I have a long list of theological topics I want to address here, but they will have to wait. I am enjoying the conversation here about unmediated, direct experiences of God. When I was growing up I often heard that “a person with an experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument.” Well, I have come to doubt the validity of that statement if taken to an extreme of gullibility toward all claims of immediate experiences of God–especially insofar as they claim to bear “new truths” everyone should accept and believe and act on. Then I think argument (using my five criteria) is necessary.
But I think SOME people here may misunderstand what kinds of direct, unmediated experiences of God I believe in and think our evangelical churches need to be more open to.
First, there’s the inward experience of God in conviction and conversion. It may or may not be mediated through Word and/or sacrament. But even when reading of scripture provokes it (as in Wesley’s case) there can be and often is a sense of immediacy of God to the soul that is individual and intuitive (i.e., not amenable to proof or argument).
Second, there’s what I call “conversional piety”–the personal relationship with Jesus Christ in which God may speak directly to a Christian’s heart/mind giving guidance and direction beyond scripture.
Third, there are “power encounters” such as healings, exorcisms, miracles. I have been in places where these are manufactured and, in my opinion, spurious. But I don’t discount them entirely. I’m sure God can still do these things and somewhere does. For the most part we evangelicals have simply relegated these things to the past or to other societies.
Fourth, there are prophecies and words of wisdom and knowledge (no, I don’t know how to distinguish those and I would place “interpretation of tongues” in this same category)–divinely inspired messages directly from God to a person or group that transcend inward guidance for an individual. Many sermons have this character–or at least parts of them. I have known people who have heard God speak directly to them (and probably others in the listening audience/congregation) through a sermon with powerful, life-changing results.
Let me give two examples of the fourth category above. My wife and I were members of a moderate, evangelical Baptist church (not where we attend now). The church was going through a crisis after the departure of a beloved pastor who resigned under pressure from a minority of the congregation. The deacons held a special service of waiting on God for guidance and direction for the church’s future. We sang, prayed and sat in silence, waiting on God. It was very unusual–no planned sermon. As we sat and prayed quietly (mostly silently) a woman spoke out rather forcefully beginning with “Thus says the Lord.” What followed was the most appropriate message for our situation I could imagine. The message was thoroughly biblical, but did not just quote scripture. It was full of correction and exhortation. I could tell the woman was overcome with emotion; it was not something she had planned or prepared. It had probably never happened in that church before and I doubt it has happened since. After the service I asked some deacons what they thought about it and they called it a “testimony.” But I could tell they did not consider it a message from God to them or the congregation. I did. Because the church did not heed it, we left that church soon after as it sank into chaos and confusion. The chaos and confusion did not result from the prophecy, in my estimation, but from the leaders’ refusal to recognize it as such and obey it.
The second example comes from an earlier time and the setting was a Christian college chapel service. The speaker was a good friend of mine, a dear colleague, who I knew to be a profoundly spiritual man. During his sermon he pulled out a piece of paper and read to the gathered students, faculty and staff a message from God. It was written in the form of one of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation (viz., “To the church at…[the name of the college].” It was beautiful, appropriate, challenging and biblical (i.e., not in any way conflicting with scripture). My colleague (an Episcopalian Benedictine oblate) said he received this message for the college directly from God while praying and meditating. I don’t know if anyone acted on it; it didn’t actually call for any specific response. It rather addressed the direction of the college–away from its first love and toward concern with prestige and reputation.
Both messages happened OUTSIDE the context of any whipped up emotional fervor or charismatic enthusiasm. Both were unexpected and appropriate to the context. Both passed all five of my criteria. Both were unmediated in the sense that they did not arise out of or depend on scripture or anything else outside the person’s own experience of God. Neither one contained any “new truth” of a doctrinal nature to be believed.
Unfortunately, both also happened in evangelical contexts relatively closed to such experiences and messages. Both contexts–the church and the college–operated on the assumption that God only speaks to groups through the Bible and exposition of the Bible. I’m sure many in both audiences considered both bordering on fanaticism. There was no attempt in either case to discern whether the messages were indeed, as claimed, from God. It was simply left to each individual to decide. But the messages were to the communities, not to individuals.
Many evangelicals outside the Pentecostal and charismatic movements have come to embrace these kinds of unmediated experiences of God. The difference is that in the Pentecostalism I grew up in, too often, they were received uncritically with no discernment process–IF the person having and reporting them was a “spiritual giant.” Otherwise, they were usually ignored. Evangelical scholars like Grudem and Moreland and others (often touched in some way by the Vineyard Fellowship or some other “Third Wave” ministry) argue that evangelicals should be open to such experiences and messages within a clear discernment process.
I think that, for the most part, evangelicals have taken the easy way and chosen to chase the Holy Spirit into the Bible.