The idea that God has new things to say and that the Holy Spirit speaks to people outside of Scripture is a common understanding among some religious circles. The ‘Holy Spirit said to me’ has become a popular belief particularly among pentecostal and progressive Christians. Stories of the Spirit speaking offer powerful testimonies, albeit ones that cannot be verified. The claim is often used to justify ideas and decisions we want to make. After all, how can we say no to an idea if the Spirit has spoken?! This is, however, a misleading and dangerous notion. This view of the Spirit and God’s speech is one that ignores the Spirit’s own testimony through Scripture and it is one that often leads to all manner of pastoral issues.
Indeed, when we have a dodgy doctrine of the Bible we shouldn’t be surprised if we take a wrong turn on all kinds of theological and ethical issues.
Before I turn to the Bible I want to clarify a few potential pushbacks.
What I’m not saying
I’m not for a moment suggesting that we only listen to Scripture and that other voices are unimportant. It is an act of love and respect that we listen to and understand the culture around us. We value people by appreciating the questions and fears and longings they feel and express. It’s for this reason, that people matter, that it’s vital Christians don’t go around playing God and claiming authoritative words from God.
Let me also preface, I am not pretending that the culture we live in doesn’t influence how we read the Bible. The conversation however is not a dialectical one where we come to the truth by listening to both the Bible and the voices of today. Rather the Holy Spirit sanctifies God‘s people so that we understand and embrace more of what God has spoken. His word will increasingly draw us into conformity with his Son and not with the standards of our cultural moment.
I am not denying the active work of God’s Spirit in the lives of God’s people. The Spirit illumines the words of God so that we may understand, believe and obey them. The Spirit ministers to our hearts, and affects joy, peace, and love, perseverance. The Spirit unites us to Christ and with each other. The Spirit does not however speak new words or words that contradict Holy Scripture.
The Holy Spirit and the Bible
Allow me to demonstrate my point from the Bible.
The suggestion that God’s Spirit is revealing new truths beyond the Bible goes against the grain of what we learn about the Spirit’s role in revealing God and his plan of salvation. John 14-17 is one of the Bible’s most important sections for giving us a doctrine of Scripture. In these chapters, Jesus teaches his disciples extensively about the work of the Holy Spirit. Please note the following:
- The Holy Spirit is sent from the Father and the Son (14:26; 15:26–27; 16:7).
- He is the Spirit of truth (14:17; 15:26-27). Already in John’s Gospel the truth has been defined as Jesus (14:6) and the Father’s words are defined as truth (17:7). As the Spirit of truth his representation of God and God’s purposes are true. He does not lie.
- The Holy Spirit has a speaking role. He is, however, not a free agent doing and saying whatever he pleases, but as the One sent from the Father and the Son his mission is tied to theirs (16:13–15). Jesus makes this very clear to his disciples.
- The content of the Holy Spirit’s speech is Jesus: ‘the Holy Spirit will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’ (14:26); ‘the Spirit of truth…will testify about me’ (15:27).
- Most scholars agree that in 14:26 and 16:13–15 Jesus is addressing his apostles, rather than the Church at large. After all, when Jesus says, the ‘Holy Spirit…will remind you of all that I have said to you’, this must be addressed to the apostles who were with Jesus during his earthly ministry.
Thus, Jesus is not saying that the Spirit will teach us new things, he is teaching his apostles that the Holy Spirit will help them remember, understand and apply Jesus’ teachings. In other words, the Holy Spirit is pointing back to Jesus. On three occasions John shows his readers this divine’ remembering in action (2:22; 7:39 12:16).
6. The Spirit’s words to the disciples become what we know as the apostolic message, the New Testament Scriptures. In John 17:6–19 Jesus prays for his disciples, that as men who had been sanctified by the truth, and as Jesus had been sent by the Father, so Jesus sends his disciples into the world. This prayer is immediately followed up by a prayer for all future believers, those ‘who will believe in me through their message’ (17:20). To summarise: God’s revelation comes from the Father and from the Son, it is mediated by the Spirit, to the apostles, about the Son, who in turn are sent into the world. There is no hint that the Holy Spirit will speak words beyond the apostles or in addition to the full revelation of God in Christ.
In my view, this is game, set and match. Jesus’ teaching on the Spirit and Scripture in John 14-17 gives clarity as to the how, what, and why of the Spirit teaching.
One of the corollaries accompanying the view that the Spirit speaks new words today is the belief that the Bible isn’t sufficient. But is this the way Jesus and the Apostles describe the Bible? Let’s explore,
Jesus consistently taught that the entire Old Testament (for the New Testament had not yet been written) ought to be considered as the words of God, and accordingly trusted and obeyed.
For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus establishes his Scriptural hermeneutic, saying,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matt 5:17-18)
This statement is important for at least these two reasons: First, Jesus explicates one of the chief purposes of the Old Testament Scriptures. “Law and Prophets” is shorthand for the entire Old Testament (from Genesis to Malachi), and with clarity, he explains their ultimate design, which is to prepare for and point people to himself. Jesus is not dismissing the fact that there is much to learn about God, the world, and ourselves through reading the Old Testament. In its pages, God reveals his character and Being, his justice and mercy, his righteousness and kindness, his power and his gentleness. We uncover human nature, spoken of without our masks and artificial moral colouring: people are presented in all their glory, worth, and depravity. In addition, historians, anthropologists, and linguists gain knowledge about the ancient world through reading this most unique of texts. Jesus, however, announces that the Old Testament is a word of promise, a divine plan that was awaiting fulfilment, and with his coming, the plan was being realised.
