Does God Whisper? Part 2

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.

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Does God Whisper? Part 1

Recently I was in a conversation with some friends on the issue of how the Holy Spirit communicates with believers. This issue has become a source of great confusion and frustration for me because the more I look at the positive examples of the Holy Spirit acting and communicating with people in scripture, the greater conviction I have that the way modern people claim to “hear the voice of God” represents at best a non-biblical and at worst an unbiblical doctrine of divine speech. Such confusion often causes people to claim that they were “led” by the Holy Spirit or that God “called” them to do a certain thing, when in reality God was leading them in no such way. Leading and calling become trumps cards used often to lazily ignore or disregard the clearest way in which the Holy Spirit communicates, i.e., through the principles laid out in scripture. Yet such parlance flows from the mouths Christians as though this were a normative motif in the NT.

First, I need to define what exactly is the type of divine speech I reject. This view I will call the “inner voice” view (Hereafter IV). On this view the Holy Spirit communicates his will through some kind of ineffable internal prompting, a rather vague incommunicable sense or feeling of what to do or believe in a given situation. Sometimes this feeling may be in response to external circumstances and events going on around the person, i.e., there have been “opened doors” which they then interpret as God “telling” me to make or not make some decision. One, as it were, reads the tea leaves of their lives and then makes a choice based on what they “feel” God wants them to do. Further, though not essentially part of the view, some might add that hearing God’s voice in this way is something all Christians should be able to do and indeed is a discipline that they ought to be attempting to cultivate. An identification is made between listening to the Spirit and waiting for this inner sense, prompting, or compulsion of what to do.

Let me start by saying that I do not wish to put any non-necessary constraints on God’s power or God’s desire to communicate with his people. My issue is one of Biblical exegesis and (if I’m being totally honest) the fact that I as a believer do not and have not experienced God leading and calling me to do things in this way (but mostly the former).

To start with, the argument most often used to justify (IV) is simply to appeal to one’s direct experience of the inner voice as justification. However, such a response is clearly question-begging because it assumes the very proposition at issue, i.e., that this method of divine speech is a biblical teaching and the holy spirit can and does speak to people in this way. Of course, if it’s not a Biblical teaching because either the Bible is silent on the issue or because it runs contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, then we should at best be agnostic about it’s divine origin and at worst reject it entirely.

What then does scripture have to say on the issue? I will not enumerate all of the passages here that are used to defend (IV), but I will consider 2-3 of the most plausible candidates.

Before proceeding however, the simple questions that must be asked of all of the passages are the following: What is the means or mechanism through which the Holy Spirit communicates in the Biblical passage? Is the means identified or not identified? If the means is identified, are there any explicit references to an inner voice (as defined above)? If the means is not identified, what should we infer about the means?

My contention then is twofold: (1) that whenever the Holy Spirit speaks or communicates, the means is never explicitly identified as through some kind of inner prompting or feeling, (2) in places where the means is not identified, it is an illicit inference based on an argument from silence to insert an inner voice into the passage (which incidentally I think is the only way an inner voicer – for lack of a better term – can justify their view).

All this being said, let’s consider Rom. 8:14 & 16 “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God… The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” These are wonderful Biblical truths that I affirm entirely, but they don’t support (IV). First, we need to understand the sense of what Paul means by “led by the spirit” in v. 14. The most clear way to understand it is to contrast it with what it means to “live according to the flesh” in v. 12. Flesh and Spirit are being presented as corollary notions. Living in the flesh means to set our minds “on the things of the flesh” v. 5, which bring death and destruction. And the remedy is therefore to set one’s mind on the “the things of the Spirit” which bring life. Being “led by the Spirit” therefore is larger than demarcating one method of divine communication, i.e., it refers to the entirety of God’s ways and God’s truth and human beings willingly submitting ourselves to that. Someone might object by claiming that an inner feeling is one of ways in which God leads and directs our lives. That may be true, but that idea is being imported into the text and cannot being derived from it. Moreover, if one wishes to claim that “led by the spirit” is referring to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit, then one must also say that living according to flesh in this passage is solely referring to those who ignore such promptings. No one reading Rom. 8 could come away with that conclusion, thus this passage cannot mean what the inner-voicers claim that it means.

