The greatest documents of the Reformation are its biblical commentaries; the greatest documents of seventeenth-century Christianity are its diaries and spiritual biographies. Theologically considered, this is not an improvement. At worst, “Christ” risks becoming the name of an event in their lives. (William C. Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong, p. 92)
Category: Biblical Authority
Still more prevalent is the view, by which the essence of the Reformation is placed in the emancipation of the human mind subjectively considered; that is, in the triumphant assertion of the liberty of faith and conscience, as well as of unlimited scientific inquiry. Rightly understood this to be sure has its truth; but as commonly represented, it is a sheer caricature of history. It is made to mean very often, for instance, a full liberation of the subject from every sort of restraint, the overthrow of all authority as such. But of such escape from discipline and rule, the Reformers had no thought. Their object was rather to bind man to the grace of God, and to lead his conscience captive to God’s word. In every view, the act of protesting is not the first and main constituent in the Reformation, but the result only of a positive affirmation going before. This last accordingly is the great point, from which alone its true importance springs. Only in connection with such an original positive life principle, and as flowing from it, can deliverance from the papacy, and the restitution of private judgment to its rights, find any right sense, any religious value. Apart from this connection, they fall over to the province of infidelity, with which the Reformation has nothing to do. (Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism)
In proportion precisely as the sense of that general life which has constituted the unity of the Church from the beginning, is found to be wanting in any individual; in proportion precisely as it is possible for him to abjure all respect for the organic whole, in virtue of which only he can have any life as a part; in proportion precisely as he is ruled by the feeling, that the bible is to be interpreted, as a revelation just fallen from heaven, without any regard to the development of its contents, the stream of its living waters, as carried forward in the faith of Christendom, from the beginning down to the present time; in the same proportion I say precisely, must such an individual, be his qualifications and resources in other respects what they may, be counted an unsafe expounder of God’s word, either for himself or for others. (John Williamson Nevin, introduction to Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism)
Fundamentalism . . . reacts to modern normative secularism on its own terms, and in doing so, it turns the religion it defends into an anti-ideology to a modern secularist ideology. However, it is a mistake to believe that denying secularism is a way of returning to what has been denied by secularism. Fundamentalism is not a return to religion as it was before it had been marginalized by modern secularism, but rather a protest of the marginalized against modernity on modernity’s own terms. (Ingolf U. Dalferth, “Post-secular Society: Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 78, no. 2, June 2010, p. 331)
Paul’s answer to that question in Ephesians 2 is wonderfully simple and profound. He says in this passage that the apostolic (firsthand) and prophetic witness to Jesus Christ in the period after Christ’s ascension is the foundation of the church. Jesus, and God’s revelation through Him, are the “cornerstone” of the church, and around this cornerstone was laid the foundation of divine revelation through those who heard Him (the apostles), and the accompanying authenticating witness of the New Testament prophets (to this might be added the authenticating witness of all the signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit during the days of Jesus’ eyewitnesses).
The foundation, once laid, is not laid again. The laying of the foundation does not continue. But clearly, it wasn’t only in this early period of the church’s history that she needed to be strengthened in receiving and confessing the apostolic salvation-message. Has God provided any continuing means for her to be “built up” in her most holy faith?
The answer to this is an emphatic yes! Later in the same epistle, Paul teaches that the work formerly done by Jesus’ apostles and their accompanying prophets is now being done by what he calls “evangelists” and “pastors and teachers” (v. 11). Unlike prophets who spoke in the days of Jesus’ eyewitnesses, these officers work from a completed foundation of revelation, from a completed apostolic gospel. They do not (nor do others) exercise sign-gifts, because the firsthand witness that was to be authenticated by those gifts has now been finished and set forth in its fullness. Not to put it too crassly, the firsthand witness (regulated by the apostles of Christ) had a natural “expiration date,” namely, the death of those witnesses; and so the work of God corroborating their witness was subject to natural expiration as well.
But this doesn’t mean that the Lord’s purpose to strengthen the faith of His church won’t be accomplished by other means! What we need now is not the authentication of firsthand witnesses, but the preaching and teaching of evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Through their labors the completed “deposit of the faith” (the completed apostolic salvation-message) is passed down from generation to generation in the church (see, e.g., 2 Tm 2:2). The Holy Spirit will not cease to illuminate that deposit as it is expounded and handed down, and so the church will stand and be saved until the return of her Lord.
1 Corinthians 14:5, 21–25
In these verses, Paul sets out rather strict parameters for exercising the sign-gifts. In particular, he wants to explain what prophecy and the gift of “tongues” are for (i.e., what is their controlling purpose).
