Thursday, August 22, 2013

MacArthurite preterists

I'm going to comment on this post:

Notice the position which Frank imputes to critics of MacArthurite cessationists. Notice how he frames the issue. How he assigns the burden of proof. 

1996 was a very good year for the Charismatic, since that is the year Wayne Grudem came out with his book, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?  However: I have been recently told that this book is actually far inferior to D.A. Carson's book, and refuting it is rather a pedestrian effort.  The real academic cherry is to prove that Carson may be toppled from his as yet unassailable position because let's face it: D.A. Carson.
So in 1996, Carson also published a lengthy treatise on 1 Cor 12-14, entitled Showing the Spirit. Over the last 3 weeks, it has found new life among those who demand the necessity of the apostolic spiritual gifts, and the word on the street is that this book has never properly been reviewed or refuted by anyone of a Cessationist disposition, therefore Check and Mate: start speaking in tongues.  Roll into that the fact that the book is still in print (in Kindle format no less), and that Carson has never offered a revision, and perhaps the rest of us -- the ones who think that miraculous signs and wonders are not pedestrian but exceptional, and that God is not a blatherer who predates Twitter with his affinity for daily murmurings but in fact speaks first through the Prophets and then through His Son -- ought to simply apologize for our impertinence for raising an eyebrow, and the occasional meat chub.
…I think what Carson does for/to charismaticism in this book is far worse for them than the people waving this book around would admit (methinks: if they had read it themselves).
One thing Carson refuses to do is to settle the question of continuation vs. cessation. 
  • The last hope for the modern Charismatic is Carson's treatment of what Paul means by the relationship between "perfection" and the "imperfect."  Carson concludes that Paul must mean that all things will be made perfect at the parousia -- that is, the return of Christ.  Therefore, Carson is saying, the sign gifts will not cease until the return of Christ.  He says it this way:
  • "Two conclusions follow from this exposition. The first is obvious: there does not appear to be biblical warrant, at least from this chapter, for banning contemporary tongues and prophecies on the grounds that Scripture anticipates their early demise. This does not mean, of course, that everything that passes for prophecy or the gift of tongues is genuine. I shall say more about the nature of these gifts in the next chapter.
  • After all his justifications of so-called spirit gifts today, Carson lays out quite a devastating historical critique of such a thing:
  • "What can be safely concluded from the historical evidence? First, there is enough evidence that some form of “charismatic” gifts continued sporadically across the centuries of church history that it is futile to insist on doctrinaire grounds that every report is spurious or the fruit of demonic activity or psychological aberration.

Here's my rebuttal: if this is the best you can do -- that is, a book that agrees with any tenable natural reading of 1 Cor 12-14, leaves open the door to the possibility that daGifts still exist, but somehow downplays the entire operation for the sake of good order, maturity, and the defining virtue of Love -- then you had better reassess what you think you're trying to convince the rest of us to agree with.
If this is your go-to book, explain to me how it justifies any of the things Dan and I have been objecting to for the last 8 weeks.
And: keep it civil.  Those who simply want to cast me off as a bomb-throwing waste of time should simply go do something else rather than waste their time, and mine.  

Now, let's compare Frank's imputation with how I myself have actually stated my position:

If you're going to make an honest case against charismatic theology, you need to critique the best representatives as well as the worst representatives. And you need to critique arguments. It's morally and intellectually incumbent on you to engage the best exegetical case for charismatic theology, viz.  Craig Keener, The Spirit in the Gospels and Acts: Divine Purity and Power; The Gift and the Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today; Gordon Fee, God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul.
Likewise, you need to engage important mediating positions, viz. D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians, 12-14.And this brings us back to the burden of proof. Dan's cessationism involves a universal negative. That means he's assuming a very high burden of proof. For it would only take a single exception, just one credible counterexample, to disprove his ironclad cessationism. All you'd need is one bona fide prophet or healer or miracle worker between the death of St. John and today, to disprove his contention. 
iv) There are credible reported cases of modern xenoglossy. Cf. Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1–2:47 (Baker 2012), 829. So that would be consistent with continuationism. Denying cessationism doesn't entail the belief that every Christian throughout church history must be a miracle worker. This isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. 
The problem with Fred's analogy is whether a position that's espoused by scholars of the caliber of Craig Keener, Gordon Fee, Graham Twelftree, and Max Turner (among others) can be honestly compared to Ghost Hunters
i) I'm curious as to how Carson got classified as a "continuationist/cessationist." This is the second time I've run across that designation applied to Carson from a MacArthurite. Yet in his contribution to Power Religion, Carson was extremely critical of Third Wave theology (a la John Wimber and the Vineyard Church)–as he understood it. So why do some MacArthurites (e.g. Fred Butler, Nathan Busenitz) classify him as a continuationist/charismatic rather than a critic thereof? This appears to be a legend that's taking on a life of its own.ii) Speaking for myself, I haven't said the MacArthurites need to engage Piper or Grudem. I typically mention Fee and Keener. I've also mentioned Carson, as an important representative of a mediating position. And I've made passing reference to two other distinguished charismatic scholars: Graham Twelftree and Max Turner. 
v) If glossolalia isn't xenoglossy, then we can't say if modern tongues in the same as Corinthian tongues. We have no recordings of 1C Corinthian tongues to furnish a comparative sample. 
vi) By the same token, if glossolalia isn't xenoglossy, then it may resist linguistic analysis. It may be incommensurable with human language. You also have the code language explanation of Vern Poythress.
Now, I happen to think the modern practice of speaking in tongues is generally bogus. It's usually the result of coaching or crowd psychology. 
Put another way, what's the logical alternative to cessationism? Dan seems to think the logical alternative is a regular occurrence of miracles, miracles of a certain kind occurring at a certain rate. But that's not the logical alternative to cessationism. Logically, the alternative to cessationism doesn't select or predict for any particular outcome. Minimally, it simply allows for exceptions to Dan's universal negative. These could be few or many. Frequent or infrequent. Clustered or isolated.
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? 
The debate between cessationists and charismatics is typically polarized between two absolute, opposing positions:i) On the one hand, cessationists take a proscriptive position. The "spiritual gifts" don't continue at all during the church age. There are no genuine Christian healers, prophets, exorcists, or thaumaturges during the church age. God may still work miracles, but not through human agents.ii) On the other hand, charismatics take a prescriptive position. The "spiritual gifts" ought to continue throughout the church age. The "spiritual gifts" are available to every Christian. Every Christian ought to have one or more of the "spiritual gifts."Both sides hammer the Bible to squeeze out their position. Both sides standardize the divine modus operandi. iii) I'd simply point out that, logically speaking, that's a false dichotomy. For these two options don't exhaust the logical alternatives. On the face of it, there's a mediating position. A Christian could say the NT is open-ended on the status of the "spiritual gifts." It doesn't prescribe or proscribe what God is prepared to do in the future. It's largely silent about the course of church history in that respect. Maybe God raises up a healer at a particular time and place, but doesn't do so on a regular basis. Perhaps we don't know in advance if Christians can still exorcise demoniacs. Maybe that's something we have to discover. Maybe God is not as predictable as we'd like to make him. Perhaps he resists our efforts to domesticate his field of action. Now, a logical alternative may not be correct. It's something we have to test against Scripture and church history. But this rather obvious mediating position seems to be totally overlooked by both sides. 

i) If you compare Frank's characterization of what we say with what we actually say, Frank's characterization is a tissue of blatant falsehoods from start to finish. I never made the exclusive claims for Carson that Frank imputes to critics of MacArthurite cessationism. I never placed the burden of proof where Frank alleges that critics of his position assign it. 

Now, Frank doesn't name his targets. It's quite possible that  his "rebuttal" wasn't meant to single me out in particular. However, it's hard to avoid the assumption that he's including me in his diatribe. I hardly think he's talking about every critic except me. But if I'm one of his unnamed targets, then his characterization of my position is systematically false. 

I just wonder why it's so hard for Frank to be truthful. Frank may not be a theoretical antinomian, but to judge by his hit piece, Frank is a practical antinomian. In practice, Frank feels no moral obligation to truthfully represent what the critics actually say. 

