Objections to “Hearing God” (Part Two): The Question of Methodology

November 29, 2011

There are several prominent objections to the view that God speaks extra-biblically as part of the ordinary Christian experience (call this view "HG" for "hearing God"). I take Stand To Reason’s Greg Koukl as my main dialogue partner on these matters, because he has thought extensively about these issues and has provided some accessible articles for public consideration (see my post here).

So, one such HG objection, as given by Greg Koukl, holds that the Bible fails to support HG and that therefore, this lack of evidence warrants rejecting it. Call this the “No-Evidence 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. Instead, I’ll argue that the No-Evidence Objection is unsound because it makes an unjustifiable methodological assumption.

The reasoning behind the No-Evidence Objection is flawed. It's flawed because it excludes certain kinds of evidence (or reasons): the evidences of personal experience and credible testimony. Or to say it another way, it in principle limits what can count as evidence. And generally speaking, it's unjustifiable to treat some piece of purported evidence for any hypothesis as inadmissible simply because of its being the kind of evidence (or reason) it is.

But this is what the No-Evidence Objection does. Koukl’s view, for instance, is that the only way to settle the question of HG is by looking very carefully at the text of the Bible, and likewise, that to attempt to justify HG from experience is to reason circularly (for example, see his discussion here). But I don’t mean to single out Greg here; for many thoughtful people would affirm with him that "there is only one way to answer these questions [about HG], and the proper method is not by appealing to personal experience or citing godly authorities who disagree [but only by appealing carefully to the biblical text]." (See here, p.6). Let’s call the quoted material “the Methodological Claim.”

The Methodological Claim does all the “work” in the No-Evidence Objection. If someone (1) thinks that the Bible is silent on HG, and (2) affirms the Methodological Claim, it's no wonder HG comes out as unjustified: the conclusion doesn’t follow in any way from biblical teaching, but rather from a certain assumption about what can count as evidence. This is an epistemological issue, and not simply a biblical-theological or hermeneutical issue.

The Methodological Claim should be rejected for at least three reasons.

First, the Bible itself pretty plainly supports the idea that we can know truths about God extra-biblically (see, for instance, Romans 1:19-20). A person can come to regularly experience themselves as moral-spiritual creatures of a Creator, even if they don’t know that to have a basis or witness in scripture. (An argument could be made that this knowing is the result of what it means to be made in the imago Dei).

Moreover, when it comes to other issues—like the arguments for God’s existence—Greg even agrees that we can know truths about God extra-biblically. It’s just that when it comes to HG, he rejects this way of thinking about things.

Second, the Methodological Claim fails to account for an important distinction. Although the Bible is the ultimate source of knowledge of God, it is not the only such source. If that is true, then it would seem to at least counter the Methodological Claim by showing how it is inadequate as an approach (however well-intended!) or perhaps easily falsifiable. For the Methodological claim seems to land us in an unfortunate false dilemma: either trust scripture as the only reliable source of knowledge about HG or trust personal experience. It can’t account for credible testimony.

Curiously, Greg even agrees with this ultimate/only distinction in this article, but the distinction doesn’t appear to do much epistemological/methodological work for him when considering how to approach evidence for HG.

Third, and more seriously, the Methodological Claim is self-refuting. It entails the view that if a proposition about God is not in the Bible, it isn’t true (or at least we cannot know it to be true). But, the Methodological Claim itself is not contained in the Bible, so it isn’t true (or at least we cannot know it to be true).

The upshot of all this is that because the Methodological Claim is false, even if the Bible were silent on HG, the No-Evidence Objection would be no objection to HG at all.

Part Three in this series is available here.

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10 Responses to 'Objections to “Hearing God” (Part Two): The Question of Methodology'

  1. […] my next post, I'll start to offer an evaluation. For now, some questions: Do the objections against HG resonate […]

  2. Pam Norris says:

    Hearing from God…I think we mere mortals are trying to put the voice of God in the same context as hearing a person. God’s voice isn’t audible..it is in our very spirit, and he speaks to us all through our faith in Christ. God isn’t looking for the able, he is looking for the available. Listen, and you will “hear” Him.

