I’m not a real quiet person, and I have often struggled around quiet people. I mistake their silence for anger and figure that if they are not talking to me they must either dislike me or be angry about something. It is pretty easy to misread silence and misinterpret its meaning.
It is generally asserted that the argument from silence in theology is among the weaker arguments and I would generally agree. It would be as easy to misinterpret silence in Scripture as it is for me to misinterpret it in others. “Jesus never addressed homosexuality,” we are told. His silence is assumed as tacit support – a conclusion I believe to be wholly unwarranted. It is easy to read too much into silence; no argument there.
But I think that in the charismatic/continuationist/cessationist discussion, the silence matters. It is, in fact, significant that there is not a single verse of scripture that argues that the use of spiritual gifts in the New Testament era would cease. With as much data as there is on charismata in the NT, the fact that no one countermanded those teachings is a strong point in favor of continuationism.
Before I make my point, let me make some general statements about the topic.
1) My primary concern is not tongues, but the biblical truth that God speaks directly to the human heart. It is the pattern of scripture and when we stray from the biblical pattern, when we are not led of the Spirit as the Bible teaches, it damages our walk with Christ and our ministries as churches.
It is not my intent to argue that in this post. I’ve made that argument before, at some length, here.
2) Tongues is not a huge issue to me. I had some good charismatic friends who encouraged me to open my spirit up to receive that gift. In a time of spiritual discouragement, I did exactly that. I told God that I did not want my standing as a Baptist preacher to keep me from experiencing everything that he had for me. If tongues would enhance my life, spur my growth, or empower my ministry, I wanted everything God had for me. For you cessationists, you will resist what I am about to say. But as I prayed about this, with open heart, the Spirit ministered to me that this was not for me.
The clearest teaching of 1 Corinthians 12-14 is that tongues is not a mark of spiritual superiority and that it is not worth fighting and dividing over. From that passage, I deduce the following:
- It is wrong to conclude that tongues is for everyone and that everyone should experience them.
- It is wrong to divide from or isolate those who speak in tongues (publicly or privately).
Whether one speaks in tongues or doesn’t, it should not be a point of division in the church. Or in the SBC.
That is why, though I have never spoken in tongues and do not believe it is for me, I think the IMB policy of rejecting otherwise qualified candidates for missionary service simply because they might have a private prayer language is sad and unbiblical. I still hope that one day we will correct that mistake.
I just want to put my comments in focus here.
3) I have some sympathy for Bart Barber’s a posteriori argument. Much of what goes on in today’s charismatic world is abusive and unbiblical. I do not support the Word of Faith nonsense, or the “everyone has to have it” concept. And while I believe that God speaks directly to the human heart and mind today, I also believe that many people abuse that horrendously.
A lot of what goes on in the charismatic world is just as unbiblical as cessationism.
4) The counterfeits tend to prove, not disprove, the reality. One of the knee-jerk cessationist arguments is to list abuses and counterfeits of the charismata, with the assumption that those counterfeits disprove the reality of the charismatic or continuationist argument. Balderdash. You don’t counterfeit Monopoly money. The counterfeits are abuses of that which is real. Admittedly, this is not a decisive argument for continuationism, but I believe it does render the tired old appeal to the extreme that is a staple of cessationist argument.
One of the key arguments for the ongoing workings of spiritual gifts (especially the so-called miraculous gifts and the speaking gifts) is the fact that there is not a single clear verse of scripture that teaches that the workings of the Spirit would alter or cease.
Permit me to explain why I think the argument from silence is key evidence on this issue.
1) During the NT era, the charismata were regularly practiced.
I’ve not seen anyone argue that today’s practice was the norm in the NT days. Charismatics argue that we should see today exactly what was seen in NT days. Continuationists argue that the NT experience of spiritual gifts should continue in some form, though we differ on exactly how much that work has changed. Cessationists argue that the miraculous or sign gifts passed away at the end of the Apostolic era.
No one argues that the dearth of spiritual gifts practiced in many churches today is how it was in the NT. The question is whether the changes from that era to this are what God wants or are evidence that we have in some way quenched the Spirit. Ought the practice of the charismata in the NT church have been carried on through to today, or was it meant to pass away?
2) The NT commands the practice of charismata.
Again, not much question here.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. 1 Corinthians 12:7–11
The Spirit manifested himself in every believer in various ways, for the good of the Body. A variety of manifestations from the same Spirit. According to 1 Corinthians 14:1, spiritual gifts seemed to be important to the church.
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.
In verse 18, Paul goes on to make it clear beyond question that he practiced the gift of tongues. He also makes it evident in verse 26 that the workings of the Spirit were a regular part of Christian worship.
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
Worship was not just the song leader leading songs (or the praise band rocking out) and people listening to the pastor preach. It was participatory. Each believer manifested the Spirit in some way in the service. Limits were placed on the expression of tongues, but it was an important part of worship.
New Testament worship was charismatic by today’s standards.
3) The NT practice of the charismata is not countermanded.
The cessationist has to make either theological arguments or complicated biblical arguments because there is no simple statement that “the charismata are only for now, not for the future of the church.”
Some point to 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 as evidence that the sign gifts would pass away.
As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
The “perfect” is said to be the completed canon of Scripture. When that perfect revelation comes, the imperfect revelation of tongues and prophecy will cease. But verse 12 militates against that interpretation.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Seems pretty clear that the perfect was not the coming of the completed canon, but the Second Coming of Christ, when we see him face to face and are perfected and glorified. Once Christ comes, prophecy and tongues, along with all other spiritual gifts, have no further purpose.
In fact, this passage argues for continuationism more than cessationism. Prophecy and tongues have a purpose until Christ’s perfection comes!
The other common argument is logical – the primary argument my cessationist professors tried to make back in seminary days. Tongues was given as a sign (often to the Jews) and once the church was established, that sign was no longer necessary. That is a irredeemably flawed and strained interpretation. I would invite someone to write a post making that argument exegetically. In fact, it was the paucity of this argument – which I wanted to believe – that was key in convincing me to abandon cessationism for a biblically stronger position. Frankly, I’d love to see someone articulate that position with clear exegetical argument.
Some have said that sign gifts were only for the Apostles. It is true that most of the miracles of the NT were done by the Apostles, who seemed to have a special anointing for such. But the practice of charismata was for the whole church, not just the Apostles. Every believer! So, while the Apostolic argument may explain why we do not see the remarkable outpouring of the miraculous that occurred in the NT era, it does not change the fact that the charismata were for everyone.
4) The fact that the NT’s active practice of the charismata is not countermanded in scripture is significant.
If the charismata were commanded and practiced in the NT era, and there is no clear command to reverse that practice, then it is to be assumed that the practice of charismata was meant to continue.
One vocal cessationist tried to counter this argument with the rejoinder that there was no command that these would continue either. That borders on the absurd. If God commands it, his commands remain in place. If the practice of charismata was the commanded norm of the NT church, it remains the commanded norm until God changes the practice.
The burden is on cessationists to show that the norm of the practice of charismata in the NT church is no longer the norm today. The absence of scriptural evidence changing the norm would tend to indicate that the norm remains in place, even if that norm has been ignored or abused.
It is my hope that over time, the presumptive cessationism of Southern Baptists will fade away and be replaced by a more biblical, cautious, but open attitude toward the practice of charismata. The SBC and its churches will benefit from leaving cessationism behind to find a more biblical position.