Sunday, March 16, 2014

Massive elephants

I'm going to comment on some remarks Fred Butler makes in reviewing chap. 6 of Brown's Authentic Fire. The problem with reviews like this is fostering the misimpression that disproving the author's position proves the reviewer's position. Take this general statement:

The question to be asked, then, is whether or not the overall context of the NT brings us to the conclusion miracles continue until today and God intends for all Christians to experience signs and wonders now.  Or does the context of the NT bring us to the conclusion those spectacular, public displays of miracles were meant only for a period of time at the hands of Jesus Christ and His chosen apostles during the first century when the NT church was being established.
i) Framing the issue this way invites a false dichotomy, as if that exhausts the alternatives: either God intends these for all Christians throughout church history or else God only intends them for Jesus and the apostles. 
ii) Also, at the risk of stating the obvious, even if you confine them to the 1C, they weren't confined to the apostles. 
Brown appeals to John 14:12 where Jesus says “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to the Father” and argues that the language used here is universal in scope. Meaning that Jesus is clearly stating that all Christians without exception will not only do the same miraculous works He did, but will do even greater ones than even He did.
I think there may be a hermeneutical link between Brown's Arminian interpretations and his charismatic interpretations. Both rely on passages which employ general language. Both qualify the actual outcome based on the faith or faithlessness of the individual. 
Thankfully, Matt Waymeyer has helped me out by writing up a thorough response to Brown’s use of this passage. I refer readers to his discussion to get a fuller understanding of what Jesus was saying, but I’ll provide brief summary and some additional comments.
Well, that's optimistic and premature. Brown wrote a thorough rejoinder to Waymeyer's "thorough response." And that, in turn, generated some direct exchanges between Brown and Waymeyer. So it hardly ended where Fred leaves it. 
While it is true, as Waymeyer points out, that the language of Jesus is universal, it is only “universal” to a specific group: the immediate apostles to whom He was addressing.
i) By that logic, it doesn't apply to St. Paul, since he wasn't in the Upper Room when Jesus was addressing the disciples.
ii) Also, by that logic, the True Vine parable (Jn 15) only applies to a specific group: the immediate apostles whom he was addressing. 
 All of them certainly did works equal to, and even greater than, Jesus. 
That claim is not self-explanatory. Did they walk on water? Multiply food? Turn water into wine? 
 So that promise of Jesus is not given to all believers throughout church history.
i) I agree with Fred's conclusion, but that's not justified by his supporting argument.
ii) In addition, to say that promise is not given to all believers throughout church history does not entail the converse: that promise is not given to any believer after the NT era.  
One of the key reasons, as Waymeyer notes, is the fact that Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that the gifts of healings and tongues are listed among the other gifts given to Christians and are distributed according to the Spirit’s will within the body of Christ. Thus not everyone can speak in tongues and heal because it is not the will of God for everyone to do so.
i) It's exegetically dubious to use 1 Cor 12 to interpret a statement in John's Gospel.
ii) I agree with Waymeyer that in 1 Cor 12, every Christian doesn't have the same gifts, for the Spirit apportions the gifts according to his sovereign discretion.
iii) However, that's a double-edged sword for the cessationist to wield. For the cessationist will turn right around and deny the Spirit's prerogative to bestow miraculous gifts on Christians after the NT era. Therefore, it's an arbitrary appeal. 
I would add that the alleged works that charismatics claim they do are nowhere near being the same quality and magnitude as those done by Jesus.
That's just a vague, tendentious claim.
Charismatics, while insisting that Jesus promises all believers the ability to do greater works than what Jesus did, have a credibility problem.
I agree. Many charismatic oversell their position. 
But both cessationists and charismatics have a credibility problem. It just runs in opposite directions. Charismatics have a credibility problem when outcomes fall short of their rosy predictions. Cessationists have a credibility problem when they resort to preemptively dismissing evidence that runs counter to their own position.
The reason being is that those works never materialize in any undeniable, verifiable public display.  
Once again, that begs the question. And it's ultimately circular. It reduces to giving the cessationist a unilateral veto: nothing a charismatic does ever counts as an undeniable miracle, for whatever he does will be denied by the cessationist. So this is Fred's unfalsifiable cessationism. 
When Jesus and the apostles performed miraculous works, they did so in the public square first and foremost before unbelievers. That is a sharp distinction from healing services held at a large church or during a crusade at a basketball arena.
i) Fred is misrepresenting the NT record. You also have NT miracles performed in private settings in front of believers. Some cessationists are so fanatical that they begin fibbing about the NT record. 
ii) Also, why does Fred constantly limit his standard of comparison to NT miracles? Why does he constantly exclude OT miracles? 
Additionally, Jesus and the apostles performed miracles without fail.
i) To begin with, that's, at best, an argument from silence. It assumes that the NT would normally record failed miracles.
ii) Also, Fred has been corrected on this before. What about the deaf-mute demoniac (Mk 9:14-29)? What about Trophimus (2 Tim 4:20)? What about Mk 6:5? Why is Fred so hardened in his position that he makes deceptive (if not downright false) statements about the NT record? 
Certainly he is correct that Christ’s first coming brought in the last days, or what is also called the latter-days or last times in other Scriptures. MacArthur even writes in the notes of his study Bible for Acts 2:17 that, “This phrase [last days] refers to the present era of redemptive history from the first coming of Christ to His return.” So Brown’s understanding of the term “last days” is not particularly unique to a continuationist perspective, nor is it special in proving the reality of continuationism for the modern church.
If the modern church is still in the last days, why wouldn't that apply? 
The prophecy of Joel has an emphasis upon the revelatory work of the Spirit. It speaks to prophecy, dreams, and visions, which are a supernatural work of the Spirit described throughout Scripture as imparting divine revelation to the recipients.  The notion of miraculous works like healings is not implied with this prophecy Peter quotes, but the idea of God revealing divine content, in this case, the work of Christ and the establishment of the NT church.
