Challenges of the Charismatic Movement to the Reformed Tradition


See also:

Dangers of The Charismatic Movement

By:Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

My assignment, I take it, is to reflect from a biblical and Reformed perspective on issues raised by the charismatic movement, especially where the latter diverges and so poses a challenge to Reformed theology and church life. Such issues are in fact not new on the agenda of our Conference. Previously papers have been given on baptism with the Holy Spirit (Abbotsford 1989, Prof. J. van Bruggen) and on New Testament prophecy (Zwolle 1993, Prof. N. Wilson).[1]

Two general areas evidently present themselves for consideration: 1) the significance of Pentecost/ Holy Spirit baptism, and 2) the question of the cessation of certain gifts of the Spirit. Anything like an in-depth treatment of either area is out of the question here. Accordingly, my approach will have to be selective. I will proceed by concentrating on aspects that I judge we best concern ourselves with as a conference of Reformed churches. That will include noting points on which, within the Reformed community, differences in assessing the charismatic movement persist. Obviously, there is room for differences of opinion about what ought to receive our attention. I look forward to the discussion to follow to correct imbalances in my presentation. For clarity’s sake I should perhaps say at the outset that when I speak of “the charismatic movement” I do so in what has become its customary sense, that is, including both Pentecostals and those elsewhere who would describe themselves as non-Pentecostal charismatics.

Part I

Pentecost/The Baptism With the Holy Spirit/Christ, the Spirit, and the Church/The Christian

1:1. Pentecost is not part of the ordo salutis but of historia salutis

Virtually everything the New Testament teaches about the work of the Holy Spirit either looks forward or traces back to Pentecost. So, what really happened then, what is the significance of that event, [2] is a large and all-important question.

Giving sound answers to that question, I suggest, depends, to a considerable degree, on recognizing and not blurring a basic distinction: the distinction between the history of salvation (historia salutis) and the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the distinction, in other terms, between redemption in its once-for-all accomplishment and its continuing application to sinners, between Christ’s finished work and the ongoing appropriation of its benefits by God’s people.

In introducing this categorical distinction here, I should make clear, I am using the expression ordo salutis in a somewhat broader than usual, though, I believe, still appropriate sense. In view are not only matters like regeneration, conversion, and justification—identical for every believer—and sanctification—true of every believer but in varying degrees—but also spiritual gifts and empowerment—varying from believer to believer. In other words, ordo salutis, as employed here, refers to everything included in individual and corporate experience within the covenant people of God.

What is crucial for a proper overall understanding of Pentecost/Holy Spirit baptism, then, is to recognize that it has its place within the history of salvation (historia salutis), not the order of salvation (ordo salutis). The significance of Pentecost is primarily redemptive-historical, not experiential. While it would certainly be wrong to polarize these two aspects (an issue we will return to below), the point of what took place on the day of Pentecost is not to provide a paradigm or to set a standard for a particular experiencing of the Spirit, whether individually or corporately.

1:2. The Importance of the relationship between “Lord” and “Spirit”

“A Reformed pneumatology,” W. H. Velema has written, “will only be able to be sound, when it correctly sees the relationship between Kurios and Pneuma.”[3] In my judgment it is difficult to exaggerate not merely the truth but the pivotal truth of this statement. Specifically, it points us to where the primary significance of Pentecost lies: in revealing the unique bond that exists between the now exalted Christ and the Spirit. Negatively, where that tethering, along with its most important consequences, is not adequately appreciated, there Pentecost/Holy Spirit baptism remains essentially misunderstood.

Persisting misconceptions in this respect, it seems fair to say, are what characterize the distinctive emphases of the charismatic movement. But similar misperceptions, or at least similarly inadequate perceptions, of Pentecost are found elsewhere, including some Reformed and Presbyterian circles. Accordingly, we ought, before anything else, to clarify the meaning of Pentecost by focusing on the relationship between Christ and the Spirit.

1:3. 1 Corinthians 14:45

I begin with the in some respects difficult, but the most striking and pointed declaration of this relationship in the entire New Testament, the final clause of 1 Corinthians 15:45: “the last Adam became the life-giving Spirit.” This affirmation, central to both Paul’s christology and pneumatology, offers as well, I suggest, a one-sentence commentary, in effect, on Pentecost and its significance. The following brief observations will have to forego the careful exegesis which may be necessary for some, though an effort in that direction has been provided in endnotes.

