by Henry Vosburgh
– I grant that the opening query is one of rhetoric. Let me explain. Over the last few years, I have either read or heard men in ministry challenge the view of cessation – especially regarding sign gifts – due to a fear that is created from a range of causes, some of which have been:
- Fear of limiting God
- Fear of being too definitive when Scripture (as is supposed) is not definitive
- Fear of disagreeing with high profile speakers / writers / professors / etc.
- Fear of narrowing the field of ecclesiastical fellowship, partnership, cooperation, etc.
Whether I have been having a casual discussion with brothers over lunch, or having more formal interactions in other contexts, it has yet not to amaze me that I have become a theological dinosaur by maintaining a cessationist position in regard to the sign gifts. Yet every time so far, in the midst of discussions with people who are vacillating on a position they have not settled or have since forsaken outright, with honesty I can say that I have not heard a consistent defense that faithfully stands the test of basic hermeneutics that would at least get to me to think, “Ok, now I understand where this openness makes biblical sense.” Biased am I? Yes, let me be honest. But it is not a bias that is unwilling to examine the evidence that would alter my theology; I just need something biblical to make me do it. So far, in all my personal interactions involving this issue, I come away asking that same question: “What am I missing?”
For example, take my latest experience. I have been asked to serve a local church which is currently going through a pastoral search. I have one job and that is to evaluate prospective candidates for their doctrinal tendencies and loyalties; all this church wants is my help to determine doctrinal compatibility, while they handle the rest. In a recent resume, I detected someone who might be a great fit for this church. He is articulate, he seems well-grounded; his statements about purpose and mission reflect a passion I would want in my pastor. At first, he affirmed that he was in agreement with the church’s statement of faith. He even prepared a resume that was not filled with grammatical and spelling mistakes – a common occurrence which, incidentally, is a hang-up of mine. So I was pretty excited, and told the church that this was someone to pursue. An interview online was held which went well, and it seemed that things were moving forward.
But then it appears that the potential candidate reread through the church’s statement of faith more carefully, and it was then that he cited that he agreed with it except in regard to the temporary nature of sign gifts. Here was his reasoning; he was taught by his professor from the widely respected seminary from which he graduated that there is evidence of signs and wonders in missionary environments where the Gospel has yet to be communicated. A missionary meets up with a tribe whose language is not previously known by said missionary; he speaks, and miraculously, the tribal people hear the Gospel. Such stories are cited as evidence that the gift of tongues and / or miracles is / are still operative today; and therefore the cessationist position is too limiting and is no longer to be embraced by the saints individually or corporately. Now, I know I am not writing about something new; this reasoning has been set forth by many people in many contexts. But for me, in the past when it came from someone who was settled in his theology, or wasn’t seeking to engage me for ministry, or was just someone impersonal to discuss over lunch with friends or colleagues, it was a position much like the multitude of errors that could be discussed. It was theoretical and not personal. Not so this time … this candidate seems like a good guy, someone to be reached out to, perhaps someone to be worked with, etc. This time, it got into my craw.
Follow my simple line of thought here, and help me to see what I am missing. First of all, I have heard such stories for many years about these miraculous occurrences in missionary contexts. From fantastic angelic experiences to overcoming language barriers to amazing feats of human empowerments, stories of mind-boggling missions experiences have abounded over the years. It makes me think that in missions, there is an entrance into an alternative universe; that once a believer embarks into a new environment of paganism, it is likened to Alice falling into the rabbit hole where the rules of so-called non-pagan human existence that normally govern us no longer apply. Is that how it works? Does missiology get its own rules? What am I missing?
Second, since when is it that believers are allowed to base theology upon reported experience? No matter how one spins the stories from the mission fields of the world, it still comes back to the reality that experience is to be interpreted through the grid of Scripture, not Scripture interpreted through the grid of experience. What am I missing?
