(February 2006 – Volume 12, Issue 2)
I was recently handed the Fall 2005 catalog of Quaker Books. The promo found in the catalog for the book Creeds and Quakers reads like this:
Quaker spiritual authority lies not in belief systems – in creeds – but in the direct communication between individual Friends and the Divine Spirit. All other forms of authority, “be they written words [including Scripture, I would presume] steeple-house or a clerical hierarchy,” cannot replace this direct communion.
This is historic Quaker theology in which the “inner light” emanating from the Divine Spirit carries final authority, even over Scripture. While hotly denied by most, I believe that on a realistic basis much of evangelicalism is not only headed the same direction, but is there now. Few if any evangelicals, or even charismatics for that matter, would be as blatant as the Friends. Almost all would place final authority on Scripture when filling out their doctrinal statements, but when the rubber meets the road the final authority for many, as with the Quakers, rests not on the inscripturated Word of God, but on inner voices and subjective promptings. This is well illustrated in the writings of Henry Blackaby who has done more to promote subjective, mystical (nonclassical) Christian living than any other modern noncharismatic leader. In a book co-authored with his son Richard, he writes, “Whenever God speaks, his Word becomes a north star for your life. It doesn’t change. It is sure. As you accumulate a record of God speaking to you over the years, you will have a clear picture of where God has led you. This will give you powerful assurance as God continues to lead you in the future.” This is a frightening statement when you realize that the Blackabys are not speaking about the Scriptures but of supposed private, nonverbal communication from God that is being given equal status with the Scriptures. Note the capitalization of “Word” in reference to these extrabiblical messages from God. Also note that these messages take on the characteristics of Scripture as they become God’s word which guides us, gives us assurance of the future, and is even written down for later reference.
The Blackabys are being consistent in recognizing where their view leads. In reality, they have adopted and popularized a theology which allows for additions to the Word of God. If one takes the Blackabys’ position, this all makes perfect sense and is, in fact, inevitable. If God is specifically speaking to each of us, giving instructions on every consequential issue, we have to wonder what role Scripture plays? For some, the Bible becomes a dead book of ancient stories and staid theology. Once they master those things, they are ready to move on to the “fresh” word of God being given today through inner voices within their souls. Under this scenario, Scripture becomes secondary at best and most likely unnecessary (except for basic doctrine). Soon we wake up to discover that we have embraced the Quaker’s view of revelation and authority.
Some will ask, “Isn’t it true that almost all of God’s children in Scripture heard from God directly? If this was the norm in the Bible, shouldn’t we expect the same today?” God has not gone mute, has He?
First, because something happened in the Bible does not necessarily mean that it was meant to be normative for all times. God often did specific things for specific people at specific times that were not repeated, even in Scripture. Only with one person (Moses) did He speak “face to face” as speaking to a friend (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10). Only at the hands of Moses, Elijah and Elisha did God perform great miracles in the Old Testament; only on one occasion did God deliver His Law; and so forth.
As to the issue of God speaking to almost everyone in the Scriptures, that is simply not true. The average believer in either Testament never heard a personal word from God, and even the majority of key players never heard the voice of God personally. When God did speak in Scripture it almost always dealt with the big picture of what God was doing in the outworking of His redemption program or the life of His people in general. You will search in vain to find God telling people what job to take, how many donkeys to buy, or what land to purchase – except as it was related to the bigger issue of God’s dealings with His people.
The claim is made by some that the believers during biblical times heard the voice of God on a regular basis. The implication is that God personally spoke to and directed almost everyone who lived during the days that Scripture were being written – and did so all the time. And, if that is true, why should we not expect the same today? In response we need to take an objective survey of Scripture to see if this assertion can be substantiated. In this overview we will discount hearing the word of God through the prophets – God’s appointed spokesmen before the closure of Scripture. We are looking for those who personally heard God’s voice (or angels sent by Him) either audibly or through inner words of promptings or impressions.
