Sunday, August 18, 2013
The Sufficiency of Scripture in View of Pentecostal Tongues and Prophecy
Each generation of the Church is obliged to immerse itself in, and practice the doctrines of Christianity that have been handed down to her from the inception of the apostolic tradition (Acts 18:5; 1 Tim. 4:15). Neglecting this responsibility has led to catastrophic outcomes across most, if not all branches of Christianity, and most especially, the visible Church in general. In this post, I will attempt provoke my audience of readers to once again rejuvenate their understanding of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture and the implications that such a doctrine has on the modern claims of contemporary prophecy and tongues averred by Pentecostals and by non-Pentecostal continuationists.
My fundamental premise is quite simply that both individually, and corporately, we have all that is necessary for faith and practice given to us in the canon of sacred Scripture. We need nothing more than what is contained in the Bible if it our desire to grow spiritually, to honor God in our life, and to be conformed to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.
John Frame gives one definition of the Word of God as God’s free communications with His creatures. [Frame, Doctrine of the Word of God] To the collection of authoritative Hebrew Scripture were eventually added some additional writings in the form of gospels, a historical account, letters, and an apocalypse. [Allison, Historical Theology, 41] These writings were, from the very beginning of their existence, the authoritative Word of God. The primary purpose of Scripture is sanctification. The Word of God comes to us in order to change us. It is the instrument by which God brings His people back into a true knowledge and relationship of and with Himself. It is the instrument by which God restores in our hearts a love for Him, His truth, and all that He commands us to be and to do. It is the final revelation of God, completing the whole disclosure of his unfathomable love to lost sinners, the whole proclamation of his purposes of grace, and the whole exhibition of his gracious provisions for their salvation. [Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration] Scripture is viewed as the very foundation of the Church (Eph.2:20). Where Christian theism is concerned, nothing is more important to this system of truth than the sacred Scriptures, which provide the very foundation of her existence.
When I say that Scripture is itself sufficient for faith and practice, what exactly do I mean? I mean that sacred Scripture gives the Church and the individual all they need in order to carry on a life that is pleasing to God in the highest form. Nothing more is necessary. The Scripture is sufficient to that end. Paul, writing to the Thessalonian Church said this, “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe (1 Thess. 2:13).” Scripture was given to perform a work in us. Louw-Nida defines this word as “to be engaged in some activity or function, with possible focus upon the energy or force involved—‘to function, to work, to be at work, practice.’
The Westminster Confession states it this way, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” [WCF I.vi] This point was made in contradistinction to Roman Catholic claims of tradition as well as Anabaptist mysticism. Neither tradition nor mystical experiences are necessary for faith and practice.
Paul tells Timothy explicitly, “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:14-15). The sacred Scriptures bring salvation to the whole person. Every part of human existence is redeemed, saved, made whole by the teachings of sacred Scripture. What more do we require? What more could we ask for?
Paul continues, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). According to Paul, nothing more is needed outside of Scripture to equip the saints for every good work. The Word of God is sufficient to perform its predetermined work in our lives and in the life of the body of Christ. Here Paul says that the purpose of Scripture is to equip the believer for every good work. There are no good works required of God that Scripture is not sufficient to equip us to perform. “It signifies that without exception (πᾶν, “every,” in the sense of every kind) God has equipped “the person of God” to do what is “good,” i.e., what he has indicated in his scripture should be done, since he himself is the norm of all good.” [Knight, The Pastoral Epistles]
To be sure, even those gifts mentioned in the text of Scripture itself, to include offices and experiences were all given for our own equipping. They were not events that happened to individuals without any relation to the overarching purpose of their record in the sacred writings. Every revelation in Scripture was given, not solely for the benefit of the purpose receiving, but for our benefit as well. In fact, I would argue that every revelation of Scripture was given primarily for us, not the individual having the experience. The latter would always be of secondary concern.
If one accepts the view of Scripture as both necessary and sufficient, the question then arises what are the consequences of this position on the standard Pentecostal/continuationist view of tongues and prophecy. I think we can talk about this briefly to see if the modern claims of tongues and prophecy are coherent with the reformed or conservative view on the sufficiency of Scripture.
Most scholars readily admit that NT tongues were actual languages. I am not going to argue with the counterclaim to this because it is entirely without merit, reason, and especially sound exegesis. In addition, modern studies reveal that modern tongues practiced in Pentecostal theology are not actual languages. Therefore, if one is going to claim that this modern phenomenon is linked to the NT Church, they will have to find another way. The way to approach this difficulty, according to some, is to view modern tongues as this private prayer language mentioned in 1 Cor. 14:2. However, the context of this chapter would not support the view that this phenomenon is the same as that witnessed in Pentecostal circles today. This is because the tongues mentioned in 1 Cor. 14 can be interpreted. We see this in verse 13 where Paul says that the one who uses this language must also pray that he can interpret it. Only real languages can be interpreted. Some argue that this a code-like language similar to a computer code. Others confess that the modern phenomenon is not the same as NT tongues, but that does matter because the experience is similar. Suffice it to say, there is not one shred of biblical support for such subjective and nonsensical arguments. From this we conclude that NT tongues were always either understood by those who spoke that language, or they were capable of being interpreted into the language of the community. This means that NT tongues were in fact always an actual language.
In light of this, while NT tongues, properly interpreted, and prophecy may have been valuable while God was in the process of giving what has come to be known as His final revelation in Scripture, it is difficult to understand, in the light of the sufficiency of Scripture, how these gifts would hold value once that revelation had been finalized.
If a person prophesies, we are told, that that prophecy is tested with Scripture. This raises the question as to why I need prophecy today if I already have a sure word from God. If I already have a Word from God about which I AM certain, why would I need a word from God about which I might not be certain? And if that prophecy simply tells me something that Scripture already tells me, why do I need it at all? I already have it in the form of Scripture. Is it possible that it is the perceived supernatural experience that excites me more than the Word from God? That is a good question. If tongues with its interpretation and prophecy are merely telling me something that Scripture already tells me, they are completely superfluous and unnecessary. I have a fixed word from God that is sufficient. I don’t need someone to tell me the same thing under some supposed ecstatic spell if you will.
On the other hand, if tongues and its interpretation along with prophecy are actually telling me something new, then we must presume we need whatever it is God is telling us. And if we need this new word from God, then Scripture is fact not sufficient. This is a serious problem for anyone arguing for continuationism while also trying to maintain the reformed position on the sufficiency of Scripture. It is as I have argued before, the revelational speaking gifts are either superfluous or they are destructive of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.
What Steve Hays and others should consider is that the prophecies and tongues along with their proper interpretation that we are discussing, were actually used to give the Church the word of God that they had not yet heard (or maybe they had heard some of it) but would come to be inscripturated in God’s time. In other words, NT Scripture and perhaps OT Scripture being unavailable at the time to most of the Church, were being given by God through prophets, through prophecy, and through tongues and its interpretation until the Church was given the most fixed Word from heaven. Part of the problem is that we so often presume that ancient NT prophecy and the speaking gifts were what we see in modern Pentecostalism. There is no reason to think this to be the case and every reason to think, as I have argued, given the transition period of the NT Church, that the situation was much more reasonable and much closer to the situation I describe. It is also quite reasonable to think that some prophets were endowed with the ability to remember what they had heard from an apostle elsewhere and they in turn spoke those words under the movement of the Holy Spirit as a prophet was inclined to do. There are enough reasonable possibilities and probabilities at our fingertips that it seems hardly necessary to invent positions that result in a real threat to the authority, necessity, and sufficiency of Scripture.