tenet of its understanding of divine revelation, that the Word of God must have supreme authority in religion. Evangelicalism has historically held this view in close conjunction with the work of the Holy Spirit. The truth can be stated this way:
The living and true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is supreme head of a living church, is not mute. He speaks — and He speaks clearly — by His Spirit and through His written word, the Bible.’1
Therefore, as the author of Hebrews aptly puts it, we must see to it that we do not disregard “Him who is speaking” (Heb. 12:25) 2
These statements are among the claims that define those who have traditionally identified themselves as evangelicals. They are my own affirmations as an evangelical theologian. They are, further, the affirmations of the contributors to this present volume of essays. Certain evangelicals, however, have begun to add an additional proposition. It is extremely important that we understand this additional proposition and the effect it is having on present evangelical thought and practice. A crisis is on the horizon, and those who are unaware may well be caught off guard.
This new proposition states that God also speaks to His people today apart from the Bible, though He never speaks in contradiction to it. As qualified as this statement seems to be, few evangelicals today would question whether it is true. After all, if nothing that God may say today apart from the Scriptures actually contradicts what He has already said in the Scriptures, what is the big deal? Simply put, the big deal is whether or not it is actually true that God speaks to His people apart from the Bible. Is this new affirmation itself a contradiction of the Scriptures? Has God, in fact, told His people in the Bible that they should hear His voice in both spoken and written words? Does not this new view threaten to set aside the historic doctrine of the sufficiency and finality of Scripture?
Lest anyone be prematurely self-assured of having the right answers to these questions, consider the issue from another point of view. If we deny that God speaks today apart from the Scriptures, are we quenching His Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19)? Some, such as William DeArteaga, have said exactly that.3 Others state the matter in an even more serious way. Jack Deere, a former Dallas Theological Seminary professor, now conference speaker, author, and Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, has made the following assertions:
In order to fulfill God’s highest purposes for our lives we must be able to hear his voice both in the written word and in the word freshly spoken from heaven. . . Satan understands the strategic importance of Christians hearing God’s voice so he has launched various attacks against us in this area. One of his most successful attacks has been to develop a doctrine that teaches God no longer speaks to us except through the written word. Ultimately, this doctrine is demonic even [though] Christian theologians have been used to perfect it.4
Shocking words for sure, but arresting, aren’t they? We need a good deal of candor if we are to fully appreciate what is being said here. If DeArteaga, Deere, and others of similar mind are right, if the Bible does indeed teach the church to hear God’s voice both through its pages and apart from them in words “freshly spoken from heaven,” then the contributors to this present volume and those who agree with them are at least guilty of quenching the Spirit, if not of outright refusal to hear the very voice of God. We, of all people, are especially in need of fanning into flame those gifts of the Spirit through which God would speak to His church today (cf. 2 Tim. 1:6).
With this fuller appreciation for what is at stake, I will evaluate certain key arguments that have led others to affirm that God still speaks today apart from the Bible. In the past we might have turned to Pentecostal and charismatic teachers for such argumentation, since this affirmation has been a defining trait and modus operandi of their circles. But in recent years a whole new wave of evangelicalism has arisen among teachers from historically non-Pentecostal and noncharismatic circles. These teachers and authors have been at the forefront of the whole discussion regarding the hearing of God’s voice. Because of this new group of influential teachers, we will focus our particular attention on the arguments advanced by them, principally Wayne Grudem and Jack Deere. Though this may mean that I must entertain some views unique to Grudem and Deere, it is nevertheless my aim to take into account what is distinctive to all who affirm the doctrine that God speaks today apart from the Bible.5
DEFINING OUR TERMS
We need to ask ourselves, first, what does it mean to say that “God speaks today”? Keeping in mind the traditional meaning that “God speaks today through the Bible,” the phrase has come to be used in two other senses. For some, the words “God speaks today” are simply a popular, if misleading, way of describing the fact that God guides and directs His people by His Spirit in the application of His written word through promptings, impressions, insights, and the like. Most non-Pentecostals and noncharismatics have explained these (more or less) intuitive experiences in terms of the Spirit’s works of illumination, leading, and conviction. A few would even acknowledge that, among those who fit a given psycho-spiritual profile, these experiences might be accompanied by things seen or heard. All of these experiences are, however, carefully distinguished from the Spirit’s work of revelation.6 Hence, though the Spirit’s illumination and guidance may sometimes focus on phenomena such as promptings or impressions, those phenomena are not specifically interpreted as involving the biblical ministry-gifts of revelation, such as prophecy and tongues or their correlates (e.g., visions, dreams, auditions).
