A Living Voice

Saint Irenaeus, Wikimedia Commons

I love the worship song, “Good, Good Father” by Chris Tomlin. Mostly what I love about it is the chorus, which is like a chant reminding me of my identity.

You’re a good, good Father
It’s who You are, it’s who You are, it’s who You are
And I’m loved by You
It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am

We often need to be reminded of our identity, because all kinds of influences around us encourage us to think of our identity in different ways. We need the reminder: “I’m loved by you, it’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am.” We need to chant that to ourselves.

But there is a part of the song I don’t particularly like. The very beginning.

Oh, I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think You’re like
But I’ve heard the tender whisper of love in the dead of night
And You tell me that You’re pleased and that I’m never alone
You’re a good, good Father

I’ll admit, I’m not exactly sure what Tomlin is getting at with these lyrics. But what it makes me think of is experience over Scripture. It makes me think: “People keep talking about the Bible, and telling me about God through the stories of Scripture, and that’s all well and good, but what really matters is what God tells me personally in the tender whisper. Some people even have the gall to tell me God is not pleased with certain aspects of my life; they tell me the Bible identifies as sinful certain things about me. But I don’t care what they say; God has whispered to me that he’s pleased with me.”

Obviously, I think that’s destructive theology. Now, let me say again, I don’t know what Tomlin meant by these lyrics, but I can see how they could be easily taken in the way I have just done. So I don’t particularly like them.

In fact, the second-century writer Irenaeus says something relevant here. Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon, Gaul (now France), when he wrote his major work Against Heresies in about AD 180. By that time, Irenaeus already knew about Christian heretics who were doing the very thing I just mentioned, the thing that Chris Tomlin’s lyrics make me think of: replacing Scripture with the whisper of God in my head.

Indeed, when they are exposed by means of the Scriptures, they turn round and make accusations against the Scriptures themselves, as if these were not correct or were not authentic and stated things variously, and that the truth cannot be found in them by those who are ignorant of tradition. They claim the truth was not handed down by writings, but by a living voice, of which matter Paul said, Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom—although it is not the wisdom of this world [1 Cor 2:6]. And each one of them claims as this wisdom that which he discovers by himself, which is really a fiction, so that their truth may fittingly be in Valentinus at one time, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, finally in Basilides, or even in one who disputes against these and would not be able to say anything pertaining to salvation. For each one of them, being totally corrupt, is not ashamed to deprave the rule of truth and preach himself.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.2.1, trans. Unger and Steenberg (2012), p. 31.

Of course, this business about the “living voice” might also remind you of something Papias said, that he’d rather listen to people talk about the apostles than read: “For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice” (τὰ παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς καὶ μενοῦσης).* Of course, Papias was talking about something different from what Irenaeus was talking about. Irenaeus was condemning the practice of listening to the “voice of God” inside your own head, essentially claiming your own voice as God’s voice. Papias was rejoicing in the opportunity to hear the voice of people talking about their personal experiences with heroes of the faith now deceased, just as we might value hearing people describe their impressions of or experiences with … oh, anyone … Elvis Presley, rather than (or in addition to) reading a biography of Elvis, or, perhaps, letters that Elvis wrote.

*This fragment from Papias is preserved by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39. I have used the translation of Holmes, where this fragment is numbered 3.4.

At any rate, the main point of this post is that no matter how spiritual it sounds, we should avoid listening to the voice in our heads if it’s telling us something that Scripture is not telling us. The voice in our heads does not get to override Scripture.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

1 John 4:1

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