With the blogosphere alive with the talk of the gifts of the Spirit and their existence or non-existence today, I’d like to discuss a sticking point that has long dogged the issue of modern day charismata: revelation.
Revelation scares people. God does not open His mouth and speak without major consequences. Revelation bothers many non-charismatics because the idea of God speaking to people today seems to butt up against the closed canon of Scripture; if God still speaks, should we not be writing down what He says? The Book of Revelation ends with a serious warning that whoever adds or subtracts from the Book will face dire consequences, right?
In the Book of Romans we read early on:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
—Romans 1:16-20 ESV
Revelation of God has come through the created order. What God has made speaks to us about who He is and what His character is like. What God has made testifies about Him:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their measuring line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
—Psalms 19:1-5 ESV
This kind of revelation is referred to as General Revelation. It is God revealed through what has been made. This is the basis of the argument for Intelligent Design now being bandied about in scientific circles. It is also the revelation that speaks to us when we are out and about in the daily course of our lives on this third planet from the sun. For people who thoughtfully consider what God has put around us, His General Revelation can powerfully speak to the soul. Consider this hymn, a favorite of many:
O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze. CHORUS
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin. CHORUS
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And then proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!” CHORUS
“How Great Thou Art” begins with the acknowledgment of God revealed through General Revelation, then moves on to another kind of revelation, Special Revelation.
Think of Special Revelation as an autobiography of a craftsman. It’s an in-depth portrayal of a person. General Revelation is more like a photo of the craftsman’s workshop. We can deduce things about the craftsman by seeing his workshop, but we do not know anything in detail about him, only what he has made and the level to which he has made it.
For Christians, the Bible is Special Revelation of God. It speaks in detail concerning the history of our Triune God in reality and tells us details of His character. Special Revelation, therefore, is intimate in a way that General Revelation cannot be. It details who God is, how He is, and what He desires. General Revelation attests that He is and that He is awesome, but can tell us little more than that. Unlike Special Revelation, General Revelation cannot tell us what pleases God or how we can be found acceptable to Him. This is what makes Special Revelation essential. It can tell us how to be restored to God and how to please Him. It is God Himself speaking directly to Man—out of God’s mouth to our ears, preserved in print for all eternity. It is the essence of what all men need to know.
The Bible’s place as Special Revelation is universally true, therefore. It is Universal Special Revelation in that it speaks to all men at all times in all places for a general purpose. Because the Bible is given to Man as a Universal Revelation, its authority is grounded in God and has no exceptions, therefore, to whom it applies. For this reason, its authority cannot be abrogated. General Revelation cannot trump it. Instead, that revelation is subordinate to the Universal Special Revelation found in the Scriptures. The Scriptures illumine General Revelation and not the other way around.
Now I believe that there is one other kind of Special Revelation, and this is the part that becomes contentious. I’ve blogged about this before (and I would encourage everyone to read the post), but I believe that God speaks uniquely to specific men in specific times in specific places for a specific purpose. An example of this is in Acts:
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
—Acts 13:1-4 ESV
Notice how the Holy Spirit operates here. He specifically called two people out of a specific congregation for his specific pupose. It was a Unique Special Revelation of God meant for that time, that place, those two believers, for one unique mission.
This idea of a Unique Special Revelation of God is what many non-charismatics object to within the charismatic movement. At issue is the idea that Unique Special Revelation somehow fights Universal Special Revelation for authority.
But as I’ve said, something that speaks to all men in all places at all times must be the final authority by nature of its universalism. Unique Special Revelation is not meant to speak to all men in all times in all places for general purpose.
Think of it this way. Many businesses have detailed vision and mission statements that the boss has handed down to employees and that serve as a template for all things done within the company. Those statements are a universal special revelation to the people who work for that boss. But should the boss come to a specific employee and say, “Johnson, I need you to fly out to Dallas and negotiate a deal with Franklin Heavy Industries,” the boss’s request is meant to further the vision and mission statements of the company so that the company prospers. The request is in keeping with the universal special revelation, but is in itself a unique special revelation. The rest of the employees of that company do not need to know that Johnson is on his way to Dallas. If they keep working in line with the vision and mission statements of the company, what Johnson is doing no way interferes with the common goal, but helps accomplish it. Nor are the bosses words to Johnson added to the vision and mission statement of the company.
In the case of the Acts 13 passage above, the Holy Spirit is going to the body of believers gathered at Antioch and nowhere else. That makes the message specific to a single gathering. In His words, he selects two believers from the crowd. There, too, is specificity, as is the mission itself: to go to Cyprus and beyond.