With respect to prophecy, Paul says its purpose is to “build up” the Body of Christ (vv. 3–5). Build up the Body in what? In its confession of what the apostles and other eyewitnesses were then witnessing. Those “speaking in the Spirit of God” (prophesying) will not say Jesus is accursed, but will rather say He is Lord (12:3), thus strengthening the church in its reception of the message of Jesus’ eyewitnesses, and in its glad confession (along with those witnesses) that “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom 10:9).
Prophecy is to serve another purpose as well – the conversion of unbelievers. If an unbeliever enters into the assembly, and all are prophesying, he will be “called to account by all” (14:24), the secrets of his heart will be disclosed, and so he will fall prostrate and worship God (14:25). This too is a purpose of prophecy, as it confirms and reinforces the apostolic (eyewitness) message.
If, by confirming the apostolic salvation-message, prophecy builds up the saints and convicts unbelievers, what then is the purpose of “tongues”? Here Paul says something quite astonishing (14:20–23). He refers to Isaiah 28 where the prophet writes that because Israel refuses to listen to plain speech against their sin and for their salvation (v. 12), God will speak to them instead “by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue” (v. 11), in a stammering, childish way that will not save them (v. 13); and Paul says the fulfillment of this curse is the gift of tongues apportioned by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost! In other words, tongues do not build up the saints in their reception, and confession, of the apostolic witness – they are not a sign for the help and confirmation of those who receive the apostolic witness (1 Cor 14:22). Rather, they are a sign of God’s curse on those who won’t listen to that message – they are a sign “for unbelievers” (particularly Jewish unbelievers) of God’s judgment on those who will not confess Jesus as Lord and Christ. As such, tongues will not save; and in not saving, they actually fulfill their purpose! (This isn’t to say that interpreted tongues couldn’t fulfill a function much like that of prophecy, as Paul says in 14:27; but a strange tongue by itself, uninterpreted, doesn’t confirm or authenticate – for saints or unbelievers – the salvation-message of Jesus’ eyewitnesses; and so it can neither save nor sanctify.)
What are we to make of all this? The point of Paul’s setting forth apostolic regulations for the exercise of prophecy and tongues was to ensure that the purpose spoken of in Hebrews 2:4 was fulfilled: that saints were strengthened to believe and confess what they had heard from the apostles and other eyewitnesses. Prophecy was to be judged so that it wasn’t abused to serve any other purpose than accompanying and authenticating the message of Jesus’ firsthand witnesses (14:29); tongues were to be exercised with full understanding of their redemptive-historical judgment-function in the history of Israel (14:20–21).
This is made even clearer in what Paul then goes on to say.
1 Corinthians 15:1–11
Here, and following naturally from what he has just said, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel (the apostolic salvation-message) which he had preached to them; “which,” he says, “I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if [note his concern] you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain” (vv. 1–2). While this text sets the stage for what he is about to say about the resurrection, it also explains why he is so anxious that the Corinthians observe his regulations concerning tongues and prophecy: their steadfastness in receiving and confessing “the gospel” of Jesus’ eyewitnesses is at stake. If the sign-gifts of prophecy and tongues are not exercised in such a way that they build up the church in its reception of the salvation-message first spoken by God through His Son, and proclaimed by the Son’s eyewitnesses, then the controlling purpose of these gifts is not being realized. God knew the faith of His church in this early stage of their history was a fragile thing, and that is precisely why He confirmed their faith by many signs, wonders, and gifts – but woe betide the church if the gifts were not exercised in accord with the divine purpose! They had been given to serve the authentication of the gospel as it proceeded from the mouths of Jesus’ eyewitnesses – that gospel was the foundation of the church on which it stood, and by the standard of that gospel the exercise of gifts had to be judged. If the threat of unbelief was part of the reason for God’s giving the gifts, now there was a similar threat in the gifts themselves: that they be exercised so as to deflect attention away from the gospel!
It begins to appear that there was a kind of “periodicity” to these gifts. The apostolic concern about their use raises a question (already implicit in Hebrews 2:4): would they continue to be distributed by the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ eyewitnesses had completed their message and passed from the earth? To be continued . . .
Here we read that “what we have heard” from God through His Son is a message of “great salvation” (the great salvation, incidentally, for which the prophet Daniel prayed). Quite apart from the substance of the salvation-message and what our response to it should be (the main burden of the writer), it is interesting to note how or by what means this message came. God’s revelation of salvation in these last days was “at first” declared “by the Lord [Jesus]” Himself, and then it was “attested” to the church by those who heard Jesus (v. 3). There is little doubt that these attesting witnesses were primarily (but not exclusively) Jesus’ apostles. Many people heard Jesus’ message but didn’t believe Him (such persons are clearly not in view here); many others heard and believed, but it was the apostles in particular who were authorized to speak what they had seen and heard with the authority of Jesus Himself (note that in order to be an “apostle” of Christ, it was required that one had seen and heard Him; e.g., Acts 1:21–22; 1 Cor 9:1). The apostles were firsthand witnesses of Christ (as others were), but they were also uniquely authoritative witnesses in that He commissioned them, out of many disciples, to be His official witnesses on earth (e.g., Jn 15:26–27).
