I wrote up three posts explaining why I believe continuationism, or the belief signs and wonders spiritual gifts should be a continual occurrence within the church, is not just a secondary issue in Christian faith and practice. You can read them in order here, PART 1, PART 2, and PART 3.
My articles generated a number of questions and objections from detractors. That is understandable of course; because I don’t think people have thought about the implications of continuationism and the deleterious affect within the Church. My goal with this post is to answer a few questions and respond to the objections.
Are you saying continuationists are heretics?
I was asked this question by a number of folks shortly after I posted my first article. In fact, that was the first question I received from a BTWN contributor who says he is a continuationist. My immediate answer is no. A person who affirms continuationism is not a heretic. One will quickly respond by saying, “Well, if you think that continuationists are not heretics, then continuationism IS a secondary issue. You refuted your own thesis, Fred!” Fair enough. So let me back up and offer some clarity with a couple of concepts.
Essential and Non-essential
First, I realize upon hearing “non-essential issue” people already have in mind the idea of those doctrines that pertain to Christian orthodoxy. In other words, essential doctrines are those doctrines a Christian must absolutely affirm in order to be a Christian. For instance, the virgin birth of Christ, the full deity of Jesus Christ, His bodily resurrection from the dead, and the Trinity. Non-essential doctrines are those doctrines folks can have disagreement with each other and yet still be considered orthodox Christians. For example, infant baptism as opposed to believer’s baptism, amillennialism verse premillennialism, the timing of the rapture, and elder ruled churches instead of congregational ruled churches.
Certainly one does not need to affirm all of the essentials of orthodox Christianity in order to be saved. That being, a person doesn’t need to affirm the Trinity or Christ’s virgin birth so as to receive salvation. Think about it. Who even had those things in mind when he or she were saved? All I knew at the time was that I was a sinner, I was under God’s wrath, and the only hope I had was Jesus Christ’s righteousness. I couldn’t have articulated the historic doctrine of the Trinity if my life depended upon it.
Once I gave my life to Christ, however, those essential doctrines began to fall into place. The Holy Spirit now abides in me and the Spirit leads me, as well as every Christian, in all truth (John 16:13). When I hear sound doctrine, I resonate with that sound doctrine because the Holy Spirit affirms it to me. That is what it means to be sanctified in the truth (John 17:17).
Now, having stated all of that, it is important to bear in mind that just because some teaching isn’t necessarily essential for salvation doesn’t mean it is non-essential. Doctrine not only affects our belief, but also our life and practice. Or put another way, how we as Christians live out our faith. I stated in my second article that just because a doctrine isn’t immediately damning, or we could say heretical, doesn’t mean it is non-essential. I gave for example the doctrine of sola scriptura. One doesn’t have to affirm sola scriptura in order to be a Christian. But, one’s affirmation, or lack of affirmation, of sola scriptura will affect that person’s spiritual life, correct?
Take another example. Can one adhere to the views of higher criticism and be a Christian? Does it really matter if you believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch or whether it was written by a number of individuals identified as JEPD and compiled much later in Israel’s history? Does it really matter to our Christian sanctification if one thinks the book of Daniel was written just 150 years before Christ instead of during the 70 years captivity in 586 BC? Or that the NT authors personally wrote the books that bear their names in the decades immediately following the ministry of Christ? Or were they written by unknown individuals in the second and third centuries?
While it is true that higher critical ideas are “non-essential,” it is really only to a degree. Eventually, they spill into what one believes as a Christian and begins to distort the essentials of Christian orthodoxy. I believe the same thing happens with continuationism. One may affirm doctrinal orthodoxy, but continuationism will begin distorting not only orthodoxy, but one’s life and practice as a believer. Individuals who can’t speak in tongues or never experience signs and wonders, spiral into doubt regarding their salvation and the power of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of revelation becomes warped as personal hunches and speculative guesses are elevated to prophetic words from God. Disturbing behavior like falling down or shaking uncontrollably can never be questioned as legitimate, because who’s to say how God will manifest in a person’s life?
Continuationism and the Supernatural
Secondly, I believe a lot of the folks who insist they are continuationists are really conflating continuationism with a belief in the supernatural. In other words, they really are not practicing continuationists. In their thinking, they don’t want to put “God in a box,” or suggest He is unable to still operate in the way the NT records with signs and wonders.