1) pneuma in 1 Corinthians 15:45 is definite and refers to the person of the Holy Spirit.[4] Paul knows of no other “life-giving” pneuma than the Holy Spirit.

2) “The life-giving Spirit,” it should not be missed, is not a timeless description of Christ. Rather, he “became” (egeneto) such. The time point of this “becoming” is his resurrection or, more broadly, his exaltation.[5] To put it in key terms of the chapter itself: as “firstfruits” of the resurrection-harvest (vv. 20, 23) he is “life-giving Spirit” (v. 45), and as “the life-giving Spirit” he is “the firstfruits.”

As resurrected, the last Adam has ascended; as “the second man,” he is now, by virtue of ascension, “from heaven” (v. 47),[6] “the man from heaven” (v. 48). All told, the last Adam, become “the life-giving Spirit,” is specifically the exalted Christ.

3) In the immediate context (vv. 42-49), “life giving” contemplates Christ’s future action, when he will resurrect the mortal bodies of believers (cf. v. 22). It seems difficult to deny, however, in light of the overall context of Paul’s teaching, that his present activity, also, is implicitly in view. The resurrection life of the believer, in union with Christ, is not only future but present (e.g., Gal 2:20; Col 2:12-13; Col 3:1-4). Christ, as resurrected, is already active in the church in the eschatological, resurrection power of the Spirit. Here is a key consideration for understanding Pentecost, one we will return to it in greater detail below.

4) In view, then, is the momentous, epochal significance of the resurrection/exaltation for Christ personally—his own climactic transformation by and reception of the Spirit, resulting in a new and permanent equation or oneness between them.[7] This is not to deny that previously Christ and the Spirit were at work together among God’s people.[8] But now, dating from his resurrection and ascension, their joint action is given its stable and consummate basis in the history of redemption; now, at last, such action is the crowning consequence of the work of the incarnate Christ actually and definitively accomplished in history. This consummate relationship Paul captures by saying, Christ, the last Adam, became the life-giving Spirit.

It bears emphasizing that this oneness or unity, though certainly sweeping, is at the same time circumscribed in a specific respect; it concerns their activity, the activity of giving resurrection (=eschatological) life. In this sense it may be dubbed “functional,” or, to use an older theological category, “economic” (rather than “ontological”[9] ), or “eschatological,” without in any way obliterating the distinction between the second and third persons of the Trinity.[10]

5) The last clause in 1 Corinthians 15:45 connects closely with Paul’s subsequent statement at the beginning of 2 Corinthians 3:17: “the Lord is the Spirit,” where “the Lord” (o kurioV) likely refers to Christ and an equation between him and the Spirit is affirmed.[11] Here, too, essential, trinitarian identities and relationships are not being denied or blurred, but are quite outside Paul’s purview. His focus, clear from the immediate context (see esp. v. 18), is the conjoint activity of the Spirit and Christ as glorified.[12] The exaltation experienced by the incarnate Christ results in a (working) relationship with the Holy Spirit of new and unprecedented intimacy. They are one here, specifically, in giving (eschatological) “freedom” (3:17b), the close correlative of the resurrection life in view in 1 Corinthians 15. That correlation is particularly unmistakable in the phrasing of Romans 8:2: “…the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free….”

1:4. The correlation of the work of the Spirit and the work of Christ

We may note here that this exaltation-based equation underlies everything Paul teaches about the work of the Spirit in the church. For Paul there is no work of the Spirit within the believer that is not also the work of Christ.

That appears, for instance, in Romans 8:9-10. In short compass, “you…in the Spirit” (9a), “the Spirit…in you” (9b), “belonging to Christ” (9d, virtually equivalent to the frequent “in Christ”), and “Christ in you” (10a)—all the possible combinations—are used interchangeably; they hardly describe different experiences, distinct from each other, but the same reality in its full dimensions. There is no relationship with Christ that is not also fellowship with the Spirit; the presence of the Spirit is the presence of Christ; to belong to Christ is to be possessed by the Spirit.

