Discerning the Spirits: A Response to “The Spirit Said…”

Holy-Spirit-Dove-smallAlthough rhetorically very powerful, the recent piece written “The Spirit Said…” by our friend Shawn Wicks, I contend misses the mark on both a logical and exegetical basis. Now some will disagree with me before they even bother to consider my objections, especially in light of the fact that Shawn also decided to include some encouraging devotional content along side his analysis of the Acts passages. My aim is not to minimize the value of reading scripture devotionally, however if the devotional encouragement is predicated on a faulty interpretation, then we run the risk of being encouraged to do the wrong thing. So the discussion must indeed come back to, what does scripture explicitly teach on this issue? More specifically, two central questions must be answered if the inner voice view can be demonstrated to be a Biblical motif:

(a) What does it mean to be led by the Spirit in scripture?

(b) How should Christians expect, as a matter of their daily and normative experience, to be communicated with and spoken to by the Holy Spirit?

Let’s now see how Shawn answers these questions in inverse order:

In paragraphs 1 and 2, attention is drawn to the fact that the phrase “the Spirit said…” is an often repeated motif in the book of Acts (Acts 8:29, 10:19, 11:12, 13:2, 21:11; cf. 16:6-7, 19:21, 20:22-23). All throughout Acts, the Spirit communicates, usually through some sort of clear, though I would contend often unexpected and unsought, apparent, and miraculous (though not always) means to the apostles, leaders, and early disciples of the apostles. When God speaks, often times the means is explicitly identified (e.g., angels – Acts 8:26-29, 10:22, 12:7, visions or trances – 9:10, 10:11, 16:10, 18:9, prophetic utterances – 21:4, 21:11etc.), but other times the means is not (e.g., Acts 13:2-4, Acts 15:28, Acts 16:6, and maybe Acts 21:4 but this is likely another prophetic word). The point was made further that since Luke only had a limited space to write his account, that means that “its content was limited to the most significant and relevant details and other “less essential” items were omitted.” Of both these points I am in complete agreement with. However, it is then illicitly inferred that on this basis “Luke clearly wants to communicate something to his audience about [the] role and function of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.” His argument may be broken down in the following way:

(1) The Spirit speaks often in Acts

(2) Acts only includes the most important information

(3) Acts is trying to teach it’s audience (and by that I think he also means us today) about how the Holy Spirit will communicate both with them and us.

Both premises are true, unfortunately they do not imply the conclusion, even remotely. The easiest way to see how is that this argument commits a basic fallacy well known to philosophers (perhaps not to theologians) called the is/ought fallacy, i.e., just because something is referred to or mentioned (e.g., in scripture), that does not mean that there is a moral imperative or normative expectation that the thing trying to teach. Just because something is the case, it does not follow that it ought to be case. To illustrate, let’s use an example pertinent to the current topic. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is still present and would from time to time empower and fill various individuals for some work or service (e.g., Saul, David, Ezekiel, etc.). However, it would be an illicit inference to argue that the mere fact that the Holy Spirit empowered some, entails (in the absence of clear didactic instruction) that the ancient Israelites should expect that God will empower all in this way. The same point can be made with many other examples (the conquest of Canaan and polygamy also comes to mind).

The bottom line is that this inference assumes (without argument) that there was nothing unique or special going on in the book of Acts, such that God could have a provisional and limited purpose for doing something special then that may not be as important or relevant now. And not only is this an assumption, it’s quite obviously a false assumption. The book of Acts is an obviously dispensationally (I use that term loosely) unique period in the origin and development of the church (e.g., the holy spirit falls on the disciples at Pentecost, 3000 souls were added after one sermon, people are being healed by merely being eclipsed by Peter’s shadow, Stephen at his stoning has a vision of the apocalyptic son of man, Saul is radically converted and commissioned to bring the gospel to the gentiles, the holy spirit is given to the Samaritans, the holy spirit is given to the Gentiles, Peter has a vision of the intended unity that exists now between Jew and Gentile in the church, the Jerusalem council must judge whether gentile believers are obligated to the keep Jewish law etc.) These rather sublime and grandiose events are particular to that formative period in the church for the purpose of laying “the foundation” (Eph. 2:20) of the church and opening up the pathways that now allow the apostles and others to preach the universal gospel “to the ends of the earth.”

As a further but less salient point, we must also remind ourselves that Acts is not a book of didactic instruction, but it belongs in the narrative genre which means that the primary purpose is to describe the events as they unfold, not necessarily to provide normative models for the church (although it does, can, and should do that to). 

Objection: So are you saying that Acts has nothing to teach us today about God, the Church, Christian living, or the Holy Spirit? May it never be! When one interprets narrative prose, one must respect the genre of the text under examination. The function of Acts is not to provide clear commands to perform or not perform some act, like many of the epistles do overtly. There is principled wisdom and teaching that may be mined from acts, especially from the sermons that are recorded throughout. All this is to say, that even if (1) and (2) are true in the aforementioned argument, the conclusion does follow because it makes several faulty assumptions. Shawn has not answered question (b) above.

Let’s now go to his attempt to answer question (a). Here, it is conceded that (contrary to the impression one gets as one looks at the myriad of references cited) there are actually relatively few instances where the method by which God speaks to someone is undisclosed. Of course, it would be a faulty argument indeed to say that the relative frequency of a command, teaching, or event by itself shows us how important or crucial the teaching is (Revisionist readings of the Biblical teaching on homosexuality commit the same error). The argument is not, look how few times Acts refers to the Spirit speaking, therefore, this information is unimportant and not relevant to us today. That is not my argument.

