The Danger of “God Told Me” Theology: Reflections on the claims of Harold Camping, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper.
Recently, there was a firestorm of controversy surrounding the prophetic ministry of Harold Camping. Camping, President of Family Radio, is noted for his attempts to predict the timing of the return of Jesus Christ to earth. His most recent attempt, which placed the return date on May 21, came and went with great fanfare. While it was successful in focusing the thoughts of people on the doctrine of the second coming, it succeeded most in exposing the church to the ridicule of a skeptical world.
Evangelical leaders were quick to condemn Camping’s prophecies by quoting the words of Jesus in reference to his return: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Mk. 13:32).” Scholars were quick to weigh in on his fantastic claims.
Dr. Al Mohler addressed Camping’s false teachings in his recent blog entitled, “False Prophets, False Teachers, and Real Problems: The Case of Harold Camping”. In it Mohler makes the following statement,
He bears all the signs of a false prophet. He claims to have a secret knowledge revealed only to him by God. He claims to have found a hidden code in the Bible. He rejects what he calls “literalism” and claims the right to a “spiritual” interpretation of the biblical text. He has rejected all correction from the believing church and persists in his false teachings. He has led thousands astray from the truth and has brought reproach upon the Body of Christ. He refuses even to concede that his prophecy was false. He and he alone is right.
Dr. Mohler has revealed the primary dangers related to false teachers. They claim to have a “secret knowledge” revealed only to them by God. This is the claim of “special revelation.” The false prophet claims to have been given some type of “extra biblical” truth that is “inspired” by God. As a result, it is viewed as being as authoritative as scripture. Furthermore, the false prophet is proficient at attempting to link his “special revelation” to biblical revelation.
At the foundational level, false teachers who claim “special revelation” have rejected the belief that the canon of scripture is closed. Rather than affirming the complete sufficiency of scripture, they seek to add to scripture by virtue of their own claims of “special revelation.” This is the genesis of Harold Camping’s errors. Camping believes that “God told him” that the world was going to end on May 21.
Camping’s flawed understanding of biblical revelation is exacerbated by his inability to use good hermeneutics to interpret the scriptures (See chapter four in my book Engaging Exposition for principles of good hermeneutics). Generally, false teachers share a common trait: they are underprepared to handle the scriptures carefully (2 Tim. 2:15). Consequently, they are proficient at taking verses out of context or “discovering hidden meanings” in the text of scripture. Camping’s latest prophecy came as a result of the fact that “God told him” that there was a hidden timeline in the Bible for the return of Christ. His interpretation of the Bible is nothing short of laughable—and tragic.
When studying false claims of “special revelation” by false prophets, there is a consistent formula that can be applied:
Weak hermeneutics + flawed concept of biblical revelation = dangerous “God told me” theology
Today, everyone wants to “hear” from God, and almost daily there is a new claim of “special revelation.” I would submit, however, that there are few things more dangerous to the mission of the church than “God told me” theology. There are several potential dangers:
- “God told me” theology rejects the theological position that the biblical canon is closed, with its claim that God has already told us everything we need for life and godliness in the Bible.
- “God told me” theology embraces the reality that believers have access to “special revelation” from God that equals/trumps the revelation of scripture.
- “God told me” theology places subjective, personal experience in a position of authority over the objective truth of scripture.
- “God told me” theology minimizes the role of scripture in personal experience and the need for the faithful interpretation of scripture.
- “God told me” theology cannot be repudiated on the basis of scripture, because “special revelation” places itself above scripture.
As we reflect on this list, we can begin to see the dangers of holding to a belief system that affirms the potential of special, extra-biblical revelation from God. A number of years ago, a guy came into my office and made this statement, “God told me to divorce my wife.” As you might imagine, I was stunned to hear his words. Immediately, I carried him to a number of texts of scripture that affirm marriage and condemn divorce. I may as well have been talking to a tree. Every time I challenged him with scripture, he responded simply, “God told me.”
