In this post, I will pick up where I left off in my previous post, commenting on the Biblical justification for the popular view that the Holy Spirit speaks and reveals his will to Christians largely through the medium of internal feelings, promptings, or some other such powerful internal cue indicating what His will might be for their lives. I understand the issue is very sensitive and undermines a paradigm many are reluctant to even question much less entertain the idea of giving up; however, if history has taught us anything, popularity (especially among laymen) is never a good argument for thinking an idea is biblically justified.
Attention now will be drawn to several passages in the book of Acts which allegedly teach that God does precisely this.
There are actually 19 instances in the book of Acts where people receive special revelations from God or the Spirit. Of those 19 instances, three are duplications of the same event (that brings the total to 16). Of those 16, three are given by Angels (Acts 8:26-29, Acts 10:22, Acts 12:7), four were special visions or trances (Acts 9:10, Acts 10:11, Acts 16:10, Acts 18:9), four were Jesus either speaking or appearing, and two were through prophetic utterances (Acts 21:4, Acts 21:11). That leaves possibly three references of which the mode of revelation is unspecified (Acts 13:2-4, Acts 15:28, Acts 16:6, and maybe Acts 21:4 but this is likely another prophetic word).
First, on the issue of prophetic utterances, my contention is that these references do n0t provide support for the IV view for at least 3 reasons: (1) we do not know how the prophetic words were made known to the mind of the prophet, all we know is that God gave them to them. It could have been through a vision, dream, angel, theophany, etc. which was a common motif in the OT. It would seem then that at best we should be agnostic about these prophetic texts as concerns the mode of revelation, though not the fact of revelation – a key distinction. (2) Even if Acts does teach that God gave private and direct revelations to people through their inner feelings, urges, and convictions, this does not entail that God still does so today. God may have had limited and specific purposes at that time which may not be operative or relevant in today’s context. God is free to do what he pleases and just because he chose (for the sake of argument) to give private revelations in the past, does not obligate Him to continue to do so now, unless there is some other reason in scripture to think that he does and will. (3) There is the simple fact that, the cessationism vs. continuationism debate aside, in scripture not everyone in the church is given the gift of prophecy, and thus, receiving prophetic words, cannot be a reasonable and normative expectation that believers should expect of the Spirit.
Let’s now go to Acts 13:2-4:
“While they were ministering to 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, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus.”
In this passage you get a bare assertion that the Holy Spirit “said” something. Again, the mode of the “saying” is not specified. Though it is interesting that when the Holy Spirit speaks, they all (i.e., the teachers and prophets at Antioch) heard it. This does not seem to be a private internal revelation of any kind, nor was it fuzzy, unclear, open to interpretation, unlike our feelings, desires, subjective urges etc. Further, in all likelihood, since the text says that there were prophets among those present v.1, that this is another example of a prophetic utterance which I’ve already addressed above.
How about the verdict delivered at the Jerusalem council when it says “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:” (Acts 15:28)? First, one needs to note that prior to this verse, the leaders in the Jerusalem church attempted to resolve the theological problem through a debate, discussion, reference to the Scriptures, as well as the miracles that God himself had performed. When they come to the conclusion of this debate, they write, “For it seems good to us having become of one mind,” and then a couple of sentences later they add, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and us.” The point is clear, the Holy Spirit is not the chief communicative agent in this passage, i.e., he does not download a clear and decisive ruling directly into the minds of the apostles, otherwise, why the debate? In context, the passage is referring to a joint decision made through the agency of the corporate leadership of the church, which is then attributed to the Spirit.
Lastly, Acts 16:6. Paul here is forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word in Asia. Though it doesn’t say how the prohibition was communicated. However, it is significant that in this same pericope, in v. 10 Paul has a vision of a man calling him from Macadonia, causing him to conclude that “God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” In other words, the text does not specificy the medium God used to prevent Paul from going to Asia, and the text does specify a different means, i.e., a vision, that God used to direct Paul to go to Macedonia. At most then, we should conclude that we don’t know how the Spirit prevented Paul, and it would be an illicit inference from silence to conclude anything else.
In my final post, I will address Galations 5:18, Mark 13;11, and John 16:13 as well as lay out the wisdom model alternative.