As a Christian who believes the miraculous apostolic signs and wonders gifts have fulfilled their purpose and ceased at the close of the first century, I very much affirm the supernatural work of God. When I say the sign gifts have ceased, I’m not saying God ceased His supernatural activity. He is directing His creation (Colossians 1:15-17), moving through the course of human history as His purposes unfolds towards the new heavens and new earth. I would further affirm the activity of the angelic realm, both evil and elect. I believe God answers prayers, many times in unusual ways we at times never expect. So the notion that ceassationism ignores, or denies, the supernatural is not true. Every Christian must have a robust belief in the supernatural. However, there is a profound difference between believing God, Satan, and angels are at work in the world and saying signs and wonders like tongues, healings, and prophesies are happening everyday on a regular basis among Christians.
The Examples You Provide in Your Articles are a Genetic Fallacy
Another objection I received was that the examples I provide illustrating the lunacy of continuationist practice are a genetic fallacy. The objection wasn’t entirely clear to me in regards to my articles. The objector seemed troubled by my pointing out how Protestant continuationists readily embrace Catholics, because both groups similarly share continuationist views. Hopefully I am understanding the objection correctly, but I was not saying that Roman Catholicism is the reason baby preachers exist in various Pentecostal churches, or strange manifestations regularly occur among continuationists of all stripes, (see my third article). My point was to simply show that those groups who elevate a shared belief in an on-going signs and wonders work of the Spirit, will ignore deep, theological differences. A true work of the Holy Spirit, however, will never join light with darkness.
You Never Proved Your Thesis from the Pages of Scripture
One final complaint was that I didn’t prove my ceassationist views from Scripture. Furthermore, I didn’t prove from Scripture why continuationism is NOT a secondary issue. In other words, I just offered my opinion and never substantiated my thesis biblically. I will admit that my focus wasn’t upon offering detailed, scriptural exegesis of ceassationism or continuationism. Continuationists, however, insist that signs and wonders are still active within the Christian church. That God has not ceased His supernatural activity and faithful Christians can still experience speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, and other divine manifestations of God’s wonder working power.
If signs and wonders level gifts are still happening as continuationists insist, and Christians should expect to see healings, speak in tongues, and receive personal prophesies on a regular, on-going basis, then it is incumbent upon continuationists to demonstrate their claim. I should not have to provide an exegesis of Scripture on that point. It is not on me, the ceassationist, to disprove their claim. A few things need to fall into place.
First, if sign and wonder gifts continue for today, we should expect them to operate according to the dictates of Scripture. Specifically for the gift of tongues and prophesy. However, the overwhelming “manifestation” of just tongues is unbiblical. There is no church anywhere that practices the gift of tongues in the way Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 14. I’m sure someone may claim they know an obscure congregation that practices tongues in the way Paul says the gift must be practiced, but that is never the case. Rather than repenting of such severe misuse of tongues and prophesy, continuationists revise the biblical text to accommodate tongues being mindless, repetitive gibberish and prophesy being fallible.
Secondly, signs and wonders would manifest in all Christian denominations. The Holy Spirit is poured out on all of God’s people. He is the one who distributes the gifts individually as He wills, (1 Corinthians 12:11). That means tongues, healings, and other signs and wonders are not relegated to only continuationist friendly denominations. They would, without exception, be present within Baptist churches, Presbyterian churches, Lutheran churches, independent Bible churches, and any church where God’s people gather for worship. There would be no need to seek an anointing for those gifts; they would manifest as a work of the already present Holy Spirit. But that never happens.
And thirdly, acts of supernatural healing would be certain and undeniable to both believers and unbelievers. They would not be hear-say legends emanating from that dark backwaters of third world jungles. When Peter healed the lame beggar in Acts 3, it was done publicly. The people who witnessed his post-healing were amazed (3:10). There was no doubt as to what happened. Everyone was awed by a man they knew was a crippled beggar. They weren’t skeptical, nor did anyone attempt to debunk the healing.
Rather than going to Scripture to prove my thesis, my thesis could easily be refuted by a genuine move of the Spirit continuationists tell me is happening all the time.