Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

God Is Not Speaking To You

In Religion and Government, Religion and Society on June 9, 2012 at 1:17 am
English: Book of Job in Illuminated Manuscript...

God Speaking to Job – Byzantine

If you’ve stuck with me through the last couple of posts, thank you. Talking about prophecy and how God speaks in general is some pretty obtuse stuff, and it’s bound to draw some discontent from different corners.

I’ve said all that I’ve said in the last couple of posts to say this – God is not speaking to you. Whether you want to call it prophecy, God revealing his Word to you, God speaking to your heart through ‘impressions’ – what have you – there’s simply no independently verifiable method to prove what you say is true. If you say that you can verify that God has spoken to you because you can compare it to the scriptures, I have to ask how you know the scriptures are valid, or at least that your interpretation of them is the correct one. If you can only answer that you know this because God has revealed it to you in some way – then your logic is completely circular.

I know you want to think God talks to us, because we talk to him all the time. But we have to face the fact that most if not all of the ‘impressions’ that drop into our minds are simply our own thoughts. We imperil our democracy if we refuse to do so.

Deciding that your opinions are ‘God-breathed’ in some way, and that mine are just the machinations of a fallen nature undermines the idea of democracy. Our laws are to be based on what’s best for the common good, what the majority of the populace decides – not on what one group’s God wants. Saying that God is the author of your convictions is just a way of elevating your opinions – and discrediting mine.

It also makes it impossible to compromise to get anything done. Anyone who grew up in a large family knows that no one can have what they want all of the time. Everyone has to compromise from time to time for the good of the family as a whole. Democracy works the same way. If Christians get what they want all of the time, America would be a very unhappy place for people of other faiths or no faith at all.

If you feel, for example, that God told you that tax cuts for wealthy people are good for the economy, then if would be impossible for you to compromise with someone who felt differently, or to vote for someone who proposed such an idea. No amount of data or academic proof would be able to dissuade you of your opinion. Any everyone knows that when God tells you something, you dare not compromise. Who would ask you to compromise what God told you? Well, only Satan of course. So the other party must be driven by the spirit of the Antichrist.

You can see why we’re not getting much done in America these days. I lived in China and other Asian countries for just over a decade. They’re eating our lunch when it comes to building roads, airports, and other infrastructure, and they’re investing in education at ten times our rate per capita. The reasons why China is pulling ahead of us are complex, to be sure. But one reason why is that everyone believes that the only solution to their problems is themselves. Also, no one ever accuses the other political parties of being motivated by demons.

If it comforts you to think that God speaks to you about the intimate details of your life – who am I to deny you that comfort? But if I think that the problems we are facing in this country can be solved if we just all figure out how to work together – who are you to deny me and my descendants a happy and prosperous future?

Talk to God if you like – but don’t pretend that every idea that falls into your head comes from him.

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What is Prophecy? Part Two

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on June 4, 2012 at 2:25 am

Yesterday, I described my experience and understanding of what prophecy means, and how the churches of my youth understood Paul’s teachings about this spiritual gift. I grew up in Pentecostal churches, and I’m sure many readers with a similar background or current experience worshiping God will be able to relate.

Continuing to look at what Lindsay Harold said about prophecy in her comments on my site, it’s clear to me that she comes from a different Christian background. She felt that I didn’t understand what prophecy really is – which really means that I don’t share her particular point of view. Hundreds of thousands of Charismatic believers understand the scripture as saying that prophecy and revelation go hand in hand; hundreds of thousands of Baptist and Methodist believers would say that prophecy is really nothing more than just preaching. This just re-affirms the circular logic of the faithful:

  • My views are not my opinions – they are what God said in the Bible.
  • If you just take the time to read the Bible, you’ll see how valid my views are.
  • If you read the Bible and don’t come to the same conclusions I do, there something wrong with you.
  • Yes, I realize that there are hundreds if not thousands of different Christian beliefs that all say they base their ideology on the Bible, but their logic is faulty or they are reading it the wrong way.
  • My belief system is the final authority on how the Bible should be read and interpreted, because –
  • My views are not my opinions – they are what God said in the Bible.

Here are some of Lindsay’s other comments – again, very logical on one level, especially if you are already predisposed to believe.

In New Testament times, God was completing His revelation by revealing the mystery of Christ and His atonement and how the church was to function. However, revelation was closed with the completion of the New Testament. (Keep in mind that when Paul was writing, revelation was still going on).

Lindsay’s first sentence does have some grounding in the writings of the NT; however, her second sentence doesn’t. Where in Bible does it say that the time of revelation is closed? Well, nowhere. This idea, however, has been popularized by non-Charismatic pastors, most notably John MacArthur. In his lengthy essay Does God Still Give Revelation?he argues that no new revelation has been given since St. John wrote Revelations. (It’s interesting enough to read all eighteen pages, but if you want to cut to the chase, go to page 14. Or I can give you the super-super abridged version, “No, he doesn’t.”)

