Excesses of the Wahoo Brethren

I need to say something about the Strange Fire conference, and the reactions to it, but because I am not particularly well-informed about that particular controversy, let me content myself with saying a few general things about the topic, which others may inject into the controversy as it suits them. I suspect, although I do not know, that in what I say there will be something encouraging for both sides, and perhaps something discouraging for both as well.

I am a cessationist, and I am not a continuationist. The sign gifts in the New Testament were revelatory, and if they are still operational, this means that the canon of Scripture is not closed. I don’t have a category in my head for quasi-revelatory. “Thus saith the Lord” is either true or false. If true, the words that follow that formula should be treated as though God spoke them, and I only have one way to treat the Word of God. I treat it like it is the Bible.

In short, I believe that cessationists usually understand the Bible better than do continuationists, not to mention the logic of the thing.

But there is an additional, and very weighty, concern, pushing from the other direction, and this has to do with the nature of the world. Too many cessationists are functional materialists when it comes to the operations of the world, and their supernaturalism is limited to the ink on the page.

In short, I believe the continuationists often understand the personal nature of the world better than do cessationists.

Continuationists are vulnerable to the sins of the gullible. Completely independent of the question of spiritual gifts, I am more likely to be able to get a charismatic to believe that there are fairies in the garden than I would be able to get a cessationist to believe it. Cessationists are correspondingly susceptible to the sins of the debunker. I am much less likely to get a cessationist to believe in a remarkable response to prayer than I would be able to get a charismatic to believe it.

Ferinstance. A number of years ago a good friend of ours was dying. When she finally passed away, Nancy and I were on the road (in Philadelphia). It was the middle of the night and we both woke up. Are you awake? Yeah, are you awake? How come? Beats me. A few minutes later the phone rang, and it was the news that our friend had gone to be with the Lord. Back home, our grandson Knox had been praying regularly for her, and he was two or thereabouts. But that night while praying for her, he stopped, and said, “She died. She is in Heaven.” They found out later that she had in fact died that night.

Now I have already answered the question whether this kind of thing is revelatory. No, it isn’t. But is it personal? Yes, of course. We therefore need a category for the Spirit’s active interactions with us in the world, one that fully acknowledges His presence while robustly denying that He is inspiring anybody the way He did Isaiah.

I hope you can see at once that this is not an easy thing to do, and this is why we ought to cut one another some slack across the cessationist/continuationist divide. I have more in common with a responsible charismatic than I do with an irresponsible confessionalist, one who believes the last revelatory miracle performed by the Spirit was the Three Forms of Unity as they were given in the original Greek. And a responsible continuationist has more in common with me than he does with Benny Hinn, whose antics would have been an embarrassment during Elijah’s heyday.

In other words, we should distinguish our disagreement with good brothers across a doctrinal divide from our poleaxed reaction when we see a televangelist casting demons out of some poor woman’s refrigerator.

One other thing. Continuationists may believe that the Strange Fire guys are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But they should begin their response by acknowledging that in the contemporary charismatic world, there is an awful lot of bathwater, and — even on their accounting — not very much baby. This is something that needed to be done, and because there has not been (to my knowledge) a large continuationist conference rebuking the manifest excesses of the wahoo brethren, this conference was inevitable.

So continuationists should not criticize the criticism — rather, their task should be to model how the criticism should have been done. And cessationists, for their part, should be eager and willing to acknowledge this when it happens. If it happens.

Our model in this (as in so many things) should be Jonathan Edwards. The issues were different (although actually related), but are similar enough to be edifying for us. Edwards first made his name as a friend of revival, and as a chronicler of what happened in Northampton. But as the revivals spread and grew, Edwards became the foremost critic of the spurious and eccentric forms of it. His revival car had a set of working brakes.

So, there it is. The cessationists need to figure out where the Spirit-accelerator is. The continuationists need to figure out where the Spirit-brakes are. And the doctrinal position that is capable of accommodating both is, if I may say so, Spirit-filled cessationism.

