God has revealed Himself commandingly and sufficiently in the written canonical word (i.e. the Bible).
It is commonplace today for Christians to accept that God speaks in ways outside of His written and authoritative Word (the sixty-six canonical books found in the Protestant Christian Bible). While all Christians recognize that God has spoken in ways outside of His written Word, particularly during the time before human authors completed the canonical books of the Bible, many Christians still expect this kind of special and personal revelation today.
Christians who expect, or at least accept, modern-day prophetic revelation from God are often called continuationists. In only rare cases do continuationists claim that these modern-day prophecies are divinely authoritative (equal to the authority of Holy Scripture), but the prophetic visions and/or dreams are also said to be in the category of revelation from God. I will attempt to provide examples of this kind of acceptance and expectation by citing some professing Christians on the matter, and I will also try to present the thinking that undergirds this nebulous position by sketching the logical assumptions at its foundation.
Ultimately, I will seek to demonstrate the logical and Scriptural problems associated with the continuationist position, and I shall argue for an outright rejection of it. In the end, I hope to concisely show that any expectation for receiving divine visions or experiencing revelatory dreams is at least awkward and at worst dangerous.
Setting the Scene
Since the Charismaticmovement began in the early 1900s (not becoming mainstream until the 1950s and 1960s), Christians have generally become increasingly open to the idea that God is still speaking to His people today in ways other than biblical revelation. I am the lead pastor of a First Baptist Church located in an unincorporated rural Texas town, and even among this conservative-minded Southern Baptist congregation you will find many who are quite accepting of the idea that God speaks today through visions, dreams, and other forms of special prophecy.
As far as I know, none of my congregants would affirm that any modern-day prophecies should be added to the canon of Scripture, and I am thankful for their hesitation. However, I am also confused by the apparent inconsistency in pairing these two affirmations. As I recently presented the difficulty to some of my congregants, I am utterly unable to understand how someone can receive a “word from God” that is not the “Word of God.” Yet, there are some who feel perfectly at ease with this dichotomy.
Visions of Today
Wayne Grudem, in his standard-setting systematic theological work, defines prophecy as “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.”This essay is primarily interested in the purported experiences of dreams and visions as God’s special revelation to twentieth and twenty-first-century people. However, such dreams and visions fall into the category of prophecy since they are intended to perform as God’s special revealing mechanism to humanity – even if only one human in particular.
Grudem also groups visions under the umbrella of prophecy when he explains how Agabus’s prophecy concerning the arrest of the Apostle Paul might be best explained as an errant articulation of a divine vision.Therefore, I believe it is helpful to consider the argument for modern-day prophecies as contributing to the overall support for the expectation of modern-day visions and dreams from God. Let us now consider the argument for experiencing prophecy today and the expression of prophetic practice by those who live with a contemporary expectation of dreams and/or visions.
If one is going to advocate for present-day prophets, those who experience divine revelation through dreams and/or visions, he or she will need to begin by demonstrating some biblical basis for them. Dr. Harwood, presenting his own contemporary openness to revelatory dreams and visions, cited several biblical examples of these prophetic experiences. Among the Apostolic examples, Harwood says “Jesus appeared to Saul (later Paul) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9)… Later, God directed Paul’s ministry through a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9)… God spoke to Peter through a vision of animals lowered on a sheet (Acts 10:9-23).” Just as Harwood mentioned elsewhere in his article, these are only some of the many biblical examples of such things.These examples do not prove that one should expect twenty-first-century prophets, but they do present prophetic dreams and visions as having been a method used by God to communicate with people at some time in history – namely those whose spiritual office was that of Apostle and/or prophet.
Citing a few Bible passages (such as 1 Thess. 5:19-21 and 1 Cor. 14:29-38) that speak of prophets and/or prophesying, Grudem argues that this New Testament activity is practiced consistently by simply telling something God spontaneously brought to mind.In these passages we also find some instruction concerning prophets and prophecies, as they existed and operated in the context of the New Testament local church. It is from this platform that the leap is made into the present day. If there were ordinary prophets who prophesied through the medium of visions and/or dreams in the New Testament, then it is at least possible that there would be some expectation to experience the same today. However, there is still one more loose string that must be tied before this massive leap can be safely attempted.
