On Still Small Voices And Allegories

 The truth is the God is not going to tell you directly, privately, through a “still, small voice” whether to attend this college or that, whether to take this job or that, or to marry this person or not. He has commanded us to work. He has told us to fulfill our vocation in this world, to love God with all our faculties and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Education is a good thing. Which school to attend is a prudential judgment. Which person to marry comes down to the way one answers some important questions: is your intended a believer? Are you prepared to live with and love this person for the rest of your life?”

 

One of the first things I learned when I became an evangelical Christian in 1976, the year America elected a self-proclaimed “Born Again” Christian, Jimmy Carter), was that every Christian should expect to hear a “still small voice” from God. I learned this phrase from the King James Version (1611) of 1 Kings 19:12 long before I ever learned the location of the phrase in Scripture and long before I learned anything about the context of the phrase. I entered American evangelical theology, piety, and practice entirely naive about the history of the revivalism and Pietism. Rather, I was given to think that every Christian receives direct revelations from the Holy Spirit, specific guidance as to what to do in a given situation. Sometimes it was said or implied that whether one heard God’s “still, small voice” was determined by the degree of one’s faith. More typically, however, it was said or implied that hearing God’s still, small voice is a spiritual discipline not unlike proficiency in high-technology. The noise of life, perhaps our successes, it is said, can drown out God’s voice but if we quiet ourselves, if we attend to God, we can “tune out” the background noise and “tune in” to the Spirit’s still, small voice.

This question recently arose at a conference at which I spoke—I do not recall which one and it does not particularly matter. I try to collect the question and answer cards so that I can address those that we do not get to during the conference and this one was at the top of the pile on my desk.

That this use of 1 Kings 19 is so widely accepted is a testament to the pervasiveness of allegorical interpretation of Scripture among evangelicals and even among those who profess the Reformed faith. Beginning in the 3rd century (at least) there began to develop a way of reading Scripture that sought to ask and answer from a passage what it says about faith (doctrine), hope (eschatology), and love (ethics). These are good questions but the way by which the answers were often derived in the (late) Patristic and medieval periods were found wanting by the Reformers. They criticized this approach to Scripture because it sometimes assumed that a text must have embedded within it multiple senses. Second, they criticized it because it tended to ignore the literal or historical sense of the text in favor of one of the figurative (doctrinal, eschatological, or moral) senses. It was not that they did not know that there was a historical sense (the did) but that too often it was less interesting to them than the putative figurative senses. They were less interested in what the text intended to say in its original context or even in its broader redemptive-historical context.

The attraction of the figurative senses is as strong today as it was then. The real question behind the search for the figurative senses is one: what does the text mean to me or for me? It is one thing to ask, “What does this passage, taken in its original context, accounting for the intent of the human author—so far as possible—and the divine author–so far as the text allows us to determine it—teach us about what we ought to believe, for what we ought to hope, and how we ought to live?” and quite another to ignore the original context or worse, mention that context and then apply it as though the original context and intent is irrelevant. In some ways, the latter approach is even more dangerous because it is practical identical to the first but covers itself with a fig leaf of respectability. In truth, neither approach cares to allow original intent or the original context to govern how the text is understood and applied. To move from 1 Kings 19 to post-canonical “still, small voices” is an allegorical reading i.e., a figurative interpretation seeking a doctrine, of which Origen or Ambrose of Milan would be proud.1

I doubt that John Chrysostom used this text this way because he was so committed to the original intent and context of the text of Scripture. The first point to be made here is that neither you nor I are Elijah. This passage is not about you or me. It speaks to us about how God delivered Elijah but it is not about us.

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