But there’s more. Not content simply to send out the apostles with a salvation-message, God also “bore witness” to their message, authenticating their witness by accompanying signs, wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will (v. 4). This is of fundamental importance, and must not be missed: the controlling purpose of these signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts distributed in the days of the apostles was to authenticate their firsthand witness to the message that they (and others) had heard from Christ Himself. And the writers of Hebrews isn’t the only biblical writer who says this.
2 Corinthians 12:12
For instance, Paul authenticates his apostolic ministry and message in Corinth by the incontrovertible fact that he had performed the “signs of a true apostle” among the saints there. What were these authenticators of his apostleship? They were “signs and wonders and mighty works,” just as in Hebrews 2:4 (in fact, Paul uses precisely the same Greek words here as in Hebrews 2:4).
To sum up thus far, God used signs and wonders and mighty works to prove to those hearing the apostolic message that these men were really speaking God’s own message, that they were really bearing witness to what God Himself had spoken in His Son. But now another piece must be added to the whole picture.
1 Corinthians 12:4–11
The New Testament picture of God’s revelation through Christ’s apostles (their salvation-message) and His revelation that accompanied their message (signs, wonders, and mighty works) is complicated by the fact that non-apostles also exercised the “apostolic” gifts. Not only the apostles heard the Lord; not only the apostles bore witness to the message they heard from the Lord; and not only the apostles enjoyed the accompanying authenticating witness from God in the form of signs, wonders, and mighty works. Paul is clear, for example, that during his ministry the Holy Spirit “apportioned” authenticating gifts in the Body of Christ as He willed (v. 11) – and this apportionment included non-apostles.
What is important to observe, though, is that apportionment of these authenticating gifts to non-apostles (exercise of the gifts by non-apostles) did not mean that the gifts served a different purpose, some purpose other than authenticating the salvation-message of Jesus’ firsthand witnesses. The controlling purpose of the gifts remained the same at all times, regardless of who was exercising them: they were for the purpose (cf. again Heb 2:4) of authenticating the salvation-message first spoken by the Lord, as that message was preached and proclaimed by those who heard Him (particularly His authorized apostolic representatives).
This controlling purpose explains why the gifts were always to be exercised under apostolic oversight, and according to apostolic regulations. Paul takes up this issue in 1 Corinthians 12–14, to which we now turn. To be continued . . .
What follows (in four parts) is an exegetical essay I wrote some time ago, attempting to appraise the validity of extra-biblical “revelations.”
My intent in this essay is to explore whether the Bible permits us to believe that the Holy Spirit continues to give extra-biblical revelation to the church. That is, beyond illuminating scripture to the understanding of the saints, does the Spirit continue to “reveal” God’s mind to the church? Even more concretely, what should be our response when approached with the statement (so common in contemporary Christian circles), “The Lord told me.” I’ll examine a series of biblical texts, commenting on each of them with the goal of piecing together their cumulative witness on the issue at hand.
It may not be wise to start with a text that’s been as fiercely debated as this one, but we’ll make an attempt anyway. Daniel receives a vision from God to the effect that “seventy weeks” are decreed concerning his people and the holy city Jerusalem. Seventy weeks until what? Until the bestowal of everything Daniel has just been pleading for: mercy (v. 23) and the long-awaited fullness of the salvation of God (vv. 16–19).
The scriptures of Israel taught that God’s of God was to arrive (and the New Testament teaches that it did, in fact, arrive) with the coming of Messiah. Daniel here is told that six things in particular will come: God will “finish the transgression” of His people (v. 24), put an end to their sin, atone for iniquity, bring in everlasting righteousness, “seal” both vision and prophecy, and anoint a most holy place. The first four of these divine actions were indisputably accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ; it was by His once-for-all sacrifice that forgiveness of sins and everlasting righteousness were conferred on God’s people. The sixth divine action may, without difficulty, be referred to Jesus’ establishment of a new, worldwide temple of God (the church) and the outpouring of His Spirit on that temple at Pentecost (e.g., Eph 2:21–22). If five of the divine actions occurred in the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry and Pentecost, it seems likely that the remaining action also occurred around that period, i.e., God’s “sealing” of vision and prophecy.
The notion of “sealing up” in biblical apocalyptic literature generally refers to shutting up something so it does not continue to go forth (e.g., Dan 12:4, 9; Rev 10:4). Does the New Testament offer any support for the idea that, around the time of Jesus, God’s giving of visions and prophecy to His people came to an end, i.e., vision and prophecy were “sealed up” so they no longer go forth? To this question we now turn.
