Friday, 5 June 2009

Charismatic Gifts and Contemporary Experience

Adrian Warnock is blogging through a series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I'll lay my cards on the table and say that I'm not impressed. It perplexes me when I see charismatics breaking down the list in 1 Corinthian 12 and describing each gift independently from the others. How for instance, does one distinguish a word of knowledge from prophecy? Or for that matter, gifts of healings from workings of miracles? Could not Paul's list include differring synonyms for the same experience? It is also interesting to see charismatic exegetes scraping around desperately to find examples of these gifts in contemporary experience.

It is illuminating when one considers the sheer volume of contemporary Christians who claim to speak in 'tongues' (lit. glossolalia which our bibles mis-translate as 'tongues'; the word means 'languages') relative to the apparent scarcity of those with the gift of miracles. Given the prevalence of tongues speakers in the church, one would expect a correlation in the numbers of miracle workers. So I ask the hard question, how many people are being raised from the dead or healed of incurable diseases? How many blind eyes are opened in our UK churches on a regular basis?

Is it possible that contemporary examples of tongues are just complete babble? For instance, it is interesting to hear charismatic teaching on 'how' to seek the gift of tongues. The teaching tends to go: 'pray and ask God by his Spirit to give you this gift. Then just speak out in faith, trusting God all the while to give you the words'. If that's all there is to speaking in tongues, if it's that simple, you'd have thought the apostle Paul might have given some instruction along these lines. But he doesn't. If that's all there is to speaking in tongues, then surely anyone could do it? But they can't. 'Do all speak in tongues?' (1 Cor.12:30) is the rhetorical question Paul asks the Corinthians. If that's all there is to speaking in tongues then surely it renders Paul's statement 'I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you' (1 Cor.14:18) as totally meaningless?

According to Paul, tongues isn't something you can turn on at will (although 1 Cor. 14:32 suggests that tongues speakers could resist the gift if necessary). Not everyone can do it. It is a sovereign activity of the Spirit moving upon someone to speak in a foreign language they have never learned before. It is not shouting 'banana' backwards or 'alavabeersheelavashandy'

What is one to make of contemporary 'evidences' of the gift of prophecy? I've mentioned before on RandR the example of C.H Spurgeon pointing to a gentleman in his crowd and calling him out for opening his shop on the Sabbath and accurately telling him that he took 'fourpence' profit. 'There you go', say charismatics like Jack Deere and Sam Storms, 'there's an instance of contemporary prophecy'. Yet there's a turd in the historical-theological punch bowl these guys are sipping from. The fact is that Spurgeon was a cessationist and never interpreted this experience as prophecy. We'll come back to this example later as we make some conclusions.

Most modern theologies of continuing prophecy rest on Wayne Grudem's analysis of the gift. Grudem asserts that prophecy in the NT is different to prophecy in the OT sense. The prophets in the OT spoke inspired words. The prophets in the NT speak fallible words. The visions AND utterances of OT prophets were infallible, while only the visions of NT prophets are infallible, while their report of such a vision/impression/thought are fallible.

Grudem speaks of NT prophecy as a fallible report of what God brings to mind. He would make the point that while OT prophets were to be obeyed hook line and sinker, NT prophets are not to be obeyed like this. OT prophets spoke with such authority that if they spoke falsely, they were to be stoned (Deut. 18: 20, 21). Whereas, there is no such sanction for false prophecies in the NT. Why? Because NT prophets speak with less authority. (That should cause alarm right away; as we move to the NT we see prophets speaking with less authority? So New Covenant prophets are rubbish while Old Covenant ones were awesome? Come on.)

For instance, the argument goes, in the NT one reads in 1 Thess. 5:20 "Do not despise prophecies. Test what is good, reject what is evil." Further, when prophecies were uttered in Corinth the people were to 'weigh carefully' (1 Cor. 14:29 TNIV) what was said. The spiritual were to test what NT prophets say, sifting through the words to get the good of it while rejecting the chaff.

Yet this argument simply does not make the best sense of the biblical data. As I've already mentioned, as redemptive history sweeps to the New Covenant from the Old, we see a ratcheting up of priveledge and blessing on the one hand, and sanctions and cursing on the other. Are we really to suppose that the NT prophets spoke with an inferior authority to their OT counterparts? Is it true that while even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than these OT prophets, that nevertheless the NT prophets speak with less authority? I don't think so.

Sure OT false prophets were to be shunned and stoned, that is true. But to cite Deuteronomy 18 as an example of OT prophets being held to a higher accountability than NT prophets is nonsense. Surely New Covenant sanctions are far more grave? The church is not called to stone false prophets but, in this age of mercy and salvation, to hand them over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that their spirit might be saved on the Day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5:5). If they refuse to repent, stoning is the least of their worries. Think of the false prophetess Jezebel in the church of Thyatira (Rev 2:20-26). False prophets have to deal with Christ himself.

