Sunday, November 25, 2012

The charismata

Since the issue of cessationism/continuationism has cropped up in the combox, I’m going to briefly revisit the issue.

We should begin with some definitions. I’d distinguish between strong cessationism and moderate cessationism. (These are my own definitions.) Strong cessationism is the view that divine miracles were tied to the era of public revelation. They ceased with the death of the apostles. God doesn’t perform miracles in the post-apostolic church age.

That might strike some readers as quite extreme. Indeed, that might strike some readers as a straw man.

However, this isn’t a purely hypothetical position. For instance, the late Francis Nigel Lee was a learned proponent of this position. And he classifies B. B. Warfield as a proponent of this position, but I find Warfield’s position ambivalent. A classic exponent of this position was Conyers Middleton.

Although this might strike modern readers as a fringe position, it’s my impression that strong cessationism was fairly typical among past Protestant writers. It’s related to the traditional polemic against Rome.

One of the stock arguments for Roman Catholicism is the argument from miracles. Rome claims to be the “church of miracles.”

A straightforward way for Protestant apologists to undercut that claim was to adopt strong cessationism. To simply deny any appeal to ecclesiastical miracles on the grounds that God doesn’t perform modern miracles.

BTW, it’s quite possible that Middleton was a closet Deist who cloaked his Deism in traditional rhetoric against ecclesiastical miracles. Deism was politically risky, so one way of arguing for Deism without tipping your hand would be to use the Church of Rome as your foil. That tactic had unimpeachable theological credentials. It would give you cover.

More common today is what I’ll call moderate cessationism. In the nature of the case, this isn’t quite as clear-cut as strong cessationism. One way of drawing the distinction is to evoke Warfield’s distinction between a miracle-working church and a miracle-working God. Cf. Counterfeit Miracles, 58.

As Warfield goes on to state:

All Christians believe in healing in answer to prayer. Those who assert that this healing is wrought in a specifically miraculous manner, need better evidence for their peculiar view than such as fits in equally well with the general Christian faith (ibid. 187).

First of all, as regards the status quaestionis, let it be remembered that the question is not: (1) Whether God is an answerer of prayer; nor (2) whether, in answer to prayer, He heals the sick; nor (3) whether His action in healing the sick is a supernatural act; nor (4) whether the supernaturalness of the act may be so apparent as to demonstrate God’s activity in it to all right-thinking minds conversant with the facts. All this we all believe. The question at issue is distinctly whether God has pledged Himself to heal the sick miraculously, and does heal them miraculously, on the call of His children–that is to say without means–any means–apart from means, and above means; and this so ordinarily that Christian people may be encouraged, if not required, to discard all means as either unnecessary or even a mark of lack of faith and sinful distrust, and to depend on God alone for the healing of all their sicknesses (ibid. 192-93).

However, this still leaves his position somewhat obscure. He seems to distinguish between divine, supernatural healing, on the one hand, and miraculous healing (defined by healing apart from medical means), on the other hand.

I take it that he’s alluding to the traditional distinction between miracle and providence. If God heals someone in answer to prayer, but utilizes medical science, this is still divine, supernatural healing in these sense that providence is divine and supernatural. But that’s distinct from “miraculous” healing, in the sense of healing “apart from” or “above” medical intervention.

So it’s unclear whether Warfield is open to the possibility of miraculous healing in the modern age. Is he opposing the notion that miraculous healing should be our default setting? That we should count on God to heal us miraculously? That that’s the norm? Or is he opposing miraculous healing in toto?

Cessationists typically oppose the continuation of the “spiritual gifts” or “sign-gifts.” The charismata listed in 1 Cor 12, viz. tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles. On a related note, they typically oppose exorcism or “deliverance” ministries.

Warfield conveniently categorizes the spiritual gifts as miracles of healing, miracles of power, miracles of knowledge, and miracles of speech (ibid. 5).

Tied to both strong and moderate cessationism is the view that the overriding purpose of the charismata was to attest the apostolic kerygma. 

An oddity of Warfield’s position is that it seems to make allowance for miracles outside the church, yet it removes miracles from the community of faith. But isn’t the praying, believing community the natural environment in which God does wonders for his people?

This is perhaps understandable as a hangover from the polemic against Rome, but it’s peculiar to think God might miraculously heal a Christian in a hospital, but exclude healing in a more religious setting, like Jas 5:15-16.

In defense of Warfield, Roman Catholicism lies in the background. For instance, exorcism is traditionally a church office. Minor orders. Spiritual gifts are channeled through the clergy. Warfield was right to oppose that ecclesiastical paradigm.

BTW, some people also think Warfield’s antipathy to “faith-healers” was influenced by personal experience. When they were hiking in the mountains on their honeymoon, Warfield’s newlywed wife was struck by lightning. This did permanent damage to her nervous system, leaving her an invalid or semi-invalid for the rest of her life.  From what I’ve read, her condition went from bad to worse.

In addition, they had a childless marriage. I assume this meant they abstained from conjugal relations because they didn’t think she was up to the physical demands of maternity.

This was a great hardship on both of them. And it’s possible that Warfield personally resented slick faith-healers, given his wife’s pitiful condition, and his own deprivations.

Cessationist opposition to the charismata tends to focus on just a few of the gifts. Moreover, it’s my impression that the emphasis has shifted somewhat over the years. Cessationist literature used to target glossolalia, but nowadays cessationist literature is more likely to target prophecy.

I think there are historical reasons for the shift. On the one hand, Pentecostalism fixates on glossolalia. Every Christian is supposed to speak in tongues. That’s the gateway gift to other gifts. Spirit-baptism is a post-conversion experience, signified by glossolalia. Speaking in tongues is also prevalent in Pentecostal circles because it’s far easier to fake glossolalia than it is to fake the gift of prophecy, healing, or other miracles.

So it was natural for early critics of Pentecostalism to focus on tongues. However, the charismatic movement has broadened over the years.

Nowadays, I think the emphasis has shifted from tongues to prophecy because prophecy is more theologically significant than tongues. Cessationists view modern prophecy as a threat to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.

Charismatic writers are often sensitive to this charge. One way they deflect the charge is to distinguish between canonical prophecy, which is infallible–and the NT “gift of prophecy,” which is fallible. There are some Jewish precedents for that distinction. Cf. D. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Wipf & Stock 2003); C. Keener, “5. The Nature of Prophecy,” Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1–2:47 (Baker 2012), 902-908. They also cite examples of what they take to be fallible Christian prophets in Acts 21:4,11.

Cessationists counter on various grounds. What’s the point of fallible prophecy? Isn’t that innately unreliable?

There’s some merit to that objection. However, prophecy doesn’t have to be prospectively edifying to be retrospectively edifying. Even if you don’t act on it, if it comes true, that’s something you can appreciate after the fact.

O. P. Robertson raises another objection:

So what impact will this ambiguity have on the Christian’s peace of mind? Can a person’s conscience remain guilt-free when he deliberately chooses to disobey a prophetic declaration addressed specifically to him, knowing that the prophet’s directions very likely are based on a revelation from God about his concrete situation? The Final Word (Banner of Truth 2004), 123.

This objection is ironic, for we have a NT illustration of that very thing: Paul blithely disregards a “prophetic” warning (Acts 20:22).

There’s also a tendentious assumption built into Robertson’s objection. We don’t know that the “prophet’s directions very likely are based on a revelation from God.”

There’s a basic difference between the level of confidence I might place in a premonition I had, and the (alleged) premonition of a second party, precisely because his experience isn’t my experience. I’m not directly privy to what he saw, thought he saw, or said he saw.

Robertson raises an additional objection:

It is now appropriate to consider a central OT passage that has significance for understanding the phenomenon of prophecy as it appears in the NT. The classic “prophecy about prophecy” in Joel 2 links the OT experience with the NT phenomenon.

Joel uses the identical term for “prophecy” found throughout the rest of the OT. Does this word suddenly have a new meaning? Is Joel expecting a different kind of prophecy from that described in the foundational passages already considered?...No. Joel draws on the passage in Num 12 which so clearly describes the origin of prophetism in the days of Moses.

