Thursday, October 05, 2006

Random Thoughts on the Sign Gifts

Attending WorshipGod06 (run by Bob Kauflin and Sovereign Grace Ministries)with Tim has given me lots to think about. Ever since Tim and I got back I've been mulling over the issues with regards to the 'sign' or 'miraculous' gifts. Here are some random thoughts I've been chewing on...

1. 1 Corinthians 13.8-13. This is not profound, but merely an acknowledgement of what the majority of evangelicalism has already said: these verses are not referring to the closing of the canon. Without this text, the intratextual evidence for any strong cessationist position is incredibly weak. To my knowledge this is the only text cessationists use to argue their position that Paul knew of the gifts coming to an end. Further, even if we could allow that this text is speaking of these gifts (tongues, prophecies, and knowledge), then why do we include things like the gift of healing in the list of gifts which have ceased?

2. Where do we draw the line? It seems to me that the categories of 'miraculous' or 'sign' gifts are somewhat artificially imposed on the New Testament text (like imposing the 'moral / civil / ceremonial' categories on the OT Law). Nowhere does it seem evident that such a distinction is made. Quite the contrary, in places like Romans 12.4-8 Paul lumps prophecy in with faith, service, teaching, exhortation, contributing, leading, acts of mercy, etc. What justification is there for picking and choosing which cease and which continue?

3. We need to know. The going line in our circles is that these are matters of secondary or tertiary importance to the gospel, and so we are united in our differences and able to fellowship with each other since we agree on the central issues. I agree with this. But I can't help but wonder how consistent it is. If there are people prophesying by the Spirit and we are saying that they're not, aren't we closing our ears to God's words to us? Aren't we guilty of denying a genuine work of God? Or if the opposite is the case and they're not really prophesying, but are saying they are, are they not false prophets? If they are putting false words in God's mouth is that something we can afford to call 'secondary'? I don't see how. I've been reading through Jeremiah lately and finding that God has some very harsh declarations against those who prophesy falsely in his name...

4. 'But they're not the New Testament gifts...'. This was one of Tim's (and mine as well) biggest complaints against the practising of the gifts that we saw at WorshipGod06. Simply put, what we saw did not line up with what we read in the New Testament. Now, as one who believes strongly in Sola Scriptura, I want to phrase very carefully what I say next, because I realize that variations of this thinking can be used to all kinds of nefarious ends. But as I think about the practising of the gifts described in Acts and then think about the gifts that I see today at Bible-centred places like Covenant Life Church, I have to ask, 'so what if they're different?' Again, I don't want to dismiss any biblical command or restrictions which are ongoing, but don't we often argue that the book of Acts is more 'descriptive' rather than 'prescriptive'? And if we're honest with ourselves, how much of what takes place on a Sunday morning in our church buildings actually resembles what the first believers did as they met 'day by day' anyway? So why is it such a big deal with the gifts? It seems that the more important (if one can speak in such terms) place to look for guidance on the practice of the gifts would be the epistles written to post-Acts churches. These epistles contain many instructions on how to practice the gifts in an ongoing sense and nowhere seem to indicate that they will cease. Places like Covenant Life Church, leaders like Bob Kauflin, and organizations like Sovereign Grace Ministries do seem to follow those instructions quite well. Everything is done decently and in order (more ordered, in fact, than many cessationist churches I've been in where no one even has an order of service written up).

Again, these are all just random thoughts not leading to any conclusions. They're just things I'm contemplating in the spare moments my brain manages to come across.

Any thoughts are more than welcome!

25 comments:

r a i n e r said...

This is a great post. I've thought of several times since this summer posting on this topic, but am still working out how what I believe should actually work in the local church - I've never seen this. Also, I love how clearly you write, so I'm glad I didn't post my own jumbo & could read it understandibly from you.

I am not a cessationist which makes me a minority as a proponent of calvinistic, reformed baptist theology. I am thankful to God for Sovereign Grace Ministries because it seems to be strive so much for Bible-centered everything. Is there any way to concisely write how Covenant Life practiced gifts in their service?

