Wednesday, August 07, 2013

In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son

This is one of the more sophisticated arguments for cessationism:

I have reservations about one of his arguments:

Yes, this seems to be the case. Does this mean that the sign gifts continued to exist for second-generation Christians? Not exactly. Three careful distinctions need to be made: (1) God bore witness with someone (the sun-prefix on sunepimarturou'nto" implies this) “to us.” The only option is “those who heard”--thus, eyewitnesses. Thus, these believers were recipients or observers of such sign gifts; they were not performers of them. The eyewitnesses seem to be the only ones implied here who exercised such gifts. This, in itself, may well imply that the sign gifts lasted only through the first generation of Christians: once the eyewitnesses were dead, so were these gifts. (2) The aorist indicative ejbebaiwvqh loses much of its punch if the author intends to mean that these gifts continue.1 He so links the confirmation to the eyewitnesses--and the proof of such confirmation by the sign gifts--that to argue the continued use of such gifts seems to fly in the face of the whole context. If such gifts continued, the author missed a great opportunity to seal his argument against defection. He could have simply said: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was . . . confirmed to us by those who heard and is still confirmed among us while God bears witness with signs . . .” By way of contrast, note Gal 3:5 (written when the miraculous was still taking place; two present participles are used): “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (RSV) This contrast is significant: The author of Hebrews, who is so articulate a defender of his position, lost a perfect opportunity to remind his audience of the reality of their salvation by not mentioning the current manifestation of the sign gifts. That is, unless such were no longer taking place. Though an argument from silence, I think the silence is fairly deafening. The sign gifts seem to be on their way out. (3) But what about this confirmation “to us”--second-generation Christians? I take it that Hebrews was written in the mid 60s (shortly after Paul had died), but that it was written to a long-established Jewish church which was waffling in their faith. If so, then we would expect some of the first-generation believers to have had some contact with them. (Good grief--first-generation folks even have contact with third generation folks at times!) There is no question that some of these folks had witnessed such miracles. There is a rather large question, however, as to whether they had performed them themselves. One simply can’t find support for such a view in Hebrew 2:1-4.All in all, Hebrews 2:3-4 seems to involve some solid inferences that the sign gifts had for the most part ceased.2 Further, it offers equally inferential evidence of the purpose of the sign gifts: to confirm that God was doing something new. The whole argument of Hebrews rests on this assumption: there is a new and final revelation in Jesus Christ (cf. 1:1-2). He is the one to whom the whole OT points; he is the one who is superior to the Aaronic priesthood, to prophets, and to angels. He is indeed God in the flesh. Is it not remarkable that in this exquisitely argued epistle, the argument turns on Scripture over against experience? The strongest appeal the author makes to the audience’s experience is to what they were witnesses to in the past. If the sign gifts continued, shouldn’t we expect this author (like Paul in Gal 3:5) to have employed such an argument?
The problem with this argument is twofold:
i) There's the artificially narrow classification of the miracles as "sign-gifts." But the Biblical purpose of miracles is not confined to attesting the messenger or the message. For instance, one function of dreams and visions in the Book of Acts is to give the recipient directions regarding where to go next, or where not to go. 
ii) From my reading of Hebrews, the recipients never doubted the Gospel message–as they construed it. They didn't need additional proof that Jesus was the Messiah. Their error was not regarding the veracity of the new covenant, but the finality of the new covenant. They seemed to operate with a dual-covenant theology: Jews are saved by the old covenant while gentiles are saved by the new covenant. They failed to acknowledge the fact that the new covenant supersedes the old covenant.
An argument from experience wouldn't resolve that question. Rather, that requires an exegetical argument, showing the provisional nature of the old covenant, from the OT itself. 

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to comment on this a bit and see where this goes.

    i) A dream or vision is not a spiritual gift. It's an *event*, isn't it?
    I might exercise mercy here and there, but it's a struggle for me at times. It's not my spiritual gift.
    Or the Lord might put me smack dab into a situation where mercy is the only valid response, and by His grace I exercise mercy. But that doesn't mean I have the sp gift of mercy.

    ii) Yet the Gospels pointedly record that many believed in Jesus because of His miracles. Sure, many rejected His messiahship after seeing the miracles, but that's beside the point.
    Even His enemies admitted His miracles were genuine and inexplicable. That's the point of saying "sign". But they denied He was truly Messiah, which speaks to veracity.