  3. Timothy Bayless says:

    Hi Pam,
    Thanks for your comment. Though my post isn’t really addressing the notion of an audible voice of God, I think you’re right that it’s probably very rare that God speaks that way. Having said that, I don’t want to rule it out, either. I know (and know of) credible people who have heard an audible voice they believed to be that of God, and have excellent reasons for attributing the sound they heard to God rather than to anything else.

    However, I’m not weighing in on any of that here. In this post, I’m only defending the idea that, in addition to there being divine communication via the Bible, God speaks somewhat regularly with Christians via means other than the Bible–that this is part of God’s M.O.

  4. […] earlier posts “the Methodological Claim”, and we looked at what 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, […]

  5. Andy Klotz says:

    This is a very interesting and informative article, but through my own testimony and experience of others I have to agree with Koukl’s view. I was once very involved in an Evangelical church and witnessed many claims of HG and more often than not they never came to pass. Some would say it was audible or a still small voice. Sometimes a hand written prophecy. This was especially the case with my personal experience. I have seen many poeple ruin their finances and be put in very unfruitful situations because they assumed God spoke to them in a specific way. I’m not ruling out the possibility he speaks to some people in different ways but I don’t think this is something happening as often as some would claim. I also haven’t noticed anymore fruit or a closer communion with God when I compare those who claim to hear God’s voice with those who prefer the methodological view. I would like God to speak to people in the manner you describe but I don’t see any evidence in the body of Christ to affirm that claim. I would love to be convinced otherwise though.

  6. David Knight says:

    Hello Tim:

    Blessings to you.

    After reading your 3 part series on Hearing God (HG), I stand unconvinced based on your argument. Perhaps God talks on a personal basis with people, perhaps he doesn’t. Your argument does not persuade me one way or the other.

    1) You cite Romans 1:19-20 as evidence that we can have extra-biblical evidence for knowing about God. But 1:19-20 is predicated upon 2:14 -15, where knowledge of God is written upon our hearts. Romans 1:19-20 is written in the context that one cannot legitimately deny that God exists: “…they are without excuse.” We can have limited extra-biblical knowledge of God, but there is no argument here that says that extra-biblical knowledge is the norm.

    2) You say the following: “Although the Bible is the ultimate source of knowledge of God, it is not the only such source.” This is where many would disagree with you. If God is still giving knowledge, or revelation, then it’s entirely possable that the Book of Mormon, the Quran, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Gnostic Gospels (just to name a few) are all legitimate sources of God given revelation; for in each case the authors have claimed to have heard from God.

    3) I remember reading an article quite a few years ago on this very subject. The article didn’t impress me much, but one thing did. A lady was interviewed during the course of the article, and she made a mind blowing statement. She said: “I don’t care what the Bible says, I only care what God says to me.” When I read this I was floored. To think that someone who professes a faith in Christ would say such a thing.

    The Bible must be our standard of measurment for all things concerning life and godliness. The Bible reveals to us all that we are to know about God. It is his written revelation to us. If what is revealed cannot be measured by the Bible, how are we to know that it truly is from God?

    What if some godly men, known for their scholarly works in Philosophy, Exegesis and Theology, wrote to tell us that they believe, after many intense revelations from God, that his Spirit can be found only by our pure and holy worship of him in St. Louis alone. That to experience him in his fullness, we must make a yearly pilgramage to this chosen holy city. How are we to know whether this revelation from these esteemed men of God is true or not? I submit that to measure any revelation by any other source, other than God’s written word, would be to go against conscience, and would be dangerous.

    If I were a plumber, and was called out to repair some plumbing for a lady, and I heard a voice saying to me: “take her for all she’s worth, for I have chosen her to be provision for you and your family”, I know that it’s not God speaking because his word says: “[y]ou shall not steal.” Therefore, while I believe that God does speak to our heart on occasion, I also believe that what we hear must be measured by his word. .

  7. Timothy Bayless says:

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not arguing one way or the other about HG here; I’m arguing that certain influential objections to it fail. Thus, HG might still be false, but if so, it’s not for any reason offered by the Methodological Claim (but for the record: I think *something like* HG is true–but that is for another post). I’m not sure which of Koukl’s views you’re referring to when you say you agree with him (Is it the denial of HG? His Methodological Claim?). I hope it’s not the latter. And if you do disagree with the Methodological Claim, then with respect to what I’ve written in this post, we’re in complete agreement.