When Old Testament prophets prophesied, their words were authoritative and binding – the imposing and dependable Word of God. Yet, as we have already established, very few (none that I know of) advocates of modern-day prophecy desire to present it as equal in authority with canonized Scripture. Harwood affirms “the need to judge any supposed vision or dream against the truths already revealed in the Bible.”
Billy Graham’s staff also encourages the use of “godly counsel” and the Scriptures when filtering a contemporary prophetic vision or dream. Gudem, too, distances himself from any claim that all prophets and prophecies carry the same authority as Scripture. In fact, after attempting to demonstrate from Scripture some reasons to accept that some prophetic visions have less than binding authority, Grudem says, “prophecies in the church today should be considered merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority.”Grudem quoted Donald Gee, representing the Assemblies of God, in order to assist in clearing up the difficulty created by this two-tiered significance for prophecy. Gee said:
[There are] grave problems raised by the habit of giving and receiving personal “messages” of guidance through the gifts of the Spirit…. The Bible gives a place for such direction from the Holy Spirit…. But it must be kept in proportion. An examination of the Scriptures will show us that as a matter of fact the early Christians did not continually receive such voices from heaven. In most cases they made their decisions by the use of what we often call “sanctified common-sense” and lived quite normal lives. Many of our errors where spiritual gifts are concerned arise when we want the extraordinary and exceptional to be made the frequent and habitual. Let all who develop excessive desire for “messages” through the gifts take warning from the wreckage of past generations as well as of contemporaries…. The Holy Scriptures are a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.
While the heart of such a desire for propriety is commendable, the subjectivity of this position presents an extremely open-ended experience for Christians in the present day. In short, it is like calling gluttons to address their insatiable desire for food by using common sense consumption principles and by keeping proper perspective through an awareness of the problems overeating has caused for others. If gluttons were capable of benefitting from these simple measures, then they would not now be gluttons! So too, those who expect ‘messages’ of special revelation from the Holy Spirit are in no way dissuaded from expecting more by a subtle call to an arbitrary sense of propriety.
Furthermore, error is much more likely to enter through the subjective experiences of humanity than through the study and application of Scripture. Experience has always been pitted against God’s revealed truth, and the Bible is full of examples of humans trusting their own experiential understanding rather than trusting and submitting to God’s Word. As the next section will show, people will inevitably prefer the subjective and effortless (personal prophetic revelation) to the objective and challenging (the diligent study of God’s Word).
The staff of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association claims that God speaks “primarily” through His Word, but “God may communicate through dreams or visions even today.” Of course, a caveat comes quickly behind such a statement, “but we need to carefully check any such guidance we receive with Scripture and godly counsel to be sure it is from the Lord.”Billy Graham is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and these statements from his staff are indicative of the common view among the Southern Baptist congregants that I have encountered over the last decade and across the United States.
While it can be somewhat difficult to acquire a scholarly work on the matter of contemporary visions and dreams, a more open view can be illustrated in the words of a distinctively charismatic writer. Goodwyn, a Christian Broadcasting Network producer, said, “[My] personal experience has confirmed” the notion that “dreams are the perfect way to hear from God.” She went on to say, “Through biblical study, I have found that God intends to speak to each of [His] followers in this manner.” Then Goodwyn quoted the oft-cited text for charismatics when they address this topic, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28; cf Acts 2:17). She does warn, though, “It’s important to understand that not all dreams are God-given.” Indeed, she asserts, “Dreams can also be from Satan.”
These two examples concerning the expectation and nature of prophetic dreams and visions are not the same in every way, but they both provide some basis for further examination of the reasoning behind the continuationists position.
I believe the following conclusion statements can be drawn from these two distinct sources above. (1) God does communicate with humans today through visions and dreams, and apart from His Word; (2) Not all visions or dreams are from God; (3) Dreams and/or visions are a personal message directly from God; (4) Subjectively, personal direct messages from God are preferable to ancient indirect ones.
First, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn affirm that visions and dreams, as special revelation from God, are for Christians today. I shall address this further below, but this is an open and direct assault on the sufficiency of Scripture. If Christians should expect visions and dreams as a kind of supplemental revelation from God today, then the canon of Scripture is (by logical necessity) insufficient for the Christian to be completely equipped for all that God would do in and through him or her.
Second, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn also affirm that Christians can receive misleading (at best) and nefarious (at worst) visions and dreams. While Graham’s staff does not explicitly attribute erroneous visions and dreams to Satan, as Goodwyn does, they still leave room for massive delusion. Moreover, if visions and dreams are to be weighed against the full counsel of God’s Holy Word, then what real practical use is the vision or dream? If such things are intended as a fast track to knowing God’s will or God’s truth, then pouring over the Scriptures for clarity and validation nullifies the speed and ease of the supposed route.
Third, the last two suppositions, which I believe may also be inferred from an honest assessment of the declarations cited from Graham’s staff and Goodwyn, are both linked to personal subjectivity and preference. Any Christian would jump at the opportunity to receive personal divine revelation in this mortal life. Such a thing excites my interest as I consider it, even as I do not believe it is plausible.
The sheer pleasure of a personal message from God, regardless of its content, is enough to keep a Christian consumed and pursuing the experience for quite some time. While personal divine revelation is an exciting notion, it is even more desirable when compared with the indirect and ancient revelation that one will find on the pages of Scripture. While I have heard no continuationist argue for pursuing visions or dreams over seeking God’s revelation of Himself in His Word, it does seem inevitable that Christians would eagerly look for the former over the latter.
If Christians adopt the position that prophetic visions and dreams are to be expected from God in the modern day, then a powerful fog of disillusionment may be blown upon Christians everywhere.
How will these modern-day prophets be kept in check?
Who will tell us what is the Word of God and what is not?
If prophets can be wrong about some things, how can we trust anything that they say?
If prophecy through visions and dreams is for today, then why is there such an inconsistency between the authority of biblical prophets and those we should expect in our present day?
How can something be a ‘word from God’ and not the ‘Word of God?’
All of these questions and more create a whirlwind of uncertainty, but possibly the greatest usurpation of this charismatic confidence in present-day dreams and visions is that such a confidence presents a thinly-veiled (even if naively unintentional) attack on the sufficiency of Scripture.
The Sufficiency and Authority of God’s Word
Scripture itself is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and even the continuationists (at least the ones cited above) acknowledge that Christians should turn to the Bible to either affirm or deny the validity of a dream or vision. I believe it would be logical and wise, then, to look to the Scriptures in order to affirm or deny the validity of expecting such dreams or visions in the first place. After all, if the dream or vision that contradicts Scripture should be jettisoned, then the expectation of dreams and visions may also be pitched overboard if the concept is understood to be divergent from the testimony of Scripture.
Let us investigate some aspects of two distinct passages (for the sake of brevity we may only consider two), and then judge whether it is wise to expect any personal contemporary messages from God via dreams and/or visions.
The Apostle Peter wrote to encourage Christians who seem to have been in need of a strong and comforting reminder of the trustworthiness and faithfulness of God. Peter wrote, “[We] have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). Peter was referring here to the text of Scripture that was “confirmed” by God in real human history – namely in the person and work of Christ. It seems that Peter was particularly referring to the Old Testament in this passage, but Peter also includes the writing of the Apostle Paul in the category of “Scriptures” just two chapters later in the same letter (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Blum writes, “In view of the Christological fulfillment and the Father’s confirmation of the Old Testament Scriptures, Christians are to study and pay careful attention to the Word of God. It will provide light in the midst of murky darkness for the Christian until the return of Christ…”
This admonition to “pay careful attention to the Word of God” comes in contrast to Peter’s own vision and hearing of personal divine revelation. Just before Peter speaks of the “prophetic word more fully confirmed,” he recalls the pinnacle of his own personal experience with the incarnate Christ. Peter saw Jesus transfigured in glory before him and heard the voice of God from heaven (2 Peter 1:16-18), and yet Peter tells his readers to pay attention to the “prophetic word” (or written Scripture) that is better in some sense.
