- On hearing God(published )
Hi Chris. Reading your thoughts and questions here and thinking back to our conversation the other night, I think I’m starting to get a better sense of where you are coming from and what you are trying to wrestle with. Hopefully this will be helpful. :) In Western culture (meaning, basically, European and European-derived culture), we have tended for the last several centuries to think of our world as having two “levels” or “spheres” or whatever: the natural and the supernatural. Some people think of these two spheres as overlapping or interacting a lot, some think that they do so only a little, some think that virtually never do, and some even think that the supernatural level doesn’t exist at all (this would include atheists, for example). In most Pentecostal and charismatic circles, this two-storey view of reality is the starting point for understanding how God interacts with us. Pentecostals and charismatics will insist that there is lots of interaction between the natural and the supernatural, and therefore that we should seek to interact with God supernaturally as much as we can. In this way of thinking about things, revelation from God obviously needs to be categorized as a supernatural event, an intervention in which something crosses over from God’s side into our side. Hearing God, therefore, should be a strange experience. One should be able to recognize “the real deal” in part by the how it is weird and doesn’t feel like our natural ways of perceiving, thinking, knowing, learning, etc. The Pentecostal understanding of receiving the gift of tongues, in which it is thought of as a distinct event when a person has this spiritual ability bestowed on them that they would not naturally have otherwise, is an example of how this plays out. However, this two-storey view of reality is actually very problematic for Christian faith and practice. Among (many!) other problems, it creates a relentless pressure towards expecting that God’s interactions with us will be rare and fleeting. If we consider God’s actions to be essentially alien to the natural world, then they are by definition abnormal and unusual. But Jesus didn’t think that God’s interactions with people were unusual. He taught his disciples to expect that God would interact with them, and that this would be NORMAL for them. Why? Because material and spiritual were not two separate sorts of reality existing in different realms or planes of existence or whatever; rather, they were simply aspects of one, single, unified reality. The Holy Spirit’s coming to the disciples was remarkable not because it indicated a metaphysical change, but because it indicated a relational change. The God from whom we had been estranged by our sin was now no longer a stranger to us. He has begun interacting with us all with a new intimacy and closeness, and so his people have begun to experience his Spirit with us in a way unlike before. This isn’t an incursion of the supernatural into the natural world, but a reconciliation with the God who has always been all around us. So, God’s interactions with us, including the sorts of interaction that we usually describe as him speaking to us, are how things are supposed to work. We human beings were made for this sort interaction from the very beginning. Our physical and mental processes are designed precisely AS the way for us to interact with God. He always intended to interact with us using the equipment he gave us, and as we become reconciled to him, he does that. So, imaginative impressions (e.g. visions and dreams), reading and pondering (say, the Bible, but also other things), experiencing stuff for ourselves, listening to the stories and wisdom of those who have gone before us in the Christian journey, and all the other human things we do to learn are EXACTLY how we learn from God. Heck, even when God does some astounding thing—burning bush, dramatic healing, pillar of fire in the desert, whatever—we still have to perceive and understand it with the same physical and cognitive faculties that we use to perceive and understand the presence and meaning of a hamburger on a plate. It is based on this kind of understanding of how God interacts with us that the Vineyard adopted the practice of using expressions like, “I’m seeing this image…” or, “I think God wants to say…” when sharing what we feel God is revealing to us. We know that we are all of us in the process of learning to hear him well, and that even though he speaks infallibly we are fallible listeners. It is also based on this kind of understanding of how God interacts with us that we say, “Everyone gets to play,” meaning that everyone can hear from God, pray for God to act, and participate in whatever God is up to. All human beings have the natural capacity to interact with God. We need only be reconciled with him and start relating to him in an interactive way. The upshot is that learning to hear God isn’t about him overriding or bypassing our normal ways of knowing, but about learning to recognize his guidance, direction, and revelation in what we see, think, imagine, hear, and feel. It is a matter of the content, not the form.