    We also agree that people act upon mistaken beliefs all the time, that certain things can be misused or abused, and that in many cases, doing so wreaks havoc. I plan on dealing with this objection in another post (but as a teaser, I’m going to say something like this: First, the truth of something is logically independent from its potential consequences. Second, from the fact that something can be misused or abused, it doesn’t follow that the best course of action is abstinence; rather, we should just use wisdom and discretion, taking into account what we know about the relevant matter, just like we would in any other area.)

    I’m glad that you’re honest that your experience informs your view on this. I think it’s fine that it does, and I know many who don’t think God speaks in this way who would deny that it does. If you’re open to being convinced otherwise, may I suggest a couple things? First, read credible people on this issue. Some people in this area for me are Dallas Willard, JP Moreland, and Wayne Grudem. Second, get to know people that you think are credible who are willing to testify of their own experience to you.This might take a lot of work. Ask lots of questions. If I knew you better, I could probably say something more specific, but that’s the general strategy I’d take, for whatever that’s worth to you.

  8. Timothy Bayless says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Remember what I’m doing in these posts, though. I’m not arguing for or against HG at all. Rather, I’m arguing against certain objections to it. (See my reply to Andy). Here it’s against any objection that requires assuming the Methodological Claim.

    1) Regarding Romans 1:19-20, your contextual observation is consistent with everything I’ve said. It’s thus consistent with my objection to the Methodological Claim. When you say that, “we can have limited extrabiblical knowledge of God,” (I’m not sure what this means, unless it’s just a way of saying that there is at least one proposition about God that’s known extrabiblically) you’re agreeing, by the nature of the case, that we have extrabiblical theological knowledge. Whether such knowledge is the norm or not (again, I’m not sure what that means), no matter how you cut the pie, one instance of it is enough to falsify the Methodological Claim.

    2) Concerning the idea that the Bible is the ultimate, but not sole, source of knowledge of God (and morality and many other things that aren’t sense perceptible), some do disagree, as you say. Some Christians disagree–they’d say that the Bible is the *sole* source of such knowledge, and not just the most authoritative source (which is what I mean by “ultimate”). I don’t think this is a defensible view. Also, there are *non*-Christians who’d disagree, too–they’d say that the Bible is neither the sole nor the most authoritative source of such knowledge. Perhaps they’d cite something else as the ultimate authority. But the mere fact that someone disagrees doesn’t count for much. What matters when it comes to disagreement, with some qualifications, are the reasons given for the views in question.

    3) About the article, that person’s view isn’t mine nor is her view implied by mine, so what she thinks is just irrelevant here. I certainly agree with you that no Christian should think as she does. I also agree that the Bible is our standard. The question is, “What does it mean to say the Bible is our standard?” Here’s a quick gloss for me as an inerrantist: if it contradicts the Bible, the Bible’s right. But that tells us nothing when the Bible is silent on a certain issue. I certainly don’t think we should say that if it’s not in the Bible, it’s not true (or at least that we can’t know it)–which is just the Methodological Claim all over again. And to that, I’d just give the replies I gave in this post.

    About the St. Louis and plumber examples, the way we ought to proceed is to test them by what we already know, like we do for any other claim about anything. What we know in the St. Louis case is that these peoples’ teaching contradicts Scripture and experience. In the plumber case, the supposed revelation contradicts our moral knowledge, in addition to Scripture. It’s ironic that both Scripture and extrabiblical sources of knowledge adjudicate these examples.

    I really appreciate the thought you’ve put into this, but I don’t think such scenarios spell any trouble for extra-biblical theological and moral knowledge at all, as if conceding that there are other sources of knowledge of these things somehow leads to the inability to distinguish truth from falsehood in these areas. I don’t think it does, and I think I’ve defended that idea reasonably well. If you’re interested in further reading. JP Moreland wrote on this in a paper delivered at an Evangelical Theological Society meeting several years ago. It received some flak initially because people only read the title, caricatured it, etc., without having read it. The title is deliberately provocative, but that’s just to pique people’s interest in it. Check it out and see what you think. Find it at http://www.kingdomtriangle.com/discussion/moreland_EvangOverCommBible.pdf

  9. Thank you for this- where do I find part 3?

  10. Timothy Bayless says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for reading. You can find all the posts thus far here.