When God Speaks Back Today: Divine Revelation After the Bible
Contemporary Christians learn of God’s revelation through Scripture, and while denominations disagree on some parts of the scriptural canon, the belief that nothing may be added after the New Testament is prevalent among believers. This tenet is founded on the notion that Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfilled what divine revelation was meant to proclaim regarding our salvation. Both Pope Paul VI, who promulgated a major document regarding the Catholic position on divine revelation, and Wayne Grudem, a Calvinist who wrote one of the most widely-used introductory theology textbooks, support this claim with the opening lines of the Book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.” The finality in these verses speaks to the culmination of God’s redemptive work in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Hence, to claim that there is need for further revelation beyond that of Jesus’ life and teachings is to suggest that He does not complete God’s plan for our redemption—a claim that contradicts the essence of our faith. The sufficiency of Christ is at the heart of the Gospel.
However, multiple denominations today still deem instances in which devotees experience visions, prophecies, and other supernatural phenomena as divinely inspired. Behind these occurrences is the belief that divine revelation is not a thing of the past—that God actively communicates with us in perceivable ways even today. The Roman Catholic Church still tries to uphold the sentiment once expressed by Saint Augustine in reference to visions: “Why should we not believe these to be angelic operations through dispensation of the providence of God?” Vern Poythress, a theologian associated with the Presbyterian Church in America, acknowledges that there is a fallibility of modern prophecies as opposed to the Old Testament ones, but that there is “an analogical justification for the use of these gifts in the church today.” And the Pentecostal congregation Assemblies of God USA affirms that there is an “essential link” between being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. But if we are not meant to dismiss these revelations, then what value do they hold?
The framework that the Catholic Church, of which I am a member, has built to make sense of these occurrences within its ranks is one that distinguishes between public and private revelation. While the former, which comprises of Scripture and apostolic tradition as manifested in the authority of the Church, is binding on all believers, the latter is binding only on those who receive it. Visions, apparitions, prophecies, and so on fall under the second category. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expands on their purpose as follows: “It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history . . . Christian faith cannot accept ‘revelations’ that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment.” The Catechism’s position on private revelation is consistent with both the theological concept of the sufficiency of Christ and Paul’s prescriptive claim that prophecy exists so that “the church may be edified.”
Historically, the Catholic Church has recognized two main sources of private revelation. First, there are the mystical experiences of faithful men and women who have been proposed for sainthood. These are commonly associated with lives devoted to prayer and service. The second kind comes through apparitions experienced by individuals who need not be spiritually mature, but have received their visions as a gift from God to His people. It seems easier to believe in the authenticity of the first kind of private revelation, since the exemplary and steadfast commitment of these mystics to God suggests they would be particularly sensitive to the movements of the Holy Spirit.
Such is the case of the mystic Helena Kowalska, now known as St. Faustina. Faustina was born into a humble peasant family in the heart of Poland. As reported in her Diary, she experienced visions of Jesus throughout her life. Faustina recounts that she felt drawn to religious life from age seven, but when she asked her parents to let her join a convent at age eighteen, they utterly refused. Disappointed by their decision, Faustina turned herself over to worldly pursuits, only to find no comfort in her heart due the intensity with which she felt her call. The Lord first appeared to Faustina while she was at a dance with her sister:
As I began to dance, I suddenly saw Jesus at my side, Jesus racked with pain, stripped of His clothing, all covered with wounds, who spoke to me: “How long shall I put up with you and for how long will you keep putting me off?” [I] begged the Lord to be good enough to give me to understand what I should do next. Then I heard these words: “Go at once to Warsaw; you will enter a convent there.”
This powerful experience caused Faustina to run away from her house and move to Warsaw, where she was accepted into a convent right away. St. Faustina continued to receive guidance from her visions of Jesus until her death. The recurring theme in Faustina’s visions is that of mercy—the Lord called her to “speak to the world about [His] great and unfathomable mercy.” Through her visions, Jesus related the message that he wanted her to convey to others: “even if the sins of souls were dark as night, when the sinner turns to My mercy, he gives Me the greatest praise and is the glory of My Passion.” Obedient to God’s call, St. Faustina shared her revelations of mercy and fulfilled the mission commanded to her. Today she is known in the Catholic Church as the source of the devotion to the Divine Mercy of Jesus.
Catholic devotions are distinct practices of piety such as prayers, hymns, and observances attached to particular times, places, insignia, medals, habits, or customs, all of which are meant to reflect a particular aspect in the relationship between the Church and God, the Virgin Mary, or the Saints. They are set apart due to their strong appeal to emotion and the straightforward messages they convey. In particular, the devotion to the Divine Mercy of Jesus is mainly comprised of an image of Jesus and a Feast—a commemorative date in the liturgical calendar—annually set for the Sunday after Easter. The image of the Divine Mercy is well-known even outside Catholic circles. It is based on Faustina’s vision from February 22nd, 1931, and portrays Jesus dressed in a white garment, with two rays emanating from His chest—one red and one white, symbolizing the water and blood which poured from His side when it was pierced by a spear during His crucifixion. The goal of the Church in declaring the Divine Mercy a devotion was to underscore the centrality of this quality of Jesus. Its propagation allows for an increased number of devotees to focus on His mercy and more easily apply the implications of this principle to their lives. This is how St. Faustina’s visions served to edify the Church.
