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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Lutheran (LCMS) View of Hearing from God

It is not wrong if one defines the charism of prophecy as an inspired, magnifying outpouring concerning divine things... the New Testament prophets were not in the strict sense of the word inspired, as the prophets and apostles…

 ...Even if the Spirit of God did move them and give them revelation what the Spirit revealed to them, the theme which he suggested to them, they discussed in a free manner, in their own words. So it could easily happen that in their prophecy they let their own and erring thoughts enter,

...Therefore, the apostle admonishes the Christians to judge and test the prophecy... (George Stoeckhardt, Commentary on Romans, Koehlinger Translation, page 172)

The above quotes, defining the nature of charismatic prophecy, come from the influential 19th century (LCMS) Lutheran theologian by the name of George Stoeckhardt. These quotes demonstrate that orthodox Lutherans have historically viewed the New Testament gift of prophecy as not being on the same level of inspiration as that of the canonical Apostles who oversaw the writing of Scripture.

George Stoeckhardt is highly respected in Lutheran churches for frequently writing about what is called objective justification/reconciliation at the cross that Jesus died on. Stoeckhardt's high view of grace and objective justification is based upon the example of where Jesus prayed while dying on the cross: "Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." For example, in writing against the Reformed "Lordship salvation" theology of his day, Stoeckhardt writes (emphasis added):
...A believing Christian does not make the pulse of his faith-life the criterion of his state of grace… The believer rather makes this conclusion: O, how godless I still am...There is no doubt but that I am a poor, unworthy sinner....But now God’s Word tells me, that God has already declared godless Sinners righteous. Thus I belong without any doubt whatsoever in the number of those whom God justifies... (Commentary on Romans)
What Stoechkardt writes about the charismatic gift of New Testament prophecy is very important. For example, it is clear from reading Stoeckhardt's definition of New Testament prophecy that the old 19th century confessional Lutherans did not consider the gift of prophecy as a type of infallible listening to God's voice.  Rather, in the Lutheran exegetical tradition, the N.T. gift of prophecy has been viewed as a simple reporting of what God appears to bring to mind.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the N.T. prophetic gift, like other spiritual gifts in the early church, took place in the midst and context of imperfect people and imperfect situations. This is a crucial doctrinal point, as hard cessationist theologians (particularly those influenced by the Reformed persuasion) frequently make a flawed assumption. These type of cessationists claim that, whenever people in Bible times had the gift of prophecy, it always occurred in the context of an infallible perception of a voice from above. They argue that God's voice, by its nature, overpowers human imperfections and fallibility.

To be sure, not all Reformed theologians hold a type of hard cesssationist theology in this area.  For example, a robust apologetic response to modern Reformed cessationist claims can be seen in this post by Timothy Bayless and also one can read through these series of posts by the same author - on the subject of dealing with philosophical objections to modern claims of hearing from God.

It should be pointed out that George Stoeckhardt was not a light weight theologian. In a May 23, 1878 letter, the founder of the LCMS (C.F.W. Walther) wrote that George Stoeckhardt was his number one choice for successor as president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. One of the founders of Valparaiso University, O.P. Kretzmann, also described George Stoeckhardt as the greatest exegete in American Lutheranism. August Pieper wrote that he “has met no theologian who possessed such a knowledge of Scripture as did Stoechardt, especially in the New Testament, of course in the original.” (Joel Pless Lecture on G. Stoechkardt: The Exegetical Task)

