Does God speak through the Church?
Nitpickerus: So the Bible is authoritative and sufficient, but not exhaustive. You admit there are things that God doesn't reveal in it.
Dionysius: Of course. There are revealed things and secret things.
Nitpickerus: Then does he reveal these things elsewhere? For example, can God speak through the church?
Dionysius: God can open the mouth of an donkey, if he so chooses. The question is; how can we know if church teaching is coming from God?
Nitpickerus: Doesn't it all come from God?
Dionysius: How is that possible, when church teachers themselves disagree among themselves and over time. Mutually exclusive beliefs cannot be equally right. Moreover, Jesus and the apostles gave repeated warnings about false teaching, in the church.
Nitpickerus: But don't some church leaders believe their teaching is infallible?
Dionysius: They may imply it by their words and actions; or even explicitly state it. However, I think such people are on dangerous ground. We know that even apostles are capable of being led astray. Judas was; in spite of the authority Jesus gave him. Even Peter was deceived for a time. Paul genuinely entertained the thought that he himself might be wrong, and checked out his beliefs with others. He also accepted the possibility of his being led astray in the future. Those who believe they're infallible should look at the example of the apostles; and learn some more humility. If they, and the churches established in their time, were capable of embracing error, how much more are we?
Nitpickerus: So, how can we be sure that church teaching is God's word?
Dionysius: By ensuring it neither adds to nor subtracts from what God has already revealed in Scripture.
But the Bible is so old
Nitpickerus: Does that mean that God only speaks through words at least 2,000 years old?
Dionysius: God's Word endures forever. He speaks just as freshly through it today as he did when it was first recorded. This is why the New Testament often records Old Testament revelation in the present tense: the father says, Christ says, the Spirit says. God's word is living and active. For Jesus, if it was 'written', it was eternally true.
Nitpickerus: So what should we do with our favourite teachers?
Dionysius: Listen to them (and others)- but make sure that they continually lead us back to the Bible? If we are determined not to go beyond what is written, as we should be, we won't have pride in one man over another. Good teaching should lead us to exalt God; not the individual teacher; who is merely God's servant. The point is this: All teachers are fallible, and any teacher, regardless of past reliability, who says something that deviates from Scripture, is simply wrong.
Nitpickerus: But doesn't the Bible imply that good words proceed from good lives?
Dionysius: It does, but it also says that we can all make mistakes in what we say. This is why it's so important for all of us, when we hear anything unfamiliar, even from reliable sources, to 'examine the Scriptures every day', to see whether it's actually true. The mistake of the teachers of the law at the time of Jesus, was that they put their own oral traditions alongside God's word. Any genuine teacher will not do this, but rather realise that the privilege of teaching comes with awesome responsibility.
Nitpickerus: What about conscience then? Can God speak to us through that?
Conscience and reason
Dionysius: Undoubtedly. Conscience is a God-given gift which speaks even to those who have never read the Scriptures.
Nitpickerus: So, does that mean that if I experience 'peace' about something, it must therefore be what God wants.
Dionysius: That depends on whether you have a 'good conscience'. God's word is perfect; but consciences aren't. They can be uneducated through inadequate exposure to Scripture. They can be blunted through habitual sin. They can be oversensitive, so that we feel guilty when we're not actually guilty. Like church teaching, they need to be continually tested and sharpened against the Bible.
Nitpickerus: But if I know in my heart that something is right...
Dionysius: But we don't know. The heart is deceitful above all things. Our hearts need to be searched by God for the error we can not see ourselves. There is a way that seems right... but it ends in death. We can't rely on our own insight.
Nitpickerus: But aren't our own insight and powers of reason God-given?
Dionysius: Yes, but we are fallen creatures. Reason may be a God-given gift, but we will come to wrong conclusions if we start with wrong premises, or disregard logical principles. Who doesn't at times, do both these things, without knowing it. Even our reasoning is dependent on so many steps of faith: that our senses are trustworthy, that our sources are reliable, that the future will resemble the past. If our conscience, or reason bring us to conclusions which conflict with what God has already revealed in Scripture, then we need to find where we've made a mistake.
What about prophecy?
Nitpickerus: What about the whole area of prophecy. Are you saying that God can't give people special revelation for a special purpose: through dreams, visions, words?
Dionysius: I think we've got to be very careful. Virtually all cults begin with someone meeting an angel, or hearing a word, or having a vision. The devil himself can masquerade as an angel of light. The New Testament is filled with warnings about false prophecy.
Nitpickerus: Perhaps, but if there weren't such a thing as true prophecy, there wouldn't need to be warnings. All prophecy would be false. Isn't there a danger that we may miss out on what God might be saying to us now? Isn't there a risk of ignoring the Holy Spirit? Wasn't the problem with religious teachers in Jesus' time that they thought they were being biblical, but were actually deaf to God's Spirit?
Dionysius: But one of the functions of God's Spirit is to remind us of what is in Scripture already; to apply Scriptural truth to current situations.
Nitpickerus: I'm not disputing that. My point is this: why is there so much instruction in the New Testament about handling prophecy - whole chapters, if God simply doesn't speak that way? Weren't there prophets in Antioch? Didn't Agabus prophesy? Weren't Judas and Silas prophets? Didn't Philip have four daughters who prophesied? Weren't the apostles and others hearing from God directly and regularly about what to do? Isn't the church itself built on a foundation of apostles and prophets?
Dionysius: It is. God clearly did speak to his people directly; to warn them, to encourage them, and specifically to direct them. I'm just saying that we have to be careful.
Nitpickerus: Are you saying that the time for prophecy has passed.
Dionysius: We're told that won't happen until perfection comes; and unless you regard perfection as the canon (personally I don't) then that has not yet happened. God can speak in any way that he likes, at any time he chooses. Prophecy is important. Any activity of God's Spirit is supremely important. My point is that we must also be aware of the dangers. Every 'word' claiming to be from God must be carefully weighed and tested; to ensure that it's not coming from someone's own imagination, or somewhere far worse.
Nitpickerus: How should prophecy be tested?
How should prophecy be tested?
Dionysius: Scripture teaches us how; and true prophecy should drive us back to Scripture. First, predictions that don't come true don't come from God.
Nitpickerus: Does that mean that all true predictions do come from God?
Dionysius: Not at all. Certainly not if they're accompanied by false teaching. Second, true prophecy edifies and builds up the church. This is the underlying purpose of all the Holy Spirit's gifts. Third, true prophecy is consistent with existing Scripture. God does not contradict himself.
Nitpickerus: Is that all?
Dionysius: No, fourth, there's the prophet himself. Does he live a godly life? Is he teachable? Does he respect apostolic authority? Fifth, and most important, does the prophecy exalt, honour and draw people's to Christ; his person, his works and his words? The Holy Spirit's role is to exalt (not himself) but Christ.
Nitpickerus: So what happens if a 'revelation' is 'tested', and passes the test?
Dionysius: Then it ought to be taken seriously. But anyone who claims 'the Lord told me' something contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture, is simply wrong, regardless of the depth of his or her conviction. And anyone who takes prophecy more seriously than Scripture itself is not thinking like Jesus.
Nitpickerus: So, church, conscience, reason and prophecy must be tested against God's word. This makes sense, but isn't the real issue that people simply disagree about what Scrpture really says? Isn't the real problem one of interpreting the Bible correctly?
Dionysius: That sounds like a question for the next issue of Nucleus.