Yesterday I rambled a bit about whether I can properly be called an evangelical, and I must say that I remain uncomfortable trying to make that label fit. At the same time, the majority of the people with whom I work closely find that label acceptable. This isn’t a version of “some of my best friends are evangelicals.” These folks are colleagues, board members of an organization I co-founded, and otherwise very close.
I want to recognize one distinction that is rather important. It was pointed out by two commenters, in slightly different ways. Peter Kirk pointed out that there are certain reformed evangelicals who “are trying to restrict the label ‘evangelical’ to themselves, when historically it never has been so restricted.”
Richard H got more specific, pointing out that Wesleyan evangelicals, which constitutes the group I work with the most, don’t fit the bill. And by the way, I had a good time perusing Richard’s blog a bit last night. There’s some good practical stuff there to check out.
Now I point this all out simply to launch my topic today, because I was led to it by this very discussion, and I think that it’s important to see something that is going on here. First we have a term “evangelical” which becomes just a bit too vague for some, so they look at exclusions. Adrian Warnock wants to include certain charismatics under the label, and would like some maneuvering room. (The link relates to his comments on discernment.) Phil Johnson of Pyromaniacs is less than willing to give him that room, and presents a vigorous attack on charismatic doctrinal views in two parts.
What the two men share in common is that they lead with exclusion, even toward one another. The key test is penal substitution, but that is far from enough for Phil Johnson who, despite expressions of friendship, is pretty vigorous in his language of condemnation of charismatic views. Now I personally don’t have any great problem with TeamPyro’s style, though I find it pretty boring. When you exercise excessive vocabulary enough, it loses any power it may have had. There are also very few ways to actually connect in a discussion, since bear the label “liberal charismatic” fairly well, even though it was bestowed on me as a criticism. (I used it in the subtitle of one of my books.)
Yet at the same time if you truly believe that others are embracing dangerous teachings that endanger their spiritual health and even their eternal salvation, you really ought to express that viewpoint strongly. They could use some more strategic use of words, but that’s their problem.
It seems that Phil Johnson is terribly concerned with the excesses of the charismatic movement. In his second post, he says:
A prodigious wacko fringe has always been one of the charismatic movement’s most prominent features. In little more than a century, the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have spun off so many bad doctrines and bizarre characters that I have a thick dictionary in my office just to help me keep track of them all.
Well, color me shocked! Who would have imagined such a thing?
Well, actually, not so much. You see, one of the features of Christianity has been a wacko fringe. The reason we have such wonderful texts that Mr. Johnson can use to attack charismatic excesses is that there were plenty of such excesses in the early Christian community. Now I want you to note that I don’t use either “prominent” or “most prominent.” The prominence of a particular feature is often a function of one’s perspective. When certain cessationists look at the charismatic movement they see craziness as a prominent feature, or the most prominent one. That doesn’t mean that it is the most prominent feature.
Let’s look at this another way. When Abraham heard God’s voice telling him to leave Ur and go to a place God would show him, was he a sane member of the community, or part of the wacko fringe? Suppose you rent a truck and load up the furniture, gathering your family in your car, and when someone asks you say, “I don’t know where I’m going. God just told me to go.” Are you part of the lunatic fringe or what?
When Jeremiah preached that the Judeans should surrender to the Babylonians, was he a sane part of the community, or was he part of the wacko fringe? Again, let me ask what would happen if you advocated surrender in the face of the enemy in a modern city?
I encountered this question in discussion with a cessationist once:
One person with whom I discussed this issue [modern vs ancient inspiration] on the Internet was offended by this question: When you hear a voice, how do you know it’s the voice of God? He said, We’re not talking about hearing voices. We’re talking about the Bible!
But when God tells Abraham to leave his country and go to a place he didn’t know, he was hearing a voice. He may have been having a vision. We don’t know. But whether it was an ordinary voice, or a voice in a vision, he heard a voice. But he didn’t have any written scripture. Because he followed the voice that he heard, we have scripture. There are many, many people in the Bible who heard voices. If you are disturbed by people hearing voices, you probably should choose something other than the Bible as your reading material.