This congruence is so, in our experience, not because of some more or less arbitrary divine arrangement, but preeminently because of what is true prior to our experience, in the experience of Christ—because of who the Spirit now is, “the Spirit of Christ” (9c), and who Christ has become, “the life-giving Spirit.”[13] So, elsewhere, for “you to be strengthened by [the] Spirit inwardly” is for “Christ to dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph 3:16-17).

The Spirit as ‘vicar’ of Christ

We may go on to note briefly that the statements of Paul so far considered connect with and reinforce emphases present in the teaching of Jesus. In John 14:12ff. the imminent departure-ascension of Jesus (“because I go to the Father,” v. 12; cf. 20:17) will entail, at the request of the ascended Jesus, the Father’s giving the Spirit to the disciples[14] (v. 16).[15] The before and after of the Spirit’s presence in view pivots on Jesus’ glorification; the former is a function of the latter (cf. 7:39). Pentecost[16] has the same epochal, once-for-all significance as Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.

This promised sending of the Spirit (14:16-17), however, carries with it another promise. “I,” Jesus continues (v. 18), “will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” In context, this almost surely means that the coming of the Spirit in view, as such, involves the coming of Jesus himself. Jesus’ departure is not a loss but “profitable” (16:7), because the consequent sending of the Spirit is also his own return; in this sense, his going (bodily) is his coming (in the person of the Spirit).[17]

The Spirit, then, we may say, is the “vicar” of Christ. As “the Spirit of truth,” he has no agenda of his own; his role in the church is basically self- effacing and Christ-enhancing (16:13-14 especially point to that), so much so that his presence in the church is, vicariously, the presence of the ascended Jesus.

In a virtually identical vein, the now resurrected Jesus who, as such, has been “given”[18] universal authority and power (exousia), declares in the well-known words that sanction the Great Commission: “I am with you always until the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). This declaration is best read not—at least not primarily—as an affirmation of divine omnipresence but as a promise of Pentecost and its enduring consequences. Again, the presence of the Spirit is the presence of Christ; Jesus will be with the church to the very end in the power of the Spirit. If Pentecost means anything, then, it means the exalted Jesus is here to stay, to be with his church, permanently.

It is hardly an invalid reading of Pauline (or Johannine) theology into Luke-Acts to recognize similar emphases there. Briefly, the overlap between the close of the Gospel (24:44ff.) and the beginning of Acts (1:3-11) is calculated to show that during the forty-day interim until his ascension, the resurrected Jesus taught the apostles (Acts 1:2), from the Old Testament (Luke 24:44-47), that the recent and impending events concerning him are epochal, decisive junctures in the coming of the kingdom of God (cf. esp. Acts 1:3); his sending/baptizing with the Spirit on Pentecost is as climactic an event, and as essential to the messianic work of salvation foreseen in the Old Testament, as are Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.

Peter reinforces that point, in fact it is a major emphasis, toward the close of his (essentially Christ-centered) Pentecost sermon. In Acts 2:32- 33, following out of his focus on the earthly activity, death and especially the resurrection of Jesus (vv. 22-31), he closely conjoins, in sequence: resurrection—ascension—reception of the Spirit[19]—outpouring of the Spirit. The last, Pentecost, is coordinate with the other events, conjoined with them in an especially intimate way; it is climactic and final on the order that they are; it is no more capable of being a repeatable paradigm event then they are. Resurrection—ascension—Pentecost, though temporally distinct, constitute a unified complex of events, a once-for-all, redemptive-historical unity, such that they are inseparable; the one is given with the others.

With this we have come full circle; back, in effect, to 1 Corinthians 15:45. The sequence Peter delineates in Acts 2:32-33 Paul telescopes by saying that Christ, as resurrected and ascended, has become “the life-giving Spirit.”

1:6. Pentecost as part of historia salutis

Pentecost, then, is an event, an integral event, in the historia salutis, not an aspect of the ordo salutis; Pentecost has its place in the once-for-all, completed accomplishment of redemption, not in its ongoing application or as a paradigm for individual Christian experience. To assess the primary significance of Pentecost as an empowering or gifting experience enjoyed by some believers in distinction from others and “beyond” salvation seen as the forgiveness of sins, as happens in the charismatic movement and elsewhere,[20] is seriously inadequate. Such an appraisal in fact makes too little, not too much, of Pentecost. There is nothing “second order,” or “subsidiary,” or “additional” about Pentecost.

