The Subjectivity of Charismaticism

I have been commenting over at Parchment and Pen on a post titled, Surprised by the Deficiency of the Spirit by Lisa Robinson.  I decided to turn my comments there into a post here:

To know the right answers to the most critical questions of life, such as, how does one inherit eternal life, Jesus consistently directed people to Scripture (e.g., Luke 10:25-28). He characterized Scripture as the highest authority, and His own ministry as being, not a contradiction to the Law and Prophets, but a fulfillment of them:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18 ESV).

Paul concurred with our Lord’s view on Scripture, testifying that

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV).

The Spirit of course speaks through the Scriptures, being the Author of them. Can and does He prompt people towards certain thoughts and actions apart from direct interaction with Scripture? Yes, but I would argue such promptings are always in accord with the Word of Scripture.

Are we supposed to be directed specifically by God’s “voice” in every decision and choice we make, as many in charismatic circles claim? I don’t think the Bible teaches this. In fact we read in James 4 (cont.),

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (James 4:13-17, ESV).

James speaking by the Spirit tells us human beings don’t know the future (and cannot know, since we are but “mists”) . Yet so many supposed “words” given in many Christian circles today deal with precisely this– what we cannot know, not being God. If we claim to know, James says we’re boastful sinners. Moreover, as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us, in Scripture we already have all the information we need  to live a life pleasing to God.

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV)”.

Reading James, it seems to me then that the hunger for secret, unrevealed knowledge is evil and leads believers into dangerous territory. Open the door to “subjectivity” and all manner of deception follows, as evidenced by the rampant error that characterizes so much of Christendom today, as it follows in the charismatic way.

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9 Comments

Filed under Charismaticism, Hearing from God, Theology

9 responses to “The Subjectivity of Charismaticism

  1. Alex –

    You should interact with Marv and I’s stuff over at our continuationist blog – http://continuationism.com.

    I would like to interact with your thoughts here.

    1) I believe Jesus did direct people regularly to Scripture. But he did it to direct people consistently to his Father and himself. I even think he once said: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me. (John 5:39) He is what it’s all about. As another helpful writer said, by the name of AW Tozer: The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God.

    The Scripture serves a purpose, as does all the good tools and gifts God has given for us to know him. Scripture is NOT the highest authority. I know that sounds very unevangelical. But Christ is THE highest authority, to which Scripture (and other varying things) testifies. I’m not trying to degrade Scripture. But if one holds Scripture as the highest authority, I think it is putting it in a place that is reserved for God/Christ alone.

    2) I have to say you’ve pretty much wrongly utilised James 4:13-17. You’ve missed the point of his words in THAT context totally. He is not addressing anything with regards to the nature of the prophetic gift. Secondly, remember that prophecy is not primarily about “predicting the future”. That’s a fallacy most non-continuationists believe. Prophecy is ultimately about the word of the Lord coming into our current situations. It can have a future (or “predictive”) element. But that is subsequent to its normative intent. Even the prophets of Scripture were first and foremost speaking into THEIR day. So I pretty much doubt James is identifying people as evil who are desirous of God’s good gifts. I mean, another great apostle did tell us of the goodness of pursuing God’s good gifts (1 Cor 14:1). We get a taste of his good gifts, we get a taste of him.

    3) Yes, God could have ONLY used Scripture to communicate his good revelation. But, interestingly, he chose to use a variety of manners and he even chose to give prophecy that did not find its way into Scripture. Think of what we read in 1 Tim 1:18-19. These prophecies about Timothy’s life and ministry never made it into Scripture. Yet they were some pretty powerful words, ones that helped him “fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience”. Pretty amazing stuff! What about the prophecies and revelations being brought forth in Corinth (and the other churches)? They were exhortative, encouraging, comforting, challenging (like Paul said prophecy is in 1 Cor 14:3), but they never were meant to be recorded in a canon-like Scripture way. What about the words of the prophets Samuel, Nathan & Gad (1 Chron 29:29)? They were used as reference sources, but never made it into Scripture. God’s always been speaking both inside and outside of Scripture – both while Scripture was being written and after it was written.

    And what an amazing passage when Scripture itself tells us who the pillar and foundation of truth is – God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). Maybe it works this way – the living body under the living head (Christ) engaging with the written word in Scripture. And, no, I’m not advocating any full Roman view.

