There are multiple sources for the mental impressions (the flow of thoughts that run through our conscious minds) by which we live. The question of this article centers on this one: Is God ever the direct, unmediated, Author of any/some of these mental impressions and, if He is, can we know that it is He that has spoken? (For this study we are using the term "speak/spoke/spoken" to refer to the production of mental impressions by any means.) Obviously, if God does not author immediate mental messages to our minds either by audible means or by inner impressions, the latter part of our question has its answer. If He doesn't speak, we can know that He is not the direct Author of the thoughts that have come into our heads. However, if He does speak, there are two possibilities. First, He could speak without our knowing for sure that it is Him. This raises this question: could there be a point to His speaking with this kind of ambiguity (if we cannot know that He is the One Who has spoken, what would be the point)? Second, He could speak so that we do know that it is Him. This raises a different question: what is the point of our possession of the Bible as "the Word of God" if He is willing to simply converse with us? These questions reveal the complexity of what is at stake. And, in addition to them, there is this question: is it possible that God doesn't carry on conversations as a norm, but occasionally does violate the norm when He sees it to be helpful or necessary?
In our quest for answers, one of the questions that we must raise is this: what does the Bible say about this issue? But, there is a prior question: what difference does it make what the Bible says? How do we know that the Bible is "God's Word"? And there is even a more basic question: How do we know anything at all?
Let's start with this last question. How do we know anything at all? I am not at all sure that anyone on this planet has an answer to this question. The question is one of mechanics; it asks "how?" So far, about all we have been able to figure out is that at least some of what we think we know is the result of preprogramming; some of what we think we know is the result of learning from input that originates outside of ourselves; and some of what we think we know is the consequence of the process of reasoning through concepts.
Scientists have raised the question of how much our behavior, which springs out of the way we think, is the direct result of our genes. This addresses the issue from the perspective of preprogramming. The Bible has something to say about knowledge at this level in Romans 2:14-15.
Philosophers have raised the question of how much of the way we think is formed by our experiences. This addresses the issue of what we know as a consequence of having built-in receptors that are able to receive input from outside of ourselves; receptors such as sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste. The Bible has something to say about the knowledge we can have by this means in I John 1:1-3.
Logicians, likewise, have raised the question of how much of the way we think is controlled by the way we process the data that we have by both preprogramming and by sensory perception. This addresses the issues of logic and rationale. The Bible has something to say about our use of logic in multiple places, two of which are Romans 2:3 and Galatians 3:1-5.
But at this point let me make this observation: whether we know how we know or not, we do yet know. What I mean is this: We may not understand the mechanics of the process, but we do participate in the result. It runs against logic to say that we do not know. (What would be the point in making such a statement since it is self-contradictory and makes no sense -- if we do not know, how can we know that we do not know?)
My purpose in raising the question of how we know anything at all was to bring our thinking to this claim: we know most things after we have believed something. The preprogrammed stuff is already in our knowledge bank and we don't know how much of what we know is keyed to that. But, beyond that, we have to believe something. To know anything by sensory perception, we have to trust our senses. To know anything by reason, we have to trust our logic. Without faith, we know only what has been preprogrammed and that seems to be very little.
Before we get any further, let's ask this question: what does it mean to know? What is knowledge? At a somewhat fundamental level, knowledge is merely our grasp of data that we believe to be true. Our knowing is possessing data in which we have confidence. Beyond that, we come to wisdom -- the ability to use data for the achievement of our objectives. The point here is that knowledge is the foundation for living. Without wisdom, knowledge is somewhat useless, but without knowledge, wisdom doesn't exist. So, knowing is simply having a very rudimentary element of life at our disposal.
Now, if we can trust what has been built in, what has been gained through sensory perception, and what has been logically formulated, we can know.
That brings us to the next question: How do we know the Bible is the Word of God? My answer is fourfold. The first part is what I am going to call "internal resonance". On multiple occasions, the Bible teaches that a person "automatically" responds to data according to his "nature". Jesus, for example, said that His sheep would hear His voice (John 10:27). In the same context, He said that certain people did not believe because they were not his sheep. In another place He said that all who have heard and learned from the Father would come to Him (John 6:45). In yet another place, He told Peter that his understanding of the Messianic identity of Jesus was not a consequence of his intellectual prowess, but, rather, a consequence of the Father's "revealing" it to him (Matthew 16:17). And, finally, he told his disciples through His disciple, John, that this worked on the other level also -- that the world "resonates" with those who are "of it" so that what is said by its representatives is accepted as true data by its hearers (even though it is not actually true) as an automatic reality (I John 4:5).