This text is, even on its surface, a definitive statement about the history of God’s revelations to His people. Prior to “these last days” God spoke at many times and in many ways, but all that changed with the advent of a new period of history. In this new period – “these last days” – God has spoken not by the prophets but by His Son. What is described here is not simply one more successive period in God’s revelation, one following upon another which might be succeeded by still another; what is described is the final period of divine revelation. The reason isn’t far to seek: all prior revelations were provisional in nature, not least because they were mediated through mere human messengers; but now God has spoken His full, final, and definitive word through His Son. The full perfection of the message is related to the perfection of the Messenger; and precisely because the message is now perfect and complete, none further is needed or to be expected. God’s full word is His final word; His final word is final because it is full and complete.
It should be noted, however, that this in itself doesn’t preclude the continuance of revelation through the whole of the new period (these “last days”). To say that God has spoken His full and final word in His Son distinguishes these “last days” from all preceding historical periods, but it doesn’t demand that the “last days” themselves be divided into (1) a time in which God spoke (and finished speaking) in His Son and (2) a time when God is silent because His speech in His Son has been completed (this is what is often referred to as the “cessationist” view). The pressing question, then, is how has God spoken through His Son in the last days, and whether His way of speaking in this period is such that we must now view His speech to us in Jesus as an accomplished, finished thing, with only the illumination of that completed word carrying through the remainder of the last days. Put simply, has God spoken a completed word in His Son in the last days, or is He still speaking a continuing word in His Son? For an answer to that question, we must move a bit further into the Epistle to the Hebrews. To be continued . . .
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis addresses the issue of whether (evolved) instincts can provide any guidance whatsoever in the realm of value judgments or moral determinations (pp. 48–49):
Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people’. People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence? To listen to that instinct speaking in its own cause and deciding in its own favour would be rather simple minded. Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than to others we have already prejudged the case. If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot be one of the parties judged: or, if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.
The idea that, without appealing to any court higher than the instincts themselves, we can yet find grounds for preferring one instinct above its fellows dies very hard. We grasp at useless words: we call it the ‘basic’, or ‘fundamental’, or ‘primal’, or ‘deepest’ instinct. It is of no avail. Either these words conceal a value judgement passed upon the instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity, the frequency of its operation, and its wide distribution. If the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned: if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion. It is the old dilemma. Either the premisses already concealed an imperative or the conclusion remains merely in the indicative.
He then inserts this priceless footnote:
The desperate expedients to which a man can be driven if he attempts to base value on fact are well illustrated by Dr C. H. Waddington’s fate in Science and Ethics. Dr Waddington here explains that ‘existence is its own justification’ (p. 14), and writes: ‘An existence which is essentially evolutionary is itself the justification for an evolution towards a more comprehensive existence’ (p. 17). I do not think Dr Waddington is himself at ease in this view, for he does endeavour to recommend the course of evolution to us on three grounds other than its mere occurrence. (a) That the later stages include or ‘comprehend’ the earlier. (b) That T. H. Huxley’s picture of Evolution will not revolt you if you regard it from an ‘actuarial’ point of view. (c) That, any way, after all, it isn’t half so bad as people make out (‘not so morally offensive that we cannot accept it’, p. 18). These three palliatives are more creditable to Dr Waddington’s heart than his head and seem to me to give up the main position. If Evolution is praised (or, at least, apologized for) on the ground of any properties it exhibits, then we are using an external standard and the attempt to make existence its own justification has been abandoned. If that attempt is maintained, why does Dr Waddington concentrate on Evolution: i.e., on a temporary phase of organic existence in one planet? This is ‘geocentric’. If Good = ‘whatever Nature happens to be doing’, then surely we should notice what Nature is doing as a whole; and nature as a whole, I understand, is working steadily and irreversibly towards the final extinction of all life in every part of the universe, so that Dr Waddington’s ethics, stripped of their unaccountable bias towards such a parochial affair as tellurian biology, would leave murder and suicide our only duties. Even this, I confess, seems to me a lesser objection than the discrepancy between Dr Waddington’s first principle and the value judgements men actually make. To value anything simply because it occurs is in fact to worship success, like Quislings or men of Vichy. Other philosophies more wicked have been devised: none more vulgar. I am far from suggesting that Dr Waddington practises in real life such grovelling prostration before the fait accompli. Let us hope that Rasselas, cap. 22, gives the right picture of what his philosophy amounts to in action. (‘The philosopher rose up and departed with the air of a man that had co-operated with the present system.’)
Once totalised, criticism merely evacuates itself of content and turns into a series of empty gestures. One cannot gain a truer understanding of the world by criticism alone, any more than one can make a dish of mince with a grinder and nothing to put through it. Totalised criticism is the modern form of intellectual innocence – not a harmless innocence, unhappily, for, by elevating suspicion to the dignity of a philosophical principle, it destroys trust and makes it impossible to learn. (Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, p. 11)