Friday, November 15, 2013

Revelation and Canon: A Case for Cessationism

In this post I am going to argue that the non-cessation position has profound ramifications for the doctrines of special revelation and of a closed canon. In his debate with Mike Brown, Sam Waldron repeatedly asked Brown to discuss why believe in a closed canon. Brown never acknowledged Waldron’s question, let alone try to answer it. What was Waldron getting at with this line of questioning? I think he was hinting at what I will be discussing for the next few paragraphs: the inadvertent and adverse consequences that the doctrine of open revelation have on the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

The religion of the Bible is a frankly supernatural religion. It is meant that, according to it, God has intervened extraordinarily, in the course of the sinful world’s development, for the salvation of men otherwise lost.[1] 

The nature of divine revelation is fundamental to Christian theism. God condescends in order to interact with His creation, to disclose, to reveal, and to relate. Christian theism teaches that God reveals on two basic levels. First, as creatures in His image, God has etched Himself upon the human conscience so that His revelation is quite naturally within each of us. There is no escaping it. Paul said, “Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.” No human being is capable of escaping this natural revelation of God within the human conscience. In addition, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” The revelation of God in nature is not only within the human being, it is all around them. The revelation of God is inescapable. Not only is that revelation clearly given, it is perceived without ambiguity. Humanity knows God is there. Indeed, according to the language of Romans 1, this revelation is sufficient to make human beings culpable for their wicked behavior. From this, we have no choice but to conclude that the revelation of God we see in nature is abundantly sufficient. Revelation that is sufficient is also without question, reliable, trustworthy in every sense of the word. God’s act of revealing could never be anything but sufficient and completely trustworthy.

While the natural revelation of God is sufficient for culpability, God has purposely ensured that it is not sufficient for salvation. For salvation, man must receive additional revelation from God. Due to his sin nature, man was cut off from God. Therefore, if man is to know God truly, intimately, and not at a distance, God must intrude, break in upon the human mind, darkened and enslaved to sinful desires, as it is want to be. Christian theism calls this revelation divine or special revelation. It is necessary for salvation. One of the most grievous effects of sin is the deformation of the image of God reflected in the human mind, and there can be no recovery from sin which does not bring with it the correction of this deformation and the reflection in the soul of man of the whole glory of the Lord God Almighty.[2]

Failure to consider the effects of sin in the area of divine communication and of God’s revelation can lead to significant error in one’s theology and understanding of divine communication. The propensity of human sinfulness to debase and distort the revelation of God has been made profusely clear throughout the long history of revelation. This points us to the serious need for a revelation from God that is beyond the reach of human sinfulness. It points us to the need for a revelation from God that is not only well-defined, but one that is entirely reliable. A revelation from God that is neither clear, nor reliable, nor sufficient is not something one would expect from the kind of God that appears in Scripture. Because we are sinful, a clear, sufficient, and reliable revelation from God is necessary or agnosticism wins the day. If the revelation of God is uncontrolled and open, it seems to me that reliability is unattainable.

The reformers saw Scripture as the Principium Cognescendi Theologiae. “Indeed, it is the unanimous declaration of the Protestant confessions that Scripture is the sole authoritative norm of saving knowledge of God. The Reformed confessions, moreover, tend to manifest this priority and normative character by placing it first in order of confession, as the explicit ground and foundation of all that follows.”[3] 

No revelation from God outside of Scripture could ever achieve the certainty of the revelation from God we have in Scripture itself. This means that only the revelation of God in Scripture is certain, is clear, and is wholly trustworthy. Due to the sin nature, it only stands to reason that God would lovingly and, graciously provide us with a revelation of Himself and His will that is beyond doubt, that is to say, a knowledge that we may hold with certainty.

The developing revelation of God, given to us over the history of God’s redemptive plan, and only recorded in the Divine Writings, has a very conspicuous purpose, and serves an extremely significant function in the history of redemption. The historical events of revelation are necessarily unique to any other kind of history. It is fascinating to me that bloggers like Steve Hays repeatedly fail to address this uniqueness appropriately. In fact, if one reads enough of Steve Hays, they are left to wonder if he considers any event recorded in Scripture any differently than any other event. It would seem not to this writer.

Of all the attributes of canonicity, the divine qualities of Scripture are the least discussed.[4] 

Not for nothing, but why is it that scholars seem to be more fascinated with the least fascinating thing about Scripture and least interested in the most interesting thing about Scripture? The Scripture is the Holy Spirit speaking to the Church. When the Scriptures speak, God speaks. When God speaks, Scripture speaks. Is it possible that some men love to spend their time intellectual disputations rather than getting lost in those matters that are clearly revealed to the Church and simply expending their energy in application as opposed to speculation?

The self-witness of Scripture has been for centuries the cornerstone of the orthodox Christian argument for biblical authority.[5] 

Before I go any farther, it is worthwhile to say something about the authority of Scripture, not only to prepare our hearts to reverence it, but to banish all doubt. When that which is set forth is acknowledged to be the Word of God, there is no one so deplorably insolent – unless devoid also both of common sense and of humanity itself – as to dare impugn the credibility of Him who speaks.[6] 

The canon then is not just the record of some interesting historical events and teachings that are on par with events of our own. The documents of the canon represent a collection of the Divine Revelation of God Himself to His creation. God has not left us to guess if He has spoken. We can know with certainty that God has in fact spoken.

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.[7] 

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone. (Eph. 2:19-20) The point that Waldron was getting at with his question regarding the purpose of the canon is really quite simple. The purpose of a canon was to be able to distinguish truth from error, true prophecy from false prophecy, godly teachers from wolves. The Christian documents are the standard by which the Christian knows, believes, and acts upon the truth that God has revealed to His Church. By nature, it is clear, authoritative, sufficient, and reliable. What the canon teaches and records, the Holy Spirit teaches and records.

