The 8th century Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision has, ironically, become popular today as a modern “Celtic” hymn. In my opinion, the irony lies in the fact that so many people today do not make the Incarnate Christ the subject of their vision at all, but rather seek for an individual vision from Christ. This is typical of the modern twisting of normal language and doctrine. But it is not a new phenomenon.
In his book, The Anabaptist Story, William Estep points out a problem that existed in the 14th century church: “Failure to distinguish between the Anabaptists, inspirationists, and rationalists has led to gross misunderstanding of the entire Radical Reformation.”1 The “inspirationists” were those such as Thomas Muntzer and the Zwickau prophets (like the later Quakers) who sought spiritual visions and revelations. The “rationalists” such as Faustus Socinus, placed too much emphasis on reason and rationality. But “For the Swiss and south German Anabaptists, the final authority for the Christian life and the faith and order of the church was the New Testament, in particular the life and teachings of Christ.”2 There has always been a conflict over the nature of “vision” for the church and the believer.
One suspects that the current love for the “Celtic” hymns (I am pronouncing that with a hard “C”, though I am still a fan of the Boston “Celtics”) is actually more a love for the mystical and medieval than for the historic incarnation of Christ. This was true of the “inspirationists” who sought mystical self-revelatory guides for their life, as opposed to the core of independent brethren who searched the Scriptures for their direction.
I think there is a growing impreciseness today over what we mean by “vision.” Some may simply mean new ideas, but others obviously mean revelations from God. Most, I suppose, are somewhere between these two and yet speak as if God has given them something unique and individual. It is not uncommon to hear of someone getting their own vision from God for a particular ministry. Each person’s vision is different from another’s but each is authoritative for their life and calling.
The danger is that these individual visions become the real directive in a Christian’s life, while the Bible serves merely as a general set of principles and values to guide the vision to its finish. No matter how orthodox one claims to be, this kind of thinking is alarming. George Barna, for example, writes, “Our task is to grasp and articulate God’s vision for our future and to facilitate the change necessary to create that future.”3 For Barna, this vision is given by God to a Christian leader for his specific ministry and is not to be taken as a guide for anyone else’s ministry.
The Traditional Church has always been skeptical of such language. It is used too flippantly by some and too loaded with mystical meaning by others. Proverbs 29:18, Where there is no vision, the people perish, is often used to support individual revelations (even Barna uses it this way), but we must agree with Alden when he writes, “Vision here does not refer to one’s ability to formulate goals and work toward them, nor does it mean eyesight or the ability to understand. Vision instead is a synonym for what a prophet does.”4 Without our thoughts and actions being grounded in God’s Word, we will “perish” in our ministry for God.
I would like to offer five aspects of the vision of God’s churches.
The Reception of the Vision is Historic
Jude wrote his short epistle that we should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3). Peter said that holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Pet 1:21). Both of these verses speak of the church possessing the finished revelation from God and it is a dangerous thing for Christians to talk of receiving new vision from God.
Spurgeon wrote, “I have heard many fanatical persons say the Holy Spirit revealed this and that to them. Now that is very generally revealed nonsense. The Holy Ghost does not reveal anything fresh now. He brings old things to our remembrance. ‘He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance whatsoever I have told you.’ 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
We would be much better off if we could see that God has given us all the vision we need in the Incarnation of His Son and in the written revelation of His Son. The Holy Spirit, then, is our resident Teacher to convict and remind us of things that are written. He may burden us in a way that is compelling for us to act, but He always convicts, and we always act scripturally.
The Content of the Vision is Universal
The inspiration of the Scripture which contains the incarnation of Christ, IS the vision for EVERY believer! The writer of Hebrews said, God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken to us by his son (Heb 1:1-2). Peter said that the Bible is a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed (2 Pet 1:19).
Believers all over the world and in every generation have had the same vision given to them in the Scripture. This is what has given unity to the Body of Christ. Wherever you might find believers in this whole world, you can count on them believing and doing the same things you believe and do. If you differ, it is due to hermeneutics, not to subjective mystical experiences.
