Wednesday, October 30, 2013

New Volume on the Doctrine of Scripture

Westminster Seminary has just announce a new gargantuan volume (1400+ pages!) on the doctrine of Scripture. Edited by Peter Lillback and Richard Gaffin, this book might be described as an anthology of sorts. It draws writings and witnesses from several eras of Reformed theology together in one place to testify to the inerrancy of Scripture. Here is what J.I. Packer says about this book:
The embattled title casts this book as an apologia for Westminster Seminary’s stand in a recent internal debate. Yes, it is all of that, but it is a great deal more. It is a massive array of extracts from major writers over five centuries, demonstrating both the breadth, strength, clarity, humility, and rootedness of international Reformed bibliology according to its historic confessional self-understanding, and also the insightful energy with which Westminster’s own scholars have labored to vindicate the Reformed position as catholic Christian truth. The book excels as a resource for study and a witness to Westminster’s integrity.
The book is organized into thirteen parts, each dealing with a different era of Reformed history. You can read the entire table of contents over at the WTS webpage by clicking on the PDF preview of the book. There you can see just what has gone into each page of this "colossus" (Packer's word). The only thing that seems to be missing is church testimony to the inerrancy of Scripture prior to Calvin and Luther, but I suppose there's always room for a second volume! I do not have this book (yet), but I plan to get it. WTSBooks is currently selling it at an introductory discount of 45% off.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sinclair Ferguson's Case for Cessationism

Sinclair Ferguson, in his classic book The Holy Spirit speaks of a case for cessationism. Here I will attempt to simply summarize his arguments, though one could hardly do better than to read the book for themselves.

1) Noting the long stretch of time between the early church and the new modern manifestations associated with a historical renewal of the gifts, Ferguson says that "Restorationism provides no generally convincing theological explanation for the disappearance of certain gifts during the greater part of the church's existence" (italics original, 223). He says that considering the Spirit is sovereign in the administration of his gifts (Heb. 2:4), it is spiritual and theological hubris to simply say that the gifts disappeared because of a lack of faith in God's people.

[Aside: Warfield's lectures on this subject have long been pointed to as demonstrating that no Scriptural case for cessationism can be made, but Ferguson is adamant that those lectures were historical, not Biblical in their focus. Ferguson also points out, helpfully, in this section of his argument that "it is a logical fallacy to hold that the proof of the negative on its own ('no text in the New Testament teaches cessation') establishes an alternative positive ('the New Testament teaches continuationism')" (224). So even if someone demonstrates that there is no NT text teaching cessationism, it isn't enough on its own.]

2) Continuationists tend to assume that "the unusual and miraculous are biblically normal and normative and therefore naturally continue." He goes on to show that the unusual and the miraculous have always been just that - unusual. These manifestations tend to coalesce around periods of new revelation, the dawning of new epochs of God's redemptive-historical purpose. "Without this perspective, some biblical miracles would be trivial and almost on the level of magic tricks" (224). He points to the floating axe head in 2 Kings 6:1-5 and the coin in the mouth of a fish in Mt. 17:27.

Crucially, Ferguson also notes that "signs and wonders" are spoken of as "signs of a true apostle" (2 Cor. 12:12), and on the flip side, the activity of Satan is characterized by "false signs and wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9). "Signs and wonders" are consistently appealed to as a sign of Prophetic and Apostolic attestation (Acts 2:22, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12; Rom. 15:12, 19). There is an intimate connection between "signs and wonders" and the presence of the Apostles or their delegates (note in Acts 15:12 that the signs and wonders were done "through them [Paul and Barnabas]"). Or in Hebrews 2:4, "signs and wonders" are spoken as a means of demonstrating the authority of those who brought the Gospel. "Here," says Ferguson, "apostolic ministry and special confirmations of it are inextricably linked together...The primary function of these gifts itself suggests their impermanence" (225). And so we see what I think is the core of Ferguson's case for cessationism: the function of the spiritual gifts was to confirm, in an era of change and uncertainty, the authority of the Apostles and the truth of their message. This purpose is no longer necessary. Ergo, the purpose of these gifts has passed its time.

3) Ferguson spends some time discussing 1 Cor. 13:10. In his discussion, he points out that cessationists have classically understood the passage as saying that "when the perfection comes" or "completion comes" refers to the New Testament canon, which of course, will mean the end of prophecy and tongues. Ferguson recognizes that this is a view of the passage that the majority of scholars reject. Ferguson says that if this passage teaches what the cessationist says it teaches, then the issue is "settled." However, if the cessationist interpretation that this refers to the canon of Scripture is wrong (and the continuationist is right about this passage), it still does not mean that continuationism is true.

Even a moderate continuationist like D.A. Carson admits that these words don't "necessarily mean that a charismatic gift could not have been withdrawn earlier than the parousia [return of Christ]." Ferguson also says that many cessationists do not hold the above referenced classic interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:10 and that their cessationism does not hang on this passage. Richard Gaffin, for example, does not see the close of the canon as what is in view here, but rather, the return of Christ. Gaffin argues, on the contrary, that it is "gratuitous" to argue from this passage "that the gifts mentioned continue until the parousia." It's not that this passage teaches either cessationism or continuationism, but rather, says Gaffin, in this passage, Paul "has in view the entire period until Christ's return, without regard to whether or not discontinuities may intervene during the course of this period, in the interests of emphasizing the enduring quality of faith, hope, and especially love (vv. 8, 13)" (228). In the end, Ferguson suggests that if the NT does not give a definitive statement either towards continuationism or cessationism then, "the function of these gifts will determine their longevity" (229).

Ferguson also points out that in the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church began to demand miracles and signs to show that the message of the Reformers was true. Calvin's response, paraphrased by Ferguson: "The new covenant was attested by the outpourings of the miraculous. This is adequate testimony. We have no novel message; we need no novel outpouring of the miraculous" (229).

[Aside: Others also point to 1 Cor. 4:1-8 and Eph. 4:7-13 as proof texts to argue that the gifts ceased with the Apostles, though Ferguson does not give these passages more than a brief mention in his treatment.]

4) Ferguson then turns his attention to the difficulties presented by tongues-speaking in the post-Apostolic age. He argues that the most natural reading of the tongues phenomena is "speaking of foreign languages. But contemporary glossalalia is not normally identified with the speaking of foreign languages." Aside from 1 Corinthians, Ferguson notes a deafening silence (especially where one might expect much needed discussion of it in the Pastoral letters) regarding the tongues/prophecy phenomenon. An argument from silence isn't conclusive, but Ferguson also says that it does demonstrate an apparent "shift in orientation which had already taken place from the immediacy of tongues and their interpretation to the teaching of the apostolic tradition" (230).

Ferguson points out that, regardless of the continuationist insistence that modern prophecies are not authoritative or binding, in the NT era, tongues that were interpreted were regarded as "revelation" (1 Cor. 14:6). "When interpreted, therefore, tongues-speaking is the functional equivalent of prophecy and is revelatory in nature." And this gets to what Ferguson calls the "storm center" of the current debate: new revelation, regardless of its form, "principally undermines the sufficiency of Scripture, and becomes de facto the dominant factor, at least at certain points, in the canon by which the individual lives." Ferguson introduces this category of another sort of canon - the canon of experience, or to use Ferguson's phrase, "The canon of life," saying "Is it not, therefore, special pleading on the part of evangelicals to claim that prophecies received by them function in an altogether different way?" It absolutely violates the reformation principle of the sufficiency of Scripture, which says that "no additional revelation is needed by the church or the individual."

It's at this point many modern continuationists are going to feel Ferguson is talking past them. "You keep identifying tongues speaking as prophecy, but you ignore the fact that we've defined the word 'prophecy' down to something the Hebrews would never have recognized! We define prophecy the way the Hellenists would have. Stop equating prophecy in the modern era with prophecy in the OT." Ferguson actually deals with this earlier in the book (pages 214-221). Needless to say he hardly finds Grudem's insistence that Agabus is a false prophet (in the OT sense) but a true prophet (in the Hellenist sense) appealing or coherent, especially within the context of a religious movement that was so concerned to show its OT bona fides.

Ferguson points out Grudem's own suggestion that "Thus says the Lord" could be dropped and replaced with "I think the Lord is suggesting something like..." instead (Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, p. 113). This would help the confusion between cessationists and continuationists in at least this one area, suggests Grudem. Certainly, says Ferguson, the language of "prophecy" is confusing. But Grudem doesn't go far enough. "No level of prophecy in Scripture is introduced by 'I think the Lord is suggesting something like this.' To speak thus is not to speak prophecy at all. The recognition that this is not prophecy in any biblical sense would solve the difficulty without any danger of the quenching of the Spirit which restorationists so fear" (italics original, p. 232).

Ferguson does give a pattern for understanding the biblical concept of illumination and argues that illumination of Scripture by the Spirit is not the same thing as revelation, nor should it be called "prophecy" (nor do cessationists insist on calling it prophecy), but that is beyond the reach of what I was originally trying to do when I began this précis.

Ferguson concludes his discussion with these excellent and well-balanced words:
No right-thinking Christian would deny that God continues to be active in the world, to do wonderful things for his people, and especially to answer their prayers in keeping with his promises. It is still appropriate for the sick not only to consult a doctor but to 'call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.' The promise remains that 'the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well;  the Lord will raise him up' (Jas. 5:14-15). People continue to be healed by God - through, above and even against means. Indeed, writes John Owen, 'It is not unlikely but that God might on some occasions, for a longer season, put forth his power in some miraculous operations.' It would, however, be a mistake to draw the conclusion from this that such events are normative or that in these events individuals are receiving again the coronation gifts of Penetecost. It is misguided to think that we ought to try to categorize every element of contemporary experience in this way. To attempt to do so would be tantamount to assuming that we are able systematically to analyze and categorize all the events and experience which constitute the providences of God (p. 235).

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The "Hot Mess" of Modern Day Prophecy

I'm glad that Stephen Altrogge wrote his latest blog post over at The Blazing Center. The post is titled "How the Heck Does Modern Day Prophecy Work?" and the reason I appreciate the post is not that I am a Charismatic and want to know the best way to hear from the Lord. I am decidedly un-Charismatic and already know how to hear from the Lord (hint: the Spirit working through the Word). The reason I appreciate the post is that it is absolutely clear, and to a fault. I say to a fault because the post makes plain the agonizingly obvious problems with a form of prophecy in a protestant context that insists on retaining the principles of sola scriptura.

"Prophecy Is Not New Revelation About God"
Altrogge is trying to be balanced. He insists, in order to safeguard sola scriptura, that "Prophecy is never, ever, ever new revelation about God." Commendable. But what is it, then? Altrogge: "[M]odern day prophecy is God-given insight into specific circumstances which could not be known otherwise and which in turn enables a person to bring God’s word to bear on those circumstances."

Notice that he says it is not new revelation about God. But it must be new revelation from God. As I understand it, men like Wayne Grudem don't even like using words like "revelation" to refer to these "insights," (he insisted on this, repeatedly, in a public debate with Richard Gaffin some years ago) and one could certainly understand why. In a protestant, sola scriptura context, if you say that you've received new revelations from God, you're going to get punched in the nose by Martin Luther (with every other non-Anabaptist, Marcionite, or Montanist standing in line behind him). If you try to stop them by saying, "No, no, no... I did receive a new revelation from God, but it wasn't about Him, it was about me," they're still probably not going to pull their punches.  Altrogge is being careful, but not careful enough. And even if I try to be charitable and say, "Okay, it's not 'revelation,' I'll just call it 'insight' for the sake of discussion," this doesn't seem to help things much. After all, he's still hearing new words that were "not known otherwise" (how is this not Ἀποκάλυψις?) from a God who has already given his moral will and committed it absolutely and infallibly in the writings of the Apostles and Prophets. The maneuvers in place here to safeguard sola scriptura are absolutely inadequate.

