Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Have Prophecies Ceased: The "Perfect" Canon

Previously, the flow of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 13 was examined with the aim of better understanding the context of the promise that the miraculous spiritual gifts on which the Corinthians prided themselves would one day cease. The stress of the passage is on the superiority of love and its permanence in relation to things transient. Because of this, the Corinthians ought to have love as their highest aim, not spiritual gifts.

This interpretation makes way for a better study of when precisely Paul expects prophecy and tongues-speaking to end. When this is hinges almost entirely on the interpretation of “the perfect” (το τελειον) in verse ten. There are at least four options which have gained some currency in contemporary debate:

  1. "The perfect" is the full revelation of doctrine which is represented by the completion of the New Testament, either through the finishing of the individual writings or through the final process of canon.

  2. "The perfect" is love, so that when the church truly learns to love it will no longer have need for spiritual gifts.

  3. "The perfect" is maturity, variously understood. Spiritual gifts are "childish ways" which are abandoned when the church outgrows the need for them.

  4. "The perfect" is the second coming of Christ at which time spiritual gifts will become obsolete.

Of these, only the first and fourth really demand extensive attention. While the second option provides a nice symmetry by tying the cessation back into love (though Paul himself never indicates that love will be the cause of prophecies ceasing), it gives no practicable hermeneutic for understanding the history of spiritual gifts. Has the church as a whole learned to love and that is why there is no longer tongues-speaking? When was that moment? Or have churches in the Pentecostal movement not yet learned to love? Had Paul, who exercised spiritual gifts like healing, not yet learned to love? The third option presents similar problems. What is maturity and when, if it has yet, did the church achieve it? What are we to make of the fact that some churches still ostensibly exercise spiritual gifts while others do not?

The most notable stance among those typically termed cessationists (though I should hope, as I said in my previous post, that all Christians are cessationists in an ultimate sense) is that the New Testament has brought an end to the exercise of spiritual gifts. It should come as a surprise to no one that B. B. Warfield classically articulated this position in 1918 coinciding with the rise of Pentecostalism. Rick Oster has noted that this particular cessationist position has been kept alive “more by polemical necessity than exegetical soundness” (321). It is often presented as the last bastion of biblical authority against the unbridled charismata of the holy-rolling, snake-handling hoard of senseless babblers. I will address that misconception later, but evidences for this view (which from now on I will, with some irony, refer to as “scriptural cessationism”) merit attention.

To their cause, the scriptural cessationist can muster Ephesians 4:11-16 and Hebrew 2:1-4. These verses demonstrate that God granted the gifts of the Spirit primarily as evidences and assurances of sound teaching. The reasoning then is that when an unquestionable doctrinal authority came, the necessity for spiritual gifts disappeared and with it the gifts themselves. The Ephesians passage is particularly noteworthy because it not only gives doctrinal security as the reason for spiritual gifts but also uses the same language of love and maturity that also appears in 1 Cor. 13. These are the texts in question:

11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

1Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

The problem arises, however, that if we accept the reasoning by which these ideas support the view of scriptural cessationism then we are forced to admit that God’s in His providence has been a profound failure. Here is what I mean. If it is granted that the purpose of spiritual gifts was to prevent doctrinal error, and if it is granted that the Bible is the perfect tool for preventing doctrinal error such that it supersedes and brings an end to spiritual gifts, then why does doctrinal error abound? Paul and the author of Hebrews seem to be very clearly stating that the miraculous gifts of God worked as a sign to indicate divine approval and to guide the church in doctrinal purity. Most Christians will argue that the church was purer and more perfectly unified in the first century than the twenty first century. Why is this the case if the Bible, which guides us now, is so superior to spiritual gifts, which guided the church then? There have been more divisions in the past two hundred years than in perhaps the entire history of the church previous, and these divisions occur with the most startling frequency among those churches which hold to a “Bible only” creed. The Bible, it must be admitted, is a terrible source for assuring doctrinal purity. For every possible teaching there is a biblical hermeneutic to justify it. The Corinthians, for all their various and multiple ethical shortcomings, seemed to have a fairly firm grasp on the basic teachings of Christianity--with one notable exception.

