Saturday, September 30, 2006

Get To Know Me!
What prayer is really about

I was recently at a pastors' meeting at which the subject of prayer was being discussed. The general theme was that if we want to see things happen within the church--people saved and healed, the church healthy and growing, the power of God working in and through us--then it all starts with prayer. Prayer must be made a priority. We need to devote time to it, we need to gather together for it, we need to be examples of it.

We also discussed obstacles to that: the sense in Western culture that prayer isn't actually "doing anything," the struggles that some of us experience in keeping focused, the general busyness of our lives, the tendency we have to focus on methodology rather than to rely on God, the fact that the results of prayer are often delayed and we expect instant answers.

Being relatively new to the group, I mainly listened, but as the discussion proceeded, an idea jelled in my mind. All too often, we use prayer as a means to an end--and the end is something we've decided ahead of time, before we begin to pray. (Isn't that, after all, the meaning of the term, "prayer request"?) We are essentially bringing our agenda to God and asking Him (politely, of course) to do our bidding. Yes, we've all heard teaching about various types and stages of prayer, but really, don't we often treat the other stages of prayer merely as prologue? "Adoration, check. Confession, check. Thanksgiving, check. Supplication--okay, now let's get to business." And the reality is that sometimes issues are weighing on our hearts so strongly that pretending to focus on something else amounts to self-deception. We need to be honest with ourselves and God about where we're at.

Nonetheless, I think that using prayer as a means to the end of getting God to enact our agenda is the main reason that we have difficulty with prayer. Quite simply, God isn't going to help us in prayer if that's what we're doing. And we ourselves know at some level that we can't really arm-twist God into doing what we want, so it's difficult to pray with any confidence. And if we don't have God's help or confidence in getting what we want, it's going to be hard to focus, and we're going to feel like we're really not accomplishing anything.

The phrase that kept running through my mind was, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection" (Phil. 3:10). It seems to me that the real object of prayer is for us to get closer to God and become attuned to His agenda. As we are "conformed to the likeness of His Son" (Rom. 8:29), our desires will more closely coincide with His desires, and we can pray with greater confidence that we are praying according to His will. As a matter of fact, the prayer request we started out with might actually have been in His will--but I'm convinced that God is much more interested in who we are becoming than in most of the things we ask of Him.

Paul writes, "I want to know Christ." This is after his conversion, after assisting Barnabas for years in Antioch, after his three groundbreaking missionary journeys, after having written several of his epistles. We tend to look at "knowing Christ" merely positionally: if we're Christians, then we "know Christ." Yet here is one of the greatest Christians who ever lived, deep into his maturity as a believer, still seeking to "know Christ." How much should we be longing to know Him? I know the deepest experiences of prayer that I have had involved simply a desire to seek Him and know Him, with no other agenda whatever.

"And the power of his resurrection." Knowing Christ is the key to His power. But He uses His power for His ends, not ours. We can't just make knowing Him, once again, a means to the end of accessing His power. He's not going to play that game. We have to be tools in His hands if we want to be channels of His power. Miracles happen when we're doing what He wants, not trying to get Him to do what we want.

And then there's the part of the passage that I had forgotten: "and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings." Here's where God's agenda is so often completely different from ours. How much of our prayers involve escaping suffering? Some theologies are built around the idea that if we had God's power, we wouldn't have to experience suffering. Paul says the opposite: that in coming to know Christ and experiencing His power, he actually wants to share in the sufferings of Jesus. This, quite frankly, is beyond me; and yet I at least know where I lack. We may need to go through suffering in order to accomplish God's will in our lives; but if we're submissive to it, He will even redeem the suffering.

Reorienting how we think about prayer is the first step toward reenergizing our prayer lives. I'm tempted here to finish up by suggesting that as we get to know Christ better and become more like Him, the results we were looking for in the first place will follow. I believe this to be true, but isn't that just lapsing back into the same mindset: a means to our own ends? Let's just purpose to become more like Christ. Isn't that the best possible end?

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Missionary Use of Tongues:
Comparing Tongues and Prophecy

This is the conclusion of what I began in The Missionary Use of Tongues: A Snipe Hunt.

