God Speaking

There’s a certain kerfuffle going on right now over the phrase “God still speaks today.” It seems to have been started by an anonymous article in Christianity Today, titled “My Conversation with God,” in which a conservative seminary professor described with awe and wonder the experience of God directing him to dedicate the proceeds from a book toward a friend’s college tuition. The author seems to have wished to remain anonymous either to avoid turning the article into a fund raising scheme, or because he was fearful of an anti-charismatic backlash.

Of course, there has been something of a backlash. Among other things, John Piper, who I understand is *not* anti-charismatic, or even a cessationist *per se*, wrote an article last week, in which he described having a similar experience:

As I prayed and mused, suddenly it happened. God said, “Come and see what I have done.” There was not the slightest doubt in my mind that these were the very words of God. In this very moment. At this very place in the twenty-first century, 2007, God was speaking to me with absolute authority and self-evidencing reality. I paused to let this sink in. There was a sweetness about it. Time seemed to matter little. God was near. He had me in his sights. He had something to say to me. When God draws near, hurry ceases. Time slows down.

At first, I was very pleased to read about John Piper’s experience, until he transitioned about half way down and made it clear that he wasn’t talking about the same sort of experience described in Christianity Today. He was describing an experience he had reading his Bible, what you might refer to as a “quickening” of the text.

Honestly, my first thought was that he was mocking the other man’s experience: he used the same kind of tone and phrasing, and deliberately concealed the true nature of his experience until it was revealed in a startling sort of way. In fact, his efforts at concealment were thorough enough that, looking back up the article, it becomes clear the experience could not have happened *precisely* in the way he described it: “So I sat down on a couch in the corner to pray. As I prayed and mused, suddenly it happened. God said, “Come and see what I have done.” Of course, it didn’t happen suddenly at all. He opened his Bible, turned to Psalm 66, and prayerfully read the text.

Perhaps it was a moving experience. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was there, quickening those words to him, and filling them with more meaning than he had ever realized before. I have no reason to believe otherwise. But it doesn’t fall in to the same category it would have if the words of Psalm 66 had fallen into his head, unbidden, and he had only later realized they were the exact words of scripture.

Reading through the rest of the article, you discover that John Piper’s real purpose in writing was to castigate the author of the Christianity Today article, not for having an experience, but for treating that experience with the amazement that it was due. I believe his *goal* was to remind us to make a distinction between the canonical, authoritative text of Scripture, and the leadings of the Holy Spirit, which are somewhat more… subjective. But it seems that he’s overshooting his mark, because instead of talking about authority, and trustworthiness, and inerrancy, he brings up words like “force” and “glory” and “sweetness”:

It is a great wonder that God still speaks today through the Bible with greater force and greater glory and greater assurance and greater sweetness and greater hope and greater guidance and greater transforming power and greater Christ-exalting truth than can be heard through any voice in any human soul on the planet from outside the Bible.

In short, he believes that we should treat with great wonder what should be a normal, everyday experience, and treat with apathy that which is extraordinary and unusual.

Of course, this is nonsense. Common sense tells us that it’s backwards. We shouldn’t be required to drum up intense emotions for everyday experiences, simply because they are vital and more important. Nor should we be required to play down exhilarating, unusual experiences, simply because they are less significant. It’s far more important that gravity holds me fast to the earth than it is that I could, by means of a hang-glider or a parachute, temporarily suspend myself above the earth. Nevertheless, nobody expects me to be excited about sitting, or ho-hum about hang-gliding.

I’m nervous about criticizing a well-respected pastor and teacher like John Piper: he’s far better educated, and far more experienced than I am. But it seems to me that generally there are two areas that this unseemly suspicion of “extra-biblical” spiritual experiences comes from: First, Western Christianity simply has an ongoing uneasiness about experience in distinction from the text of scripture. It’s as if they view it as two departments in a university: The humanities versus the sciences, two competing worldviews, and a gain for one clearly indicates a loss for the other. There is simply the feeling, sometimes tacit, sometimes stated, that any kind of experience of God must either undermine faith or the authoritative text of scripture. In light of how often the text of Scripture appeals to experience (even ongoing mystical experiences) as a proof of its authority, this sense is very difficult to explain.

