Saturday, 11 July 2009

Charismatic Influences: Is the Bible Sufficient for the Church Today?

Charismatic movements and influences have impacted many sections of the church, producing a ‘new tradition’ often founded on experience, dynamic worship, the expectation that God will speak through prophetic utterances in gatherings and manifestations of signs and wonders. Commonly, a polarisation of views occurs during conflict and thus an opposing ‘cessationist’ group has emerged, particularly among those who hold reformed and dispensationalist positions. Charismatic claims are judged unbiblical and are seen to undermine a New Testament understanding of authority. Wayne Grudem identifies a third group of ‘Christians who are neither ‘charismatic’ nor ‘cessationist’ and are simply unsure about what to think of the gift of prophecy.’[1] Even if we are undecided, looking briefly at the two groups and their relation to our subject will provide a tool for the examination of their consequences for our faith.
The cessationist argument is cogently defended by Robert L. Reymond[2] and O. Palmer Robertson, with the proposition that prophecy and supernatural signs are erroneous because these gifts ceased with the end of the apostolic era and canonical closure. Spirit-empowered revelations are seen as unnecessary; as Robertson summarises, ‘Christ is the final word’ and our goal ‘is living out of the sufficiency of the final word as it is found in the Christ of the Scriptures.’[3] A dual or competing source of revelation is rejected as a distraction from the uniquely inspired Bible as our sole foundation for authority.
Wayne Grudem and Jack Deere[4] persuasively expound a charismatic position and defend from Scripture a well-thought-through argument to encourage the exercise of spiritual gifts. Grudem hopes to present a middle ground[5] position and while he addresses certain charismatic excesses it would be fair to conclude that his proposition sits comfortably with those endorsing continuing prophetic revelation. The focus of discussion centres on chapters twelve to fourteen of 1 Corinthians and revelations are seen as a supernatural mixture of God revealing and someone speaking fallibly ‘something God brings to the mind.’[6] Potential objections regarding the sufficiency of Scripture are anticipated and explanations offered that prophecy is not equal in authority to the Bible and must be tested by the written word of God.[7] In a sense, providing revelations do not contradict Scripture, they can be sifted and accepted; but this opens the door for subjective impressions that can be neither verified nor falsified.

A. Sufficiency: Is Scripture Our Only, Supreme Authority?

What sense do we make of these polarised views where the issues at stake clearly relate to knowing God, authority and our submission? In many ways the charismatic emphasis on the inerrant authority of Scripture and endorsement of the Bible as being an all-sufficient revelation of God is misleading. The expectation of and emphasis on revelations through prophecy moves the locus of authority and interest from Scripture to additional extra-biblical words, in what could fairly be described as a competing source of revelation, the general revealed will in the written Scriptures being supplemented by more specific guidance and understanding through personal revelations. Therefore the logical conclusion of the charismatic position is that the Bible is not the only all-sufficient source of authority. A reassessment of the finality of the authority of Scripture is urgently needed and it must be stressed that the Bible is the only revelation of God today and should occupy an unchallenged and exclusive place in the church. The inevitable result, when the centre of authority is changed and biblical sufficiency is undermined, is that subjectivism is subconsciously welcomed and human reason ascends the throne of final authority.
The theme of redemptive history needs revisiting because this is perhaps the most persuasive argument by which to demonstrate that prophetic revelation and the offices of apostle and prophet have ended.[8] The definition of prophecy must be freshly reviewed and the suggestion by the puritan William Perkins moves dialogue in a different direction altogether. He defined prophecy as a duty of the Christian minister whereby ‘there are two parts: preaching the Word and public prayer.’[9] Furthermore, confusion concerning the sufficiency of the written word may be either eliminated or increased by the place we assign, within the life of the church, to the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination. The puritan John Owen is helpful in clarifying contemporary debate because he wrestled with the enthusiasm of the Quakers and their supposed revelations, and stated that ‘if their private revelations agree with Scripture, they are needless, and if they disagree, they are false.’[10] Why expend time and effort on fallible subjective impressions when we can have a sure foundation of the unchanging infallible Scriptures?


Solomon foresaw about three thousand years ago that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’[11] and this is a timely reminder to forewarn us when we face the new challenges that will emerge in the coming decades. The disputes between Augustine and Pelagius, or Athanasius and Arius, caused the truth to shine even more clearly and provide encouragement to press on through doctrinal conflict. It is hard to see a way through the maze of confusion which exists today, unless there is a fresh Exodus event which, by breaking the philosophical enslavement of the Bible, will lead toward the crucial doctrine of Scripture alone, founded on the rock of God’s unchanging revelation. Paul wrote from his prison cell at the end of his life to exhort Timothy:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.[12]

The church father John Chrysostom paraphrased these same words written to Timothy: ‘You have Scripture for a master instead of me; from there you can learn whatever you need to know.’[13]

[1] Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1988, repr. 2000), p 17.
[2] Robert L. Reymond, What about Continuing Revelations and Miracles in the Presbyterian Church Today? (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1977).
[3] O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993, repr. 2004), p 135.
[4] Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1993).
[5] Wayne Grudem, op cit, pp 17-19.
[6] Wayne Grudem, ‘The Source of Prophecies: Something God Brings to Mind’ (in) Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1988, repr. 2000).
[7] Wayne Grudem, ‘Appendix C: The Sufficiency of Scripture’ (in) Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1988, repr. 2000).
[8] An alternative Pentecostal position disagreeing with this assertion is presented by Jon Ruthven, ‘The Foundational Gifts of Ephesians 2:20’, Journal of Pentecostal Theology (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), vol. 10, no. 2.
[9] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1592, repr. 1996), p 7.
[10] John Owen, ‘John Owen on Communication from God’ (in) J. I. Packer, Among God’s Giants: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1991, repr. 2000), p 113.
[11] Ecclesiastes 1:9 quoted from English Standard Version of the Holy Bible (London: Collins, 2002).
[12] 2 Timothy 3:16-17 from English Standard Version (ESV), (London: Harper Collins, 2002).
[13] William Whitaker, A Disputation on Holy Scripture (Cambridge: The University Press, 1849), p 637.