Criteria for testing messages based on unmediated experiences of God

Since I mentioned the importance of unmediated spiritual experiences of God, several people here have inquired about criteria for testing them. Others have objected that positing objective criteria undermines the immediacy of the experiences.

Here is intend to propose some intersubjective criteria that all Christians should be able to agree on and use in testing messages, truth claims, brought forth as a result of unmediated experiences of God.  I have in mind messages such as prophecies (whether forthtelling or foretelling), claims of new truths based on “rhema word,” etc.  Insofar as an unmediated experience of God does not result in such messages, I see no need for criteria.  Criteria become necessary when a person claims something was revealed to him or her that others should believe.

I offered these tests or criteria in an editorial in Christianity Today’s January 14, 1991 issue (p. 15).  The cover story was about the so-called “Kansas City Prophets”–the controversy du jour among charismatics and some evangelicals.  Rather than simply deny extra-biblical prophecy altogether, I (at the request of the editors), suggested these five tests for whether a prophecy (or other kind of extra-biblical message) MIGHT BE from God.  In other words, they are negative tests, like the law of non-contradiction in philosophy.  They do not prove the validity of any message; they only function to raise red flags of warning over messages that might be false.

1) The Christ Touchstone. If a prophecy (or message) promotes Christ and not the prophet, it may be valid. (Put negatively, if a prophecy promotes the prophet over Christ, it is probably not valid.)

2) The Apostolic Norm. If it is consistent with the message of the gospel as found in the didactic writings of the New Testament, it may be valid.

3) The Unity Criterion. If a prophecy does not promote spiritual elitism or schism (based on the prophecy alone), it may be valid.

4) The Sanity Check. If it does not require the sacrifice of the intellect and the mindless acceptance of newly revealed teachings, it may be valid.

5) The Messiah Test: If it does not exalt some individual (or organization) into an object of veneration, it may be valid.

Paul ordered the Corinthian Christians not to quench the Spirit but to test all things. These criteria are simply tools for discernment.

  • http://detheologized.wordpress.com John A.

    In my unprofessional opinion these criteria are well-considered, Roger.

    When applying the ‘Apostolic Criterion’ however, I feel the Holy Spirit’s ability to do anything but rubber-stamp old interpretations of the old revelation would be in checkmate unless we first apply very rigorously the criteria of Unity, Sanity and Messiah to what may be called “the message of the gospel as found in the didactic writings of the NT.”

    There are, after all, portions of the NT which have caused spiritual elitism and schism, sacrifice of intellect, and exhaltation of ecclesiastical institutions.

    Supposing the Holy Spirit should some day intervene upon the discussions to make an assertion through some neutral party which comes down on one side or the other of any of the questions – what then?

    My question is only half-rhetorical, but I believe my point is well taken; meanwhile I’m OK if you elect to pass on offering an answer.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, this has happened many times throughout church history. I have no problem with that so long as the assertion does not conflict with the apostolic gospel message found in the New Testament. What I do have a problem with, however, is someone receiving such revelation from the Holy Spirit demanding that everyone agree “or else.” I have been in Christian organizations where that has been the case.

      • http://detheologized.wordpress.com John A.

        Oh yes, when those sorts of demands are being made by others claiming authority I apply to them the same principle I use with my own ‘inspirations’ – “It can’t be the Holy Spirit if it’s telling me that somebody else needs to be doing what I’m doing, or need to be doing.” :)

        But I see that you are addressing the whole question of ‘prophecy’ – which is a Word which comes with the right to tell the church a new thing – and that is very problematic.

        Take the case of a group being asked to take a turn toward a higher way of looking at the gospel – such as the discussion between Calvinists and Arminians. This can be left to rational convincement (even if it seems futile to change minds this way). It doesn’t take a special revelation to present new ideas to a group that is perhaps too enamoured by a pet theory – most of the time the display of their lack of a broad-enough biblical basis for their thinking is enough.