In all of these texts, the issue is not "external" revelation, "objective" experience, or "intellectual prowess". The "elect" just get it, and the non-elect just don't get it. What makes this difference? It is not an external voice from God. It is not an external rational argument. It is not a special set of sense-based experiences. It is an "internal resonance" that exists between a nature created by God and the truth of God. In other words, truth finds a welcome in people of truth and is rejected by those who are not of the truth.
Paul referred to this "internal resonance" in Romans 2:14-16. He claimed there that the very fact of being a creature of God means that there is a built-in resonance between the creature's conscience and the Creator's Law. He concluded his argument by saying that God was going to appeal to this reality in the day of His judgment -- that God would use what man knew he knew against him when he attempts to justify his unbelief before God. This is preprogrammed data that geneticists admit exists and the Bible declares exists and makes knowledge (to some degree) a reality.
How does this give us a knowledge that the Bible is the Word of God? In this way: the Bible generates responses in those who hear its claims and it, itself, teaches that those responses will not be governed by intelligence, but root nature. In other words, those who know the Bible is the Word of God do so by internal resonance. Being creatures of God gives them resonance with the Law of God and being new creations of God gives them resonance with the rest of the truth of God. John even went so far as to say that because believers have the Spirit of God within themselves, they "have no need for any man to teach them" (I John 2:27). There are obvious qualifications to that statement (why would John bother to write a letter if the statement is absolute?), but there is also this obvious reality: the presence of the internal Spirit makes truth genuinely available to the mind and heart of the believer.
This brings us to a second reason for how we know the Bible is God's Word. Because the biblical witness is rooted in the experientially based knowledge of those who participated in its content, the Bible is founded to a large degree upon sensory perception. John wrote that he was writing about what he saw and heard and felt (I John 1:1-3). At this point we do have to appeal once again to the issue of faith. Since we have been blocked out of the sensory area by the temporal and geographical distances that exist between us and the events recorded, we have to decide whether John was lying to us. He says that his knowledge was rooted in his sight, hearing, and ability to feel. If he was telling the truth, we have a sensory basis for faith in the Bible as rooted in experience. The Bible claims that over 500 people were eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is sensory based knowledge if they could trust their eyes and ears. And we share their sensory based knowledge if we believe their witness.
That brings us to the third part of the answer: Logic. We know the Bible is the Word of God because reason dictates that conclusion. A careful study of the details of the Bible reveals one thing very clearly: the God of the Bible never asked anyone to believe anything that was not firmly established as "truth in experience" before He required faith. There were always demonstrations of the power and knowledge of God prior to His demand that He be believed. What I mean by that is this: God always established His track record in sensory experience among men before He required men to believe Him.
I do not mean by this that every man has an equal access to the sensory-based demonstration by God. For example, when God parted the Red Sea, He did it before an entire generation of Israelites (well over a million witnesses) and He did it so that an entire army of Egypt was wiped out and those who went looking for them only found floating bodies and debris at the site (they could not be first hand witnesses but the evidence corroborated the stories that floated back by the few witnesses who did survive). Since the event was established in the sensory experience of multitudes of witnesses and the evidence existed to testify to the truth of their witness, God will hold no man guiltless who simply discounts the witness because he finds its implications uncomfortable to him in his mental/emotional/physical state. Simple logic argues that since most of the claims the Bible makes were made in an historical context that made their refutation relatively easy within that context if they were lies, there must be truth in them. In Jesus' case, no one is ever recorded by anyone anywhere near that historical setting as denying the miracles of Jesus: they asked whence they came, but they did not argue that they were not real. Logic enters the picture at this point and gives believers greater boldness and unbelievers less justification for their rejections.