Others, of course, use the words “God speaks today” to mean that He guides and directs His people by giving them words of direction through all the same media that the Bible portrays Him as using in the past (e.g., visions and auditions, prophets and angels). As Deere says, “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.”7 We find the evidence for this claim, Deere argues, in the various methods God has used in the past to speak to His people.
For example, during the age of the Old Testament, Deere observes, “God spoke to his children … in an audible voice, in dreams and visions, through circumstances and fleeces, through inner impressions, through prophets, through angels and through Scripture. “8 Turning to the Gospels, Deere notes that ‘one of the basic keys to the ministry of Jesus was that he only did what he saw his Father doing and he only spoke the words that his Father gave him to speak.”9 According to Deere, the same pattern can be seen in Acts: “Special guidance [was] given to the apostles and others by visions, angelic voices, the Holy Spirit, etc.”10
Finally, in the New Testament epistles, Paul instructs the churches concerning their use of the revelatory gifts of “prophecy, tongues, words of wisdom, words of knowledge, and discernment of Spirits [sic].”11 Moreover, as Deere understands it, the author of Hebrews expresses his belief that angelic visitations were possible in his day when he reminded his readers that “some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2 KJV).12
By contrast, then, with the previous definition of the phrase “God speaks today,” Deere concludes that “on a prima facie reading of the Scriptures, one would expect God to continue communicating to his children throughout the church age with the same variety of methods he has always used.”13
WORDS SO BROADLY DEFINED
Let’s admit it: the idea that God continues to communicate with us using exactly the same methods that He has always used is not only provocative but has a certain attraction. Making it all the more interesting, Deere’s contention that the issue of whether God speaks today apart from the Bible is basically a matter of recognizing that God uses the same means to communicate today as He used in the past.14
As we ponder this claim, let us not make the mistake of saying that God has never spoken apart from Scripture, for indeed He has done just that. For example, though Moses had committed to writing the words God spoke to him, God continued to speak apart from those Scriptures through the prophets who came after Moses. Having elicited this acknowledgment from us, however, Deere wants us to take an additional step: he urges that, as God has done in the past, so we should expect Him to do in the present.
As noble as Deere’s conclusion may sound, it is a seriously deficient theological view precisely because it does not respect the biblical link between the means through which God spoke and the content He conveyed through those means, namely, His very words. In this light we must observe that, despite his intentions to the contrary, Deere actually depreciates the means through which God has communicated in the past. He insists that those means are always connected with “words of direction” from God without defining those words in other than personal and ministerial terms. But, by defining these words so broadly, he leaves the impression that the words God spoke long ago are on a par with the words He speaks today. That parity is actually crucial to Deere’s whole agenda. The simple problem is this: It is not true. To see this fact, we need only reconsider Deere’s examples.
As the Old Testament portrays it, whenever God spoke apart from Scripture in the past, He never spoke, or had others speak, anything other than His very own words. Just how radically true this was in Old Testament days is emphasized in Deuteronomy 18, arguably the fundamental biblical text on the role of the Old Testament prophet. Speaking of the prophets to and through whom He would speak after Moses, God Himself says, “I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. . . . Whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him” (vv. 18-19)15 Therefore, during the Old Testament period, the words of direction that God spoke “apart from the Scriptures” (i.e., apart from, say, the writings of Moses) were His own words, always expressing accurately what He intended to communicate and invariably invested with absolute authority.
What was true of God’s speech alongside the Scriptures during the Old Testament period was also true of his speech alongside the Old Testament Scriptures during the ministries of Jesus and the apostles. The words that the Father spoke to Jesus, and that Jesus spoke in turn to His hearers, were not less than the Father’s very own words. Deere is right to call our attention here especially to John’s gospel, which has a particular interest in the Father’s communication with and through His Son (see John 3:34; 7:16; 8:28; 12:49-50; 14:10, 24, 31).