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37 thoughts on “Excesses of the Wahoo Brethren

  1. Pastor Wilson,
     
    Thanks so much for your addition to the thousands of words already furiously typed with regard to the Strange Fire conference. I’ve never considered your distinction of personal interaction versus revelatory inspiration. It’s a tension I’ve felt but never been able to articulate. I don’t hold the sign gifts as normative for the church to be pursued, practiced, etc. but I’ve found myself face to face with eye-witness testimonies of healings and those who were prompted in a dream (by Jesus or some other man) to pursue their local missionaries. In speaking to some, they play the skeptic offering all manner of explanations ranging from science to drunkeness. As a fellow cessationist, I wonder, within this two distinction paradigm, where miracles or healings would fall? I’d love to hear your further thoughts, if you have the time.
     
    Thanks,
    Mark

  2. Excellent post as always – thanks Doug.
    One thought in response:  I’ve been reading a lot of reformed charismatics in the past year, trying to find a place to land on this issue, and it seems that most all of them make a distinction between the revelatory function of gifts (esp. prophecy), and the confirmatory or “affirmatory” function.  And obviously the classic example would be Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians, encouraging them to use the gifts (again, esp. prophecy) for edification, but surely we could agree he wasn’t calling them to be Isaiah.
    Said differently, many folks distinguish between the authoritative office of a prophet, and the functional place of the prophetic gift.  
    Would love to hear your perspective on that distinction.

  3. The standard I saw applied to the moving of the Spirit was this: if what the person/people perceived to be the activity of the Holy Spirit was in line with the revelation of the Scriptures — if the thing(s) God was purported to be doing/speaking now were in fact aligned with and supported the thing(s) God had certainly done/said then, there was good reason to believe that the things being done/said were indeed from God.  ——————————  Moreover, the ones responsible for discernment and for application of that standard were the elders, whom I saw in several instances stand up and declare some “word of knowledge” or “word of wisdom” to be out of bounds.  In this way, the body made room for the gifts Paul urges us to use in worship, but with careful and biblical boundaries in place.  —————————–  On another note, Doug is right when he states that there is a great deal of “bathwater” and very little “baby” in many Pentecostal/Charismatic ministry contexts, but his alternative seems to be monthly sponge-bathing, which would definitely need to be miraculous in nature if it were going to get anyone clean.

  4. “Too many cessationists are functional materialists when it comes to the operations of the world, and their supernaturalism is limited to the ink on the page.”

    Thanks for this post, Pastor and especially this quote. The cessationists need to repudiate the ungodly excesses within their own camp just like the continuationists need to within theirs. I also can’t help but wonder what it would look like if the conference were the other way around – Reformed charismatics putting on a conference about those frozen chosen cessationists.

  5. Thanks for this post–“Spirit-filled cessationism” is a great way to express what we need.  Too often cessationists are actually functional Deists–believing in a god who has created a machine that he hasn’t “interfered with” since the days of the apostles.  I appreciate your anecdotal examples as well.  We all dislike anecdotal evidence when it flies in the face of what we believe, but since God does deal with his people, well, personally, he gives us stories to tell about his faithfulness to us and his active providence in the world he created and sustains.
    We cessasionists find repugnant (as we should) the charismatic attempts to manipulate God, trying to pull the levers and turn the gears of “faith” to make God respond to human will.  We should also hate the picture of a distant God turning wheels and pulling levers in some remote engine room in heaven– a room without windows or doors and out of which God never stirs.

  6. I don’t see in the Corinthians description of gifts that God is said to be speaking.  The one speaking in tongues is said to be speaking to God but in need of an interpreter so others could be built up in the hearing of it.  And, in prophecy the leading is from God the Spirit but the spirit of the prophet is in the control of the prophet.  