Then, His condition for faith in anyone who claimed to be His prophet was "test him" and observe whether his prophetic utterances actually come to pass in history with enough specificity to establish a bona fide link to the God of history (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). Further investigation reveals that the apologetic of the God of the Bible is the rationale that only an omniscient God can reveal what is going to come into history before it does (see my article The Biblical Apologetic (313) under "From the Pastor's Study" at the web site biblical-thinking.org). The logic is straight-line. Given the complexity of a universe peopled by billions of chooser-producers (people who will and act), it would take omniscience to accurately predict the future with any consistency or specificity. Therefore, if someone can predict with consistent accuracy and specificity, he must either be the omniscient God or a spokesman for Him. Therefore, logic establishes the testimony of the Bible as truth -- thus making it the "Word of God".
However, there is a fourth issue that is involved in our answer to the question "How do we know the Bible is the Word of God?". This fourth issue is what the Bible itself says about our knowledge of the Word of God. If preprogramming, experience, and logic all conspire together to give us at least a plausible foundation for the belief that the Bible is the Word of the God, we ought at least to give it a hearing on the subject.
So, what does it say about its own credibility as the Word of God? Why do most people reject it as truth? The Bible says that faith in its contents is finally a matter of love and Spirit. If a person loves truth, he will be moved toward it by its self-evident presence. But if a person only loves having his own way no matter what the truth is, he will be repelled by the self-evident presence of Truth. The classic illustration is the child who, when required to share his toys, screams "It's not fair!" That's the juvenile attempt to introduce "fairness" into a realm that has nothing to do with fairness but a lot to do with selfishness and its attempt to distort truth for personal advantage. On a more "grownup" level, this same truth is illustrated by the person who knows that the Bible demands that his love for God and his neighbor transcend his own self-interests and, knowing that he has no interest in putting God or anyone else ahead of his own interests, simply declares his lack of faith in the Bible as an expression of the divine will. This is not a matter of logic or evidence; it is a matter of heart and selfishness. The Bible teaches that it will be rejected by the selfish who love not the truth.
But the Bible also says something about the Spirit. In the final analysis, if God exists in a likeness that comes anywhere close to the biblical testimony, He is ultimately the Creator/Controller of His creation -- including men. And, being the ultimate source of power for all of His creation, His Spirit of power would automatically, by the nature of the case, be required for His creatures to recognize His Truth. Thus, those of us who believe the Bible is the Word of God do so by far more than preprogramming, experience, or logic: we do so by the operation of the very Spirit of God Who claims final authorship of the Bible. But this is a point that no unbeliever will buy into simply because unbelief is a position of self-interested rebellion and that cuts across the grain of the witness of the Spirit. Thus Paul wrote that spiritual truth requires spiritual discernment that no unbeliever possesses (1 Corinthians 2:14). However, the same apostle also said that the point of faith in the truth is established by the God Who commands the light to shine out of darkness so that the light penetrates the heart and understanding (2 Corinthians 4:6). Thus, we believe the witness of the Word because the Witness of that Word is active on our behalf.
So, having given at least a cursory foundation in how we know, and how we know the Bible is true, we come to the next question: What does the Bible say about whether God gets involved in the creation of mental impressions within our minds? Actually, quite a bit.
Let's begin with James 1:5. In this text James expansively promised a generous divine response to the request for wisdom. This promise is set within the context of dealing with difficult situations. The rather obvious linkage of the promise to the context is that if a believer is facing a difficult situation, he has a divine resource at his disposal. He can ask God for wisdom about how to handle the situation. James says that God will answer that request with an unreproaching generosity so that the believer will have the wisdom he needs.
The omission of the text is that James doesn't bother to tell us how God will impart that wisdom. Since the Bible is full of examples of men seeking wisdom from God, we have multiple examples of multiple methods of God's response. Sometimes God raised up a spokesman to address the question for the seeker of God's wisdom. Sometimes God Himself responded verbally. Sometimes God allowed the seeker to see the circumstances in such a light that the answer was suddenly obvious by the mere application of knowledge and logic. Sometimes God motivated written communications. Sometimes He directed the seeker to the writings of the prophets. My point? God has never limited Himself to a single method of imparting wisdom to the honest seeker. The bottom line? The believing seeker gets the wisdom he seeks.
