Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Is continuationism false by definition?

I'm going to make some comments on this speech:
For the first time ever, multitudes believe that the “signs of the apostles” (2 Corinthians 12:12) are actually meant for every believer. There are many Charismatics today who will tell you that if you are not seeing miracles and obtaining messages directly from God or speaking in tongues or any of those things--then if your ministry, in other words, is built on the authority of Scripture alone, apart from any kind of miraculous signs and wonders--according to them, your ministry is lame--you have cut the power out from under your testimony.
I agree with Phil's criticism. 
Now again, consider the implications of that claim. Deere and Grudem have, in effect, conceded the entire Cessationist argument. I would say, that whether they will admit it or not, they themselves are Cessationists of sorts. They believe that the true apostolic gifts and miracles have ceased, and they are admitting that what they are claiming today is not the same as the gifts described in the New Testament. That’s Cessationism. In other words, modern Charismatics, at least the mainstream, in Grudem’s words, “the reliable ones, the legitimate ones,” have virtually adopted a Cessationist position. And when pressed on the issue they are forced to admit that the gifts they practice today are lesser gifts than the gifts of the apostolic era.
i) This introduces an element of equivocation into Phil's analysis. Assuming that these are "lesser gifts," does that render them nonmiraculous? 
ii) Moreover,  why is is necessary to predict what kinds of miracles may or may not occur in the course of church history? Why do we have to stake out a position on that in advance of the facts? Why can't we take a wait-and-see attitude? Is that something we need to prescribe ahead of time? Why can't we discover what God is prepared to do? 
Above all, despite all the fanciful and unsubstantiated legends that have been circulated, despite the vast numbers of Charismatics who claim the ability to do even greater works than Jesus Himself, there is not one single, credible, verifiable case of a Charismatic miracle worker who could raise the dead.
Why should raising the dead be the litmus test? After all, Scripture contains many miracles which fall short (as it were) of raising the dead. 
The truth is that even in Scripture there are very few miracles comparatively. There is ample evidence that miracles were extraordinarily rare events, always associated with people who spoke inspired and infallible utterances. 
What about the Egyptian sorcerers (Exod 7-8)? What about the witch of Endor (1 Sam 28)? What about the fortune-teller (Acts 16:16-18)?
Let me make one more distinction: There are two kinds of miracles noted in Scripture.1. Some are remarkable works of God apart from any human agency…unilateral miracles, mighty works of God alone.2. The other kind of miracle involves a human agent, who from the human perspective is the instrument through which the miracle comes…miracles that are done through some kind of human agency.
I agree with Phil that there are examples which fit this distinction–although I don't think Phil's illustrations are good examples. A better example would be raising Lazarus from the dead.
However, there are also examples where Phil's distinction breaks down.
Suppose you pray for a friend or relative with terminal cancer. Suppose his cancer disappears overnight. Assuming that God healed him in answer to your prayer, is that a case of God working apart from human agency? Wasn't God working through you? Wasn't your prayer instrumental to the outcome. Suppose, absent your intercessory prayer, that your friend or relative was bound to die? 
For example, when Christ was crucified there was darkness over all the earth for three hours--that fits our definition of a miracle. It was an extraordinary work of God; it overrode the natural order of things--it was a miracle. Other examples where God unilaterally intervened or where miraculous events happened apart from any human agency would include the destruction of Sodom, when brimstone and fire rained down from heaven--I believe that was a miracle. The flood in Noah’s time, when it rained forty days and forty nights and flooded the entire earth. I don’t think we need to seek a natural explanation for that--it was a miracle. Those were undeniably miraculous events, they were not acts of providence because they overturned the natural order of things. And in all the examples I just cited, God did the miracle apart from any prophet or worker of miracles--He did it unilaterally without a human agent.
Phil is conflating two different issues:
i) Do these events occur apart from human agency?
ii) Do these events occur apart from natural agency?
Doesn't the Bible attribute the flood waters to natural sources (e.g. rain, "fountains of the deep)? So the flood had "natural" causes. Sure, God was the ultimate cause, but that fails to differentiate miracles from providence, as Phil defines it.
Likewise, why assume that God had to "override the natural order of things" to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Does Phil think that happened out of the blue? That God created the fire and brimstone ex nihilo? 
What makes that a miracle? Is how it happened what makes it miraculous? Or when and where it happened? Seems to me that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah could be a natural disaster. What makes it miraculous is the specificity of the event. The selective timing and placement. This was designed to single out Sodom and Gomorrah for punishment–unlike many natural disasters whose distribution appears to be random
And those acts of providence, even extraordinary acts of providence are not miracles, they are not the same as miracles.Now, what is a miracle? Another definition: In a Biblical sense “a miracle is an extraordinary work of God that involves His immediate and unmistakable intervention in the physical realm in a way that contravenes natural processes.”
