Thursday, June 9, 2011

Have Prophecies Ceased: Answering Tough Questions

An analysis of the primary text regarding cessationism and of the two main stances on its meaning--scriptural cessationism and eschatological cessationism--yielded a picture of spiritual gifts which were given to Christians in the interim until the final consummation of creation. Spiritual gifts roughly correspond, oddly enough, to the gift of the Spirit who was promised by Christ to come in his stead until the time of his triumphant return. Unless you are part of a small and largely disregarded minority that believes Christ has already "returned," this means that the spiritual gifts which Paul subordinates to love in 1 Cor. 13 are very much alive and well in the present, or at least they ought to be. This leaves the thoughtful Christian with a number of important questions that warrant answering. The treatment here will necessarily be cursory but should serve at least as an introduction to what this author thinks is the best way to tackle the legitimate problems.

The first issue that arises is one of semantics and may seem trivial at first. It is important, however, because it is these small matters of translation that allow people to more easily perpetuate misunderstandings of the text. Years ago when I first raised this question to my spiritual and intellectual betters, I found their explanation that "the perfect" was the New Testament to be entirely satisfactory. It would not be until much later when I had studied Greek, hermeneutics, and theology that I could more fully evaluate their proposal. The sad truth of the matter was that if the text had been translated more appropriately, I may never have fallen into error at all. The question then is this: should το τελειον be translated "the perfect" or "the end?"

In the interest of fairness, I will make what I consider to be a reasonable demand of biblical translators. When translating the world, all that matters is that they translate the three parallel instances in 1 Corinthians the same way. If they want to change the other two references to το τελειον to "the perfect," I suppose I can live with that (though I doubt that they could). Otherwise, its smacks of intellectual dishonesty to deliberately elect for a translation which runs against the standard usage in a given book, and that even before the obvious nature of the immediate context is considered. The more I reflect on it, the more audacious it is to me that any translator should opt for a divergent translation of το τελειον in 1 Cor. 13 when the typical translation not only maintains consistency but also accords better with the sense of the text.

In truth, however, I think that there is no truly appropriate translation of the term. I am of the opinion that Paul intends το τελειον as a double entendre. The first and obvious sense is "the end," since Paul has been stressing temporal issues (i.e. the transience of spiritual gifts and the permanence of love). Yet, as the other passages clearly indicate, the expected end is one in which Christ comes. In this sense, "the perfect" is a very appropriate translation as it is the arrival of the perfect one which signifies the end. I would love to see a biblical translation which opts for "the end" in the text and comments on this richer meaning in a footnote.

It was previously discussed that the view that the New Testament represented "the perfect" which would come arose as a defense of biblical authority against Pentecostalism. This raises two important questions that may be answered in turn. If authoritative prophecy continues, what is the grounds for biblical authority which all Christian bodies claim? If spiritual gifts persist, should we not all join Pentecostal movements? The questions and their answers are interrelated, but for organizational purposes they will be answered individually.

For Christians who have a view of biblical authority dependent on an idea of miraculous spiritual inspiration which has since ceased, the belief that miraculous spiritual gifts does present a serious, even unanswerable challenge. If the Bible is normative because the Spirit inspired it and the Spirit continues to inspire prophecies, then Scripture is put on the same level as whatever prophecy may be uttered by any would be prophet with a pulpit. Too readily when faced with this problem, Christians attack the latter premise and deny that inspired prophecies can continue. In truth, as we have seen, it is the former premise which is novel in the history of Christendom. The earliest Christians could not have understood Scripture to be authoritative merely by virtue of its origin in the Spirit because they quite clearly believed that they were still being inspired by the Spirit.

In contrast to the modern method of determining scriptural authority, the church from its earliest times until the "completion" of the canon used apostolicity not inspiration as the criterion for authority. In doing this, they were following Paul's own example, who himself declared in the same letter to the Corinthians "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" It is important to recognize that he did not insist "Am I not inspired? Have I not been filled with the Holy Spirit?" How could he, since he admits that the audience to whom he writes are all inspired and full of the Holy Spirit. With this in mind, the early church used apostolicity as the sole rule for canon. This took the form of three general questions: was the text written by an apostle (or "apostolic man"), is the text accepted in the major Christian churches founded by the apostles, and does the text agree with the oral tradition that was transmitted to the church by the apostles (the pre-canonical creeds)?

The tendency among many modern interpreters is going to be to want to reduce those three criteria only to authorship. While I do not share that impulse, it certainly more closely approximates the early church's understanding of authority (both during the process of canon and in the Christian world depicted by the New Testament) and is more easily defensible in the face of criticism from both non-Christians and charismatic Christian groups. In response to the secular critics, the authenticity of the canonical texts can be defended with no more or less uncertainty than the presumptuous theories which abound about their forgery. It certainly should be admitted by all that there are no texts of apostolic authorship yet discovered which are not in the canon. No non-canonical text even comes close to being able to make such a claim. In response to latter day prophets in the various charismatic movements, an appeal to apostolicity allows Scriptures authority to go on unquestioned without making a definitive statement about any particular prophet one way or another. Whatever the prophecy is, it is subordinate to Scripture and lacks any ultimate, a priori authority because it does not and cannot meet the single criteria for original normative teaching: apostolicity.

(None of this is in any way intended to reject the reality of biblical inspiration, only its ground as the sole or even primary criteria for Scripture's authority. What inspiration is and how it relates to the normative nature of Scripture is far enough beyond the scope of this topic that I feel justified in not treating it here.)