    4) Finally, on the whole subjective matter. Do we not think subjectivity is a reality for all broken and fallen sinners? What about in preaching, what about in interpretation and Bible study, what about in discerning God’s will in situations even if we don’t believe he will “speak” today? And there is a kind of myth/legend that the Bible is 100% objective. But when you have differing accounts with differing details, even tensions/contradictory details (I’m thinking how different Gospel writers had Jesus dying on different days, etc), you don’t have completely, absolute, 100% objective truth. Now listen, I’m not arguing Scripture is deceptive, false or evil. Truth can be recognised as subjective and still remain truth. Hence why we believe the Gospels or the different accounts in Samuel-Kings and Chronicles are truth, even though they differ and even slightly contradict in details. It’s just that this is not straightforward history. It’s history that was shaped to teach theology, about God’s redemptive plan, ultimately in Christ. There were either 1 or 2 angels at the tomb. Which one was it? There were either 1 or 2 demoniacs. Which one was it? Christ either died on a Thursday or Friday. Which one was it? So Scripture does have a level of non-objectivity to it, but that does not negate it as truth (though a modernist epistemology would like to argue otherwise). God is completely objective. But Scripture is not God. It is the greatest team project ever between God and his people. God could have chosen to write Scripture himself, but he had his people do it. God got dirty in revealing himself. It’s scandalous and appalling to the religious. But that’s how he decided to do it, ultimately doing the same in this guy named Jesus. Very dirty stuff. But very right and revelatory stuff.

    Even if you don’t like my thoughts on Scripture, there is still subjective engagement all around. It is reality. Doesn’t mean we cannot come to a very reasonable and practical grasp of truth. But the kind of legend/myth that charismatics are all subjective in their spiritual gifts but those only relying on the Bible are looking to be more objective is silly. Yes, we are subjective. And we’ve missed it at times. But we’ve also gotten it right quite a few times. I can testify to plenty of times where God has spoken through people and things have taken place. It’s all over the pages of Scripture and the pages of the life of his body. The subjective argument is silly, and especially without recognising it as a reality of even those who love good systematic doctrine and see it as the highest goal.

    Blessings. And come over to http://continuationism.com.

  2. Alexander M. Jordan

    Scott,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I’d like to respond to each of your points.

    1) I agree that Scripture is pointing to Christ. When people say Scripture is the “highest authority” I think it’s simply meant that because Scripture is the Word that comes from God, it is vested with His authority. When Scripture speaks, God is speaking. There is no higher authority than Scripture, but it is because God is speaking through it that it possesses that authority.

    2) and 3) Yes, James is not discussing the prophetic gift in this passage, but what he says here I think is relevant to the prophetic gift because it concerns knowledge of the future, which is at least in part an aspect of the prophetic gift. The passage demonstrates that the future is something only God knows, and implies that the normal Christian life is one in which we walk by faith and trust in Him, not knowing in advance what is going to happen tomorrow. It has been my observation however, that many in charismatic circles do not teach this, but rather claim that it is normative is to “hear” from God continually, getting exact instructions on big decisions such as who to marry, what house to buy, what job to take, as well as on smaller matters. My point is that in this passage James says that since the future is something we do not know, it is boastful and evil to act and speak as if we do. Yet during my time in charismatic churches I heard many “words” speaking to the present day and/or future, saying such and such is going to happen. People got excited because these words were supposed to be from God, not just speculations of a man or woman. Now the true prophet can speak to the present and may also predict what is going to happen in the future, because he speaks from God. But I think this passage is saying that the prophetic (in the sense of direct revelation from God about one’s life) is not the Christian’s everyday experience.

    I am still in a process of thinking through my position on the prophetic for today, but I must say that even in a church I attended that was reformed in soteriology but believed in the continuation of gifts such as prophecy, I found: a) little emphasis or teaching on application of those gifts and; b) where there was some practice, it seemed highly biblically questionable. For example, there was a person who made it known to the pastor that he had not received the “baptism in the Spirit”, or so he thought, because he had not spoken in tongues. So I was a witness one evening as the pastor coached this person into receiving the gift, with the expectation that he would begin speaking in tongues. Yet the person just wasn’t able to receive it. It seemed to me that the pastor was operating on the assumption that baptism in the Spirit is a subjective experience and that tongues are the major manifestation of it really happening. But I had not heard any teaching on this from the pulpit. The baptism in the Spirit as an experience subsequent to salvation was a common denominator teaching among the charismatic teachings I’ve encountered. Yet in studying Scripture I did not find a convincing case that it either exists or is something Christians should pursue. Yes, there is a filling with the Spirit that all Christians are commanded to, but a baptism in the Spirit as a special experience that marks a turning point in one’s Christian walk I never found. Anyway I’m still thinking through my position on prophecy but must admit that a prophetic gift that one has to practice and that is subject to human error does not seem to me to be of much value.