Now let's make a few substantive observations:

ii) In his chapter on 1 Cor 13, Carson says (quoting from my 1987 edition):

If this point is located at the parousia, then there is nothing in this passage to preclude a valid gift of tongues or prophecy today. This would not necessarily mean, of course, that each contemporary claim of a particular gift is valid. Nor would it necessarily mean that a charismatic gift or gifts could not have been withdrawn earlier than the parousia. But it does mean that Scripture offers no shelter to those who wish to rule out all claims of charismatic gifts today (70).
None of this, of course, suggests Paul is interested in establishing the ideal relative frequency of prophecy in the church; nor have we yet mentioned historical objections that argue the gifts of prophecy and tongues actually did cease. At the moment, such matters are irrelevant. In these verses Paul establishes the end of the age as the time when these gifts must finally be abolished (72).
Under this [third] interpretation, there is no reason why gifts such as prophecy and tongues cannot be thought to continue in principle until the parouisa. In  my view, the third interpretation is largely right and may be supported and slightly modified by the following considerations (73).
Two conclusions follow from this exposition. The first is obvious: there does not appear to be biblical warrant, at least from this chapter [1 Cor 13], for banning contemporary tongues and prophecies on the grounds that Scripture anticipates their early demise. This does not mean, of course, that everything that passes for prophecy or the gift of tongues is genuine (75).

iii) Now, if Carson's interpretation of 1 Cor 13 is correct, then that automatically falsifies cessationism on exegetical grounds. Paul allows for what MacArthurites disallows. And observe that in his "review," Frank doesn't take issue with Carson's exegesis. Frank doesn't show, or even attempt to show, that Carson's exegesis is mistaken. 

Yet cessationism posits a universal negative with respect to postapostolic era charismata. And it only takes one exception to falsify that blanket denial. What cessationism predicts for is diametrically opposed to what 1 Cor 13 predicts for. Cessationism predicts for the total discontinuance of any and all charismata after the apostolic age whereas 1 Cor 13 predicts for their total discontinuance at the end of the church age. If anything, Carson has understated the problem which this text poses for cessationists. 

iv) So this generates a dilemma for MacArthurite cessationists. If they insist that church history in fact falsifies the reoccurrence of the charismatic to any degree, then that logically commits them to saying that church history falsifies Paul's expectation to the contrary. They can salvage their cessationism by ditching inerrancy.

One other fallback position would be to renounce their premillennialism for preterism. They could then say the charismata terminated in the 1C because Christ returned in the 1C, appearances to the contrary not withstanding. 


  1. Steve wrote:

    "I just wonder why it's so hard for Frank to be truthful. Frank may not be a theoretical antinomian, but to judge by his hit piece, Frank is a practical antinomian. In practice, Frank feels no moral obligation to truthfully represent what the critics actually say."

    I've been appreciative of most of Frank Turk's postings over at Team Pyro over the years (although I've never commented there or had any other communication with him), but at the same time I've also noticed a disturbing pattern in how he sometimes relates to others who are on the opposite side of an issue with him which hinders honest communication. It's manifested in a number of different ways. This has already been partly addressed in the Triablogue post "Frank Turk Sifted" from awhile back. You've just brought up another aspect of it with Frank not truthfully representing what critics of his position are actually arguing in this current controversy, which analysis I agree with.

    This all seems to be part of a persistent pattern in which Frank apparently feels the need to exert an inordinate, mischievous and harmful control over the conversational narrative when debating. I first noticed it after reading a number of his "imaginary conversation" pieces over at Pyromaniacs; you know, those faux "dialogues" he has with a proponent of some liberal view or other, in which Frank is the producer, writer, director and plays all the roles. Of course he always emerges the winner in those "debates", crafting the narrative in such a way that his opponent walks right into every trap he sets. Two weeks ago he had a similar entry over there related to this cessationism/continuationism controversy in which he decided to "sit down with *himself* and "ask "himself" a few questions" using a sock puppet. Not surprisingly, at the end of that "conversation" he was vindicated too, having failed to engage his opponents actual arguments-- or himself-- in an honest, meaningful way at all.

    As long as Frank confines himself to imaginary "dialogue" fantasies where he controls the entire production from start to finish it's all neatly arranged in such a way that he comes off looking like "Mr. Valiant For Truth" every time and his opponents are made to look ridiculous. But when he has to actually engage with other Christians who are also seeking the real truth, who also know the scriptures, and whose objections to his tactics he cannot control or write out of his mental "script", then the problems with Frank Turk begin.

    1. I would concur. Thanks for writing up your observations, Michael.

  2. If anyone is interested, I've listed and linked Steve's recent blogs on the issue cessationism at the following link. They are listed from the oldest to the newest (i.e. the most recent is at the bottom).

    Here's the link: