Much of contemporary evangelical piety (and too much contemporary Reformed piety) is taken up with the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) and the Quest for illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE—see Recovering the Reformed Confession for more on these two phenomena). In their own ways each is an attempt to know God and His will apart from his ordained means. The result is a two-sided tyranny.
The first aspect of this tyranny is the fear that “I haven’t heard the still, small voice of God.” This leads to paralysis. It also leads to doubt. The logic is ruthless:
1. God still speaks outside of Scripture and gives direct guidance and revelation to Christians.
2. Christian X hasn’t received such guidance and revelation.
3. Christian X is either a) not really a Christian or b) doesn’t have sufficient faith or lacks the power of the Spirit, etc.
Whatever the cause, the outcome of the logic is unhappy, but what if the problem is not the second premise but the first? What if the first premise is flawed? Well, of course, that is what this whole series has been arguing. In fact we do not live in the canonical period, in redemptive history. The Red Sea has been parted. The tomb is empty. The canon is closed. We’ve seen how the Spirit operates through the Word and the sacraments, how he illumines the Word and how he gives wisdom to those who ask but perhaps you’re still in bondage because you’re waiting for the still, small voice? Quoth Bob Newhart: “Stop it!”
What if God’s will for your life was already revealed? Wouldn’t that be grand? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you weren’t trapped in a circle waiting for God to speak but never really knowing if He has “spoken”? After all, how do you know if God has spoken directly to you? Is it an intuition? A hunch? Why does He seem to “speak” to others but not to me? Are there two classes of Christians? (those who receive special, extra-biblical revelations and those who do not?)
There are other questions the answers to which help relieve the crisis. Why is it that what God says so often sounds like what my revelation-receiving friend already thought? It’s remarkable how often God seems to agree with my revelation-receiving, still-small-voice hearing friend. As we read the whole of 1 Corinthians we see that Paul was quite opposed to the idea of two-classes of Christians. This is the problem with all forms of the “second blessing” theology. It necessarily creates two classes of Christians and yet it’s exactly contrary to Paul’s whole argument. All of us are members of the one body. Further, we’re all members of the one body, part of the one loaf of bread, as it were, in the post-canonical period.
The good news is that God has revealed himself in His Word. His will for your life is revealed. I can tell you what it is right now: trust Christ, love God, and love your neighbor (Matt 5).
“But wait!” you cry. “Should I take this job or that job? What’s God’s perfect will for me?”
I’ll tell you God’s perfect will: Trust Christ, love God, and love your neighbor. Take any job you want, within the will of God revealed in Scripture, as dictated by wisdom and circumstances. Certain jobs are out on the basis of moral considerations. Any job that requires theft, murder, idolatry, covetousness, sexual immorality, gluttony etc. In other words the will of God forbids you from becoming, among other things, a bank robber. I don’t need an extra-biblical revelation to know this. It’s in God’s Word.
Then there’s wisdom. If you’re not good with your hands, perhaps you shouldn’t be a tradesman. If you’re not good with numbers you probably shouldn’t go into business or banking. You don’t need a special revelation from God to know those things. You really don’t.
This gets to the second aspect of the dark side of the QIRC/QIRE: the tyranny of the prophet. This aspect of things has been described in the wake/fallout of the Kansas City prophets debacle (late ’80s–early ’90s) but it’s worth repeating. There’s little moral difference between someone telling us “God’s will” on the basis of the “small, still voice” or because he’s a “prophet.” In both cases, post-apostolic, ordinary Christians, who don’t have the apostolic power, are claiming to know directly, apart from Scripture, by divine revelation what God thinks about this or that thing not mentioned in Scripture.
Such claims are the stuff of tyranny. Who knows if it’s true?
“What if it is true? Well, since I’m not getting any revelations, I guess I better do what the prophet says!”
Of course these self-anointed lower or upper case prophets aren’t any such thing. The truth is that they are simply re-describing ordinary human experience in extraordinary, apostolic, canonical terms. They may do so out of the best of motives. They may really believe that God is speaking to them directly or they may have an earpiece with a helper feeding them information. Either way it really doesn’t matter.
One glorious consequence of the biblical and Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura is that we don’t have to pay attention either to the upper or lower case prophets. We are free in Christ. This argument goes back to the Reformed rejection of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists replied by calling us “dead orthodox.” Fine. Whatever. Bluntly, if being “led by the Spirit” means running around Europe claiming revelations and starting revolutions (see Münster) then we can live without that, thank you very much.
Of course “keeping in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22) has nothing to do with that sort of fanaticism. It means producing the fruit of the Spirit and we know what that is because God revealed it to everyone in Galatians 5! You don’t need a special gift to read God’s Word, trust it, and obey it. We’re free in Christ to obey God’s publicly revealed will and we’re free to ignore the spurious claims of all sorts of prophets. We’re not missing out. They don’t have anything we need. What we need is the moral will of God which is plainly revealed in the Word. What we need is the work of the Spirit to illumine that Word to us and to give us wisdom, and the self-appointed prophets don’t have anything to do with that. You and I are free from the tyranny of human opinion because we are bound to the Word of God.