Saturday, November 9, 2013
The Argument for Cessationism from Scripture, Reason, and Science
Recently, James White hosted a debate between Michael Brown and Sam Waldron. During that debate two things stood out to me: first, Michael Brown’s view that “this is that” in Peter’s sermon reference to Joel’s prophecy was an allusion to the miraculous and Dr. Waldron’s focus on the meaning and purpose of a closed canon. While I may refer to the latter in this post, much of my time will be spent on the questions raised by Michael Brown’s assertions.
The most basic assertion that Brown made was that Peter’s sermon at Pentecost indicated that the “age of the miraculous” had begun. Having been saved in a Pentecostal church, and having spent nearly 20 years in that movement, I am very familiar with Brown’s argument. Brown equates the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all flesh with miracles, revelations, tongues, and prophecies. In Brown’s view, when Peter said, “this is that” he was saying that the “that” is the miraculous. Why is Brown’s interpretation of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost incorrect? Brown’s interpretation rests on his faulty use of grammar. Let’s look at the text to see if it is possible to understand “this is that” as something other than the signs on display during this phenomenon.
The text in question is Acts 2:16, which says, “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel.” Is the antecedent of “this” the miraculous language-speaking ability that has accompanied the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost or is it the divine act of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit itself that is being referenced? Since Peter says “this” is the same thing essentially that Joel spoke about, then the “this” must be the same phenomenon predicted by Joel.
The event, according to Joel 2:28-30 which, contains the promise of the Spirit, begins with “I will pour out my Spirit” and it ends with “I will pour out my Spirit.” Between these two bookends, Joel points to some clear signs that God gives us as an indication that He will in fact pour His Spirit out on all flesh in the future. This future age will be known as the last days. The reason this “age” is called “the last days” is because the governing covenant enacted at this time will be the covenant under which humanity will experience the culmination of God’s plan for redemption and for judgment of all humanity. Once this covenant is enacted, there will be no other covenants in human history. The covenant governing this age is the last one, it is the last age, it is the time of the last days.
Now, here is where I think the error resides in Brown’s argument. God may give us a sign that when it happens, we know God is doing something different. He may give us a sign to indicate we have entered a new age. For some reason, Brown seems to think that the signs that accompany this new age must continue until that new age reaches its culmination, and that is simply not the case. God has indeed given us these signs so that we can know that this new age has begun, but it does not necessarily follow that they must continue in order for the new age to continue. God may point to this incident at Pentecost and say, “When you see this, then you know that I have begun a new age in which I will now include all in my covenantal relationship.” There is no necessary relationship between God pouring out His Spirit on all flesh and the continuation of the sign He gave to accompany it at the outset. These signs point to the greater event, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant. What’s more, Brown does not provide us with any compelling exegetical proof that there is a necessary relationship between the gift and the sign of the sign. He just says it is so and thinks this is enough.
If the signs do not continue throughout the age, then how can we know we are living in the age signified by the sign in the first place? In order to know this we must read on. God has graciously given us signs for the beginning of this age and signs for the end of it as well. This way we know when it began and we know when it will end. God did not leave us to guess.
Joel 2:31 clearly indicates that the signs that this age of the new covenant, of God’s Spirit-outpouring on all flesh will culminate with His final judgment. There will be signs in the heaven above, blood, and fire, and columns of smoke. Now this we did not see at Pentecost even though Peter referenced it as part of “this” which was spoken by Joel. Clearly, Peter is not speaking just about the events these Jews are witnessing on Pentecost. It is much broader than that. This comes out in the course of his sermon. If one looks at Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 we see Jesus Himself referring to this very language as He points to the final coming and judgment of the Son of Man.