We see this same kind of Unique Special Revelation in Acts 16:
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
—Acts 16:6-9 ESV
The Holy Spirit forbade the apostles from going into Asia. Whether this was by His words or by His setting up a roadblock, either way the point was made and a unique revelation of God’s specific purposes was achieved. Later on, the Holy Spirit again speaks to Paul via a Unique Special Revelation by giving him a vision of the Macedonian man praying. Notice that this was NOT a Universal Special Revelation in that God was not asking the entire Body of Believers at that point to move to Macedonia and start an evangelistic crusade! No, the Lord was directing Paul and his companions alone to do that specific work within the universal call to make disciples of all nations.
Again, all of the Unique Special Revelations listed in Acts exist to uphold the truth given within Universal Special Revelation. The Universal Special Revelation is the final authority over Unique Special Revelation.
A few more thoughts on this…
Not every word that God spoke is recorded, nor are all His actions. The book of John ends this way:
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
—John 21:25 ESV
Jesus lived for thirty-three years, but the Gospels do not record every word He spoke in His entire existence on this planet. I, for one, would have loved to have heard the conversations He had with His parents in His youth. Wouldn’t those be fascinating and helpful for parents? Or what did He talk about with His disciples in those three years of nights around a campfire? We don’t hear all those. We are not privy to all His prayers. The differences between the Gospel of John and the three Synoptic Gospels are profound enough so that it is clear that not everything that Jesus said made it into the Bible. But God preserved what He wanted preserved in the Scriptures. What He felt was essential to Universal Special Revelation is in there. The canon is special for that reason.
What is even less recorded in the Scriptures is Unique Special Revelation. We know from the examples given in Acts that it certainly exists. I believe the very reason why these Unique Special Revelations are recorded in our Universal Special Revelation goes beyond the historical nature of Acts and into the very nature of Unique Special Revelation itself. God wants us to know that it exists and that He speaks that way.
What I do not believe is that each of those Unique Special Revelations must be known in order for the Body of Christ as a whole to operate. This is the reason that I have no problem not equating them with Universal Special Revelation. Those specific words are not essential for all of us to know, either in the days of the first century Church or the church of the 21st century. Their very specificity does not make them candidates for inclusion in Universal Special Revelation.
Although Paul clearly advocates revelatory speech through the charismatic gifts of words of knowledge, words of wisdom, words of prophecy, and the interpretation of tongues, God did not elect for Paul to record every single one of those Unique Special Revelations in His Universal Special Revelation. Yet the very fact that Unique Special Revelation does exist and that it is a means by which God works His specific will through specific people in specific times and specific places is important. For instance, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses pounded to the front door of the Wittenburg church was the result of God speaking to Luther and then to the people around him via the Unique Special Revelation granted him by the Holy Spirit, the one who grabbed hold of the reformer and used him for His unique purpose.
When a preacher expounds on the Universal Special Revelation via his sermon on Sunday, how can we not see that the Lord has ignited those words by means of Unique Special Revelation given to that preacher? What is the Unction of the Holy Spirit other than the Spirit speaking to a man in a given time to a given people for a given purpose?
I do not believe it is possible for the Church to exist without Unique Special Revelation. Just as Paul and his troupe were led to a man praying in Macedonia for a revelation of God to him and his people, so missionaries are called to specific groups of lost people around the world through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. When a missionary says that she has a heart for a certain people group, is that not a Unique Special Revelation given her by the Holy Spirit?
I believe we do an injustice to the Holy Spirit when we claim that Unique Special Revelation does not exist anymore. But I also believe that we grieve the Spirit when we try to manufacture Unique Special Revelation or fail to test any revelations we receive. This is clearly a mistake on the part of charismatics and non-charismatics have every right to call charismatics to task for this abuse. On the other hand, non-charismatics need to tread lightly when it comes to insisting that Unique Special Revelation does not exist. It certainly existed as recorded historically in the Universal Special Revelation of the Bible! Given its function, there is no reason to believe that God no longer wishes to direct His people in the same manner today that he did then. Nor do I see any proof that this kind of Unique Special Revelation has ceased. If it has, then no preacher should ever preach on the Scriptures, only read them to the congregation without any additional insights because those insights are no longer given by the Holy Spirit to a specific people in a specific time and place. Nor should he ever advise anyone in any specific instance of direction because all such direction has ceased.
I believe that Jesus chose these words very carefully:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
—John 10:27 ESV
Notice that He does not say that His sheep hear His words. It is the voice that matters. A voice speaks and continues to speak, whereas words are spoken once. And so the Spirit of the Lord Jesus speaks to us today. Discernment is therefore called for since there are other voices speaking that are not of God. However, the existence of those voices does not negate the existence of the One Voice, the Unique Special Revelation of God that His people are called to follow. The Shepherd is still speaking and we must obey.
The Lord either leads by His Spirit today or He does not. Based upon all the Scriptural evidence, God still speaks through Unique Special Revelation. I just pray that we are both open and discerning enough to hear Him and act on His direction.