i) The prophecy also refers to "signs on the earth below." 
ii) In addition, the remainder of Acts is epexegetical of Acts 2, including miraculous healings. Are those unrelated to the promise in Acts 2? Or is Joel's oracle a synecdoche for what follows? 
The greater idea being presented here by Peter is the work of the Spirit transcending national boundaries, gender boundaries, and class distinctions. The move of the Spirit will be among gentiles as it is with Jews, among women as it is men, and among all the classes of people within a society. All of them will receive the Spirit without exception.
I agree with Fred that the intended scope of the language is representative rather than universal. 
It should be noted that Brown leaps from the emphasis of the spiritual outpouring made by Peter upon the divine revelation of prophecy, visions, and dreams, to expanding the outpouring to include miraculous gifts like healing and tongues. Yet nothing in what Peter says in Acts suggests miraculous healing gifts. It is focused exclusively on prophecy. Brown expands the emphasis into these other areas without any real exegetical warrant.
This artificially compartmentalizes Acts 2 from the rest of Acts. 
Nothing Peter proclaims in the text of Acts  2 tells us that miraculous gifts should be expected to continue among Christians throughout church history.
Sure it does. Both the fact that it's indexed to the "last days" and promise to subsequent generations. 
After Peter explains to his hearers that the episode they were witnessing among the Christians there was the Holy Spirit being poured out, he presents to them the Gospel, reminding them that it was they who crucified the Lord of Glory. The people were cut to the heart and react by crying out in anguish asking Peter what they must do. Peter answers them by calling them to repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, and then they will be be forgiven their sins.But does this mean that now they are in the place where they can receive the ability to perform miracles if they pray for them?  Brown directs us to the phrase “gift of the Holy Spirit” and links that to the promise as noted in Isaiah 59:21. By that connection, it is concluded that this outpouring includes the profusion of the gift of prophecy along with the addition of God’s miracle power [AF, 198].But is that what Peter is really saying? Or is it a promise of salvation and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit taking up residence within a person to bring them into conformity to God’s laws and holiness? I believe that is what Peter had in mind, and Brown is importing his charismatic theology into this text to make is say God is promising miracle power.
That's another false dichotomy. It's not as if Acts 2 restricts the promise to salvation. Rather, the promise covers salvation as well as miracles and revelations. 
The fact that Brown hints at the reality that people aren’t being healed in spectacular, supernatural ways according to the formula given to us here in James reveals the massive elephant standing in his room. 
Where does Jas 5:13-16 specify "spectacular" healing of "catastrophic ailments"? Fred begins by adding something to the text to make it easier for him to exclaim failure. 
BTW, isn't it a tad redundant to speak of "massive elephants"? That's not in contrast to miniature elephants, is it? 
If what James is saying here was truly meant to provide guaranteed supernatural healing, then desperate people suffering with catastrophic aliments all throughout the church would be calling elders to lay hands upon them and anoint them with oil to heal them from their stage four cancer or spinal cord injuries. The fact they do not tells us James may have had something else in mind.
i) I agree with Fred that Brown overplays his hand.
ii) Does Fred take the position that because not every Christian with a catastrophic ailment who undergoes this ceremony is healed, that no such Christian is ever healed?
Taking a closer look at the words of James, there is much more to the situation described than just a sick person calling for the elders and him receiving a supernatural healing by the means of their prayers. The word for “sick” is asthenei, and it indicates a serious condition, as other NT uses reveal (John 4:46-47, John 11:1-3, Acts 9:37). Moreover, the sick person is the one who calls for the elders, and after they pray for him, he is raised up and then James writes that if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.The inclusion of sins and being forgiven is interesting, because it implies that the sickness described here may very well have been due to the person’s sinful behavior. The presence of elders also indicate that maybe there was some disciplinary action taking place. So it could be that James is describing a situation in which a person in sin who is quite possibly under divine judgment, becomes sick. He then calls the elders in order to seek restoration, and by the confession of sin and the prayer for his sickness, the person is raised up.
i) James doesn't indicate that sickness is always the result of sin. 
ii) Does Fred really wish to stake out the position that there's a one-to-one correlation between illness and personal sin? If a Christian has cancer or spinal cord injuries, is that invariably (or even characteristically) due to sin on his part?  
iii) Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Jas 5 is confined to the subset of Christians who have fallen ill due to sin, the connection between sin and sickness in turn links to the connection between forgiveness and healing. By Fred's own logic, doesn't that "guarantee" the supernatural healing of penitent Christians? 
Whatever the case, nothing with what James writes tells us he is providing a supernatural formula that includes church leaders, anointing oil, and prayer that will certainly guarantee supernatural healing of what ever disease the person may have.
I agree. But are there some ailing Christians healed as a result of that ceremony who'd not be healed otherwise? It's irresponsible for Fred to leave the issue dangling in mid-air. At the end of the day, what should we do with that Scriptural command? 


  1. I personally find Brown to be unpersuasive on several fronts and for several reasons. In my estimation there are certainly more able defenders of continuationism to be found, particularly within the broadly reformed camp.

    I suppose Butler and J-Mac's other associates are interacting with Brown because he's been quite vocal in his rejoinders against Mac's Strange Fire conference, which was overall quite good, but seemed to lose its way here and there.

    I also appreciate T-blog keeping both sides honest. I feel that too often many in Mac's circle attempt to trade off his name and perceived spiritual authority instead of making and defending cogent arguments of their own. But that's just one man's opinion.

  2. I've collected most of Steve's recent posts on cessationism and continuationism in chronological order at the following blog:

    Steve Hays on Cessationism