1 Corinthians 14 makes an explicit comparison between prophecy and tongues, with Paul clearly preferring prophecy. This much any cessationist will tell you. However, it is instructive to recognize in what context and for what reasons Paul prefers prophecy. Paul's argument throughout is that prophecy is preferable specifically because it is intelligible to others. In other words, Paul is discussing what is appropriate within the context of corporate worship. He really hasn't departed from his overall topic of what is appropriate in worship since chapter 11. What Paul says about prophecy in chapter 14 is that the person who prophesies "speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort" (v. 3), "edifies the church" (v. 4), that only "two or three prophets should speak" (v. 29), that those who prophesy should do so "in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged" (v. 31), that "the spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets" (v. 32), that a genuine prophet would acknowledge that what Paul is writing "is the Lord's command" (v. 37), and that people should "be eager to prophesy" (v. 39). All of this is clearly within the context of corporate worship.

Tongues is here being denigrated by comparison, but it is being denigrated specifically because it is unintelligible. This is an odd thing for Paul to assert if tongues was given for the purpose of communicating the gospel to people in other languages. It is true that the Corinthians were evidently misusing the gift, but if their misuse consisted in using the gift in a context in which there are no foreign-language listeners, Paul never says so. He also never says that they are using a counterfeit gift. He never tries to stop them from using the gift. Paul's argument against tongues takes an entirely different line.

Tongues in Private and in Public

Paul's essential argument regarding the use of tongues is that it is personal and unintelligible to others; therefore it is unsuited to corporate worship unless it is accompanied by interpretation. Paul acknowledges that speaking in tongues builds up the speaker, and says that he would like all of them to speak in tongues (vv. 4-5). This is hardly a carte blanche put-down of tongues. However, in the church, it is better to prophesy, because corporate worship is about building up the body together, not individuals separately. What goes on in the service must be intelligible, so that others may receive benefit. Paul is grateful that he speaks in tongues more than all of them, but "in the church" he would rather "speak five intelligible words to instruct others" (vv. 18-19).

To say that it is unsuited for corporate worship is quite different than to say that it is unimportant in itself or false altogether. What we see here is the dichotomy between tongues being used for personal devotion (yes, a "private prayer language") and the far more restricted use of tongues in corporate worship, in which interpretation is insisted upon (vv. 13, 27-28).[1] It is quite interesting that despite Paul's preference for prophecy over tongues in corporate worship, he doesn't ban tongues altogether (v. 39) or even banish their use to the private prayer closet. He gives guidance on the use of both tongues and prophecy, based on the underlying principle that "all of these must be done for the strengthening of the church" (v. 26).

Incidentally, verse 14 contradicts another frequent allegation, that Paul's references to his own speaking in tongues (cf. v. 18) merely refer to his own naturally learned ability to speak in a number of different languages. Paul specifically says that if he prays in a tongue, his "mind is unfruitful." This is obviously not a reference to speaking in a naturally learned second language; moreover, the context involves prayer, and it doesn't make much sense to imagine that Paul would make a point to pray in a naturally known second language.

So in the end, the entire context of 1 Corinthians 14 contradicts the supposition that tongues was intended solely, or even primarily, for the purpose of facilitating missionary activity. This, in and of itself, has no bearing on the cessetion debate, but it does remove the objection that the purpose of tongues as described in the Bible is significantly different than the use of tongues in modern Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Responsible Pentecostals and charismatics have always insisted upon the strictures of 1 Corinthians 14 being followed, and the strictures that many cessationists have placed upon tongues do not bear scriptural scrutiny.

[1] Although Paul's primarily focus is on what will be heard by others in corporate worship, he does allow a measure of quiet, personal tongues in a worship service in verse 28.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Missionary Use of Tongues:
A Snipe Hunt

One of the difficulties in dealing with the subject of tongues, especially from a cessationist's point of view, is explaining the existence of the gift in Apostolic times. Until the canon was complete, the existence of revelatory gifts made some sense; but why the gift of tongues? A common answer to this question is that tongues were used in a missionary context: at the inception of the church, it was expedient that people from many different language groups be exposed to the gospel in a timely fashion; therefore God gave tongues to those engaged in missions so they could communicate with people whose languages they had not learned.

