Cessationism Undermines the Bible

My previous posting about tongues continues a theme which has been developing on this blog in the last few weeks, my argument against the cessationist position that the gifts of the Holy Spirit no longer operate in today’s church. Here I want to make what seems to me one of the most telling arguments against cessationism, which is that it undermines the authority of the Bible.

I am glad that on this matter I can agree with Adrian Warnock, despite our past differences on the position of women in the church. Adrian wrote, arguing against cessationism:

Why, on the one hand, are we at liberty to ignore Paul’s clear commands to the Corinthians to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts” and to “not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39) when, on the other hand, we are expected to accept all of his other commands to local churches as applying to us today? If these two commands do not apply to us, which other of Paul’s commands also do not apply? How are we then meant to decide which of Paul’s commands we are going to obey and which we are going to ignore?

Many of my readers have appreciated my posting on Bible deists, based largely on Jack Deere’s book Surprised by the Voice of God. So I will turn again to this book. In it Deere uses much the same argument as Adrian’s when he explains, in chapter 18, “Unbelief through Theology”, how when he was a cessationist and Bible deist he used to argue against those who claimed that God speaks today apart from Scripture. Here are some extracts from his argument, starting on p.275:

But my opponents were not so easily discouraged. In desperation they searched the New Testament until they came up with some examples of nonapostolic people hearing God’s voice just like the apostles did. They used examples where God spoke very specifically about nonmoral matters. For example, Agabus, a prophet, not an apostle, accurately predicted a famine that “spread over the entire Roman world” (Acts 11:28). This prophecy was particularly embarrassing. It concerned food, or better, the lack of food. It was one of the topics about which I said God didn’t speak. … How could I discard examples like these? It wasn’t easy. My opponents were now shooting bullets that the shield of the apostles couldn’t stop. I needed a bulletproof vest to survive this attack.

Deere continues by finding an argument from “historical necessity” to explain that Agabus’ prophecy was unique. But his opponents rejected this, and so he writes, on pp.276-277 (emphasis is Deere’s):

My bulletproof vest of historical necessity couldn’t protect me against cannon shells. How could I argue that the modern church was no longer faced with “historical necessities” that required answers from the voice of God? … I needed a fortress or else I was going down before these kinds of biblical examples. At this point, I discovered the very fortress I needed. It was impenetrable!Only During the Period of the Open Canon

“You have to understand that these kinds of revelations were given before the Bible was completed. Neither Agabus nor the others had all the completed Bible, which tells us how important unity really is,” I replied. That was the clincher. In these arguments, the phrase I dearly loved was, “that happened during the period of the open canon.” The word “canon” means the list of books that belong in the Bible. The canon was “open” while the New Testament writings were being added to it. Somehow everything was different in this period. It was supernatural, perhaps too supernatural. It was also too subjective. But that was only because it was “the period of the open canon.” What a great phrase! I could demolish any argument with it. Any example could be explained away by that profound phrase. Let God speak as often as he wanted during the period of the open canon. Let him speak to nonapostles, even to absolute dummies, or better yet, even through dumb animals. None of these examples was relevant because they all came from the period of the open canon. Now, however, we had the period of the Bible. And the Bible had replaced all other forms of God’s communication. There weren’t two tracks of revelation – only one, the Bible. So let my opponent use any biblical example from Genesis to Revelation. It didn’t matter if the example had the force of an atomic bomb, I had found a theological fortress that could withstand the blast. “Sorry,” I would say, “your example comes from the time before the Bible was completed. You can’t use it now that we are in the period of the completed Bible.” …

Perhaps by now you’ve come to appreciate the brilliant character of my methodology. No matter what example you brought to me from the Bible I could discount its contemporary relevance. It never occurred to me that these four arguments actually eliminated the use of all biblical examples in theological discussion. Every biblical example must be drawn from the period of the open canon.

This way of arguing actually meant, “I have made up my mind on this matter and I will not allow any verse from the Bible to challenge or correct my position.”

In other words, Deere is effectively showing that his former cessationist position, although on the surface exalting the Bible above fallible human experience, in fact undermines the Bible and robs it of its authority. For his argument about the period of the open canon can be applied not just to biblical examples, but also to explicit biblical teaching. For example, Paul explicitly teaches the Corinthians to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1, TNIV). But if these gifts operated only during the period of the open canon, then this instruction of Paul’s applies only to this period. Yet there is no explicit teaching in the Bible about this limitation. So, in this case, as Adrian wrote:

How are we then meant to decide which of Paul’s commands we are going to obey and which we are going to ignore?

Answering a Pyromaniac on Tongues

There is an interesting discussion going on mainly between Adrian Warnock and Dan Phillips (one of the Pyromaniacs) about the gift of tongues. Dan argues against Adrian from the cessationist position which I have mentioned in other recent postings, that this gift and all other gifts of the Holy Spirit are no longer in operation today.

I made the following comment on part 3 of Dan’s series – I could have demolished more of his arguments, but chose what seemed to be his weakest points:

Dan, a couple of points to clarify some of your very dodgy exegesis.