Note, however, that even though James does not tell us the answer to the "how" question, his promise, of itself, signifies that God Himself will act either directly, or by setting in motion one or more intermediaries, in order to satisfy the need. It almost has to go without saying that if a man has a need for wisdom and a promise to possess it at some point after asking, God must "speak"; that is to say, He must generate some mental impressions so that we will be moved into the right context so that His wisdom can be apprehended and understood as being His.
Let's see if I can illustrate this for further clarity. Suppose the Bible actually addresses the very situation that the man faces, but he does not know that. What the man needs to do is read his Bible in the place where his situation is dealt with by the wisdom of God. But, he does not know that the Bible addresses his situation, so he cannot possibly know where to read. Now, he can sit down and read it all, but if he tries to do that, he may exhaust himself mentally so that his reading becomes a rote exercise rather than a learning experience and when he comes to the place where his problem is addressed, he may not even recognize his situation in the text. Thus, what he needs is to read the right passage with the right amount of mental acumen to be able to see that his answer has already been given in the Word of God. How shall this happen? According to the promise of James 1:5 God is committed to making it happen if His choice of methods for imparting His wisdom for this particular occasion includes moving the person to the Bible so he can find the answer there. That means that God must do something in the mind of the person to enable him to "stumble onto the correct text while in the correct frame of mind for that text to impart His wisdom to His needy child". Otherwise the promise is left open to fortuitous chance.
On the other hand, suppose that God determines to provide His answer through another person. What is it that brings those two persons together at the right time with guidance into the right topic of conversation? Since people only act as a consequence of motivation that has at least some linkage to mental processes, who develops the mental impressions that motivate the two persons to take the actions that bring them together? Since Abraham's faith was that the One who made the promise is the One responsible to bring about fulfillment (Romans 4:21), James' statement must mean that the divine promise includes divine action in order to bring fulfillment. My conclusion is that God's action almost has to include generating mental impressions in the minds of those by whom and for whom He is going to act.
At this point, I want to turn to another pertinent passage: Romans 10:14. Here the apostle Paul pointedly asked the question, "How shall they hear without a preacher?" By this question Paul tells us something about this matter of God's "speech" to us. He rather innocently declares that God does not speak to men apart from the proclamation of His word. What does this have to do with our question? Simply this, that Paul did not believe or teach that God would generate thoughts in the minds of men if they had not previously heard the truths of those thoughts. In other words, God apparently does more "arranging" of thoughts than He does of "generating" them. What believer has not had the experience of having a verse of Scripture come suddenly to mind in a time of questioning? How many times has the verse met the need and desire for wisdom? If the verse had not been previously heard, it would not have been brought to mind. Paul clearly felt that the Gospel needed preachers and proclamation for men and women to call upon the name of the Lord. If God "speaks" new truths, what would be the need for the missionary task? From this verse we understand that, if God speaks at all, He does more of bringing to mind truth previously learned than He does of bringing new truth to light.
But there is the following context also. In Romans 10:18 Paul clearly taught that men do, indeed, hear from God apart from the voices of preachers. He says, by quoting Psalm 19:4, that men have all heard from God. But this is not a hearing that consists of an inner voice. It is a hearing that consists of rational logic. Since creation exists, a Creator exists. All, without exception, of the experience of man trains him to look for the cause of the caused. He cannot function that way without becoming liable to God because man's liability before God consists in his knowledge of Him coupled with a refusal to acknowledge Him in obedience and service. Therefore, the voice of God that is without is the rationality of the universe coupled to our sensory perceptions. But this has nothing to say about the inner voices.
So, on the face of it, though limited by Romans 10:14 to the mental arrangement of previously heard truths, James 1:5 seems to demand that we understand that God is in the business of generating mental impressions in people. With this, several texts agree. Proverbs 21:1 declares that the Lord turns the kings heart howsoever He chooses. 2 Corinthians 8:16 pointedly says that God has put concerned interest in people's hearts for others as motivation for their actions (see also Ezra 7:27; Nehemiah 2:12; and Revelation 17:17). In contrast, but with some implications in the same direction, the Bible speaks of Satan putting thoughts and plans into people's minds (John 13:2; Ephesians 2:2-3; Acts 5:3; 1 Chronicles 21:1; Matthew 16:23) as well as taking thoughts out of people's minds (Mark 4:15). If God and Satan both have been known to do this, men's minds must be accessible to them and the formulation of thoughts in them must be one of their options.