Here’s what Shawn’s main and only argument was, “when Luke writes, “the Spirit said” with no further descriptors, we are left with basically two options. He either spoke audibly or inaudibly. Any other option falls short for they fail to explain adequately the very specific and personal nature of the Spirit’s words. Since Luke takes pains to present the Holy Spirit as an indwelling, immaterial presence, it seems obvious to me that we should conclude the Holy Spirit probably spoke inaudibly.”

First, it needs to be pointed out that this is merely an argument from silence (as I predicted would happen in my original post). The passages cited (Acts 13:2-4, Acts 15:28, Acts 16:6), do not state here (nor anywhere else in scripture) that the Holy Spirit communicated the information inaudibly through some sort of innate sense or feeling. At worst we need to remain agnostic about the method of communication, and at best we should base our exegesis on what we DO know not based on what we DON’T know, i.e., that Acts identifies explicitly various means and methods God uses to communicate to people (angels, dreams, visions, prophetic utterances, etc.). So when we come to a passage like those mentioned, plain reason and sound exegesis demand that we default to what scripture explicitly mentions in the context instead of importing a non-biblical category, i.e., the holy spirit normatively communicates to believers through inaudible internal promptings (which is no where mentioned or hinted at in Acts).

But what about the so-called argument from indwelling? Does not that entail that believers have a direct hotline to the Holy Spirit and will be led immediately through His indwelling presence via the elicitation and solicitation of feelings, urgings, or leadings? This forms the crux of Shawn’s argument and may be broken down in following way:

(1) There are instances in Acts where the Holy Spirit speaks with no information as to how the speaking took place.

(2) The method of speaking then can either be audible or inaudible

(3) The Holy Spirit in Acts is portrayed to be an immanent indwelling presence

(4) Therefore, the Holy Spirit probably spoke directly through some inaudible means in Acts

First, what needs to be pointed out is that the language in (3) being used to describe the Holy Spirit is not being derived from Acts itself, but is being imported into the interpretation from other texts. What Shawn calls an intimate (itself a non-biblical descriptor), immanent, indwelling presence of the Spirit, Luke uses the language of being filled or full. The concept of the indwelling of the Spirit largely is being derived from Paul’s letters (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19, 2 Cor. 6:16, 2 Tim. 1:14 etc.). Of course, it is not being argued that there is no connection between being filled and being indwelt, but these are not identical ministries of the Spirit. This is an illicit equivocation on Shawn’s part. Fillings come and go (Eph. 5:18, Acts 4:8, 31, 7:55 etc.), but the indwelling presence of the Spirit is something fixed and permanent. Thus, it is appropriate to draw attention to the fact that a conceptual scheme that is absent from Acts now needs to be imported into it to explain what’s going on.

Second, let’s grant for the sake of argument the equivocation is true (fillings and indwellings are identical). Now it must be asked, does the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit mean that the Spirit will normativity communicate his will (apart from scripture, sound council based on scripture, or some other miraculous intervention) directly to the minds of individuals? But why think that? 1 Cor. 2:11 is cited as an example of how God speaks “inaudibly.” Here’s what it says:

For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.

First, and most importantly, the passage not about how the Spirit speaks to human beings. This is a declaration of the Spirit’s omniscience. However, Shawn says “When we pray this way [What way?], we very much expect God to “hear” our prayers. In return, we can expect the Holy Spirit to speak to us in much the same way. This view seems to be corroborated by the natural flow and reading of these texts [which texts?].”

The argument that is being made is that since we can pray to God in an inaudible way, and God can hear our inaudible prayers, then we should expect to “hear” God through an inaudible means. This conclusion simply does not follow. Should we also expect that if we pray audibly to God, that God will communicate to us through an audible way (a booming voice or a still small voice, but a voice nonetheless)? I could also write out a prayer on a sheet of paper and presumably God will know what I have written, does this mean that I should expect to receive a letter in the mail in return from God? God is under no compulsion to communicate with us in a certain way simply because I decided to reach out to him in that way. Perhaps you are someone struggling with the prospect of divorce. You cry out to God in your mind and he hears you. But maybe what God wants is after you pray, to consult the god-breathed scriptures and educate yourself about what God has actually SAID about divorce!

The bottom line is, there is no passage in the NT where one of the functions of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is thought to provide believers with immediate tailor made instructions brought on through urgings, promptings, feelings, for how they ought to live their lives.

The only Acts passage that Shawn tries to resolve is Acts 15:28 (though I provided comments on the Acts 13 and 16 passages earlier on my blog which were not responded to). The first thing to note is that this passage, contrary to supporting the thesis, actually is not directly relevant to it, i.e., it is not one of the “Spirit spoke…” passages at all, in fact the Spirit does not say anything the passage. Shawn rejects the interpretation that the Spirit is speaking through the collective wisdom of leaders stating that it seems “rather underwhelming.” Personally I find the argument from being underwhelmed unpersuasive. Here was the reasoning I gave on the blog:

“It [the passage] 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.”

Personally I don’t see anything underwhelming about God working through the corporate wisdom of the leaders in the local church (And I’ll end with a devotional as well). The providential control that our almighty and sovereign God has in order to equip and train wise leaders is not something that is underwhelming to me. It’s something we as Christians can take refuge in, that just as God has ordained certain nations to exist and have the authority they do, God has ordained the leadership of churches to make wise, biblical, and morally upright decisions. The existence of and objectives of the church can never be thwarted, and God will see to it that His church will continue to endure and continuously raise up leaders ready to carry out his will and preach his gospel. 

So far as I can see, then, neither questions (a) nor (b) have been answered.

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