Sunday, August 11, 2013
The Gifts that Are Not and Extra Biblical Revelation in Pentecostal Theology
We keep hearing about John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference coming up in November and how all the Pentecostal folks and their sympathizers are distressed over the issue of the continuation of certain gifts within the Christian Church. I have written a few blogs about this controversy and have had an opportunity to interact with Steve Hays over at Triablogue on the subject. I categorize Hays as a sympathizer of Pentecostal theology given his statements and his apparent theological paradigm.
There are two basic issues I want to point out in this blog. One concerns the question of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ and the other considers that nature of revelation, extra biblical and otherwise.
First of all, I think it is necessary to point out that there are a number of gifts that God has placed in the body of Christ, all for her spiritual growth and edification. The spiritual gifts are mentioned in a number of passages in the New Testament. Romans 12:6-8 lists out the following: prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and mercy. Paul lists more in 1 Cor. 12:8-10: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, effecting of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Paul lists out apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in Eph. 4:11. So we have a list of gifts that God has placed in the Church in order to produce the kind of change and perform the kind of work He desires to perform within this community.
Now that we can see that God has placed gifts in the Church for the overall purpose of her spiritual growth and maturity, the next question naturally leads to specific gifts. What are these gifts? What were they designed to accomplish? As an example, let’s look at the gift of diverse languages. It is a mistake to interpret “tongues” as some supernatural language. The Greek word to describe this phenomenon is the same Greek word used to describe languages. It is used 50 times in the NT, 168 times in the LXX, 13 times by the Apostolic Fathers, 101 times in Philo, and hundreds of times in the Classics. While it does not always mean languages that is its predominant sense. Acts 2 clearly informs us that the languages spoken on Pentecost are real languages. The gift of tongues is not unintelligible broken syllables that no human can understand. In addition, any human being is capable of producing or mimicking this modern phenomenon practiced by Pentecostals. There is nothing miraculous about it. That is to say that it does nothing to set God apart or prove anything that intelligible language cannot do a superior job of proving itself. In addition, the practice is highly irrational. It simply makes no sense. But it is supposed to be edifying. How does speaking gibberish edify me?
The NT phenomena and the modern phenomena are clearly not the same. This is where we begin to answer our question whether or not these gifts are still being given in the Church. If we no longer see them in use, we might ponder the purpose of these gifts when they were in operation. For instance, an apostle had a completely different function and purpose than an elder. Apostleship is no longer a gift that men receive. There were a select few given that gift, called to that office. This would naturally lead to the question of what purpose that office served given the fact that it no longer exists. The same is true of any of these gifts.
Another issue with modern tongues is the notion that it is the evidence that one has been filled with the Holy Spirit. Exegetically speaking, this is not difficult to prove in the ancient Church. The correlation is undeniable. If Pentecostal theology is right, there are a lot of us who claim to know Christ but who are not even filled the Spirit. Are the continuationists prepared to go down this road? Of course they’re not. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to argue for the continuation of the gifts but also argue that Pentecostal theology is wrong about tongues. I’m sorry, but they can’t have it both ways. When NT believers were filled with the Spirit, they spoke in tongues. Why don’t we speak in tongues when we are filled with the Spirit? The continuationist who is also non-Pentecostal is left to do extreme exegetical gyrations in their typical answers.
I simply draw your attention to this issue to point out that most of the Christian Church has always believed that some gifts were permanent while others were temporary. The argument over how we arrive at which gifts are permanent and which ones are temporary is really one of semantics from my perspective. Tongues mysteriously stopped happening for some reason. From the beginning, the individual never acquired this ability. The individual passively received this supernatural ability to speak in other languages. The event was initiated by God. No one was going around seeking to speak in tongues, praying for this to happen to them. God was in charge of the process end to end. And for some reason, God stopped endowing people with this gift. What are we supposed to say? Did the Church just decide she would no longer accept this ability from God? The same is true with miracles and faith healers. For some reason, the ability vanished. This isn’t to say that God stopped healing people entirely. That is not the argument at all. But that men like Paul, Peter, and others would come into a town and perform numerous undeniable miracles and healings continued to happen throughout Church history is simply contrary to the facts.