This "missionary use of tongues" is a popularly held position; even early Pentecostals believed it, thinking that the gift they had been given would enable them to do missions work without learning foreign languages. The attempt actually to do so generally ended in failure, which is one reason why modern tongues were derided as being something different than the biblical precedent. In fact, the alleged missionary use of tongues has absolutely no biblical precedent at all, other than a doubtful interpretation of Acts chapter 2, in which people heard the believers in the Upper Room speaking in their own native languages (Acts 2:6-11). However, these were people who had traveled to Jerusalem to attend the "Feast of Weeks" (Lev. 23:15-16); it is unlikely that they would have been unable to understand either Aramaic or Greek. There is no suggestion in the passage that Peter addressed the crowd in a divinely-inspired language, or that anyone had any difficulty understanding him. It is more likely that God gave the believers the native dialects of the visitors in order to validate the gift, rather than to give the gospel to those who otherwise wouldn't understand it.

1 Corinthians 14

Paul's instructions regarding the gifts of tongues and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14 make clear that tongues, even in the way he was instructing that the gift be used, were not generally used for the purpose of communicating the gospel to people of another language. This is not to say that God can't use tongues in that way, and there is anecdotal evidence that He has done so. It is simply to say that there is no biblical precedent for this use. It is not the primary reason why tongues was given in the first place.

Cessationists strongly emphasize that the overall point of 1 Corinthians 14 is to diminish its importance as compared with the gift of prophecy (often combined with the idea that "prophecy" is to be identified with preaching). That is, in fact, an important theme in the chapter, but it is not the only one. Paul also wants to give guidelines on the proper use of tongues in the context of the church. Paul's first statement directly contradicts that tongues was only used for the "missionary use." "Anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit" (v. 2)

This single verse is so damaging to the "missionary" theory that John MacArthur tried to argue that since Θεω here is anarthrous, that the Corinthians have been speaking to "a god," which is to say, a false god--the tongues-speaking Corinthians are talking to demons! (I nearly drove off the road the first time I heard him actually say this on the radio.) Of course, this argument is virtually identical with the one Jehovah's Witnesses use on John 1:1; the lack of an article here is meaningless. Paul is quite clearly saying that speaking in tongues is not directed toward people nor is it understood by them; it is rather directed toward God. If tongues were for missionary purposes, they would be directed toward people, who would understand them--that would be their function. But Paul quite clearly states that their function is to speak "mysteries" to God. So much for those who claim that there is no biblical precedent for a "private prayer language."

Coming up: more on 1 Corinthians 14.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

To Cease or Not to Cease

Many thanks to Peter Lumpkins for his link to the paper, "Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts," by Vern Sheridan Poythress. I am quite frankly excited about it. Dr. Poythress may call himself a cessationist, and I may call myself a... continuationist, I guess, but I think there's actually only a hairsbreadth of difference in our actual positions.

Poythress argues that while the apostolic gifts were inspired and therefore authoritative, there is room within cessationist theology for modern gifts that are not inspired or authoritative, but nonetheless may be genuine and used by the Holy Spirit. He makes a helpful distinction between discursive gifts (like teaching) that use rational thought processes and direct inferences from Scripture, and are generally accepted by cessationists, and nondiscursive gifts (like words of knowledge) that use non-rational thought processes and are generally not accepted by cessationists. The general concern among cessationists is that if we allow for nondiscursive gifts, we're setting up an authority parallel to (and thus infringing upon) that of the Bible. Poythress writes:
The crucial error is to confuse the involvement of God with lack of involvement of human creatureliness and human sin, and in addition to confuse involvement of God with full divine authority in the product.
What I understand Poythress to be saying here is simply what responsible pentecostals and charismatics have always said: that revelatory gifts such as words of knowledge and prophecy do not have the authority of Scripture, are to be evaluated against Scripture as a test of veracity, and are not to be thought of as infallable. My only quibble with Poythress would merely be over termonology: he appears to associate inspiration with authoritativeness, and thus calls modern gifts "noninspired." One could therefore read the early part of his paper to mean that nondiscursive gifts are simply psychological phenomena, but phenomena that may have a legitimate place in Christian life. However, by the end, he seems to make clear that actual divine revelation may form a part of the nondiscursive gifts, as long as it doesn't contain doctrinal information apart from what is already revealed in Scripture. So once again, regardless of terminology, Poythress comes to a position more or less equivalent to what responsible pentecostals and charismatics have always held.