What's The Point?
But even the practical results of this sort of attempted half-measure prophecy end up being impractically unhelpful. He gives the example of a woman who had a vision, and the vision ended up showing Altrogge, during a particularly difficult and tumultuous period, that "God will lead us one step at a time exactly where we need to go." Now, I am happy that Altrogge found something helpful or edifying on a personal level from this, but I am absolutely confused how someone would not learn the same principle from Scripture? Or from common experience? This woman did not need to come to them with the authority of God behind her for them to know that God doesn't tell us everything we need to know at once. The Bible says "thy word is a lamp unto my feet," not that it is a lamp unto "the road that leads ever onward." My point here is not to demean this person or the value that hearing this had for Altrogge, but simply to say that if this is the best that "modern day prophecy" can do for the church, then it would be better to just learn Scripture better (reading Deut. 29:29 ought to do the job) or pick up Poor Richard's Almanac once in a while. He even seems to understand this in a later section of his post when he says, "I don’t make major life decisions based on prophecy, I make major life decisions based upon the Bible." What good is a prophecy that you can't even take seriously? I mean, seriously!

"Prophecy Is Not Infallible"
Elsewhere, he speaks of the fact that prophecy is not infallible. He says that "If a person prophesies something which contradicts the clear revelation of God’s word I immediately discard it as false." That's a great principle. But what about prophecies that don't clearly contradict God's word? I remember clear as day, I had a friend who played for me a cassette tape of a recording from his church. In this recording, a "prophet" was speaking a prophecy over my friend and his wife. Their marriage was on the rocks. She had cheated on him, he had tried and tried to repair their marriage for years, and they needed encouragement. I listened to the audio of this prophecy, and this man, claiming to speak for God, told them that God was going to draw them back together and that God was going to repair their marriage and use her to minister to women all over the world. It has been 12 years since that prophecy. They are divorced, he is remarried, living on the opposite side of the country from his ex-wife, and she is carrying on a decade-plus long affair with a married man. The prophecy could not have been more wrong. He is remarried. Their marriage is over. In Israel they would have thrown rocks at that "prophet" until his brain stopped telling lies. What good is simply holding a prophecy up to Scripture in order to decide if it is true or not? Here's the answer: It isn't. Simply not contradicting Scripture is not the same thing as speaking truth on behalf of God.

Another problem with this principle that prophecy is not infallible is in the principle itself. Just say it out loud: "Prophecy is not infallible." The principle is not "We don't always know, perfectly whether God is speaking in a particular instance." The principle is that "prophecy is not infallible." Think about it: "Words from God can be wrong." And then he does the same thing I have heard Wayne Grudem say: that Agabus made a false prophecy in Acts 21:10-12. This is a nightmarishly uncharitable reading of Agabus' prophecy. It is far more charitable to understand Agabus' words as being a conditional prophecy (of which there is certainly precedent in Scripture) and not a wrong prophecy from a true prophet (of which there is certainly no precedent in Scripture).

Another problem with this principle is that it posits Agabus as using this newer form of "fallible prophecy" before the Apostolic era of spiritual gifts has ended. Even Altrogge sees a difference between prophecy "back then" and "modern day prophecy." And yet he is treating Agabus, in his failed prophecy, as if he were a modern prophet coming up to someone after church for a word of "insight." Agabus is called "a prophet," not merely an average Christian who sometimes gets a bit of insight here and there. As mentioned before, for a prophet to prophecy wrongly would have meant getting stoned (and not in the Bob Dylan sense of the word). We know when the food laws were done away with (Acts 10), but when does Altrogge (or Grudem for that matter) think the bar for prophecy was dropped so embarrassingly low?

Concluding Thoughts
I like Altrogge. I read his blog. I prayed for him during his transition from being a pastor. I care about him and respect him. But let's face it: this modified form of prophecy that has been toned down to conform with sola scriptura is an inadequate half-measure. It neither benefits the church, has precedent in Scripture, nor safeguards the sufficiency of Scripture. In fact, in order to establish its own precedent it has to say that God can inspire wrong prophecy.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Proposal for Evangelicalism's Disaffected Deviationists

I try not to obnoxiously post giant block quotes here at Bring the Books very often. However, one of my recent pet projects has been addressing disillusioned former evangelicals who think they see something ugly in the religion they used to love. I try to be winsome and friendly. Granted, my message has largely been to tell these critics, "Physician, heal thyself!"which doesn't do much for mending fences, I'll freely admit.