In fact, without Pentecost there is no salvation. Period. Why? Because without what Pentecost documents the definitive, unrepeatable work of Christ for our salvation is incomplete. The task set before Christ was not only to secure the remission of sin but, more ultimately, as the grand outcome of his Atonement, life as well (e.g., John 10:10; 2 Tim 1:10)—eternal, eschatological, resurrection life, or, in other words, life in the Spirit.[21] Without that life “salvation” is obviously not only truncated but meaningless. And it is just that life, that completed salvation, and Christ as its giver[22] that is openly revealed at Pentecost. Pentecost publicly attests the finality and full sufficiency of Christ’s saving work, that he has become “the life-giving Spirit.” Pentecost is the redemptive-historical Spirit-seal (cf. Eph. 1:13) of Christ to the church on the forgiveness and eschatological life secured in his death, resurrection, and ascension.

Pentecost, along with the resurrection and ascension, marks Christ out as having received the Spirit—as the result of and reward for his obedience unto death (cf. Phil 2:8-9)—in order to give the Spirit (Acts 2:33); Pentecost shows the exalted Jesus to be the messianic receiver-giver of the Spirit. The soteriological “newness” of Pentecost, to use more formal, explicitly doctrinal terms, is not—at least not in the first place—anthropological-individual-experiential but christological and ecclesiological- missiological. Pentecost means two things especially: 1) The Spirit is now present, at last and permanently, on the basis of the finished work of Christ; he is the eschatological Spirit. 2) The Spirit is now “poured out on all flesh” (Acts 2:17), Gentiles as well as Jews; he is the universal Spirit.[23]

The difference, then, that Pentecost makes is primarily a difference for Christ, not believers. A contrasting profile emerges so far as the before and after of Pentecost are concerned: from the angle of historia salutis there is a radical, night-and-day, virtually all-or-nothing difference. Everything is staked on Christ’s actual accomplishment of salvation; before Christ there is nothing, after his coming and work, everything. From the angle of ordo salutis, however, there is essential continuity. Before and after differences (old and new covenants) in experiencing the Spirit there no doubt are. But, as far as I can see, Scripture is not particularly concerned to spell them out. Such differences resist neat, clear categorization and can only be loosely captured by terms like “better”[24] or “enlarged,” “greater,” “fuller.”[25]

In this connection it strikes me that Pentecostal/charismatic authors have remarkably little to say about the closing words of Luke’s Gospel (24:52-53). This, after all, is the note Luke chooses to end on, the impression he wishes to leave with Theophilus until Part Two arrives. This closing includes the following elements: the apostles and other disciples (v. 33), now, since their contact with the resurrected and just ascended Jesus, with hearts inflamed (v. 32) and minds opened (v. 45), worshiping “with great joy,” and “praising God,” “continually” and publicly (“in the temple”). All this sounds fairly impressive to me, and is in full continuity with their (Spirit-filled) experience after Pentecost. This is just one more indication how little the primary point of Pentecost is individual Christian experience or empowerment, postconversion or otherwise.[26]

Finally here, in its climactically Christ-centered significance, Pentecost fulfills “the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4; cf. 2:33; Luke 24:49). This identification gives our salvation-historical outlook on Pentecost its full breadth. Pentecost is the fulfillment of that promise at the core of all old covenant expectation, the primeval promise that shaped the subsequent course and outcome of covenant history—the promise to Abraham that in him all peoples would be blessed (Gen 12:2-3). That is how Paul, for one, views Pentecost in Galatians 3:14: through the redemption accomplished by Christ, “the promise of the Spirit” is at the very least integral, perhaps even identical,[27] to “the blessing of Abraham” come to the Gentiles.

All in all—from a full, trinitarian perspective—Pentecost points to the epochal fulfillment of the ultimate design and expectation of God’s covenant purposes: God in the midst of his people in triune fullness. Pentecost brings to the church the initial, “firstfruits” (cf. Rom 8:23) realization of the Emmanuel principle on an irrevocable because eschatological scale.