The fact of the matter is, all NT prophecy is authoritative. When Agabus spoke he said, "Thus says the Holy Spirit,.." (Acts 21:11) It's interesting that Jack Deere and Wayne Grudem don't think NT prophets can say this. Deere counsels that it's better to saysomething like, "I think the Lord might be bringing to mind that..." In other words, hedge your bets.

No, NT prophets spoke God's word. Indeed, as the book of Revelation tells us, 'The testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy." (Rev. 19:10) Prophecy was inspired revelation about Christ in the gospel. Now with the completion of the NT canon, we have inspired prophecy in our hands whenever we open our NIVs/ESVs etc. I don't need a Paul Cain to tell me I've got unconfessed sin or a cist on my ass.


What then, should we make of Spurgeon's experience? Well, as Gaffin put it, couldn't it be an example of Spirit given insight? Do we really need to re-categorise it as NT prophecy? What about the anecdotal evidence provided by some that Spurgeon's prayers raised up more sick than all the physicians of London? Can we not see these healings as God's gracious answer to prayer as opposed to comparing it with the hands-laying ministry of NT healers? I think we can.

We can embrace authentic post-canonical works of the Spirit without equating them to 1 Corinthians 12. When we desperately try to match up our experience with Christ and the apostles, we devalue the staggering and mouth-dropping nature of their work. Why should the watching world believe in the greatness and authenticity of Christ's miracles when Christians are so quick to believe the erroneous claims of Todd Bentley et al? Cessationist aren't kill joys. We are zealous for Christ and his word and the authenticity of his miracles while at the same time being enthusiastic to embrace authentic works of the Spirit in contemporary experience.


steve said...

Re Spurgeon, if a word of knowledge and prophecy are synonymous ("or for that matter, gifts of healings from workings of miracles"), why are you wanting to deem Spurgeon's incidence as "Spirit given insight"? What's the diffrence between that and something miraculous? Maybe he just got lucky?

To my mind, the take away from Spurgeon was to keep the Sabbath holy, not to figure out how he got something unstudied right. I understand new covenant "prophecy" simply to be speaking what is right, true and good according to the Word. When I suggest (I try not to do finger pointing) you keep the Sabbath holy, or that Jesus got up from the dead, I just prophesied. Priesthood of all believers in action, that.

Nick Mackison said...

I agree with your definition of prophecy.

If this instance did happen, then I can't think of any category for it other than miraculous, although maybe 'Spirit-given insight' isn't the best term. Perhaps providential speech or whatever, I'm not sure.

steve said...


Maybe it's my inner kill-joy, but I am assuming the incident did happen. Yet, I don't understand being compelled to have to "explain it” or assign the right language to explain it.

This morning I opened right up to the selected hymn (one of those fun little tricks I like to play). How would you explain that? Or, is it more important that I sang praise to God? I say the latter. But it's still cool that I did that. So much for being a kill-joy.

chris e said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris e said...

The successive paragraphs that start "Grudem speaks of NT prophecy", "For instance, in the NT we read", "This simply does not make the best sense of the biblical data" don't flow very well. Unless you are attributing the middle paragraph to Grudem rather than yourself, because the verses you quote don't really lead to the argument in the third paragraph.

I wasn't particularly impressed by the series either, but then I don't think either side comes out well - both argue from experience and/or the silence of scripture.

Nick Mackison said...

Chris, thanks for the heads up. It didn't read well. I've changed it to reflect the fact that I was attributing the argument to Grudem.

misterben said...

I'm not sure why you are surprised that there are more who claim to speak in tongues in the UK than claim to have raised the dead - exactly the same was happening in the Corinthian church, which is why Paul talked about it in the way that he did. His rhetoric was aimed at a church that placed a focus on this gift.

Sure, there is a definite possibility that there are people who "fake" tongues, but surely it would be dangerous to assume that this is always the case.

You also seem to think that, despite Pauls teaching, the only NT Christians who demonstrated a prophetic gifting were the ones who ended up with their prophecy in the canon of scripture. Again, this would seem to be a statistical improbability given Paul's teaching on desiring prophecy.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not here to defend the excesses of the "hyper-charismatics", but I find the cessationist viewpoint equally disturbing. It's probably worth noting that Jack Deere (who you cite on the charismatic side) was a long time cessationist.

Likewise, Mark Driscoll, who most people wouldn't put in the charismatic bracket and who says himself that he was a cessationist through college and early on in Mars Hill, describes cessationism as one of the worst misreadings of scripture. (I think it was in his series on Corinthians, available from their website, but ICBW)

Lastly - the gifts are free; they are not an indication of talent, good character or good doctrine, but an indication of the grace of God. Conversely, bad doctrine, character or talent are not necessarily the evidence of a "fake" gift.