We believe that the Church of Jesus Christ was founded on the day of Pentecost and is composed of all those who have believed in him down through the centuries. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to the Church to lead it into all truth. Yet we have in a real sense locked our understanding of the work of God into the pages of Scripture.... If Jesus was telling the truth then we must admit that the Spirit has been teaching the church throughout the past two thousand years...
John Jefferson Davis, theologian at Gordon-Conwell Seminary states it well: "The problem in rejecting all church history and tradition is that the reflections of less gifted minds tend to be substituted for the wisdom of the spiritual and theological giants of the past. . . It merely substitutes new traditions--those of the denominational leader and his followers--for older ones. Anti-creedal and anti-traditional attitudes can lead, theologically and ecclesiastically, to counter-productive efforts that merely ‘reinvent the wheel.’"
We stand in a broad stream of nearly 2000 years of theological and spiritual history. When we build our theological conceptions on the Bible alone, we are showing an incredible arrogance. We are displaying the attitude of the Corinthians whom the Apostle Paul rebuked saying, "What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?" (1 Cor. 14:36) We are saying in effect that in 2000 years God has taught no one but ourselves.
Sola scriptura has long been receiving significant critique from within Protestantism itself. After a few introductory remarks I'd like to share an essay from a Protestant scholar of the Barthian/Bonhofferian/Neo-Orthodox persuasion (cf. also T. F. Torrance and Donald Bloesch, Bernard Ramm) which I think illustrates this. What is Neo-Orthodoxy? While full description is beyond the current scope, Neo-Orthodoxy is distinctive in its emphasis that scripture functions as the Word of God in an individual only insofar as there is active illumination by the Holy Spirit (Orthodox insist the illumination of the Spirit has historical traces in the God-bearing fathers and the phronema of the Church as the true Body of Christ). First a brief explanation of what Neo-Orthodoxy affirms about the contingency of Word to Spirit; Neo-Orthodox Evangelical Donald Bloesch explains:
“When I speak of Word and Spirit, I am not thinking primarily of a book that receives its stamp of approval from the Spirit, though I affirm the decisive role of the Spirit in the inspiration and illumination of Scripture. I am thinking mainly of the living Word in its inseparable unity with Scripture and church proclamation as this is brought home to us by the Spirit in the awakening of faith. It is not the Bible as such but divine revelation that confronts us in the Bible that is the basis and source of spiritual authority... Scripture is the Word of God to those with the eyes to see and ears to hear...” (Donald Bloesch, Word and Spirit, p. 14). “We can speak of a unity or identity of witness and revelation, but...it is not a property of the witness but a matter of divine grace. (Bloesch, Holy Scripture 57) http://www2.luthersem.edu/ctrf/jctr/Vol01/Colyer.htm
"It is only the Spirit who can reveal to us the Messianic identity of Jesus (cf. Matt 16:17). Apart from the Spirit we lapse into either Ebionitism or Docetism …the teachings of philosophical theology rest on the Socratic Method whereby the role of the teacher is to be a midwife… Kierkegaard maintains that because of sin the truth is not in man and consequently must be given to him from without. The teacher therefore must be a Savior, one who not only embodies the truth but also grants the condition to receive the truth” (Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (NY: Harper, 1982), p. 136).
This basic thesis has biblical warrant, and can also be found in patristic writers like St. Ephrem the Syrian centuries before Barth's supposed revolution within Protestant thought.
Scripture *cannot* function as a closed system, either epistemologically (with regard to how we know what we know) or theologically. The true "Word within the words" is mysterious and revealed to us only by the Spirit as we abide in Him: Psalm 119:18-19 "Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Thy law. I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Thy commandments from me." The true Word of God is Jesus, and we do not perceive the Word of God for us in Scripture without His illumination. Nor do we continue to truly receive who trample it underfoot.
"Walk while you have the light, that darkness may not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes" (John 12:35).
"For whoever has, to him shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, 'You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; For the heart of this people [God's chosen people] has become dull, And with their ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their eyes Lest they should see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I should heal them.' But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear" (Matthew 13:12-16).
"My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8)
Without transformation by the Spirit, there really is no such thing as the Church or any perception of the Kingdom of God. Part of what Christ's Church is includes the healing of our eyes that they *can* see -to bring about a healing of our distorted sense perception.
Contextualization and Supposed Textual Autonomy
If the illumination of the Spirit is required to the things of the Spirit (1 Cor 2) we must also recognize that interpreter knowledge and presupposition, language (e.g. scripture comes to us from an ancient one which has tense distinctions etc. completely different than our own that are often left untranslated), cultural assumptions, and so on condition the degree to which one can see scripture as a "thing in itself" (ding an sich) as opposed to a thing we interpret through the screen of our cultural, philosophical, linguistic, and traditional biases (yes, everyone has them).