After that conversation, I sat and pondered the decision-making process he had used to rationalize his own desires. Simply, he had rejected the authority of scripture preserved in a closed canon; he had convinced himself that he had received “special revelation” from God; he was placing his own subjective thoughts above the objective truth of scripture; he rejected the revealed truth of scripture properly interpreted; and, he placed me in a position where I had absolutely no suitable response. After all, what response is there to the massive claim, “God told me?”
When we see this type of error in Harold Camping, it is easy to identify and repudiate. We are quick to challenge him for his false assumptions, beliefs, and interpretations. And well we should. But our critique is aided by virtue of the fact that we don’t know Harold Camping, we don’t move in his circles, and we have nothing to lose by adding our voices to the chorus of repudiation he so rightly deserves.
I have a very sobering question, however. What are we supposed to do when one of our SBC contemporaries, or other like-minded evangelical, embraces a “God told me” theology?
Are we to ignore his claims because we move in the same circles, and we are connected by relationship? Or, do we carry some necessary responsibility to rebuke him in love and humility (2 Tim. 4:2; Gal. 6:1-3)? I am convicted that “God told me” theology is so dangerous that we must confront it wherever and whenever it manifests itself, whether it is in our own local churches or in the larger community of faith.
That is why I am so disappointed by the recent claims made by Mark Driscoll that he is the recipient of “special revelation.” Driscoll is the lead pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, WA. God has used him to grow a great church that is passionate about reaching the lost with the gospel and planting churches. He is a gifted communicator and instrumental in the lives of thousands of young pastors. He has been blessed to share the platform in strategic venues designed to strengthen the church. All of which, by the way, make his claims of “special revelation” problematic for the church at large.
I communicate my thoughts about Driscoll’s recent claims with a great sense of trepidation. I do not have a relationship with Mark, and so I do not have the benefit of engaging him personally on this matter. Further, I’m a Driscoll fan. I’m not one of the SBC’ers who despise him, hate Acts 29, or want to ban his books from Lifeway. In fact, I regularly listen to his messages and often share them with folks in my own church when he addresses a topic that I think will be helpful. Finally, I can already hear the rebuttals to my critique by others, based not upon scripture, but upon claims that I’m just another jealous, “old-school” pastor who doesn’t like young guys.
Of course, those of you who know me know that I’m as progressive as anybody. Our church does ministry with a contemporary methodology, and I’m equally committed to reaching the lost and planting churches. Similarly, I’m committed to investing in the lives of young leaders through teaching and writing. But beyond all of this, I am committed most to the fidelity of scripture, and I am bound to provide this rebuke for the theological well being of my people at Cornerstone and the church at large, even if it is Mark Driscoll I’m addressing.
Mark has made the repeated claim that God “told him” in an “audible voice” to do five things (this has been well documented, most recently in Tony Merida’s wonderful book, Faithful Preaching, 48-49). Driscoll identifies them as:
- Lead men
- Preach Scripture
- Plant churches
- Marry Grace
- Trust God
Recently, he re-defined his audible, “God told me” claim of special revelation as requiring four specific things in his life (He referenced this “audible revelation” again on Twitter the week of May 30, when he linked to a YouTube clip of a recent sermon at Mars Hill: Pursue Your Calling Not Your Potential. In this sermon, Driscoll identifies the four specific ministry assignments “God told him” to pursue as the following:
- Preach the Bible
- Marry Grace
- Train men
- Plant churches
I don’t know why Mark has changed the story at this point and moved from five specific tasks to four. That is not the main problem. The main problem is Mark’s claim that he has heard an “audible” command from God for his life by virtue of “special revelation.”
In the video clip noted above, Mark is teaching on Luke 4:42b-44. In this text, he is communicating one simple truth: God the Father told Jesus what his mission in life was to be, and every Christian needs to ask God to tell him/her the same thing. An analysis of his sermon reveals the same formula that defines the false claims of Harold Camping.
