Wednesday, January 17, 2007

You mean, God doesn’t do that anymore?

Inspired (or provoked) by a series of cessationist posts at Pulpit Magazine by Nathan Busenitz (check out this post and the links on this page), I want to put down in words some of my thoughts about this ongoing controversy over cessationism versus continuationism.

I want to make clear that I’m not even trying to take on anybody in some kind of battle of biblical texts. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m no seminary graduate (in fact, I’m a seminary dropout), and I know I’m no intellectual match for all the illustrious theologians out there who hold differing views. I don’t know biblical Greek or Hebrew (and I do the best I can with English), and have no expertise to which anyone would be obliged to give deference. I figure my time can be better spent doing something else, rather than try to convince a cessationist that he or she is wrong. In fact, they can hold their theological position “until the cows come home”, or until Christ returns (whichever happens first). I don’t care. I just want to express some of my thoughts. Is that all right?

First of all, why do some cessationistic Christians feel the need to spend so much time and energy just to prove that “God doesn’t do that anymore”? I don’t understand that. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t see why this is so important. I mean, if you don’t believe God bestows any supernatural spiritual gifts, fine! Go on about your own business! But, why spend so much energy trying to change other people’s minds?

I suspect the real reason some cessationists spend so much time arguing their case is not so much to convince continuationists that the cessationist viewpoint is correct as it is to keep people from switching over from the cessationist camp to the continuationist camp. Most cessationists cannot dismiss the theological and biblical qualifications of men like Dr. Wayne Grudem and Dr. John Piper, and these men are continuationist. They’ve written convincingly (Dr. Grudem, Dr. Piper), with ample biblical support, advocating the continuationist view. And these men, and others, have convinced many that the cessationist view is simply wrong. I think that’s the reason some cessationists work so hard trying to prove that “God doesn’t do that anymore”. It’s a desperate attempt to keep people from "escaping" the narrow confines of cessationism.

Let me back up. I said cessationists don’t believe God any longer bestows any supernatural spiritual gifts. Well, let’s check and see if this is so. Looking at 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, and thinking about all I’ve read and heard from cessationists over the years, you can eliminate “the utterance of wisdom”, “the utterance of knowledge”, “gifts of healing”, “the working of miracles”, “prophecy”, “tongues”, “the interpretation of tongues”, and perhaps “the ability to distinguish between spirits”, as spiritual gifts that are available to the Church today. That leaves you with “faith” as the only gift that cessationists will allow.

The list in Romans 12:6-8 fares better. In this list, you would just have to eliminate “prophecy” as a gift available to the Church today. “Service”, “teaching”, “exhortation”, giving, leading, and mercy remain available for the Church.

So, I restate what I said before: Cessationists don’t believe that God any longer bestows any supernatural spiritual gifts. Not that the remaining gift that Paul mentions in Romans and 1 Corinthians aren’t supernatural but, really, with the right training, one could “pass” as spiritually “gifted” in the average evangelical church without the “gift” really having anything to do with the Spirit of God. It comes through in every discussion of spiritual gifts that I have ever heard. Most of our “gifts” function just fine, thank you, without the Holy Spirit. There’s nothing supernatural about them.

But, as I read Scripture, spiritual gifts must be supernatural, or they’re not spiritual gifts; they’re only merely human abilities. Look carefully at 1 Corinthians 12:7:

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit…”

What are spiritual gifts? They are a “manifestation of the Spirit”—they are supernatural. They are not produced naturally; they are not talents or abilities. Spiritual gifts are produced by the Holy Spirit—they are super-natural—above our natural ability to perform.
That’s what I find so wrong about cessationism. Cessationism seeks to eliminate that which cannot be controlled or explained or regulated or honed in an approved seminary.

But, what irritates me, is that some cessationists aren’t satisfied with just trying to control what God can or can’t do in their churches, but they have to keep beating the same dead horse, blogging and producing books and other literature, to argue why no one else should do unapproved things in their churches (or in their private lives, like pray in tongues).

What are they so worried about anyway? How are you going to prevent somebody from praying in tongues in their private devotional life? You can’t! Does the pronouncement that God will only speak through the Bible and no other way, actually prevent God from speaking directly to any individual by His Spirit? No it doesn’t!

For the record: I don’t speak in tongues. But, if I did, I certainly wouldn’t tell a cessationist!

Why does this bother me? Because, honestly, I believe cessationism is just a variant form of unbelief.

Why? Because, if God is God (and He is!), He can do whatever He wants to do! He hasn’t changed. He said so! “For I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6a). God gives “the manifestation of the Spirit”—spiritual gifts—“to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:7, 11). And if God wants to give someone the gift of tongues, for instance, that’s His business, not mine! If God wants to speak to someone directly by His Spirit, first of all, know that He can, but, also, know that He has that right!

To think otherwise, in my opinion, smacks of unbelief.

The Scripture passage most often cited to “prove” that “God doesn’t do that anymore”, is 1 Corinthians 13:8-12. We’re told that “the perfect” of verse 10 is the completed canon of Scripture. Well, if that’s so, then, according to verse 12, we now “know fully” and see “face to face”. But, that’s not true, is it? You don’t know fully, and neither do I. You don’t see clearly, and neither do I. “The perfect” has not yet come. One day, “the perfect” will come: Jesus Christ our Lord, in all His glory. “When he appears we shall be like him [i.e., “perfect”], because we shall see him as he is [“face to face”, no longer “in a mirror dimly”]” (1 John 3:2).

So, since “the perfect” has not yet come, “prophecies”, “tongues”, and “knowledge” continues!

Well, what is the continuation of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit supposed to look like today?

I don’t know!

And, guess what? I don’t have to know! I only know this: God can do what He wants, and He doesn’t need my permission or approval to do it!

1 comment:

Andrew Chapman said...

Well said. It reminds one of unbelievers who go on and on about not believing in God even when no-one has brought the subject up. They always make the best Christians one feels. Perhaps it is a sign that the Spirit is dealing with them and they are resisting Him.

1 Corinthians 14 v 39 tells us not to forbid speaking in tongues so it is a sin to do so, in my reckoning - what else is sin, if not disobeying God's commandments?

You might enjoy Jack Deere's book 'Surprised by the Power of the Spirit' if you do not already know it. He was a cessationist theologian at seminary until challenged to investigate whether God heals today. He says that the main reason for his cessationism is that it was what he had been taught by godly men whom he admired and respected.

As for me, I read the New Testament before I ever went to church, and spoke in tongues before I heard anybody say that you can't. It's a religious spirit controlling the minds of men, and it is unbelief as you say.

Shalom, Andrew