Sunday, August 11, 2013

Apostolic signs

The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works (2 Cor 12:12).
This is a favorite cessationist prooftext. 
i) Keep in mind that Paul was always a bit defensive about his apostleship. That's because he didn't have the same direct connection to the earthly life and ministry of Christ as did the Twelve disciples, or Christ's stepbrothers (e.g. James, Jude). He had to fight for a place at the table.
By his own admission, his apostleship was somewhat anomalous (1 Cor 15:8). His apostleship is a throwback to the OT prophetic model. A special divine calling, with a visionary commission (a la Isa 6; Ezk 1).
So his emphasis in 2 Cor 12:12 is due in part to the fact that his opponents put him on the defensive. 
ii) When Paul calls these apostolic signs, does he mean these are apostolic distinctives? Given the fact that in writing to the same church, Paul said garden-variety Christians could work miracles (1 Cor 12:10-11,28-29), that's clearly not what he had in mind.
Rather, he seems to mean that we should expect no less from an apostle. And here he's taking a swipe at the spiritual pretensions of his opponents.  
iii) We also need to define our terms, beginning with Pauline terminology. "Signs and wonders" is a stock phrase from OT usage, with special reference to the paradigmatic miracles by which God delivered the Israelites from Egypt.
iv) In the nature of the case, for a miracle to be a "sign" or "sign-gift," it must be something outside observers can see or hear from themselves. A public event. A visible, audible, or tactile manifestation of God's power. It can't be an essentially private type of experience. A private experience can still be miraculous, but not be significatory. 
v) There's also the matter of how cessationism needs to define its terms or classify the charismata. Cessationism denies modern prophecy. That includes God speaking to people or through people as well as revelatory dreams and visions. So cessationism must define or classify prophetic phenomena of this sort as miraculous signs or sign-gifts. 
vi) In addition, cessationism must index the sign-gifts or miraculous signs to the apostles, in order to then say these expired when the apostles expired. 
vii) One of the problems with the cessationist claim is that the ability to perform miracles or receive the charismata isn't unique to the apostles. But in that event, miracles aren't clearly apostolic indicia. And since they aren't uniquely linked to apostolicity, there's no reason to think they must expire when the apostles expire. 
viii) A related problem with the cessationist claim is that NT miracles aren't confined to "sign-gifts." For instance, revelatory dreams and visions are private rather than public revelation. Only the individual recipient is directly privy to this experience. As such, you can't say the only function of miracles is to legitimate the message or the messenger. For divine authentication would only work if the accreditation process was open to public inspection. 
Let's consider some potential objections to my argument, from Warfield's classic defense of cessationism:
This does not mean, of course, that only the Apostles appear in the NT as working miracles, or that they alone are represented as recipients of the charismata. But it does mean that the charismata belonged, in a true sense, to the Apostles, and constituted one of the signs of an Apostle. Counterfeit Miracles (Banner of Truth 1983), 21.
It's revealing to see how Warfield tries to skate over ostensible counterevidence to his position. But it's far from clear, at least from this statement, how he can have it both ways. Either the charismata do or do not demarcate apostles from non-apostles. Either their exercise and reception stand in contrast to nonapostles or not. It's hard to see how they can single out the Apostate unless they are reserved for apostles. But perhaps Warfield is foreshadowing an argument he will deploy on the next page. 
Apparently they had all received the power of working signs by the laying on of the Apostles' hands at their baptism (22). 
Warfield doesn't explain how that's apparent from the record of Acts. His assumption cuts against the grain of Joel's prophecy and the case of Cornelius. 
Only in the two great initial instances of the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost and the reception of Cornelius are charismata recorded as conferred without the laying on of hands (21-22).
i) These aren't just "initial" instances. Pentecost, as well as Joel's prophecy, which underwrites that event, is programmatic for the church age. That inaugurates the new covenant, and sets the stage for what follows. Certainly there's no reason to think that's a temporary state of affairs. To the contrary, it's the old covenant that's temporary, that's been superseded by the new. The age of promise has given way to the age of fulfillment. So the reader would naturally expect Acts 2:17ff. to signal the new status quo.
ii) Likewise, the case of Cornelius is not an isolated incident, but functions as a representative example of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the new covenant. An entire people-group. The people-group who traditionally stood in contrast to ethnic Israel. 
The case of the Samaritans…is not only a very instructive one in itself, but may even be looked upon as the cardinal instance…It is of equal importance to us, to teach us the source of the gifts of power, in the Apostles, apart from whom they were not conferred: as also their function, to authenticate the Apostles as the authoritative founders of the church (22-23).
i) Warfield's appeal to this text is striking. Cessationists typically argue that Acts is not paradigmatic for the church age. Rather, they typically argue that Acts portrays a transitional stage in church history, as the old covenant is phased out while the new covenant is phased in. 
ii) It's true that Philip's ministry was subordinate to the Apostles. 
iii) Modern commentators like Eckhard Schnable, Darrell Bock, and David Peterson don't share Warfield's interpretation of this incident. The delayed reception is usually chalked up to the unique religious history between Jews and Samaritans. Jews thought Samaritans were apostates while Samaritans thought Jews were apostates. The two groups were hopelessly alienated, and Samaritans began evolving a distinct religion. The delayed reception is a way of showing that the Samaritans were wrong to break away from Judaism. 

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