- Weak Hermeneutics: Mark challenges his listeners to “Pursue your calling, not your potential.” Mark suggests that the Father’s sovereign purpose for Jesus required him to separate his call from his potential. He forces this understanding into the text through his interpretation of the phrase “kept him from leaving”. In reality, Jesus did not have to choose between teaching and the service actions of his ministry. He always did both (Lk. 7:20-23). This part of the message is significant to this discussion, however, because Mark is using this text to suggest that a “special calling,” similar to the one of Jesus, is necessary and normative for every believer.
- Flawed understanding of biblical revelation. In the Luke text, Mark is equating Jesus’ unique, supernatural calling with the calling we should desire to receive from God in our own lives. He describes Jesus’ explanation of his calling with this phrase, “God the Father told me to do that (Lk. 4:42b-44).” However, the supernatural prophetic call to ministry as defined in scripture, and seen in the lives of the OT Prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul, is non-prescriptive for today’s believers. Rather than seeking some form of “special revelation” from God about our life’s calling, we are to live for God’s glory in obedience to his revealed will found in scripture. We have great freedom to pursue careers within the context of the abilities and passions that God has given to us. Should that include a passion for ministry in the local church, we can choose to serve God in that context as well (1 Tim. 3:1). And, we trust in the providence of God to guide our steps as we journey through life (Pr. 3:5-6; Ps. 37:23). Mark is using his interpretation of this text to suggest that God speaks to people about their life callings in the same way he spoke to Jesus.
- God ‘told me’ theology: Once he has concluded his interpretation of this text, he uses it to justify his claim that God spoke to him audibly and “told him” to do the five/four things he has mentioned. While he does provide the declaimer to his listeners that he can’t guarantee they’ll hear God audibly, he suggests that they can pursue that same kind of clarity in their own lives.
When he tells the story about what “God told him,” Driscoll attempts to provide his audience with some rationale for accepting that his claim of “special revelation” is valid. He does this by asking two questions, ostensibly raised by critics like me:
a) How do you know that it was God who spoke to you? This, of course, is a vitally important question. Mark responds by saying that he knows it must be God because the message he received was consistent with scripture. He states, “That sounds like something God would say.” However, this is a flawed argument. We call it a non sequitur (i.e., it does not follow). In other words, just because something sounds like it should come from God does not mean that it does come from God. After all, why would God need to use special revelation, and speak to him audibly, to tell him something He has already told him to do in scripture?
b) What did God sound like? This is another important question. If someone claims to have heard the audible voice of God, it should be easy to provide a description of that voice. Surely, it is something that one could never forget. Yet, Mark refuses to answer the question. This is another flawed argument (i.e., irrelevant conclusion). In other words, Mark refuses to answer the primary question by diverting attention away from it. Instead, he answers another question by describing God’s voice as “authoritative.” Of course, we would all assume that if God spoke it would be authoritative. Here, however, Driscoll is addressing tone rather than tenor, which is the whole point of the question. The answer is simple: Describe the sound of his voice. Was it like the sound of a trumpet (Rev. 1:10; 4:1)? Was it deep? Was it high? What does God sound like?
Recently, it came to my attention that John Piper has made claims of “special revelation” as well. He, too, affirms that he has heard an “audible voice” from God: The Morning I Heard the Voice of God. In this talk Piper states, “At this very place in the twenty-first century, 2007, God was speaking to me with absolute authority and self-evidencing reality.” Here again is a massive claim to special revelation. But unlike with Driscoll, Piper clarifies his claim with this refreshing truth:
If you would like to hear the very same words I heard on the couch in northern Minnesota, read Psalm 66:5-7. That is where I heard them. O how precious is the Bible. It is the very word of God. In it God speaks in the twenty-first century. This is the very voice of God. By this voice, he speaks with absolute truth and personal force. By this voice, he reveals his all-surpassing beauty. By this voice, he reveals the deepest secrets of our hearts. No voice anywhere anytime can reach as deep or lift as high or carry as far as the voice of God that we hear in the Bible.