To summarize then, the sin nature has made it necessary for God to provide man with a self-attesting, fully sufficient, clear, and reliable revelation of Himself. That revelation has been given once for all to the saints. The shape of that revelation is nothing less than the Divine Writings themselves. These writings are necessary, self-attesting, fully sufficient, clear, and unquestionably reliable. God speaks to the Church through the pages of Scripture. We have His sure word delivered to us once and for all, preserved providentially in accurate copies of His Holy Documents.

Now, what is the impact of the position of men like Steve Hays on this age-old position of orthodoxy? If Hays is right that there is nothing unique about what God did in the divine revelation, then it follows that the nature of Scripture as we have come to know it is significantly diminished. The awe inspired by God speaking to Moses or Jesus appearing to Paul is reduced by the phenomena of God speaking to Benny Hinn and Jesus appearing to Muslims. According to some, this happens all the time, and it really isn’t nearly as rare and therefore as special as orthodoxy claims it is. In this view, there is nothing unique about the record of Scripture. How God interacts with us is no different from how He interacted with Israel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Peter, or Paul. The result of Steve Hays’ argument is a massive downgrading of the revelation of Scripture. This is unavoidable. Hays has said as much himself. He has repeatedly insisted that we are wrong to claim that Scripture is different, it is unique, that what God has given us in Scripture is nothing more than He gives some today. I contend that when God revealed to Moses, He also revealed to me that He revealed to Moses. This indicates that God has more than Moses in mind when He revealed things to Him. In fact, there is no revelation of God in Scripture that was given only to one person and not the rest of us. Even John shared the fact that God had revealed things to him that he could not tell us about, but he nonetheless revealed to us that God had shown him things. Moreover, God had a reason for revealing that much to us. God always has a reason.

Finally, the idea of an authoritative canon, a standard by which all truth could be known is completely obliterated by the idea of an open revelation. The point and purpose of a closed canon was the final sealing off of what is self-authoritative, clear, sufficient, and reliable from what is subjective, ambiguous, and questionable. You see, if the canon is closed, all God had to say, needed to say, wanted to say and all we needed to hear and know, we have in the canon of Scripture. However, if revelation is open and prophets continue, the canon cannot be closed. Either prophets are repeating what is in Scripture making their words not the product of immediate divine initiative, or they are actually the product of immediate divine initiative, which means the canon cannot be closed. God does not reveal nor speak without authority, clarity, self-attestation, or reliability.

According to the non-cessation argument, revelation and prophecy continue. This revelation and prophecy are genuinely new disclosures from God. The question we have then is related to faith and reliability. How can we know for sure that God has spoken when this speaking is not on par with Scripture? We know that Matthew’s gospel is self-attesting, reliable, and authoritative. It is binding because it is the word of God. We know this by the witness and testimony of the Holy Spirit Himself. However, I do not have the same witness about modern claims of revelations and dreams and prophecies. Indeed, I cannot have the same level of confidence.

If Scripture is sufficient for all things pertaining to life and godliness, what need do we have for additional revelation and dreams from God? Jude referred to it as τῇ ἅπαξ παραδοθείσῃ τοῖς ἁγίοις πίστει. The once for all handed down to the saints faith. This once for all occurrence is a single occurrence to the exclusion of any other similar occurrences.

The problem with Hays and quite frankly, other continuation views is that they fail to preserve the uniqueness of the phenomena revealed in Scripture. God had a reason for revealing to us that He revealed to Moses, or to David, or to Daniel. Scripture is not just a record that God revealed something to someone else; it is God’s revelation to us as well. In addition, Hays’ view on prophets and prophecy violently contradicts not only the reliability and self-attesting nature of divine revelation, but also the doctrine of a closed canon. The whole point of closing the canon was fixing the divine standard by which all claims to truth and knowledge would be measured. If the canon is in fact closed, and divine revelation is fixed and sufficient as well as clear, then whatever these moderns are claiming is unnecessary. We simply don’t need it. However, one has to ask if God is in the habit of giving us revelation and dreams and prophecies we don’t need. And if we do need them, then one has to justify why we have closed the canon. If we do need them, then Scripture is not sufficient. Furthermore, someone is going to have to come up with a way for arguing how on earth it is remotely possible to defend these new prophecies as fully reliable, totally clear, self-attesting, and authoritative.

In the end, the doctrines of Scripture that have been handed down for centuries by orthodoxy are swallowed up by the modern claims of non-cessationism. The Scripture is no longer unique, it is no longer sufficient, it is no longer the fixed standard by which all other claims are tested. And if it is true that modern men can err in their revelations and prophecies, why can’t it also be true for the biblical authors. After all, is that not the basic claim of liberal theologians and has it not been their claim for a couple of centuries now? If Scripture is sufficient, then modern claims of God-speaking are superfluous at best. If modern claims are legitimate, then Scripture is not sufficient. Either Scripture gives us all we need for our spiritual growth and well-being or it does not. If it does, then we don’t need modern revelation. If we do need modern revelation, then Scripture does not give us all we need for spiritual growth and well-being. If only we invested as much energy proclaiming and applying Scripture as we do speculating about argument forms we could grow spiritually and learn a little humility for a change.

[1] B.B. Warfield, Revelation & Inspiration (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1932), 3.
[2] Ibid., 13.
[3] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 151.
[4] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012), 125.
[5] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 440.
[6] John Calvin, Institutues of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press, 1960), 1:74.
[7] Ibid.

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