Bob Kauflin said...

Julian,

Thanks for these thoughtful comments in this post. I think you're asking good questions, and more importantly, coming up with biblical answers. Everyone who honors Scripture as the last word on the subject of the gifts, has to acknowledge that God has chosen not to be as clear on some things as we might have hoped. But what He has been clear on is that we need the power and gifts of His Spirit to serve Him, live for His glory, and bear any fruit through our lives. May God give us more churches (and I include our own in this prayer) that would demonstrate a supernatural community life that only the Spirit can produce, for the glory of our Savior!

laurie said...

Julian, I met you at the conference. You may remember me or my husband with the crutches who didn't get healed :). Anyway, this is a great post; glad you're still thinking through these issues.

HeavyDluxe said...

Great post, Julian...

Some friends and I have been thinking through the same things, though for different reasons. In our case, there was a spontaneous outbreak of the 'charismata' among a bunch of cessationist kids at out local college. Ironically, our path took us through CovLife church (again, for different reasons).

You can read my take here and my friend's early reflections over here.

Praying for you as you study, and hope you'll be praying for us as we do the same... Would welcome any interaction on the subject with you!

In Christ, Dluxe

evanmay said...

Julian,

I spoke with you briefly at the conference. I'm glad that you enjoyed it. I just had a couple of thoughts concerning the excellent questions that you have posed:

To my knowledge this is the only text cessationists use to argue their position that Paul knew of the gifts coming to an end

There's also the "covenantal curse" argument from 1 Cor. 14 (arguing that tongues functioned as a means of expressing God's judgment on the Jews, and since this function has ceased tongues have ceased as well). But for the most part, the cessationist argument is a dogmatic one rather than an exegetical one. This isn't necessarily wrong. It just means that the discussion lies outside of having a particular text of Scripture that argues for cessationism and lies in cessationism being (supposedly) a theological implication.

But when the debate is framed in dogmatic terms (No apostles = no prophets = no tongues speakers = no miracle workers), it then hinges on the nature of New Testament prophecy (this is the link that, I believe, breaks the chain of the cessationist argument). If New Testament prophecy was and is something of a different nature than cessationists assume, then the transition from apostles to prophets is a rather difficult one. For the nature of NT prophecy, I recommend Carson's exegesis of 1 Cor. 14 in Showing the Spirit

It seems to me that the categories of 'miraculous' or 'sign' gifts are somewhat artificially imposed on the New Testament text

Indeed, I think such a dichotomy is the very thing Paul was seeking to eliminate in 1 Corinthians.

But they're not the New Testament gifts....

Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But I hope that this is, above all else, an exegetical question. In other words, hopefully, our standard for what “the New Testament gifts” are comes from exegetical conclusions rather than theological assumptions.

I have to ask, 'so what if they're different?'

Quite awhile back, Vern Poythress wrote a (then rather controversial) article called, “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts.“ It is available to read here. His thesis was basically: how to affirm modern works of the Spirit within a cessationist theology. He called modern gifts “analogous” (not identical to) NT gifts, but genuine gifts of the Spirit. Now, I would disagree with Poythress’ view of the New Testament gifts. But, really, this is practically inconsequential (by this I mean that it makes no difference concerning our practice of the gifts). He would encourage modern manifestations of the Spirit, even if he wouldn’t call them “prophecy” or “tongues” in the strictest sense. It would be gifts “analogous to” but not “identical to” the apostolic gifts.

Nevertheless, as Christians we desire to know what the New Testament actually teaches, so the discussion concerning the nature of NT gifts is certainly far from being thrown out of the window.

From a continuationist perspective, I would say that what is practiced at Covenant Life, though certainly far from the full measure of what occurred in the book of Acts (and I can only ask the Spirit to do more), is, indeed, New Testament spiritual gifts. This is how I understand the gifts to be taught in Scripture.

Again, Julian, I thank you greatly for your humility in expressing your perspective. I encourage you to look further into it. And, in a much greater sense, I hope and pray that we all grow in knowing the Savior better.