Similarly, the words of direction that God communicated to and through the apostles were His very words. This is the import of Jesus’ remarks to the apostles during His Farewell Discourse: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you (John 14:26). Again Jesus said to them:
When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. (16:13-14)
Thus, Paul, whom Christ added to His apostolate, says of himself and his fellow apostles, (1) the Holy Spirit made known to them the things freely given to us believers by God (1 Cor. 2:10, 12), and (2) they spoke of those things, “not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those [words] taught by the Spirit” (2:13)—words invariably accurate and fully authoritative.16
The same is evident in Acts: the words of direction that God communicated to and through the apostles and others were always His very own words. Deere and those who agree with him are fond of citing Acts 16:9-10 (Paul’s vision of the Macedonian call) as an example of the personal-ministerial and extrabiblical revelation that does not contradict God’s revelation in Scripture.17 Certainly the revelation in this passage is “personal-ministerial and extrabiblical,” that is, apart from Scripture as it existed at that point. But, just as certainly, it is nothing less than one of those always accurate, invariably authoritative words from God.
Consistent with this portrayal of the apostles in Acts, the New Testament prophets are, at least ostensibly, depicted in Acts as following in the footsteps of their Old Testament forebears — that is, they too receive words from God through the Spirit that are His very own words. There are only three occasions in the New Testament where the actual contents of a specific post-Pentecost prophecy are recorded: the two prophecies of Agabus (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-11) and the prophecy of John in the book of Revelation.l8 We may leave aside the example of the book of Revelation, since no one discussing the issue before us questions that the visions in that book communicated God’s own words.
As for Agabus, Luke portrays this New Testament prophet as one who spoke whatever words the Holy Spirit had to say In fact, in Acts 21:10, 11, “Agabus’ use of dramatic symbol and quotation formula [tying his own hands and feet with Paul’s belt and introducing his oracle with the words ‘This is what the Holy Spirit says’] would have signaled to his audience that [his] prophecy was the same in kind as oracles delivered by OT prophets.”19 Indeed, though some persist in questioning the accuracy of Agabus’s prophecy in Acts 21, “in every respect, Luke expected his readers to view Agabus in continuity with OT prophets.”20
We cannot discuss them here, but other instances from Acts confirm that the words communicated to the apostles and others through many different media were invariably accurate, fully authoritative words from God (e.g., Acts 8:26, 29; 9:10-12; 10:9-19; 13:1-3; 18:9-10). As for the angelic visitations to which the author of Hebrews refers (Heb. 13:2), the only words the Bible ever represents God’s angels as speaking or otherwise communicating were God’s very own (Heb. 2:2; Gen. 18-19; Zech. 1:14-16; Rev. 1:1; 22:6).
My aim in all that I have considered so far is to demonstrate that — for all the interest Deere has in teaching us the biblical model of hearing God as practiced by Jesus, the apostles, and others — he fundamentally misrepresents the very model he has chosen. Deere creates the impression that the revelatory words God spoke in biblical times are on a par with the words He speaks today Even if he is right that the “words of direction” in the Bible are both personal and ministerial words, he has still not produced a single incontrovertible biblical example in which those words are anything other than God’s very own words. To the contrary, in every example that has come to my attention, God saw to it that whatever He intended to communicate was always accurately expressed and invariably invested with His authority This brings me to some important evidence I have not yet considered — namely, Paul’s instructions regarding the church’s use of the revelatory gifts.
NO LONGER SPEAKING AS BEFORE
Deere’s aim is to persuade that just as God used revelatory gifts to give words of direction to His children in biblical days, so He still does today But this is simply not the whole picture. For Deere, the words God speaks today through those gifts are simply not on a par with the inerrant, fully authoritative words that He spoke in the past.21 To find the basis of Deere’s affirmations here, we must turn to Professor Wayne Grudem’s influential writings on New Testament prophecy22
Grudem’s position can be summarized this way: In the New Testament gift of prophecy (and its correlates — visions, dreams, auditions, words of knowledge, and wisdom) the church should find a source of practical, though fallible, guidance. To adequately consider this proposition, we must notice that Grudem says very plainly that God now speaks as He has never previously spoken. Though the means through which God speaks are purportedly the same, the words He speaks are different from everything He has said before — to the Old Testament saints, to Jesus, to the apostles. In short, the words God speaks have been redefined, for they are no longer His very words, inerrant and authoritative.
