Strange Fire?: Some Musings on Revelation, Scripture, Cessationism and Continuationism

I've succumbed to the temptation to write about Strange Fire, or rather to write around it. For John Macarthur's conference isn't the only thing rolling around in my head at the moment.There's a book I don't want to write about, but which is playing on my mind. There's a meeting I was at recently where everyone was talking about revelation. There are some words from a prophecy. And there are talks I'm preparing both on theology and on preaching, both of which rest on the (very biblical) conviction that Jesus is the revelation of God. All of this is turning round together and all of it interlinks.

Back in my undergraduate days, if anyone accused me of being a charismatic, I'd reply that I wasn't - I was a Pentecostal. To me charismatic was just too broad and nebulous, and too much associated with strange unbiblical things (whether it be barking like dogs - the 'Toronto Blessing' wasn't such a distant memory back then - or health and wealth). In those days charismatics were still something of an oddity both in the Divinity Faculty (when I wanted to write my dissertation on a Pentecostal theologian, the first supervisor suggested to me was an expert in psychology of religion!) and in the conservative evangelical social circles in which I moved (that's no more than a rather grand way of referring to the CU). As there were only two other Pentecostal students at the time in the whole university (one far away in a college a few miles outside town, and neither of them in the Div Fac), I could quite happily and conveniently carve out my own theological identity as a biblical Pentecostal when anyone would try to tar me with the brush of Benny Hinn, or whatever other wacky charismatic preachers were doing the rounds at the time.

Things have changed since then. Although Benny might still fly in from time to time, most of the wackier charismatic leaders in this country are nothing more than distant memories these days. It's the much more solidly biblical leaders who have endured. Just think of Terry Virgo, and following after him and his co-workers, a whole array of younger NewFrontiers men who preach Christ biblically, planting churches up and down the country. It's never been "the charismatic movement" that's off-the-wall, unbiblical, or preaching another gospel; it's always just been  a number of prominent "preachers" and their followers. The antics of a Benny Hinn crusade are a million miles away from the Christ-exalting, Bible-preaching charismatic church down the street. (At this point, I've just remembered that I don't have a TV and that may be where many of the wackier variety of "preacher" has gone to hide these days, I just wouldn't know.)

Is Charismatic Theology based on Experience?

As a Pentecostal among Conservative Evangelicals, I got lots of questions in my student days about what Pentecostals believe - particularly about the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. I was asked questions I'd never even thought about before, so I had to keep going back to the Bible looking for answers. Now here's the thing: I wasn't a Pentecostal by experience. I wasn't baptised in the Spirit. I had never spoken in tongues or prophesied. And all around me I could see lots of Christians who really loved Jesus and were passionate about evangelism, yet didn't even believe in the baptism in the Holy Spirit (in the Pentecostal sense). So I wasn't looking in Scripture for something to back up my experience. And my experience didn't tell me that the only way to be an effective Christian and reach others with the gospel was through a Pentecostal experience - quite the contrary. If I had based my theology on my experience, I would have looked for a theology that eliminated Pentecostal distinctives! But that just wasn't what I saw in Scripture. My only reason for staying Pentecostal was because, growing up as a Pentecostal, so much emphasis had always been placed on the authority of God's Word. If you had asked me growing up what the Pentecostal distinctive was, I wouldn't have said the baptism in the Holy Spirit, but rather the supreme authority of Scripture! I'm a Pentecostal, not because of my experience, but because of Scripture.

Does Charismatic Theology Deny the Sufficiency of Scripture

Some of my university friends would often sit late at night drinking tea and discussing the Bible and theology with me. And one of these friends was also from Northern Ireland, like me. But he was Reformed, and initially horrified when he discovered I was a Pentecostal. So one night we sat, all night (and then went straight to a 9 o'clock lecture) while he explained what the big problem was with my Pentecostalism. And it came down to this - unless I believed in cessationism, then I would have an open canon. In other words, if I believed that God speaks through prophecy today, then I'd have to keep adding stuff to the Bible. Now he and I were very good friends (once he arrived at my door bearing the gift of a copy of Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology - one of the best presents I've ever been given - in a bid to convert me, and he even admitted by the time he graduated that I probably actually was a Christian, despite my dodgy Pentecostal theology), but that night I thought his suggestion was mad. I believed in prophecy today, because I believed in the supreme authority of Scripture. And because I believed in the supreme authority of Scripture, I believed that Scripture was authoritative over any present-day prophetic utterance, and all prophecy should be judged by Scripture. Present day prophecies aren't new books of the Bible. Present day prophecies aren't our supreme authority in life. To add present day prophecies to the Bible would be taking rather a low view of Scripture (by denying that it is sufficient). But the whole reason I believed in present day prophecies was because I had a very high view of Scripture.

It turns out my friend wasn't alone in this thinking. The supposed incompatibility of charismatic theology with the sufficiency of Scripture has been a recurring theme at the Strange Fire conference. But such an argument misunderstands both what Pentecostal theology is saying about the gifts of the Spirit and also what is meant by the sufficiency of Scripture. Although often expressed that way, the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that Scripture is all we need for everything. (And before eyebrows are raised, let me hasten to add this is the Reformation doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, the one that evangelical Protestants have always held to, not a new one I'm making up.) Just think about it. Scripture does not tell us the answers to the twelve times tables. Nor does it tell us the value of pi or that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. And, apart from 2nd form maths, there are some times when some people really do need to know those things. So the sufficiency of Scripture doesn't mean that Scripture tells us everything we need; rather, the sufficiency of Scripture tells us that 'everything that man needs to believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it' (VanGenderen and Velema, Concise Reformed Dogmatics, p.102). As the 39 Articles put it, 'Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.' (Article VI)