The first thing we find is literally thousands of lesser known personalities of which we hear nothing about this aspect of their lives. Neither Methuselah, nor Jabez, nor Jeshua the priest, nor countless others, heard the voice of God to our knowledge. While this is an argument from silence (for those on both sides of the debate) we should expect the biblical record to relay to us faithfully the normal life of the believer of that time. If the norm was for the common person to hear God speak regularly and personally we would expect a witness to this in Scripture. But such a record is not to be found. So we must turn our search to the major players of biblical times.
Below are some of the important characters found in the Old Testament who never heard directly from God as far as we know:
Caleb, Esther, Mordecai, Ruth, Joab, Hezekiah, Josiah, Jehosaphat, Jonathan, most of the judges, Ezra, Nehemiah, Shadrack, Meshach and Abed-nego (although they may have been comforted by the Son in the fire). In addition whole categories of key leaders never heard from God personally, including none of Jacob’s sons except Joseph, none of the kings of Judah after Solomon, none of the judges except for Gideon, none of the returning exiles and none of David’s mighty men or military leaders. This is just a sampling; many more could be cited.
There were of course several, usually important, individuals who did hear from God directly, or from an angelic representation. Besides the prophets we could list:
- Noah and his sons (Genesis 6:13; 7:1; 8:15; 9:1,8,18)
- Job (Job 38-42)
- Abraham (16 times)
- Abimelech (1 time) (Genesis 20:3)
- Isaac (2 times) (Genesis 26:2, 24)
- Rebekah (1 time) (Genesis 25:23)
- Jacob (8 times) (Genesis 28:12,13; 31:11,13,14; 32:1, 24-32; 35:1; 35:10; 46:2-4)
- Hagar (1 time) (Genesis 16:13)
- Sarah (1 time) (Genesis 18:10-15) (She heard God talking to Abraham)
- Pharaoh (1 time) (Genesis 41:25)
- Laban (1 time) (Genesis 31:24)
- Moses (at least 85 times)
- Aaron (Exodus 4:27; 6:13; 12:1; Leviticus 10:8; 11:1; 13:1; 15:1; Numbers 2:1; 4:1,17; 12:4; 18:1; 19:1; 20:12)
- Miriam (1 time) (Numbers 12:4)
- Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:23; Joshua 1:2-9; 3:7; 4:1, 15; 5:2,9,15; 6:2; 7:10-15; 8:1, 18; 11:6; 20:1)
- Gideon (Judges 6:14-36; 7:2-9)
- Manoah and his wife (1 time) (Judges 13)
- Samuel (1 time before the beginning of his prophetic ministry) (1 Samuel 3:10-14)
- David (1 Samuel 23:2, 10-12; 30:8; 2 Samuel 21; 5:19-25; 21:1)
- Solomon (3 times) (1 Kings 3:5-14; 9:2-9; 11:11-13)
- Simeon (Luke 2:25)
- Mary (Luke 1:30)
- Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13)
- Zacharias (Luke 1:13)
- The Magi (Matthew 2:12)
- The Shepherds (Luke 2:10)
- Women at the Tomb (Mark 16:6)
Beyond these few individuals, finding a nonprophetic individual in Scripture who heard directly from God becomes a difficult task. Some additional observations should be made. First, with a few exceptions, those cited above played extremely important roles in the outworking of God’s program. Secondly, when God did speak, He did so in an audible voice or, on occasion, through a vision or dream. There is no reported account in which the Lord spoke through an inner, inaudible voice somewhere in the heart or mind of the individual. Next, these revelations from God are inevitably of profound significance, not just to the individual, but often to large numbers of others as well.
The contention that God spoke to almost everyone all the time, leading, guiding and directing, simply does not stand the test of careful study of the Scriptures. Even with those to whom God spoke, only with Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Aaron, Joshua, David and Solomon does God speak more than twice in their entire lifetimes. Additionally, the notion that God’s revelation often came in a “still small inner voice” is not warranted. Even the one occasion in which God did speak in a “still small voice” to Elijah is often misunderstood. In 1 Kings 19:12-13 we find that Elijah hears a “gentle blowing” of the wind. Out of that gentle wind came the “voice” of God. The text does not actually say that it was a “still small voice.” It says nothing at all about the intensity of the sound of the voice. But even if it was a quiet voice, it was still an audible voice. How many Christians, on the basis of misunderstanding of this passage, have claimed that they too have heard the voice of God? They claim to have heard an inner, nonaudible voice – just like Elijah. But Elijah heard no such thing. It was the voice of God – clear and distinct.
