Thursday, July 31, 2014

An audible voice

I'm going to comment on part of a Facebook discussion:

Todd Pruitt One error we must avoid is making normative what is never intended to be. In other words, I must not expect to be given special direct revelation as the prophets and apostles were. If God speaks to me in the way he spoke to his chosen prophets and apostles then we would need to add to the Scriptures. Of course, that is exactly what the Mormons did. 
Todd Pruitt Does God every speak in a way that is not fully authoritative, unerring, and binding? 
Todd Pruitt What I'm getting at is does God ever speak to us with such clarity, authority, and accuracy that we are able to say with certainty: "Thus says The Lord"? 
Todd Pruitt This is a huge, and I believe insurmountable problem for those who believe in continuing revelation. I can never get an answer to the question I have posted here. I think it is because they know there is a fatal flaw in their understanding of how God continues to speak to his people. They desire to affirm continuing direct speech from God but they want it to somehow be not entirely binding or clear. I simply cannot find a category for God speaking in an unclear, less than inerrant, and less than binding way. 
Todd Pruitt Part of our difference is perhaps the way we are defining the words "revelation" and "reveal." I lean on the way theologians historically have tended to define those terms. Theologically speaking there is a huge difference between "revelation" and "guidance." Revelation is that direct, authoritative and clear speech from God whereby He actively reveals himself. He did this in a special way for the prophets and apostles at various times (Heb 1). I do not believe He provides that sort of direct, special revelation anymore. If He were then we would certainly need to add to the Bible (a la Mormonism). So I do not use the phrase "God revealed to me," or "God said to me."  
Now, since you do not believe that God speaks to people as he did to Isaiah and Paul, for example, why is that? How does God's speech differ today and why does it differ?

i) I agree with Pastor Pruitt that charismatics (e.g. Grudem, Moreland) often muddy the waters. I think both sides of the debate frequently lack clarity in how they formulate the issues. 
ii) I agree with him that Christians shouldn't "expect" special direct revelation. I think that's unpredictable. 
iii) One problem is the artificially restrictive definition of "revelation" as divine speech. Yet Scripture contains many examples of nonverbal revelation. For instance:
5 Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7 Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. 
9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (Gen 37:5-8). 
9 So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me, 10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh's cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand.” 12 Then Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days.  
16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, 17 and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” 18 And Joseph answered and said, “This is its interpretation… (Gen 40:9-12,16-18). 
After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3 And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4 And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5 And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6 And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7 And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. 8 So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh (Gen 41:1-8).
i) These are revelatory dreams, yet they utilize nonverbal communication. Revelation is frequently a case of what God shows someone rather than what God tells someone. 
ii) Because these are allegorical dreams, there's a sense in which they lack clarity. What they refer to may be ambiguous. That's why they require interpretation. At least, they require interpretation in advance of the fact. After the fact, the passage of time may clarify their meaning, even apart from interpretation. A premonition might be unclear until it comes true. We may not know how it will come true until it comes to pass. Interpretation and retrospection can clarify the import.
iii) Revelatory allegorical dreams are inerrant in an analogical sense. The imagery stands for something. Of course, every analogy has an element of disanalogy. An allegorical dream is true according to the intended scope of the comparison. 
Not all revelatory dreams are allegorical. I'm just quoting some samples, some counterexamples, to illustrate the inadequacy of defining revelation as divine speech. 
iv) Is this "binding"? "Binding" for whom
a) At most, it's only binding for the intended recipient. The baker's dream was given to and for the baker, no one else. The cupbearers dream was given to and for the cupbearer, no one else.
b) There's also the question of verification. Is this a revelatory dream or an ordinary dream? Take a premonition. In the nature of the case, you may not know ahead of time if that's a premonition. That may only become evident in hindsight. 
c) Likewise, only the dreamer knows what he dreamt. He may share his dream with a second party, but a second party didn't experience that dream. It isn't "binding" on the second party, since he's in no position to verify the claim. 
Let's shift to a different example:
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot” (Acts 8:26-29).
That's verbal revelation. But is it "binding," "authoritative," "normative"? If God spoke to me the way he spoke to Philip, would we need to add that to the canon?
But the revelation which Philip received wasn't for everyone. Wasn't for all time. It was given to Philip for the Eunuch's benefit. Very topical and timebound. An unrepeatable circumstance. 
Let's take an extracanonical example:
A few years ago before my mother moved out of the house she had lived in for over fit years and into a retirement community, she was starting to go out her back door and walk to the alley behind her garage one cold winter's day, to put out garbage for the trash collector. Unlike any experience she had ever had in her life, and although she was entirely alone in her house, she heard an audible voice telling her, "Take your cane." Startled, but assuming it was God, she grabbed her cane. Just before closing the backdoor behind her, she heard the voice again say, "Now take your cell phone." Again, nothing like this had ever happened to her before, nor has it happened since. As she was walking on the sidewalk through the backyard, she realized that there was a think layer of ice she hadn't seen from the house, and the cane became quite important to keep her from falling. After emptying the trash, she realized that she was poised precariously between larger sections of snow and ice, so that she didn't want to try to navigate the walk even with the cane. So she used her phone to call for help and was able to get back to the house with assistance. My mother acknowledged that she would have been quite frightened otherwise,  having recently had knee surgery, if she had tried to get back on her own, and she felt sure there was a good chance she would have fallen. Craig Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? (Brazos Press 2014),182-83.

If true, that would be a case of God speaking to a Christian in a direct, audible voice. But how does that kind of revelation rival the canon of Scripture? It's not a command to Christians in general. God hasn't told every Christian to bring a cane or cell phone when they take out the garbage. And only Blomberg's mother knows what she heard.


  1. Steve et al here at Triablogue:
    Great admirer of your work here, wouldn't dream of trying to debate you about nearly anything, frankly. Having said that, I lean towards the 'cessationist', admittedly, but I know that I don't know for sure about it. I guess my biggest prob is with those who occasionally/frequently say 'God showed/told me (fill in the blank)' about this that or the other thing, none of it directly Scriptural (altho' also none of it directly antiScriptural). Very popular in my neck of the woods, including from the pulpit. But individual 'promptings', even verbal messages, such as the example above? I have no reason to question that they could have happened, and assume (based on such testimony) that they have. Also I have a problem with the idea that the average Christian should expect such 'promptings' and should 'learn how to hear the voice of God' (as if God had any difficulty being heard if He wants to!).

    1. Two quick points:

      i) If somebody tells you that God spoke to him, his claim carries no presumption that God in fact spoke to him. You're under no obligation to believe it, much less act on it.

      It's like second-hand information generally. If someone tells you he saw something, you can believe him, disbelieve him, or suspend judgment. Since you didn't see what he allegedly saw, you can't verify his claim.

      ii) I've been critical of vague "promptings" and leaning to hear God's voice:

  2. The Biblical record testifies to the LORD using angels as intermediaries to speak His messages to men.

    It's easy to imagine that a human might mistake an angelic messenger's voice for the voice of God, or mistake an angelic visitor for a vision of the risen Christ. Obviously this could theoretically apply equally to manifestations of the demonic as well.