  • MikeC

    Prof. Olson,

    Thank you for posting this. I have a question. In your previous post (“Bewildered By ‘Seeing As’”), you suggested that you have scripturally-unmediated experience of God that is of greater epistemological import than even the Biblical testimony about God’s character (in your words, you “see experience of God as BOTH mediated by scripture AND as unmediated with the latter as primary in terms of knowing God’s character as good.”)

    The tests you describe in your posts above are helpful, but (as you recognize), they are merely necessary (and not sufficient) conditions for a veridical, scripturally-unmediated experience of God. That said, how can one be confident that what one believes to be a scripturally-unmediated experience of God is NOT an experience structured by fallen, unregenerate assumptions of how God must be?

    Now, THAT is the question I want to ask, but I will give a couple of examples to demonstrate the difficulty. (And I note that any way that these particular examples fail to hit home is not necessarily to say that there is not some that do.) Suppose that I have utilitarian sensibilities, and I have scripturally-unmediated experience that suggests to me that God is good in a utilitarian way (i.e., God works for the greatest good of the greatest number). (Note that, arguably, this experience of God is consistent with all the criteria that you list in your post above.) Suppose further that God does NOT, in fact, work with the greatest good of the greatest number as his end. Because I hold my scripturally-unmediated experience of God to be of greater epistemic import than even the scriptural testimony regarding his character, I am very unlikely to discover the truth about God’s character. I am more committed to my utilitarian conception of the good than I am to what even scripture reveals about God’s character.

    Notice that, moreover, I will perceive those people who claim that God is not good in a utilitarian way as saying that God is something less than “good” (as I experience it), and even, potentially, as a “monster.”

    Alternatively, suppose that I have thoroughly Kantian sensibilities, and I experience God as treating every person as an end in himself. Suppose further that God is NOT, in fact, good in this sense (i.e., God does not treat every person as an end in himself). Mutatis mutandis … You see the point.

    I think this is a really interesting discussion, and I look forward to your response.

    • rogereolson

      “…how can one be confident that what one believes to be a scripturally-unmediated experience of God is NOT an experience structured by fallen, unregenerate assumptions of how God must be?” This language has popped up here so often now, and always (so far) from Calvinists, that I wonder about the sincerity of your inquiry. Be that as it may, I’ll attempt to address your question. My experience of God as good (benevolent toward being to use Edwards’ language) is confirmed by scripture but it does not depend exclusively on scripture. I don’t understand how anyone can claim that experience-based knowledge of God as good must be exclusively dependent on scripture as there were people of God before scripture. IF someone claims to have an experience of God that contradicts what I experience of God through Jesus Christ and what the Holy Spirit reveals God to be like through scripture I can only shake my head and wonder why. Appeals to scripture are helpful, but obviously (given the history of Christian disputes) not conclusive in the sense of being able to bring closure to debates among sincere, God-honoring, Bible-believing Christians.

      • MikeC

        Forgive me if I have raised a question that you have addressed before. I have only very recently discovered your blog, and you seem to be discussing issues that I have myself been pondering lately (in fact, THAT is the very reason why I found your blog!) Possibly like you, I have tendencies toward ethical intuitionism, which has given rise to my epistemological perplexity regarding the issue I have asked you about. I am trying to work through how properly to weight my epistemic resources (for lack of a better word), especially in light of scripture and the doctrine of the fall.

        With you, I also think that no one can reasonably doubt that scripturally-unmediated experience of God is a reality. But I wonder about the epistemological weight of that unmediated experience, especially relative to scriptural testimony about God’s purposes. If I understand you correctly, you think that we can have a sense of God’s character that is not derived from scripture and that constrains our understanding of what scripture teaches about God’s character (thus ruling out, e.g., consistent Calvinist conceptions of God).

        My hang-up is this: even with our scripturally-unmediated experience of God, shouldn’t our approach to interpreting scripture be unconstrained? Sure, we all bring our own presuppositions to our reading of the text, but shouldn’t those presuppositions (even those pertaining to God’s character) be revisable in light of the scriptural witness? In other words, shouldn’t scripture itself be given more epistemological weight than our scripturally-unmediated experience such that, if our scripturally-unmediated experience is somehow not veridical, it is potentially open to correction? I can see no other way to avoid being invincibly trapped in a potentially wrong conception of what God’s character is like.

