Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hearing God's Voice
John Piper and the role of present-day divine revelation

Update: Added a pull quote and a note at the bottom regarding Piper's affirmation of a present-day gift of prophecy.

John Piper wrote an interesting piece entitled "The Morning I Heard the Voice of God." He describes a majestic experience of hearing God's voice, intensely and personally. The "reveal," of course, is that the words he "heard" were from a Psalm.

This would be unobjectionable, except that Piper contrasts his experience with that of an anonymous professor contributing to Christianity Today in a piece called, "My Conversation with God." Piper appears not to dispute the validity of the experience shared by the professor, but writes that
What’s sad is that it really does give the impression that extra-biblical communication with God is surpassingly wonderful and faith-deepening. All the while, the supremely-glorious communication of the living God which personally and powerfully and transformingly explodes in the receptive heart through the Bible everyday is passed over in silence.
Which is a little unfair, since that was not the point of the professor's article at all. Piper appears to think that describing extrabiblical divine communication is somehow threatening to the truth that God communicates also, and primarily, through His written Word.

The very Scriptures that cessationists are so desperate to guard are the witness of God's communication to human beings through means other than ScriptureThe roots of this issue stem from the Reformation. Since the Reformers had concluded from their reading of Scripture that the medieval Church's position on important doctrines was incorrect, they had to reject the authority of the Church and substituted for it the absolute authority of the Bible. Sola Scriptura. All well and good. But then a further corollary of this position developed: that there can be no longer any direct communication between God and human beings, because that (in the eyes of those who hold this position) directly undercuts the supremacy of Scripture. This is the root of cessationism: the idea that any present-day communication (or, for some, even experience) of God will undermine the authority of Scripture in determining faith, practice, and doctrine.

As I argued in "The Logical Quandary of Cessationism," this is a self-refuting position, because the very Scriptures that cessationists are so desperate to guard are the witness of God's communication to human beings through means other than Scripture. To be plain: Scripture records numerous instances of God talking directly to people. Not capriciously, not on-demand, but He does speak to people. And apart from some pitiful instances of eisegesis (think 1 Corinthians 13:8-12), there is no biblical witness to the idea that this communication will ever stop. Why should it?

Well, because that would set up a rival authority, says the cessationist. Nonsense. That's like saying that Job sets up a rival authority to Moses, or like saying that Paul sets up a rival authority to Jesus. All we have to do is be clear on the fact that God doesn't speak with forked tongue. And in fact, those of us who do believe that God continues to speak--apart from Scripture--make clear that God's voice in Scripture is authoritative in a way that any direct divine communication today is not. I might be mistaken about hearing God's voice; I'm not mistaken about the truth of John 3:16.

But direct divine communication may be personal, in a way that Scripture cannot be. I don't mean that one can't personally experience the message, as Piper writes that he experienced Psalm 66:5-7. But Piper's experience was simply that: an experience, an emotional response to reading the words on the page. It didn't, to be blunt, tell him to do anything specific. The professor, by contrast, was given the idea and outline of a book to write, and told to give the royalties to a struggling student. This should not be threatening from a doctrinal standpoint--he's not saying that all writers should give their royalties to struggling students--but it applied scriptures about generosity and about all wealth ultimately belonging to the Lord specifically to the professor's situation.

That's what present-day divine revelation does: it applies the truths of Scripture to personal circumstances that don't apply to everyone else. Denying even the possibility that God can and does communicate directly and personally with people cuts off personal guidance from the Christian life, and that's a very sad thing indeed.

Update: Dr. Piper's blog has put up a post entitled, "Does God Speak Outside the Bible? in order to clarify that he is not a strict cessationist. While I am very glad to hear that, a quick perusal of the material that that page links to suggests that Piper acknowledges present-day revelation in only a very limited way. My issue was not so much discerning an implied cessatioinism in Piper's former post, as it was his apparent distaste for someone to describe a moving experience of extra-biblical revelation without finding a way to make sure everyone knew that revelation through Scripture was somehow superior.