The sense in which the written Word of God is, in some sense, better than the incarnate Word of God is not within the scope of this brief essay. However, it is spectacularly important that we do note here what Peter has chosen to emphasize. Peter calls his readers to pay attention to the Word of God, which he deems to be better in some sense than the transfigured incarnate Christ and voice from God in heaven! This is no small matter, and we are foolish to skip over the significance of such an exhortation.
Another oft-cited passage regarding the value and function of Scripture is found in one of the Apostle Paul’s letters to his young disciple, Timothy. Paul said, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There are two things that I hope to point out in this passage that will weigh in on our discussion.
First, Scripture is unambiguously affirmed as being “breathed out by God” (theopneustos). Because the Bible is the very words of God as breathed out by Him, then such a reality has massive implications on matters of authority, trustworthiness, and so on. The doctrine of inerrancy, for example, is largely undergirded by the fact that God Himself is true and trustworthy. R.C. Sproul says, “If the Bible is the Word of God, and if God is a God of truth, then the Bible must be inerrant – not merely in some of its parts, as some modern theologians are saying, but totally, as the church for the most part has said down through the ages of its history.”
The reason for bringing up authority, inerrancy, and the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture in a discussion about modern-day prophecy, which may or may not be authoritative or inerrant, is to point out an uncomfortable dichotomy. Mathison, in his book on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, argues against the Roman Catholic interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and his argument has import for this different discussion here. Mathison says, “Any word from God is by definition God-breathed whether communicated in writing or orally.” This statement from Mathison gets to the point and should cause tremendous discomfort for anyone who affirms the possibility of someone receiving a dream or vision from God that is meant to be revelatory without necessarily being inerrant or authoritative.
God only reveals the truth, and the truth He reveals is always authoritative!
The second emphatic concept that I would like to point out in the passage from 2 Timothy is that the Scripture itself affirms that it is sufficient in all that a Christian needs in order to be “complete.” The idea presented in this passage is that the Christian who receives and absorbs the biblical text is fully equipped to be and do all that God would have him or her to be and to do. Because Scripture is God’s revealed Word to humanity, and because God is no fool and no deceiver, then all Christians must expect that God has revealed Himself sufficiently in His Word. To look elsewhere for further revelation or clearer revelation or more personal revelation is to cast a disparaging look upon Scripture, which is God’s only inerrant and trustworthy revelation to humanity today.
In my view, there are many well-meaning Christians that speak of dreams or visions (even promptings or intuitions) as vehicles through which Christians may receive divine revelation today. Regardless of their motivation, it seems flat against the teaching of Scripture to regard these notions as helpful or beneficial.
At best, one’s openness or expectation for personal revelation through dreams or visions is out of step with God’s revelation in the Bible.
At worst, any acceptance or anticipation for such things draws attention away from God’s true revelation and towards foolish error.
May God give all Christians an unquenchable thirst for His Word, and may He forgive us for ever searching for Him elsewhere.
Charismatics are a subcategory of evangelical Christians who emphasize the miraculous and fantastical work of God’s Holy Spirit. A particular distinguishing mark of Charismatics is the expectation of miracles, like those experienced by the early Church, especially the practice of ‘speaking in tongues.’
See Grudem’s explanation of Acts 21:10-11, 1052
See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below.
See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below
See full article at the website listed beside “Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?”
See full article at the website listed beside Goodwyn, “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.”
“Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?” 2004. Billygraham.Org. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. June 1. http://billygraham.org/answer/does-god-reveal-things-through-dreams-and-visions/.
Geisler, Norman L., ed. 1980. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House.
Goodwyn, Hannah. 2015. “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.” Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored. Christian Broadcasting Network. Accessed October 1. http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/biblestudyandtheology/perspectives/goodwyn_dreams.aspx.
Grudem, Wayne A. 2000. Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Harwood, Adam. 2015. “Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams.” SBC Today. SBC Today. January 7. http://sbctoday.com/does-god-speak-today-through-visions-and-dreams/.
Mathison, Keith A. 2001. The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Moscow, ID: Canon Press.
Sproul, R. C. 2005. Scripture Alone: the Evangelical Doctrine. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub.
White, James. 2012. Scripture Alone. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers.