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?