"...if systematic theology is essentially a “biblical theology” that merely repeats and arranges the statements and categories of Scripture, then which biblical theology is the really biblical one? The very staggering variety of theological systems within the evangelical tradition alone, all claiming an equally high regard for the authority of Scripture, is in itself an indication that there are factors beyond the text itself which shape the Gestalt of the system. In no case does the exegete or theologian come to the text completely free of presuppositions. We can to a degree become more critically aware of our presuppositions, but we cannot eliminate them entirely. There is an inescapable element of personal judgment which shapes the theologian’s vision, just as it does the artist’s or scientist’s" (John Jefferson Davis (“Contextualization and the Nature of Theology”)
At a bare minimum sola scriptura is not autonomous (sola implies autonomy) as set apart from the illuminating grace of the Spirit of God. Even if it could have been, no one can look to the Bible alone even on a horizontal level without gazing beyond it, e.g. to the history of first century Judaism, the historiography of philology from paleo-Canaanite to Aramaic and Koine to gain a glimpse of what the Bible means; hermeneutics (or conversely gazing with a naivete about one's ability to discern the meaning of scripture in a vacuum of such conditions), language, culture, etc. come into play, and contra the type of Enlightenment foundationalist models which were taught in seminaries to the previous generation one needs not just proper technique, exegesis, hermeneutics, etc., but the Spirit of God to perceive the Kingdom of God and its truths, not just logic and a book. Language and logic in and of themselves cannot resolve all conceptual disputes with absolute certainty concerning the meaning of passages, some of which in good commentaries are in and of themselves (according to context, grammar, etc.) amenable to 5, 7, 9... different *hermeneutically legitimage* possible interpretations. Different traditions latch on to the particular interpretations to the exclusion of others that cohere with matters they take "axiomatic," while other traditions repudiate the same axioms and select other interpretations which cohere with *their* traditions, as one might pick up fruit in a supermarket. Sola scriptura is in a sense a myth on methodological grounds -no one can practice it perfectly, least of all without the Spirit of God- and not the least because it is itself an extra-biblical principle not explicitly taught in scripture which conditions Protestant belief and practice.
I have volumes more to say on this, but I'll share an article by Presbyterian author James Sawyer "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Scriptures," in Evangelical Theological Society Far West (May 2003) which illustrates how many issues touch upon sola scriptura, and how problematic it is when understood along foundationalist/rationalist lines.
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Scriptures? James Sawyer, Th.M., Ph.D
While the Evangelical tradition has its roots in the Reformation, the tradition associated with mainstream American evangelicalism has been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment through its employment of Common Sense Epistemology. It has often become so thoroughly rationalistic that the existential presence of the Holy Spirit has been all but denied. This essay traces the history of this rationalism within evangelicalism, and contemporary challenges by major evangelical thinkers as to the inadequacy of this rationalism and the need to return to a recognition of the full-orbed existential ministry of the Spirit in the life of the believer.
While the title for this chapter is a bit tongue-in-cheek, it highlights a continuing problem in the mainstream evangelical academic/theological community: an ongoing rationalism that seeks ultimate certainty and assurance of its knowledge in the objective “facts” of the scripture rather than formally recognizing the existential dynamic of the Holy Spirit in the life the believer. While in our piety we stress the necessity of personal conversion and a “personal relationship” with Christ, this stress on objectivity has effectively locked God into the pages of scripture, often reducing knowledge of divine truth to bare assensus, effectively cutting off (and at points even denying) the believer the personal relationship with God and the witness of the Spirit even in the realm of salvation. The reasons for this propensity are several: a visceral reaction to Pentecostal excesses, a fear factor to the lack of control mechanisms that is associated with the ministry of the Spirit, and the historic epistemological reliance of American Evangelicalism on Scottish Common Sense to frame our outlook on reality.
This study surveys briefly the first two reasons and then 1) focuses on our conservative tendency toward rationalism using both historic and contemporary examples; 2) surveys the underlying reasons that contribute to this rationalism; and 3) concludes with some personal observations. My purpose is to raise for further discussion the question as to whether we need to reconceptualize the way we theologize about the work of the Spirit so that our evangelical academic theologizing reflects more accurately (but not uncritically) the dynamic way the Spirit has been experienced throughout the centuries by the people of God. Or to put it another way, we are seeking an approach from a theological perspective to incorporate the “mysticism of the Spirit” into both the evangelical psyche and its theological matrix in a meaningful way.
