Among other things, fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals differ over the question of miraculous gifts. Nearly all fundamentalist leaders insist that miraculous gifts ended with the apostolic age. Several prominent conservative evangelicals have argued for the continuation of those gifts. Just as importantly, fundamentalists do not pursue public ministry or cooperation with continuationists. Many conservative evangelical leaders, however, are willing to downplay their differences over miraculous gifts in order to perpetuate certain forms of public cooperation.
Doctrines and practices differ in their importance. Therefore, errors differ in their gravity. In the debate between cessationists and continuationists, one party must be in error. The question is, How serious is the error?
To put it a different way, fellowship centers upon something that is shared or held in common. Continuationists and cessationists clearly do not hold certain things in common, which means that they do not have fellowship in those areas. Given that their fellowship has been limited objectively by those differences, how far-reaching are the implications for public cooperation?
Of course, I ask these questions from a cessationist perspective. The answers are complicated by the fact that continuationism is not all one thing. Commonly, the Pentecostal-charismatic movement is viewed in three waves, and the Third Wave is theologically distinguishable from the first two. The Third Wave also displays differences among its own theologians. And, of course, some mild continuationists cannot rightly be classified under any of the three waves. Cessationists think that all versions of continuationism are in error, but the errors are not equally serious.
Errors are to be judged in at least three ways. First, errors that come closer to the gospel tend to be more serious than errors that are remote from the gospel. Second, errors that change large sections of the system of faith are more serious than errors that affect only isolated areas. Third, errors that lead to division among believers (usually because of the actions that they imply) are more serious than errors over which believers can simply agree to disagree.
The older versions of charismatic theology must be classified as quite seriously in error. An example can be found in the theology of the Assemblies of God. According to the Assemblies website, the “Statement of Fundamental Truths” contains sixteen doctrines that are “non-negotiable tenets of faith.” One of them is that “Divine healing is an integral part of the gospel. Deliverance from sickness is provided for in the Atonement, and is the privilege of all believers” (section 12). By locating healing in the atonement and making it part of the gospel, the Assemblies of God automatically elevates the importance of this difference.
The Assemblies’ articulation of tongues-speaking is also bothersome. According to the “Statement of Fundamental Truths,” the “baptism in the Spirit and in fire” is an experience “distinct from and subsequent to the new birth.” All believers should “ardently expect and earnestly seek” this experience. The baptism in the Spirit is what leads to “enduement of power for life and service,” and further of “bestowal of the gifts and their uses in the work of ministry” (section 7). The initial, physical evidence of this baptism in the Spirit is speaking in tongues, which is “the same in essence” with the New Testament gift of tongues (section 8).
What areas of doctrine are affected by this articulation? Obviously, the ministry of the Holy Spirit tops the list. Along with that, however, is a distorted version of the Christian life, as well as a skewed understanding of enablement for ministry. Also, this statement denies spiritual gifts to all believers who have not spoken in tongues. More obliquely but just as veritably, it contains implications for eschatology: the “baptism in fire” that Assemblies members are supposed to “ardently expect and earnestly seek” is, in the context of its scriptural occurrences, an eschatological outpouring of divine wrath.
I think that cessationism is correct and the Assemblies statement is wrong. If it turns out to be the other way around, however, one thing will remain clear. The difference is not incidental. It is very important, indeed.
The theological basis for continuationism shifts in Third Wave theology, but the consequences can be even stranger. Granted, the Vineyard movement eventually repudiated the laughing, barking, and vomiting revivals. These were not much more bizarre, however, than the prophesying, spiritual mapping, and strategic level spiritual warfare in which some Third Wavers have become embroiled.
The weirdness is not difficult to find. Jack Hayford endorses C. Peter Wagner as an expert on spiritual mapping, and Wagner speculates that the emperor of Japan actually had intercourse with a female sex demon. Jack Deere tells of seeing a counselee’s sins written out in blinking letters, then of God driving the car while Deere received a vision on the interstate highway.1 Such tales are manifold in the Third Wave.
Of course, continuationists who are conservative evangelicals are more moderate. For example, Wayne Grudem argues that the gift of prophecy is in operation today, but he defines prophecy as a human report of a revelation, with revelation being understood simply as something that God brings to mind. That being so, prophecy operates at a lower level of authority than either Old Testament prophecy or New Testament Scripture. It can be evaluated, ignored, and even sometimes disobeyed.2
Another conservative evangelical continuationist is John Piper. While he agrees with Grudem’s understanding of prophecy, Piper insists that it is not the usual method for knowing God’s will. He expresses misgivings about the ministry of Third Wave leader John Wimber. He claims never to have personally spoken in tongues, though he certainly allows for it and even wishes that he could. Piper’s stance is obviously a very restrained continuationism.