(From my book When People Speak for God.)
What we seek in the modern world is a safe, controlled Christianity. This can be accomplished in many different ways. We can provide a totally self contained doctrinal system which everyone is required to follow in order to be saved. I call this “salvation by correct doctrine.” It is no better than salvation by works; it is an intellectual version of earning the favor of God. But the key to the Christian message starts with God loving the world and going out to redeem it–wacko fringe included. His love need not be earned by works, nor by the intellectual work of believing a precise doctrinal system.
Throughout the history of Christianity, and I suspect many other religions, there has always been a conflict between a sense of spiritual adventure and the safety of an institutionalized system. Cessationism attempts to bring an end to this salubrious conflict after the New Testament, but there is no foundation for this in scripture. It’s amazing to me that so many people want to call doctrines “scriptural” that come from a small number of texts while ignoring the broad sweep of scripture. Throughout about 2,000 years of scripture we have God’s Spirit moving to guide his people and move them forward, and yet suddenly we use the very record of that interaction to suggest that it must cease.
It’s a safe, stable version of Christianity, but is it really any less “wacko fringe” than those crazy charismatics who generate false prophecy on demand? (By “false prophecy on demand” I refer to the practice of planning a ministry session in which everyone who lines up to hear from a “visiting prophet” is to hear a word from the Lord. Note that I don’t mean that all ministry called prophetic means “false” prophecy.) I mean, it starts with the demand that, in order to be saved, a loving God requires that you comprehend and accept that God regards you as righteous (not that this righteousness is imparted to you), and does so because Jesus, his son, was righteous. He killed his son because of his anger at your sin, which his son was carrying in some way. Thus atonement was accomplished. There are certainly quite a number of people who regard that theology as “wacko,” thought “fringe” would require a count.
Now I personally don’t agree. I think it is one metaphorical way to understand God’s love and forgiveness expressed in the atonement, but one person’s wacko fringe is another person’s core belief system. The only thing I find out of line here is the claim that it is the one and only way to understand salvation.
On the other hand, I agree that many charismatics have gone well over the edge. In our own experience with the death of our son we had experiences that varied from solid support in prayer to the other extreme of an individual who claimed God had told him that anyone he laid hands on and prayed for would be cured of cancer. He laid hands on our son and prayed, but no healing resulted. Our son, only 13 at the time, was pretty disturbed by the experience. (Understand that neither his mother nor I were present on that occasion, or we would have done something about it.) The point is that I’m personally aware of the excesses that are possible in the charismatic movement, and of how damaging they can be. There is a serious need for the application of discernment.
There is one way to guarantee no excesses in spiritual matters–shut them all down. That is what every doctrinally tense movement has done. These activities are driven by a combination of fear and a love of power. Very often people can justly claim that they fear the injury that will result if people’s bad ideas are not corrected. But the correction can easily eliminate all the life. The cure is worth than the disease.
That is the price of cessationism. You have no more nuts claiming to hear from God, but at the same time you undermine the very basis of revelation. At the same time as you deny modern miracles, and often by the same means, you undermine the case for ancient miracles. Without the presence and activity of the Spirit there is very little point to Christianity. Cessationists offer a way to be right with a God who is largely absent. They purchase safety at the absence of life and growth. All that is preserved is the doctrinal shell.
Now I want to conclude by saying that I do not regard all reformed theologians in this way. I know that for many there is life along with the doctrine. But for a few, those who spend their time attacking the other streams, all that is left is a doctrinal shell, a dull, boring, dead Christianity.
I prefer a Christianity that is both alive and dangerous. I don’t even mind being embarrassed from time to time by various excesses. In fact, I often am embarrassed. I’m going to challenge those who engage in such practices, but I’m not sorry that it’s possible for them to occur, because it shows a stream that is still capable of change, and therefore of life.