Many movements have departed from this universal foundation into subjective experiences. John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Movement, wrote, “I assumed that Bible study, especially as approached in evangelical seminaries, was the key to being equipped and empowered to do God’s work….but I no longer see it as the sole avenue to being equipped and empowered to do God’s Work.”6 Peter Wagner, Wimber’s life-long associate in this “signs and wonders” movement also wrote, “In the early years….I focused mostly on Bible study….Now I know more about worship, reverence, and praise. I seek a daily refilling of the Holy Spirit in a way I can actually feel his presence….I am beginning to distinguish the voice of God from my own thoughts and to allow him to speak to me directly.”7
These modern “inspirationists” should not set the pattern for Bible-believing people. This was Jude’s fear that we would not contend for the “once for all” faith.
The Goal of the Vision is Discovery
Since we have God’s vision for us, and we know it is for all of us, we should be diligent about studying it to find truth for today. It is the Postmodernist who tells us that truth is not discovered but created. To him, all history is obsolete and only new information can be true. I am not saying that all “inspirationists” are postmodernists, but that we may be influenced more by the culture than we think!
R.A. Torrey wrote, “It is not by seasons of mystical meditation and rapturous experiences that we learn to abide in Christ; it is by feeding upon His word, His written word as found in the Bible, and looking to the Holy Spirit to implant these words in our hearts and to make them a living thing in our hearts.”8 Jesus said, Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me (John 5:39).
One of those early Anabaptists who was converted under Zwingli but broke with him upon further study of the Bible was Conrad Grebel. He wrote, “We were listeners to Zwingli’s sermons and readers of his writings, but one day we took the Bible itself in hand and were taught better.”9 A man’s vision of what needs to be done will always fall short of what the Bible itself will show us by diligent study.
The Result of the Vision is Practical
Zwingli was the spiritual father of a number of young students in Zurich. The October Disputation of 1523 brought the group of young reformers into conflict with the city council. Zwingli had promised that he would stand with the young men to oppose the Christmas mass and ask for freedom to observe the simple Lord’s Supper. When Zwingli bowed to the council’s wishes, betraying his young students, one young man, Simon Stumpf, excaimed, “Master Ulrich, you do not have the right to place the decision on this matter in the hands of my lords, for the decision has already been made, the Spirit of God decides.”10 Estep explains that “Zwingli next delineated the difference between truth as determined from study of the Scriptures and the implementation of truth by the council.”11
Bible believing people have always held that the Bible is the basis for practice as well as faith. In the Scripture we do not merely have what is “described” for us but what is “prescribed” for the pattern of the church. We do not leave the doctrinal matters with the Scripture and find the practical matters in visions. Both faith and practice come from the Word of God. As Bruce Shelley described, “Little groups of Anabaptist believers gathered about their Bibles. They discovered a different world in the pages of the New Testament.”12
The Priority of the Vision is Submission
All is vain unless there is a willing conformity to this changeless Body of truth. The Word of God has a way of humbling the individual to the point of denying his selfish interests for the sake of revealed truth. Paul commended the Thessalonians by writing, When ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe (1 Thes 2:13).
We need not bow to the cultural pressure of being perceived as great visionaries who have received special direction from God and must, therefore, insist that our people follow without question. Our people ought to question such self-serving attitudes in leaders. Paul chided the Corinthians for being duped in such a way, For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face. (2 Cor 11:19-20).
No great man ever wanted to be great! He wanted to be like Christ and was thrust into service. Most leadership training today is ego-building based on common business principles. The sad thing is, it will work in most churches because the price of submission to revealed truth is too high. As G.K. Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”13
And So . . .
God grant us the ability to walk by faith and not by sight, and may our anchor hold, steadfast and sure, to the One who is entered within the veil, where authorities and powers are made subject unto Him.Notes: 1. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 21. 2. Estep, 22. 3. George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998) 98. 4. Robert Alden, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983) 202. 5. Charles Spurgeon, “The Comforter,” Understanding the Holy Spirit (AMG, 1995) 179. 6. John Wimber, Power Evangelism (San Francisco: Harper, 1992) 91. 7. Peter Wagner, The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit (Ann Arbor: Vine Books, 1988) 129. 8. R.A. Torrey, How To Pray (Chicago: Moody Press, nd.) 68. 9. Estep 20. 10. Estep, 16. 11. Estep, 17. 12. Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995) 248. 13. G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994) 37.