First, on Acts 2:17-18, you seem to imply that you understand this to refer to the authoring of Scripture. Thus you seem to restrict “all flesh … your sons and daughters … my male servants and female servants” to the Apostles, and the very few others who wrote Scripture. Was the audience restricted to the apostles’ parents? Were any of the Scripture authors anyone’s daughters? Is “all flesh” to be understood as referring to something like a dozen people at most? No, surely the clear intention of Peter, as reported by Luke, is to say that in these last days (or is today a period after the last days?) this prophecy can be applied to everyone, that all can expect to prophesy. This is of course precisely in agreement with what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:1, that all should aspire to prophesy.

And then, referring to 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 and Isaiah 28:11-12, you wrote “The “tongues” Paul writes of are the “tongues” Isaiah wrote of, and those “tongues” are human, foreign languages.” I don’t think so. Look at the context in Isaiah 28. In verses 10 and 13 we have the very words which God uses to speak to his people: צַו לָצָו צַו לָצָו קַו לָקָו קַו לָקָו tsaw latsaw tsaw latsaw qaw laqaw qaw laqaw. These are NOT words in any foreign language, at least as far as I know. Most Bible translations do a disservice by trying to translate the words as if they were Hebrew, although really they are not, they are nonsense syllables (in fact I wouldn’t blame you for suggesting that they are something like some modern charismatic “tongues”!). The point is that they are supposed to be some kind of nonsense baby talk – and (in v.13) they are not supposed to be a comprehensible message, because God’s purpose is that it should not be understood.

This is of course a rather complex issue, but it certainly does not support your contention that biblical tongues are always real human languages. In fact it is probably a counter-example, to go along with other counter-examples such as 1 Corinthians 14:4. And (apart from your suggestion that Paul is saying that speaking in tongues is something one should not do, refuted by v.18) the only argument you have to dismiss the counter-examples is that they contradict Paul’s “own flat-out and in-so-many-words statement that tongues are human languages” – which is in fact not at all “flat-out and in so many words” referring to ALL tongues but a quotation from a rather complex and obscure passage in Isaiah which does not necessarily refer to all tongues or to human languages at all. So, it seems to me, you are using the unclear to explain the clear, the opposite of how you should do exegesis in such circumstances.

In part 2 you wrote, “An ironclad case can be (and has been) made from Scripture that tongues were always supernaturally acquired human languages.” Is this your ironclad case? (Where by the way is there any indication that the tongues of Isaiah 28 were supernaturally acquired?) It seems that your iron cladding is in fact very thin and rusty, and can very easily be demolished by the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, which has supernatural power to destroy strongholds. And since all of what you wrote in part 2 depends on this “ironclad case”, now that that case has collapsed the whole of part 2 has been invalidated. In fact I don’t think much is left of any of your arguments.

And then I wrote the following as a comment on part 4 of the series:

Dan, I won’t make a long comment here like I just made on part 3 (which in fact managed to refute part 2 as well). But I do want to object to your caricature of charismatic services. You wrote:

If you’ve been to many Charismatic services, you don’t need me to go on. You could fill in gaps yourself—how the music is geared and chanted to excite the emotions directly, the preaching aimed at working directly on the emotions, the bodily choreography devised to create a mood and a feeling. It’s sheer psychological manipulation, though in many cases no doubt with the best of intentions.

This is probably an accurate description of some charismatic services. It is certainly not an accurate description of all of them. In particular, your description of charismatic preaching is so wide of the mark as to be libellous. You can for example download and listen to the sermons from my charismatic Anglican church (I recommend the recent series on Acts by Mones Farah), or Adrian Warnock’s sermons (which I admit I haven’t listened to myself). Listen and then tell us if these are really “aimed at working directly on the emotions … sheer psychological manipulation“.

I am sure that Adrian and I, as well as very many other charismatics, would agree on teaching that Christians need a proper balance between the Spirit and the Word, avoiding both the over-emphasis on the Spirit of your caricature charismatics and the over-emphasis on the Word of many cessationists. This is the main point I was trying to make in my own recent posting on Bible deists, especially the final passage quoted from the former cessationist Jack Deere who, it seems to me, has now found something like the right balance.

I am repeating these comments here for a clearer record, in other words so that Dan cannot just delete them if he can’t answer them, and also to bring others into this discussion.

Many new hits

I am encouraged to see from my hit counter (click the map on the right side panel, or here) that I am gaining readership from all round the world, from every continent except Antarctica, including something over 70 locations in the USA, one in the Yukon and one right in the middle of the Australian desert – if the higher resolution version of the map is accurate.

I guess my Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches series and my Bible Deists posting have been popular. The latter has been linked to from Henry Neufeld’s Participatory Bible Study blog – thank you, Henry. This may have generated a number of extra hits. Henry offers a useful, and freely downloadable, introduction “I Want to Study the Bible” – although I would never have the patience to read through a passage his recommended twelve times! And, from a brief look, there is a lot of other good material on that blog.