There are many problems with this definition:
i) There's the risk of special pleading. Phil is saying that, by definition, continuationism is false. His definition acts as a filter to preemptively exclude continuationism. 
But in that  event, he's not beginning with the Bible. He's beginning with continuationism, then devising a definition which is custom-made to rule out continuationism. It's an artificial definition. To take a comparison, consider how atheists try to incorporate methodological naturalism into their definition of science. 
ii) Moreover, the Bible doesn't actually define miracles. Rather, the Bible gives paradigm-cases of miracles. The Bible describes certain events which the reader is inclined to identify as "miraculous." At most, Scripture gives us the raw materials for an ostensible definition of miracles. We try to define miracles by abstraction for those examples.
Take the ten plagues of Egypt. Scripture treats that as a paradigm-case of the miraculous. Yet a number of the plagues could utilize natural forces. What makes them miraculous is not that God acted "immediately," in a way that "contravenes natural processes," but the targeted quality of the event. Moses threatens a natural disaster. Pharaoh ignores the threat. The threatened event then occurs right on schedule. 
We need to distinguish between inanimate forces that operate automatically, and events which involve natural forces, but are specially guided by a superior intelligence. What makes some natural disasters divine judgments is the directional aspect of the event–like aiming a gun. They reflect rational discretion–unlike ordinary natural disasters, which are indiscriminate
iii) Phil's definition assumes a hard-edged distinction between natural and supernatural events. But that's basically a Humean definition. It's essential to atheism to demarcate nature from supernature. For instance, in atheism, angels would be supernatural entities. But in Scripture, angels are natural entities in the sense that angels are creatures. As creatures, they belong to the natural order. The only categorical distinction in Scripture is between God and creatures. 
iv) This, in turn, raises the question of whether certain "miraculous" or paranormal abilities are natural or supernatural. For instance, angels "naturally" have certain abilities that humans lack. If a human did it, we might consider that "supernatural"–but if an angel did it, that would be natural for an angel.
v) Phil's definition fails to make allowance for coincidence miracles:
Coincidences like this reported by Weaver (1963) undoubtedly occur but do they call for any special explanation? Are they in any sense miraculous? Clearly they do not contravene any law of nature so there is no question of a conflict with science and so in that sense, at least, they are not miracles. But are they so improbable that some agency outside the normal working of nature must be invoked to explain them? 
Of a rather different kind is the following coincidence reported by Koestler (1972) and retold by Inglis (199) related to a young architect who in 1971 narrowly escaped death when attempting suicide by throwing himself in front of a London underground train. It turned out that a passenger on the train had pulled the emergency handle just in time to avert disaster. Attempts at suicide in this manner occur from time to time and so do false alarms with the emergency system…Can one argue in this case that because the conjunction of the two events was so highly unlikely to have occurred by chance that some other agent must have been at work? Did some external being or force act at that moment to stop the train through the agency of the passenger who operated the braking system? The short answer, of course, is that we do not and, perhaps, cannot know. But if it could be shown that such events occurred more frequently than one would expect "by chance" there would be good grounds for believing that there was something "going on". 
The question for us is whether such happenings can be accommodated within the scientific worldview and, if not, whether they are indicative of an unseen hand at work. On the face of it "significant" coincidences such as the train incident appear to be ideal candidates for miracles in the sense that C. S. Lewis defined them for they seem to point to the hand of a divine agent operating within the framework of natural law.  
In order to get our thinking clear it may help to begin with the definition with which Diaconis and Mosteller (1989) begin their discussion of coincidences:
A coincidence is a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection. 
Notice the inclusion of the phrase "meaningfully related" which sharpens the focus to those events which might call for some extra-scientific explanation.  
The notion of coincidence is analyzed from a philosophical point of view by Owens (1992). According to him, a coincidence arises when the events involved result from independent causal chains. The separate events thus have causes but, because of the independence, there is no explanation for their coincidence. In the cases of interest to us there is an apparent dependence between the causal chains involved–due to God's alleged action–and we are concerned with whether  probability arguments can help us determine whether it is real.  
Before we leave the subject of coincidences there is one closely related kind of event in which believers have a special interest. This concerns alleged answers to prayer. If someone prays for the healing of another and if at that time a change in the patient's condition occurs it is natural to conclude that the prayer was instrumental in effecting the cure. If it was not, then the coincidence between the two events in time is very remarkable. Now such coincidences have occurred very often in the realm of healing and elsewhere. Archibishop William's Temple's reported remark that "When I pray coincidences happen; when I don't, they don't," may not be based on the counting of cases but does reflect a common experience. D. Barthlowmew, Uncertain Belief (Oxford 2000), chap. 4.


