A slight change of plans.
In Part 1 of this series, I said that in Part 2 I’d write about how God speaks today, and how the current way is better than the old way. But in the meantime I’ve gotten some really good questions from a friend, and I’d like to insert a longer-than-usual post here to respond to them.
My friend had three questions—
- “Is it possible that the contrast [described in Heb 1.1-2] is not exclusive, but the change is that God didn’t speak through his son in the past (though some would posit he did through Christophanies), and now he has?”
- Or could “the focus of the change could have been on salvation–previously presented by prophets and the law, later presented by the incarnation and work of Jesus”?
- “Also, what about the many passages predicting prophecy, dreams, and visions as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit? I’m curious how you account for God speaking in those? (Acts 2:33, 10:45; Rom. 5:5)”
Good questions, all.
I’ll observe that this takes us to a full-scale discussion of the disagreement between continuationists and cessationists, which I can’t possibly address sufficiently in a blog post or two. But I hope to lay down the seeds of my thought process enough that they can sprout in your mind if you’d like to seek a harvest in the topic.
So, to be brief, I find the options in the first and second questions above insufficient with regard to all the major disciplines of theology—
- Exegetical Theology
- I note that all the major English versions follow the KJV in rendering the main verb here as a perfect tense, “God has spoken,” implying completed action in the past. I also note, however, that the Greek tense is not perfect, but aorist—and the Greek bodies among us know that the aorist usually has little to no temporal significance in Koine; it’s the default tense, the tense you use when you’re not emphasizing tense. Yet all the major English versions render it as perfect. Why is that? I suspect that like me they see the strongly constrastive structure of the passage and conclude that the contrast is between speaking partially through mediators and speaking completely and directly in the divine Son.
- I also note that larger context (the book of Hebrews) is all about the qualitative difference between the Old Covenant and the New—because Jesus is superior as to his person (Heb 1-4) and his work (Heb 5-10). This is all-encompassing and should not be restricted to just a part of God’s plan or providential activity.
- Biblical Theology
- The Bible tells many stories, but through them it is telling just one Big Story, or metanarrative—and that story is about Christ as the perfect and complete revelation of the Father. I’ve written on that before, how the Old Testament purposely creates in us a longing for the very offices that Christ perfectly fills—one of which is Prophet.
- Hebrews 1.1-2 is the climax of that larger story—Christ, in permanently uniting the divine nature and the human nature in a single person, unites his people with God. So John tells us that the Son is the “Word” (logos) (Jn 1.1) who perfectly “exegetes” the Father (Jn 1.18). We should not seek to minimize this climax by making it anything less than the center of the story.
- Systematic Theology:
- I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself in the previous paragraphs, noting the “person” and “natures” and “work” of the divine Son. Those terms more properly belong to systematic theology.
- And what does Christology tell us? That Christ is perfect and complete in every way, and that he thereby perfectly reveals the Father. I ask, what part of God’s revelation of himself in Christ may we find insufficient? What remains to be said? I’m not trying to sound like the fabled head of the US Patent Office who allegedly suggested in 1889 that the office should be shut down because everything had already been invented. We’re not talking about human inventors here; we’re talking about the Son, one of whose offices is to reveal the Father perfectly. I’d suggest that there are Christological implications of continuationism, at least in the form promoted by most Pentecostals and Charismatics.
- Historical Theology
- I think it’s noteworthy that until the 20th century, every orthodox church leader that I’m aware of agreed that the Canon was closed because special revelation had ceased. The gift of prophecy, and the concomitant gifts of tongues and interpretation of tongues, disappeared from the practice of the church except in a few cases, which were unanimously accompanied by doctrinal deviancies (Montanism, Paulicianism) that rendered those particular practices suspect even to modern continuationists.
- Practical Theology
- It’s no secret that the last few decades have seen continuationism move from Pentecostal and Charismatic groups to what we might call mainstream conservative evangelicalism. But that change has come with its own set of inconsistencies. Both John Piper and Wayne Grudem, for example, have had to argue that the very nature of prophecy has changed since biblical times and that modern “prophets” can be mistaken. I would argue that what Grudem has done is to find a modern phenomenon that isn’t prophecy, redefine prophecy so as to call the modern phenomenon prophecy, and then claim that the gift of prophecy therefore continues.
Which brings me to my friend’s third question.
What about Joel’s prediction, cited by Peter at Pentecost, that “in the last days” God would “pour out” his Spirit, and there would be a renewed outbreak of prophesying? I suspect that this passage has played a significant part in the continuationist thinking of Piper, Grudem, and their fellow travelers.
- As I’ve noted before, I understand Scripture to say that God does not intend our interpretations of prophetic material to be reliable until the prophecy has been fulfilled, so I don’t think anybody—cessationist or continuationist—can be dogmatic on this point.
- Some interpreters (e.g. E. J. Young) think that Joel’s entire prophecy was fulfilled at Pentecost, and others would say it was fulfilled at or before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. I don’t find those approaches convincing, especially in light of Joel 2.30-31 // Ac 2.19-21.
- So I hold out the possibility that in the runup to the Second Coming, there will be a new outpouring of the prophetic gift.
- But as a pretribulationist, I also (tentatively) understand the Bible to teach that the church will have been removed by the time those gifts appear. Maybe I’m wrong about that.
In the meantime, we all should agree that the Scripture is the overriding authority, and that all of our mental impressions must be subordinated to it. We all should further agree that the Scripture we have is sufficient to direct and inform our relationship with God and our service for him in the days he’s given us. And if that is the case, then the expression “the Lord told me” should mean precisely nothing to the hearer.
Tip o’ the hat to my friend, whose insightful questions prompted all this.
Next time, we’ll consider some ramifications.