So the argument for the continuation of these gifts has first to establish what these gifts actually were. As far as I can tell, Pentecostal theology has it wrong when it comes to their most basic gift, tongues. They make numerous hermeneutical leaps in their effort to defend this phenomenon. We simply cannot accept the claim that the modern Pentecostal practice is equivalent to the one experienced in the ancient Church. In addition, if it is accepted that modern tongues are in fact the same as those in the ancient Church, we are then left with no recourse, but to accept the Pentecostal teaching that it is the initial evidence that one has been filled with the Spirit. You see, we cannot cut the debate off in the abstract. We must also examine the experiential side of the equation if we are to discover the truth regarding this question. This is why we demand proof that healings and miracles are in fact legitimate. Method is critically important in this discussion. We are not arguing for Christian theism. We are not asserting the existence of the non-material God who is our Creator. Our method is very different for examining the truth claims of Pentecostal theology.
The argument coming from sympathizers like Hays is filled with contradictions and I am certain that most Pentecostals would tell Hays NOT to do them any favors. Steve Hays desires to defend Pentecostal theology but he doesn’t want to have to speak in tongues to be Spirit-filled. He wants to argue, in theory that healings and miracles have continued without missing a beat even though he has never encountered a faith healer or miracle worker himself. Based off that sort of reasoning, we are left without any recourse, but to accept the claims of alien abductions as well. Those who argue this way want to defend the on-going practice and possibility of tongues, healings, and miracles but without having to subject it to empirical verification. However, we cannot leave out empirical verification because it is essential to understanding the phenomena and comparing it to what we see in Scripture. The men that Hays and I both would call charlatans, most Pentecostals defend as prophets, apostles, and men of God. The excesses that Hays mentions, most Pentecostals call Spirit-filled worship. Very few Pentecostals see the practices of the larger segment of Pentecostalism as excesses. Hays is missing his target. In addition, Pentecostal hermeneutics and theology naturally lead to what Hays and others call excesses. The subjective nature and experiential orientation of Pentecostal theology is powerless to offer a critique of such practices. Once you open the door to such experiential leanings and to extra biblical revelation, just about anything can walk in under the guise of a “movement of God.”
Extra Biblical Revelation
The Westminster Confession states, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” It was the fall of man that made way for the need of a special word from God. The consequences of sin amputated man from fellowship with and hearing from His God. Man, by nature, corrupts the revelation of God given to him in nature and in conscience. He does this willingly and naturally. He is a natural born enemy of God. The revelation of God comes to him clearly, and his reaction to that revelation is to pervert, to corrupt, and to reshape it. Two things are needed if man is to relate to His God rightly. Man needs a change of nature, and God must speak to Him. Otherwise, man is hopelessly lost without any hope of truly knowing and relating to God.
Calvin says regarding God and Scripture, “…what we ought to think of him is set forth there, lest we seek some uncertain deity by devious paths.” [Institutes] What we think about God, how we see Him, who He is, what He is, what He is like, is all set forth for us in plain view in sacred Scripture. A right understanding of Scripture is essential to a right understanding of God. A poor hermeneutic has continually led men to heresy more than any other single factor. Pentecostal hermeneutics are highly subjective, based on individual experience. The Pentecostal looks at Scripture through the grid of experience and interprets the experiences and teachings in Scripture through the grid of their own experience. This has continually led to devastating error and even heresy in Pentecostal denominations.
Calvin continues, “Hence the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard.” [Institutes] To the liberal, this is utter folly. To the Pentecostal, Scripture is clearly not enough. The experience of extra biblical revelation is in every case to be sought. Why? We have the miracle of the text! The Pentecostal wants Paul’s experience for himself. He is not satisfied to take from Paul what Paul took from the hand of Christ. That just won’t do!
God alone is sufficient witness to Himself in His Word. He needs no other witness to defend His own truth. The Holy Spirit seals this truth upon the hearts and minds of God’s children. God is His own witness and His witness is sufficient in itself. If this is true of the revelation of Scripture, then reasons the Pentecostal, it is true of God’s revelation to me. And they are right! If in fact God reveals to men today, then that revelation is just as self-justifying, and self-authenticating, and authoritative as Scripture. And this is the crux of the problem. Open this door and anything may slither in among the saints to consume, to deceive, and to devour.