This relocation of the locus of scriptural authority, or rather a correction of a dislocation of that locus, does not in any way automatically validate a Pentecostal understanding of spiritual gifts. The fact that the early church accepted the continuation of spiritual gifts but rejected early charismatics (like Montanus) should give pause to anyone who would immediately leap to Pentecostalism. I am of the very firm belief that both Pentecostals and reactionaries who feel the need to deny all ongoing spiritual gifts grossly misunderstand the nature of the gifts being debated.

The relationship between prophecy and Scripture was discussed at length in the refutation of scriptural cessationism, and so a total restatement of that position would be unnecessary here. It is important to remember the nature of biblical prophecy, however, and to recall that the prophets of Israel were not fortunetellers. Shockingly little time is spent in the Prophets making absolute predictions of the distant future. The work of the Prophets was more as inspired interpreters than as soothsayers. They reminded Israel of their forgotten heritage and their obligations to God, interpreting the authoritative text of the Torah and the instructive history of the Israelites for a contemporary audience. I recently visited a megachurch who had a troupe of prophets who divided the congregations into sections and prophesied over them. On the opposite side of the stadium (which is the most appropriate term for the venue), a prophetess announced to one section that their student loans were all soon to be forgiven. In addition to feeling deeply slighted that the usher hadn't sat me in that section, it was appalling to me that people could even imagine a continuity between that sort of Miss Cleo nonsense and the work of Hosea or Amos.

Similarly, the way tongues is presently being practiced is quite contrary to what is seen in Scripture. Most importantly, speaking in tongues throughout the New Testament is exclusively the phenomenon through which someone spoke a human language that he or she did not previously know for the benefit of those in the audience who understood that language. Paul, moreover, insists that any time tongues-speaking occurs in a service that an interpreter be present to explain what is being said to the remainder of the church. Every instance of tongues-speaking I have been present for has been a speaking in "angelic tongues" (a behavior which Paul references rhetorically and somewhat pejoratively in 1 Cor. 13 but that no one is ever reported in Scripture to have actually done) in which the speaker enters a trance-like state, screams some gibberish, and then goes on as if nothing had happened. While amusing, the behavior in no way imitates what is described in Scripture and in truth serves no discernible purpose whatsoever.

The misunderstanding and misappropriation of the spiritual gifts described in Scripture by charismatic churches (throughout history, not merely Pentecostalism) is lamentable. These movements do nevertheless challenge us with another important question: if spiritual gifts do continue and they are not being experienced in charismatic churches, then where are they? There are two options that I can devise for explaining this and both seem to me to be at least helpful in understanding the present state of affairs. For my part, I believe that the answer is likely a synthesis of the two.

The first is an appeal to utility. The purpose of most of the spiritual gifts are no longer pragmatic in modern Western society. In a world with advanced medical care and abundant interpreters for every language commonly spoken, miraculous healings and tongues-speaking are not only out of place but unnecessary. We have an abundance of ministers, teachers, and, in my opinion, prophets if anyone would listen to them. It seems that healers and tongues-speakers flourish elsewhere, particularly in Africa and southeast Asia. Some would like to attribute this to cultural primitiveness (which stinks of ethnic hubris) or the prevalence of charismatic movements there (which displays a profound ignorance of the state even of the Churches of Christ in Africa). I prefer to think that God continues to pour out His Spirit on behalf of the poorest and neediest of His children.

The second explanation is an appeal to spiritual atrophy. It should come as a surprise to no one that the Spirit is not poured out into denominations that want to confine it to the inspiration of Scripture. We do not invite the Spirit to move in our movements and therefore we find ourselves spiritually stagnant. This may sound like a very limited critique of Churches of Christ and other similar movements, but in fact the same accusation is made by other groups about churches which are historically much more in tune to the work of God in the Spirit. Consider these quotes from Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian Orthodox monk and mystic of the not too distant past:

In our time because of the almost universal coldness toward the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and because of our inattentiveness with regard to the acts of His Divine Providence concerning us, as well as to the communion of man with God -- because of all this -- we have reached a state in which we may be said to have withdrawn almost entirely from the true Christian life.

Now some people say: '...Is it possible that men could see God thus clearly?' Yet there is nothing obscure here. The lack of understanding is attributable to the fact that we have strayed from the simple vision of the early Christians and, under the pretext of enlightenment, have entered such a darkness of ignorance that we consider inconceivable what the ancients grasped so clearly; even in their common talk, the idea of God appearing to men had nothing strange in it.

The simple fact is that if we make a war cry of dampening the Spirit we should not be at all shocked when our experience confirms our beliefs. The Spirit will not force an apathetic, sickly church to be gifted. We have become "too good" for the Spirit: too smart, too civilized, too orderly. However the Spirit moves, we should be unsurprised that we do not experience it.

There are undoubtedly more questions to answer as well as more questions raised by the above answers. This is not, however, the place for an exhaustive study of spiritual gifts, if such a thing were even possible. My position is that the Spirit will not be withheld from Christians and neither will the gifts attendant to its presence. What this translates into practically is an openness to the exercise of gifts, even miraculous gifts, which are consistent with their biblical descriptions. I have never seen anyone healed or raised from the dead, never seen anyone speak in tongues, and been convinced that these acts were miracles. I must, however, as a Christian allow myself to be open to the possibility that I serve a God powerful enough to achieve all this and more and Who has promised His church that His Spirit will abide with them in power until Christ returns finally and triumphantly.

Sources consulted in writing this series:

Collins, Raymond F. 1 Corinthians. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999.

Conzelmann, Hans. 1 Corinthians : A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Fee, Gordon. First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Grudem, Wayne A. Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians. Washington: University Press of America, 1982.

Oster, Rick. 1 Corinthians. Joplin: College Press, 1995.

Witherington, Ben. Conflict and Community in Corinth : A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Ancient Christian Commentary, New Testament, Vol. 7: 1-2 Corinthians.

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