  7. The Bible clearly uses the prophet/prophecy/prophesies word group beyond just its own contents, e.g. Philip’s four daughters who prophesied none of whose prophecies are canonized, or the group of prophets [musicians??] who met the newly anointed Saul.  (It also uses them beyond salvation, e.g. Saul [?] and Mt 7).  So the claim that if prophecy continues the Bible will grow is unBiblical, though making sure the Bible, or stuff put on a par with the Bible, doesn’t grow is a valid concern.   So cessationism is a bad thing with valid concerns, and “continuationism” contains good things that can with dreadful ease be abused.  (In a bad mood I call cessationism the doctrine that the Holy Ghost died with the apostles.  Or at least disappeared with them.)   “Covet to prophesy” is a clear command.  “Forbid not to speak with tongues” is clear.   That parents will have a son who claims to be prophesying executed is not clear (it’s a Biblical prophecy whose fulfillment I don’t understand, and perhaps not a favorite text for either extreme.)
    ///   Someone who has never seen miracles, e.g. B.B.Warfield with a crippled wife, may seek excuses.  That’s living by sight in that regard.  Someone who has experienced miracles doesn’t need a theological tome explaining why not (or even why).  Someone who thinks miracles, prophecy, etc., Biblical but has not experienced them may be living by faith in that regard.  John Wimber lived there for six months.  Not that motives establish facts; but they may help understand directions of interest.

  8. Doug, This whole blog post shouts out that you have seemingly lived in a cessationist bubble for far too long. Anyone who has had any kind of meaningful interaction with non-cessationists does use Benny Hinn as an example and does not criticize continuationists by using the phrase “quasi-revelatory.” No reasonable continuationist (which I think would include all Presbyterian and reformed continuationists, myself included) ever sees the issue that way. Your black and white reading of revelation is an oversimplification. Your story about Knox ceasing his prayer, did God tell him that? Then it is revelatory! Treat it like the bible. If not, how did he know about the death? I don’t disagree with your conclusion that God is personal, but forcing God’s personal interaction into the revelation category is silly.  There is never any doubt that the signs and miracles (some so-called) that occur now are subject to the truth of the Scriptures. This is (another continuationist) John Piper’s very reasonable view, and he, too, would say that Jonathon Edwards should be our guide.

  9. Lee Grady has been criticising charismatic excesses for years and continues to do so. My charismatic pastor frequently condemns the prosperity gospel as false and preaches suffering is road into the kingdom of God. // Concerning revelation from God necessitating canonisation, I think the multiple revelations true from God pre-70 AD that are not recorded in the Bible suggest this is not the case. No charismatics I know think that the canon is open. Personal revelation is not Scripture and is to be tested by Scripture. Even the Corinthians were told to test prophecies at a time cessationists think that prophecy was occurring. // A book well worth cessationists reading is Deere’s Surprised by the Power of the Spirit.

  10. The main problem most modern cessationists have with continuationists is, what they claim the continuing gifts are do not seem to coincide with the only canonical examples we have. Modern “tongues” is not like tongues at Pentecost. Modern “prophecy” is not like the prophecy that shaped the Scriptures (25-80% errant by their own estimates? really?) Modern “healing” does not cure the types of things that Elijah, Jesus, Peter and Paul did (I wept at Joni’s description of being shunted aside, out of the spotlight, at a Kathryn Kuhlman service). In all cases the modern manifestation of these gifts is lesser than those modeled for us in the Scriptures. So are they the same things?
    My answer is no, and the temptation to use the same names denigrates the scripture and those the Spirit gifted in those times. Give them different names – maybe that will keep the modern hubris at a manageable level.
    Are these lesser gifts, whatever we call them, from God? Something different, but still a manifestation of the Spirit? I suppose I could believe it better if I saw a consistently higher level of holiness, service, peace and love among my continuationist brethren. But I don’t – especially in the leaders. In essence, it is the same argument I use against my “holiness” brethren – if what they said is true about Christian perfection, why are their churches not any better at withstanding being torn apart by anger, bitterness, sexual sin or pastoral malpractice?

  11. what i love about reformed brethren is their stance on the ultimate authority and uniqueness of scripture.  what i love about charismatics is their zeal for the lord and their enthusiastic worship.  but the one who really takes the cake is the reformed charismatic.  he actually reads calvin and gets excited about it.

