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Enjoying God Blog

This is the third and final article responding to Josh Buice’s numerous errors.

Here is an example of Buice’s sweeping generalization of what he thinks charismatics think.

“Modern charismatics function as mystics—always searching for a mystical revelation, dreams, visions, signs, nudges, inner promptings, or some extrabiblical communication and prophecy from God. This must be viewed as a clear denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. Is God’s Word enough? Is the biblical canon sufficient or should we be listening for the “still small voice” of God to be whispered to us in some other way?

Pointing people away from the Bible is the practice of cults—not historic Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church has for centuries pointed people away from the Bible. Other cults do the same thing, but we must remain committed to the clear and authoritative revelation found in the pages of sacred Scripture.”

To begin, I’m a charismatic and I wonder how Buice defines his use of the term “mystic.” He never provides a definition, but I assume he means it is someone who is open to the voice of the Holy Spirit. He contends that we charismatics are “always searching for a mystical revelation.” I wonder how Buice harmonizes his critique with 1 Cor. 14:1 and 14:26? In the former verse, Paul commands us to earnestly desire to prophesy. In the latter, he describes what should happen in advance of a corporate gathering of God’s people. Among the several things he mentions are important for the people of God to experience, he mentions “a revelation.” Clearly, he has in mind the activity of the Spirit in revealing something to a believer that he/she is then to share (prophesy) with the congregation. Whether or not Paul would endorse the idea of “searching” for such a revelation, he clearly believed that such was an important component of corporate worship (see also 1 Cor. 14:30). Given the fact that whether one receives a revelation is entirely the responsibility of the Holy Spirit and not something a believer can control or induce, the word “searching” strikes me as inappropriate. We don’t go “searching” for a revelation. The Holy Spirit comes to us with one.

Again, he writes: “Is the biblical canon sufficient or should we be listening for the “still small voice” of God to be whispered to us in some other way?” I’ve already responded to this in my comments concerning the sufficiency of Scripture, so here I will only remind Buice and my readers that it is precisely because I believe in the Bible’s sufficiency that I am constantly “listening” for the still small voice of the Spirit. It is the Bible, and not some wild-eyed charismatic, that tells us the Spirit is speaking and imparting revelation.

I should also say something about the nature of divine “revelation.” Clearly, the foundation or basis of all prophetic ministry is the revelatory work of the Spirit. In other words, prophecy is always the communication of something the Holy Spirit has “revealed” or disclosed to a person. In Acts 2 this revelatory work of the Spirit is expressed in dreams and visions (Acts 2:18). In Corinthians 14:26 Paul says that when Christians “come together” for a corporate assembly, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (emphasis mine). Later, in 14:30, Paul makes it clear that a person prophesies only upon reception of a spontaneous revelation from the Spirit. I use the word “spontaneous” in this case because Paul envisions “a revelation” coming to someone sitting in the meeting while yet another has already begun to speak.

Evangelicals often have a knee-jerk reaction to the use of the word revelation based on the mistaken assumption that all divine revelation is canonical. The idea that God might still be providing his people with “revelation” of any sort is thought to suggest, if not require, a repudiation of the notion that what we have already received in canonical and inspired form in the Bible is sufficient. If God has supplied us in Scripture itself with everything necessary for life and godliness, what need would there be for him to reveal anything beyond what we already possess?

Part of the problem is in the way that we employ the term “revelation” and the verb “to reveal.” The verb “to reveal” (apokaluptō) occurs 26x in the NT and the noun “revelation” occurs 18x. In every relevant instance the reference is to divine activity; never to human communication.

However, not every act of divine revelation is equal in authority. The tendency among some is to improperly assume that any time a “revelation” is granted it bears the same universally binding authority, sufficient to warrant its inclusion in the biblical canon. But divine “revelation” comes in a variety of different forms. For example, consider Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:15. There were present in Philippi some who took issue with certain elements in Paul’s teaching. He appeals to all who are “mature” to “think” as he does. If some do not, Paul is confident that “God will reveal” to them the error of their way and bring them into conformity with apostolic truth. We see from a text like this that God can “reveal” to a Christian or in some manner disclose to their minds truths that no one would ever regard as canonical or bearing the authoritative weight of inspired biblical texts. The Spirit, instead, would bring something to mind spontaneously, some insight or truth designed exclusively for them and never intended by God to be taken as universally authoritative or binding on the conscience of other believers.

