Cessationism and the Authority of Personal Assumption

By Marv

I’m not sure whether Daniel Wallace’s recent post on Parchment and Pen, Charismata and the Authority of Personal Experience, was intended to coincide with the annual celebration of the world’s most famous irrational number, π, but it did in fact appear on “Pi Day” (3/14/2010) and does seem to hit the theme of what he considers to be irrational. If it otherwise appeared to you, as it did to me, oddly out of date, this is because it is in fact a repost of an older article. On reading it, I estimated that the references sounded on the nature of fifteen years old. In fact, the Word version available on bible.org is dated 1997, though I suspect the original composition is a tad earlier.

The article calls for a response, I’m afraid, but before I begin, I want to make clear what profound regard and respect I hold for Dr. Wallace. He is not only—literally—the man who “wrote the book” on New Testament Greek, but he was my own teacher and, yes, a personal hero. The fact is that I found my way to both Parchment and Pen and Theologica through hunting down his online writings.

Yet I am going to be so bold as to disagree with some of what he writes, while agreeing with much of it. I have a few slightly-more-than-quibbles to get out of the way first. I find the opening references to “psychic hotlines” and UFOs unnecessarily disobliging. The phenomena under discussion, such as healing and prophecy, are after all such as he agrees genuinely occurred among the Church of the first century, not occulta from beyond the fringe.

Also it is misleading to refer to the continuationist perspective he has in view as “charismatic.” He explicitly aligns the people he refers to with the Vineyard movement, which is part of what is commonly called “Third Wave.” Since the second of the “waves” in question is the Charismatic Movement, there is a significant distinction there that he ignores.

More importantly, however, he allows himself to go beyond commentary on the facts and proposes to offer a psychological explanation for a change in belief, and even more importantly casts this change as an abandonment of basic evangelical principle. He states: “their final authority is no longer reasoning about the Scriptures; now it is personal experience.” I do not believe that he is justified in doing either, and that his conclusion is wrong in both instances.

One may wish to ask how Dr. Wallace, coming from an outsider’s perspective, can be as confident as he appears to be in regard to the psyche of others. May I suggest, from an insider’s perspective, that he has significantly misread the situation. My claim to an inside perspective is based on the fact that: (a) some the individuals he almost certainly has chiefly in mind were also my own teachers and I have some familiarity with them both before and after their “paradigm shift”; (b) I myself fall generally into the lines of the events he describes. As the song says: “apart from the names and a few other changes, the story’s the same one”; and (c) I have spent two decades in the Vineyard milieu, and so know something whereof I speak.

So I can attest that, so far from being swayed by mere experience, these people have made the decision: (1) to believe something that the Bible clearly teaches, specific works of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ, and (2) to disbelieve something they find nowhere in the Bible, that particular aspects of the Spirit’s work ceased after the first (or second) generation of the Church. I am not quite sure how this constitutes substituting “personal experience” for the Scriptures as final authority. It is rather quite the opposite.

On the other hand, a typical cessationist charge is “Can you honestly tell me you’ve seen genuine New Testament quality miracles.” Now, which side is clinging to experience as authority?

What about experience, though? Yes, odd as it may seem, what we are told in the Bible does turn out to be true. Paul describes the effects of prophecy, for example, in terms of “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (1 Cor. 14:3) and also having “the secrets of [one’s] heart…disclosed” (1 Cor. 14:25). I can attest to this effect, as I think anyone who has taken the Biblical teaching on prophecy as valid for today could. Yes, these are subjective matters for the most part, difficult to demonstrate to others. Dr. Wallace puts scare quotes around “prophet,” and dismisses such instances as cold reading.

What am I supposed to believe when apostolic, Scriptural authority teaches me to not to despise prophetic utterances (1 Thes. 5:20)? I know what cold reading is, and I know charlatans have used it to simulate genuine prophecy. However, I’ve also received prophecies the details of which rule out cold reading, and given prophecies which to the best of my ability to discern were in no way instances of cold reading. Still it isn’t the experience that tells me prophecy is a work of the Holy Spirit; it is the Bible.

It is also true that such “paradigm shifts” are often occasioned by personal crises. Dr. Wallace is quite correct that imbalance in Christian life, such as excessive focus on the intellectual aspects, is deleterious to joy in Christ. It is Dr. Wallace’s final paragraph that is at once the most laudable part of his essay, and the most lamentable. It is laudable for the truth of his statement: “the trilogy of authority can be seen this way: both personal experience and reason are vital means to accessing revelation. We are to embrace Christ, as revealed in the Word, with mind and heart.” What is lamentable, is that by making the statement he is implying that continuationists do not understand this.

In fact, Dr. Wallace is describing what may be the single greatest lesson I have learned in embracing continuationism. We have to do not primarily with knowledge or feeling, but with a blessed Person, who has given us His Word and has given us His Spirit, and sent us as He was sent, as is with us until the end of the age. It is in Him that we are to place our faith. I’ve been taught the very same truth by the very people Dr. Wallace suggest have missed it. So while Dr. Wallace’s prescription is on target, I believe his diagnosis is considerably wide of the mark.


2 responses to “Cessationism and the Authority of Personal Assumption

  1. Oh… you can delete my previous comment so my email address isn’t out there for the world; I have enough spam as it is. (I forgot you said just to leave a comment and you could retrieve my email address from that.) Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Marv, following Dr. Wallace’s post. I actually had been planning on my next post being about the relationship of experience in the life of the Christian. So maybe it will all link in with these thoughts as well.

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