Surprised by the Voice of God: How God Speaks Today Through Prophecies, Dreams and Visions
Author: Jack Deere
Publisher: Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996
In Surprised by the Voice of God, Jack Deere takes up where he left off in Surprised by the Power of the Spirit. Some have discounted him offhand, but I think he should be taken seriously.
For those still trying to figure out whether God intervenes miraculously in the life of the church today, Deere's books may be very convincing. They are carefully written with evidence of good research and editing. Deere has studied a vast number of Scripture passages from which he has developed a theology of the miraculous in the church. In his writing he exhibits humility and teachability. He asks the same from his readers, and effectively opens our minds to consider his understanding. Above all else he is careful and credible in the examples of miracles he describes. They are often depicted in moving stories of God's power in the Church. His words provide a devotional challenge to the reader to love God, believe God, and humbly expect God to work.
I am receptive to Deere's argument since I am open to the possibility of the miraculous gifts being present in the church today. I also respect Deere's integrity and accept his miracle stories at face value. He may be mistaken about the legitimacy of some purported miracles, but it is not because he has been dishonest or careless in confirming their reliability. His background at Dallas Theological Seminary makes him aware of both the strengths and weaknesses of the cessationist view. (Cessationists hold that God's activity of giving supernatural or sign gifts ceased with the passing of the apostles.) My concerns are stated within the context of my respect for the author and his writings.
Critique #1-Deere presents the revelation given to Jesus, apostles, and prophets as the norm for the church age.
Deere produces a thorough review of the incidents of divine revelation in the life of Jesus and the book of Acts. He notes that every chapter in Acts (except 17) records some instance of supernatural revelation given to the Church. He correctly observes that the speeches of Peter and Paul were inspired and thus were products of revelation. Other individuals, like Philip, also received revelation. From this he concludes that all believers should expect extra-biblical revelation to be a common part of their life. "In fact, I have come to count on the voice of God to such a degree that I can no longer conceive of trying to live the Christian life without it" (p. 17).
I would have expected Deere to argue from the experiences of Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets that some in the Church will continue to get supernatural revelation. But he contends that "hearing God in dreams, visions, impressions and in other ways is simply normal New Testament Christianity" (p. 50). "Anyone who sincerely asks will eventually hear the voice of God (James 1:5-8)" (p. 235). From the examples in the Gospels and Acts he believes that all Christians should expect to receive revelation from God.
The basis for this surprising conclusion is Acts 2:17-21. Deere takes the list of those who will receive revelation as applying to all believers in the present age. It is not that some are gifted as prophets, but that the church is in an "age of revelation." This goes beyond normal charismatic teaching, which links such revelation with the gift of prophecy given to a few. The universal scope of revelation is confirmed when Deere lists the qualifications to hear God's voice. The recipient does not need a special gift; rather, one must have humility and openness (in contrast to the pride of the cessationist "Pharisees").
In addition to the key passage in Acts 2, Deere marshals further support from the assertion that Jesus is our example in everything. The fact that He is the Son of God does not invalidate this reality. Deere argues that Jesus did not perform His miracles or receive God's revelation because He was a prophet or Son of God. Rather, it was because He was completely yielded to His Father and the Spirit. Thus, examples of Jesus' ministry and revelation He received are the norm since we, like Jesus, have the Spirit.
In my judgment, Deere is going beyond the teaching of Scripture-and even charismatic doctrine. His attempt to side-step the ramifications of the uniqueness of Jesus' person and relationship to the Father fails to convince. It is true that as a man, Jesus was like us. But there is a host of ways in which He was also different. I will not repeat here the discussion of the "example of Christ" detailed at the conclusion of chapter 3 of Decision Making. Suffice it to say, there are significant reasons to conclude that the communication connection between Christ and His Father was something beyond "normal." He Himself linked His miracles with His unique identity (John 14:11) And when the epistles set forth Christ as our example, they indicate the specific ways He is our pattern-and the reception of revelation is not included.
Likewise, the other recipients of divine revelation-the apostles and the prophets-clearly occupy a distinctive place in the formation of the church. Paul called them "the foundation" (Ephesians 2:19). Since the recorded recipients of New Testament revelation played a strategic function in the establishment and expansion of the Church (Acts), and since the epistles assign a distinctive status to those individuals (apostles and prophets), it is hard to escape the conclusion that in that setting, revelation was a function of role. And in the Body of Christ "all are not apostles...[or] prophets" (1 Corinthians 12:29). (Again, for further elaboration, see chapter 3, "Does God Have Three Wills?")
