God told him. That was the defense this man had for divorcing his wife. God had revealed to him that it was okay to divorce her, despite having no Biblical grounds for such a divorce. When I countered that God had already spoken to the issue of divorce this particular man pointed to the supremacy of this new and personalized revelation as the sufficient grounds. “That’s true for most people, but God gave me a special word,” he claimed. How we think about extra-biblical revelation is a serious issue. Extra-biblical revelation can coexist with the authority and sufficiency of Scripture when it possesses qualified authority, and derives from Biblical truth.
Extra-biblical revelation refers to Spirit-given content that does not come directly from Scripture. We might speak of this, as other theologians have, as nondiscursive content. Vern Poythress, a respected theologian and cessationist, notes that we can distinguish gifts based on our “awareness of a basis for…ideas and actions” (“Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts”). So, for example, if I derive my ideas from a conscious basis, like a particular Bible passage, then this would constitute a discursive gift. An example of this type of gift is preaching, where a particular text is expounded. A nondiscursive gift would be one where I am not conscious of a particular source, such as gifts of prophecy, visions, or simply impressions. There are also mixed ideas or gifts deriving from partial awareness.
The temptation for many is to think that the nondiscursive gifts are more uniquely inspired. We believe that since we cannot point to a specific source that this gift is somehow more divinely inspired and even infallible. There are some, then, who suggest that gifts of prophecy, for example, have an unqualified authority. In fact, this principle holds true for both discursive and nondiscursive gifts in the modern era. “All modern processes are wholly derivative with respect to authority,” says Poythress. They are only true and God-given in so far as they represent what the Bible teaches. To quote Poythress:
Within this picture, we must take seriously the sufficiency of the Bible and the fallibility of modern processes. This principle holds with respect to both discursive and nondiscursive processes. In the case of discursive processes, a preacher might preach either sound doctrine or heresy. An intuitive hunch or dream (when interpreted) might be either true or false. In a modern context neither discursive nor nondiscursive processes add more teaching beyond the Bible.
So, revelatory gifts and extra-bilbical revelation itself, is not infallible, nor on-par with Scripture itself.
Some will take issue, no doubt, with this conclusion. After all, they might say, how can God be involved in revelation and such revelation not be inspired and infallible? Poythress notes that’s God’s involvement does not necessitate such a conclusion. After all, he says, God is involved in growing grass but we do not call growing grass “divinely inspired.” Likewise, God is involved in all knowledge. So, the knowledge we glean from the phone call of a friend has God behind it as the ultimate source, but that does not make the phone call divinely inspired and infallible. In addition, God’s involvement does not remove the possible contamination of speakers and hearers. So, with extra-biblical revelation we may wrongly interpret or wrongly apply such a revelation. This very thing happens to Paul in Acts 21:1-16, and 27-36. Despite being given a prophecy about his future, Paul does not adhere to the application of this vision from the Ephesians. Is Paul going against God? No, because the application is not divinely inspired.
Poythress adds to the clarity here by drawing out three distinct categories of nondiscursive content: (1) teaching content – which seeks to say what the Bibles says; (2) circumstantial content – which addresses circumstances; and (3) applicatory content – which applies the content of scripture to a circumstance. The type of content does not need to challenge our view of the sufficeincy and authority of Scripture. So, for example, the teaching content – which Poythress calls an “extemporaneous sermon” – is simply reiterating what the Bible says. In so far as it does this accurately it is true – like a normal preached sermon. The circumstantial content is a bit more tricky, but not when we consider the nature of the content. The content from a vision or dream for example, doesn’t compete with Scripture. It is merely addressing contextual events. So, Poythress gives an example to illustrate this principle:
In an American church someone says, “I fell that our sister church in Shanghai is spiritually struggling and undergoing attack.”
The information, we note, is not particularly amazing. It is the same sort of information, he says, that we might gather had someone from Shanghai placed a long-distance phone call and shared that news with someone from the church. The information is not extraordinary and in no way competes with the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The fact that the content came from an extraordinary means, nondiscursive, doesn’t elevate the content to be on par with Scripture. It’s circumstantial. The result of this news? We pray for the church in Shanghai. If the impression proves to be wrong? No harm is done.
Lastly, the applicatory content warrants a bit more caution still. When we start issuing commands we ought always to move slowly and pause. The language of “The Lords said,” should immediately be abandoned unless we are reading directly from Scripture. The principle of qualified authority remains in place for all Spiritual gifts. But applicatory content, which seeks to give commands based on Scripture, are of value, if still to be evaluated. Where the command is an echo of Scripture we are not adding to the Bible, but merely attempting to apply a specific text, principal, or doctrinal/ethical issue to a specific person, people, or context. So, if I feel the impression, or hear an audible voice even telling me, to go to my neighbor and speak the gospel to them that is not in conflict with Scripture. It is merely an application of Scripture.
There’s much more that needs to be fleshed out with regard to these issues. We will have whole posts dealing with prophecy, visions, dreams, etc. For now the point is to highlight that extra-biblical revelation does not necessarily have to conflict with our view of a sufficient and authoritative Scripture. Where such content is subject to Scripture and derived from Scripture it can be perfectly compatible.