Monday, August 12, 2013

Apostolic Sign Gifts: An Inadequate Hermeneutic Generates Inferior Exegesis

“Noncessationists and other fringe evangelical subgroups who have been uneasy with trying to defend their systems from the Bible have taken advantage of the new hermeneutical subjectivism to present for the first time a biblical defense for what they believe. That is why so many new “isms” like noncessationism are cropping up among evangelicals. The new “isms” are difficult to deal with because evangelicals have as yet to isolate the root cause of the deviations: a change in principles of interpretation.” [Thomas, The Hermeneutics of Noncessationism, TMS Journal]

The question that has served as the topic of interest as of late is one that has been asked and answered before. That question is approached quite differently today by some in the neo-reformed camp. These men, having been influenced by modern hermeneutics, unwittingly rush to the defense of a system that places the entire foundation of the Christian Church at risk. The bedrock of human knowledge rests upon a distinctly Christian epistemology. Any belief that touches on this area has the potential to influence Christian thought at its most basic level. Since a distinctly Christian epistemology is revelational in nature, any shift in how Christian theology understands the nature of revelation will unavoidably touch the Christian’s views on epistemology. I am hopeful that this will become even more apparent as I deal with some of Steve Hays’s defense of Pentecostal theology.

The impact of Hays’s hermeneutic on his exegesis is felt immediately in how he reads 1 Cor. 15:8. Hays says, “By his [Paul] own admission, his apostleship was somewhat anomalous.” Hays interprets a passage that deals with resurrection appearances as one that supposedly treats Paul’s apostleship. Concerning this text, Anthony Thiselton writes,
The emphasis lies not simply on Paul’s place among the witnesses, and it is not primarily, if at all, a defense of his apostleship as such (against P. von Osten-Sacken; with Murphy-O’Connor and Mitchell). The emphasis lies in the undeserved grace of God (explicated further on v. 10), who chooses to give life and new creation to those reckoned as dead, or, in Paul’s case, both a miscarried, aborted foetus whose stance had been hostile to Christ and to the new people of God. [Thiselton, NIGTC, I Corinthians]

Hays takes 1 Cor. 12 to mean that any “garden-variety Christians could work miracles.” But is this what Paul said? Surely it is not! Paul’s focus is not on individual gifts but on the purpose and source of these gifts. They are given by the Holy Spirit for the corporate body of believers. He says nothing about who the recipients are or can be, only that the dispersing of them is under the sovereign discretion of God. It is evident that a modern attitude, influenced by modern hermeneutics and in this case, Pentecostal theology, are driving Hays’s exegesis.

Hays points out that we must recognize that the terminology of “signs and wonders” is tied to the deliverance of Israel. For Hays, these miracles serve as a model of sorts. But this is odd coming from Hays. Such a model seemingly lends itself to the cessationist position. The New Covenant is ushered in with the sign of Joel the prophet, like a trumpet sounding God’s new program. The significance of the Apostolic period is that Christ had ushered in the New Covenant and God provided irrefutable evidence to that end by signs, and wonders, and miraculous events. But these signs pointed to something far greater. They were the trumpet that sounded the new message, the message of hope, of life, the message that Messiah had come and redemption had arrived. Failure to interpret these works of God through this grid does irreparable harm to the entire plan of God’s redemptive acts in history.
Hays then asserts,
“There's also the matter of how cessationism needs to define its terms or classify the charismata. Cessationism denies modern prophecy. That includes God speaking to people or through people as well as revelatory dreams and visions. So cessationism must define or classify prophetic phenomena of this sort as miraculous signs or sign-gifts.”
Hays’s problem seems to rest with his hermeneutic. He is lost in the forest when what he needs to do is ask higher-level questions about the purpose and timing of the charismata, rising above the tree tops and looking down to see what is going on in terms of God’s redemptive program at this time in history. He seems to want to view this period through the same grid with which he views his own. Such an approach can only result in unfortunate error, as is becoming more and more evident.

Hays contends that cessationism must index the sign-gifts to the apostles in order for them to terminate when the apostles die off. This is simply not true. That men were gifted with sign-gifts who were not apostles is clear. That these gifts continued until their own death is likely, even if that death occurred after the apostles died. What is asserted is that the gifts ceased to function soon after the last apostles died because those who had been sanctioned under the apostles died. Can you imagine if God endowed men who were outside apostolic sanction to perform the identical miracles of the apostles and the two groups advertised contradictory doctrine or messages? How would such a state of affairs not produce utter chaos? These are exactly the kind of concerns that Hays disregards because they advance unresolvable difficulties that continuationists are scarcely prepared to remedy.

