“Hearing God”: A Biblical Case?

November 29, 2011

Sometimes I am asked to provide a biblical case for my belief that everyday believers can regularly hear God speak to them in various ways.  Here, in précis form, is an overview of my answer (for more on this discussion see my book, Kingdom Triangle, along with my co-authored book with Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith):

  1. Ancient Near Eastern historical narrative/biography functioned not merely to chronicle events, but to teach theology/ethics.  Much of the Bible is this genre and a central theme of Holy Scripture is how we are/are not to relate to God and each other as members of His covenant people.  Thus, the examples of God speaking to people (including ordinary people—Gen 25:23, Acts 6:5, and 8:6, Acts 19:1-7, esp. v. 6) throughout both Testaments are meant to teach us how we can expect God to speak (without, of course, expecting God to continue to give authoritative scripture to the whole church).
  2. God deeply desires intimacy and relationship with his people (cf. Isaiah 58:9-11; Hosea 11:8), and these characteristics obtain among people—human or divine—by regularly speaking to each other.  The Bible is an authoritative revelation to the whole church, but intimacy and relationship require personal communication in addition to this (for more on this, see my earlier post here).
  3. God speaks to people to correct wrong thinking (Phil 3:15; cf. Eph 1:17, I Cor 14:24, 26, 30-31).
  4. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in applying the Bible’s teaching to our specific situation (I Cor 2:14).
  5. God speaks to us to give us guidance (Isaiah 30:21, John 10:3,4,16,27, Acts 13:2, 16:6, James 1:5).  In the John texts, Jesus says his sheep hear his voice.  Some have understood the context to imply that this means that the unsaved hear God’s effectual call to come to salvation.  But this has the odd result that we can hear God’s speech/drawing/prompting before we are saved but not afterwards.  In fact, the alleged context in John 10 (of unbelievers being called to salvation) can be taken in one of two ways:  it defines the meaning of the sheep hearing Jesus’ voice (thus, limiting the text’s meaning to unbelievers) or it determines a range of application in this context (to unbelievers) of a broader principle that applies to all God’s sheep whether before or after salvation.  The text does not make clear which is intended, and the latter fits other passages I am citing, the virtually universal experience of Christians, and it avoids the odd result mentioned above.
  6. Jesus is our model in communicating with God (John 5:19).  Jesus is not speaking about His unique prerogative as God or Messiah, because the context is Jesus doing the works of the Father due to Jesus’ intimate communication with Him (and subsequent empowerment by the Holy Spirit), and Jesus explicitly says that we will do greater works than he did (John 14:12).  If Jesus needed to be lead by the Father in this, how much more do we?  Moreover, it is now widely acknowledged by NT scholars that Jesus did what he did as a human being we are to model ourselves after in dependence on the filling of the Holy Spirit and in communication with the Father (cf. I Cor 11:1, I Thes 1:6).  Finally, Jesus delegated his authority to us and we need the same tools he needed to carry out that delegation.
  7. God sometimes speaks by placing impressions in our minds (Nehemiah 2:12) and through a still small voice (I Kings 19:12).
  8. Regarding the claim that when God speaks, it is clear and we don’t have to learn to hear his voice, (A) it seems that Samuel needed to learn to distinguish/hear God’s voice (I Sam 3:1-21); (B) there was a school of prophets in the Old Testament and, among other things, it would seem natural to think that they were learning to discern/hear God’s voice; (C) In the NT, prophesy is a gift that, as will other gifts like teaching or evangelism, grows and develops with time and experience as one learn to enter more fully into the practice of that gift. That is why there were tests of prophesy (I Cor 14:29, I Thes 5:19-22), viz., that as people learned to hear God, they sometimes made mistakes and gave words sincerely though they were mistaken. (D) We have to learn God’s most authoritative speech, the Bible, through hermeneutics, exegetical practice and so forth, and many believers are mistaken about what exactly is God’s biblical speech (in debates in textual criticism and differences between Catholics and Protestants about which books belong in the canon). If God has allowed there to be differences about what belongs in Holy Scripture and we have to work hard to learn to rightly divide it, why can’t there be differences about whether a personal communication was/was not from God and effort needed to learn how to understand such communication?

For further considerations about objections to “hearing God,” you might be interested in this ongoing series by Tim Bayless.

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About J.P. Moreland

J.P. Moreland is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.


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5 Responses to '“Hearing God”: A Biblical Case?'

  1. […] Objection”. The question of whether the Bible in fact supports HG is an important question, which J.P. Moreland addresses here, and in any case, the data (or its interpretation) is not relevant to assessing the objection. […]

  2. avatar Richard says:

    In regards to point #8 I wrote these words for another blog and wonder if they might apply here as well.

    “Regarding dreams and subjectivity…I’ve been impressed by looking at Acts 10 and seeing the interplay between revelatory moments, rational thought, and providential events. Peter is engaged in set prayers (v 9) and falls “into a trance” (v 10). He has a revelatory experience of the sheet coming down with unclean animals. This revelatory event does not bring with it an inherent sense of clarity because “Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be” (v 17). This perplexity causes Peter to “reflect on the vision” (v 19) obviously engaging rational powers. In the midst of this reflection the Holy Spirit “speaks” to Peter about three men looking for him (v 19-20). Simultaneous with this the three men from Cornelius are at the front gate. This is the providential element and it is memorable to Peter because when he recounts the story in Acts 11 he mentions that it was “at that moment three men appeared” (Acts 11.11). When Peter finally comes to Cornelius’ house he says the following: “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (v 28). This conclusion is a result of a complex of factors including a revelatory vision, the direct speech of the Holy Spirit, rational thought processes and providential events. Putting these all together Peter comes to his conclusion. The vision by itself did not yield this clarity. It was one factor. I see no reason why it might not be the same today. So even if one wants to say that a vision or dream is not clear or that it is open to subjectivity this is no different than the NT times. We look to all the potential factors to draw conclusions.”

  3. would you then say that the canon is no longer closed? that revelation is still occuring? doesn’t that make it subjective? and diminish what God has said is both sufficient and efficient for life and godliness, mainly the Written Word of God? or are you joining the Marcionites?

  4. avatar Richard says:

    Nancy,
    I know from looking at your website that you are pursuing Master’s level work in theology with a focus in philosophy and apologetics. Your questions seem lopsided and unfairly negative. What could you have read that made you think that Dr. Moreland is “joining the Marcionites?” This doesn’t even make sense. Dr. Moreland quotes from the OT and portions of the NT that Marcion rejected. You could have gotten more rhetorical mileage out of comparing him to Montanus but even that would not accurately capture Dr. Moreland’s views. If you are interested in answers to your questions then please look at his book “Kingdom Triangle” and note the suggested bibliography. I would suggest, as well, the work of Wayne Grudem. Moreland references his work on prophecy in his bibliography. Please consult his “Systematic Theology” chapters 52 and 53 for discussions regarding the spiritual gifts–including prophecy and its authority.

  5. […] happens when it’s applied to HG ("hearing God"): if the Bible were silent (I don’t think it is [see J.P.’s article]), skepticism would result, and we wouldn’t know whether God speaks in the fashion described by […]