        Thanks again, I appreciate your help, and I look forward to your response.

        • rogereolson

          First, it seems that you are looking for a kind of certainty that I don’t believe in. See The Myth of Certainty by (my former colleague) Daniel Taylor and Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin. Arminian philosopher Jerry Walls has written much about how biblical references to God’s goodness cannot go against our most fundamental instincts about goodness. I have the feeling we are on different planes in this conversation. (Not one higher or better, just different.) I approach the Bible with the assumption that, if it is to be believed, the God who inspires it must be good, else he would not be trustworthy. My experience of God tells me he is a good God. IF scripture taught otherwise (which it doesn’t) I would have a major problem with scripture simply because in that case God would not be trustworthy. The very veracity of the Bible depends on the God who inspired it being good in a sense analogous to our most basic instincts and intuitions about goodness.

          • MikeC

            Prof. Olson,

            I will look into Jerry Walls’ work (any particular ones?). Also, I appreciate your reference to The Myth of Certainty and Proper Confidence. I read both of these fine books many years ago, and I still have them on my shelf.

            I think rather than looking for some unattainable certainty, I am instead calling into question a certainty that I formerly had but has recently been shaken, namely that my general experience provides me with a sense of goodness that is specific and reliable enough to constrain my interpretation of scripture (thus ruling out a God with a character of the kind that Calvinists profess to believe in). Sure God is good, but the sense of “good” in which God is good is not necessarily univocal with the sense of “good” in which my experience leads me to believe that ”God is good.” Hence, if my basic instincts and intuitions about “goodness” are significantly mistaken or inadequate (as the doctrine of sin indicates), then its ruling out the Calvinist conception of God may very well be mistaken, too. I do not at this moment see how to make a plausible response to this objection.

          • rogereolson

            Granted. But your sense of God’s being “good” cannot be equivocal, either, and mean anything. That’s my problem with much Calvinism; I simply have no idea what its adherents mean when they say God is “good.” The word, as they use it, becomes equivocal, violating every sense of goodness we mean in any other context. They might as well be saying God is “globulational.” (I just made that word up.)

    • Fish

      “That said, how can one be confident that what one believes to be a scripturally-unmediated experience of God is NOT an experience structured by fallen, unregenerate assumptions of how God must be?”

      This question almost supposes that an unmediated experience of God must be provable via the scientific method. It must be objective, repeatable, shared and scrutinized by others, and so on. But that is impossible, for experiences with God stand outside science.

      The attraction of scripture as the sole basis for revelation is that everyone starts (more or less) at the same place with the same data and the same logic.

      • rogereolson

        I disagree with that last sentence. People obviously do not start at the same place (even more or less) with the same logic (approaching scripture). That might be ideal, but it rarely happens in reality. However, I agree that through much vigorous, respectful and honest conversation a shared perspective on scripture’s meaning may emerge. Thank God it sometimes does.

  • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

    Those are really good criteria. I may have to borrow your wording. I tend to focus on conformity to Jesus and scripture, conformity to other Christians (sort of anti-elitism, but as a positive rather than negative test), humility and willingness to be tested, and the personal character of the prophet.

    That last one tends to cause a bit of controversy. Certain folks like to claim it’s an ad hominem attack; it’s the message, not the messenger, right? But I take my lead from Paul’s qualifications for elders and presbyters. They are those of character, not orthodoxy or inspiration; I think Paul’s assumption was that Timothy and Titus would of course look for orthodoxy, but they might not think to look at character as well. And I figure this is just as valid for prophets.

    We Pentecostals have a lot of shady folks who claim to be prophets, purely for the sake of seizing a little power in an unsuspecting church: Quote a little bible, say a few insightful things, guess right once or twice about the future, and people will totally overlook the fact that you’ve left a trail of broken churches behind you, because God ostensibly speaks through you. No thank you; let’s leave Elmer Gantry in the novel where he belongs.

