The Problem with Cessationism

Cessationists apparently have the reputation of not believing in miracles after the apostolic age:

No issue has been more controversial among Protestants in the past 40 years than the charismatic gifts and the role of miracles in the post-apostolic age. The issue was controversial in previous eras of Protestant history, too, although theological lines were not usually drawn as hard and fast as they are between “cessationists” and “continuationists” today.

In the 1700s and 1800s, suspicion of claimed miracles was connected to anti-Catholicism. Protestant critics saw the Catholic tradition as riddled with fake claims of miracles. Ridiculing the fake miracle claims of Catholics (such as icons bleeding a liquid that turned out to be cherry juice) became a staple of Reformed polemics against the Catholic Church. So when seemingly miraculous events happened in Protestant churches, even sympathetic observers warned against the threat of bogus miracles.

Odd, but the cessationists I know all affirm the ongoing reality of miracles. How could you ever believe in people lost in sin becoming regenerate without resorting to the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit?

The real problem comes with the “gift” of speaking in tongues. Why do we need ongoing revelations from God if scripture is sufficient?

1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. (CofF 1.1 emphasis added)

6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (CofF 1.6 emphasis added)

Continuationists who want to defend tongues are in the same predicament as Roman Catholics who defend the continuing infallible teaching of the magisterium and the authority of tradition. Does God’s word have all we need for salvation and godliness? Or do we need ongoing revelations for becoming right with God? If you make an infallible pope or a Spirit-filled Christian the arbiter of Christianity, you deny the sufficiency of Scripture.

Selah.

Advertisements

Interpreting the Bible

Tommie Kidd and Gerald McDermott try to salvage providential history. Of course, such an exercise is dangerous:

Over-readings of God’s providence were relatively easy targets of ridicule for the new skeptics and deists of the eighteenth century. For them, Edwards’ kind of interpretation raised obvious questions with no easy answers. Does an absence of drought or worms mean that people are without sin? What did it mean when non-Christians around the world enjoyed abundant harvests, and heavily Christian regions went without? And what of Matthew 5:45’s statement that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”? Many traditional Christians abandoned close providential readings of current events because, with all due respect to Edwards, those interpretations are easier to defend when no one is asking difficult questions about them.

But we lose something without it:

Yet Gerald McDermott suggests that we also lost good things when we gave up on providential readings of history. Christians certainly believe that God is the Lord of history, and that all things have meaning and purpose within God’s economy. No ruler comes to power, and no nation falls, without God’s sovereign permission. Providential interpretations of a nation’s suffering and turmoil remind us that we stand under universal moral standards. No matter how powerful and wealthy, no nation (perhaps especially those with high rates of professed Christian faith) can expect to provoke God forever with no consequences.

We didn’t already have those assertions from simply reading the Bible? And if we read the Bible and cogitated on its status as God’s word, we might notice that God is the one who interprets history, which is what happens in the pages of Holy Writ — something happens, and we learn its meaning from the apostles and prophets. When things happen and God doesn’t interpret, why would we ever think we have the capacity to fill the void?

Even so, Kidd will not relent:

The most appropriate occasions when we can make modest assertions about God’s historical interventions are when we detect dynamics of reaping and sowing. For example, the financial meltdown of 2008 was clearly connected to irresponsible practices and products, like the infamous “credit default swaps.” At a minimum, we can say that in 2008, God let our nation reap what we had sown financially. We are still trying to recover from the disaster that ensued.

Well, knowing that you reap what you sow is something that farmers understand without the aid of providential history. The challenge for arguments like Kidd’s is the dark side of providential history (and the fall more generally). If God let the nation reap what the banks had sown, isn’t it also the case that God let the banks sow?

Are providentialists really up to tackling the problem of evil? I don’t think so.

The Adam Option

If we wish to right the wrong that the Supreme Court has done, then, we must do more than change the law. We must change the culture. That’s no easy task, and again it is not obvious how we should begin.

That’s one of Phil Lawler’s observations after the Court’s recent decision on same-sex marriage. One way to change the culture, I know right off the top of my head, is not the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option literally means no sex and no kids. And the one way that heterosexuals could change the culture in a heart beat is out-reproduce homosexuals. Think about it (but not to long). What’s so hard about that? One kind of sex results in kids, the other doesn’t. Birth rates alone will change demographics and all sorts of cultural bi-products follow. Think of all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over Europe being overrun by Muslims who out-reproduce Christians Europeans and think again how those changing demographics are supposed to transform Europe.

It could happen here — families overwhelming singles.

Caleb Bernacchio and Philip de Mahy think that the Benedict Option still has possibilities but not the way that Rod Dreher frames it:

The question facing Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option is how it is possible to recover not only the Benedictine vision of prayer but also the Benedictine vision of work as prayer, under the conditions of advanced modernity. Work shapes one’s character; it will either be a school of virtue or, all too often, of vice. Modernity largely understands work as instrumental. To become anti-modern in a constructive manner, we must challenge the way that modernity diminishes the importance of work as a means of character development.