It would be uncharitable and incorrect for me to argue that Poythress isn't "really" a cessationist, because he allows for modified use of the gifts for today, just as it wouldn't be right for him to argue that I'm not "really" a continuationist, because I believe that modern uses of the gifts are not authoritative in the same way that Scripture is. It's a matter of balance. Charismatics and pentecostals should be cautious not to invest modern prophecies and words of knowledge with the authority that belongs to Scripture alone; cessationists should be open to more of the workings of the Holy Spirit in the present day than they traditionally have done.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Strange Bedfellows?
Republicans and the Religious Right

Joe Carter writes today about the similarities and differences between the political impact of white and black churches in the United States. I was surprised and impressed by the following line:
Both groups, though, need to be more discerning about which party best represents our values. For the past decade, white evangelicals have tended to align too closely with the Republicans and have been disappointed by the outcome. But it is nothing less than scandalous the way that black congregations have tied themselves so closely to the Democrats, even as the party has become openly hostile to Christian values.
It's the "too closely with the Republicans" that gets me, mainly because Joe Carter is one of those whom I would have identified with precisely that policy.

I've been wanting to write about my own political positions and direction for some time now, but it's rather complicated. Suffice to say that while my political instincts have always been pretty conservative, I think that the so-called religious right has been hoodwinked into voting primarily for Republicans based on issues that are largely illusory. I'm referring, of course, to such social issues as opposition to abortion and the gay rights agenda--much of which falls outside the milieu of politics. Most of us would like Roe v. Wade to be overturned, but what if it were? I guarantee you, abortion would remain legal in virtually all the states.

In the meantime, we have thrown our support behind economic conservatives and foreign policy conservatives, many of whom have utter disdain for social issues conservatives. Put simply, they want our votes, but have no interest in passing our agenda; this is why we hear the "Big Tent" mantra every time Republicans start gearing up for general elections. "Big Tent" is simply code for gutting the social issues agenda in order to attract other brands of conservatives who are hostile to that agenda. We don't see Republicans inviting in people who advocate higher taxes or isolationism in the name of a "Big Tent."

How is it that followers of Jesus have, en masse, allied themselves with a party that largely represents the rich and powerful? I'm not saying that the Democrats have dealt with the problems of poverty and social inequality in the right way, but at least there is some attempt to do so. The main point is, should we vote based on issues on which our vote will have little impact, or should we vote on issues on which our vote will have direct impact?

There are two ways for a group to be politically active. One is to throw your support behind the party which you believe represents your interests; that is the position that the religious right has taken for the last quarter-century. It hasn't worked; practically none of their core agenda has been passed. The other way is for that group to throw its support behind individual representatives who share their values, regardless of party affiliation. That way has the failing that it ignores the realities of party politics, in which individual representatives are pressured to follow the party line in order to retain support for reelection. Nonetheless, if evangelical Christians want to be more than a voiceless voting bloc, we're going to have to show a little more political independence.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Problem With Pastoring

I've noticed in the Christian blogging world there is endless debate about how church "should" be done. Various models are examined, debated, and (mostly) rejected as being too traditional, too modern, too postmodern, too wedded to the surrounding culture, too divorced from the surrounding culture, too impractical, too unbiblical, too rigid, too wishy-washy, too masculine, too emasculated, too focused, too dissipated, too structured, too loose, too authoritarian, too consumer-driven, and too trendy.

This occurs because it's easier to type than to do.

