17 March 2015

The power of the word of God: oft-overlooked ramifications

by Dan Phillips

All Christians attribute power and authority to God's word, for the simple fact that it is God's word. In his Sufficient Fire talk, Phil Johnson mentioned that Brian Maclaren attempted to make mileage over the fact that 2 Timothy 3:16 said that Scripture was useful, not that it was authoritative. In my later talk I chuckled a bit over that, wondering how much more authoritative you could get than "God-breathed"!

I find John Frame's phrasing of Scripture's authority very helpful and memorable:
[Scripture] imposes on them an obligation to respond in an appropriate way. That is the proper definition of authority: an authoritative word is one that imposes obligations on those who hear. And the word of God imposes an absolute obligation.
[John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 529.]
There are obvious implications to this. It's easiest to see in the commandments. For instance, when God says not to commit adultery (Exodus 20:14; Ephesians 5:3), I'm to obey by not committing adultery. When God commands that we love Him (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37), we know we are to love God.

But do the narratives obligate me, as well? The Bible begins with a narrative: God creates the universe in six days, and rests on the seventh. Does that narrative obligate me? Or does the narrative of the call of Abram, or the Exodus, or the Passover, or Balaam's loquacious donkey, or Jonah and the big big fish? Or the narratives of Jesus' casting out demons, of His resurrection, and of dead rising in conjunction with that resurrection?

Do these stories obligate me in some way? Is there something I must do, reading them?

One's first thought might be that no moral obligation arises from a story. If so, one's first thought would be mistaken. These aren't newspaper items or oddments in old books. These present themselves to me as God's Word. As such, I am obligated — morally obligated — to believe them. If I disbelieve them, I not only err, I sin.

How so? God tells me they are true, on His honor. Reject the stories, I reject His honor. If that doesn't plunge me into blasphemy, doesn't it bring me right up to the door and knock?

But wait, there's more.

What of the passages that tell me I should fear God (Proverbs 1:7; 1 Peter 2:17), that I should rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 3:3-4), that I should hope (1 Peter 1:13)? Do those obligate me as well? Surely they do.

But wait, there's still more!

This all brings us to the Charismatic issue.

The great achievement of modern Charismaticism is to dupe so many otherwise-fine people into letting Charismatics carve a niche for themselves where they can both promote themselves and avoid all meaningful accountability. Or, put another way, both to canonize and sanctify their personal experiences and claims and to avoid testing of any sort.

One of these ways is that they will ostensibly quote God, some "word from the Lord" — but then, when challenged, hurry to say "That's just for me!"

But is that option open? They have dared to claim to quote God. They have had the breath-taking, astonishing hubris to position themselves as mediators of revelation — claiming that God said words directly to them and them alone, words they now convey to you and to me.

Can that be a private affair? If so, too late now: they've spoken. They've claimed to speak God's words!

So now I am indeed obligated. Their word obligates me. I cannot escape. (Nor can they, though they try.)

You see, if what they speak is a word of God, I am morally obligated to believe it. It doesn't matter what the content is: a word from God has God's authority, and "an authoritative word is one that imposes obligations on those who hear." Well, I hear. What is my obligation?

If it is God's word, I am obligated to believe it. And if it is not, I am obligated to rebuke and expose them as false prophets.

I want to be sure you get this. Even if what they say is "God told me personally, 'Hey, buck up, my precious darling cuddly lambie-dear, I just want to cuddle you close in sweet saccharine waves of My unconditional love and approval, and have great plans for you'" — now that they've told me, I'm obliged.

If that's God speaking and I do not believe it, I am sinning.

But if it isn't, and I do? Same result — or, at the very least, I am complicit in enabling another's sin (cf. Ezekiel 3:18).

And so, an open-but-clueless sort is obligated to search out every claim to revelation, and decide whether to embrace and submit to it, or reject and expose it. That means that such poor souls are morally obligated to be constantly directing their attention from inspired, inerrant, sufficient Scripture, to vet and test and decide on every modern claim to quote God. Because if those are words of God, I am obligated to receive and believe them, myself.

Those are our choices. Either reject the movement as a whole and stand on the sufficient Word of God, or devote yourself to constant, daily distraction.

My, that sounds like a clever way to keep Christians off-focus, doesn't it? Devilishly clever!

Claiming to speak for God is a big, big deal, as I argued at length. They want us to forget it, so they can keep the charade going.

But we mustn't forget it. And we mustn't lose focus on God's real, abiding Word.

Dan Phillips's signature


Michael Coughlin said...

Amen, this seems to be the gist of what Peter was saying when he said "that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation."

Robert said...

Good thoughts, Dan. I often wonder why people can't just say they are informed by Scripture and that the Holy Spirit illumines their minds in interpretation and application of Scripture. Why does anybody need to say that God spoke directly to them outside of Scripture in order to live out life in a manner worthy of the name of Christ? That certainly goes against what Scripture says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 - Scripture is sufficient for the Christian to be complete and equipped for every good work.

It is truly sad to me that continuationists don't work out how the implications of what they say they believe go against what Paul wrote to Timothy here. And even sadder to think of the train wreck that charismaticism with the cover provided to them.

Randy Talley said...