  1. Is that something we need to prescribe ahead of time? Why can't we discover what God is prepared to do?

    Based on Joel 2:23 and James 5:7 some charismatics believe that as there was the early and latter rain in the agricultural setting of ancient Israel, so there was to be a strong surge of the miraculous at the time of the Apostles and then at the very end of history right before the return of Christ. With a kind of relative lull in between those two time periods.

    Why should raising the dead be the litmus test?

    Amen. On the one hand some cessationists argue that miracles happened during Biblical times only as God sovereignly willed. Yet on the other hand some of these same cessationists complain that modern continuationists can't perform miracles at their own will and timing (as if God's sovereignty, purposes and timing were irrelevant). That seems inconsistent to me. Some of these cessationists might believe that the Apostles were able to perform miracles at will and therefore modern continuationists should be able to do so too. But the Biblical data seems to show that the Apostles weren't able to perform miracles at their own will (cf. Matt. 17:19-20; 1 Tim. 5:23; 2 Tim. 4:20; Phil. 2:25-27; Acts 14:9-10), even though at some of those same times God was willing to perform them if only they had enough faith. Why didn't Paul heal Timothy at will? Epaphroditus was about to die yet God eventually spared his life. Why didn't Paul heal him instantly at will so that it didn't get to the point that Epaphroditus was near death? If Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was a sickness (which I seriously doubt) why didn't Paul get another Apostle to heal him? Same thing with the problem with his eyes (which I suspect was not his "thorn in the flesh"). Jesus walked through the Beautiful Gate many times yet He didn't heal the man lame from birth even though there was a good chance He passed by him on some occasions. God apparently waited for the Peter and John to heal him after Christ's ascension. Also, there's no indication that Jesus healed anyone else on the occasion he healed the man who was lame for 38 years at the pool of Bethesda.

    Continued in next comment.

    1. Also, of all the possible miracles that God could do mediately or immediately, wouldn't the raising of a dead person be one of the greatest situations in which God's wisdom and sovereignty would need to come into play? Since it would have one of the greatest ripple effects in history and the lives of those involved. These would therefore be the cases in which the human will would be the least determinative as to whether a miracle would or wouldn't happen. So, the ability to perform resurrections is actually one of the worse examples to look for in testing the claims of modern continuationists. I doubt all 12 of the Apostles could claim to have raised at least one person from the dead.

      On the one hand these cessationists don't take into serious consideration the real humanity of the 1st century Apostles and disciples who too could struggle with faith for performing healings and miracles. On the other hand, they don't take God's sovereignty into serious consideration when they insist that modern continuationists can't perform miracles at will. Nor take into serious consideration God's sovereign right to raise up people at any time in history to be agents in which God would mediately perform miracles.
      They don't take seriously Heb. 2:4 and 1 Cor. 12:11.

      Citing passages like Heb. 2:3-4 don't tell us what God wished, required or was willing to do IF people believed. One can't get an "ought" or a "supposed to be" from an "is". Otherwise, the failure of the Apostles to heal the deaf-mute demoniac should have led them to conclude that it wasn't God's will for the boy to be healed. Yet, the opposite was the case since Jesus rebuked the Apostles and disciples for not setting the boy free from demonic possession.

      Besides the highly disputed passage of 1 Cor. 13:8-10 there is really no indication that God willed or wished the miraculous to fade or stop before the return of Christ. In fact, one interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8-10 would teach the very opposite. That God's will is that the miraculous should continue and would not and should not stop till Christ does return. So, ironically, the strongest passage that cessationists can produce might in fact teach the very opposite of what they believe.

    2. Notice also that the Apostle James stated in James 5:15 that prayer would save/heal/sodezo the sick on the condition of faith (i.e. through the "Prayer OF FAITH"). He also conditioned such healing on fervency and perseverance when he used Elijah as the model and example (James 5:17-18). Rather than saying Elijah was a super-prophet and super-duper-miracle-worker, James highlights Elijah's mere humanity. A human nature which he shared with us.