I think we need to take a step back. Regardless of the model one chooses (and one always chooses a model--if you don't choose consciously, then you're unconsciously choosing the one you grew up with), ministry is always done by real people with real frailties who are trying to give what they can to other real people with real problems and real issues. I have heard horror stories about abusive pastors who have wrongfully wielded authority and deeply hurt people; I don't deny that this can happen. But most of the pastors I have known--both those of similar and those of different theological persuasion--have been people who have sincerely and honestly tried to minister to their congregations, and most have gone through very tough times in doing so.

Pastors generally have an ideal of how they believe church should be. They want to have an impact on the areas in which they minister; they want to see people saved and lives touched; they want to see hurting people healed and sinful people moved to repentence and restoration. They want others to know the power of God that they've found in their own lives. But all too often, their efforts are frustrated.

This generally doesn't happen on purpose. Few people get up in the morning thinking, "How can I block my pastor's vision today?" But there are people who are extremely needy and can't see beyond their own needs. There are people who can't be motivated to do anything beyond sitting in a pew. There are people who feel that it's their duty to critique the pastor on everything he does. There are people who are engaging in flat-out sin and have to be dealt with. And the church, by its nature, is usually a very conservative institution, fiercely resistant to change. All of these things, and many others, get in the way of what the church should be. And because of the confidentiality that is routine in pastoral ministry, very few people ever know more than a small percentage of what a pastor is having to deal with at any given time. In many ways, it's a very lonely job.

To some degree, it's a pastor's responsibility to get beyond his idealistic perceptions of what he wants the church to be and to do the ministry that actually presents itself to him. But often, in the process, pastors often tend to feel like glorified spiritual babysitters. It's not surprising that some pastors end up with a "Get with the program or leave" mentality. I'm not saying that this is right, but it sometimes seems to be the only way to get beyond the entrenched interests that stifle the true mission of the church.

This is why endless debate over methods and models is misplaced. When people advocate various models, they usually have in mind an ideal group of people, all seriously interested in working toward a common goal, and if the pastor would just implement the right model, the inherent self-motivation of the people would be unleashed and the church would be everything God wants it to be. But this is seldom, if ever, the real situation.

It's okay to discuss various approaches to "doing church," as long as we remember that it's much easier to theorize than to implement ideas in the real world. Cut your pastor a break. He's probably doing the best he can in a situation that's tougher than you think.

Friday, September 15, 2006

New Format and Feed

I've switched over to the new Blogger Beta, which supports categories. Yay! (No more messing around with Technorati tags and wondering why they never update my blog.)

Anyway, there's a new site feed, over in the column at the right. I know my hordes of devoted readers will want to update their Atom feeds right away!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Scot McKnight's The Real Mary

Scot McKnight is soon-to-be releasing a new book entitled The Real Mary. An excerpt of his book is available at

I'd be very interested in any comments anyone has regarding the excerpt. Also, any help anyone may have on posting a PDF file directly into a Blogger blog.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Logical Quandary of Cessationism

There's been a recent skirmish between Adrian Warnock and Dan Phillips of Pyromaniacs on the issue of cessationism (whether or not miraculous spiritual gifts ceased after the Apostolic age), with a little friendly piling-on by David Wayne of Jollyblogger. (The links I've attached to each of the three names will lead the interested reader to all of the relevant posts.) As these things go, it's all been relatively cordial and goodhearted, for which we can all be thankful. I wish I had the time to get into the thick of the debate, but since I don't, I'll offer a little aside that will probably be more helpful in the long run anyway.

The basic premise of cessationism is that the miraculous gifts described in the New Testament were "temporary sign gifts" that ceased at the end of the Apostolic Age - i.e., either with the death of the last Apostle (probably John) or with the completion of the last book of the New Testament Canon (probably Revelation, and probably written near the end of John's life). They didn't continue on in the church because they were never meant to continue. Their purpose was to help establish the credibility of the early church and to assist with early evangelism (e.g., tongues used as a missionary tool to reach people when there hadn't been time to learn the languages). Once the church was established, these "temporary sign gifts" were no longer necessary; moreover, once the canon of Scripture (identified by many cessationists as "that which is perfect" in 1 Corinthians 13:10) was complete, any type of supernaturally given knowledge or communication by God (such as in prophecy, as well as words of knowledge and wisdom) became superfluous and therefore ended. We have, says the cessationist, the final and complete revelation of God through His written Word. We therefore have no need, and should not desire, any direct communication by God outside of the Scriptures.