Jesus employed the verb “to reveal” to describe his own gracious activity in making known the Father to those who previously had no saving knowledge of him (Matt. 11:25-27). But surely no one would insist that the insight given to such folk should be written down and preserved as canonical for subsequent generations of Christians. Paul again uses the language of “revelation” to describe the activity of God in making known the reality of divine wrath against those “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Thus, God’s act of divine disclosure is again unrelated to the inspiration of texts that carry an intrinsic authority.

In view of this, D. A. Carson has rightly pointed out that not all “revelatory” activity of God comes to us as Scripture quality, divinely authoritative, canonical truth. Thus, says Carson, “when Paul presupposes in 1 Corinthians 14:30 that the gift of prophecy depends on a revelation, we are not limited to a form of authoritative revelation that threatens the finality of the canon. To argue in such a way is to confuse the terminology of Protestant systematic theology with the terminology of the Scripture writers” (Showing the Spirit, 163).

Buice also points to Acts 21 as evidence that NT prophecy is the same as that in the OT and thus must be infallible. He writes:

“In the case of Agabus, he didn’t provide a fallible prophecy. In Acts 21:11, Agabus predicts that the Jews would bind Paul with his belt and hand him over to the Gentiles. Later in the chapter, Luke reveals that Paul was seized by a mob and after his arrest, the commander ordered Paul to be bound with two chains (Acts 21:33). How is that an incorrect or false prophecy? Everything predicted by Agabus transpired. Just because Luke leaves out some of the details in his narrative doesn’t mean that Agabus provided a false prophecy or that he got it wrong. No, he actually got it right. Agabus wasn’t a false prophet, but a true prophet of God.”

There are so many errors in this statement that I don’t know where to begin.

Notice that there are two specific elements in Agabus’s prophecy: First, “the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt,” and second, they, the Jews, will “deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (v. 11). Contrary to Buice, in both cases, Agabus was wrong!

Let’s look at them in turn. First, Luke tells us twice that it wasn’t the Jews who bound Paul but rather the Romans. Note again: Agabus didn’t prophesy that “Paul will be bound” but rather “the Jews at Jerusalem will bind” him (emphasis mine). Yet we read in Acts 21:33 that “the [Roman] tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains.” Again, in Acts 22:29 the tribune was afraid for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that “he [the Roman tribune] had bound him.”

Then, second, Agabus said that the Jews “will deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles”. Wayne Grudem has correctly pointed out that in the 119 other instances of this word “deliver” in the NT, every one of them describes an act that is conscious and intentional and willing. In his commentary on Acts, Darrell Bock writes: “The reference to Jewish involvement in the binding here is ‘causative’ in force: the Jews will not physically bind Paul but will be responsible for his being arrested (21:27,30,33). The prophecy is accurate in this sense and is not to be pressed too literally” (Acts 6;38). O. Palmer Robertson echoes Bock and contends that the interpretation I’ve placed on the story is an example of “precisionism” (The Final Word, 114). Once more, Bock argued that “As predicted in general terms in 21:11, a Jewish reaction has led to Paul being bound” (653).

The problem with Bock’s and Robertson’s interpretation is that it is not what Agabus said. He did not speak in generalities but in very specific language! He said the Jews themselves will consciously and deliberately “deliver” over Paul to the Gentiles. The fact is, they did no such thing. They first tried to kill him (v. 31), making it necessary for the Romans, i.e., the Gentiles, to rescue him from their clutches. Luke says in v. 35 that the Romans had to “carry” Paul to safety.

Would it not make much better sense if we understand Agabus to have received a revelation, perhaps a vision, of Paul surrounded by an angry Jewish mob, bound hand and foot, and then in Gentile custody, which he interpreted as meaning that the Jews would bind him and deliver him to the Gentiles? Of course, it is true that Agabus is never said to have told Paul, based on this revelation, that he should not go to Jerusalem, but Luke and his other traveling companions and most if not all at Caesarea did. One can only assume that Agabus would have added his voice to this chorus.

The best explanation is that Agabus himself collapsed his own interpretation into the divine revelation and failed to differentiate between the two, and then spoke as if God had revealed both to him. In other words, he believed that what he saw meant that the Jews would do these two things and spoke it forth as the word of the Spirit. Luke simply records what Agabus said without necessarily endorsing the interpretation that Agabus had placed upon the details.