  12. Doug –
    As a continuationist, I want to say thank you for sharing a very gracious post. A powerful story you shared!
    I would share that, when I teach on these things, I generally try and help people distinguish between what I would call redemptive revelation and non-redemptive revelation. The former is truly closed because of Jesus Christ and the new covenant. There is nothing to add to it. But God can and still does give revelation of a “non-redemptive” measure. There is plenty of this happening para-Scripture (revelation coming forth that was not included in Scripture – for example 1 Sam 10:10-13 and 1 Tim 1:18-19). And we must remember that these gifts were not just attesting signs, but also for building up the body.
    If interested, I share more in <a href=”http://prodigalthought.net/2013/10/23/does-god-still-give-revelation-today/”>this article at my blog</a>.

  13. Interesting, and especially valuable for the encouragement to avoid caricatures and to pursue Spirit-filled moderation. However, I’m left a little perplexed at some of the article. For example, I think we’re overloading the word “revelation” with too much theological freight if we can’t simply acknowledge that the Spirit can “reveal” to a prayer warrior at night that someone died. Calling it “the Spirit’s active interaction” seems to be a circumlocution for “revelation” in such a case. I’d rather draw a line between small-r and big-R revelation (or small-i or big-I interaction, if you prefer). One needs to be tested; the other has already been fully tested and recognized as God-breathed.Also, the term “sign gifts” does not fit very well with the 1 Corinthian descriptions of speaking in tongues. Signs of what? Not of initial salvation, certainly, and not of apostolic authority, either. In that letter, speaking in tongues seems to have absolutely nothing to do with apostles receiving revelation to be inscribed in Holy Writ. Neither does the prophesy described there seem to have anything to do with the writing of the Bible; we know of no Corinthian who authored a book of the Bible, after all. Thus, arguments for the closure of the canon seem to be irrelevant when debating the continuation of the gifts described in 1 Corinthians.

  14. Doug, thanks for another great post. Isn’t this a form of dispensationalism? Every preacher should declare the word of God as if His own mouthpiece, and isn’t he speaking extemporaneously? Doesn’t the preacher want to be judged by the elders against scripture? Surely the gifts can be similarly submitted to the elders during worship, they judge and confirm when the message is edifying, a suitable exhortation or encouragement. 
    Dreams, visions, words of knowledge and of wisdom can be measured against scripture and their value assessed by the extent to which they inspire reverence for God and for His (closed canon) Word. Shouldn’t we treat preaching like this? Isn’t it a government issue rather than a threat of riot?

  15. This is good, and maybe sorta helpful for me to explain some experiences I’ve had, but I still want more biblical language. Here are some terms from Scripture: “Help” or “counsel” (John 16:7), “conviction” (John 16:8-11) [aside: does anybody ever talk about being convicted of righteousness the way we talk about being convicted of sin?], and “guidance” (John 16:13). I’m assuming that passage isn’t all about special revelation (i.e., inspiration of Scripture), ‘cuz then we’d have a mute Helper/Counselor once the Canon was fixed, and what would be the use of that? We still need Him to understand the Word, for one thing, and we need His help in applying it. So I think we have to say that God still communicates with us in addition to (though of course never contrary to) Scripture. Does that leave room for “thus saith the Lord”? I don’t think there’s grounds for that much confidence. But “I think God is telling me…” makes sense.
    One of the few times I’m pretty sure God was telling me something directly was about 25 years ago. I was praying to be able to hear Him more clearly, and the words that popped into my head, which I’m confident did not come from my own brain, were “Do what I’ve already told you, and then I’ll tell you some more.” It still makes me laugh, and I think it applies to this whole conversation: We need to be far more concerned about obeying the objective standard of Scripture and far less concerned about getting any special extra revelation. And counsel/help/conviction/guidance for applying the written Word is what we should be seeking and expecting from the Spirit, because there’s no other direction we could possibly need.