Why was it that people back then could hear directly from God, but not now?The above is, of course, a very brief sketch of a theological position that has been developed in different ways by different people; I don't pretend that it is a complete and detailed picture, or that all cessationists view their position in precisely these terms, or agree with everything I've written above. However, I think it fairly represents the general position of those who hold to a cessationist viewpoint. If I understand their position correctly, then it seems to me that there is a logical contradiction at its core. Cessationists are forced to hold to a self-contradictory epistemology. The very Scriptures that cessationists appeal to as the foundation of their faith are both a product of, and witness to, exactly the type of "subjective" divine revelation that they have supposedly made obsolete.

The problem with God personally communicating with and through His people, says the cessationist, is that it is subjective: you may have had an experience that you believe came from God, but how can you really know? People from other religions claim to have had spiritual experiences with their deities; by what standard do Christians establish that their experiences are genuine but others are spurious? Even within the faith, many Christians claim to have had revelations from God, and many of these revelations are contradictory with one another; how can we know which revelations are correct? A lot of people have spouted a lot of wierd stuff, claiming it was from the Holy Spirit; how are we to know what, if any, of it is genuine? Doesn't the person claiming to prophesy set himself up as a rival authority to the Scriptures? Does the existence of present-day communication from God imply that the Canon isn't really closed? If so, then what are we supposed to add to it? And of course, this whole line of thinking undermines the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, which is one reason why the Reformed branch of the church tends so heavily toward cessationism.

By contrast, says the cessationist, we have the Bible, the infallable authoritative complete and final written Word of God. Prophets? Prophets? We don't need no stinkin' prophets! (Sorry. I couldn't resist.) Our task now is not the reception of revelation, but rather the interpretation and application of the revelation we've already received. The confusion, the charismania, are gone. Doesn't this make more sense?

The problem with this scenario is that it (correctly) leaves the Bible itself as the authoritative document--but within the Bible itself, personal and, yes, subjective divine revelation happens all over the place. From God walking with Adam in the cool of the day to Jesus presenting Apocalyptic visions to John, God speaks personally to Abraham, to Moses, to Joshua, to Samuel, to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest of the Old Testament prophets. Mary is met by an angel; both Josephs hear from God in dreams; the risen Christ appears to the apostles, blinds and speaks to Saul, directs Ananias to anoint Saul to receive his sight again and to tell him how much he is to suffer for His sake. Paul is directed away from Asia and Bythinia and given a vision of a man from Macedonia. Later, Agabus, in the house of Philip the Evangelist (whose daughters were prophetesses) graphically demonstrates how Paul will be taken prisoner by the Romans. And, as has already been said, John receives visions from Jesus that become the book of Revelation.

Cessationism does not deny any of this. But does it recognize what it has done? It has allowed for an epistemology that it denies in the post-Apostolic age. At one time, evidently, people could hear from the Lord and know it was from the Lord; now, such revelation would be regarded as "subjective" and unreliable. The scriptures themselves are a product of this now-defunct epistemology: people heard from God and put it into writing. It may be argued that this was not always conscious - Paul may well not have known that he was writing authoritative and infallable scripture when he penned Philemon - but in many cases it was undeniably conscious. "The word of the LORD came to" is the formula that often prefaces the Old Testament prophetic writings. We now regard Joseph's dreams and Daniel's interpretations and old Simeon's prophecy over the baby Jesus as genuinely inspired and authoritative; but at the time, they were just subjective perceptions and pronouncements. Why was it that people back then could hear directly from God, but not now?