It seems to me that Brown is simply allowing theological bias to create a necessary relationship between the signs at Pentecost and the new covenant age. Those signs at best show the beginning of the age. The sign that the age is over is not that these signs end, but that the other signs of the great tribulation begin, culminating in divine judgment. There are signals at the enacting of the new covenant and at the culmination of the new covenant. With this understanding in hand, we can clearly see that God is doing something profound. He is no longer only relating to the Jew. He is now in a covenant relationship with the Gentiles as well, those whom He has grafted into the Olive Tree, Jesus Christ. So the promise that Peter mentions in Acts 2 is not the promise of tongues or prophecy or miracles or revelations. It is the promise of being baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ and being filled with His wonderful presence daily. It is the promise of a new covenant relationship with the Father through the Son by the work of the Spirit. And this promise is to Jews and Gentiles alike without distinction.
As we study the experience of NT believers, another startling fact emerges. Not everyone in the Church experienced these gifts. 1 Cor. 12 informs us that on the one hand, they were distributed according to God’s sovereign plan and on the other hand, not everyone experienced them. In other words, God did not, contrary to Brown’s view, promise the gifts of the Spirit to everyone. Clearly, many did not receive such gifts from the Lord. But Peter tells us in no uncertain terms that God has promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to everyone that believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, Paul emphatically tells us that not everyone speaks in tongues, not everyone works miracles, not everyone has the gifts of healing. This is critically important to Brown’s argument. If Brown is correct, then Paul is in error. It really is that simple. If Paul is correct, then Brown is in error. It is abundantly clear that Paul believed that Christians must be filled with the Spirit and yet that these same Christians would not necessarily, even in the NT era, speak in tongues or possess these gifts. Brown is simply mistaken to argue that the gift of the Holy Spirit promised to all believers comes with the gift of speaking in tongues.
One final point worth noting is the argument from causative faith. Brown asserted that Jesus words in John 14:12 are actually intended for every single believer. There Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” On the basis of this and other verses in the NT, Brown, along with nearly all Charismatics contends that every Christian should be able to work miracles and heal the sick. Brown refuses to consider that this text should be understood to be speaking specifically to the disciples present with Christ at this time. If Brown is actually correct, the gifts of miracles and healings are irrelevant. All one needs is faith and they can do everything a miracle worker can do. But Paul contradicts this thinking in 1 Cor. 12 as I mentioned above. So it seems that Paul believed that working miracles and routinely healing the sick required more than just faith in Christ. It required a special gift that is only distributed by the Holy Spirit according to God’s good pleasure.
In addition to this problem, we have the problem of Timothy’s ailment that God did not heal. Paul left Trophimus sick at Miletus. But undoubtedly Paul had faith. Why didn’t he heal Trophimus? Could it be that the signs were already beginning to dissipate? Could it be because it wasn’t God’s will? If you listen to Brown’s argument, the only viable option is because someone did not have faith. What we have here is a violent and clear contradiction.
The Charismatic argument that Peter had the signs in mind when he said “this” is what Joel spoke about is simply the product of theological bias. Joel had the actual gift of the Holy Spirit, the outpouring itself to which the signs pointed in mind. God graciously gave us a sign to let humanity know that it has entered the very last era of its existence in any temporal, physical sense. The New Covenant has been launched, God is pouring His Spirit out on all flesh, and the next sign we see from God will be the sign of judgment at the culmination of the New Covenant. Pentecost signifies the beginning of the end. There will be no more new works of God in the history of humanity. We are living in the last era of God’s dealings with man.
Finally, no prayer in the NT was ever given with the intent that we could ignore the Lord’s model prayer.And certainly there was never any intent that we could ignore the Lord’s example in Gethsemane. In both of those instances we see Jesus commanding us to always consider God’s will in our prayer and then we see Him actually considering God’s will in His own prayer. Obviously if it were God’s will to heal Timothy, He would have done so. Nothing can thwart God’s will. But this leads us to another very troubling aspect of Charismatic theology that no one is addressing at the moment. The Charismatic believes that God’s will can be thwarted by all sorts of human and even demonic activity. There is a pervasive idea in Charismatic theology that weak faith can thwart God's will for the individual believer's life. But we must save this issue for another time.