Both Piper and Grudem are to be commended for their desire to exalt God, center upon the gospel, and discipline their faith and practice by the Word of God. They handle Scripture more carefully than is typical of many charismatics. I value these men for their contribution to the faith, and I would like to give them a pass on this issue if I could.
The problem is that the continuation of miraculous gifts is not simply an incidental difference. If nothing else, Grudem and Piper (joined by others) argue for definitions of prophecy and revelation that are seriously flawed. Oddly, cessationists and some mainstream charismatics agree on this point.3 If we are tempted to dismiss this difference as a quibble, then we need to ask ourselves how important concepts like revelation and prophecy are. Even a cursory reading of Scripture shows that these certainly are very important notions.
Furthermore, the arguments justifying miraculous gifts represent something of a slippery slope. Even the modest continuationism of conservative evangelicals is grounded in the notion that, if the Kingdom has been inaugurated (a point with which some cessationists would agree), then some element of Kingdom authority must be at work in the world today. The presence of the Kingdom is supposed to have implications in relation to physical misery and healing, in relation to death and resurrection, and in relation to demonic oppression and deliverance. All of this is Third Wave boilerplate.
The difference between cessationists and those continuationists who adopt this argument entails a difference over the timing and nature of the inauguration of the Kingdom. Having made the assumption that healings, exorcisms, and even resurrections are manifestations of Kingdom authority, however, Third Wave charismatics find it difficult to say just how far this putative Kingdom authority is supposed to extend. Conservative evangelical continuationists may prefer a more restrained assertion of Kingdom authority, but it is not surprising to find others who carry the same arguments much further.
The same can be said about the gift of prophecy. Once an allowance is made for the continuation of prophecy, how can anyone say whether any particular prophecy is actually from God, short of its explicitly contradicting Scripture? This is not merely a hypothetical question. In 2009, David Wilkerson prophesied that an earth-shattering calamity was about to engulf New York City, spilling over into New Jersey and Connecticut. In response, John Piper opined that Wilkerson’s prophecy “does not resonate with my spirit,” that it doesn’t “smell authentic,” and that elements of it seemed “too prudential.”4
These words exhibit the kind of dilemma in which some continuationists find themselves. On the one hand, they cringe from crediting this kind of prophecy. On the other hand, they cannot simply dismiss it. The result is that their criteria for judging prophecies give every appearance of being made up for the occasion.
Of course, a short essay like this can give neither a full exposition nor a full refutation of the arguments. That is not the point. The point is that the difference between cessationism and continuationism (even the more restrained continuationism of the conservative evangelicals) is a significant difference. It involves more than an argument over whether anyone should ever speak in tongues. The difference involves disagreements about the nature of revelation and prophecy, about the nature of Kingdom authority during the present age, and about the ability to distinguish legitimate exercises of prophecy or Kingdom authority. These disputes may not matter as much as a disagreement over the virgin birth. They may not even matter as much as the question of whether healing is in the atonement. They are nonetheless important.
If this difference is important, at what levels should it limit fellowship or cooperation between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals? That question depends upon a number of considerations. We shall address some of them in the next essay.
1 Jack Deere, Surprised by the Voice of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 14-16, 143-144.
2 Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, revised edition (Wheaton, Crossway, 2000). See also Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 1999).
3 David H. Oldham, “A Biblical Model for New Testament Prophecy in the Local Church,” (D.Min. Diss.: Fuller Theological Seminary, 2000). Oldham is a Third Wave charismatic who writes specifically to refute Grudem’s bifurcation between two different levels of prophetic authority.
4 Piper also expressed concern that Wilkerson’s prophecy handled certain Scriptures in a non-contextual fashion. If, however, Wilkerson’s prophecy actually was from God, then his use of Scripture would fall into the same category as those Scriptures over which exegetes puzzle when they ponder the New Testament’s use of the Old.
Brethren, Let Us Join To Bless
John Cennick (1718-1755)
Brethren, let us join to bless
Christ, the Lord our righteousness;
let our praise to him be given,
high at God’s right hand in heaven.
Son of God, to thee we bow;
thou art Lord, and only thou;
thou the blessèd Virgin’s seed,
glory of thy Church, and head.
Thee the angels ceaseless sing;
thee we praise, our Priest and King;
worthy is thy name of praise,
full of glory, full of grace.
Thou hast the glad tidings brought
of salvation by thee wrought;
wrought to set thy people free,
wrought to bring our souls to thee.
May we follow and adore
thee, our Savior, more and more:
guide and bless us with thy love,
till we join thy saints above.
Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.