Jeri said...

Hi Julian

It's Jeri, I met you at the conference also! I just wanted to thank you for your thoughts expressed, and encourage you in your seeking the Lord. He surely rewards those who seek Him!

Anonymous said...

Yes, what evanmay said--read Poythress. If nothing else, it should help the cessationist and continuationist feel less threatened by the other.

Regarding "But they're not the New Testament gifts":

It's helpful to ask whether the various lists of gifts in the NT are exhaustive. If not, that could go some way to accounting for what happens today. Indeed, if it is true that the lists are not exhaustive, then this should liberate people who don't have one of the gifts in the list to pursue whatever they can do to edify the body, dreaming up new ministries.

Also, gifts are given in different measure. I.e., some preachers are given grace in greater measure (like a John Piper or a Paul Martin), while others preach with a smaller measure of grace. It seems reasonable that this would be the case with other gifts like healing as well.

Further, it may be helpful to ask what is the primary characteristic of gifts of the Spirit: is it that they are spectacularly supernatural? This was a hang-up for me. But it seems that the main point of spiritual gifts is not that they're spectacular, but that they edify. If that's the case, then I needn't be suspicious of activities that aren't spectacular--nor should I value them less.

Grudem's book on prophecy (which I haven't finished yet) has been helpful to me, if only to remind me that we can't take a word (such as "prophecy") and flatten it out to make it mean the same thing throughout the Bible; rather, context determines meaning. Granting that, it's eminently reasonable that "prophecy" could have different nuances in different contexts, just like the word "all" or many other words. Cessationists seem to forget proper word study principles when it comes to prophecy.

Matt Reimer

Anonymous said...

Do you think the fact that these “signs” gifts are much more common on the mission field and in third world countries adds anything to how we look at these gifts? Maybe the reason they are not as prevalent in out parts of the world is simply because the Holy Spirit knows they are not a necessity for us, whereas these gifts become more common in situations where evangelists have to struggle with language, medical, academic, and resourse barriers. I really don’t know much about this topic, but I thought I’d throw that out there and see what others think.

Anonymous said...

I guess what I’m thinking is maybe whether or not the gifts have ceased is not dependant upon a universal moment in time, but a moment in maturity, which can differ from one community of believers to another. The gift of tongues would be great if I was in an area where not everyone spoke my language, but in my community everyone already hears the Gospel in their own language so tongues would not benefit them much.

Mark D. Smith said...

Word Julian,

I enjoyed thinking through your post a little bit. As you may or may not know I am firmly not a cessationist. Did you read the 4 Views book for Issues in Contemporary Theology Class? My year did not read it but I read it in my spare time and I side with Sam Storms though I have never experienced any of the charistmatic gifts. I just cannot see cessationism taught in the Scriptures.

Reading "Convergence: Spiritual Journeys of Charismatic Calvinist" this quote really hit me a couple days ago:

"This raises the delicate question of why someone who does not belive the Bible teaches cessationaism would not, in turn, actively pursue spiritual gifts and happily welcome their use in the context of the local church."

Phil said...

The quick dismissal of 1 Cor. 13:8-13 is amazing to me. The list of men in the past who have held to this exegesis is quite long and prestigious and they include, (Dr. J. Oliver Buswell (president of Wheaton College), Dr. Charles Feinberg (Dean, Talbot Theological Seminary), Dr. Louis Talbot (president of Biola), Dr. John Walvoord (president of Dallas Theological Seminary), and many, many more. It is interesting that so many quickly dismiss this exegesis without giving any justification?

I would like someone to explain why they attribute Paul's use of Telios in vs 10 to mean the Parousia? If it is correct... it is the only time that Paul uses Telios to mean "perfect" when "child" is in close proximity. A brief survey of Paul’s use of νήπιος used in proximity of τέλειος shows that Paul’s use of τέλειος always carries the connotation of adulthood versus childhood (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6; 3:1; 14:20; Eph. 4:13-14). After studying Paul's own use of the word... it makes it very challenging to say that this one verse is the exception. Try to make those other passages say "Perfect" or "Complete" for "Telios"! It is not possible... they must be translated Mature. I believe that is the emphasis of Paul in vs. 11. He is saying that as the church matures (elders, closing of the cannon, established churches) these gifts will no longer be needed to validate the message.