  16. @Mark B. Hanson.  With respect, I’m not sure you present a convincing case that all contemporary claims for the exercise of Spiritual gifts must fail as they “do not seem to coincide with” or are “in all cases… lesser than” the Biblical accounts. Now certainly there are countless claims of experiences that do differ from any known Biblical example.  But really, to assert this for “all cases” is certainly an over-reach.  Take your examples:
    Tongues: What Paul describes when he discusses tongues in the church in Corinth is very similar to the practice in conservative charismatic circles.  Both the gift that Paul talks about and contemporary tongues differ from the Acts account where everyone hearing understood what was said though they spoke different languages.  The account in Acts appears to be unique and may better be described as “the gift of ears” J since the miracle would seem to be in the hearing, not the speaking.  Tongues in Corinth are understood by no one unless there is a gifted interpreter, quite the opposite of the  unique account in Acts. Nevertheless Paul treats it as a legitimate (though improperly practiced) gift.
    Prophecy: Contemporary prophecy is not canonical, but neither are many examples of prophecy in the Bible.  In the NT, Agabus and the daughters of Philip described in Acts are notable examples of non-Canonical prophecy that coincide with many modern claims.  High error rates for some so-called prophets (“by their own admission or not) have nothing to do with legitimate prophecy.  The true Biblical prophets in the OT were in their own day by and large vastly outnumbered by false prophets. We do not reject their message or believe all prophecy  impossible for that reason.
    Healing: I’m not sure which types of healing you mean are the “different types” we find in the Bible.  Both Biblical and contemporary accounts of healing pretty much run the gamut.  My own mother was healed of cancer of the thyroid.  Now you may believe that she was misdiagnosed or that she had some sort of unexplained, natural spontaneous remission, but she at least believed it occurred supernaturally. I have no Biblical grounds to deny it.
     
    Most charismatic churches in my experience (but I am a Baptist) do in fact have a consistently high level of holiness.  I personally don’t perceive that continuationist churches are any more or less prone to abuse and scandal than cessationist churches.  Unfortunately we know from the Bible that Spiritual gifts were at least at one point given to a church that didn’t have a “consistently higher level of holiness”.  The church in Corinth is the classic example.  At the time, there may have been people who, like you, doubted the legitimacy of their gifts for that reason.  Paul however, was not among them. 

  17. On what basis do we assert that the spiritual gifts were given for the inspiration of scripture? Just how did the gift of healing produce the Epistle to the Colossians? I fail to see the connection
    In the NT era all scripture was prophecy but not all prophecy was scripture. Or else Paul would have said, “Let two or three prophets speak and let the others write it down and stick it between Galatians & Ephesians”. He said to judge it because prophecy can be wrong- partly or wholly. It is often pointed out that Agabus for instance was not wholly correct as to the details of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem. If such prophecy can be wrong then it is not scripture. If it is not scripture then it can continue beyond the ending of the canon.
     

  18. I think Valerie is right, a technical way of saying it is ‘illumination’ not revelation. Its also important to separate the personal and private from the public and corporate since abuse tends to lurk in the shadows. And who wants to listen to a drone who can’t say “Hear the Word of the Lord! This is the way, walk ye in it.” as if he means it. (by the way, all you CREC brothers know how, that’s what you do best) Is it the word of the Lord or isn’t it? What’s the difference then between a preacher and a prophet? C’mon, its not too hard to distinguish between forthtelling and foretelling. If the prophet wants to displace the Holy Spirit its the elders job to cast him out (or win him back) but its not the elders job to ban the Holy Spirit.

  19. John, cessationists do not so much believe that the sign gifts were given for the purpose of inspiring the canon, but they were given to attest to the truth of the claims of Christ until the canon was established, so that now that we have the inspired written Word, we have a more excellent and accurate means of attesting to the incarnate Word.