The Revelation of Scripture is absolutely necessary if man is to know and relate to God. Turretin makes a keen observation to this end, “It was necessary for a written word to be given to the church that the canon of true religious faith might be constant and unmoved; that it might easily be preserved pure and entire against the weakness of memory, the depravity of men and the shortness of life; that it might be more certainly defended from the frauds and corruptions of Satan; that it might more conveniently not only be sent to the absent and widely separated, but also be transmitted to posterity.” [Institutes] How can we know that Benny Hinn did not receive a legitimate revelation that God has disclosed to him but to no one in Scripture? If we affirm the possibility of extra biblical revelation, I do not see how we can judge the claims these men make, to be false without at the same time engaging in a level of arbitrariness foreign to all rational thought. Even if we arbitrarily assert that all new revelation must be examined in light of Scripture, there is enough not revealed in Scripture that enormous error could ensue and we would have no exegetically rational way of refuting it. This development is both intellectually unappealing and spiritually perilous.
Deut. 29:29 informs us that the secret things, the things that are unrevealed, belong to God but the things revealed to us are ours forever. What is revealed? In this case, it was the written Law of Moses. The implication is that what is written is what is revealed, and what is not written is not revealed. Moreover, what is not revealed is secret. And if it is secret, it belongs to the Lord. Our concern is with what has been revealed, not what has been kept back, kept secret. God has told us that what He did not reveal belongs to Him. Everything that has not been given to us in the sacred writings belongs to this class of unrevealed, secret things that belong to the Lord, not to us. That is a fact of revelation, a principle of revelation that we must humbly recognize with all sincerity.
This whole question is a question of epistemology. How do we know and what is our final authority for knowing? Either we have a closed canon and a final authoritative revelation that serves as the basis for knowing truth or we do not. There is no middle ground. The cessationist can say that what we must be concerned with is understanding and rightly interpreting the revelation of God in Scripture. That is our guide. It is our final answer to every question. If the thing we seek is unrevealed, then it belongs to the Lord. Who can know it but God alone? The word of God was given to sanctify, to perform a work in us by revealing to us the Will of our Heavenly Father. It is enough that this revelation should occupy our thoughts, that we should read it, absorb it, understand it, and live it.
If I allow the extra biblical principle in Pentecostal theology, I am indeed in quicksand without any escape from any of the outrageous claims that supposedly come through those revelations. A man may hear that God wants him to divorce his Baptist or Presbyterian wife and marry a fellow Pentecostal who will follow him in his supposed Holy Ghost filled ecstatic utterances. Who are we to say he is wrong. We may say you cannot divorce her because of Paul. He will retort that Paul was speaking of a general situation where the man never heard from God. But I have heard from God and therefore, I must obey! How shall we respond to this person? They have a word from God as sure as any word from God written down in Scripture.
I have said that our method for examining this question is both exegetical and empirical. It is exegetical from the standpoint that we must understand the nature of the gifts given in Scripture and how the Church used those gifts for ministry and for edification. It is empirical in the sense that these claims are physical in nature and can be subjected to empirical testing. We can see if a healing has taken place or if a person can actually speak in a foreign language supernaturally. I have also said that when we remove the ultimate authority of Scripture, which is itself divine revelation, and allow for extra biblical revelation apart from Scripture, we nullify the final authority of Scripture and land in a sea of arbitrariness and subjectivity. We lose our ability to distinguish true extra biblical revelations from false ones.
I have also said that if we measure extra biblical revelation by the standard of Scripture, contending that such revelations must always be in line with Scripture, they become superfluous at best. On the other hand, if extra biblical revelation is not superfluous and God really is participating in on-going revelation, the canon should never have been closed and we are now faced with the impossibility of falsifying any of these claims. In other words, the Pentecostal claims to extra biblical revelation and the revelations themselves are in the last word, not defeasible. This is a real dilemma for theology. In fact, how is theology even possible if such a state of affairs has truly obtained?