More importantly, I think this view grossly misunderstands the relationship which existed between spiritual gifts and Scripture through the long history of God’s people. It incorrectly assumes that one is superior to the other or even that the two are antagonistic. It must be remembered, however, that miraculous gifts and holy, authoritative texts coexisted harmoniously for centuries among God’s people, even as Paul was writing. The Jews, for example, had an authoritative text early in their history in the form of the Law (if we assume, for a moment, an early date for substantial parts of the Torah). During the golden age of Israel’s prophets, miraculous signs and divine prophecies did not contradict or transcend the written code. They illumined it for a people who had allowed their own priorities to cloud God’s intentions. (Interestingly, in the case of the core of the Old Testament, the authoritative text preceded the golden age of prophecy.) The same basic dynamic is at work with the prophets and healers of the New Testament, including Jesus who explained the truth of the Scriptures and verified his exposition with miraculous signs.

The Semitic model for handling Scripture seems to be not that it replaced prophecy but that it was prophecy placed in the interpretive hands of the prophets. It cannot be forgotten that Moses is the first and greatest prophet of Israel, and it was his life and writings that became the canon for the Israelite people. His teaching was forever authoritatively interpreted and applied by the prophets of God. The same is the case with Jesus, who was the first and greatest teacher of the New Covenant (and more, of course) who entrusted his life and teaching not to scholars but to prophets and healers who would preach it with power (which, incidentally, likely means something more that speaking loudly and pounding a Bible against a pulpit). Paul, it should be imagined given his tirade against human wisdom in 1 Cor. 2, also was not expecting to entrust his teachings to academics and masters of Baconian induction. His writings which became our Scriptures are the property of a universal priesthood of believers quickened to life by the Spirit of God. Scripture in the Biblical model does not supersede prophecy but invites it as the true model for interpretation. Now, that invites us to examine what precisely spiritual gifts, and particularly prophecy, are, but that is a subject which will be taken up in good time.

So, to recap, the Bible does not adequately fill the stated role of spiritual gifts which was to ensure doctrinal certainty. Moreover, the relationship between Scripture and spiritual gifts proposed by scriptural cessationism is itself unscriptural and misunderstands the role of prophecy in the history of God’s people. It would seem that Oster may be right in his evaluation of scriptural cessationism. But wait, there’s more.

Wayne A. Grudem rightly notes that scriptural cessationism fundamentally undermines the force of the argument Paul is trying to make in 1 Cor. 13. Paul’s purpose is to show that love endures even beyond the cessation of spiritual gifts. This is hardly an impressive feat if, as scriptural cessationists believe, the end of miraculous spiritual gifts came less than a generation after Paul’s death with the writing of the last of the canonical documents. Certainly Paul is a better rhetorician than that. If I may be deliberately hyperbolic (because I am not nearly as subtle as Paul was), he might just have readily as argued, “Love never ends; it is even going to be around after dinner tonight.” Or, since some things never change, “Love never ends; it lasts longer than most politicians’ marriages.” If Paul’s point is to highlight the great permanence of love against the transience of everything else (including faith and hope) he would certainly not have picked as his counterpoint a moment in time that he could have very well lived to see had he not died a martyr.

The real damning criticism of scriptural cessationism, the final nail in the coffin, is simply that the Bible is not self-aware. It’s nature as an unconscious anthology forbids it. No matter how hard we squint, no matter how contortionist our hermeneutics are, no matter if we pray, hope, wish, and write a letter to Santa, the fact of the matter remains that the biblical authors are not aware of the future canon. Paul is writing a letter to Corinth; he did not submit it to Eerdmans to be published as part of an authoritative collection. Gordon Fee has put it thus: “It [i.e. biblical cessationism] is an impossible view, of course, since Paul himself could not have articulated it. What neither Paul himself nor the Corinthians could have understood can possibly be the meaning of the text.” (645) It needs to be assumed in reading any New Testament epistle that the audience for whom it was intended could understand the meaning that was intended. Paul and the Corinthians had no concept of a process that would be completed three centuries later, ergo Paul was not referencing that process.

It would seem that the motivation for the scriptural cessationist view is more polemical than exegetical after all. It found popularity with the rise of Pentecostalism and is slowly falling out of favor as the fear of Penecostalism subsides. Commentaries, even those by very conservative scholars, are increasingly abandoning this view. This leaves only the last of the four major views left standing. Why precisely it may be correct and how it can be defended without necessitating Pentecostalism will require further explanation.

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