But before you panic, tweet, or burn your copy of Incomparable, I should clarify; I don’t mean our very own smooth-chinned, British, Andrew Wilson, but rather his namesake, the American blogger and scourge of the New Atheists; the witty, provocative, and beautifully bearded Douglas Wilson.
His recent posts on cessationist theology have provided much to ponder. Depending on how far back you want to go into the conversation, you may want to read this1, which is a follow up to this2, a clarification of this3 which in turn responded to this4 and this5. Should you find yourself lacking in time or inclination to follow the entire trail, just go for his most recent post, Eleven Theses on Private Spirits6.
Doug describes himself as,
A thorough-going cessationist, one who believes that the canon of Scripture is closed, and that we will never again have any revelatory gifts that would enable a man to say, “Thus saith the Lord . . .” Neither will we have miraculous sign gifts, which could plausibly authenticate a man as an apostle (2 Cor. 12:12). Jeremiah and Isaiah are in Heaven, and I don’t want anything to do with their wannabees.
To use common parlance, supernatural, revelatory gifts, imparted by the Holy Spirit, and guaranteed by Him, are no more. They are done, ceased, kaput, no mas. If you can’t find it in between Genesis and Revelation, then don’t put it in the sermon. When it comes to these revelatory gifts, the spigot has been turned all the way to the right.
Over these next few posts, I would like to offer some thoughts and raise a few questions about a couple of Wilson’s arguments. Feel free to add your own comments and join the conversation. We begin with his first thesis:
The revelatory gifts have ceased. The foundation of our faith is the word of the prophets and apostles, with Christ as the cornerstone (Eph 2:20). The ability to work miraculous signs is an authenticating mark of an apostle (2 Cor 12:12), which means that if the apostolic reality is no longer here, neither can there be a legitimate biblical proofs that it is too here. In the very nature of the case, foundation work is done first. When you are framing the house on that foundation, you must build in line with the foundation, which is not the same thing as continuing to lay the foundation. You no longer pour concrete when you are framing in the attic.
The conclusion of this argument relies on two basic premises, both of which I find to be problematic:
Premise one: Apostles no longer exist
Premise two: Miraculous gifts existed to authenticate apostles
Conclusion: Miraculous gifts no longer exist
We’ll look at each premise in turn.
My problem with Wilson’s first premise is that it is simply assumed, and not in the least bit substantiated. Who’s to say that apostles don’t exist today? Where is the biblical justification? It’s a mighty big assumption to just slip in there, and I would like to see some sort of evidence.
I understand the imagery of houses and foundations, but that hardly settles the argument. We’re ultimately dealing with people, not concrete blocks, and the discussion can’t be settled by simply extracting principles from an isolated metaphor. Of course, there is much debate to be had over whether apostles exist today, and I would refer you to David Devenish’s recent book Fathering Leaders, Motivating Mission. But my point is simply this; if you’re going to assert that apostles are extinct, you’ve at least got to take a moment to back it up.
Since Doug has already taken us to Ephesians 2 let me just ask one question: At what point was the foundation so complete that the role of the apostle became obsolete?
The reason I ask is because when Paul writes of “God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” in Ephesians 2:20, he seems to be suggesting that the foundation has already been put in place, hence the structure of the building has begun to go up, right? So would Paul, no longer required to lay any foundations, have by this point ceased to function as an apostle?
We know this isn’t the case. All his life he continued ‘apostling’ and using the title (Eph 1:1), and not just in some nostalgically respectful manner, like being called Mr President years after your term of office has come to an end. He saw his work as continuing until death. Though ‘the foundation’ was in place (Eph 2:20), he could still speak of places where no man had laid a foundation (Rom 15:20), and he saw his foundation-laying as an ongoing role, breaking new territory with the gospel.
Something of the role of the apostle is to be a perpetual foundation builder; establishing churches in unreached areas. Given that there are still somewhere in the region of 6,900 unreached people groups, might there not be a case for saying that there is still a role for foundation-layers today?
There is much more that could be said, but let me just give three concluding thoughts on Wilson’s first premise:
1) We need more than a few thoughts extracted from a metaphor. If Wilson wants to use the cessation of the apostolic role as a major premise in his argument, then he needs to prove it.
2) Foundation building isn’t the only role of an apostle. Wilson needs to look at some of the other tasks done by apostles in the New Testament and see if there isn’t a continuing need forthose to be done today as well.
3) There are still places in which foundations need to be built, and some countries are just as in need of a Paul figure today as they were in the first century.
The next step in his argument, saying that since apostles don’t exist neither do the gifts, also seems to be flawed since it assumes (a) that the only people who performed signs, miracles and works of power were the apostles, and (b) that the sole purpose of miraculous signs was to authenticate an apostle.
Yes, Paul speaks of “the things that mark an apostle – signs (semeios), miracles (terasi) and works of power (dunamesi)” (2 Corinthians 12:12) and Acts records these being performed at the hands of the apostles (Acts 2:43; 4:16, 22; 5:12; 8:6, 13; 14:3; 15:12). But all three words are also used to describe the ministry of Stephen who was ‘a man full of God’s grace and power (dunameos) [and] did great wonders (terata) and miraculous signs (semeia) among the people’ (Acts 6:8) despite being only a deacon (Acts 6:5). Paul acknowledges that some have the ability to work miracles (1 Cor 12:6), with no indication that he is only speaking about Apostles. In fact, Wilson acknowledges others who moved in revelatory gifts, despite not being apostles, such as Agabus and Phillip’s daughters. So it doesn’t follow that the cessation of apostles necessarily means the cessation of the revelatory gifts.
Also, Jesus promised signs to his disciples in Mark 16, and we are told that these signs confirmed not the authority of the apostles, but the truth of the message (Mark 16:20). The signs point people to Jesus and to the fact of his Kingship as proclaimed by his disciples. True they also serve to authenticate an apostle, and I happen to think that apostles today should be proficient in signs and wonders (2 Cor 12:12), but that is not their sole, or even, I would suggest, their primarypurpose.
Even were I to grant Wilson’s first premise, that apostles no longer exist, that would not necessarily eradicate the need for signs, wonders and miracles. Paul told the Corinthians to eagerly desire the gift of prophecy, and he didn’t caveat it, “but not too eagerly, since you have a maximum of 30 years to use it!” Nothing in Scripture leads me to believe that Paul and pals took the gifts to their graves. Rather, whilst people still need pointing to Christ, there remains a purpose for miraculous signs.
To be continued…
- 1 http://www.dougwils.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8857:eleven-theses-on-private-spirits&catid=155:private-spirits
- 2 http://www.dougwils.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8854:on-being-a-tricksy-dancer&catid=155:private-spirits
- 3 http://www.dougwils.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8851:mark-driscoll-visions-teampyro-cessationism-and-me&catid=155:private-spirits
- 4 http://www.tobyjsumpter.com/teampyro-on-driscoll-moscow/
- 5 http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2011/08/pornographic-divination.html
- 6 http://www.dougwils.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8857:eleven-theses-on-private-spirits&catid=155:private-spirits