Romans 11:33-36

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Dangers of "Personal Revelation"

Continuing with the theme of the dangers of purporting personal revelation, I came across an interesting bit of historical perspective in the book, A City Upon a Hill: How Sermons Changed the Course of American History.

In November 1637, John Winthrop, the colonial governor of Massachusetts convened court to hear the case of Anne Hutchinson, the first female preacher in America. While the justice and the nature of the trial are subjects for another time, what struck me was the court’s attitude toward Hutchinson’s self-proclaimed basis for her ministry.

She testified that in her conversion experience in England, the “spirit” of God had led her to find a true minister, and indeed the truth itself. The court inquisitors were enthralled, especially court secretary Increase Nowell and the Deputy Governor, Thomas Dudley.

Lowell: How do you know that that was the spirit?

Hutchinson: How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the sixth commandment?

Dudley: By an immediate voice.

Hutchinson: So to me by an immediate revelation.

Dudley: How! An immediate revelation.

Hutchinson: By the voice of his own spirit to my soul.

It was a shock to all. Hutchinson had testified to having a new revelation. The court had its damning evidence. As Winthrop later recalled, “her own speeches have been ground enough for us to proceed upon.”… By her own revelation, they declared, she had put herself above not only the clergy and doctrine, but above the Bible itself…. She was convicted and banished. Since it was November, she was given until spring.
While I am certainly not advocating public trials and civic banishment for church affairs, this incident does bring up some interesting questions. Have we lost our sensitivity to heretical proclamation in our churches? When did the church transition from the place where personal revelation was nearly universally seen as heresy to where we are today—a place where it is not only acceptable but expected for preachers to proclaim a “personal” word from God?

While questions of how, and when, and why go unanswered, the harm inflicted by the shift is clear. When a fallible human being stands before a group of vulnerable people and proclaims a personal word from God apart from Scripture, he is either a prophet or a false prophet. If he is a true prophet of God, he will be proven by the inerrancy of his words and their perfect coherence with the Bible. When that standard is inevitably violated, not only is the “prophet” discredited, but the God whom he claimed to represent is as well. Then the vulnerable masses become disillusioned and hardened, further hindering their reception of the true Word of God.

The stakes are far too high to flippantly speak of how, “God spoke to me….”


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