  20. Douglas, help me out here.  I’m not entirely sure I understand exactly what you mean by “cessationist” as you use the term of yourself.  Most cessationists that I know deny any supernatural “interaction” with the Holy Spirit, though they allow that He “assists” certain natural processes such as Bible study and preaching and teaching.
    You seem to accept that Knox somehow had supernatural knowledge of the death of your friend.  That is, he KNEW IT; he didn’t just think maybe she was dead.  And, that knowledge could only have come directly from God.  If that is true, then you are not truly a cessationist as I understand the term.
    Perhaps you mean that the gift of inerrant inspiration has ceased?  If that is the case, all orthodox Christians are cessationists of this sort.  Only the cults (Mormons, Christian Scientists, etc.) claim to have extra-Biblical inspired, canonical books.  Notice I said “inerrant inspiration”, not “prophecy” or “revelation”.  There are canonical books in the Bible that we hold to be inerrant, but are not properly considered prophetic or revelatory; Ruth, Nehemiah, Luke, Acts are a few examples. There is nothing in the content that was obtained by anything other than natural means and was not also known by uninspired and even unbelieving people.  They are canonical because we believe the Holy Spirit guarantees their accuracy, not because they contain special knowledge that was acquired by miraculous means.  Luke for example says that his sources are “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses”.  Conversely some people in the Bible received prophetic revelation that is not canonical.  Examples would be the daughters of Philip and Agabus.  They prophesied purely mundane things, not revelation relating to doctrine or authoratative over all believers. They simply revealed information that a particular church needed to know at a particular time.  But still spoke what they knew by supernatural means.  So I don’t believe we can treat “revelation”, “prophecy”, and “canonical/inerrant inspiration” as synonyms.  There are canonical works that are not revelatory, and there is prophecy that is not canonical.  They are apples and oranges, or perhaps better, colors and shapes.  One speaks of supernatural communicated knowledge, and the other speaks of the universal scope of authority. If God “revealed” to Knox that your friend was dead, what he had was a “revelation”.  Not didactic, not doctrinal, not universal, not authoritative, and not canonical, but revelation nevertheless.

  21. The issue that continuationists must deal with is why, at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, miracles were liberally demonstrated (presumeably to establish the credibility of the Gospel and give it initial traction in the hearts of the people, and for what reason they appeared to have ceased by the 28th chapter, after the Gospel was well engrained in the hearts of a core leadership and the early Church. Good thoughts from a colleague I have not had the opportunity of meeting, yet. The reality of miraculous events are still reported in new mission fields in nations newly reached, however.

  22. Really appreciate this article and discussion, especially in light of all things #StrangeFire.

    I believe that all Christians are brothers and represent different points on a continuum. Our position is largely irrelevant to the acceptance of the most fundamental truth. But there can still be right and wrong answers to specifics. 

    A year ago I saw a confrontation like #StrangeFire coming and wrote this:

    http://onewaypublishing.co.uk/blog/2012/12/04/are-you-experienced-experience-and-pentecostalcharismatic-hermeneutics/

    Would be interested to hear anyone’s feedback.

  23. Except that the Bible doesn’t call the “charismata” “revelatory gifts”. That’s a term made up by cessationists so that they can pretend their cessationism is a product of exegesis.
    Except the fact that the Bible no where teaches cessationism. And so cessationism is this self-contradictory doctrine that claims the Bible is sufficient so we don’t need spiritual gifts (that the Bible tells us we need) but we do need the doctrine of cessationism (that the Bible doesn’t teach.
    Except that the Bible explicitly teaches us when the charismata will cease: at the second coming of Christ (1 Cor. 13:10).
     

  24. The problem with cessationism and the cessationist is that the philosphical foundation and its proponents teach a God, Jesus and Holy Spirit not found in scriptures.  God is not a God of changes.   Jesus is always the same (yesterday, today and forever,) the Holy Spirit is eternal and consistant from creation to present.  Every one of the nine ministry gifts of the Spirit is mentioned in the Old Covenant and New Covenant.  The cessationist would have us believe there is a current third covenant that is not mentioned in scriptures which non-the-less has presidence over the Old and New. 
    In that the cessationist teaches a different Godhead (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) than which Scripture clearly reveals calls into question what is the real difference from other groups (cults) that teach a different Godhead than Scripture clearly reveals. (e.g, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, 7th Day Adventists, etc…)

  25. Pastor Wilson, thank you so much for your posts concerning this matter.  I consider myself the flip side of Spirit-filled cessationist — a skeptical continuationist, if you will — and out of all the things I’ve read surrounding Strange Fire and that topic, your position makes most sense and is most grace-filled.  I have huge respect for your blog and thoughts (indeed, I find myself in greater agreement with you than with some Pentecostals out there) and personally, I am glad that I can agree with you on such a divisive topic.  Thank you for sharing your incisive thoughts!

  26. with regards to Benny Hinn: He is so crazy that in my opinion, Elijah would have killed him if the Baal worshipers hadn’t killed him first.

    thanks for wrestling with these things, Doug!

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