St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other.

I still don’t see room for sex. I am still left wondering what happened to these Benedictines once they die. For the Benedict Option to succeed, don’t you need to have kids and pass on your faith and “values” to them? And where do you see sex or kids in a monastery?

Dreher himself is pondering his critics and has recently come up with this as a better formulation of the Benedict Option:

The early Benedictine monks followed the Rule of St. Benedict, which directed how they were to organize their monastic communities to serve God. Benedict taught that they were to focus on prayer and work, and the common life. The five principles I have discerned from reading the Rule are:

Order
Stability
Discipline
Community
Hospitality

It should go without saying that a method for living out these principles is going to look very different for lay people living in the world than for vowed religious living in single-sex communities behind monastery walls. I think whatever forms the Benedict Option takes, we have to understand that it’s going to be diverse, depending on local needs, and particular religious traditions. How Catholics live it out won’t look exactly like how Southern Baptists live it out. How urban Christians live it out won’t look exactly like how rural Christians live it out. The ultimate goal, though, is developing communities that can be islands of stability, sanity, and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture that works against all of those things.

Fine, but weren’t families islands of stability, sanity, and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture? And weren’t congregations also there to produce some of those same cultural goods? What happened to family and church? One answer is that families and churches didn’t do that great a job of passing on strict codes governing sex, marriage, and ambition? Did the pursuit of a Republican president in the White House and overturning Roe v. Wade also bring some strong winds and heavy rains to those islands of stability? I think so.

But those islands are still there. Climate change hasn’t obliterated them. Be fruitful, multiply, and catechize (but not that doorstop of a catechism produced by John Paul II — Luther’s Small, Heidelberg, or the Shorter Catechism should do).

Tommie Kidd gets the last word on what was the Adam (okay, ladies) the Adam-and-Eve Option:

How different, then, are the traditional Christian practices of family life? (None of the following are exclusively for Christians, nor do all professing Christians practice them.) Marriage between a man and a woman, marital vows before sex, viewing children as a blessing from God, and a responsibility to raise those children in the fear of the Lord. Limits on “screen time” which allow for more reading, more outside play, and more sleep. Family dinners and prayer, church attendance, reading in the Bible and other edifying, educational books.

These and countless other small counter-cultural aspects of Christian family life today may not strike us as “retreat,” but they are conscious decisions not to assimilate to the patterns of mainstream culture. We may even find it hard to maintain these standards in the context of church, where many of the parents of our kids’ friends are not choosing the counter-cultural path. Nevertheless, for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.

Less American Than Thou

Thanks go to Tommie Kidd for actually recognizing that confessional Protestantism may be a category distinct from evangelicalism (all about me alert):

The second group are Reformed/confessionalist Christians, often associated with traditional Presbyterian or Reformed denominations such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This is the easiest category of the four, because many of these Christians would tell you that they are not evangelicals, even if the media would regard them as such. Some of these folks will tell you that they might be evangelicals, but that the doctrines and confessions of Reformed Christianity are the center of their faith, not the born-again feelings of typical American evangelicals. D.G. Hart is one of the preeminent examples of the Reformed critics of evangelicalism.

But Professor Kidd is not going to abandon evangelicalism. He merely wants to create space between evangelicalism and American nationalism (read exceptionalism):

there are many evangelicals who have reservations about the blending of American national history with their faith. Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his Founders’ Bible.

This concern would be a lot more forceful if Professor Kidd were to identify with a particular communion rather than a generic evangelicalism no matter how paleo (like Oleo?). He may so identify in his personal life, but he like a lot of historians who write in Conference on Faith and History (instead of a Conference on Church History) circles claim to belong to Christianity without actually being restrained by the shape and teaching of a particular church. And this is where Kidd’s description of confessional Protestantism could take a correction. Yes, the doctrines of Reformed Protestantism are important to confessional Presbyterians but that is at least because those doctrines are confessed by a communion and bind its officers and members together (in some way).

The alternative to an ecclesial Protestantism is the very sort of evangelicalism with which Kidd seemingly identifies. And part of the reason why evangelicals since Whitefield have held the visible church in low esteem is because it gets in the way of those cooperative endeavors from orphanages and Sunday school to solving world hunger and forming academic guilds. When the United States broke with Theodosius and disestablished religion, Christians did not give up national churches but they — evangelicals included — turned the nation into a church.

If paleo-evangelicals like Kidd want to disabuse evangelicals of their nationalism, a quick remedy would be to turn denominational or churchly by adopting a higher allegiance to the church (and letting it be tested by submission to ecclesiastical authority) rather than turning a critical eye to the nation. But the problem there for Protestants on both the evangelical “right” and the mainline left is that allegiance to a particular church and its teachings, liturgy, and government looks sectarian — sort of like attachments to states like Michigan or Pennsylvania look backward. The solution to one big, vacuous, and uncritical allegiance (American exceptionalism) is not another big, vacuous, and uncritical allegiance (evangelicalism).