So what did Joel expect? What would be the experience of God’s people with respect to prophecy in the future? Joel predicted a widespread manifestation of prophetic revelation in the future. The consummation of the ages would be accompanied by extensive revelatory experiences (ibid. 11-12).

i) It seems to be that Robertson’s appeal to Joel vis-à-vis Acts backfires. Surely the scope of this prophetic promise, which deliberately cuts across demographic boundaries (age, gender social class), in implicit contrast to the more restrictive scope of OT prophetism, directly undercuts his attempt to confine prophecy to canonical prophecy. The referents are hardly limited to apostles or NT writers.

ii) Robertson also fails to draw two crucial, interrelated distinctions:

a) This isn’t talking about propositional revelation, but visionary revelation. Nonverbal rather than verbal revelation.

b) Visionary revelation also subdivides into theorematic revelation, which is representational–and allegorical revelation, which is symbolic. Allegorical visions are inherently ambiguous. That’s why, in Scripture, visionary revelation (especially allegorical dreams and visions) are frequently accompanied by propositional revelation. Inspired interpretation to explain the inspired dream or vision.

The meaning of an allegorical dream may also be clarified by its realization. Suddenly you see how it all falls into place. But, of course, that’s hindsight rather than foresight.

Absent that, it’s easy to see how a Christian prophet or his listeners could misconstrue the dream or vision. And that, of itself, furnishes a principled distinction between infallible canonical revelation and a fallible gift of prophecy.

A lot also depends on content. For instance, a mark of false prophecy is if it contradicts prior revelation.

My own position on modern miracles, healing, and prophecy is that God is unpredictable. We need to take a wait-and-see attitude. We shouldn’t expect God to act miraculously in any given situation, and we shouldn’t expect him not to act miraculously in any given situation. To that degree, I disagree with charismatics and cessationists alike. I don’t think there’s a presumption one way or the other. I don’t think we can anticipate God’s next move in that respect. God takes the initiative.

Up to a point I think it’s good for both sides to make their best exegetical case. That said, I don’t think this is one of those issues we need to debate to death. Every issue can’t be resolved by trading arguments and counterarguments.

It’s like weather forecasting. Will it rain tomorrow? There are probabilistic methods of predicting the weather, with varying decrees of success. Or you can just wait until tomorrow and find out for yourself.

On some issues, our only real source of knowledge is divine revelation. Take the eternal fate of the lost. Even if there are veridical NDEs, even if there are real ghosts, that doesn’t give us any long-term information about the afterlife.

But the situation is different with the charismatic/cessationist debate. If charismatics are right, that should have real-world consequences. If charismatics are wrong, that should have real-world consequences. If cessationists are right, that should have real-world consequences. If cessationists are wrong, that should have real-world consequences.

Both positions, as well as their negations, should be evidentially distinguishable. Have observable implications.

If God’s intentions are what charismatics claim, that should be manifest. Same thing in reverse for cessationists.

And each position has potential downsides in case you’re wrong. If you’re a cessationist, and that’s wrong, you run the risk of living like an atheist. Acting as if God ceased to exist 2000 years ago. In practice, it makes no difference if God does or doesn’t exist. You live your life the same way. The uniformity of nature. A closed causal continuum.

If you’re a charismatic, and you’re wrong, you run the risk of being easily duped and easily disillusioned. Nursing false expectations. Trusting charlatans. Making important decisions based on dumb luck or imaginary leadings. Straining to hear God’s faint voice or squinting to see a divine sign. Blowing real opportunities in a futile quest for manna from heaven.

Admittedly, I’m just scratching the surface in this post. I’ve discussed related issues on other occasions. Here’s my general position on Christian prophecy:

Here’s my general position on the occult and the paranormal:

And here’s my general position on Catholic miracles:


  1. Cessationists counter on various grounds. What’s the point of fallible prophecy? Isn’t that innately unreliable? There’s some merit to that objection. However, prophecy doesn’t have to be prospectively edifying to be retrospectively edifying. Even if you don’t act on it, if it comes true, that’s something you can appreciate after the fact.

    Steve, maybe others will not understand your point like I don't. I thought you were talking about fallible prophecies that could fail to come true.