Second, not only is all Scripture full of divine purpose, it is also authoritative. Jesus states that every letter and brushstroke is considered true, important and abiding. The smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet is yod, a tiny inverted comma-like flick of the pen. The least stroke of a pen is more difficult to identify with precision, although scholars have suggested several plausible candidates, including the letter waw, an ornamental stroke known as a “crown”, or even a hendiadys. Jesus’ point is nonetheless clear; not even the tiniest drops of ink on the page will be erased from Scripture but will remain until everything is accomplished.
Those listening to Jesus are left with no doubt that he has the highest regard for all the Scriptures, as the very words of God and words that remain authoritative. These words are to be interpreted in light of Christ but still hold continuing relevance and jurisdiction.
In summary, the Old Testament is true and purposeful, not losing its significance but finding fulfilment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is important for all kinds of contemporary issues surrounding racism, sexuality and gender.
Lest one thinks Matthew 5:17-18 is an isolated statement and we don’t need to take it that seriously, following his death and resurrection, Jesus once again explained the gravity of those events to his disciples by opening the Scriptures, again proving the link between the Old Testament promises and himself.
“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)
Jesus not only connects the Old Testament with himself but also the New Testament. This is unsurprising in many ways, given that the life of Jesus dominates the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the remaining 23 books expound on the living reality and meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus himself possibly never wrote a word with ink and papyri, and yet the authors of the New Testament were not independent biographers and theologians. They wrote not only about but under the direction of the Word become flesh.
Throughout the remainder of the New Testament, it is clear that the Apostles did not veer from Jesus’ view of the Old Testament Scriptures, and their own writings confirm Jesus’ foretelling of the work of the Holy Spirit who would enable them to retell God’s final revelation who is Jesus Christ.
For example, the Apostle Paul insists of Scripture,
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
The words of Scripture come from the breath of God. The relationship between God and the Bible is akin to one’s mouth and breath. Every word was expired from the mouth of God, and every word is useful. None is to be erased or excused, but all are useful for life and doctrine.
This Pauline paragraph also points to the way Scripture is authoritative and relevant for future generations of Christians, specifically in this case, Timothy. Words that were then centuries old remain useful to second-generation Christians. In other words, the Scriptures continue to hold their truth, crossing generations and cultures, nations and languages.
Hebrews ch3 provides us with a really clear example of the relationship between Scripture, the Holy Spirit’s voice, and today.
“So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did.
10 That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”
The author of Hebrews confirms that the Holy Spirit speaks and he chooses a present active verb to suggest the continuing relevance of this speech. And notice the words the Holy Spirit speaks: Psalm 95. And notice the warning of the Spirit words which are Psalm 95, don’t harden your hearts to his words.
In his excellent book, ‘Hearing God’s words, Peter Adam, quoting Calvin, says,
“For Calvin, ‘Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit’. Moses, for example, ‘wrote his five books, not only under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but as if God himself had suggested them out of his own mouth’. The words of SCripture do not come from the pleasure of men ‘but are dictated by the Holy Spirit’. Amos ‘possessed the discerning of the Holy Spirit’ and Ezekiel ‘only spoke from the mouth of God, as the organ of the ‘Spirit’.
“God not only caused the Scriptures to be written originally, but also sends the Spirit to bring those same words deep into the hearts of believers.” (Adam)
“For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines.” (Calvin)
Wrongful claims about the Holy Spirit are unnecessary, misleading, and dangerous
The view that the Holy Spirit is speaking new words today cannot be sustained in light of the Spirit given word that is the Bible. What it does do is create a host of problems.
- It undermines people‘s confidence in the Bible
- It subjectivises the way God speaks.
- It collapses revelation into illumination.
- It inevitably suggests the Holy Spirit is a contrarian who gives contradictory words to different groups of believers. Which words are true? Which words are we to listen to?
- It is often used to justify ethics and decisions that are clearly contrary to the what God does say in his word.
God hasn’t given us a dodgy word that needs supplementation or revision. The issue isn’t that we need ‘new’ words from God, but that we often don’t press close to God in his sufficient word: reading, trusting and obeying.
Is God in a habit of having to correct himself? Is God a contradictory God? Are we to believe that the Holy Spirit is communicating new ideas that reject parts of the Bible?
Heterodox ideas throughout history have often come about because people have either added to or subtracted from God‘s Word. It’s the serpent on repeat, did God really say? It’s like building your case for or against vaccines based on the personal opinions of vociferous social media voices rather than medical experts. And sometimes, churches have adopted the letter of the word but lost the heart of what God is saying, and in doing so they cause many to stumble.
If we want to know what God thinks, open the Bible and read it; not plucking verses out of their context but reading it as we ought, in context, understanding genre, recognising that all Scripture is preparing for and fulfilled by and is about Jesus Christ.
A classic example of this arose during Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had adopted a revisionist view of marriage and one day approached Jesus with the aim of entrapping him by their new understandings. Jesus’ response wasn’t to reinvent human sexuality and the nature of marriage. Instead, Jesus pointed people back to the Scriptures and affirmed God’s purpose in marriage. Not only that, Jesus defined (in accord with Scripture) that any sexual relations outside marriage between a man and a woman are considered porneia.
The wonder of God’s word is that it doesn’t leave us with pronouncements of judgment for all the ways we reject and break his good word. God’s Gospel word is that he loves to forgive and reconcile. This isn’t because righteousness becomes unimportant or fluid. Rather, the Scriptures show us that the God of absolute goodness and holiness is also the God of extreme mercy. This is where we find true inclusion and acceptance; God not excusing or endorsing human attitudes and behaviour, but in Christ God forgiving and restoring us no matter who we are and what we have done. We don’t need to find new words to add to this final one.
Some of this piece is taken from an essay and a lecture that I gave some years ago