Eagerly Desire The Gifts, Especially That You May Write Scripture

Last week I posted the first of three articles examining some of the thinking of American pastor and writer Douglas Wilson. Today, the series continues…

In the fifth of his Eleven Theses on Private Spirits, Douglas Wilson writes the following:

There is no way to maintain that the revelatory gifts are ongoing without jeopardising the integrity of the canon of Scripture. If the word given is a Word from God, and we believe that it is, then we must treat it as though it is. God can dispense with His own Words, as He apparently did in the case of Phillip’s daughters, but we have no authority to throw God’s Words away. We must treat such words as the Word of God, which means that we must treat them as Scripture.

This is an interesting argument, in which Wilson says that all instances of God’s word, since they originate from a perfect God, should be treated as infallible. Any genuine revelatory gift displayed in the New Testament, whatever form, be it the utterances of Agabus, the visions of Peter, or the writing of Galatians, constitutes the Word of God and must be treated in an identical manner.

So if I am reading him correctly, Wilson is saying that anybody who ever prophesied in the New Testament era, essentially spoke with the same authority as the Scripture we have in our hands today; it’s just that God decided that a few of them should have their words written down, and others dispensed with.

I find this intriguing, not least because of the sheer breadth of those who would have essentially spoken the infallible Word of God, just narrowly missing out on publication. Such a list would include: Zechariah (Luke 1:67), Ananias (Acts 9:15), Agabus (Acts 11:28; 21:10), Phillip’s four daughters (Acts 21:9), twelve random guys in Ephesus (Acts 19:6-7) and the biggest surprise of all, the High Priest Caiaphas (John 11:51)! Not to mention the (presumably) many people to whom Romans 12:6 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 were addressed. Paul instructed the Corinthians to eagerly desire the gifts, especially prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1). Was he really encouraging them, as part of their corporate worship, to speak out with words of the same sort of calibre as those of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Romans or Hebrews? Or was he expecting something a little different?

If the early church saw the common practice of revelatory gifts in church meetings as being of the same category as those of the Old Testament prophets, why did they go all liberal and weak on the judging process? Paul said the church should “weigh” the words (1 Cor 14:29) and “test everything; holding fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:20-21). Nothing is said in either of those passages about what to do to an individual who fails the test. Why did Paul not enforce theDeuteronomy 18:20 principle and chuck a boulder at his brother’s skull? And would, for that matter, Wilson follow through with the courage of his cessationist convictions and bludgeon Driscoll to death on stage at The Grace Agenda in September, were he to dare claim any kind of divine revelation? After all such claims “have a high bar for proof, and high consequences for an accuracy average less than 100% (Dt. 18: 21-22). This scenario is activated when the name of God is invoked.”

I presume not (though I would be fascinated to see him try!). And the reason why we find neither Paul nor Wilson enforcing Deuteronomy 18 is that both surely recognise that the kind of prophecy being encouraged of all believers in Corinth, and practiced today by all but the looney-fringe of charismania, is of an entirely different order. Not Driscoll, nor I, nor I imagine Phillip’s third daughter, nor the random man in the fifth pew at Corinth thought that they were uttering prophecy of the same kind of order as the Major Prophets. None of us, I hope beyond hope, would ever claim to be speaking words on par with Scripture. I’m sure there are some within Christendom who claim to have revelation that trumps the Bible. Give me their addresses and a stone; I’ll hop on the next plane and meet you there…

Wilson writes in thesis 6:

The label of non-cessationism does not really solve any problems. What is it exactly that has ceased or not ceased? All orthodox non-cessationists believe that the authority to write Scripture has ceased. So then something has ceased. What is that, and why has it ceased? I would suggest that this would have to be the revelatory gifts on display in the pages of the New Testament. Someone who believes they have gone away entirely is a cessationist, obviously, but so is a man who believes that they are no longer doing the same thing they used to do.

Yes, orthodox non-cessationists believe that the authority to write Scripture has ceased, but we would disagree that this authority is the kind of “revelatory gift on display in the pages of the New Testament.” Agabus was not exercising his authority to write Scripture when he prophesied a famine; he was outworking the promise of Joel 2 that:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. (Joel 2:28-29, quoted in Acts 2:17-18)

The availability of prophecy on a wide and unprecedented scale is due to the fact that the Spirit himself is now available to men and women on an unprecedented scale; dwelling within all who believe for the first time in history.

Only a select few had the authority to write Scripture, and even then, not everything they wrote made the cut; hence the lost letters to the Corinthians. It is this authority, possessed by a few, and utilised sparingly, that we believe has ceased, whilst the more widespread practice of prophesying as someone indwelled by the Spirit under the new covenant continues today.

Nor is it the case that the authority to write Scripture belonged only to the authorised apostles, since we have examples of apostles who never wrote Scripture (Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthias, James, Simon the Zealot, Judas and Barnabas) and Scripture not written by apostles (Mark, Luke, Hebrews? and Jude).

I love God and I love His Word, but I am aware that men are incredibly fallible, and can misunderstand, misrepresent, miscommunicate, embellish or deliberately fabricate prophetic utterances. So I will never take a modern day prophetic word as being on par with Scripture. That doesn’t show a lack of confidence in God’s ability to speak truthfully, but only in man’s ability to hear and transmit faithfully. “We see in part, and we prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

I affirm, with Wilson, that every word God ever says is infallible. I also affirm, with Wilson and the reformed tradition, that man is inherently fallible. When God speaks to a man, God’s word remains perfect, though because it is now mediated through a fallible being, it is open to being poorly transmitted. This in no way lessens God’s truthfulness, only man’s. If I may speculate, I would suggest that when God spoke through men the words that would finally find their way into our canon, He somehow transcended or suspended man’s fallibility, thus communicating His perfect Word in a perfect way. So when Peter wrote “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood” his fallibility was being bypassed by the Spirit, and God’s word was being communicated with a kind of perfect authority that Peter didn’t possess when he said “quick, James’ men are looking, don’t eat near a Gentile!”

Whilst I don’t think that the prophetic gift practiced by every day believers in the New Testament era is at all the same thing as the authority to speak with words on par with Scripture, there is a helpful warning here. I believe we should be careful with our language, lest we sound like we are claiming more than we ought. And I believe we should be extremely careful ofactually claiming more than we ought! Spiritual gifts come a distant second to the infallible, never-to-be-added-to Word of God in Scripture. There will be no Bible: Directors’ Cut with extended scenes. When we speak of prophecy today we must make sure we not saying anything that leads people to believe we are claiming for ourselves an inappropriate level of authority.

And the issue of language is the subject of the third and final post.

To be continued…

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