The Charismatic-Cessationist Gap Is Smaller Than You Think
I told a story about a “word of knowledge” experience I once had, which caused Adrian to call me a continuationist in denial. I said that was fine, so long as he agreed — since no new Scriptures are being produced by the “extant” gifts — that he was a cessationist in denial ...
In other words, cessationists can agree that God speaks to people today, and continuationists agree that no new scriptures are being written. So what’s the problem? Well:
This whole issue is actually a question of epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we know that we know? Now, as a Calvinist, I know that absolutely everything is “from God” in one sense, but I also know that we have to take care to distinguish the multiple senses that this can take on. I know that Romans 1:20 is from God. I know that my understanding of it is from God. I know that my knowledge of what a grape tastes like is from God. I know that when I press the Windows key on my laptop, the screen changes, and this knowledge is from God. I know how to catch a ball, and this knowledge too is from God. But these types of knowledge are all different.
What I don’t know is that my knowledge of some event in this world, however uncanny it is, is the same kind of knowledge that moved the apostle Paul when he wrote Romans 1:20. Indeed, not only do I not know that, I know for a fact that I don’t know that. Since I know that this is not an option, I don’t want to speak in the company of Christians using the same language that was used when God was still revealing His Word to His people. I have had some remarkable experiences where my uncanny knowledge was borne out by events. But — and this is the absolute kicker — I have had times where I have known things this way and been wrong.
In other words, I believe I live in a personal world, a personal cosmos, in which God blesses and guides according to His good pleasure. He answers prayer. He directs our steps. He gives knowledge in spooky ways — just not inerrant and self-authenticating knowledge, the way He gave it to Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Agabus ...
Obviously I would contest the claim that Agabus received “inerrant and self-authenticating knowledge”, and I would suggest that a comparison between Acts 21:10-14 and 21:27-36 would back me up on this (yes, I have read Tom Schreiner on this; no, I don’t think he does enough to support the claim of inerrant NT prophecy here). But it’s helpful to see that the issue, for a good few cessationists including this one, isn’t over whether God speaks today, but over whether he speaks directionally to individuals today in the same way as he speaks in scripture. On that, charismatics and cessationists agree: he doesn’t.
Effectively, then, what we disagree about is not whether people hear from God today, but what we should call it when they do:
If I say to a group of biblically literate people that “God told me,” or “thus saith the Lord,” they are going to assume that I am intending this as the formal equivalent of what that same phrase would have meant centuries ago before the canon was closed. Responsible charismatics vigorously deny that this is what they mean, but to speak in this unguarded way means that you constantly have to offer such denials. Why not simply speak about it with a different vocabulary, one that does not have the aura of prophetic authority?
Of course, I would say: because the New Testament does (especially in 1 Corinthians 12-14, as I discuss briefly here). And I know that our differences are not merely terminological, since terminology has important ramifications; Doug thinks 1 Corinthians 14:1 is not addressed to contemporary Christians, so we ought not to be eagerly desiring prophecy, and I think it is, so we should. As ever, careful exegesis is vital. But it is still helpful to see that - in this case at least! - the gap between cessationism and continuationism is not as large as it initially appears. My thanks to Adrian and Doug for moving us a bit closer to unity in the faith.