When we work with the actual definition of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture we see that it doesn't in any way rule out the gifts of the Holy Spirit today. But here that second misunderstanding comes in, for many of the arguments are based on a misunderstanding of what the gifts of the Spirit are. This is particularly the case for the gift of prophecy. Here's a quote from Tim Challies' summary of Tom Pennington's case for cessationism at Strange Fire:
Just as the Old Testament prophets spoke direct, infallible revelation from God, so did the New Testament prophets. And once it was checked against previous revelation and approved, it was added to the church’s revelation.
What is 'the church's revelation'? Scripture. So what he's saying here is that when the New Testament Prophets spoke it was checked against Scripture and then added to Scripture. Yet there is only one prophetic book in the New Testament. Not a single New Testament book was written by a prophet. A few words of Agabus are recorded in Acts. However, several other prophets are mentioned in Acts, without any of their words being recorded (except Acts 13:2 but that's only one prophets words in a gathering of several prophets). Philip's daughters weren't called prophets, but they did prophesy - and if all prophesy is infallible Scripture, and we don't know what Philip's daughters prophesied, does that mean we've lost part of the Bible? No, of course not!

In fact, if that's how prophecy is viewed, then it's the cessationists, not the charismatics, who are susceptible to the charge of an open canon. After all, what would happen if we found a manuscript containing the prophecies of Agabus, Philip's daughters, and others who prophesied in the New Testament? With a Pentecostal theology of prophecy (which submits prophesy to Scripture), I can say, 'That's interesting, but it's prophecy, not Scripture.' Would cessationist who argues that all prophecy is infallible Scripture, however, suddenly have to open his canon?

But what about all this talk of revelation?

Yet, despite a good theology that can easily deal with the charges cessationists throw at us, perhaps we simply turn round and shoot ourselves in the foot. I met with a few pastors the other day, and they were all very interested in revelation. But they weren't talking about Scripture. They were talking about something vague and nebulous. Apparently that's how we know good preaching - when it brings revelation. It doesn't matter how the Scriptures are handled. It doesn't matter if Christ was proclaimed. It simply matters that it brings us revelation. And to that I say, 'Whoa!' And perhaps to them I'd start to sound like a cessationist, because all of a sudden I'm getting very concerned about experience trumping the Bible, and about the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.

I read a book the other day by a 'prominent charismatic leader', and it was very interested in revelation too. It said we need revelation from God, but the revelation we need from him is tailor-made just for us, for our unique circumstances, and comes straight from heaven to us - and we need it so that we can know how to obey God. Again I say, 'Whoa!' Scripture is sufficient. This sounds like a case of experience trumping Scripture.

No wonder John Macarthur and his friends get so worried about the influence of the charismatic movement if, despite having a good theology of revelation and Scripture when it comes to prophecy, we suddenly abandon that high view of Scripture when we get a good feeling from a bad sermon or when we want to turn revelation into its opposite by making it all about me, individually, separately from everyone else (which sounds a lot more like the old life in Adam than the new life in Christ).

It's interesting that Conrad Mbewe, who spoke at Strange Fire on the impact of charismatic chaos in Africa, distinguishes between what he's talking about (and warning against) and 'the old conservative form of Pentecostalism once represented by the Assemblies of God churches'. He said that (in the past in Africa) he could have gone along to a Pentecostal church and, even if he disagreed with them, they'd have been attempting to expound the Scriptures. But the new charismatic wave which he's warning against has replaced biblical preaching and teaching with motivational talks and appeals to come forward for deliverance and breakthrough. Now that's good - he distinguishes between biblical Pentecostalism and unbiblical movements. But what's more worrying is what he hints at. He talks about 'the old conservative form of Pentecostalism once represented' by the Pentecostal denominations, which would suggest that, to a large degree, the Pentecostal churches no longer represent the old conservative (not culturally conservative, but theologically conservative) Pentecostalism. In other words, the unbiblical elements of which he wants to warn people have crept into and, in many places, taken over, the Pentecostal churches.  And what I've mentioned about revelation is just one small example of that.

The Problem with Strange Fire and the Problem with Us

Here's the problem. Strange Fire seems to be, to a large extent (see e.g. yesterday's Q&A session) focusing on the crazy extreme of charismaticism, the stuff that's clearly unbiblical and which biblical charismatics would want to disassociate themselves from entirely. And then it's lumped the rest of us in with that crazy, unbiblical fringe.

But our problem is that we're going along with them. Instead of protecting our people from the biblical and theological errors of the crazy fringe, we subtly tolerate it as if it were within the acceptable bounds of Pentecostal/Charismatic evangelicalism. (Here, for example, I think of many of the books on display at the bookstall of the annual convention of a Pentecostal denomination I recently attended.) And worse still, we begin to imbibe it ourselves - instead of standing for, and practicing, bold, clear, biblical, expositional preaching of Christ and Him crucified, we look for some feeling of revelation beyond (or despite the lack of) the biblical proclamation. Instead of knowing Christ as our sufficiency and being satisfied in Him, we start to for look for tailor-made, individulistic "revelation" just for me that will lead us into blessing.

As Pentecostals and Charismatics, we need to stand firm on the Word of God once for all delivered. We need to be clear that every spiritual blessing is in Christ (Eph. 1:3). We need to know that Christ Jesus is more than enough and there is nothing better to be had. And we need to know that in Scripture we have all we need to know Jesus, and to live our new life in Him.

Anyway, this post is far too long already, and I've probably already offended both Pentecostals/Charismatics and Cessationists. So if you've borne with me up to this point, well done, and thanks for your patience. Soon (tomorrow if I have time) I'll put up a much more concise and to-the-point post responding to Tom Pennington's 7 Arguments for Cessationism.