As for private revelations experienced by individuals who may not be spiritually mature, the Church must strike a balance between being cautious and embracing the Pauline call: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” In this spirit, Pope Paul VI approved in 1978 a document titled “Norms regarding the proceedings in the discernment of presumed apparitions or revelations,” with the purpose of establishing a set procedure to deal with the hundreds of visions that were being reported to the Church. Out of the over 1,500 apparitions of the Virgin Mary that have been reported around the world in the past century, the Vatican has only deemed nine as worthy of belief. This does not mean that the Church can vouch for their occurrence, but rather that, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “[Their] message contains nothing contrary to faith and morals; it is licit to make [them] public and the faithful are authorized to give [them] their prudent adhesion.” Veneration of Mary is a pillar of the faith for many Catholics, and Marian apparitions which have been endorsed by the Church completely transform the locality in which they took place into an epicenter of devotion.
A touching example of the impact that a Marian apparition has had on a place is that of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The story of Guadalupe dates back to the sixteenth century, when the Virgin appeared to a native Mexican peasant in Tepeyac Hill (near what is now Mexico City) and requested a shrine to her to be built there. An ancient indigenous account of this event appears in the Nahuatl text Nican Mopohua, written by the native writer Antonio Valeriano and later published by the vicar of the chapel at Tepeyac. The story of the Virgin’s visit contributed to the conversion of hun dreds of thousands of Mexicans during colonial times. Today, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, built to honor this apparition, is one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world. Millions of these visits take place during an annual pilgrimage around December 12. This is another story of an episode of private revelation that has served to invigorate the faith of countless people.
One need not to be a member of the Catholic Church to recognize the value of the framework it uses to think of divine revelation. The strict distinction the Church establishes between public and private revelation is a testament to the theological principle of the sufficiency of Christ. At the same time, the Church leaves room to embrace private revelation when it serves the purpose of advancing the message of Christ and bringing people closer to faith in Him. Jesus, the Word incarnate, who “is the same yesterday and today and forever,” continues to speak to us in different ways. To think that God cannot reveal Himself to us even today is to question His dominion over all space and time. So let us keep our ears, our eyes, our minds, and our hearts open.
1 Pope Paul VI, Dei Verbum: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, section 4.
2 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, chapter 3.
3 Hebrews 1:1–2 ESV.
4 St. Augustine, On Care to Be Had for the Dead, section 16.
5 Vern S. Poythress, “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology,” accessed 4 Apr 2016, http://frame-poythress.org/modern-spiritual-gifts-as-analogous-to-apostolic-gifts-affirming-extraordinary-works-of-the-spirit-within-cessationist-theology/.
6 “Questions about Tongues,” Assemblies of God, accessed 4 Apr 2016, http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/topics/baptmhs_faq_tongues.cfm.
7 Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 67.
8 1 Corinthians 14:5.
9 “Apparitions/Private Revelations,” Eternal Word Television Network, accessed 4 Apr 2016, https://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/apparitions.htm.
10 Divine Mercy in My Soul: Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, Stockbridge, MA (Marian Press, 2011).
11 Ibid., 7.
12 Ibid., 94.
13 Ibid., 172.
14 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, section 8.
15 Herbert Thurston, “Popular Devotions,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed 7 Apr 2016, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12275b.htm.
16 John 19:34.
17 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21.
18 “Vatican publishes rules for verifying visions of Mary,” National Catholic Reporter, accessed 4 Apr 2016, http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/vatican-publishes-rules-verifying-visions-mary.
19 Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, section 14.
20 “A pilgrimage to Mexico to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe,” National Catholic Reporter, accessed 9 Apr 2016, http://ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/pilgrimage-mexico-honor-our-lady-guadalupe.
21 “Our Lady of Guadalupe: Historical Sources,” Eternal Word Television Network, accessed 9 Apr 2016, https://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/LADYGUAD.HTM.
22 “Shrine of Guadalupe most popular in the world,” Eternal Word Television Network, accessed 9 Apr 2016, http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/ZSHRINE.HTM.
23 John 1:14.
24 Hebrews 13:8.
Marcos Martinez (CC’16) was born and raised in Paraguay, where he learned the value of people, pets, and air conditioners. He considers himself as spontaneous as an INTJ, Economics-Mathematics major can be. God keeps surprising him day after day with His faithfulness, and he hopes to convey some of that through CC&C.Tags: Antonio Valerian, Augustine, Catholicism, Helena Kowalska, mercy, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Paul VI, prayer, Vern Poythress, Wayne Grudem