But his argument shows an unfamiliarity with how the NT was actually put together. The books were not written in the order that they appear in your Bible today – anyone who can read the notes before each book knows this. MacArthur seems to think that they were. The scriptures he gives are few and pulled at random from a number of texts – not presented in context. And, in fact, second century Christian leaders disagree with him. Justin Martyr and Ireneaus, both writing just after John’s Revelation was supposedly completed, believed that the gift of prophecy – as a modern Charismatic might interpret it – still existed in the church.

In the 1st century church, there was no such thing as a ‘New Testament’; there were only letters written to churches, and stories about the life of Jesus. No one who was writing thought they were establishing a ‘canon’ of scripture that would be considered the entirety of God’s revelation to mankind. They were simply writing down what they thought God had inspired them to write.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospels were not even attributed to the authors we know them by today until late in the 2nd century – 150 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Only in the early 4th century, during the reign of Constantine, would the idea of a book of complete and incontrovertible truth come along. The New Testament then was not so much ‘completed’ as it was assembled  – study the works of Eusebius to see how the books of the NT were chosen from among dozens of popular writings.

God has now given us the complete understanding of His commands and expectations in the Bible. He has revealed Himself to us in its pages. Thus, prophecy today does not consist of telling us new and previously unknown things about God and His commands as it once did. All that will be revealed to us (in this life) has already been revealed.

Believers who subscribe to this point of view often say that in Biblical times, prophecy meant ‘foretelling’, while in modern times, it simply means ‘forth-telling’.

Prophecy today consists of proclaiming the word that God has already revealed (i.e. proclaiming Biblical truths). It doesn’t have to be ONLY quoting scripture, it can also include explanations or rewording to make it more understandable, but there will be nothing fundamentally new because God has already revealed Himself.

In other words, when Paul wrote prophecy, he meant sermon. This really irks me when people who claim that the Bible is so inerrant that to change one tiny phrase would be blasphemous, then try to twist a phrase around when it suits them. Are we supposed to read the Bible as literally as possible? Or is it to be read metaphorically? Most believers say literally, when a literal reading supports their belief system, metaphorically when a literal reading challenges it.

Also, God now indwells the hearts of His people (believers) and speaks to them personally in revealing His personal will for their lives. We do not have prophets between us and God anymore. This more personal plan for individuals is not revelation (revealing God’s nature and commands for mankind), but God does speak to our hearts about His will for our lives and guides us through principles in His word. God can speak to us through the counsel of godly friends, but He does not tell another person things to tell me that I am commanded by God to do. The things I am commanded to do have already been given in His word. The things He has planned for my life particularly, He tells to my heart.

Again, why can’t Christians see the circular reasoning employed here? I know the Bible is true. I know this because God has spoken this truth to my heart. I know that God speaks to men’s hearts because it says so in the Bible.

By the way, it is not necessary to suspend rationality in order to have faith. The opposite of faith is not reason, but sight (check it out for yourself). In other words, we can know truth logically and still have faith in it because we haven’t seen it yet. For example, we Christians have faith that Christ will return for us. We haven’t seen it yet, but we believe it will happen (and we live out our faith by acting according to our belief). We do, however, have good and rational reasons for our faith. God never asked us to simply believe for the sake of believing.

I disagree. I think there are a lot of examples in the Bible where God asks people to believe for the sake of believing. And certainly churches today ask us to buy the whole ball of wax they are selling, no questions asked. I’m supposed to believe in the miraculous, even though no one has ever seen any evidence. I’m supposed to believe the Bible was written exactly the way the church says it was, when scholars since Martin Luther himself have said that this cannot be possible.

Hebrews says that “faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see”. It’s a beautiful scripture, but represents the conundrum of the person of faith who doesn’t want to be seen as irrational. Faith is the assurance that what we hope for but cannot see is true. Faith is irrational. It could be called ‘false hope’.

Also, just because people cannot agree on what the Bible says does not mean that there is no true meaning. There is only one correct interpretation for Scripture. We just understand it either better or worse.

Pull away all the posturing and appeal to reason, and at the end of the day, this is what faith requires. People disagree, but I’m sure I’m right. And everyone else is wrong. I understand better than you do.

In general, though, the main points are pretty clear and most Christians agree on them. Holding up a prophecy (in today’s world, think of prophecy as a sermon or something similar) to God’s word to see if it matches is one very important way of determining if a person is speaking for God.

If it’s so clear and most Christians agree on them – why are there 20 different churches competing for my tithes in even the smallest American town? And it seems obvious to me that if ‘prophecy’ can be twisted around to mean ‘sermon’ – then I can pretty much get any pet idea to ‘match’ God’s word.

