“And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead? To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:19-20).
The problem of believers seeking information from extra-biblical sources is certainly not new. About a hundred years ago, chief of Criminal Investigation of Scotland Yard, Sir Robert Anderson, wrote, “Tidings reach us from all lands that earnest and spiritual Christians are being deluded, and thrown into a frenzy of exultation, by the meaningless mutterings of what is called the ‘gift of tongues,’ or by other proofs of a spiritual presence from the unseen world.”1 Nor do such conclusions about the canon of Scripture come from one particular denomination or theology, and certainly not just from fundamentalism or dispensationalism. In the early 1800s Andrew Fuller wrote, “I concluded that we ought not to look for any new revelation of the mind of God, but to rest satisfied with what has been revealed already in his Word.”2 Around the same time John Newton wrote, “Now as God only thus reveals himself by the medium of Scripture truth, the light received this way leads the soul to the Scripture from whence it springs, and all the leading truths of the word of God soon begin to be perceived and assented to.”3 Jonathan Edwards wrote, “But now, when the true religion is long since introduced and the canon of the Scripture completed, the use of miracles in the church ceases.”4 Charles Spurgeon wrote, “The canon of revelation is closed: there is no more to be added. God does not give a fresh revelation, but He rivets the old one.”5 And many more such quotes could be added.
Today we have the same problem with a more “Christian” dress. The longing for more revelation from God is not limited to the cultic writings of self-proclaimed prophets such as Mohammad or Joseph Smith, nor to the flippant emotionalism of Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Third Wave experientialists. Now this hankering for a fresh word from God is quickly becoming the norm in main stream Evangelicalism. Fundamentalists play with the same language but usually lag a few years behind until it is accepted well enough not to be criticized.
The new peeping and muttering comes from phrases like casting a vision, hearing God’s whispers, having the gift of prophecy, or experiencing God’s miracles. The use of these has gone beyond the innocent everyday language of years gone by. Most Christians have probably used such words to describe a spiritual moment or leading of God. But it is becoming obvious that many authors mean something different when they use these terms. A writer may use terms such as “I have a vision” or “God told me” and the reader thinks he merely means spiritual understanding or human insight, but these days the writer may mean much more than that. While using a common expression he is probably referring to a more supernatural communication with God.
A recent Barna poll6 confirms these concerns. American believers believe God communicates with them in the following ways. 52% by connecting with their emotions; 41% through a Bible passage; 36% by providing a sign; 34% through a sermon; 31% through miraculous or inexplicable circumstances; 31% through someone speaking for God; 18% through secular material; and 16% through an audible voice or whisper.
In a recent series of articles on the differences between cessationists (those who believe miraculous gifts have ceased) and continuationists (those who believe they continue today), Central Seminary President Kevin Bauder rightfully comments,
Once an allowance is made for the continuation of phophecy, how can anyone say whether any particular prophecy is actually from God, short of its explicitly contradicting Scripture? This is not merely a hypothetical question. In 2009, David Wilkerson prophesied that an earth-shattering calamity was about to engulf New York City, spilling over into New Jersey and Connecticut. In response, John Piper opined that Wilkerson’s prophecy ‘does not resonate with my spirit,’ that it doesn’t ‘smell authentic,’ and that elements of it seemed ‘too prudential.’ These words exhibit the kind of dilemma in which some continuationists find themselves. On the one hand, they cringe from crediting this kind of prophecy. On the other hand, they cannot simply dismiss it. The result is that their criteria for judging prophecies give every appearance of being made up for the occasion.7
This same dilemma is forced upon all believers when they have to decipher common language used in equivocating ways.
The Whisperings of Bill Hybels
In a 2010 book titled, The Power Of A Whisper: Hearing God. Having The Guts To Respond, mega-church pastor and author Bill Hybels claims that God has always whispered answers, directions, and words of encouragement to him. At times Hybels seems only to mean what anyone may mean when they think God is directing them. For example he says, “Although I hadn’t heard an audible voice, the refrain of that impression washed over me again and again that day.”8 Yet on the next page referring to the same incident he says, “What we did have was the confidence that stems from receiving a clear whisper from God” (94).
At one point in the book where Hybels is explaining whispers, he says plainly, “God Speaks.” This is followed by these words, “Not only does God draw near to his children and seek them out when they’re having a rough go, but also he speaks words to them—words of comfort, insight and peace” (156). Two pages later he says, “I received my begged-for direction in ten profound but simple words. Syllable by syllable, here is precisely what the Holy Spirit laid on my heart that day: ‘You are a treasured child of the most high God’” (158). The book is filled with such ambiguous statements. At one moment it is just a “prompting” or something that he “sensed.” At another moment it is something God “revealed” or specifically “said” to him.