The Practical Eschewing of the Spirit by Evangelicalism
The Rise of Pentecostalism
The Azusa Street Revival of 1906 unleashed a new movement in Protestantism, Pentecostalism, which has spread around the globe in the past century and become the dominant form of Protestantism in much of the third world. This dynamic is seen vividly in Latin America. Philip Yancey has quipped that in “Latin America, while the Catholics preached God’s ‘preferential option for the poor,’ the poor embraced Pentecostalism.”1 The Fundamentalist, and later Evangelical, reaction to Pentecostalism was swift and decisive. Pentecostalism insisted on the continuing validity of the “gifts of the Spirit,” specifically, tongues, miracles, and prophecy. Many insisted that if one had not received the gift of tongues one was not in fact born again. Pentecostal services stressed the sensational, many of their healings were suspect. Often their “revelations” were so generic as to be meaningless while others contradicted explicit teaching of scripture. Moreover, their prophecies frequently, if not usually, did not come true. Nevertheless old line Pentecostalism found fertile soil and flourished, fostering new denominations like the Assemblies of God, UPC, The Church of God, Cleveland and the like, whose constituency tended to be poor and uneducated.
In 1960 the Charismatic movement was born in Van Nuys California at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church through the ministry of Dennis Bennett. This event has been called a “shot heard round the world”2 ultimately bringing the “gifts of the Spirit” to mainstream denominations and even into Roman Catholicism. In the 1980’s the Vineyard Movement or the Third Wave of the Spirit crossed even more traditional boundaries gaining adherents among highly visible mainstream evangelicals.
In 1918 B. B. Warfield attacked the Pentecostal movement in his Counterfeit Miracles arguing that the sign gifts had passed out of existence at the end of the apostolic age. Evangelicals have relied on Warfield’s work for generations as the foundation for their continuing opposition to the Pentecostal insistence on the continuing validity of the charismata. Over the decades a closely reasoned “cessationist” theology was constructed. That articulation was so associated with Dallas Seminary that many identified opposition to the charismata with dispensationalism.
The characterization of the charismatics and the charismata ranged from skepticism, ad hoc exegetical arguments demonstrating the supposed teaching of the text of scripture that the sign gifts had ceased, historical surveys following Warfield that associated periodic historical outbreaks of charismatic type gifts with heterodoxy, to the identification of tongues with demonic inspiration. The reaction among mainstream evangelicals was to focus on the objective authority of the word and to deny the validity of the subjective and unverifiable “gifts” of the Spirit.
Fear and the Dynamic Freedom of the Spirit
In opposition to the anthropotheism of the 19th century, Karl Barth thundered “Let God be God!” He insisted upon the freedom of God. While evangelicals have not (unlike the nineteenth century liberals) sought to find God in cultural progress or philosophical speculation, in our tradition we have often effectively locked God into the pages of the text of scripture. He was free to speak there and then, but not free to speak now. For him to say anything beyond scripture has been understood as a denial of the finality of its message.
There are today some within the evangelical tradition who have recognized this reductionistic rationalism of mainstream evangelicalism and are trying to counteract it without embracing the excesses seen in the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition. For example one evangelical pastor recently acknowledged to his congregation that while the Spirit is sovereign and free, that fact causes many of us, including him, not just anxiety but outright fear—fear of loss of control.
Our neo-Pentecostal brethren do have a great phrase we must hold on to: “you must be open to the Spirit”… And that is true. We are too much like good Presbyterians, well-educated people who wear our hair nicely and dress very nicely and are called the frozen chosen… We need to have things properly done. It needs to fit our mold or we have issues. I’m like that. But I need to learn that great phrase “To be open to the Spirit.” Why is that so hard for me? You know why? I have a fear of freedom.3
I am convinced that if we peel away the veneer and rhetoric a major problem that we in ministry have is fear, the fear of the loss of control. Jacques Ellul in The Subversion of Christianity asserted that in every generation the Church exchanges the gospel of grace and the freedom of the Spirit for that which is its polar opposite.4 The outward form of that opposite may be legalism, moralism, or the like. But when one looks beneath the surface the issue is control. The gospel of grace and the ministry of the Spirit produce freedom. The gospel of grace is meant to produce freedom, freedom from the letter that produces death. But we who are in ministry all too often fear freedom. Even the apostle Paul recognized the scandal of grace. In Romans, his objector cries out, “What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?” As Philip Yancey observes, there is a “scent of scandal” surrounding grace.5 Grace and the freedom of the Spirit go hand in hand.