Furthermore, Deere's use of examples from the Gospels and Acts does not harmonize with what we find in the epistles. The epistles do not teach that every believer should expect extra-biblical revelation as a normal feature of the Christian life. First Corinthians 12-14 deals with the use of the gifts, but prophecy (for which revelation is a prerequisite) is not the prerogative of everyone in the church. Deere appeals to Galatians 2:1-2 and Philippians 3:15. The Galatians passage demonstrates that Paul, an apostle, occasionally made decisions based on revelation. But this does not prove that everyone gets revelation to make decisions. And Philippians 3 is not about revelation at all. Paul is reminding the believer of the convicting work of the Spirit that shows us when our thoughts are not in harmony with the teaching of Scripture. God will reveal our sins so that we might change. This is not extra-biblical revelation, but conviction according to what God has already revealed.
To sum up: A comprehensive cataloguing of the instances of revelation in the Gospels and Acts is still only a record of the experiences of Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets. Deere does not succeed in proving that they did not occupy a distinctive role in the foundation of the church for which divine revelation was necessary. Nor does he successfully counteract the fact that the epistles do not teach the expectation of revelation for every Christian. The examples still illustrate the exception rather than the rule.
Critique #2-Deere's modern day examples of revelation are very restricted.
Deere has diligently searched for examples and has told moving stories of God's revelation. Strict cessationists may discount these narratives as exaggeration. Others, like myself, accept the stories unless contradictory evidence is produced. (I am less inclined to accept every explanation for reportedly miraculous events.) Some examples are impressive, but only because they are selective. That is, the stories where a "revelation" proved to be true with dramatic results are showcased. For instance, a student comes to Deere for counseling, and Deere "sees" the word pornography superimposed on the young man's countenance. He confronts the student with this supernaturally endowed insight and that exposure becomes the key to the student's confession and restoration. That may have been a genuine revelation; but then again, what is the likelihood that a male student who is troubled enough to come for counseling might be plagued by pornography? It seems to me that a guess along those lines is going to yield a pretty high percentage of success.
This example must be put into the context of what Deere believes about "false revelation." He knows of many examples where a similar intuition proved to be wrong. What if Deere sensed "pornography" and he was mistaken? Deere would admit that he misread God's revelation and he would explore other avenues in the counseling session. Wrong revelation is expected in his theology. I could add to Deere's stories. Sometimes my impressions have worked out very well, but most have not. If I tell them selectively, they appear to be revelation.
Some of Deere's examples are impressive, but impossible to confirm. Several people get "revelations" that Deere's daughter, Elese, is going to die. By comparing the several sources, they determine that the revelation is credible. By further revelation they learn that the devil is trying to kill her. They conclude that they should raise the level of protection around her through increased prayer. After a time, the group senses the attack is over, and she returns safely to normal life. The story is moving, but there is no way to confirm objectively its validity.
For those still deciding about miraculous gifts, Deere's examples are very persuasive. And they have an implied conclusion. If you do not get revelations from God, you will not be able to help hurting people like you should.
On the other hand, if the revelation of extra-biblical truth is available to and intended for every believer, the number of credible examples in the book is small. These cases should not be automatically denied, but neither do they prove that God is giving new revelation to all Christians. He is sovereign and can do miracles whenever He desires. Deere's enumeration of these occurrences is the most impressive and credible out there; but his examples fall short of establishing what he is trying to prove. If true revelation is being given, it still appears to be transmitted to and through a small number of people. Deere's case would be more convincing if, instead of telling individual stories, he would list the names of acknowledged prophets and healers. Then legitimate testing could be done. But that is not the point he is trying to make.
Critique #3-Deere's concept of Fallible Prophecy is the faulty assumption to his view.