Stoeckhardt's position on New Testament prophecy, being a non-infallible gift of hearing from God, was not unique in traditional 19th century Lutheran circles. Early Lutheran theologians, like Stoeckhardt, believed that there were levels of inspiration given to Christians. They understood Scripture as teaching that a type of lesser level of inspiration was manifest in the N.T. prophetic gifts given to the church in general. For example, in a 1920 book on doctrine, Franz Pieper argues (emphasis added):
A third false assumption is that the ‘prophets’ mentioned 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Thessalonians 5 spoke by ‘immediate revelation’ or at least were under a ‘special influence of God.’ But the Apostle puts these ‘prophets’ into a different class. Their ‘prophesyings’ are indeed to be highly prized, but only after they have been duly examined. The Apostle says (1 Thess. 5:21): ‘Prove all things, hold fast that which is good”; and (1 Cor. 14:37): ‘If any man think himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.” The prophets, then, did not speak by immediate inspiration, but were bound to the words of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph. 2:20) as the norm of their ‘prophetical’ activity.
What did Pieper mean when he wrote that the “prophets” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Thessalonians 5 did not speak by "immediate" revelation? It is most likely that he has in mind how the "special influence of the Holy Spirit" was a gift given to bring to remembrance all that Jesus said in their immediate local context. This inspirational gift of having total recall of the words of Jesus was given so that the canonical apostles could oversee the final composition of authoritative Scripture. For an analysis of what the Lutheran Confessions have to say about God working through modern dreams, visions and divine revelation, see this important post on the Smalcald Articles.

Franz Pieper continues (emphasis added):
We have their exact counterpart today when Christians are moved by the Holy Ghost, e.g., in the meetings of the congregations, to speak on doctrinal matters on basis of Scripture. For the truth of their declarations the prophets had to appeal to Scripture, to the declaration of Paul and the other Apostles. The prophets were only interpreters of Scripture, they were not inspired writers of Scripture. Of this limitation the Apostle reminds them when he tells them: ‘Whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith.’ On the basis of Rom. 12:6 Luther and the older Lutheran theologians inculcate the exegetical rule that we, just as those ‘prophets,’ dare not presume to ‘make’ Scripture; the exegete’s work is restricted to the presentation and explanation of Scripture.” (Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 2:451-452)
For Stoeckhardt, Pieper and others, the nature of the N.T. gift of prophecy functioned in a very similar manner to the gift of personal guidance. Of course, at the end of the day, one could say that all subjective discernment of guidance from God in the final analysis ends up being a form of doctrinal evaluation and application of ethical choices. That is why the Apostle Paul could so boldly state in Philippians 3:15 - "Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal (ἀποκαλύψει) that also to you."

In his booklet, A Simple Way to Pray, Luther comments about how it is important to pause while listening to the Holy Spirit preaching to one's heart - especially when reflecting upon the various articles of faith found in the Lord’s Prayer. He writes about the importance of waiting to hear God’s voice in prayer, outside of the text itself, into our hearts:
If such an abundance of good thoughts comes to us we ought to disregard the other petitions, make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation.


While the gift of N.T. prophecy has many aspects similar to natural intuition (e.g. there is a type of spiritual transposition going on), it transforms natural intuition to yield results that are spiritually beneficial as well.

What Luther writes about, in relationship to praying through the articles of the Lord’s Prayer, he also highlights in his teaching on the 10 Commandments. For example, Luther comments on not taking the Lord’s name in vain (emphasis added):
I repeat here what I previously said in reference to the Lord’s Prayer: if in the midst of such thoughts the Holy Spirit begins to preach in your heart with rich, enlightening thoughts, honor him by letting go of this written scheme; be still and listen to him who can do better than you can. Remember what he says and note it well and you will behold wondrous things in the law of God, as David says (Psalms 119:18)
Bengt Hoffman’s translation from the original German version (Wie man beten soll, fur Meister Peter Balbirer, 1535) puts it this way (emphasis added) 


If the Holy Spirit would come...and begins to preach in your heart with rich, illumined thoughts, do him the honor, let these rationally formulated (gefasste) thoughts, reflections and meditations fade away. Be still and listen for he (the Holy Spirit) knows better than you. And what he preaches note that and write it down. In this way you will experience miracles. (Bengt Hoffman, Theology of the Heart, p. 40)
Having said the above, it is important to understand that Martin Luther held to the view that inspiration, or guidance from the Holy Spirit, could only take place as long as it was in, with, under and through the authority of the external written Word of God.