The second area, I believe, is a fundamental weakness in understanding the holistic work and person of the Holy Spirit. This is a bold statement, I understand, and it may strike some as a wild accusation. But there seems to be an unwillingness to give the Holy Spirit the same kind of place in our lives that we give to Jesus Christ. We seem to want the Holy Spirit to be a kind of supplement to the Bible, to hold our hands as we come to it, reassure us that it is true, and then for the most part step aside. Perhaps he may be permitted, now and again, to circle a word to bring it to our attention. Some of us want to invoke the name of the Holy Spirit as we open our Bibles, and then assume, without any ratifying experience, that he was there.

Others of us want to make a distinction in the works of the Holy Spirit, so that some things He does are vital, while others can be safely ignored. Interestingly, it often appears that the works which are considered most vital are the very ones which are least supported by the text. So for instance, spiritual gifts (which are clearly described in scripture) are considered to be optional, and prophecy (which is modeled for us as well as commended) is considered dangerous, but the experience of the Holy Spirit quickening the text to you as you read (which to my knowledge isn’t mentioned at all in scripture) is considered a vital part of the believer’s walk. The Spirit’s witness to the authority of the Scriptures, a doctrine which is foundational to the entire system of Protestant theology, can itself only be inferred from the text of scripture. Brothers (and sisters), this should not be!

John Piper’s main complaint seems to be that the anonymous Christianity Today author emphasized one work of the Holy Spirit over the one that he believes is more important:

What makes me sad about the article is not that it isn’t true or didn’t happen. 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.

To me this is something the equivalent of a theologian reading through “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and complaining that there is no mention of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Christianity Today article also skipped over what I believe is one of the most fundamental works of the Holy Spirit: acting as a witness to our conversion, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16). Nevertheless, the experience that *was* described, is actually modeled for us (in Acts 16:6-10), while the experience John Piper *wishes* had been mentioned – the scriptures “explod[ing] in the receptive heart” (as opposed to us merely accepting the words as true by faith, without explosions) cannot be found.

I apologize for this lengthy post. I was really hoping I could keep it short. But whenever I hear people react to the work of the Holy Spirit by calling it fake or foolishness or fragile compared to the word of God, I am reminded of John 5:39: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” I often imagine that the Holy Spirit could say something remarkably similar to many of us.

Hat tip: Adrian Warnock

5 thoughts on “God Speaking”

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  2. Comment from a non-theologian here: Simply, for someone to assert that there is no way the Holy Spirit did not speak to a person in a certain way is…dare I say…egotistical. I have read a few things from John Piper, and I’ve liked his writing a lot, but to downplay the unique and individual way that the Holy Spirit works in an individual’s life is like me looking at a person and saying, “I don’t believe you get a rush out of hang gliding. You must be imagining those feelings.” I believe the Holy Spirit works in very personal and very unique ways in each of our lives. I don’t think you can put the Holy Spirit in a box and say, “This is the Holy Spirit. This is what He does, and He never varies from these tactics.” If our human minds could get around what God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit entails then why would we need them? If you try to narrow them to completely objective beings who work in completely objective ways then you reduce God from the ultimate deity to a mere dictator of daily experiences.

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  3. To be fair, John Piper isn’t denying that the other guy had an experience, or even that it was from the Holy Spirit. He just thinks it’s “sad” because the man didn’t stop to say that reading your Bible should be a more meaningful experience.

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  4. True. The Word of God is just that, the Word of God, and I believe people should get something out of reading it, but just because the C.T. columnist doesn’t mention it in his column nor elevate it above the Holy Spirit’s personal communication definitely does not imply that reading the Bible is any less of an experience. I understand John Piper’s viewpoint, because I grew up in a legalistic/non-charismatic Baptist sect. It has taken me years (and I’m still in process) of getting those narrow legalistic views out of my system. Even though my upbringing entailed salvation by grace there seemed to be a lot of works mixed in too. To be a good Christian you had to do things certain ways—be a member of a church, attend said three times per week and any other time the doors were open, read your Bible daily, pray the p-r-a-y acrostic (Praise, Repentance, Ask, Yourself–if you didn’t pray that way you weren’t praying “right”). I think, in a way, this is where Mr. Piper is coming from.

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  5. I had the same exact reaction. I was excited at first when I read Piper’s (seemingly) similar experience to the anonymous CT author, but then I realized he seemed to be somewhat mocking the guy and making sure that people realize that it’s the Bible that God speaks through. Good post.

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