Deere accepts the notion that a revelation from God can become degraded en route to the recipient. Unlike biblical prophets, their modern day counterparts are susceptible to confusion at several points. The problem cannot be with the revelation as it comes from God, for God cannot lie (p. 193). But there is no assurance that the revelation gets to the believer in a pure form. So much of Deere's book is devoted to working out how prophecy can be profitable if it is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
The first problem is that the believer who gets a divine message is never sure that it really is God's revelation. Never, never, never. That is to say that the process of communication can break down at three different points. For the recipient has to decipher whether an impression is a revelation from God; then one must discern the correct interpretation; then the application has to be discovered. The prospects for accuracy at all three levels are daunting indeed.
A second challenge is developing an ear for messages from God. Revelation is only "acquired through careful cultivation" (p. 40). You must give God a chance to speak or there will be no communication (p. 63). The revelation can come in words, phrases, or inarticulate impressions. Understanding God's revelatory voice is like learning to acquire a new language. God may even give you a "dream vocabulary" where certain images that appear in one's sleep point to concrete realities. There is no set of rules for discerning God's voice, but "those who are His friends will recognize His voice" (p. 338).
All of this takes practice. "Only those who are willing to try and fail will ever become proficient at understanding which impressions come from God and which arise merely from their own soul" (p. 170)." This experimentation with revelations is best done in a non-threatening atmosphere such as a small group where people can risk the process. "All over the room people began to raise their hands to 'try out' their impressions or visions. They knew [they] weren't going to be punished for failing" (p. 173).
If revelations are fallible (at the receiving end), it is necessary to establish all sorts of guidelines to keep the foolish and false "revelations" from hurting the church and to insure that genuine prophetic pronouncements are spiritually profitable. Deere says to avoid phrases like, "Thus says the Lord," and, "the Lord showed me that you are supposed to..." Instead say, "I think the Lord might be indicating..." or "I feel impressed to..." (p. 193). Share your revelation only if God gives you permission since most revelation is given only for the purpose of prayer (p. 194). Avoid giving revelations in large meetings. "In large public services I haven't found 'prophecy' from the congregation to be all that profitable" (p. 196). Revelations about marriage, children, money "should never be delivered in a controlling or authoritative way" (p. 185).
How does a Christian group determine which revelations are reliable? If the prophesying person has a good track record "we will automatically begin to take the word more seriously." If it is "someone who habitually gets things wrong, then we will tend not to take it so seriously. The problem with these tendencies is that the credible person could be wrong and the stranger could be right" (pp. 197-98). You should not expect infallibility even from the best prophets. "I don't know any prophetic people today who are 100 percent accurate" (p. 208).
What Deere is describing is far removed from the experience of biblical prophets and the teaching of the New Testament. As I have noted repeatedly in this book (see, for instance, chapter 15, "Special Guidance and Decision Making"), God's spokespersons were never confused about whether they had heard from God. They were clear on their message and their audience. The veracity of their prophecy was supernaturally confirmed not only to them but to their listeners. Their message could be tested by God-given criteria (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20-22; 1 Sam 3:19-20). The biblical prophets did say, "Thus says the Lord," and their audience knew to take that seriously.
It is harder to take seriously a message like, "Thus says the Lord, maybe." If someone delivers a prophecy and it turns out to be true, then "it was from the Lord." But if someone "misreads" the impression and gets it wrong, then it didn't count. As a standard of evaluation, Deere replaces the Bible's insistence on 100 percent fulfillment of predictions with a beneficial, fruitful outcome.
Deere has redefined what it means for God to speak through revelation and prophecy. It is sort of like revelation plus water. It has the appearance of the supernatural, but it is not supernatural in the same way we see in the New Testament. Deere seems to be defining revelation not by what happened in the New Testament, but by what is happening in his church. When someone sees a purple caterpillar eating four pebbles and vomiting them up, Deere has no real way of knowing if it is revelation or not (p. 172). Yet, he does not want to discourage such sincere attempts at seeing visions, because it is by such practice and risking that believers learn to receive revelations.
The Old and New Testaments present true revelation as supernatural. If God supernaturally speaks, you could not miss it if you wanted to. He is the One who initiates the revelation, not sincere believers trying to get revelations or discern impressions. God assures that the revelation is delivered accurately and received authoritatively so that the message is, "Thus says the Lord." Deere has tried to create non-miraculous and non-authoritative revelation. This is an unhelpful detour in an important discussion. The real question is whether supernatural revelation and prophecy occur today.