Luther warned against people waiting to hear God’s voice apart from seeking God’s Word. However, Luther was not a hard cessationist. He viewed the possibility of inspiration coming to individuals outside, but not apart from, the external Word of Scripture.

Another example of how Luther was not a hard cessationist (i.e. that he conflated all aspects of inspiration on the same level of authority as Scripture), can be observed in how he asserts in his Tabletalks that the Holy Spirit inspired the melody and text of Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott. (Handbuch zum EKG, Sonderband, p. 164, Gottingen, 1958 - as quoted in Arnold Bittlinger’s book, Gifts and Graces). Clearly, this statement would be very problematic among his subsequent followers if inspiration could not take place outside of the external Word of God.

Having said the above, it is important to point out that Lutherans - especially in the evangelical charismatic tradition - have been very cautious about modern claims to prophetic utterances that can come across sounding arrogant. Charismatic Lutheran theologians have frequently pointed out that saying things like “God told me…,” as well as making dogmatic claims that God is judging others for their sin, can frequently end up being a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Lutherans are also very cautious about a person making dogmatic claims related to hearing God - e.g. telling them who to marry when the other person does not have a similar witness in their heart. And, of course, Lutherans would point out that not all congregational meetings or denominational gatherings that vote on a given issue are necessarily hearing from God correctly (See Romans 12:1).  That is why, in the Lutheran tradition, only those congregational meetings that rise to the standard of 100% in favor vote can publicly be described as appearing to being the Lord's will. And even then, the focus is on how "the congregation believes it is God's will" and not so dogmatically that "it is God's will." To say otherwise would be to introduce the worst forms of charismaticism into congregational practices.

For mainstream Lutherans, especially in charismatic traditions, being unpretentious and modest in sharing perspectives on God’s guidance is a doctrinal imperative. This humble stance is grounded in the 2nd Commandment - which is the context of the Luther quote above. That is why, so called “words of knowledge” are also best shared tentatively. For example, Lutheran theologians have often encouraged that those who believe they are receiving a word of knowledge should consider the possibility of asking questions. This helps to not be perceived as coming across in an over dogmatic manner. Along the same line of thinking, Lutherans believe a good approach to prophetic discernment should be to share possible ways of interpreting things and than just let the person being prayed for confirm them. See 1 Corinthians 14:29 for the importance of testing these types of gifts. 

Of course, it is also important to keep in mind is that there is also the possibility of deception (See Jeremiah 17:9). The reality is that the devil can plant accusations & delusions that can look very much like legitimate words/visions of knowledge. According to Scripture, the devil and his minions can and do like to mess with the faith of others! And so all prophecies, especially related to "hatch (i.e. having children), match (i.e. who to date, breakup with, get married, etc.), dispatch (i.e. dying) or even a financial "catch" (i.e. investment strategies) should be both shared and discerned with an extra layer of caution and mutual reflection on whether one is truly 'hearing from God" or experiencing a type of "self deception."

A good way to test heavy extraordinary claims, that come across sounding judgmental, is to be extraordinarily sensitive to the possibility of error in interpretation. For a person who thinks they are hearing from God, that means Biblical suggestions on how to interpret visions should be front loaded in conversation - prior to sharing what is perceived to be from God. Scripture tells us; to whom much is given, much more will be required.

Francis Pieper, correctly notes the ambiguity involved in interpreting and verifying hearing from God and/or uttering prophetic gifts for today. He quotes a famous 17th century Lutheran theologian, John Quenstedt, who urges a humble approach to claiming and sharing prophetic revelations (emphasis added):
We must distinguish between revelations which pertain to, or attack, an article of faith, and those which concern the state of the Church or the State, social life, and future events; the first we repudiate; the latter, however, some hold, are not to be urged with any necessity of believing, nevertheless are not to be rashly rejected. (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1, p. 211)
Other non cessationist Lutherans advocate a cautious approach about claiming to see visions and hearing from God. For example, Larry Christenson writes (emphasis added::
A lower-keyed introduction, such as, ‘I sense that the Lord wants to tell us…’ might be a more helpful way of preparing people to receive a prophetic word… be sensitive and not only to the content of the message but also to the most appropriate way to convey it, for that, too, is the wisdom of God. (Larry Christenson, Welcome Holy Spirit)
For further research on what confessional Lutherans are saying about the gift of prophecy, see this recent November 2011 Newsletter devoted to practical issues related to the charismatic gifts.

