Monday, September 11, 2006

Sola Scriptura and related cessationist/continuationist issues

Much of what I see in Scripture and in the culture at large and in the Evangelical church's relationship with the culture at large is a crisis of not understanding the dynamic faith that Jesus calls us to. I am interested in the continuationist/cessationist debate because the cessationists provide some of the clearest and loudest doctrinal protests to the sort of approach to faith that I am advocating. As I am clarifying my doctrinal positions, I am realizing that I want to spend more time examining cessationism as a counterpoint. I want to explore cessationism and, later, explore other forms of dispensationalism of which cessationism is but one form.

In regard to the continuationist/cessationist debate, I am discovering that there is a continuum out there that ranges from hyper-cessationist to hyper-pentacostal. Hyper-cessationists believe that all movement of the Holy Spirit has completely stopped as anything that can be claimed as God's present day voice or God's present day movement in dynamic relationship with individuals or with His church. Cessationists who are not so far on the edge of the spectrum will recognize that some people have gifts of the Spirit, but claim cessationism as the defining characteristic of most professing Christians. There are some cessationists who are closer on the spectrum than others to continuationism who will acknowledge the quiet leading of the Holy Spirit while believing that the more dramatic manifestations of them have ceased.

On the extreme other end of the spectrum, on the continuationist side, are those pentacostals who believe that one must be speaking in tongues to have been properly born in the Spirit. I, personally, count myself in the middle-left category of continuationists, known as "Spirit in power", who believe that God's Spirit still moves powerfully in diverse ways, meeting people as they need. I do not believe that it is necessarily a sign of faithlessness or lack of edification for any one individual to not have this gift or that gift. Based on my position, I am at odds with those pentacostals who have arrived at a doctrine wherein speaking in tongues is a necessary sign that one has been born in the Spirit. I do, however, hold that the Scripture points to a dynamic relationship with God and with His Spirit, whether or not each individual Christian experiences that relationship in quite the same way. As a fellow continuationist, I'll defend charismatics from many of the charges that they receive from cessationists that tongues and other gifts/manifestations of the Spirit are somehow non-existent or defunct in this present age. I will defend the diverse ways that God operates in people anywhere, anytime.

Having acknowledged that there are different flavors of cessationism, as a generality, cessationists use the idea of "self-sufficiency" of Scripture as a refutation of continuationism. In a nutshell, "self-sufficiency" is a cessationist interpretation of the Protestant Reformation's "Sola Scriptura". Sola Scriptura was emphasized by the Protestant Reformers to confront doctrines of the Catholic Church regarding the special ministry of priests and the perfection of Mary, which are doctrines that are not in the Bible but that are treated by the Catholic church as being co-equal truths to what is in the Bible. For the Reformers, the Scriptures should be the only source of Christian doctrine and practice to the exclusion of ideas that are claimed to have co-equal status with that of Scripture.

The "self-sufficiency" of Scripture is a cessationist idea that is a counterpoint to the continuationist idea that the Holy Spirit is still moving and speaking in ways that can be perceived by believers. For a cessationist, if a believer is still listening to God in the present day, that believer is therefore not relying exclusively on Scripture for guidance, and therefore the Scripture is not enough for one's relationship with God. The cessationist considers this idea of "self-sufficiency" to be part and parcel with the Reformation idea of Sola Scriptura. For a cessationist, not only is it already problematic that a continuationist is relying on more than the written Word for his/her daily walk, the cessationist is concerned that continuationists are on a slippery slope toward arriving at ideas that will be claimed as being co-equal with Scripture.

What is in contention in this continuationist/cessationist debate is whether the Scripture itself calls us to listen to God and react to God's ongoing movement and to expect that God will lead us in the particulars of our present day lives. The cessationist operates on a doctrine that says "no" unequivocally to this question, based on a very particular interpretation of Scripture.

I am attempting to present some of the key aspects of cessationism and the cessationist doctrine of "self'sufficiency" as I currently understand it. I want to explore cessationism as accurately and as fairly as I can in order to reckon with the consequences of cessationism as a doctrine and explain the differences between it and the continuationist ideas that I am defending and promoting.