If the Bible actually says that this is the case, then so be it. But we need to consider Grudem’s evidence from the Bible. Aside from his treatment of Agabus the prophet, Grudem’s chief support for prophecy as a source of fallible practical guidance comes from two texts: 1 Corinthians 14:29 and I Thessalonians 5:20-22.
In 1 Corinthians 14:29, Paul writes, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.” The issue relevant to our concerns is the unidentified object on which “the others pass judgment.” Is it the true and false elements in each oracle,23 or is it the true and false oracles (of true and false prophets, respectively) among the many oracles the church heard? As others have done, Grudem takes the former view, primarily because the Greek verb (diakrino) translated “pass judgment” involves a sorting or sifting activity24 In favor of the latter view, note that Paul refers to “prophets” (plural) speaking their revelations in 14:29-30, not to mention “prophecies” (plural) in 1 Thessalonians 5:20. In other words, the apostle presupposes that the churches would be hearing multiple prophecies from multiple prophets. In this light, Grudem’s interpretation is clearly not in keeping with Paul’s exact words. The apostle does not instruct the churches to sort out the true and false elements in any particular prophecy. Rather, he instructs them to sort out the true and false prophecies among the many they would hear.25
When we compare this view of 1 Corinthians 14:29 with the use of the verb diakrino within and outside the New Testament, we find that it is perfectly consistent with that usage: The verb is applied to sifting wheat from chaff (Philo), distinguishing the clean from the unclean (Josephus), separating the guilty from others (Josephus), discerning good from evil (Testament of Asher), sorting true from false (Philo), distinguishing Jews from Gentiles (Acts 15:9; cf. 11:2), distinguishing certain people from others (1 Cor. 4:7), and forming a right (instead of a wrong) judgment of oneself (11:31)26 This evidence falsifies Grudem’s claim that the New Testament prefers – and Paul would have preferred — the verb krino over diakrino “when speaking of judgments where there are only two possibilities, such as ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, or ‘true’ or ‘false’.”27 But we look in vain for any examples where diakrino implies judgments involving more than two possibilities.
To round out our discussion of diakrino, notice its use in 1 Corinthians 6:5: “Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren?”28 Contrary to Grudem’s argument, in the context immediately following 6:5, Paul shows his awareness of only two possible outcomes when a believer has a grievance against his neighbor: one will be wronged or defrauded (v. 7), the other guilty of wrongdoing or defrauding (v. 8). The pertinent point, however, is that the wise man’s duty, as implied by diakrino, is to sort out the wrongdoer from his victim on the basis of the evidence. By analogy in 1 Corinthians 14:29, the duty of “the others” is to sort out the true prophet from the false prophet on the basis of their oracles (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 12:3; 14:37; cf. Eph. 4:14-15 with 4:4-6,11).
My conclusions are virtually the same when I consider 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22. In 5:20 Paul warns the Thessalonians not to despise prophecies. Clearly the Thessalonians’ esteem for prophecy was not what it should have been. But why? As 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, 15 suggests, they had overreacted to an influx of false prophecies that were confusing them and threatening to lead them astray29 Consequently, in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, Paul corrects the Thessalonians’ overreaction by directing them to test everything and, having done so, to adhere to what is good and to avoid what is evil. Paul’s exact wording in 5:20 (“prophecies” [plural]), coupled with the testing for good and evil in verses 21-22, implies that he was expecting the church to test multiple prophecies among which they would find false prophecies as well as true ones.30 Thus, the instructions to the Thessalonians mirror Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 14:29: The testing of prophecies presupposes that the prophecies heard in the churches might well have included both true and false prophecies (from both true and false prophets, respectively) among them.