- Holy Spirit
- image of God
- Usefulness and limitations of the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” for theological method(published )
The Wesleyan quadrilateral is great. However, it needs a very important nuance (one which Frank has already pointed to). We do not have epistemologically unmediated access to any of the four elements. We can’t just access Scripture, but only our interpretations of Scripture. We can’t just access the tradition, but only our interpretations of the tradition, We can’t simply access even our experience, for it, too, is always already interpreted by the time we access it; even reason is not directly accessible, for what we have access to is always our interpretation of what is reasonable and how to reason. This is important, for it means that everything involved in our attempts to know and understand anything are always only provisional interpretations, and therefore never settled. Communal discernment, interpretation, and learning are our best ways to help make our knowledge as closely approximate to reality as possible, but even that is still only ever provisional. So I really don’t think we can ever assume something really is what we think it is, or aim to have exactly correspondent knowledge of the reality. We can only ever seek to approximate it as best we can through seeking coherence and testing whether our understanding works as an explanation of all that we encounter. And so as a result, often I find that my interpretation of one or more elements of the quadrilateral is at odds with my interpretation of some other element, I cannot surrender to the temptation to let one trump the others. Instead, I must keep wrestling until it all makes sense together, no matter how far down the rabbit hole I have to go. Anything less is intellectual suicide.
- Evangelical theological method and the loss of charismatic experience, updated (published )
Evangelical theological method is so concerned to root revelation in the Bible because most of them in theory, and virtually all of them in practice, have lost any sense of the Holy Spirit doing anything beyond illuminating their reading of the text. Without any space in their theology for the idea that the Holy Spirit might say anything to them directly, evangelicals only have the Bible left as a locus for supernatural revelation. Yet since it is a text, the Bible is therefore suitable for rational investigation (thus the dominance of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic in Evangelical thought). Thus exegesis becomes the mode of divine communication today, and the role of the Holy Spirit is to guide and guarantee the correctness of that exegesis and the subsequent application. This fundamental shift to cessationism (whether doctrinal or merely practical) sets Evangelical thought into a very different situation from that of the patristic church. Both Evangelicalism and the early church saw the Bible (from which the early creeds and formulae were derived) as providing the rule of faith. However, the early church used this rule to guard against misguided readings that claimed to come from some kind of new, supernatural revelation of otherworldly wisdom, whereas Evangelicalism uses this rule to guard against encroachments of modern secularism. The former is guarding against heresy and syncretism, the latter is guarding against unbelief. The early church did not use the Rule of Faith (i.e. the creedal statements derived from and summarizing the Bible) to combat pagan religions, since it was completely inapplicable to them. It was no use to say to a worshipper of Mithras “Mithraism violates our Rule of Faith, so it must be rejected,” because he would not listen to such a claim. First he had to encounter Jesus and be converted before the Rule of Faith would have any claim on him. Only once he was a Christian could the Rule of Faith be applied to him and his theology. Evangelicals, on the other hand, seem to want to use the Rule of Faith (i.e. the Bible and statements derived from and summarizing it) to fight against secularism. They protest that secular culture does not conform to the Bible and insist that Western civilization needs to return the Bible to its proper place so that the truth of the Bible can be heard and thus people can encounter Jesus. This is, of course, madness and doomed to failure, since the modern non-Christian has no more reason to accept the Bible’s authority than the ancient Mithraite. The essential difference here is that the early church and the heretics it fought had in common a supernatural faith that included the ongoing speech of the Spirit, whereas the evangelical church has boiled all supernatural revelation down into Scripture and its interpretation and relies on this over against the naturalist assumptions of its opponents. The early church’s use of the regulating function of Scripture and creed was aimed to judge purported Spirit revelations to determine their true source. The Evangelical church’s use of this regulating function is conflated with the revelatory function (which itself has been constricted only to Scripture) and is used to resist and counter beliefs that do not claim the same source at all.