Saturday, November 05, 2005


The unanswerable argument

The last few days, I somehow got involved in a debate on the gift of prophecy over at Pyromaniac (here and here). As the words from cessationists and continuists have flown, it's become evident that pretty much everyone, barring one or two fence-sitters, is fully persuaded in their own mind of the truth of their view.

In the continuist camp, we have those who are convinced that the gift of prophecy has not ceased and therefore continues in operation to the present day. Some of these folks, perhaps all, will admit that the type of prophecy that was seen in Biblical times did indeed cease with the end of the apostolic age. Others say that predictive prophecy has largely ceased, but other forms of prophecy are still operational. I've noticed many nuances that distinguish the views of my continuist friends, but they seem to agree on several points: (1) the gift of prophecy continues in some form because (2) the Scriptures nowhere say that prophecy will cease with the close of the apostolic age and (3) their experience has shown them the Holy Spirit is still moving today through some form of the charismatic spiritual gifts: tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, miracles, etc..

Over in the cessationist camp, there is essential agreement that the charismatic gifts ceased once and for all some time ago, most likely with the end of the apostolic age. For evidence, the cessationists (including myself) point out that Scripture does teach eventual cessation (1 Corintians 13), as well as the evident fact that the gift of prophecy that's allegedly in operation today bears little resemblance to the gift that was exercised by the Prophets and Apostles. Additionally, we have strived to demonstrate that with the completion of Old and New Testaments, there is no need for further direct revelation, and thus no further need for the charismatic gifts. To us, the sufficiency of Scripture is the primary reason why we conclude that prophecy and the other gifts are no longer necessary and therefore no longer in operation.

Thus, the two camps find themselves at an impasse. Both sides are firmly entrenched, throughly persuaded of the rightness of their cause. Some folks do find their way from one camp to another, traffic that apparently travels down a two-way street. Both sides are convinced that they are right, and both profess to hold to the inerrent, inspired Scriptures, but yet they have come to such drastically different conclusions regarding the gift of prophecy. How can this be?

Well, books can and have been written to address this issue by far wiser men than yours truly, so I won't endeavor to supersede their work, but I would like to address one issue that I think lies at the crux of the matter: the relationship of Scripture with experience.

Although I am a cessationist, I will not for a minute argue that the experiences we encounter in the Christian life don't matter. Quite the contrary! In fact, I am fully persuaded that God uses all sorts of experiences--including the mundane trials, temptations, and ups and downs of life--to teach His people many things about Him and His ways. Given that God is sovereignly in control of everything that comes to pass, there is a sense in which every experience we have comes from the hand of God, and a sense in which God has a purpose for everything we experience in life.

This is very well and good when we're talking about the mundane trials and troubles of life, but what if I suddenly find my life disrupted by an experience that seems to be well beyond the ordinary: an inexplicable physical healing, an extraordinary material provision, or even a spiritual encounter that seems to bring me far closer to God than ever before? Such experiences can have a tremendous impact, and the fact is that they do happen to a great many people. Many of us will have at least one such extraordinary experience in our lifetime, and some such as myself will have more than that.

As a person who has had a number of extraordinary experiences, I can attest to the tremendous impact they had upon me. I found it to be impossible to take them in stride and carry on with my life as though they had never happened. Instead, I felt compelled to interpret and act upon my experiences in ways that resulted in my making major decisions, including several decisions that continue to have an impact on my life to the present day. During the last couple of weeks, I have described a number of these experiences in this blog. In the case of many of these experiences, I felt an extraordinary, often overwhelming sense that God must have a special purpose for allowing the experience to take place, perhaps a lesson He wanted me to learn or a message He wished to impart to me. When I first experienced speaking in tongues while praying alone at home, or when I had a demonic visitor appear at my bedside one night, or when a young girl was quickly and visibly healed in answer to my prayers, the meaning of these experiences seemed exceedingly clear: God was speaking to me and leading me, and the charismatic gifts of the Spirit mentioned in the New Testament were still in operation. God Himself had seen fit to meet with me in a very special way, so I felt compelled to react in the manner that seemed most appropriate to me. Thus, I cast my lot with the charismatic movement. Such was my experience, and such is the experience of some of the folks I encountered over on Pyromaniac's blog these last few days. My experience, and theirs, was so powerful and real that it just had to have an impact on what I did and believed. How can such experiences be wrong, especially when I could look in the Bible and find chapter-and-verse references that were so very similar to my experiences?

If you've read my blog recently, you know how my story turned out. Insofar as my time in charismaticism is concerned, my story had a miserable ending. My powerful experiences bore fruit alright, but the fruit was 100% rotten. Obviously, I had been deceived, but how? Didn't my experiences line up with Scripture? Didn't I pray that God would show me the right way? Hadn't I asked the Father for spiritual bread? Given that I had, why would He give me a stone instead? What went wrong?

In a nutshell, my error, I think, was this: I had turned the proper priority of Scripture and experience upside-down. Rather than take the teaching of Scriptures as a whole--rightly dividing the Word of truth--and evaluating my experiences in that light, I had used Scripture as a source of prooftexts, often taken grossly out of their context, as validation for my experiences. Thus, I put aside the charts and maps of Scripture and instead allowed the winds and waves of experience to pilot my ship of faith. Rather than subjecting experience to Scripture, I did the reverse: I used Scripture to validate my experience. Instead of practicing sound Biblical exegesis, I had practiced eisegesis: reading whatever I wanted to see into the Scripture.

In so doing, I managed to twist the Christian faith into a shadow of the real thing. For me, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, not the atonement of Jesus Christ, was the center of my faith life. Rather than cultivate spiritual fruit, I pursued greater gifts. Rather than lay up treasure in heaven, I heaped up treasure on earth. The Name of Jesus--the Name above every name--became an incantation with which I bound and rebuked devils and demons. Rather than seek after a greater knowledge of the Scriptures, I ran from one church meeting to another in search of more extraordinary experiences. Such was, sad to say, the fruit of my powerful encounter with the "Holy Spirit."

Such is my testimony. I have no hesitation in sharing it, primarily that God might be glorified as I speak of the great deliverance He granted me in the end, but also as a warning to others who might be tempted to go down the same path that has caused me such misery. However, as I meet folks who are where I was at twenty years ago--excited over the extraordinary spiritual experiences they've had--I find that they, like me, are so enraptured with the apparent joy, peace, and excitement of the experience that they cannot imagine how such a wonderful experience could ever lead to such a miserable end. In my case, Word of Faith doctrine played a major role in leading me astray, so some will attribute that teaching as the key source of my negative experience with charismaticism, but yet it cannot take all the blame: I had my most extraordinary experiences well before I ever heard of the Word of Faith teachings.

In my experience, practically everyone who loves their special experiences will end up disregarding stories such as mine. Although they will often express true, unfeigned sympathy for how my charismatic experience worked out for me, they are confident that their experience will bear better fruit. They have their experience, just as I once had mine, and that is the argument that I cannot answer.

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