What is Prophecy? Part One

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on June 3, 2012 at 4:21 am
Prophet Micha

Prophet Micha

A few days ago, I ended my post commenting on 1 Thessalonians 5 with the following paragraph:

(Paul) ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.

In the Pentecostal / Charismatic churches that I grew up in, ‘prophecy’ went something like this: we’d be worshiping God as a group, sometimes through spiritual songs, sometimes just everyone lifting their hands up towards heaven, praying softly. In either event, the emotional level would be very high – some folks might be crying or so involved in prayer as to seem in a trance. There would be a sudden stillness in the group, as if everyone suddenly expected something to happen. The musicians might even ‘sense’ that they should stop playing.

Then, one of two things would happen; someone would speak in tongues, publicly, meant for all to hear, and we’d all wait for someone to interpret the ‘message’ that had been given, or someone would prophecy directly, in English. These spiritual utterances, if you will, were usually fairly general exhortations that made generous use of known scriptural verses. However, sometimes they would include more local or personal instructions, aimed at the group or an individual within the group. This was my understanding of what the New Testament writers meant when they spoke of prophecy – speaking the mind of God to others. Pentecostal / Charismatic folk feel this kind of practice is what occurred in the 1st century church, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 14 and other locations in the NT.

My concern has always been – even as a sincere believer – how Christians are to determine what is truly of God, and what comes from the spirit of the prophet. People can get excited, make mistakes, have a particular point of view they see things through, etc. How can we be sure that people are really speaking for God?

If you’ve been reading the comments on my site, you’ve seen that one sincere Christian, Lindsay Harold, feels she has a good system for separating good prophecy from bad. In short, she thinks good prophecies meet three important criteria:

  • they cannot contradict the scripture
  • they must be rational and sensible
  • they cannot contain new revelation

I think this is a fair summary of her main points – you can read her comments for yourself on my previous post. I said that I thought her answers were well presented and seemed to have some good thoughts behind them, but that her answers really only opened up more questions. My reply addressed her main points in the following way:

  1. Since there are thousands of Christian denominations, all preaching different interpretations of the scripture on Sunday morning, there is no true consensus on what the scripture says; therefore in can be difficult to determine what might contradict the scripture.
  2. The life of faith is not always rational and sensible. Religious people believe in things that cannot be perceived with the five senses or proven through empirical evidence. In the Bible, God has often asked people to do illogical things. He asked Abraham to kill his son, for example. He asked the leper, Namaan, to bathe in the River Jordan if as a cure for his leprosy.
  3. Stipulating that prophets could not reveal anything new about God than had already been revealed seemed to render the gift of prophecy useless – it equates prophecy with quoting scripture. In addition, it would seem to suggest that any denomination outside the Catholic church was in error, for all Protestant sects claim in one way or another that they have a new revelation from God that has been ignored by other denominations before them.

Notice I’m not saying she’s wrong – on the surface, I think any believer could agree with what she writes. I’m just saying there are problems that her answers do not address.

Lindsay responded with a lengthy explanation. I admire the fact that her positions are thoughtful – not like that woman I saw on CNN the other day. But I’m still not really persuaded by her arguments. Below is a ‘conversation’ of sorts about prophecy – her comments are in italics.

I believe you misunderstand what prophecy is. Prophecy is proclaiming the word of God.

I was a fervent believer for two decades. I taught the adult Sunday school class in my church, including the letters to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. I wouldn’t have had the audacity to tell another reflective believer that they misunderstood something in the New Testament; I would have acknowledged that we had a different understanding of God’s word, but I never would have said that they didn’t understand what they read.

This goes back to my original point, which I affirm to be a valid one – American Christianity is highly individualistic in nature. There are nearly as many interpretations of scripture as there are believers; certainly any honest Christian would have to admit that each individual congregation tends to worship God and interpret scripture in a slightly different way.

In the Old Testament, God spoke to His people through prophets who were mouthpieces for God. They told the people what God was saying to them. In many cases, this was new revelation – new information about God’s expectations and commands for the people.

I don’t want to give too much veneration to Old Testament prophets. Let’s first of all assume that the OT is really God’s word – that is was written when it claims it was written, by whom it claims it was written by, etc. – all dubious claims in the light of modern scholarship. But for the sake of argument, lets assume it is what it says it is. There are a lot of ‘prophecies’ that involve murder, genocide, rape, bigamy, and other heinous crimes that would land a man in jail if he followed them. How can we call a man a prophet when he uses his supernatural connections to summon bears out of the woods to kill children – just because they taunted him by calling him ‘old baldy‘?

Lindsay’s post is lengthy – and thank God she differentiates NT from OT prophecy. Since it’s 4am – let me stop here for now and continue this conversation tomorrow or the day after.

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