Third, let’s allow for the moment that such miraculous occurrences potentially are happening in missionary contexts today. I confess that I am skeptical; but I allow that I wasn’t there, and that I cannot prove that the experience is false, no more than the reports prove that it is true. So, again, let’s grant that it happened. Can such an event not be ranked as a miracle of God done by his choosing in that circumstance without it being a cessationist issue? I believe it can; for I am persuaded by Scripture that God can do miraculous things at any time, regardless of geography or time period. If God desires to remove the cancer from a terminally ill patient, he can — and has done so — for his glory. It follows that if God wants to overcome the natural barrier of language that exists for the offer of life through the Gospel to be faithfully conveyed and understood, I believe that he can. I believe this because God indeed can do whatever he desires to do, even if it takes a miracle to do so. But when I evaluate such a testimony, I fail to see how this demands that I deny the position that sign gifts were temporary. This is not a testimony about giftedness; it’s a testimony about the power of God within a given situation. What am I missing?
A spiritual gift is something that is determined by the Holy Spirit and granted to members within the Body of Christ. It is something that is vested upon an individual for ministry and service. The gifts of teaching, helps, mercy, etc., are all examples of empowerments by the Spirit that are worked out through believers. Furthermore, I do not see spiritual gifts as uniquely empowered within believers for a “one-and-done” circumstance. Teachers are designed to continue teaching; helpers are designed to continue helping. If it is a true empowerment of the Spirit, it is meant to be constantly outworked by the believers so gifted. If this understanding is accurate scripturally speaking, then the allowed experience above falls short of these defining points on numerous levels.
If the above scenario is an example of the gift of tongues for today, then why does such an experience only happen in missions? Why does it not occur right here in Midwestern USA where I work to advance the Gospel through planting churches? I have personally walked down streets of metro Chicago and encountered the languages of the world being spoken within my own ears. I have endeavored to communicate with Hispanics, with eastern Europeans, with Arabic-speaking people, and with people speaking African languages. I would greatly benefit from having the gift of tongues today, simply because my potential in regularly encountering non-English speaking individuals is fairly high.
If the above scenario is true, then why is not so that these stories are normative in experience? Why does not the story tell of a missionary landing on one shore speaking an unknown tongue unto the rescue of tribal souls, then packing up and moving on to the next shore of an entirely different tribal location with an entirely different language but having the same impact? How about the third, the fourth, or the fifth location and people / language group with the same outcome? If the experience above is an example of a normative gift in operation, then why are not these things the testimonies?
If the above scenario is true, then language training in missions must rank as the highest missiological stewardship failure in the modern era. Imagine all of the time, energy, and finance that has been a total waste in the sincere training of missionaries to speak foreign languages when all we needed to do was identify the normatively gifted individuals who need no training whatsoever because they are energized by the greatest Teacher of all. Anointed with him at salvation, and being filled with him as believers yielding their lives’ control unto him, the Holy Spirit would razor-cut through our entire process of language preparation and send those people to do what he gifted them to do.
If the gift of tongues is not to be defined as a temporary sign gift which is no longer operative today, then would it not follow that these things would be so? I ask again, “What am I missing?”
What I see here is a number of problems. I see a professor who was irresponsible, conjecturing for the sake of a discussion about reinterpreting an experience into a non-cessation theological position. I see a lack of precision on the clear teachings of scripture regarding the nature of spiritual giftedness, which is but one part of a larger lack of precision in those areas where Pneumatology and Ecclesiology intersect. I see a student / disciple who adopted a mentor’s postulations as his position; and by default, now he is advancing such a position perhaps without even considering the flaws that accompany it. I also see a church that might have been able to entertain a viable candidate for ministry who must continue a search process and work through the void of leadership that characterizes its circumstance. Unless I am missing something, this entire scenario has occurred because someone took an unverifiable story, spun it into a reality, built an alternative theological posture upon it, and passed it on to others.
I confess that “I don’t know it all.” I also confess that like anyone, my biases can risk the clouding of my judgment. Frankly, I have gone through some of my earliest sermons and lessons and wondered how much I owe those dear saints a huge apology for the stupid things I said and taught “back then.” I have watched people under my teaching ministry be forced to shed their life-long held belief systems to embrace the truth, and at times, it was with great cost and turmoil; so I too cannot be exempt from being taught the truth, even if it means that I must run counter to my training and the present understanding I have derived from my own study of the Scriptures. But … not yet on this issue! I confess that on this matter, I am befuddled. How someone can deny that sign gifts were a temporary manifestation of the Spirit’s work based on this particular line of reasoning has me stumped. What am I missing?