1:7. The experience of the Spirit

The impression is widespread, particularly within the charismatic movement, that maintaining the epochal, once-for-all, redemptive-historical significance of Pentecost means denying that the Holy Spirit baptism has any experiential significance or implications. That impression, however, would be the farthest from the truth. Undeniably, the Spirit come at Pentecost is the author of varied and profound experiential realities in believers; as such, he is the source of not just some but all Christian experience. There can be no question from the viewpoint of the New Testament: not to experience the Spirit—in a vital, transforming, and thus powerful way—is not to have the Spirit at all. That is not, or at least should not be, at issue between the Reformed tradition and the charismatic movement, nor within the Reformed community.

1 Corinthians 12:13 points to the individual believer’s share in the Spirit come at Pentecost. This, the one New Testament reference, apart from those in Luke-Acts, to being “baptized with[28]the Spirit,” shows how the epochal, once-for-all event (historia salutis) subsequently becomes effective in the life of the believer (ordo salutis). Two points are plain: (1) “All” (in Christ’s body, the church, cf. v. 12), not just some, have been Spirit- baptized; “all” have a share in the Pentecostal gift. (2) That experience takes place at the point of coming “into” the fellowship of Christ’s body (that is, at conversion), not subsequently.[29]

Something of the full range of experience that flows from sharing in this gift is captured especially by Paul’s command (to the church) to be “filled” with the Spirit (Eph 5:18). As the (present tense) form of this imperative in Greek makes clear, this “filling” presence of the Spirit is to be an ongoing, ever-repeated concern for every believer. And as the verses that immediately follow show (5:19-6:9),[30] in the ebb and flow that varies from believer to believer, this filling is (to be) an all-controlling dynamic that transforms attitudes and actions in every area of life—in worship and interpersonal relations within the church, in marriage and the family, on the job. Elsewhere, believers are to seek the Spirit’s diverse and well-apportioned gifts constantly given for the edification and mission of the church (e.g., Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:1-11, 28-31; Eph 4:7-13). Negatively, believers are exhorted against “grieving” (Eph 4:30) and “extinguishing” (1 Thess 5:19) the ongoing work of the Spirit in the church as real dangers.

These observations may, and need to be, developed much more extensively than I am able to do here. But I hope they at least suffice to show that emphasizing the once-for-all, christological significance of Pentecost is not at odds with recognizing, indeed emphasizing, that the Spirit come at Pentecost is the source of Christian experience. Pentecost, in its significance for Christian experience, is not to be assessed in terms of some particular aspect(s) of the Spirit’s activity, in distinction from other aspects. Rather, Pentecost brings the Spirit in the full range of his activity in the church/within believers, on the basis, as we have seen, of the finished work of Christ and as the culminating fruit of that work.

1:8. Pentecost a once-only event

In this connection we may go on to note that some recent Reformed writers reject the notion that Pentecost is a singular or epochal event in the once-for-all accomplishment of our redemption. In fact, for some their rejection is most emphatic. One of the major conclusions of Prof. van Bruggen, in his address to this Conference in 1989, is that “Being baptized with the Holy Spirit’ is not a once-for-all event ….,” a view that earlier in the address he assesses as “impossible.”[31] Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones registers his disapproval in even stronger, more unsparing terms.[32]

It seems to me, if I understand these authors correctly, that their rejection rests on a certain degree of misunderstanding which stems, at least in part, from not clearly maintaining the historia salutis-ordo salutis distinction. That misunderstanding may be seen from what they see threatened or denied by the notion of Pentecost as a once-for-all event. For van Bruggen, it is that Pentecost (the “being poured out of/being baptized with the Spirit”) is “a permanent reality in which believers share again and again and in different ways,” “a continuing reality of the work of Jesus Christ in his believers.”[33] And Lloyd-Jones draws the surely remarkable (I would have to say for myself, astonishing) conclusion that if Pentecost is a once-for-all event, then “it is very wrong to pray for revival”![34]

But why disjunctions like these? They appear to betray a certain misperception of what is intended by the expression “once for all.” It is not merely an emphatic synonym for “once.” It does not mean, as these authors seem to think, something like “simply having happened in the past with no consequences for the present.” That is no more true of Christ’s baptizing with the Spirit than it is for his death, resurrection, and ascension, with which (especially the ascension), as we have seen (Acts 2:32-33), Pentecost forms a single event-complex. The accent here falls on “once-for-allness,” on the reality enduring for all times and places of what has taken place definitively and unrepeatably in the past.[35] In fact, it is just the-once-all nature of Pentecost that guarantees the permanent presence of the Spirit in the church and within every believer, in all of his rich and varied activity (cf. again 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13- 14).[36]