But I read someone like Rachel Held Evans (whom I see as fairly representative of disaffected neo-evangelical types), and I see so much frustration with the shallow, the simplistic, the thoughtless, the "get your ticket punched" form of Christianity that has come to define what might be called the conservative wing of evangelicalism. In my frustration, I remain irresistibly convinced that the Reformed tradition presents a fantastic (I am not claiming perfect) alternative to the ugliness of modern evangelicalism, but I know those aren't pleasant options for someone who doesn't have a high view of Scripture or a traditional appreciation of gender roles in the Church. Regardless, as I was reading in one of J.I. Packer's books, I found an interesting discussion of the very audience I've been thinking of. Here is what he has to say:
I turn finally to those whom I call disaffected deviationists, the casualties and dropouts of the modern evangelical movement, many of whom have now turned against it to denounce it as a neurotic perversion of Christianity. Here, too, is a breed that we know all too well. It is distressing to think of these folk, both because their experience to date discredits our evangelicalism so deeply and also because there are so many of them.
Who are they? They are people who once saw themselves as evangelicals, either from being evangelically nurtured or from coming to profess conversion within the evangelical sphere of influence, but who have become disillusioned about the evangelical point of view and have turned their back on it, feeling that it let them down.
Some leave it for intellectual reasons, judging that what was taught them was so simplistic as to stifle their minds and so unrealistic and out of touch with facts as to be really if unintentionally dishonest. Other leave because they were led to expect that as Christians they would enjoy health, wealth, trouble-free circumstances, immunity from relational hurts, betrayals, and failures, and from making mistakes and bad decisions; in short, a flowery bed of ease on which they would be carried happily to heaven - and these great expectations were in due course refuted by events. Hurt and angry, feeling themselves victims of a confidence trick, they now accuse the evangelicalism they know of having failed and fooled them, and resentfully give it up; it is a mercy if they do not therewith similarly accuse and abandon God himself. Modern evangelicalism has much to answer for in the number of casualties of this sort that it has caused in recent years by its naivety of mind and unrealism of expectation.
 What readers might find most interesting is that this was not written last year, it was not written five years, or even 15 years ago. This book is A Quest for Godliness (p. 32-33), and it was published 23 years ago. 23! I recall seeing Rachel Held Evans say in her CNN editorial that young people are leaving the church in droves now because "we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters" and to that I say, "Every generation thinks that it has a working B.S. meter. There is still nothing special about the young people who are burning out and leaving evangelicalism for a 'new kind of Christianity'." That doesn't mean, however, that there isn't legitimacy to any of the complaints. I'm not saying that at all. Personally, I like the olive branch that Packer offers.
Here again the soberer, profounder, wiser evangelicalism of the Puritan giants can fulfill a corrective and therapeutic function in our midst...What have the Puritans to say to us that might serve to heal the disaffected casualties of modern evangelical goofiness? Anyone who reads the writings of Puritan authors will find in them much that helps in this way. Puritan authors regularly tell us, first, of the mystery of God: that our God is too small, that the real God cannot be put without remainder into a man-made conceptual box so as to be fully understood; and that he was, is, and always will be bewilderingly inscrutable in his dealing with those who trust and love him, so that 'losses and crosses', that is, bafflement and disappointment in relation to particular hopes one has entertained, must be accepted as a recurring element in one's life of fellowship with him.
Packer goes on to argue that the maturity and spiritual care that one finds in the Puritans (whom he likens to Redwoods in the forest of theology) provide a badly needed counterpoint to what he has accurately called "modern evangelical goofiness." (And if it was goofy 23 years ago, what would he call it today, I wonder?) What can be done to convince the "disaffected deviationists" that the Reformed tradition contains the antidote to the nightmarish, saccharine, shallow, self-centered religion that is being presented as "evangelicalism" today? Well, they could start by reading the Puritans for themselves and breathing the old, stiff, strong air that blows down from the branches of these giant Redwoods in the theological forest of history.