In my understanding, the cessationist interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, wherein the teleon/the complete is interpreted as the completion of the Bible canon, is the Scriptural cornerstone of cessationist doctrine. I have explained in my wet cat series part II and part III the problems I have with this interpretation. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 is the only Scripture that I have found that cessationists claim as a direct, propositional statement from Scripture supporting cessation. Other Scriptures that cessationists use to supplement their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13 are based on interpretations of more indirect or narrative elements within the New Testament.

For example, it is based on the narrative elements of Acts that cessationists interpret New Testament tongues as being only human languages, which operated primarily for the benefit of those at Pentacost. That is why cessationists don't consider the gift of tongues in the New Testament to be anything like what charismatics today describe as incomprehensible divine languages that need the divine gift of interpretation to be understood. It is my assessment that this cessationist understanding of tongues contradicts 1Cor 14:2, so I am interested to further learn how cessationists deal with 1 Cor. 14:2.

The cessationist works backwards from their doctrinal cornerstone in 1 Cor. 13 and whatever else they interpret as being supplemental to the idea that the "teleon" referred to the Bible canon, and proceed to interpret the rest of Scripture from the perspective of that cornerstone. To mix my metaphors, 1 Cor. 13 is the primary lens that a cessationist uses to subdivide Scripture into two dispensations. The first, and now past, dispensation is the one wherein Christians needed direct encounters with the Holy Spirit to establish the church and church doctrine before the establishement of the canon. The second dispensation, which we are now currently in, is the one wherein the written Word, the Bible canon, has replaced direct, dynamic encounters with the Holy Spirit. Depending on which cessationist you talk to, the dividing line separating these two dispenations is either the first century or the fourth century.

In regard to these Scriptures:

-- If Jesus says that he has more to say to his disciples, and explains how the Holy Spirit will operate as Counselor, speaking to his disciples as the Spirit hears from the Father (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:13-15), a cessationist interprets this promise as part of a dispensation that was only for Jesus' immediate disciples and was not to be normative for Christians throughout church history.

-- If Paul discussed Spiritual gifts and gave instructions on the order of worship regarding the gifts, a cessationist understands that those commands were for a dispensation that ended with the establishment of the canon.

-- If Paul says that the peace that passes understanding will keep the Phillipians in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7), this particular peace, needed to keep people in Christ Jesus, became obselete with the establishment of the canon.

-- If Paul says to the Ephesians (Eph. 1:17) "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, mayt give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better", for a cessationist, this prayer was made obselete by the completion of the canon.

In my best and most honest attempt to understand cessationism, for a cessationist, Christians needed direct encounters with God to communicate the reality of Christ in the absense of having the writings of Paul and the four Gospels at their disposal. As I understand cessationism, to a cessationist, the Holy Spirit's leading/prophecy as a direct interactive relationship with people in first century had only an informative purpose in the church, not a transformative purpose that was to continue beyond the early church. In this understanding, the Holy Spirit was manifested directly to inform people of the apostles' role as messengers of the Gospel and as codifiers of the Bible canon, and to inform Christian communities of the reality of Christ and in the ways of Godly wisdom only until they received the complete Bible canon. To the extent that the writings of Paul and the four Gospels were disseminated throughout the early church, which culiminated with the establishment of the Bible canon in the fourth century, Christians did not need the Holy Spirit to inform Christians in the way of their faith through direct manifestations. To a cessationist, the early Christians did not need the Holy Spirit's direct leading for the purpose of their personal transformation, rather, only for their doctrinal information.

In addition to making dispensational divisions in Scripture, cessationists downplay the idea of present-day interactive relationship with God by trying to emphasize the distance between God any perceptible sense that God is at work in our hearts, guiding us towards thoughts and in directions that facilitate His present day work in us. By emphasizing this distance, a cessationist seeks to separate God's work in our hearts as being something that a contemporary Christian can claim as God's present day voice/revelation.