In terms of the covenantal structure of the Christian life, Holy Spirit baptism is an indicative, not an imperative. The New Testament never commands believers to seek to be baptized with the Spirit. Rather, as we were just noting, a share in that baptism is presupposed for every believer (1 Cor 12:13[37]) , and that they share in the gift of the Spirit come at Pentecost is the absolutely essential basis for exhorting believers concerning every aspect of the Spirit’s ongoing activity in their lives.

1:9. Conclusion

All told, then, in its postapostolic era as well, the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church is also the truly Pentecostal church. As such, as Schilder long ago reminded us, 38 the church is not to be caught up in a (redemptive-historically anachronistic) “Back to Pentecost ” nostalgia. Its motto, instead, ought to be “Forward from Pentecost … in the Christ-conforming power of the life-giving Spirit.”

End of Part I

Part II

The Question of Cessation

An issue that continues, in large part, to divide between the Reformed tradition and the charismatic movement is whether certain gifts of the Spirit, essential to distinctive charismatic spirituality, are present in the church today. Specifically, the debate focuses on prophecy and tongues, and, to a lesser extent, the gift of healing.[39] With the complexity of this issue and the time limits on us here in view, I confine myself to some reflections on the disagreement currently present within the Reformed community as to whether a credible case can be made from Scripture, with the passing of the apostles from the life of the church, for the cessation of these gifts, particularly prophecy.

2:1. Objections to cessationism

A number of Reformed writers hold that such a case cannot be made and that we should be open, in varying degrees, to the possibility or perhaps even expect that one or more of these gifts may occasionally be given today.[40] Further, and more significantly, in 1991 the synod of the Reformed Churches of Australia adopted, and subsequently has acted to defend, the view that prophecy continues today, and so may be expected and sought.[41]

An overall objection to the argument for cessation is that “it is clearly a too-simple and too-mechanical conception of things.”[42] Such a “streep-theologie,” as it has been labeled, involves positing a discontinuity, a break, between the apostolic and postapostolic periods of the church that draws more from the New Testament than it will bear. More particularly, substantial objection is taken to the view of most cessationsists that the continuation of prophecy in the church today would undermine the sufficiency and completeness of the biblical canon. To the contrary, these noncessationists maintain, New Testament prophecy is not on a par with existing Scripture or apostolic teaching but has a lower (nonbinding, presumably fallible) authority, so that cessationists are deemed guilty of creating a false and entirely unnecessary dilemma. I respond to these objections here in reverse order.

2:2. A lower view of N. T. prophecy

There are a number of problems with the lower authority view of prophecy which I can do little more than indicate here.[43]

First, this view does not have an adequate explanation for Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5, where within the apostle’s sweeping outlook (2:11ff.), the prophets are pictured, along with the apostles, as part of the foundation of the (one) church-house being built by the exalted Christ in the period between his resurrection and return.[44] The (New Testament) prophets, like the apostles, belong to the (temporary) time of laying the church’s foundation, not the period of the superstructure that follows. Specifically, their foundational role, together with the apostles, consists in providing a foundational, once-for-all revelation to the foundational, once-for-all redemption accomplished by the “cornerstone,” Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11).[45]

Second, the two explicit instances of nonapostolic prophecy in the New Testament—the prophecies of Agabus in Acts 11:28 and 21:10-11—do not support the view that it was nonbinding and/or fallible.[46] To the contrary, there is no indication in these passages that Agabus spoke anything less than the inspired word of God. In fact, the lower authority view of prophecy is unable to offer a single supporting New Testament example.

Third, some brief comments may be made about several texts frequently offered as evidence that (nonapostolic) prophecy has a lower authority.

