The Bible is frequently referred to as “the word of God.” God speaks in the Bible and through the Bible. God is personal and uses words and actions to communicate to humanity. The primary way God speaks in the Bible, however, is not by written communication or with propositional truths. In fact, “The word of the Lord” (dabar Yahweh), used over 300 times, is almost always a spoken/oral word in Scripture. God speaks directly and indirectly through an audible voice to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and the prophets. God speaks through theophanies and angels who are God’s messengers. God speaks through visions and dreams to Joseph, Daniel, Paul, and others. In the OT, God speaks through the prophets to Israel and the nations. In the NT, God speaks to those with the gift of prophecy enabled by the Holy Spirit. God speaks through nature (Ps 19:1-4; Rom 1:20) and human conscience (Jer 31:33). Ultimately, God spoke through his Son—the Word—Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-3). God became incarnate, not in a book, but in a living, breathing body. God does speak through Scripture, but God also speaks outside of Scripture.
The thought that God speaks outside of Scripture makes some people nervous. Some even teach that God only speaks in and through the Bible, never outside the Bible. The problem with this is that the Bible itself tells us that God speaks outside the Bible and tells us to expect God to speak outside the Bible.
The Bible tells us that the same Spirit who inspired the writing of Scripture also illuminates biblical passages so that we can apply them to our lives. The word of God in Scripture speaks to everyone, everywhere, at any time period. It contains what God has done and said and what God will say and do. It contains doctrinal and moral teaching that is for all Christians. The word of God outside Scripture is different. It is to individuals, groups, and nations at particular times, in specific situations, and for specific purposes. The word of God outside of Scripture adds no new doctrine or ethical teaching. Even when the prophets spoke the word of God to Israel, it often was nothing new. The prophets were primarily covenant enforcers who urged Israel to apply what had been given in the Torah. The word of God outside of Scripture is personal and specific. There is a lot of talk about having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. At the basis of any good personal relationship is good interpersonal communication. The word of God in Scripture tells us that God desires to speak to us in very personal and specific ways:
- “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will direct your paths” (Prov 3:5-6)
- “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Ps 32:8)
- Jesus said, “The sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3)
These passages tell us that God desires to guide our lives in personal and specific ways. God wants to instruct, teach, and counsel us. Jesus says that his sheep know and listen to his voice. He calls us by name and speaks to us about our current and immediate situations. The word of God in Scripture does give us guidance for life but it does not tell us what to do in many important areas of our life. The Bible does not tell us who specifically to marry, what kind of career to pursue, or a host of other significant matters. No doubt, some cautions are in order when it comes to hearing and discerning God’s voice outside of Scripture. We can mistake other voices for the voice of God. We can also misuse or abuse the voice of God. But this only leads to this question: How can we discern the word of God to us outside Scripture?
First, even the word of God in Scripture needs to be interpreted properly. We are taught to observe, interpret, and apply Scripture through a variety of hermeneutical principles. If that is true of the word of God in Scripture, it is even more important and necessary for words of God outside of Scripture. Second, Scripture tells us that words of God outside Scripture must be critically examined, tested, evaluated, and securitized (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:21-22; 1 John 4:1-6). Third, words outside of Scripture must not conflict with Scripture. God does speak outside of Scripture but never against what is said in Scripture. Fourth, if someone offers a word from God outside Scripture, an important criterion is, Does it happen or come to pass? (see Deut 18:14-22). Fifth, words of God outside of Scripture need to be accurate, but not necessarily perfect. Paul tells us that we know in part and prophecy in part (1 Cor 13:9). Sixth, we should ask, does the word edify, strengthen, or comfort those who receive it? (1 Cor 14:3). Seventh, Jesus told us to judge the words of prophets by the fruit they produce (Matt 7:15-23). Eighth, we should ask these questions: Is God glorified, honored, and praised by the word that was spoken? Are the words given in the spirit of love (1 Cor 13)? Finally, more prescriptive words require greater confirmation. The greater the risk, the greater the confirmation.