One way that a cessationist will emphasize this distance between God and our sense of God is to argue that is merely our conscience, fallible as it is, that senses and/or fabricates these "leadings" and "impressions". For a cessationist, these "feelings", "leadings" and "impressions" do not ever indicate a direct supernatural intervention/communication from God. If one is feeling an urge to pray for someone or reach out to someone in any given moment, for a cessationist, it is not an urge that should be recognized in any way as the direct leading of God or the voice of God. Only the desire to pray or help, as a general command, can be linked to God -- not the call to pray or help in any particular moment, as opposed to any other particular moment. Some cessationists claim that if one is feeling peace or joy, one cannot ever specifically claim that the peace/joy as necessarily being directly from Christ Jesus, since peace and joy are merely feelings. In regard to feelings, senses and impressions that believers claim to be from God, a cessationist will say, "But what if it's wrong, who's to blame? God?".

Cessationists do value having positive affections towards God and having affections of love, charity and forgiveness towards others, affections that display the fruits of the Spirit. It is based partly on this that a cessationist will say that he is "Spirit filled", without seeing the idea of "Spirit filled" as being a present day reality of inter-acting with the Holy Spirit in any directly perceptible way. A cessationist understands that his conscience is perfected by the Holy Spirit as his conscience is filled only with the written Word that the Holy Spirit led the apostles to write down in the first century. To a cessationist, the Scriptures that continuationists interpret as indicating a dynamic relationship with God are interpreted through the 1 Cor. 13 dispensation to refer to something that has past and/or something that is not, in fact, dynamic and inter-active.

A cessationist is only willing to concede the Holy Spirit's present day work in the hearts of believers with the understanding that His work in us is His imperceptible movement in our hearts that we only notice when we look back on what He has done as we have studied and applied His Word. The work of the Holy Spirit, for a cessationist, cannot be understood as a perceptible, present day reality, for that would be indicative of God's present day leading, which would pose a problem of Scriptural "self-sufficiency". This cessationist argument recognizes the irresistibility of God's grace, as outlined in 5 points Calvinism, but will not concede that the irresistibility can be felt specifically and perceptibly as God's moment-by-moment leading in believers.

A cessationist understands that believing in God while not being able to perceive God is the essence of having faith, because to perceive/sense God in any way would nullify the need to have faith. A cessationist equates any perception of God's leading in any way as a form of "sight", which would nullify a believers need to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Cessationists also believe that wisdom and understanding of Scripture are incompatible with the idea of an inter-active relationship with God that is based on listening to God on an ongoing basis. If a believer listens to God for direction, why would he need to study His word? This cessationist understanding of faith and cessationist understanding of a dichotomy between Scriptural wisdom and listening to God is basis for a cessationist to say that the continuationist act of listening to God with the idea that He still speaks and moves in the present day is an act that undermines the self-sufficiency of Scripture. To the cessationist, only the Scriptures that are relevant for the present dispensation, via the cessationist interpretation of 1 Cor. 13, should guide a believer's daily walk with God.

These are some of the major charges made by cessationists against continuationism that I want to explore in greater depth. I recognize that there are differences among cessationists, and not every self-identified cessationist will confess everything that I have outlined above. I am doing my honest best to try to construct a composite of what I have learned about cessationist doctrine so far.

In order for me to better understand the doctrinal differences between the continuationist positions that I advocate and advance and those of cessationists, I decided to start an ongoing debate with a cessationist, Nathan White, on his Preach the Word blog. I count Nathan White as a brother in Christ across a wide theological divide, with whom I want to have a civilized, if pointed, dialogue with. As Dennis Prager always says, it is more important to find clarity that agreement. Here is a link to Nathan's blog post entitled Non-Cessationist Question #1 and to the comment section at the bottom that features the debate I began with him last week.

1 comment:

Rich Tatum said...

Great stuff here, Greg. I'll have to spend some more time reading your posts. Meanwhile, do you mind if I add you to my PneumaBlogs list? (Contact me)