A few weeks ago, I was on a radio broadcast in the UK with Adrian Warnock, which I believe I told you about at the time. At that time, I told a story about a “word of knowledge” experience I once had, which caused Adrian to call me a continuationist in denial. I said that was fine, so long as he agreed — since no new Scriptures are being produced by the “extant” gifts — that he was a cessationist in denial.
I recently received an email from a woman asking about that experience of mine, prompting me to want to say just a little bit more about it. She asked this:
“You were talking about the lady that was joining a cult, and you were trying to speak with her and you were getting no where. You read a passage of scripture and then became aware of what was really going on with her. You stated on the radio that you knew it was from God but you would never tell her that and you would never say that to anyone. I am very curious about two things.
What is your reason for doing this? Is it to avoid the whole charismatic tone?
And what if the woman asked you how you figured it out? Would you then disclose it to her or not even then? What would you say to her?”
This whole issue is actually a question of epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we know that we know? Now, as a Calvinist, I know that absolutely everything is “from God” in one sense, but I also know that we have to take care to distinguish the multiple senses that this can take on.
I know that Romans 1:20 is from God. I know that my understanding of it is from God. I know that my knowledge of what a grape tastes like is from God. I know that when I press the Windows key on my laptop, the screen changes, and this knowledge is from God. I know how to catch a ball, and this knowledge too is from God. But these types of knowledge are all different.
What I don’t know is that my knowledge of some event in this world, however uncanny it is, is the same kind of knowledge that moved the apostle Paul when he wrote Romans 1:20. Indeed, not only do I not know that, I know for a fact that I don’t know that. Since I know that this is not an option, I don’t want to speak in the company of Christians using the same language that was used when God was still revealing His Word to His people. I have had some remarkable experiences where my uncanny knowledge was borne out by events. But — and this is the absolute kicker — I have had times where I have known things this way and been wrong.
In other words, I believe I live in a personal world, a personal cosmos, in which God blesses and guides according to His good pleasure. He answers prayer. He directs our steps. He gives knowledge in spooky ways — just not inerrant and self-authenticating knowledge, the way He gave it to Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Agabus.
This is because, when you come right down to it, all knowledge is spooky. When I see someone a city block away, and I recognize them, how do I do that? Beats me. This murmuration of starlings is also a question of epistemology. How do they now how to do that? I don’t know — but I know it is God in every aspect of it, and I am also pretty sure the starlings are not exercising their spiritual gifts — although it is a gift and it is spiritual.
If I say to a group of biblically literate people that “God told me,” or “thus saith the Lord,” they are going to assume that I am intending this as the formal equivalent of what that same phrase would have meant centuries ago before the canon was closed. Responsible charismatics vigorously deny that this is what they mean, but to speak in this unguarded way means that you constantly have to offer such denials. Why not simply speak about it with a different vocabulary, one that does not have the aura of prophetic authority?
I believe that spiritual knowledge can be gained/given in much the same way that ordinary knowledge can be gained/given. In short, there are plenty of opportunities to make mistakes. I might recognize my wife a block away and be mistaken. A murmuration might fly straight into a giant windmill. I can be confident enough with the vibe to act on it (pray for someone, or visit them), but what I want to avoid is making grandiose claims for it.
Why? I know my Bible well enough to deck my declarations out in verbiage that sounds all newtestamenty, but think it through. To speak in the name of the Lord and to have it not come to pass is no trifle. It was a capital offense in Moses’ Israel (Deut. 18:20-22), and in the time of the new covenant, we are to fear God more, not less (Heb. 10:28-29).