It should be noted at this point that though all of the above texts give enough detail to answer our first concern (does God generate mental impressions in the minds of people?), none of them give enough detail to tell us whether the people were aware of the action as to its source. In other words this question yet remains: Did the thoughts arise, like all of the rest of our thoughts do, without any indication as to what their origins were? Did Peter know that it was Satan that had formulated the thoughts that led to his rebuke of His Messiah? Did Ananias and Sapphira know that it was Satan that "filled their hearts to lie to the Holy Spirit"? Does the king know that it is God Who is directing his heart like the terrain guides the river in its course? Does the believer know that it is God Who has generated the thoughts that have led him to his conclusion?
On the face of it, it would seem that ambiguity would be counterproductive. What is the point of having an idea arise, in the face of a need for wisdom, if one cannot tell whence it is? or of whom it is? The answer from Satan's perspective is pretty obvious: it does his cause a great deal of good if we don't know that the notion we are considering arose from his input. On the other hand, however, what is the point of getting an answer in our quest for wisdom if we cannot tell that it is a good answer?
At this point, I want to make this observation: even if a believer does not originally know whence a thought came, he is often able to tell the value of its input rather quickly. This is the "aha!" reality. All of us have had the experience of suddenly seeing with clarity while within the throes of perplexity and a need for insight. Because of the fact that God's Word says that God is in the habit of "commanding the light to shine out of darkness" (2 Corinthians 4), and because that same Word declares that men can "walk in light" (1 John), we have a fairly strong implication that God actually wants us to be at least relatively confident when He is the source of our thoughts.
In fact, the definition of faith as the proper response to the word of God, requires that if God wants us to "have faith", He must make that possible by establishing what is His word and what is not. How can I believe the word of God if I cannot know it is His word?
Along the same line is another common experience of believers. This is the recognition of the wisdom of a course of action that was prompted by a line of thoughts after the results are in. We often marvel at how our circumstances brought us our answer to prayer. But this marveling is only after the fulfillment has come.
But there is one further common experience of believers. This is the frustration of having thought that a plan was such a good idea and had such a good objective, but the circumstances developed in such a way that the plan abjectly failed and the objective remained beyond our grasp.
Therefore, we have three experiential realities with which to contend. The first is that we often think we have suddenly seen clearly ("aha!"). The second is that we often discover after the fact that we actually did see clearly because things worked out according to our expectation. The third is that we often discover after the fact that we were in error in our thinking because things did not work out according to our expectation.
Therefore, it seems that the ambiguity is real at least part of the time, if not most of the time.
This question is probably more pointless than the ambiguity. It should go without saying that God does all things well. Therefore, if He is deliberately ambiguous, He must have a reason. There are at least three of them.
First, Hebrews 5:14 indicates that we have a profound need for training. The author of that text apparently saw the relationship that believers have to God as one in which God is not particularly interested in being "the unmediated Man on call" indefinitely. He actually has a plan to get us to grow up. He actually wants us to become wise people. If God was never ambiguous, and our problems were never significant, we would have a permanent condition of immaturity. But God is adamantly opposed to that as a permanent condition. He has nothing against immaturity -- for the young. But He is angered by the willful persistence of immaturity by those to whom He has given both time and opportunity to grow up.
Now we need to understand, though, what "growing up" means. It never means growing independent. It ever means growing skillful in life, one of the skills of which is learning how to learn without becoming arrogant so that our learning moves us away from God rather than toward Him. So, ambiguity is necessary to provide some motivation for growing into discernment. If we had an "instant answer man" every time we faced a difficulty, we would only learn one thing: ask the answer man. Perpetual immaturity. God does insist that we believe Him, but He does not insist that we make Him repeat Himself over and over and over.
Connected to this is the second good reason for ambiguity: our profound need to learn how to love. God has told us plainly that we are to love Him with (among other things) all of our minds. Always having an unambiguous conversation with omniscience would eliminate the necessity for this kind of love. Why use our minds to seek after God if all we have to do is plop down and have a conversation that will inform us of the answers to all the issues of life? There are multiple commands, demands, exhortations, and praises that are related to the divine insistence that we fill ourselves with the knowledge of His written Word. But we find that process mentally taxing and it is a lot easier to just pray and then claim that "God told me...". Besides that, that leaves us more time to do what we want to do. Fifteen minutes of prayer for guidance, if so easily obtained, sure beats hours of poring over a dry text of words that require all kinds of research to discover truth. The question here is this: if God could only be known by those that love Him with their minds, how many God-knowers would there be? If He is not serious about our mental development, why does He insist upon it? If He really is serious, shouldn't we be? Deliberate ambiguity is not such a bad thing after all.
The other side of love enters into this picture also: that love that we are supposed to be developing for others. How are we to learn to love enough to serve if we are unwilling to do the hard things? Wisdom is a hard thing to achieve, but we cannot serve others as fools. We must become wise if we seek to love others. The easier God makes it for us, the less we learn about love for others. Deliberate divine ambiguity is a delicate balancing act on His part so that, on the one hand, we get the wisdom we need in our present immaturity, but on the other hand that we don't get short-circuited in our need to pursue wisdom for the development of maturity.
The third good reason for ambiguity is our profound need to learn to trust. God has already told us plainly in His written Word that He will guide us with His eye upon us. What need have we of more than such a promise as this? I fear that much of the commitment to trying to get "mental impression guidance" from God is actually motivated by the fear we have of failure -- God's, not ours. He has exhorted us to pray without ceasing, be diligent in our study of His objective Word, and trust that His words are true. If we have a promise of divine guidance, what need have we of a lack of ambiguity? Is God only capable of leading us if He speaks unambiguously to us? It is true that we cannot "believe" what is ambiguous, but it is not true that God cannot lead us unless everything is crystal clear. Clarity is typically a security issue and, since we already have eternal security, what need have we of clarity?
Please note at this point that trust is only something we can have in one of two ways: established objective truth, and/or immediate divine action on our part. Mental impressions will only have the reality of established truth if God steps forward, bypasses all of the normal channels of wisdom, and personally contacts us. When this happens, there is no ambiguity about His contact and there is no doubt about His meaning. But, unless He does that abnormal thing, we cannot trust mental impressions until after history has established their validity. The walk of faith is normally in God's objective Word; it is not normally in our subjective apprehensions of His "will". It is because we have an objectively established promise of His careful guidance that we can risk following subjective impressions -- for He has committed Himself to countering them if they are going to prove to be detrimental to us. Mental impressions can only equal the objective Word as a basis for faith if God personally shows up. Biblically and experientially, He does not do that as the norm except for those He has gifted as mouth pieces (prophets and apostles).
But someone will ask: how do you know that it is not the norm for God "to show up"? My answer? The existence of the Bible and its full complement of demands that we meditate in it day and night. If it was the norm for God to show up personally, that norm would make the Bible and its commands not only redundant, but irrelevant.
I should probably introduce another bug-a-boo here: there is seldom such a thing as unambiguous speech. The Pharisees proved that by developing over 630 commands to explain 2: Love God and your neighbor. We prove that every day in conversation as we fail to track with the person with whom we are speaking. Our commentaries prove it by their mute, but real, testimony to the gazillion interpretations given to the various parts of the Bible.
On the other hand, the fact that we do grasp at least a major part of each other's meaning in our conversations, that our commentaries have a great deal of agreement on some things, and that God is certainly capable of moving us mentally beyond confusion, does mean that true communication does occur.
My point is this: part of the reason for divine ambiguity is the nature of the problems involved in the transference of truth from One Mind to another. To long for the absence of ambiguity is a great longing if the reality underneath it is the desire to love; it's a crying shame if the reality underneath is simply the unbelieving fear of failure by God or ourselves. The former longing will show up in the willingness to study and meditate and invest in learning; the latter will show up in a lot of "God told me" posturing that is followed by a foolish life.
I have concluded that the end of the matter is this: God still "speaks" today, but He masterfully mixes clarity and ambiguity so that we cannot fudge on our responsibility to grow up while He maintains His faithfulness to give us the wisdom we need so that we can. If we will commit to love Him enough to be diligent in our pursuit of His wisdom through His revealed Word, we will find that He will provide sufficient clarity of communication on those occasions where He sees that we are in grave danger of going off track.