In 1 Corinthians 14:29, the passage most often cited in support of the lower authority view, the verb applied to prophecy diakrino has a broad semantic range; it may have a variety of senses, depending on the particular context, and may be variously translated (“evaluate,” “test,” “judge,” “weigh”). Here there is nothing in Paul’s usage to demand that, because what is prophesied is subject to “testing,” it is therefore fallible or had a lower authority.[47]

It is difficult to see how 1 Corinthians 14:36a provides convincing evidence of lower authority prophecy. Paul’s question there (“did the word of God originate with you?”) is almost certainly addressed not to the prophets specifically but to the whole church at Corinth, in relation to other churches (see v. 33b). Together with the question in the latter part of the verse, it is “biting rhetoric”;[48] it has the force of something like “Does the truth begin and end with you?,” “Do you have a corner on the gospel and its implications?”

Nor does Paul’s peremptory command to the prophets in verses 37-38 establish their lower authority. No more than his sharp rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 means that the latter did not teach with full, infallible authority when he properly exercised his apostolic office. At issue here (and throughout this passage) is not the content of prophecy (and its relative authority), but theconduct of those who prophesy.

Of itself 1 Thessalonians 5:20 (“do not treat prophecies with contempt”) does not seem to carry much weight, if for no other reason that in 2 Corinthians 10:10 Paul uses the same verb to describe his opponents derogatory assessment of his preaching, as “beneath contempt” (New English Bible). True, this applies to the formal side of his speaking (his “style”), in distinction from that of his letters, but a disparaging reflection on content as well can hardly be eliminated.

Fourth, 1 Corinthians 12:28, it seems to me, presents the lower authority view of prophecy with a monumental predicament. Here the order is expressed: “… first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, ….” There is general agreement that this ranking has to do with value or usefulness.[49] If that is so, then the lower authority view is left with the following conclusion: in the church, prophecy, always subject to evaluation as fallible and therefore never binding on anyone, is more useful and edifying than teaching based on God’s clear, authoritative, and inerrant word! Prophecy takes precedence over such teaching! An obviously unwanted and unacceptable conclusion, I would hope. Yet how, on this view, can it be avoided?

Finally, virtually all who hold the lower authority view insist that such prophecy as does or may occur today is always subordinate to Scripture and must be tested by it, so that its unimpaired sufficiency and authority is not only not threatened but maintained.

But, we must ask, how will such testing take place? Prophecy in the New Testament (e.g., Agabus), and as it allegedly takes place today, sometimes has a specificity that simply can’t be evaluated by existing Scripture. For instance, a particular course of action urged upon an individual or group on the basis, say, of the contents of a dream, can’t be judged by the Bible other than where the proposed action would involve violating a biblical commandment.

For the rest, it is a matter of trying to judge “apples” by “oranges.” Scripture by its very nature is silent just on those details that give the dream its specific and distinct (and sought-after) “revelatory” significance and appeal.[50] The tendency of this view, no matter how carefully qualified, is to divert attention from Scripture, particularly in practical and pressing life issues.

2:3. The organic nature of revelation

Rather than it being the cessationist position that is “too mechanical,” it is those who hold that prophecy does or at least may, in principle, continue today, I suggest, who have too abstract and too inorganic a conception of the origin and nature of the New Testament canon and so of the role of New Testament prophecy. What this view fails to assess is that the prophetic activity described in the New Testament takes place, by the nature of the case, in an “open canon” situation (relative to our 27 book canon); in other words, prophecy occurs at a time when the New Testament documents were still in the process of being written. To put it another way, the “canon” (=where God’s word may be found) for the church during its foundational, apostolic period was a fluid, evolving entity, made up of three factors: 1) a completed Old Testament; 2) eventual New Testament and other inspired documents, no longer extant (e.g., the “previous letter” mentioned in 1 Cor 5:9), as each was written and then circulated; and 3) an oral apostolic and prophetic voice. Provocatively stated, the church at the time the New Testament was being written, was not and could not yet be committed, as a formal principle, to the sola Scriptura of the Reformation; they lived, to be sure, as we do today, by God’s word, but in doing so they lived by a “Scripture plus” principle of revelation and authority. The noncessationist view being considered here, certainly despite its intention and its clear desire to subordinate contemporary prophecy to Scripture, nonetheless takes us back, anachronistically, to the open canon situation of the early church. But that happens without the control of a living apostolate or, apparently, of those with the companion gift mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10, which most likely functioned for infallibly distinguishing between true and false prophecy.

