Posted by: Johnold Strey | September 19, 2008

Whispers or Word?

I recently came across a blog that had a post similar to one of my recent posts.  As I checked out more of the information on the blog, I discovered the writer was, from all indications, a traditional, conservative, Evangelical Christian.  But as she described herself and her blog, my theological radar went off big-time.  She mentioned that she believes that God communicates to her in his Word, the Bible (so far, so good), but that God also communicates when the Holy Spirit “whispers” in her ear, and that sometimes God speaks to her when she writes something so profound that it immediately strikes her as divine.  I don’t know the person from Eve, and I have nothing against her, but it sparked some thoughts in my mind that I think are worth posting for others to consider.

This assumption is commonplace today.  My professors at college and seminary warned us about this type of thinking long before I became a parish pastor seven years ago.  Luther referred to such thinking as “fanaticism” and took to task the theologians who claimed that God communicated to them apart from his Word.  The thought that God speaks apart from his Word is so commonplace that some are even offended if you suggest otherwise (as I experienced once when a lady came to my parsonage door one day, claiming that God speaks to her and that she once levitated above the ground during a spiritual revival at AT&T Park in San Francisco before thousands of people — you can’t make this up!).  So I’d like to offer a few thoughts about the idea that God “whispers” in our ear.  This won’t be an exhaustive discussion, but hopefully it will offer some needed and necessary challenges to that kind of thinking.

One thing that strikes me is how ironic it is to hear those claims from Protestants (not all, mind you, but plenty).  The same folks probably rail against the pope’s claims that when he speaks ex cathedra, he is speaking the Word and will of God.  I, too, have a problem with that!  Fortunately, that hasn’t happened much since Rome proclaimed that as doctrine.  And yet average Joe and Jane Christian can simultaneously believe that the Holy Spirit has whispered some thought into his or her ear, regardless of whether or not this thought is verified in Scripture.  Just think about that: Some will disbelieve that the pope can speak directly for God, but at the same time believe that they hear the will of God in their ears.  Ironic?

It is true that Jesus promised his disciples the Holy Spirit before his betrayal on Maundy Thursday.  St. John records this statement of Jesus in his Gospel: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).  But note to whom the promise is made: the apostles!  Context, context, context! Some have dubbed this special outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, “total recall.”  In other words, these men would have the Spirit guiding them as they preached and wrote; what they recorded was (and still is) the Word of God.  Jesus gave no such promise to the Christians at large.  That should especially be apparent when these “whisperings of the Spirit” contradict the teachings in Scripture.

(As for God speaking through the Scriptures, the skeptic–and I don’t use that term pejoratively–will obviously ask for a bit more evidence than just pointing to a verse from John’s Gospel. The evidence he or she would like to see would likely be the reliability of the Gospels and the historicity of Christ’s resurrection as proof that Jesus could make the John 14:26 claim and have the power to come through on it.  That is a fair enough query, but a concise answer requires a book, not a blog post.  If you want to really chew on those issues and understand why Christians hold to the Gospels and the resurrection as fact, the best work I can point you to–and this is not an easy read–is Tractatus Logico-Theologicus by the great Christian apologist of our time, John Warwick Montgomery.  Here are links for it on Amazon and at the Canadian Institutue for Law, Theology, and Public Policy.  If that’s a bit too deep for your preferences, I’d recommend the apologetics chapters in Craig Parton‘s book, The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel.  Again, here are links for it at Concordia Publishing House, Northwestern Publishing House, and Amazon.  Really, I get no procedes from the sales of these books!)

So what accounts for these “spiritesque whisperings”?  I’m not a neurologist nor do I have the brains to become one (pun intended!), but the brain and the way it functions is amazing.  Among all of life’s other concerns and information, Christians (hopefully!) have stored plenty of biblical knowledge and experience in their minds – past sermons, Bible classes, Bible reading, services, devotions, memorized Bible verses and hymn stanzas, conversations with pastors and Christian friends, etc.  What is to say that when a godly, Christian thought comes to mind in a unique way and at just the right time, it isn’t our God-given brain doing its job with the spiritual memory bank stored inside it?  To me that seems far more plausible than the popular premise about the Spirit’s whispers, a premise that has no biblical support or testability.  (Testability is key, in my opinion.  Jesus’ promise to give the Spirit who would guide the apostles can be tested with the resurrection claim; if the latter is true, there is good reason to believe the former.  However, there is no way to test the modern claims that God speaks to someone directly, whether it’s the papacy, or the Mormon living prophet, or a cult leader, or an Evangelical Christian.  So you are left with zero evidence to support the claim.)  When those whispers in the ear and musings of the mind say something contrary to Scripture, I wouldn’t attribute it to the Holy Spirit getting indecisive about doctrine.  I would rather attribute it to the fact that we are still sinful people who don’t know the mind of God and can easily confuse our will and ideas with God’s will and Word.

If you want a clear and precise message from God, open his Word.  You cannot fail with that!  And should you ever think that God is whispering in your ear, or giving you a burning in the bosom, or triggering a gut feeling inside you — whatever you want to call it — remember, it might just be indigestion. 🙂

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