What about v. 16? Does not the testifying of His Spirit to ours give some grounds for (IV)? It would depend on the definition of the word “testifying.” If by testifying you mean,  communicate through an inner feeling, then yes of course. However, is there reason to think that the apostle Paul means that? Not in the least. Firstly, even if it did mean to the refer to an inner feeling, the content of the testimony is clear from the text, i.e., that we are his children and heirs. However, having the Holy Spirit confirm and seal our salvation is very different than relying on an inner feeling to decide what to major in in college, i.e., relying on the immediate testimony of His Spirit as the means for making more mundane life choices, as so many tend to do.  Moreover, at the end of John and 1 John we get two functionally equivalent statements about the reason why John wrote his gospel and epistle (1 John 5:13), “ These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Here the means by which the confidence comes is through the “writing” itself, i.e., through the God-Breathed scripture. Therefore, could it be that the means in which the God testifies with our spirit that we are his children is through his word in Rom. 8? Whether this view is the correct sense of testify in this passage or not is irrelevant. The point is that although his Spirit is said to testify with our spirit, the means through which that happens could be many and varied, and it would be to go beyond the text to infer (IV) in a non-question begging way.

In future posts, I’ll deal with passages in Acts, John, and Galatians, respond to some red herring objections (e.g., my view entails that believers do not have a relationship with God but with the scriptures), and I’ll also propose a model that I think captures better what I think the NT teaches regarding the resources believers have to help them make decisions.

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Did Jesus and the Disciples Speak Greek? The Geographical Credibility of Ehrman’s Argument Against Apostolic Authorship

Currently I’m on the cusp of finishing Bart Ehrman’s book on the Historical Jesus, i.e., Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium with OUP. The book is very thorough, though not as extensive a tome as something like N.T. Wright’s Jesus and The Victory of God. In the book, Ehrman attempts to make his case that, among other things, the disciples could not have been the writers of the Gospels because “all four Gospels are written in Greek, by authors who were reasonably well educated and literate.” By contrast, the disciples were “mainly lower class peasants – fishermen and artisans, for example – and that they spoke Aramaic rather than Greek.”[1] The inference is then made that the disciples could not have been the authors of the gospels.

Whether being lower-class or illiterate at one point in their lives would prevent the disciples (really only Matthew and John in view here; we did not know much about the literary credentials of Mark and Luke), from being the authors of the gospels is not what I want to address. Instead, I want to focus on is the supposition Ehrman repeatedly makes that the disciples would have been virtually cut off from having significant exposure to the greek language and culture simply in virtue of the fact they came from rural cities in and around the Galilee region.

Having just returned from studying in Israel, one thing that struck me, indeed it strikes most who go, is the geographical tightness of the land. For example, Jesus is said to have lived in Nazareth, which often gets described as a small, isolated, and tucked away town. In reality, Nazareth is located in a small basin just on the other side a ridge that slopes down into the Jezreel Valley, which is and was a major route connecting Galilee to the Coastal plane, Samaria, and Judea. One could walk up from the Jezreel Valley into Nazareth in a few hours (though I didn’t try!). Further, we know Jesus and the other disciples lived in close proximity to large cosmopolitan Greek speaking cities, for example, Sepphoris and then later Tiberius. Even so, Ehrman seems to balk at the idea that Jesus would have made trips to either of these cities. Of Sepphoris he notes that the city “is never mentioned in any of our gospel sources.” And then concludes that “this should give us pause” [2] when considering how much Jesus would have been exposed to Greek culture and influence. Such a claim does not seem to be contextually credible. Sepphoris is, roughly, 4 miles north of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. Here is a picture taken of the Nazareth ridge from the top of a Crusader lookout tower on the sight of Tel Sepphoris.


Are we to believe that the Greek language could not have crossed this distance? Ehrman is essentially resorting to the argument from silence. Just because the gospels do not mention that he ever visited Sepphoris, it does not follow that neither he nor the disciples never went there, or that people from Sepphoris did not frequently visit Nazareth.

There are other reasons to think the disciples did know a fair amount of Greek, though that discussion will have to take place in a future post.

[1] Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 45.

[2] Ibid., p. 191.

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A Biblical View on Homosexuality

A short, to the point, reflection on the Bible and homosexuality.

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Too Much Christmas?

As everyone who is plugged on some level to the rhythmic pulse of popular culture knows, every Christmas season brings with it the predictable clash between conservative Christians and the PC police (ACLU, American Atheists Association, etc) who feel it their patriotic duty to rid from the public memory all semblances of the religion of the early patriots. And of course, every year Fox News bravely takes up the mantle as the watchdog of conservative orthodoxy, relentlessly reporting any and all of these egregious violations of Americans first amendment rights. This predictable dance always elicits a series of comical sketches on the Daily Show, Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live etc. The sketches are often satirical and aimed at making the conservative side appear petty and intolerant.