This view, it remains difficult for me to see otherwise, opens the door to revelation in the life of the church today that is neither (inscripturated) special, redemptive revelation nor general revelation. What is affirmed is a third kind of revelation that goes beyond both. It is more than “revelation” in the sense of the Spirit’s illumination for today of already revealed truth (Eph. 1:17; Phil. 3:15),[51] more than thoughtful reflection and prayerful wrestling, prompted by the Spirit, about contemporary circumstances and problems in the light of Scripture. In view is additional, immediate revelation, that functions, especially where guidance is concerned, beyond Scripture and so unavoidably implies a certain insufficiency in Scripture that needs to be compensated for.[52]

But God does not reveal himself, as this view would in effect have it, along two tracks—one public, canonical, for the whole people of God, infallible and completed; the other private, to individual persons and groups, fallible and continuing. I do little more than assert that here, but that assertion, I take it, the fabric of Scripture from beginning to end, as a covenant-historical record, massively supports. During this century, especially, I remind us, we have become increasingly aware that the Bible is a redemptive—or covenant-historical record, not a systematic-theological textbook or a manual of ethics (as there has been a long tendency to treat it, at least in practice); it is “not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest.”[53] But there is need as well to recognize, much more frequently than has so far happened, the redemptive-historical rationale not only for the content but also for the giving of revelation. Here, once again, the historia salutis-ordo salutis distinction proves crucial. Revelatory word is tethered to redemptive deed, in the sense of once-for-all accomplishment, not its ongoing application.[54]With the completion of the latter (redemption) comes the cessation of the former (revelation).

2:4. The working of the Spirit

Finally, I wish to say here that any sound theology of the Holy Spirit will be left with a certain remainder, an unaccounted-for surplus, an area of mystery. The cessationist position, at least as I wish to maintain and defend it, is least of all driven by a rationalistic discomfort with the supernatural or a desire to have everything tied up in a nice, tidy little package. The truth of John 3:8a, for instance, has to be respected; the sovereign working of the Spirit, like the wind, is ultimately incalculable.

At the same time, however—and this appears to be an increasing danger in our time—we ought not to embrace a kind of “whimsy of the Spirit,” a heightened preoccupation with the unexpected and incalculable and unusual in what he is presently doing in the world. For in his own sovereignty the Spirit has seen fit to circumscribe his activity and to structure what he does today largely according to the patterns revealed in Scripture. Those patterns, not what may take place beyond them, need be and must be our only concern. The truly incalculable in the Spirit’s working today ought to remain just that, unexpected and, more importantly, unsought. Conversely, what can be anticipated ceases to that extent to be unpredictable.

It seems to me that this point is being missed by proponents of the view that the New Testament leaves prophecy an open and live, but no more than optional, possibility today. In the New Testament there is nothing optional or merely possible about prophecy. It was a normal and integral part of church order and life. When God’s people gathered for worship there was nothing unusual about the occurrence of prophecy; it was an expected element in their worship (e.g., 1 Cor 12-14). For the church today prophecy is either mandatory and therefore ought to be sought (1 Cor 14:39), or it has ceased. To entertain some other, presumably more “moderate” option only confuses the church, with the unhealthy consequences I have already tried to indicate.

The cessationist view is accused—I’ve heard it often enough—of trying to “put the Spirit in a box.” But we must not fail to recognize that for now (that is, in the postapostolic era of the church), until Jesus comes, according to Scripture, the Spirit has sovereignly chosen to “box” himself in. The dimensions of this “box” we may never minimize; they are large and liberating, indeed awesome. But, in the freedom of the Spirit, they are fixed. That was the rediscovery granted especially to the Reformation and led, inevitably, to its two-front stance—against the tradition principle of Rome, on the one hand, against the Radical Reformation with its claims of extrabiblical revelations, on the other. On both fronts it asserted what it saw threatened: the inseparability of word and Spirit (Spiritus cum verbo), the unbreakable bond between the Spirit’s working and the inscripturated word.

That struggle is not over; it is in fact perennial and carries the potential for undermining the power of the Reformation today. In the name of the Spirit, some continue to place church tradition on a virtual par with Scripture and others claim new revelations and guidance apart from Scripture. Nothing on a par with Scripture and nothing apart from Scripture—that remains the critical issue. Of that Reformed churches surely owe it to the Lord of the church continually to remind both themselves and those in the charismatic movement.

End of part II/FINISH



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