  2. A fallible prophecy isn't synonymous with a false prediction. Fallible just means it could be mistaken, not that it is mistaken. Fallible prophecies can either be true or false.

    1. I was thinking that that's what you meant. But then I figured that it might not be what you meant because it doesn't seem to answer the Cessationists question, "What's the point of fallible prophecy?" Sure, it need not be in error or fail to come true, but if some do fail, what then? What use are prophecies that may or may not come to pass? Jean Dixson can pass that criteria.

  3. It seems to me:

    1. Even if Sola Scriptura wasn't (and couldn't be) in operation, Summa Scriptura *was* during times when public inspired and infallibe Revelation was still being given by God (during both OT and NT times).

    2. That OT prophets usually needed to develop a reputation for being accurate as prophets (in 1. fullfillment of foretellings, 2. correspondence to truth/fact in words of knowledge, 3. orthodox with respect to the currently recognized Scripture by the Covenant community as the canon was growing). To the degree that their reputation of past accuracy (and godliness) had grown, to THAT degree that were to be believed/heeded.

    That's why there were schools of the prophets where the "sons of the prophets" could be trained. That's why it's recorded that AS Samuel GREW, the LORD didn't allow his words "fall to the ground" (1 Sam. 3:19) so as to establish him as a reliable prophet. Otherwise, once a person had been recognized as someone through whom God had (at least once) spoken through, then that would mean he would INSTANTLY become infallible and must be obeyed from then on out. But if that's the case, then how could we fault the prophet of Judah in 1 King 13:7ff. who heeded the temptations of a formerly accurate prophet of Jehovah from Bethel? Ironically, after the incident he DOES again accurately prophesy for Jehovah about the first prophet's doom for disobeying God. OT prophets weren't themselves personally infallible.

    In one sense, the Covenant community of Jehovah/YHWH authenticated the messages of prophets and the prophets themselves (as those prophets gained a reputation for accuracy). Just as the OT prophets could, at times, authenticate alleged newer revelations (whether it be written or verbal, in vision or dream, or angelic message) or traditions. It was a spiraling authentication.

    Also people were responsible and accountable for what they already were convinced of as coming from the LORD. That's why the prophet of Judah in 1 Kings 13 was condemned for disobedience. He knew from direct revelation that he wasn't supposed to eat or drink or return to where he came from. All this was even more true during Apostolic times with the Apostles and anyone else who operated in the charismatic gifts. That's why Paul could say, "we [he included himself] prophesy in part". Why Paul said to "test all things [including prophecies]", Why John commanded his readers to "test the spirits". Even though Paul was acknowledged as a genuine apostle by the consensus of the Church, he was still subject to having his message evaluated (Gal. 1:8) by the covenant community (i.e. the received Gospel) and by Scripture (Acts 17:11).

    By Scripture, because it was the highest source of authority in the covenant community. Since that was true during the life of the apostles, how much more after their passing. Hence, the principle of Sola Scriptura whereby Scripture alone is the sole infallible and inerrant rule of faith and practice for the post Apostolic Church. That's why as a continuationist and charismatic, I disagree with some charismatics who claim that there are Apostles with the EXACT same prerogatives as OT prophets and NT apostles. If that were true, then the Canon could be added to at any time.

    Btw, Amos is an example of an exception to the rule that prophets were usually trained or required a period of time for them to gain a reputation for accuracy. I'm not sure whether his prophecies were instantly recognized as inspired. Regardless, maybe his book/prophecy was accepted as from God and his book eventually added to the Canon because of 1. the fulfilled prophecies, 2. it was authenticated by some other prophet who already had a reputation of being God ordained and reliable, 3. the covenant community because of 1 and 2.

  4. My point in saying the above is that if cessationists are going to say that fallible prophecies and fallible prophets are useless, then that would prove too much since it would make it difficult to understand how prophecy worked and how prophets lived in the OT.

    OT prophets could still sin.

    Moses sinned by striking the rock a second time (Num. 20:11-12).

    Sin can include declaring false prophecies/revelations (cf. the prophet of Bethel 1 Kings 13).

    Nathan the prophet could give bad advice (1 Chron. 17:2-4).