For example, on 12/3 Jon Stewart did a bit on Fox News’ reporting of a group Atheists in Santa Monica, CA who were able to have a Nativity scene removed from a public park. Gretchen Carlson and company, unsurprisingly bewildered that such a thing could happen, declared that this is yet one more example of the “War on Christmas.” However, on his show Stewart seemed to doubt that such a “War” even exists; clearly there is not a lack of Christmas in our culture because, Stewart says, one can not even “swing a dead elf without knocking over an inflatable snowglobe or a giant blinking candy cane.” (He did not elaborate for what purpose someone would ever need to be swinging a “dead elf”!) But the rhetoric aside, what Stewart seems to be assuming is that removing a nativity scene from a public location is ok because there are lot’s of other Christmas symbols, decorations, and pageantry that one is allowed to display. One on level, Stewart is clearly and probably willfully overlooking how it is the religious symbols and observances that are being targeted, not the sanitized secular elements that have become part of celebrating Christmas in American culture. Of course, there is a part of me that does not blame Stewart for such a conflation of the scared and the profane. I see this happening every night on my run through the neighborhood, i.e., houses with thousands of lights, inflatable snowmen, peanuts characters, reindeer, and in the middle of it all, a small nativity scene. The arrangement has the effect of communicating that the incarnation of the son of God is just one more cartoonish element in the pot of mythical Christmas figures.

If Christians (or those at fox news of whom I wouldn’t dream of automatically making the identification) wish for their concerns about the encroaching secularism to be taken seriously, then first they should stop calling it the “war on Christmas” (because use of this word apparently creates confusion), but more accurately the war against Christ, Christianity, or the Church. And moreover, as a matter of practice, we as believers need to be conscientious about the ways in which we integrate the scared with the secular in our celebrations and the mixed messages we are presenting to the world.

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Willful Ignorance, Atheism, and the Moral Argument

The oft cited moral proof for God’s existence is one of the arguments that seems to consistently invoke both ire and self-righteous indignance from the secular humanist or the atheistically minded among us. One version [1] of the moral argument, simply put, goes like this:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

(2) Objective moral values do exist.

(3) Therefore, God exists

Of course, by objective moral values we mean that there are some objective facts about human behavior that are both normative and true regardless of what persons believe about them. If the moral fact P is objective, then it would not matter if everyone in the world believed not P, it would still be the case that P is true. In the same way, geocentrism was the wide-spread commonsense view for millennia. However this fact did not make it the case that geocentricism was true; it turned out that everyone was just wrong! To the objectivist, morality is like that – someone people can just be wrong in their moral beliefs.

Some will object to the moral argument by rejecting premise two – that there are any objective and binding moral truths, affirming instead either some version of relativism, which is the view that moral truths are dependent on the views and beliefs of the individuals or cultures that believe them, or moral nihilism, which is the view that there are no moral truths at all. Although much more could be said by way of a rejoinder, premise 2 is not what I wish to discuss in this post.

Instead, what I want to focus on is premise 1. This is the premise that any moral objectivist who does not believe in God must reject if they are to escape the conclusion of the moral argument. However, in my experience, many if not most of all lay atheists (are there such things as non-lay atheists?) either do not understand or intentionally distort and misrepresent this premise in order to make it easier to refute. Let me put the record straight; premise 2 does not mean or entail any of the following claims:

(a) If God exists, then atheists cannot behave like good people.

(b) An atheist can only know what right and wrong are if they believe that God exists.

(c) People who believe in God are morally better people than those who do not believe in God.

Without fail, anyone who follows this debate at all will find that in almost every discussion on this topic the atheist will misrepresent the first premise to mean one of these things. It is becomes almost comical after a while to watch it happen. However, what is not so comical is that because of the distortion, often conversations between individuals on the moral argument end up like two ships passing in the night.

What then does premise 1 actually mean? It means exactly what it says: if there is no God, then there are no objective moral facts. It’s not, as (a) suggests, that if one is an atheist, one cannot behave morally. Rather, if God does not exist, the claim would be that not even the believer could behave morally because morality as a meaningful predicate has no referent in the world. If atheism is true, then we live in a non-moral universe. This is why option (b) is also inadequate, i.e., it is an epistemological premise about how we come to know things, whereas the premise in the moral argument is an ontological premise about what exists. It is perfectly possible that if God exists, then God has arranged a way for someone to know what the moral truths are even though they do not possess belief in their source. (c) may actually be true, depending on how you define “better.” Many atheists might baulk at this notion but the sociological data seems to suggest otherwise. But even if it is false, it is again a distortion of premise (2) and would not go one inch to rebutting the moral argument. The question is not, who is better, believers or atheists? The question is rather, which view gives a more adquate account of the word “better” to start with.