Those who take issue with my understanding of this story invariably point to Acts 28:17. There we read:

“After three days he [Paul] called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, ‘Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.’”

The argument that this passage refers to the literal fulfillment of Agabus’s prophecy fails to note that Paul is describing his transfer “out of” (ek) Jerusalem into the Roman judicial system at Caesarea (23:12-35) and not the events associated with the mob scene in Acts 21:27-36. In the book, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, one of the contributors, Robert Saucy, insists that “it will not do to argue . . . that Paul was actually describing the time when he was secretly escorted out of Jerusalem by the Romans to Caesarea (23:12-35), for Paul was already ‘handed over to the Romans’ before he left Jerusalem” (231). But as I note in my response to Saucy, “Paul’s point in 28:17 is simply that he was transferred from Roman custody in Jerusalem into Roman custody in Caesarea. The fact that Paul was already, in some sense, in ‘the hands of the Romans’ in Jerusalem does not preclude his using the same terminology in referring to his transfer to Caesarea and the jurisdiction of Felix” (322).

One final point should be made. I find it remarkably ironic that cessationists insist on arguing that we are pressing the details of Agabus’ word and that we should not expect such precision in the fulfillment of a prophecy, only then to constantly criticize and eventually reject the legitimacy of charismatic prophetic ministry today on the basis of what they see as the frequent failure to get all the details exactly right! Why do they grant Agabus leeway that they deny to us? In other words, they allow Agabus to make small errors but not contemporary continuationists! I find that oddly, and sadly, inconsistent.

To continue, Buice says:

“This belief that prophecy continues today has given rise to what has become known as the heavenly tourism genre in contemporary evangelicalism where people claim to go to heaven (or in some strange cases, to hell) and return with a fascinating story that’s published in books.”

To blame “the heavenly tourism genre” on belief in the contemporary validity of prophecy is ridiculous. There is nothing in the nature of this gift that requires belief in “heavenly tourism.”

Again, he writes:

“We must be crystal clear about the fact that there is no such thing as fallible and non-authoritative prophecy. We have a category for that and it’s called “false prophecy” which is taught by a false prophet.”

It should be pointed out that the language of “false prophet” is used exclusively in the NT for the unregenerate. These are the people who deny the incarnation and deity of Christ (see 1 John 4:1-6). A Christian who prophesies and perhaps misses something or makes a minor error is not a false prophet. I encourage anyone who wants to delve more deeply into this to read the relevant chapter in my book, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Comprehensive Guide (Zondervan). If I’m wrong, please tell me, but I’m almost certain that Buice has not done so.

Finally, Buice cites the ministry of Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) as an example of someone who “stood firm against the error of continuationism.” He may be correct. Spurgeon was probably a theological cessationist. But he was a practicing charismatic! Consider these examples from his autobiography.

Spurgeon tells of an incident in the middle of his sermon where he paused and pointed at a man whom he accused of taking an unjust profit on Sunday, of all days! The culprit later described the event to a friend:

“Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul’” (Autobiography, II:226-27).

Spurgeon then adds this comment:

“I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, ‘The preacher told us just what we said to one another when we went in at the door’” (Ibid.).

On another occasion, Spurgeon broke off his sermon and pointed at a young man, declaring: “Young man, those gloves you are wearing have not been paid for: you have stolen them from your employer” (2:60). After the service the man brought the gloves to Spurgeon and asked that he not tell his mother, who would be heartbroken to discover that her son was a thief!

What are we to make of this? By all accounts, Spurgeon was a cessationist. If asked, he likely would have denied that revelatory gifts such as word of knowledge and prophecy were still operative in the church. And yet his own experience in the pulpit stands as witness against his theology, a theology that we have come to see is lacking in biblical support. The most probable explanation is that a “manifestation” of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:7) was present through Spurgeon, like unto that of which we read in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25. Although he would not himself have labeled it as such, I’m inclined to think that Spurgeon exercised either the gift of prophecy or the word of knowledge (1 Cor. 12:8). Failure to precisely identify the phenomenon does not alter the reality of what the Holy Spirit accomplished through him.

I would happily welcome any response or pushback from Buice or anyone else who has a problem with my understanding of Scripture on this point. Blessings to All!

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