  • Steve

    Roger
    I grew up with this sort of thing being the norm. To be honest I would rarely pay much attention to it these days. I treat it with ambivalence. Generally I would want it to encourage the Body of Christ and to result in a greater unity and love one for another (which I think is the essence of what the Body of Christ should be about). So it should underpin what is already evident. Not take us in an altogether new and strange direction. If tangible love for one another is not the dominant force evident in a group with whom I fellowship then prophetic utternaces are a waste of time for me. In terms of individuals using it for their own false motives I can spot that a mile off and generally disregard what they are saying. Spiritual self promotion is to me, petty and suggests spiritual immaturity. The real problem comes when it is used as a manipulative mechanism to achieve someone’s own personal goals. Even then I have clear boundaries that send up warning signals should someone stray. I have seen so many people stray into confusion about ‘the will of God’ for their lives from this sort of stuff. Can be very damaging. But still have to be open to it. That’s the tension. Your 5 suggestions are pretty much where I would be coming from.

    • rogereolson

      Unfortunately, many, many Christians lack any discernment at all and swallow bizarre messages about God (etc.) hook, line and sinker. In the church I grew up in, one did not apply such objective criteria to messages WHEN they were pronounced by people perceived to be super-spiritual. They could say virtually anything and get by with it IF they were perceived as “spiritual giants.” I remember one evangelist who made the rounds in the denomination of my childhood and youth and who spoke often at the college I attended. His name was Handel Price and he called himself an “apostle” and claimed to have the supernatural gift of imparting the gifts of the Spirit to people willy-nilly (without knowing anything about them). He also spoke often of revelations he received that seemed quite ridiculous to me and to many others who attempted to apply some kind of objective criteria. And he seemed intent on bringing attention to himself and his “ministry.” And yet some denominational leaders and the president of the college (and some faculty) fell for it uncritically and promoted him to us as a great “man of God.” When I attempted to talk to him about some of my concerns the president of the college shooed me away and wouldn’t let me even talk to the evangelist because I had resisted his attempt to lay hands on me in chapel and “impart” the gift of prophecy (after which he demanded that a person exercise the imparted gift right there on the spot and he would shame them if they didn’t). So many people fall for this stuff. A little critical discernment would go a long way toward keeping sanity among Christians.

      • Steve

        Roger
        I have seen this kind of thing over and over. I left the Pentecostal movement because of it. The tendency is though, to throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak. I have seen and heard some painful things. No doubt. But I lived through it because, as I said somewhere else, Jesus came into my life at one DEFINITE point. I know and believe that without a doubt. I have boiled down what I believe is the way God would have us exist as His Body. “They will know you are my disciples when you have love one for another” and ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’. Any deviation from this be it spiritual pride or anything else and I immiediately devalue the speakers words. Prophetic utternace should build unity in the bonds of love and peace. I consider people who are ‘super-spiritual’ to be like the little old lady who prays is her room at home or who gives alms without anyone knowing. Not interested in big shots (although I remain open to what they say if it God’s word). Have seen too many and they are all flawed. WE are all flawed in that sense.

  • Joel Kime

    Thanks for this. Interesting timing as I was just talking about this with my Corinthians class, in 1 Cor. 12:1-3. We discussed your first two tests as likely options why Paul included that material. Your additional three tests are very helpful.