In light of these factors, we have to say that Grudem fundamentally misunderstands Paul’s directives in 1 Corinthians 14:29 and 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22. The accuracy of the interpretation presented here, however, is confirmed by its consistency with the broader teaching of the Bible. According to that teaching, the church, like Israel, judged prophecies in order to separate the true prophets from the false (Deut. 13:1-5; 1 Kings 13; Matt. 7:15-20 with 12:32-37 and 24:23-26; 1 John 4:1-6; cf. Rom. 16:17-19). In carrying out this responsibility, the church exercised discernment based on the explicit, absolute standards of good and evil (1 Thess. 5:21-22), truth and error (1 John 4:1-6), and thus determined the source of the prophecies they heard, whether they were from the Holy Spirit or from some other source.31
We may say, therefore, that for Paul and the rest of the New Testament authors, the judging of New Testament prophecies was a process of evaluating the prophets’ oracles in order to pass judgment on the prophets themselves and thus discern the source of their oracles. This interpretation, we submit, is alone able to account for the admonitions that Christ and His apostles gave to the church regarding false prophecies and false prophets. The church was told in no uncertain terms not to tolerate prophets whose words were false or evil and were thus a threat to lead them astray (Matt. 7:15-20 with 12:32-37 and 24:23-26; 1 John 4:1-6; 1 Thess. 5:22; 2 Thess. 2:3, 15; Rev. 2:20-23; cf. Rom. 16:17-19).
Some present-day evangelicals, Jack Deere and Wayne Grudem among them, believe and teach that God speaks today apart from the Bible. According to these teachers, God gives words of personal or ministry direction to His people using all the same means that He used in the past. Yet, when we consider the evidence for these views, we find that their resemblance to what the Bible actually depicts is more apparent than real. Whatever else Deere is teaching, he is not teaching the model of hearing God’s voice as practiced in the Bible itself. Similarly, Grudem has transformed Paul into an eccentric who is patently out of step with other New Testament authors, indeed with all other biblical authors, when it comes to the crucial matter of judging prophecies.
In my judgment,32 what these teachers and their disciples fail to appreciate is that, in the Bible, God’s activity of speaking apart from the Scriptures occurred at a time when those documents were still being written. Interestingly, during that long history of Scripture writing, God’s people did live by a “Scripture plus” principle of authority, and, in keeping with that principle, God employed various means to speak His extrascriptural words to them. But today the church is faced with a new situation: now, with centuries of Christian orthodoxy, we confess that the writing of Scripture is finished, that the canon is actually closed.
But why does the church affirm that the canon is closed? The only demonstrable basis for this affirmation is that God’s giving of revelation, spoken and written, is always historically joined to and qualified by God’s work of redemption.33 Now that God has accomplished salvation once-for-all, in Christ, He has also spoken His word, once-for-all, in Christ and in those whom Christ authorized and empowered by His Spirit (Heb. 1:1-2; 2:3, 4; Matt. 16:15-19; John 14:26; Eph. 2:19, 20). With the completion of salvation in Christ comes the cessation of revelation. Consequently, the church now lives by a “Scripture only” principle of authority To tamper with this principle invites a host of theological and pastoral problems. The proof of this observation can be seen in the effect of these “prophecies” upon many who are being led far afield from the sufficiency of the gospel itself. Its finality and complete sufficiency is, in reality, subtly assaulted by these claims to modern prophecies.
Finally, the Bible gives us no reason to expect that God will speak to His children today apart from the Scriptures.34 Those who teach otherwise need to explain to God’s children how these words “freshly spoken from heaven” can be so necessary and strategic to God’s highest purposes for their lives when their Father does nothing to ensure that they will ever actually hear those words. Indeed, they must explain why this is not quenching the Spirit. Moreover, the promise of such guidance inevitably diverts attention from the Scriptures, particularly in the practical and pressing concerns of life. Let us never underestimate just how serious this diversion really is. In the Bible the church hears God’s true voice; in the Scriptures, we know that He is speaking His very words to us. Advocates of words “freshly spoken from heaven” should beware: By diverting attention from the Scriptures, they quench the Spirit who is speaking therein.