But that's just the point, says the cessationist. God was doing something special with the Apostles and the writers of Scripture, something we can't emulate if we believe in a closed canon. Yes, the production of authoritative scripture is indeed unique. But I've purposely included people in this list that were neither Apostles nor writers of scripture: both Josephs, Mary, Simeon, Ananias, Agabus, Philip's daughters. No, everybody didn't hear from God all the time, not everybody did at all. But hearing from God was something that did happen. And this is part and parcel of scriptural narrative - and we need to take narratives seriously as a part of the "all scripture" that is "inspired by God" and "profitable for instruction" (2 Timothy 3:16). At the risk of sounding like a postmodernist, Scripture isn't just composed of propositions to be mined and used to form logical arguments and systematic theologies; it's meant to paint a picture of what life among the people of God should be like. I do understand that an event in a narrative does not establish a practice or an experience as normative; but neither should it be written off as irrelevant just because it isn't a part of the "didactic" portions. After all, Paul told Timothy that it was all didactic - didn't he?

So at bottom, the cessationist position amounts to a dispensational point of view. (Reformed readers may want to take a quick breather to lower their blood pressure at this point.) God used to deal with us one way, and now he deals with us another way. And this is asserted, I hate to say it, mainly because it's convenient. Because we don't want to have to deal with all the vagueries of discerning which experiences are true and which ones are false, of distinguishing between the authoritative prophetic word of Scripture and the subordinate prophetic words of other believers. But Scripture doesn't present us with the cut-and-dried world we'd like to be in; it presents us with the messy world in which we actually have to deal with true and false prophets, misuse and abuse - but also Godly and proper use - of spiritual gifts, and other sorts of vagueries. That is the final and authoritative revelation we have. If God were about to switch to a completely different means of dealing with His people, wouldn't this have been a major theme of the New Testament? I would have expected a lot of "metascripture" in Scripture. "A time is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will learn of Me through the words of a book, and never by any other means."

I read something slightly different: "I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live" (John 5:25).

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How Practical is "Practical Preaching"?

On the Leadership Blog Out of Ur, Lee Eclov, pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire in Illinois, discusses what he calls the Bottom Line Fallacy and the Practical Fallacy regarding preaching. The Bottom Line Fallacy might be summarized by Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride: "Skip to the end." All we need is the application; all the biblical, logical, and theoretical reasoning behind it is irrelevant to daily life. The Practical Fallacy is similar: give us a numbered list of application points that we can use to accomplish a practical goal: as songwriter Chris Christian (now I'm really dating myself!) once wrote, "Seven steps to the Holy Spirit / It's easy if you try."

To summarize Lee's points, both fallacies give us the "how" but not the "why." We may get some basic principles on living, but without the "truth trails" that get us to that point, we are likely to be unable to apply the principles in a different situation. Our thinking won't really be changed.

It seems to me that the trouble is even deeper than Lee suggests. The essence of scripture is to be transformational, not merely informational: God wants to change who we are, not just help us to live the lives we're alreadly living more efficiently. I once wondered why God hadn't chosen for the Bible to be written as a systematic theology, rather than a collection of stories, laws, poetry, letters, biographies and histories. If the Bible is supposed to have the answers, I thought, why is it so hard to get to them?

I now believe that God chose for the Bible to be written as it was partly for cultural reasons (various forms of literature speak to people from various cultural backgrounds), but also partly in order to be difficult. It is in grappling with the scripture itself, wrestling with it, that we are changed. We recognize that some of the questions we once asked have no answers in the way we once would have framed the question, because we did not yet have an understanding of the issues. Other questions do have answers, but they are not answers that would have made sense to us until we had grappled with the scriptures involved.

The practical and bottom line mentalities also treat scriptural principles as a means to an end--the end being a life that is better, where "better" is defined by us, as though we were the arbiter of what our lives should be. Scriptural principles are intended to "transform us by the renewing of our minds" and help us to be "conformed to the image of His Son." Almost by definition, this is a development that will not appear positive to us until after the transformation takes place. We have to be transformed to recognize why transformation is a good thing. We want to know, "How can I arrange my circumstances to better suit the life I'd like to have?" God wants us to be changed, so that we're asking, "How can I bring the light of Christ into the situation at hand?" This is not a "practical" consideration, in the terms in which most people understand "practical"; it is, however, "practical" in terms of God's overall plan for this world and our place in it.

This is not to say that preaching should be impractical or should never reach a conclusion. It is not even to say that proper application of biblical principles cannot ever have positive effects from our own human point of view. It is merely to say that the practicality and the conclusion cannot be separated from the transformation God wants to make in us.