  • Joel Kime

    As I think about this further, I’m wondering if you might comment on the pentecostal/charismatic movement within the church. I made it through Bible college and seminary with hardly a nod to that group. But in 2009 on a mission trip to Costa Rica, I was confronted with it, and it was shocking. As leader of the team I didn’t quite know how to think about the phenomenon some of my team members were experiencing, primarily being slain in the Spirit. Coming home, I did some research and found that my denomination, the Evangelical Congregational Church (www.eccenter.org), has quite a history of physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit, though those were primarily in the early 1800s in the ministry years of the “founding fathers” of the church. In my research I found Simon Chan’s Spiritual Theology exceedingly helpful. But in the ensuing years I have some friends who have become more and more engrossed in the movement. I’m realizing there is something like a whole new world out there that I have had very little exposure to. How did I make it through Bible college (’92-’96) and seminary (’02-’10) barely touching on these things? I have an inkling how this happened…my training was based in a reactionary approach to pentecostalism. But with pentecostalism exploding world-wide, it seems important to learn more. My friends are very inspired by people like Bill Johnson (bjm.org) and Heidi Baker (irismin.org). They participated in the Iris training school in Africa and saw what they called miracles nearly daily. Even miracles similar to the feeding of the 5,000. I hate to admit it, but I am highly skeptical. I know my upbringing has a lot to do with it. Perhaps it is best to apply the five tests you suggest, and leave it at that?

    • rogereolson

      Probably best. I, too, am very skeptical of miracle stories. On the other hand, I don’t automatically discount them, either. Pentecostalism is a fascinating phenomenon. I grew up in the thick of it and never suspected it would turn out to be what it has become–including the object of much scholarly study and commentary by academics like Harvey Cox and Philip Jenkins. We were just “holy rollers” to most people and unworthy of serious consideration. How things have changed! I experienced much that I considered false and much that I considered real (i.e., of the Holy Spirit). I think my five criteria can be helpful in sorting things out.

  • Ryan

    Hello. (Sorry to leave this message here; I couldn’t find another way to contact you–feel free to delete this!)

    I’m wondering if you might recommend any conferences that non-super-technical christians might enjoy (and even hear you speak!) We’d probably loosely identify as charismatic arminians and enjoy new and interesting ideas. (Open theism is our newest interest!) So what’s out there for us?

    Btw, The Doors of the Sea arrived yesterday and I am LOVING it. Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know of many, but there will be a conference on Arminius and Arminianism at Point Loma Nazarene University in late February. I’m not sure if I’ll be there; that’s still up in the air. I’ll be speaking at Regents University in Virginia in late February, but I’m not sure if that event is open to the public or not. Any conference sponsored by the Assemblies of God or Jack Hayford (Foursquare denomination and Church on the Way in Southern California) would probably be good. If I think of others I’ll post them here.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Roger: I endorse the five criteria you set forth above. Sometimes, however, a personal revelation from God may seem so preposterous that only the passing of time will serve to prove its divine origin, e.g., Joseph’s dream that his father’s and brothers’ sheaves would bow down in obeisance to his sheave, i.e., to himself.

    • rogereolson

      True enough. But insofar as a person with a personal revelation expects me to make a decision about it now, I have to use some criteria for making that decision which may be simply to wait and see. But if the person is troubling my church with his new revelation I may feel compelled to stake out some position about it however tentative. Then the criteria come into play.

      • http://wwwi-wonder-as-i-wander.blogspot.com/ linda

        i think that if one hears someone share a message for the community that requires action on their part then asking God to confirm that word is a wise move.

  • http://judahslion.blogspot.com/ Rick Frueh

    I would suggest that all personal revelations that can be shared revolve around a deeper and more profound interpretation of Scripture and a more arresting vision of the Risen Christ. And I will also suggest that most of the time while sharing that revelation the believer should also share how painfully short he comes to mirroring that vision.

    Private communication (God told me to give to this poor man) should remain private since sharing it almost always implicity elevates one as having a now time pipeline to God’s voice. The real challenge is separating God’s voice from your own mind’s voice. Some charismatics have no firewall at all between the two and they enjoy a misplaced adulation from the masses who are awed by those who seem to hear directly from God at all times.

    BTW – God told me audibly to comment. :)

    • rogereolson

      I agree. At least once in my life I “heard” God speak to me so distinctly and clearly that I could not question it. I am not that kind of person; I am very suspicious of all such claims. However, this time it was beyond my ability to doubt. That’s something that cannot be proven to anyone else. I did share it with some Christians very close to me and they confirmed that it could be a word from God. It passed all five of my criteria. The problem was, acting on it was very, very costly to me. But a part of the revelation was that IF I obeyed blessings would follow. I did obey and blessings did follow. I felt I had to share this with others, but I did so anonymously so as not to bring any glory to myself. And the revelation did not require anything of anyone else and was an answer to prayer (but one I really did not expect). This is the kind of thing I think is too often missing in contemporary evangelical life. We tend to dismiss all direct revelations, that is, outside of scripture, as worthless or even dangerous. There is risk in being open to such, of course, but it seems to me more risky to chase the Holy Spirit into the Bible so that he/she cannot speak outside of it.