Why think then that premise 1 is true? This can perhaps be further developed in another post, but for now we can point to the work of atheists such as J.L. Mackie and Michael Ruse who clearly understand the point. In the case of Mackie, he thought there could be no non-natural facts in a purely physical world. And since a moral fact is a non-natural fact, then it must not exist if one is to be a consistent naturalist. In Ruse’s case, morality is a biological adaptation that has come about to help us survive, like our hands and feet. Of course there is no objectively good thing about survival and reproductive fitness that should oblige us to promote them as values. If we choose not to, then our survival chances may be diminished, but, says Ruse, we have not done anything objectively wrong.

[1] Here I am using William Lane Craig’s version, although there are others. A more classic example has been proposed by Immanuel Kant, whereas a more recent one is defended by Robert Adams.

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Scientific Inquiry, Theodicy, and the Problem of Evil

It is often asserted by our skeptical friends that the existence of pain and suffering in the world constitute a defeater for belief in any good God. Nevertheless it is also maintained (usually by the same folks) that the ability to do science is among the greatest of human activities. The question that I want to ask is then, can they have it both ways? Can the scientific enterprise exist in the sort of world required to eliminate pain and suffering?SSD2012Logo The argument might go some like this:

(1) If pain and suffering do not exist, then the scientific enterprise does not exist.

(2) If the scientific enterprise does not exist, then a great human good does not exist.

(3) If natural evil does not exist, then a great human good does not exist.     (1,2 HS)

The foregoing syllogism is deductively valid. The question is whether the premises are true. Consider premise (1): It is quite unlikely indeed that a rigorous scientific investigation could exist in a world where the potential for pain and suffering have been removed. Echoing the Philosopher John Hick, such a world would seem at least prima facie to entail that no being could ever be injured as a result of interacting with their environment, i.e.,  no one in such a world would be able to stub their toe, be bitten by a mosquito, or clip their finger nails a little too short! Hick notes:

“The laws of nature [in a zero-pain world] would have to be extremely flexible: sometimes gravity would operate, sometimes not; sometimes an object would be hard, sometimes soft.”

This implies that…

“There could be no sciences, for there would be no enduring world structure to investigate. In eliminating the problems and hardships of an objective environment with its own laws, life would become like a dream in which, delightfully but aimlessly, we would float and drift at ease.” [1]

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis writes:

“We can, perhaps conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will [i.e., moral evil] by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon… [however] the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world, demands that [miracles] should be extremely rare.” [2]

The bottom line is that scientific investigation requires that there be this “common” and “stable” world in order for hypotheses to be tested, theories to be developed, and laws to be formulated. However, in a no-pain world, there does not seem to be anyway in which this patterned regularity could attain.

Further, premise (2) is constantly affirmed by the critics of theistic belief as well. In fact, often it is precisely an appeal to the scientific progress we have made as a species which causes some to reject belief in God all together, claiming that indeed science has plugged the gaps in our knowledge where we used to insert divine intervention! The scientific enterprise is thought to be an outlet for human beings to satisfy to their innate curiosity about the world that is built into human nature. And modern science in particular is thought to be among the greatest achievements of mankind. Indeed, at the beginning of the Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins muses:

If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?‘” [3]

Thus, the level of sophistication and advancement of a civilization is, for Dawkins at least, linked to the possibility of doing science and apprehending scientific knowledge. However, if (1) and (2) are accepted, then this entails that living in a world where the great good of scientific inquiry is possible only by permitting pain and suffering. Dawkins then, and other defenders of the problem of evil, must concede that either the existence pain and suffering do not threaten God’s goodness (because it produces the great good of science), or they must make the case that God’s goodness is still impugned because a zero-pain world without the possibility of doing science is still more preferable than a pain-filled world where such a possibility remains.

Of course, some case could perhaps be made for the later option. However, this argument by itself is not intended to be a full and complete theodicy – no doubt there are other goods that would be lost in a zero-pain world as well. However, the argument at a very minimum does perhaps supply one more piece to the puzzle of a full theodicy and additionally one that might be especially poignant to those who defend both the problem evil and some version of scientism.


[1] John Hick, Philosophy of Religion (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973), p. 41.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Harper Collins, 1940), pp. 24-25.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 1.

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