I love the men at Soverign Grace and respect them highly... but I just get tired of people saying the exegesis of a "cessationist" position is faulty without offering any evidence. After studying it in depth I have found the opposite to be true. I also think the fact that these gifts dissapear from Paul's writtings as the epistles progress is evidence these gifts faded with the maturity of the church. If these were gifts that churches were to seek after wouldn't Paul mention them to young Timothy on his death bed in 2 Timothy?

Just some thoughts.

Phil

evanmay said...

The quick dismissal of 1 Cor. 13:8-13 is amazing to me.

Honestly, I think you are assuming too much in this comment.

Just because Julian does not extensively address 1 Cor. 13 in his reflective post above (which was, self-admittedly, "random thoughts" rather than exegetical material) does not mean that he has simply "dismissed" this without looking into it. Maybe he has extensively studied the matter; maybe he hasn't. But I think he is innocent until proven guilty, don't you?

In any case, while I agree that continuationists are often either ignorant of cessationist arguments or too quick to dismiss them, this isn't the case for all continuationists. This exegesis has been extensively handled in Grudem's and Caron's books (see especially Carson’s Showing the Spirit). And, on top of that, two leading modern cessationists (Richard Gaffin and Sam Waldron, among others) recognize that to make this passage refer to anything other than the return of Christ is to commit Paul to ridiculously hyperbolic statements about the completion of the canon. Did we “see face to face” when Paul put his pen down? Or is this referring to something that is yet to come?

Since this isn't the nature of this post, and because I'm not one to high-jack a thread, I don't wish to enter into a debate over this passage. But I just hope that you recognize that simply because one disagrees with the cessationist argument from 1 Cor. 13 does not mean that he has dismissed it in ignorance.

Standing on the Common Ground of the Cross of Christ,
Evan

HeavyDluxe said...

Ummmm... What Evan said.

It's always funny to see what people have posted right before you click 'Publish' on your own comment. You can become redundant so quickly out here on teh intarweb.

Just to add two things:

He is saying that as the church matures (elders, closing of the cannon, established churches) these gifts will no longer be needed to validate the message.

I'd be interested to discuss this a little more (but it risks threadjacking)... I would say that anyone still needs to wrestle with "face to face" and "know fully even as we have been fully known".

If these were gifts that churches were to seek after wouldn't Paul mention them to young Timothy on his death bed in 2 Timothy?

Well, for one thing because Timothy was being sent to Corinth (perhaps bearing the letter)... So, he would've already gotten such instruction for Paul and from the recitation of the letter.

That said, I think a better reason would certainly be that Paul's whole point in 1 Cor seems to be that the gifts should be sought in love to serve the Body. Paul is correcting the arrogant, self-important seeking of the gifts personified in the Corinthians. The ideas of love and service are the point (the supreme ethics that govern the gifts) and these ideals drip from the pages of 2 Timothy too.

Just some thoughts... Believe me, I'm still grappling with all this, so don't take my comments to imply that I have it all down. In fact, the main reason I'm even commenting is to get some 'fire' going to test my position. As I noted on my page, I want to be right because I want to rightly glorify and honor Christ. If that means I need to move in my position (um, again!), I want to do that.

In Christ, Dluxe

evanmay said...

I'd also add that Paul is far from shutting off the nozzle of Spiritual gifts in his letters to Timothy. Of course, because these are letters to a person and not (directly) to a church, they focus on Timothy's particular gifting. But the fact remains that Paul encourages, even in these pastoral letters, a pursuit of the gifts of the Spirit in a holistic sense:

1 Tim 4:14-15 "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress."

2 Tim 1:6, "For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands"

Taliesin said...