Chapter 4 of the book is titled, “How To Know When You’re Hearing From God.” Here he gives five “filters” for discerning whether your whispers are really from God. #1, “Is the Prompting Truly from God?” seems like a bit of begging the question! #2, “Is It Scriptural?” would appear to be the most important. However, later in the book Hybels tells of the process his church went through when the leadership decided to allow women ministers. Two hundred families were leaving the church over it. But the example is used in the book because in the midst of this controversial time he records, “God whispered a much-needed message my way, ‘You might take a hit for what you’ve advocated, Bill, but every little girl growing up in Willow’s family for generations to come will be the beneficiary of your strong stand.’” He then adds, “It was precisely the assurance I needed, from the only One whose approval I sought” (151). Of course, my own thoughts went directly back to filter #2, Is it Scriptural? But what we learn is that to the person receiving these kinds of “revelations,” their experience takes immediate precedence over any other revelation God has given (a Christian version of the Islamic rule of abrogation—the last thing that was said is the most authoritative).
The concern here is the mixture of traditional Christian ways of saying that they felt “led of God” or similar things, and the crossing over the line of the supernatural reception of revelation from God. If God has actually spoken in whispers or by other means, we may have to apologize to Joseph Smith, Muhammad, and the rest.
The Visions of Andy Stanley
In the same vein as whisperings, I have had a long time concern with the newer uses of the word vision. I was first alarmed in reading George Barna’s many books where he would urge leaders to seek their own personal vision from God for their ministry. In Andy Stanley’s 1999 book Visioneering: God’s blueprint for developing and maintaining personal vision9, the case is made for leaders to seek a “personal vision” from God which will be that person’s special direction from God for his ministry. The handy thing about this new doctrine is that the leader can’t be judged by any other authority including chapters and verses. If God has given him his own personal information, who can disagree or oppose him in his ministry?
As with Hybels’ whispers, the word vision has been used in many ways by God’s people. Generally it has been used to mean an idea or a plan for a certain project. At first Stanley talks in terms of “your destination in life,” and where you go “on purpose.” But quickly, by page 24, he is speaking of “a divinely ordered vision” and “your personal vision” and “God’s vision for your life.” He says, “All divinely inspired visions are in some ways tied into God’s master plan. Whether it is loving your wife, investing in your kids, witnessing to your neighbor, launching a ministry, or starting a company, every divinely placed burden has a link to a bigger picture” (26). Notice the combining of divine revelation and mere burdens.
As a footnote, I’ve also been amazed at how evangelicals use mother Teresa as an example of God working through us. Stanley (p. 186) and Hybels (pp. 109, 157) both do this. Are we to evaluate God’s revelation by a Roman Catholic nun? In explaining “vision casting” Stanley says, “She cast her vision to the Vatican and two years later the Missionaries of Charity was officially sanctioned by the Church” (186). This is another example of an immediate revelation from God taking precedence over Scripture itself—unless evangelicals are ready to accept Catholic doctrine of ongoing revelation as biblical.
Because space prohibits, allow me to only briefly give two more.
The Prophesies of Wayne Grudem
Theologian Wayne Grudem, in his book, The Gift of Prophecy10, presents the idea that God is still giving prophecy to people today. To guard against being aligned with outright charismatics however, Grudem proposes that God divinely gives revelation to people, but He doesn’t protect the dissemination of that revelation. Therefore the modern prophet is not protected from error and the modern recipient is not sure whether he has received it from the prophet as God gave it to the prophet.
The Miracles of C. Peter Wagner
Peter Wagner was the partner of John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement. Wagner believed that God gave miraculous power to believers today in order to combat the power of Satan (“signs and wonders”)11. Wagner (and others) proposed that “Western” Christians don’t see the “excluded middle” tier of supernatural phenomena that takes place all around them. Only those from an oriental “mystical” culture understand such things. That’s why most of us do not take advantage of the power over demons and other Satanic authority.
And So . . . .
Cessationist Ernest Pickering wrote, “While theoretically God could bestow any spiritual gift He wished, He does not and will not do so in contradiction to His revealed purposes.”12 The struggle for a clear, once-for-all revealed Word of God continues today. The issues will become cloudier rather than clearer. The Bible believing Christian must be discerning!