I wish I could only count on one hand the number of times I've had to bring up this very thought in conversations that ended up in the "The Lord told me..." pit.

As you stated at Sufficient Fire (and demonstrated - great gestures, btw), we have two choices: "word from God" and "not word from God". If there's wiggle room for "The Lord told me..." then we have a LOT of prophets never accounted for by the Bible. And bad ones at that.

FX Turk said...

I'll say it: anyone who has not yet listened to Dan's first talk from the SuffFire Conference has missed out.

Big Time.

Jim Pemberton said...

I figure 1 John 4:1-6 to be key in this, not only verse 2 but also verse 6. I may be wrong, but it seems as though the "we" in verse 6 is referring only to the Apostles. If that's the case, then anything beyond what the Apostles of Christ have said is not authoritative. We will know a teacher's true spirit if he proclaims only the gospel, doesn't go beyond what the Apostles of Christ taught us in Scripture, and doesn't deny their teachings.

Michael Coughlin said...

Frank is right.


Unknown said...

"My, that sounds like a clever way to keep Christians off-focus, doesn't it? Devilishly clever!"

Yes indeed Dan, Screwtape would be proud.

Anonymous said...

"If what they speak is a word of God, I am morally obligated to believe it."

A really, really good point. There's no middle ground. Can I add a corollary to what you said? If what they speak is the word of God and you are *NOT* morally obligated to believe it, then neither are you morally obligated to believe anything in scripture, and that includes the Resurrection or any of God's commandments. If we didn't a high view of Scripture, we'd think just as Charismatics do and as non-beleivers do. That is, the revelations and accounts of miracles in the Bible are no different than the writings of modern-day Charismatics. Today's charismatic is tomorrow's prophet, and today's heretical delusions are tomorrow's scripture. The Charismatic, like the Biblical figures of old, both perform miracles with eye-witnesses, but for some reason they never seem to leave behind any hard evidence and they always happen in a different country or a different time. I even once saw an Onion-worthy article (on the bibchr twitter feed) where Charismatics wonder why miracles only seem to happen in foreign countries. I can't say this enough: if we ever fixed their low view of Scripture, the entire Charismatic movement would just disappear.

jmb said...

"God told me personally, 'Hey, buck up, my precious darling cuddly lambie-dear, I just want to cuddle you close in sweet saccharine waves of My unconditional love and approval, and have great plans for you'"

This is not only very funny, it pretty much sums up most of the "personal revelations" I've been told.

Zac Dredge said...

The events in 1 Kings 13 seems like a relevant narrative to this very topic.

The man of God was told something very clearly from God himself, but he trusted the words of the old prophet rather than what he already heard. Its a difficult chapter to reason through, honestly. On one hand it's not the man of God's fault for feeling obligated to change his path at the words of a prophet claiming to have heard from an angel, but he still disobeyed what God first said to him. Perhaps it should have taken a word directly from God to change his course, as with Abraham when he went to sacrifice Isaac at Moriah.

The tragic thing is that the old prophet lied. It doesn't name his as a false prophet, and his actions in burying the man show some degree of repentance, but ultimately he made the terrible mistake of using God's name in vain, and it cost someone their life. He offered comfort and hospitality to someone who had been commanded to go without. I'm not really aware of any prophecy that calls an individual to ease and comfort; more often individuals are called to strife, hardship and responsibility. Even if you take a continuationist perspective there ought to be automatic suspicion of any 'word' that would lead you away from challenges and progress.

trogdor said...

My kids would never consider that my words to them might be useful but not authoritative. Maybe they're just not learned enough to think something so incredibly stupid.

How many places does this idea of semi-authoritative kinda-revelation creep up? Any time someone starts with "God is calling me to...", he will be sinning if he doesn't, and you're sinning if you question it. Faith pledges where God laid it on your heart to give so much, building programs that God gave us a vision for, ministries we believe the Spirit told us to start. God's leading us to adopt from China - are you sinning if you adopt local instead?

All of those cases, by invoking God's word, the issue ceases to be one of wisdom and becomes a matter of sin or obedience. It can be especially dangerous when actual, Biblical commands are ignored in favor of pretend commands we sorta think God might be impressing on us. Semi-revelation is the new Pharisaical tradition.

Michael Coughlin said...

I have found it best not to correct people in the moment when they are having a God told them so experience...particularly if God told them to buy my groceries.

Guymon Hall said...

"The Lord told me..."

I thought the point was that the Lord has in fact told me (and you). The question is not whether or not the Lord told us: the question is "through what venue did He tell us?"

The only acceptable venue in today's post-Apostolic/post-miraculous gift era in which to countenance "the Lord told me" is that He tells us in the Scripture. Period. That's it. That's all we got.

And, that is completely sufficient.

stirrings said...

I'm a recovering charismatic and I have to say thank you AGAIN for your sensible, logical, biblically-grounded articles. They help strengthen my convictions of Sola (sufficient) Scriptura.

DJP said...

That is so encouraging. Thanks for sharing!

MJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Coughlin said...

I'm young and relatively recently saved and I can say I know how MJ feels. You're not alone.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

I resonate with MJ's sentiments. I'm having difficulty relating to many women in my church who have bought into this way of operating,