Phil,

While I do not consider myself a charismatic (nor a cessationist), I do find that holding to a view of 1 Corinthians 13 other than the return of Christ to be problematic. I discuss why here and here.

That said, I do agree that there appeared to be less manifestation of these outward gifts as the church progressed. This is consistent with the Old Testament pattern of miracles being more pronounced at certain stages.

But that's observation, not Scripture. I do not see a case in Scripture for cessationism prior to the return of Christ.

Phil said...

I would fully agree that verse 12 is referring to the Return of Christ. What I am saying is I believe verse 10, "when the perfect/mature comes" is referring to maturity of the church and not the return of Christ. I think Paul is progressing in maturity from verse 10 (illustrated in vs.11) to final maturity with the return of Christ in vs. 12. The Illustration of vs. 11 just does not make sense if vs. 10 is referring to the return of Christ. While the illustration in vs. 12 (the mirror) does.

All I was hoping to do was to put up a yellow flag as a warning to the trend which I have seen lately which is to dismiss the exegesis of the historical cessationist position without giving any defense of the dismissal. I was unsure myself so I studied it and what I saw in the text changed my position. If anyone is interested in learning more I would be happy to e-mail them a paper that more fully defends this position.

Finally, I want to say thanks to Julian for his humble response and I know that his desire is just to be Biblical as is mine.

Grace and Peace

Ken said...

Just a thought regarding the silence of what the Epistles say about these gifts, healing in particular. When someone in the church gets sick what are they supposed to do? They are supposed to call for the elders to come and annoint them with oil and pray for them. This is James instruction to the church (James 5:13-15). I am not a cessationist completely, but the silence of James regarding anyone gifted to heal the sick, is deafening. Nowhere in the New Testament is it ever even hinted that elders need to have the gift of healing in order to serve as elders, but they are the ones the sick are to go to so they will be healed. Does this not say something about whether the gift of healing is meant for us today? I grant that it may not mean that there is absolutely no place for it(in evangelism perhaps)but whether we are cessationist or not churches should be obeying this instruction. We do not need someone with the gift of healing in order to have healing occur.

This text also speaks volumes regarding the TV type preachers who encourage people of faith to come to their meetings to be healed. People of faith (Christians) should just ask their elders to come and pray for them.

We have been having "prayer-for-healing" services (every other month)in our church for many years (we interpret people coming to the front for prayer, to be a person calling for the elders to pray). Some of those we prayed for died (perhaps that was thier healing), some are still sick (and still coming for prayer) and some have been unexplainably (miraculously?) healed of their sickness. What a glory it has been for us, on a prayer-for-healing Sunday to have someone come to the front, not for prayer, but just to announce to the church that he/she was healed of the thing had the elders prayed for at the last service.

Just adding stuff into the stew.

Taliesin said...

Phil,

I'd be interested in reading your paper, not in small part due to the fact that I started with your position (perfect = mature church) and moved away from it. This not in small part because it does not handle Revelation 11:3 well.

It also raises some questions that are difficult to answer:

1) How do we know the church is mature?
2) What happens (as is happening in the west) when the mature church disappears? Do the gifts come back?
3) Verse 12 begins with "for" which would seem to make the preceeding verses dependent on whatever the event in v.12 is. Why doesn't it?
4) Verse 9 says that when Paul wrote things were "partial" but in v.10 the partial is gone, so the fullness has come. If that is true, then we "know" fully now. How do we reconcile this with seeing dimly in v.12?

I liked the mature church position because it fits the empirical evidence. But careful study has led me to believe it cannot be supported from the passage.

evanmay said...

I am not a cessationist completely, but the silence of James regarding anyone gifted to heal the sick, is deafening.

It's possible that "gifts of healing" refers not simply to an individual gifted with the gift of healing (as if he could heal someone as he pleased), but individual gifts of healing (the Lord gifting his church with healings), though certainly operated through individuals (it is the person who has the gift).

If this is the case, then this would make much sense of James' calling for the elders to pray for the sick, that through them the church would be gifted with healing.

