First published on Christian Controverser
Signs and Wonders refers to a particular branch of theology that has become noticeably prominent since about the 1960s in certain churches of a Pentecostal disposition or alignment. The main charge that traditional theologians often level against Pentecostals are that particular doctrines or beliefs and practices in Pentecostal (or Pentecostal-aligned, e.g. charismatic) churches are more a product of subjective experience of their members rather than arrived at by applying sound theological reasoning or principles. Some church leaders have therefore questioned whether Pentecostalist theology is well formed or credible. A key question levelled in the case of “signs and wonders” is whether it places an excessive degree of emphasis upon the observation of these charismatic experiences over core doctrines of faith, given that the experiences concerned have only been observed for specific and often relatively short periods, compared to the centuries over which key dogma and doctrines of established churches have been formulated. The Pentecostal movement as it is known today is generally recognised to have originated in the USA in the year 1901, and therefore churches with Pentecostal affiliations or leanings have not existed for as great a length of time as some churches with solid and prominent theological records such as the Roman Catholic or Anglican Churches. Relatively few churches of a Pentecostal flavour in the present era are keen to associate with that label and often prefer to emphasise their affiliation to some named denomination which, in turn, does not directly refer to Pentecostalism within its statement of beliefs. Some of this is undoubtedly due to pejorative denigration of Pentecostalism within the wider evangelical and associated Christian communities, as there remains a considerable level of controversy therein especially over charismatic spiritual gifts and whether they are relevant for today.
There is a section of the book of Joel that refers to a specific theme of dreams and visions. This section is from ch.2 v.28 which reads “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (New International Version). This scripture is often quoted by Pentecostal or Charismatic preachers as evidence that God will inspire people to have dreams and visions about their future. In turn, this theme has been pursued to considerable extent in the specific ministries of numerous prominent evangelists and pastors, including a number who have regular TV programmes on major Christian cable/satellite networks such as CBN, TBN, etc. The purpose of this post is mostly to address dream/vision theology and probably less about signs and wonders as a whole, but both are commonly associated in Pentecostal/Charismatic doctrine as a whole since the references to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-31, which quotes the same passage from Joel as referred to previously. Generally, believers who adhere to the P/C signs and wonders teaching tend to regard dreams and visions as being in line with supernatural revelation of their direction in life, so they are often considered to be a type of sign.
To be able to understand the theological gravity of a particular passage of scripture, the first question that has to be asked is whether the original context of the passage has been considered and whether it is relevant. Taking a scriptural verse out of context is a common issue that often creates problems with what seem to be contradictions between different passages in the Bible that have different meanings when the context is properly understood. The Book of Joel is somewhat difficult to interpret for context as the exact period of history to which it refers is unclear (scholars having produced several possible scenarios). One of the possible periods is around 520-500 BC at the time when Zechariah and Haggai were actively involved in the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the Second Temple. The conclusion for the purpose of this post is that context is probably not relevant, partly because this is not the sole reference in Scripture to dreams and visions and does not appear to be contradicted by any other references.
The next question one should ask is whether there are other Scriptural references to God’s people having dreams and visions and whether they refer to all believers. In fact it is the case that dream/vision references are found throughout Scripture. Some of the most commonly cited examples in P/C circles are those held in relation to dispensationalism such as the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. One immediate issue is that the Scriptural record inevitably runs out at about 100 AD, the time when Revelation was written, and the other is that dreams and visions recorded in the Scriptures are generally only documented for specific people of high stature in the Biblical account. The first situation lends itself immediately to the propagation of a theology called cessationalism in which supernatural gifts are held to have ceased after the New Testament was written. In the case of the second, the particular relevance of the Joelian unction could well be interpreted that it may only apply to a specific subset of believers. Athough the first part of Joel 2:28 emphasises that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all believers, the following sentences do not say that all will have dreams or visions (or prophesy), and in fact impose qualification as to which people will have dreams, which will have visions and which will prophesy. This lends itself to the suggestion that not everyone will be able to have dreams or visions, or alternately that the references could be to a particular kind of dream or vision that only certain people will experience.
Dr Ray Pritchard, president of Keep Believing Ministries, alludes to these concepts in an article posted on his website in 1993. As he writes “For every one person who gets the dreams and the visions and the supernatural signs, there are another hundred who go for years and even for a lifetime and never have anything mystical or seemingly supernatural happen at all.” Even if real life experience is that anyone can receive a dream or vision, not limiting it to the specific classes given in the Joelian text, there can also be a significant variation in the frequency or depth of these experiences, as Pritchard notes. That is one qualification that should be applied to a dreams and visions theology, Another key issue is the need for believers to have visions confirmed by the word of two or three witnesses. This principle is well established in Scripture and draws upon the Mosaic Law as stated in Deuteronomy chapters 17 and 19. It is stated explicitly in 2 Corinthians 13:1 as “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” and is generally accepted as being of a universal context to many aspects of Christian life. A third qualification to be considered in relation to dreams and visions is whether they are likely to be achievable in the life of the intended recipient. For example, if a mute person receives a dream or vision that involves speaking God’s word, the fulfilment of it obviously relies on receiving their voice, whether by supernatural or natural means. What then should they do if a resolution of this limitation does not occur within a specific timeframe? Should they simply continue to wait until it does, or should they ask for another vision of what to do whilst they are waiting? The last issue to be considered in this context is whether a person’s dream/vision will have a long or short term application and how long the season of this dream/vision will last. Some people have had to give up ministries when unexpected circumstances intervened, such as if serious illness occurred or missionaries were expelled by the host country.
At its heart, this post is not intended to deny that people may have dreams and visions; the intention is to note that neither the Bible or human experience are unequivocally in support of this particular theological teaching. The key danger is that as with many other theologies that are taught in Pentecostal or Charismatic churches, people who are not receiving or realising a vision will be told that it is because they do not have enough faith or their faith is not authentic or troubled in some way. There are many possible reasons why a person may not receive or realise a vision, with the four flags outlined above needing to be considered. Having a vision confirmed by the testimony of witnesses is certainly important but may not be realised immediately, however it is certainly wise to seek godly counsel of leaders in uncertain situations as they can also look at some of the other issues raised above. The most important question is whether churches teaching dream/vision theology are sufficiently experienced in the issue to be able to give appropriate support to their members on the subject.