    4) Subjectivity– I fully agree with you that as fallible human beings we are not going to get everything right and that we, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “now see in a mirror dimly”. So there is a subjective element to all our knowledge. Yet the reason we are believers today is because Jesus Christ lived as the incarnate Son of God and died on a cross for our sins, as He said He would, and which was witnessed and recorded for us as God inspired men to write these things down by His Spirit. Our faith then is based on objective truths and reality that God determined would happen and would be recorded in Scripture. So as God enables people embrace these objective truths and are saved by them and benefit from them. This is so different than the subjectivity I’m referring to.

    For example, someone comes and tells me that God told them to, say, start a church and that He wants them to buy a particular property to build a building on it which will become the home for that church. They claim it’s absolutely clear to them that this is impression is from God, and I should support them. How can this be verified? Suppose I pray about it and have a different impression, one that says that they are being deceived? This is the subjectivity I’m talking about– the kind that leads into quandaries like this. I think it’s completely unnecessary. Do you feel a calling to start a Church? OK that’s great– now let’s see– are you qualified biblically to be an elder, and do others confirm your gifting to this role, as a leader and as a mature Christian? This would determine whether or not one is called– not just a subjective impression, which no one can test or verify.

    The subjective approach leads to confusion and chaos because there is no way to determine the authority of a given personal “revelation”. Whereas if we obey the commands of Scripture and the way of Jesus we know what to do and have freedom to make decisions within the principles provided and don’t have to consult the Christian equivalent of psychics to know how to proceed. What I find “silly” (actually ridiculous and disgusting are better words) is the constant stream of teaching on the so-called Christian networks that are based on a charismatic idea– that God is constantly and spontaneously impressing things upon people. And what is God supposedly telling people? That if they sow 1547 dollars within the next half hour they will get their Jeremiah breakthrough and overflow with blessings (material mainly), or some other nonsense like this. Now I’m sure you would say such folks are either charlatans or extremists, but why is that the charismatic world is dominated by such? Could it not be that the underlying principle that God speaks today via unverifiable personal revelations is faulty and leads into many errors?

  3. Pingback: Surprised by the Gullibility of the Charismatic | ReformingChristianity.com

  4. Dan

    Alex,
    Scott’s point that you press James 4 totally out of context is spot on. You do not defend it well–Talk about subjectivity. The passage from James says nothing of “hunger for secret unrevealed knowledge”

    Your defense goes into the weeds with “baptism in the spirit” and the practice of televangelists . Though, your concern about the proper use and testing of prophecy may be justified, you must be careful in basing your critiques on Your Own experience and subjectivity and not solely on scripture.

  5. Alexander M. Jordan

    Dan,

    Thanks for the comment. Many Christians of a charismatic bent seem to operate on the notion that God is supposed to speak to them all the time, by means of spiritual impressions they receive. It is very common to hear charismatics speaking in such a way that implies they have been given a sneak preview of the future from God. This passage in James I think quite clearly says human beings don’t and can’t know the future. It goes further and says it’s sinful to speak and act like we do. So I think one may reasonably deduce from this that it’s not normative to expect to be given divine, personal revelation about the future. Yet it seems to me that many teachers of a charismatic bent are trying to “hear God’s voice” so that they may gain knowledge that Scripture says isn’t theirs to have.

    Besides the fact that Scripture does not teach we need to live by subjective impressions, it is also highly impractical to do so, as they are completely unverifiable as being from God. Yet this approach to the Christian life has been popularized by those in charismatic circles and in books from such authors as Mark Virkler, John Ortberg, Henry Blackaby, Dallas Willard and Jack Deere. When one’s belief system and understanding of the Christian walk is founded on the idea that that in order to live a faithful, obedient and successful Christian life I must have God’s specific words, words not in Scripture but supposedly communicated to me directly via subjective impressions no one may say are true or false, I think the door is opened to all kinds of silliness and error. But the system in a way insulates itself from criticism because who are we to say that someone else did not hear from God? I think however this is very problematic and that the bad fruit bears this out. I think there is an undeniable connection between the madness exemplified on TBN and GodTV and these underlying erroneous beliefs and practices. Not that all of the error goes to the extremes, of course.