So, to repeat the point: Being careful about not taking the Lord's name in vain means that one should not quench the Holy Spirit.  After all, Scripture tells us in Isaiah that one name of God is the Wonderful Counselor.  Also the very nature of praying in the name (i.e. influence) of Jesus implies being sensitive to His will - which is discerning what the Heavenly Father desires to do (John 5:19). Otherwise, the promises of Jesus mentioned in John 14:13-14 would be a reference to a magical formula and guarantee of results - i.e. like a sorcerer's tool. (For another helpful article of mine describing how gifts of healings and the effecting of miracles functioned in the midst of hearing from God, see this post).

As Luther points out, we should strive to listen to the Holy Spirit preaching in the heart through Scripture, with rich, enlightening thoughts. To be sure, God's thoughts may sound like our thoughts - as our God often hides himself by stirring up thoughts through possible layered forms of causality.  However, the outcome of writing them down and cautiously act upon them in faith, will be confirmed by miracles. For a further analysis of the Lutheran position on revelation, inspiration and Scripture, see also this article on the Lutheran Confessions and the 16th century Schwärmer. 

Post Script: 

See also this article of mine for the question of how much epistemic certainty can be involved in claims to hearing God - in, with and under Scripture. A more recent example of a Lutheran view differs from the above viewpoint can be found hereAlthough, to be sure the author does seem to allow for (via negativa) modern signs to be given by God as a warning to repent (see 37 minutes into the interview). To be sure, I see this as somewhat compelling as a plausible explanation for most temporal forms of guidance. The Holy Spirit simply illuminates options for making ethical choices, which are to be grounded in the authority of Scripture. Perhaps this is just another way of being in touch with one's conscience. For example, in a via negativa epistemic manner, the still small voice of the Holy Spirit can convict a person of any number of sins of  omission or commission - with the result that vocational and/or temporal guidance (grounded in Scriptural imperatives) is illuminated for making proper choices in life (See Ephesians 2:10).

It is interesting to contrast Acts 8:26-29 with what the same author recently wrote, in the Lutheran Witness, in which he cautioned:
... even though Scripture says that we must “listen to (God’s) voice (see Jer. 11:4; John 10:16) ... this really means listening to God’s Word being preached and listening to what the prophets and apostles have written in Scripture... 
... if you hear a voice in your heart, is this a voice of God? It could be angels or your own heart or even demons. Sadly, there is no way to be absolutely certain that it it God...when we say that we hear the voice in our heart, consider what Scripture says also comes form our hearts: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts” (Matt. 15:19). Indeed, these feelings and messages in our heart vary from day to day and even hour to hour. It is a miserably uncertain thing! Can the voice in our heart be a good thing? Indeed it can, if it leads us into Scripture and brings us closer to the Church where God’s message is spoken with all certainty...
I find it interesting that, in Acts 8:26, an angel directed Phillip (who was a lay person) on the wilderness road. Perhaps Phillip struggled with the question of whether this was really an angel, his own heart or a demon? The problem was that the direction given to Phillip, by what he perceived was an angel (i.e. messenger from God) was to go away from the local Church to an isolated area.

The solution, as I see it, is that we should not view this as necessarily a case of what we would presume as irrational or trans-rational guidance. For example, the angel could have simply been giving Phillip a warning that he needed to leave a place where great things were taking place and take a needed rest (5th commandment application) - i.e. by traveling down a lonely road. The Spirit than warned him (i.e. his conscience was convicted) in Acts 8:29 that he needed to join alongside the Chariot lest he miss out in a witnessing opportunity (i.e. a sin of omission, a 4th commandment application). 

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