But what about the New Testament and especially the book of Acts? Isn’t the evidence of God’s direct guidance in the lives of church-age saints overwhelming? Actually, no. A detailed study of New Testament Scriptures do not reveal what many claim.
Virtually all of the New Testament accounts of God speaking and giving direct instruction are found in the book of Acts. This in itself is significant, but I will save that until later. If we give our attention to the book of Acts we find thirteen distinct times in which God spoke directly to individuals (two of these through angels): 8:26-29; 9:4, 10; 10:3, 11-16; 12:7-8; 13:2-4; 16:6,9-10; 18:9; 21:4, 11; 22:17-21; 23:11. The Lord used varied methods to communicate on these occasions including visions, angels, prophecy, and direct words from Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Of these thirteen revelations, eight of them were to two apostles (Paul and Peter). The other three were scattered among Philip, Annanias, Agabus, Cornelius and the church at Antioch.
A number of things stand out about these special words from the Lord. First, God takes the initiative each time. The recipients were not seeking revelations from the Lord, and on two occasions (Saul and Cornelius) unbelievers were on the receiving end of the message. Next, it should be noted that none of these individuals needed to learn a method of hearing God and, in every case, the hearers had no doubt that it was the Lord who was speaking. This is especially interesting in the case of the unbeliever Saul who immediately addresses Jesus as “Lord.” Also, in each case that we can discern, the message was given in an audible voice. There is no terminology such as “I felt the Lord leading” or “I had peace about what I was to do.” What God had to say was clear and beyond misunderstanding or misinterpretation.
Using just the book of Acts, we should immediately recognize a strong contrast between what was taking place there and what is being claimed today. In Acts we do not find every believer hearing from the Lord all the time about everything. Actually, we find six people and one congregation who heard from a member of the Trinity or an angel (two while still unsaved), and the things they heard were of great spiritual significance in the program of God. In Acts, no one had to learn how to hear God’s voice nor was anyone led by hunches or promptings. The voice of God was unmistakable and His message was crystal clear. In Acts no one is encouraged or instructed to seek the voice of God; rather they were just going about their business when God intervened.
Acts is a book of happenings. It tells us what God did; it does not always explain why God did what He did nor does it necessarily set a norm for us today. This fact gets even more interesting when we leave Acts and begin to study the epistles. The epistles, unlike Acts, do not major on historical accounts, but instead focus on instructing the believer concerning how to live in the New Testament era. The silence concerning miraculous events and hearing the voice of God is almost deafening in the epistles. No one is called, instructed or urged to seek the voice of God. Instead, they (and we) are told to pay attention to Scripture (cp. 2 Timothy 3:15-4:4). Doctrine, truth and instruction, as found in the Old Testament and the apostles’ teaching, are the bread and butter of the epistles. It appears to me that if the Lord had something better (or more) to offer beyond the Scriptures, He would have made it a point to say so in the epistles. Instead, He inspires Paul to write, “Preach the Word.”
Fowler White represents my sentiments:
The Bible gives us no reason to expect that God will speak to His children today apart from the Scriptures. 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. 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.
I believe our mandate today is this: rather than seek extrabiblical communication from God, we need to diligently learn how to handle the Word of Truth – in order that we might be “approved by God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed” (2 Timothy 2:15). I like the way the English Puritan, Thomas Watson, said it, “They who leave the light of the Word and follow the light within them, as some say, prefer the shining of the glow-worm before the sun.”
 Henry and Richard Blackaby, Hearing God’s Voice (Broadman & Holman: Nashville, 2002), p. 230.
 Ibid., pp. 227, 229, 230, 241.
 Fowler White, “Does God Speak Today Apart from the Bible?”, in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, ed. John H. Armstrong (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), p. 87.
 Don Kistler, ed., The Puritan Pulpit: Thomas Watson (Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2004), p. 141.