  6. Dan

    The passage in James is not written against the gift of prophecy or any other gift. It is written to a group of specific people that were boasting about their plans in an ungodly way. Are we to believe that James was throwing all reference to future predictive prophecy out the window with this passage?

    Of course we shouldn’t expect minute to minute revelations, and subjective impressions to be our guide. Yet I don’t know of any, not even the charismatic teachers you name, that teach this.

    • Alexander M. Jordan

      Again, I did not say that James was specifically targeting the gift of prophecy in what he wrote. Yet he was writing against a principle of Christians expecting to know, or predict, what is going to happen in the future and then trying to arrange one’s life in accordance with such knowledge that is not theirs to have. His warning is applicable not just to those whom he was writing, but to us today. Among the teachers I named there are likely theological differences, and some in my opinion are more theologically sound than others, but I’m quite sure all of them characterize themselves as Christian. And all of them have written based on this idea of hearing from God apart from Scripture via subjective, unverifiable impressions. The Blackabys, for example, have written, “Nowhere in the Bible are readers cautioned that they should not expect their walk with God to be like that of believers in biblical times… Jesus set the standard for us to follow by His own example. Just as He relied on the Father for continual guidance, the clear biblical pattern is that the Father constantly approached people with specific instructions.” The Blackabys claim that the normal Christian life is to hear from God continually giving specific directives. This contradicts the principle that James 5 describes. What is a superior and truly Christian alternative? I offer the following quote (from a critique by K. Jentoft on Mark Virkler’s teaching), which I am in agreement with:

      “I am not claiming that God, in His providence, does not give us feelings or is not involved in our impressions. I am only claiming that we can never be “guaranteed” that these feelings or impressions are God’s voice because there are many sources for impressions in our lives and we are not infallible. We can only be “guaranteed” of God’s voice in hearing the words of God’s chosen messengers. God has revealed His will to us in scriptures and we obey it or we sin. In all areas God has not revealed concerning our lives we have liberty to decide and act as we wish without fear.” Perhaps I will do a future post exploring this issue more fully.

  7. Dan

    The last paragraph could have been written by any Charismatic teacher. None that I know would say that prophetic words, or extra biblical revelations are a “guarantee” of God’s voice, or on a par with Scripture.
    I’m afraid you argue against a straw man. Yes Blackaby mentions that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible, circumstances, prayer and the church, but not in contradiction to the Bible. IMHO, If Subjectivity is the enemy here, then there is just as much in the non Charismatic church as anywhere else.

  8. Alexander M. Jordan

    Dan,

    Thanks for the comments. I could give more quotes and examples that would easily prove I am not writing about a strawman, but this would turn into another post. Perhaps you are not reading the teachers I mention very closely, or else you are in denial about what they write. The Blackabys do not teach only that God guides via the Bible, circumstances, prayer and the church, but also insist that one must get individualized. personal instruction directly from God because this is the normal Christian life! Mark Virkler titles his materials “Hear God’s Voice- Guaranteed” and they are all about hearing God’s voice outside the Scriptures. He makes the bold claim that if you apply his “four keys” you are “guaranteed” to hear God’s voice.

    Yes, all of these teachers offer the caveat that one must compare what one receives against the Bible, but when one is receiving instructions or words via subjective impressions about things the Bible does not explicitly address (which school should I send my kids to, for example) there is no way to use the Bible to verify whether the word received is accurate.

    Again, subjectivity is part of the human condition, but is far more limited in its negative effects when the Christian approaches the Bible as the more sure Word of prophecy (2 Peter 1:19-21) one is to read, obey, be equipped by (2 Tim 3:16-17), and makes decisions on issues not spelled out in Scripture according to one’s liberty in Christ, in accordance with biblical wisdom. But the charismatic approach of the above teachers and others opens the door to a subjectivity that can become reckless, because it is founded in my opinion on erroneous understandings of how God speaks to us today. If the Scripture is indeed sufficient to equip and guide us then we don’t need what these teachers claim we must have. I’ll probably develop these thoughts more in a future article.

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