  • http://craigbenno1.wordpress.com/ Craig Benno

    Roger you have raised some very pertinent points. And in doing so have ensured that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I am unashamedly ‘Charismatic’ in my theology. I study at a the main Pentecostal Bible College in Australia and am broadly accepting of all denominations and currently fellowship at a Baptist church.

    I enjoy the prophetic experience. I have had a number of profound spiritual experiences over the years which has drawn me deeper into my walk with God. I have also seen and experienced ‘spiritual’ abuses and deception which were not of God. Discernment is the key.

    Within the framework of the gift of discernment, I would like to add that its actually the gift of discernment of spirits and not the discernment of people we are to exercise. So many in the church today exercise a so called ‘discernment’ ministry which seems to be so devoid of any grace and charity.

    As to the argument about the continuation of the prophetic experience, I would like to say that the Holy Spirit is the same God yesterday, today and tomorrow. And in the same way God’s people experienced him in the past, likewise we can also expect to experience God in the same way today.

    • rogereolson

      We agree and receive surprising support from an unexpected source–Wayne Grudem who has written on the contemporary reality of prophecy. Another conservative evangelical supporter is J. P. Moreland.

  • jeff martin

    For all those who get nervous about unmediated experiences entering in to your churches, it is too late!!!! The pastor or rector or priest has been preaching every Sunday ever since the church started! If that is not a perfect example of an unmediated experience I do not know what is.

    I realize that they are preaching from Scripture, but as anyone who has been in church a while knows, you do not get the same message from the same passage of Sciprture every time, nor are ministers shy about adding their own two cents in there

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Very concise and helpful!

    Why limit point #2 to didactic parts and not the whole of the NT?

    • rogereolson

      Because it all gets very subjective when trying to apply events recorded in, say Acts, or prophecied in Revelation, to contemporary messages as criteria by which they are to be evaluated.

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  • Resi Arriot

    What do you think about the prophetic messages of Maurice Sklar and Benny Hinn?

    • rogereolson

      I’ve never heard of Sklar. I’ve attended one Benny Hinn crusade meeting. I only went because it was held two blocks from my house and my wife and a good friend wanted to go. Finally I was persuaded to go so long as we could leave at anytime. The only seats left were in the nosebleed section of the coliseum/arena. I liked the gospel music; it was a trip down memory lane. Then the audience sang “How great Thou art” to stirring organ music and a spotlight beamed down on the stage as Benny emerged from somewhere behind it and it seemed to me we were singing “How great Thou art” to him! Anyway, that was the impression I got. A very nice lady sitting right in front of me kept turning around and laying a hand on my knee and praying for me and witnessing to me–off and on throughout the three hour long “service.” I didn’t hear a prophecy from Benny that evening. What has he prophesied? (I don’t keep up with all the evangelists out there anymore.)

  • James Henderson

    I appreciate the 5 tests. They are a concise summation of safeguards that I have heard discussed among friends and colleagues, but rarely taught in a public setting. They will provide a very useful discussion in my theology class shortly. I do notice that you do not include the “inner witness” of the Holy Spirit. Especially if an individual was considering whether or not a prophecy applied to him or her, would not the witness of the Spirit as determined by prayer count as a test? This is another “unmediated” experience, but I assume that we all agree that the Holy Spirit guides us through reflective prayer as well as reflective reading of the Scripture. Looking forward to seeing you at Regent.

    • rogereolson

      I was trying to provide more objective, communal criteria because the people this editorial was dealing with were appealing to the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. What was needed then (as now in some circles) are intersubjective criteria.


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