In any case, I don't see how this "deafening silence" supports a cessationist position. Surely when James penned his letter, the gift of healing was in operation. Furthermore, given Paul's theology of the diversity of Spiritual gifts (the Spirit distributes gifting diversely and unequally as he wills), it seems very natural for James to portray a normative practice for these churches that have different levels and types of gifting.

whether we are cessationist or not churches should be obeying this instruction

Indeed.

This text also speaks volumes regarding the TV type preachers who encourage people of faith to come to their meetings to be healed. People of faith (Christians) should just ask their elders to come and pray for them.

Agreed. Such “televangelist” healing services hardly serve the body. While I certainly do not question the motives of such people, they often give Christians neither a biblical gospel nor a biblical operation of Spiritual gifts. The result is people turning away from the “ordinary” local church in order to pursue some “extraordinary” “charismatic” leader. This is dangerous.

Phil said...

Not to try to stir up things... but the word "sick" in Greek can be translated "weak" or "struggling" and weak is probably a better translation. (See Dr. Macarthur’s commentary on James for a complete defense of the position)

That is not at all to say that God cannot heal people. And I am definitely not limiting God to being able to perform whatever miraculous works He desires... the issue is should these gifts be sought out as normative for the church today? A cessationist position does not say that God cannot do these things anymore; it says that God has chosen not to. Perhaps because He knew we would always be "clamoring for a sign" when he wants us to only want Him.

evanmay said...

A cessationist position does not say that God cannot do these things anymore; it says that God has chosen not to

Actually, the normal cessationist position isn't even this restricting. Cessationists affirm that God can and does work miracles and heal people today, and that we should ask him to do so. The difference, however, is between God, in extraordinary providence, working wonders; and God working wonders through the gifting of an individual. So they would say that while healing exists today, the "gift" of healing does not.

Nevertheless, as you say, Scripture also attributes spiritual immaturity to those who are enamored with the miraculous at the expense of the seemingly-ordinary. Jesus constantly rebuked those who sought only a sign to the neglect of the person of Christ himself, and Paul wrote against such spiritual immaturity and over-realized eschatology present in the church in Corinth.

I think the biblical position is a balanced one. We should be open to and seek the miraculous, but we should not neglect to thank the Spirit for the ways he gifts his church that seem ordinary. And ultimately, it’s not so much about gifting as it is about the exaltation of the Savior.

phil said...

nicely put

JLF said...

rainer:

I'm beginning to discover there are a lot more biblical reformed charismatics than I would have ever guessed! :)

Laurie:

Thanks so much for stopping by. I do indeed remember you and your husband--I have Jason's e-mail still sitting in my inbox, marked for me to reply to... curse the tyranny of the urgent! :)

Jeri:

Great to hear from you! Thanks for the kind words!

Evan, HeavyD, Phil, Taliesin:

Thank you guys so much for your contributions! Don't worry about 'threadjacking' or whatever you called it... I'm learning lots just by listening in on the conversation. You guys all obviously know more than me on these issues... I want to learn, that's why I'm asking the questions! Your input is always welcome!

Ken:

It's funny, but the church you're describing sounds a lot like one right near where I live... :)

HeavyDluxe said...

Julian,

Don't worry about 'threadjacking' or whatever you called it...

DANGER!! You should realize how dangerous it is to give any professional or armchair theologians permission to pontificate unchecked. You blog will quickly turn into our blog...

And then you should realize how much worse it is to make that statement when you know the charismatic-types are floating around. You know how they (er, we) have a tendency to babble nonstop.

//removing tongue from cheek.

Thanks again for the post and all the great comments...

In Christ, Dluxe

Adrian said...

Hi Julian
What a fantastic post. I love to see people wrestling with the bible on this issue from both sides of the fence.

I have a whole bunch of quotes over on my blog from people like Spurgeon, Piper, Lloyd-Jones, etc as well as a debate with Dan Phillips of pyromaniacs. I hope you may find some of it helpful as you continue yout quest.