    The prophet Micaiah seems to have falsely prophesied sarcastically, even if only temporarily (1 Kings 22:15ff.//2 Chron 18:14ff.).

    Jeremiah lied about a conversation he had with king Zedekiah (Jer. 38:24ff.).

    Elisha legitimately used subterfuge (2 Kings 6:19). This shows how prophets would sometimes "finesse the truth". He did a similar thing regarding his prophecy to Ben-Hadad through Hazael (2 Kings 8:10ff.).

    Finally God was not averse to using people with bad character to deliver prophecies (cf. Balak Num. 22-24).

    That's for now. I don't want to hog the blog.

  5. i) I used the phrase “fallible prophecy” because some charismatics use that expression to distinguish Biblical prophecy from the Christian gift of prophecy (e.g. Acts 2; 1 Cor 12-14).

    That’s not my preferred terminology.

    ii) As I mentioned before, we need to distinguish between visionary revelation and propositional revelation. Joel’s promise specifies visionary revelation rather than propositional revelation.

    iii) Strictly speaking, visions can’t be true or false. Mental images don’t make truth-claims. Mental images don’t assert anything to be (or not be) the case. Even if visions are intended to be referential, a vision qua vision doesn’t tell you what the imagery refers to.

    Take Pharaoh’s dream of the well-nourished cattle and the malnourished cattle. By itself, that doesn’t tell you if the representation is meant to be past or future. It doesn’t tell you what real-world analogue the cattle correspond to.

    iv) There are only to ways of understanding the prophetic dream:

    a) If the dream is verbally interpreted

    b) If, in retrospect, what’s depicted comes to pass

    Either words or events can interpret the dream.

    v) We can also distinguish between external and internal interpreters. Dreams and visions can contain (spoken) words as well as images. It’s possible for some dreams and visions to be internally interpreted by a speaker within the dream or vision. Sometimes the dreamer may ask a character in the dream what the imagery means or signifies.

    vi) Strictly speaking, only propositional prophecy can be true or false. Propositions make truth-claims. Propositions assert something to be (or not be) the case.

    vii) These distinctions are also important in debates over the inerrancy of biblical prophecy. Critics carelessly allege that some Bible prophecies failed. But other questions aside, they would need to identify the type of prophecy. Strictly speaking, visionary revelation doesn’t make predictions. Only propositional revelation makes predictions. For visionary revelation to be predictive, you need something over and above the bare imagery.

    You need verbal interpretation, or you need to be able to compare the imagery with the future event once the future is past.

    And there can be other complicating factors. Biblical prophets use stock imagery.

    In addition, you have allegorical dreams. An allegory is a type of analogy. Analogies involve disanalogies. So one must understand what the dream or vision was meant to allegorize.

  6. Paul blithely disregards a “prophetic” warning (Acts 20:22).

    In my experience, that's not what most continuationists attempt to use that text to prove. Generally they want to say that Agabus' prophecy was actually incorrect, and they then argue that NT prophecy doesn't have to fulfill the 100% criterion.

    Also, Agabus' prophecy was a foretelling of the future; it was not a command or a "word from the Lord" of the type as many claim today. A prophecy about what will happen is not binding on the conscience as a command from the Lord is, but a "prophetic command" from the Lord seems to me to be much more potentially damaging than a "mere" prophecy of a future occurrence.

    1. Rhology

      "In my experience, that's not what most continuationists attempt to use that text to prove. Generally they want to say that Agabus' prophecy was actually incorrect, and they then argue that NT prophecy doesn't have to fulfill the 100% criterion."

      I made the observation in describing the continuationist argument.

      "Also, Agabus' prophecy was a foretelling of the future; it was not a command or a 'word from the Lord' of the type as many claim today."

      Of course, a common problem in pop charismatic circles is to define the terminology in 1 Cor 12 by reference to their personal experience rather than exegesis.

      "A prophecy about what will happen is not binding on the conscience as a command from the Lord is..."

      That's a valid distinction. Assuming the prediction is correct, it tells you what to expect, not what to do. It prepares you for the outcome. You know the consequences ahead of time. A kind of advance informed consent.

      Of course, that raises the question of whether the prophecy refers to the actual future or a hypothetical future. How you respond to the prophecy will, itself, factor into the future outcome. You might take it as a warning, and not go down that path. In which case an alternate future will eventuate.

    2. Rhology, I was going to point out the same distinction. Jack Deere (like other continuationsts) makes the following distinctions:

      1. true or false REVELATION,
      2. true or false INTERPRETATION of a revelation
      3. true or false APPLICATION of a revelation

      In his book The Beginners Guide to the Gift of Prophecy he gives an example of how he (allegedly) received a revelation from God and how he BOTH misinterpreted it and misapplied it.

      I posted that excerpt from his book here at THIS FORUM

  7. If you’re a cessationist, and that’s wrong, you run the risk of living like an atheist. Acting as if God ceased to exist 2000 years ago. In practice, it makes no difference if God does or doesn’t exist. You live your life the same way. The uniformity of nature. A closed causal continuum.

    I don't see it that way.
    Rather, you live as if the Word of God is sufficient to tell you how to have eternal life and tell you how to live, and you can be open to God being unpredictable, but you don't think that God gives out those gifts anymore such that people could routinely perform them.
    One could do a heckuvalot worse than thinking the Word of God is sufficient, and that is the farthest thing from being an atheist.

    1. That conclusion only follows if cessationism is right, not if cessationism is wrong. So you're making a different argument.

      Also, both sides agree that Scripture is sufficient. The question is: sufficient for what? Scripture is sufficient for its intended purpose, but that doesn't prejudge the scope of Biblical sufficiency, which is where cessationists and continuationists divide.

      For instance, Scripture isn't sufficient for automechanics, but then, it's not supposed to be sufficient for that purpose. So that's not a deficiency.

      If, say, continuationists are right about Joel 2, then they'd fold that into the sufficiency of Scripture, for that promise is, itself, a Scriptural promise, and the rest of Acts contains examples of dreams and visions which furnish special guidance.

      One can challenge their interpretation, but that's a different argument.

    2. Sorry, Alan, but I perceive the Demon of Doubt lurking behind your objection. I'm afraid I must turn you over to a deliverance ministry. It's for your own good. I left a call with Bob Larson's girls to pay you a visit.

    3. I rebuke you. Shondai.

  8. I believe your base of operations is near the cuckooland of ORU, so the kind of Pentecostalism you normally encounter isn’t the nuanced, guarded version of painstaking academics like Keener and Fee, but the Bob Larson/slain-in-the-Spirit variety.

  9. In reference to these issues I would recommend an important article by Vern Poythress entitled “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts:
Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit
 within Cessationist Theology.” Especially take note of the distinction between “process” and “content.” Poythress distinguishes between “discursive” and “nondiscursive” processes. Also, he makes a distinction between “teaching” and “circumstantial” content. Poythress’ analysis is nuanced and subtle.

  10. "I believe your base of operations is near the cuckooland of ORU, so the kind of Pentecostalism you normally encounter isn’t the nuanced, guarded version of painstaking academics like Keener and Fee, but the Bob Larson/slain-in-the-Spirit variety."

    Steve, why are you minimizing the "slain-in-the-Spirt" phenomenon? Given your wait-and-see approach, shouldn't you be open to the possibility that it is legitimate?

    1. No, "wait and see" doesn't mean open to any conceivable possibility. "Wait and see" means we don't know if or when God will act miraculously. That's different from what God might or might not do. What God might or might not do is constrained by Biblical paradigms.

  11. Are you saying that God would never knock a person down by the power of the Holy Spirit in certain settings? Have you never spoken to someone you thought was credible speak of such an experience?

  12. You're coming at this backwards. I'm not starting with putative charismatic phenomena in modern times, then using Scripture to rubberstamp that claim.

    As I've discussed in my analysis of Joel, I'm starting with a Scriptural promise, the terms of which are narrowly delineated. It's not anything goes.

    And for the record, I once attended a service like that. The speaker motioned his hand sideways, and the audience flopped over like dominoes. Except for me. I didn't budge.

    That was just showmanship. Working a crowd. Mob psychology. A conditioned response.

  13. Steve, do you have a general position paper on modern day tongues?