Just how Shut is the Spigot?

 Flow by briandeadly

Flow by briandeadly

In the concluding part of my brief series responding to Douglas Wilson’s cessationist theology, today I consider language. Links to the first two posts can be found at the end of this article.

Towards the end of his post, Douglas Wilson raises some interesting questions about the relationship between the natural and the supernatural. He writes:

A man might have a form of spiritual knowledge (that did not come to him through his five senses), but which knowledge is entirely natural, i.e. part of this created order. We are often tempted to say that some things are supernatural simply because we do not know how far nature actually goes.

And:

The fact that guaranteed infallible revelation has ceased does not mean that uncanny or weird events cannot happen in the natural realm. We do not need to attribute them to the direct inspirational activity of God to believe that there is something to them. A Christian walking with the Lord, with all his natural gifts extended to their fullest extent, might be able to pick up on things that his friends don’t see at all. And it is to be expected that different people would have different sensitivities and abilities in this regard. “Why did you preach on that?” the man exclaimed, thoroughly convicted. “How did you know?” And the pastor can only say that there was a disturbance in the force – and that is why the shaft went home.

I agree that the boundary between the natural and supernatural may well be thinner than we sometimes imagine, and some of what we may be tempted to call supernatural could perhaps better described as ‘hyper-natural’; natural gifts, stretched to an extraordinary level. I think of the counsellor who can see the cause behind the hurt with remarkable astuteness; I think of the artist whose skills are so honed that everything he does carries an air of the divine. But I sincerely doubt that all of the prophecy that happens these days in Christian circles can be written off as “natural gifts extended to their fullest extent.”

This conjures up pictures of Sherlock Holmes, piecing together minute details and painting an elaborate and ingenious portrait; the pallid skin colour suggesting tiredness, coupled with the shorter than average nails on one hand implying nervousness or anxiety; The slight dent on the fourth finger, left hand, signifying a wedding ring recently removed, but the finger being more or less uniformly tanned, leading him to believe it was removed before the summertime… And so on.

Is modern prophecy just highly sharpened intuition and educated guesswork? This cannot account for the kind of prophetic insight brought in a large room of people unknown to the prophet, where perhaps the prophet can’t even see the person he’s speaking about; a phenomenon I and many others I know have experienced on countless occasions.

When someone offers an insight that goes beyond the realms of normal wisdom, or a preacher delivers a message that just could not be more timely, is there really nothing more that can be said than “there was a disturbance in the force”?

Read this paragraph, thesis 10:

As Calvinists we believe that God is in everything, and behind everything. And so, there is a sense in which a man who has some gift of knowledge (say), one actually verified by the event, could say that God “gave” him that. But because of the rampant confusion surrounding these issues, his description of what happened should be extremely cautious, if he describes it to others at all. Shall I illustrate? I was once in a counseling session with a woman who was being recruited by a really bad cult. She had been impervious to everything I had shown or told her about that group. I was stumped. But one morning I was reading in 2 Peter, and read the phrase “with eyes full of adultery . . . they seduce the unstable” and I knew that the husband of the couple that was recruiting her was sleeping with her as a recruiting technique. I had no evidence that would hold up in any kind of just courtroom, but I did have enough to ask her about it. When I did, she dissolved into tears. That was it, and she repented. I believe that I knew that because the world is a weird place, and I believe the world is a weird place because Jesus is the Lord of it. So in that sense, sure, He gave me that knowledge, the same indirect way He gave me bacon for breakfast this morning. I thank Him for both. But I would never say “Jesus told me, that’s how I knew” – I would say, after the fact, that I believe the Lord “had led me,” or had “put it in my heart.” I would actively seek to avoid any language that could be construed as a claim to an inside revelatory track. Why? Because I don’t have one.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the occurrence he describes here is the kind of thing many of us charismatics have experienced and are talking about when we say that the gifts continue: He reads the Bible, he suddenly knows (note, he doesn’t suspect, he says he knows) something he could not otherwise have known. He doesn’t for one moment think to himself “wow… given that I just obtained this kind of knowledge, I wonder if I now have the authority to pick up a pen and jot down Romans II?” No! He knows it’s revelation of an entirely different sort.

He shares this knowledge with the lady he’s counselling, but he doesn’t claim it to be divine revelation. And neither would I! Were I in that same situation, I would ask probing questions to try to elicit a response rather than burst forth and declare “Thus Saith the Lord!” though in reality I may suspect that “He Didth”. It’s just good common sense.

And then, post-event, since it turned out to be true, with the gift of hindsight he is able to say “well I guess it was revelation after all”… only he still doesn’t use the language of prophecy or revelation. And here’s where I wonder if our positions aren’t closer to each other than we might think? It sounds a little like Wilson is playing word games with us, as if merely avoiding particular words like ‘prophecy’ or ‘revelation’ allows him the peculiar luxury of being able to have a charismatic experience and still retain his cessationist credentials.

The thing that struck me most about Wilson’s description of this scenario was how much it resembled two particular passages of Scripture, the first being in 1 Corinthians:

If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)

Prophecy has the effect of unveiling the secrets of the heart, such that a person becomes convicted and repents, just as happened when Doug asked this lady about her sexual relationship with the cult leader. It’s exactly this kind of thing charismatics believe still happens today.

The second passage that leaps to mind is John 4, where Jesus, armed with a similar insight about a woman with whom he’s speaking, teases out her situation not by declaring “Thus says the Lord!” but by giving a provocative instruction, “Go and fetch your husband”, which unlocks an opportunity to apply his prophetic insight. If anyone could have claimed an inside revelatory track, it would be Jesus! But he applied his revelatory insights in a pastorally sensitive, and yet still incisive way.

The phrase “Thus saith the Lord” is not often used in the New Testament, and I am happy to never use it myself; especially since in day-to-day life I rarely say ‘thus’ and never say ‘saith’. But I do feel that the New Testament gives me liberty to use words like prophecy, word of knowledge, vision, miracle, sign and so forth, just so long as I am clear when I use them what Iam and what I am emphatically not saying.

Still, the title you apply to your revelation/ intuition/ leading/ disturbance-in-the-force isn’t the only thing that will get you into trouble; perhaps more important is the manner in which you deliver it. I’ve got more of an issue with people who, by their mannerisms, communicate an unhelpful message about the mystique of prophecy. I have far less time for those who prophesy with fingers pressed to their temples and flickering eyelids, or accompanied with wild gesticulations than I do with for those who humbly and without any hint of showmanship say “I feel like God might be saying…”

Important too is the pastoral follow-up. If we just declare a word and then move swiftly on with no opportunity for us to be held accountable for what we’ve said, we are in real danger of giving the impression that our words are an infallible and. Instead we should readily acknowledge that we only prophesy in part (1 Cor 14:9) and though God is perfect we are not, allow an opportunity for the word to be tested, weighed and measured against Scripture (1 Thess 5:21; 1 Cor 14:29), answer questions and then bring the individual to God in prayer and submission to His word.

If Wilson is open to God placing things in his heart, which he then applies sensitively and in line with Scripture, there doesn’t seem to be such a great difference between what he is sayingand what charismatics are doing. What he calls a leading, the New Testament appears to call a revelation, and what he would call a report of such a leading, the New Testament seems to call a prophecy.

So, whilst we still differ on many of the details, and certainly on the practice, I wonder if we can agree that the spigot is at least partially still open, and that that our disagreement may really be about what to call the substance that trickles forth?

Missed the earlier posts in this series? Find them here (part 1) and here (part 2).

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