Hays argues that the fact that other men were endowed with these gifts ipso facto means that they were not unique to the apostles and therefore there is no logical way to argue they disappeared or should have disappeared after the apostles passed off the scene. What Hays seems to forget is that this scheme for understanding the gifts was brought about by the historical fact that this is in fact what happened. A driving factor for this interpretation is the fact that historically speaking, these gifts passed off the scene. This puzzling historical fact contributed to our understanding of the purpose for these signs in the first place. Understood through that context, it makes perfect sense. Does Hays think that we adopted this interpretation because we don’t like miracles or healings or that we would not like to be able to give the gospel in perfect French without having to study it? It is the facts of history and the truth of Scripture that drives us to these conclusions, not some predisposed rejection of the possibility of miracles.

Hays makes another strange argument,
“A related problem with the cessationist claim is that NT miracles aren't confined to "sign-gifts." For instance, revelatory dreams and visions are private rather than public revelation. Only the individual recipient is directly privy to this experience. As such, you can't say the only function of miracles is to legitimate the message or the messenger. For divine authentication would only work if the accreditation process was open to public inspection.”
But there are no such private revelations given that we know about. Why is this? Because all of them that we know about are recorded in Scripture and as such, they are public revelation and this means they are signs. And if they are truly private, then we don’t know about them. Hays’s reasoning in this regard is indeed puzzling. Mary’s encounter with Gabriel was private to her at the time, but we all know about it. And we know about it for a reason! God made sure of it. When God reveals private things, such as dreams to someone and that fact is recorded in Scripture, they are no longer private. Hays’s hermeneutic takes on a hyper-individualistic flavor here. He focuses on the individual encounter when what he should focus on is God’s program. Why did God do this and for whose benefit? Why is it recorded in Scripture? Moreover, is the individual perspective the one we should focus on or is it the fact that God has acted in this manner in order to reveal His works to the community of believers at large? This is group-think versus the individual. Hays continues to focus on the individual and I think this is the product of American culture.

It is interesting that Hays would interpret Warfield the way he does. He interrupts Warfield as if to force a view onto Warfield that Warfield himself is plainly contradicting. And then he accuses Warfield of skating over the counterevidence. If Hays hopes to argue for no distinction between the signs wrought by apostles and those wrought by non-apostles, the Samaritan account dashes his hopes to shreds. The ability to impart the Holy Spirit, Who is the sign and seal of the New Covenant, seems to be something that only the apostles were capable of doing. (Acts 8:14-17) In addition, Hays makes a false distinction between apostles and non-apostles. It is better if we make the distinction between apostolically sanctioned versus non-apostolically sanctioned. The nature of the relationship between the signs and wonders of NT ministry and the NT faith, the tradition, the message, what came to be the sacred writings, cannot itself be overemphasized. We have a new message authenticated by the miracles of the Messiah's closest disciples. Jesus came on the scene demonstrating His own divinity, and He selected exactly these men to hear and proclaim His message. He enabled these men and their trusted delegates to signify the authoritative nature of their message with signs and wonders. These were not ordinary men carrying an ordinary message. Quite the contrary! While we cannot draw dogmatic conclusions about the apostolic imparting of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we must at a minimum acknowledge that Luke recorded this event for a reason and that God reveals it to us all for a reason. 

The signs wrought in the NT, beginning with Christ, to and beyond Pentecost are best understood in light of the initiation of the New Covenant. They were not to draw attention to themselves, which is what most Pentecostals think. They were not given to entertain or to leave the crowd dazzled, which is again, how many Pentecostals think. The “signs and wonders” were predicted to be the phenomena that would signify the ushering in of a New Covenant. God would now pour out His Spirit on ALL flesh. Salvation would be provided for ALL races in Christ. Redemption in Christ through faith for all men would now be the message proclaimed by God’s Holy Messengers. With the New Covenant comes a new standard, a new revelation by which we are all to know, and live and trust the Messiah. The Apostles were entrusted with that message as God’s authoritative messengers. The sign of tongues was given to the 120, then to the Samaritans, the Gentiles, and finally John’s disciples as a sign that ALL races would be saved without distinction. The same gift of the Holy Spirit given to the Apostles and Jews was given to the other groups. Why tongues? In truth, we cannot be sure. We may say that God’s great curse of the races centered on the sign of language creating division, and now His great blessing of unity across the races centered also on the sign of language. There is more that could be said about that, but such is beyond the scope of this post.

We must see the NT age in light of God’s program from Genesis to Revelation. God gives us a revelation that brings with it objective clarity. There is no radical subjectivity, or arbitrariness, no hedonistic focus on the individual. God is doing something new at Pentecost and it is the last time He will do so until He does something new and permanent at the Parousia, when His Kingdom appears once and for all.

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