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  1. Good work, Keith. But to pose the question differently, historically, did they or did they not cease? The early Christians said No! Consider, for example, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus:

    "daily some [of you] are becoming disciples in the name of Christ, and quitting the path of error; who are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God."
    (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 39, ANF vol. 1, p. 214)

    "For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us."
    (Ibid., ch. 82, p. 240)

    "Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practising deception upon any, nor taking any reward from them [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely from God, freely also does she minister [to others]."
    (Irenaeus, Adv. Her., bk. 2, ch. 32, ANF vol. 1, p. 409)

    And we could go down the list with other writers. These examples were written in the second half of the 2nd century, very early, yet also long after the supposed time of cessation which Piper and the Reformers maintain. These cessationist scholars need to do their homework and see that, if spiritual gifts have ceased, is it not because we've either grieved God or denied their existence?

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Nick.

    You're right: the gifts didn't just vanish the moment the Canon was complete. Thanks for some supporting documentation to that effect.

    Of course, the issue gets muddied up around the time of the Montanists. "Prophecy" started going outside the bounds that Scripture had laid out (and was flat wrong). And so the church (predictably) decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater, the very thing Paul had told the Corinthians not to do.

    It seems that Piper has taken pains to make it clear that he really isn't a cessationist, and since I have no reason not to take him at his word, I want to be careful not to keep knocking him for something he has denied. My complaint simply boils down to the fact that he found it necessary to knock someone else's testimony of extra-biblical revelation for not having mentioned the revelation that is to be found in the Bible.

  3. Excellent post. You were able to put things much more calmly than I was. I would add that Montanists were actually more cessationist than not, by some accounts.

  4. Keith,

    I found your blog on a google search. Excellent post. I, too, read the John Piper article you referenced. I loved your insights. Right on target. I look forward to browsing your blog further.

    I blog on this subject exclusively. I'd love for you to stop by and offer your thoughts.

    Sandy Cooper

  5. Keith, haven't talked in years, have we? read a post today at SBCVoices ( ), and went on a search of the topic and wham bam, the first article I read was Blackaby's, then John Piper's, then yours. Would be neat if you'd pop over to Voices and give it a read. I don't agree with him and his reasoning and while I did not comment on his post, I found it thought-provoking in that he seems to imply that we cannot hear God apart from reading scripture. God simply does not speak to man in his opinion. Of course, one thing he says is that it makes no sense that God would continue to speak when He's given us His written Word. Just because it doesn't make "sense" to him, does not mean it is necessarily factual in my ignorant opinion. The "cross" doesn't make sense to the world, either...nevertheless God uses the foolishness to confound the wise, didn't He? selahV

  6. Hey, SelahV, nice to hear from you! I read the article you linked to. Moore is begging the question of how God spoke to people in the Bible; he assumes that in every case that people heard from God, they heard an audible voice, and from that he concludes that if contemporary people don't hear an audible voice, they cannot be hearing God (and if they do hear an audible voice, it must be Satan or schizophrenia). But in many cases the Bible simply says that "God said...," it doesn't elaborate on how the message was received.

    Moore also uses what I'd call a "shotgun" approach to the problem: fire away with a bunch of miscellaneous arguments in hopes that some of them stick. This is always a dead giveaway that the arguments being used are not the real reason that the writer has taken a particular position. In this case, I'd guess that the real reason is that present-day revelation from God is threatening to some people who feel more comfortable with an airtight "This is what God has said and no more."

    There's a decent amount of deism in the Cessationist position. The Divine Watchmaker didn't just wind up the universe at creation and let it play out, but He seems to have wound up everything with the Cross and the Canon, in the cessationist view, leaving us with a nice, tame world to play in. No miracles, no personal revelation, no surprises. But our God is not a tame God, is he, selahV? :-)

  7. Thanks Keith. no, our God is not a tame God. He is interactive and constantly at work in me and in my life. Just the fact that I was brought back here on my search shows how God directs His people. People can explain away anything they do not want to believe or have the faith to see and hear. If that were not so, the whole world would be Christian.

    Thanks again. Good talking to you. selahV