Here, Piper joins with me in proclaiming that the only place we receive special revelation from God is in the pages of scripture. Scripture alone provides us with the truth we need to live our lives for the glory of God.
In light of the claims made by Mark Driscoll, however, we must make some biblical decisions about the validity of “special revelation” and about those who claim to receive it from God. I will offer four provisos related to claims of special revelation.
First, the canon is closed, and there is no need for special revelation. Consequently, I reject wholeheartedly any claim to special revelation, whether it comes from Harold Camping, Mark Driscoll, or anyone else, whether friend or foe. God does not need to give us special revelation, because he has already given us “everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).” To say otherwise is to reject the full sufficiency of scripture.
Second, claims of special revelation are dangerous. These types of false claims have been the source of countless false prophecies and heresies throughout the history of the church. Now, some might argue that Driscoll’s claims don’t reach the level of Camping’s, because their claims relate to personal issues rather than serving as public proclamations for the whole church. I would agree that at this point Driscoll’s claims are not as outlandish as Camping’s, but they have the potential to be just as dangerous because both lead to the same destination. Once we jettison the Bible as the only source of special revelation, and we allow ourselves to affirm a “God told me” theology, we are at risk of introducing error to our lives and to the church.
Third, God does not need to give us special revelation to reaffirm what he has already told us to do in his word. Consider the five areas of calling that Mark identifies as the ones “God told him” to pursue. You will notice that each of them has been affirmed in scripture for anyone who chooses to serve God in ministry:
- Lead men (2 Tim. 2:2)
- Preach scripture (2 Tim. 4:2)
- Plant churches (Mt. 28:18-20; Acts 13:1-3)
- Trust God (Ps. 7:1; 1 Tim. 4:10)
- Marry Grace (Pr. 18:22; 2 Cor. 6:14).
Clearly, there would be no reason for God to use special revelation to command Mark to do the things He had already revealed in the Bible.
Fourth, if this is simply a matter of semantics, we must become more intentional about using appropriate language to describe our spiritual journeys. Clearly, all of us desire to know, love, and serve God. We desire a close intimacy with God the Father, Son, and Spirit. And, we desire to follow hard after God with all of our hearts. God, in his infinite wisdom, has given us His Spirit and the word to accomplish those things. I, like most of my readers, would affirm unashamedly the role of the Spirit in applying the truth of scripture to our hearts, as he guides us into truth and convicts us of sin, righteousness, and judgment. However, there is huge difference between illumination and inspiration. One affirms the work of the Spirit, the other claims “special revelation” from God.
As a result, if this is a matter of semantics, I want to urge Mark Driscoll to clarify his remarks. If he is referring to illumination through the work of the Holy Spirit, it will certainly put my fears to rest. Moving forward, I would urge him to avoid language that suggests the validity of on-going, special revelation. If, however, I am correct that he is claiming that special revelation is real and normative for him personally, and by extension for the church, the significance of his ministry position requires him to clarify his understanding of biblical revelation. Those of us who love him, support him, and use his resources in our ministries have a right to ask for this clarification so that we may know whether we can continue to walk together.
I have written this blog with two primary goals in mind.
First, I am writing it to provide important biblical instruction for my church family. I never want you to be swept away by anyone who claims that “God told him” to do something. The supreme test for every truth claim is scripture alone, and scripture does not need the support of special revelation through the audible voice of God to make it more relevant. A “God told me” claim does not carry more validity than the scriptures themselves. Remember the words of Paul,
As for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. 2 Tim. 3:14-17
Second, I am writing it to challenge the church to think more carefully about the issues of illumination and inspiration. Claiming personal access to “special revelation” may be en vogue, but that doesn’t mean that it is legitimate. So, let’s focus on obeying the revealed truth of scripture—God has already told us everything that He wants us to do!