The Fact of Evangelical Rationalism
“…[O]ne of the banes of modern evangelicalism is rationalism.”6 So says evangelical elder statesman Donald Bloesch. Ultimately the evangelical tradition has its roots in the Reformation, and it continues to preserve that tradition as opposed to the liberalism that grew out of the rationalistic anti-supernaturalism of the Enlightenment. Yet the picture is in fact more complicated than is usually perceived. What is usually not realized is that while liberalism “capitulated to the Enlightenment and lost its message,”7 conservative evangelicalism was not unaffected by the Enlightenment. We normally trace the development of Enlightenment rationalism as a direct line from Descartes to Locke and Hume who were followed by Immanuel Kant. Kant is recognized as the father of modern thought epistemologically, achieving in the areas of philosophy and epistemology a revolution as profound as the one Copernicus achieved in astronomy. While Copernicus changed the way western civilization thought of the heavens and astronomy, Kant changed the way men thought—period. He introduced phenomenalism as an epistemology. The implications of phenomenalism had tremendous implications for the development of the modern mind.8 In fact, the origin of the modern mind is often traced to Kant.
The Problem of History: How History and Truth Relate
A key element of the Enlightenment heritage was an identification of truth with that which was absolute and non-contingent. In other words, for something to be considered truth it had to be true at all times for all people in all places. The Enlightenment project involved, as it were, distilling off all contingencies of any so-called truth until only that which was universal and absolute was left. Such a method in practice deified reason and rational processes and relegated history to the level of a problem, rather than being a source of truth. Gotthold Lessing encapsulated the Enlightenment understanding in his maxim, “The accidental truths of history can never become the proof of the necessary truths of reason.”9 Like Decartes, Lessing was a mathematician who sought for absolute certainty in the mathematical sense. Since history could not provide first order certainty it could not provide the basis of any systematic thought. Lessing contended that between the certainty of mathematical formulation and the certainty of historical formulations there was an “ugly, broad ditch” across which he (and presumably others) could not jump.10 The implication for traditional Christianity, based upon the person and work of Jesus Christ in history, was devastating. Enlightenment thinkers understood the truth of religion (Christianity in particular) to be found in its moral teaching—adjudged by reason to be true and able to be immediately experienced—rather than in history from which it arose.
In recent years the whole Enlightenment approach has been challenged particularly with reference to the nature of historical knowledge as opposed to the “necessary truths of reason.” Key in this challenge is the emergence of the discipline of the Sociology of Knowledge. This “is the study of the way in which the production of knowledge is shaped by the social context of thinkers.”11 While not spoken in precisely these terms, there has long been an implicit recognition of the legitimacy of this concept in the historical disciplines. The question “Do the times make the man or does the man make the times?” reflects at least an awareness of the issue of the larger social context out of which great individuals arise. The theological disciplines have been far slower in recognizing the validity of these insights, but as the observations of Stanley Gundry and J. J. Davis12 demonstrate, even among evangelicals this is a growing awareness. Likewise, Alister McGrath has observed:
The exegete brings to the text questions which he or she has been conditioned to ask through his or her experience, social position, political conviction, gender and so forth. The recognition that human thought—whether sociology, theology, ethics, or metaphysics—arises in a specific social context is of fundamental importance to the sociology of knowledge. All social movements, whether religious or secular, including the literature which they produce, involve implicit or explicit ideological perspectives and strategies by which personal experience and social reality may be interpreted and collective needs and interests may be defined and legitimated.13
Common Sense: Evangelicalism’s Enlightenment Legacy
Nancey Murphy has observed that from an epistemological perspective conservative as well as liberal theology fell under the influence of Enlightenment ways of thinking, although for the conservatives the route was not via Kant but via Scottish Common Sense.14 What makes this stream more difficult to recognize as Enlightenment thought is that the theology associated with Common Sense Realism is conservative historic orthodox Christianity, and the worldview is decidedly non-philosophical and non-speculative. Common Sense or Scottish Common Sense is given little attention in the surveys of philosophy, despite the fact that it was the dominant philosophy that held together the very fabric of American society for nearly a century.
Scottish Common Sense Realism was popularized in America by John Witherspoon, the sixth President of Princeton University, where he used it as a weapon to vanquish the continuing influence of the idealism of Jonathan Edwards.15 From Princeton University, the philosophy spread swiftly throughout the land through the higher educational system. The swiftness of its acceptance was due to the fact that Scottish Realism “…contained an immediate conviction of right and wrong, of the reality of the external world, freedom… about which there was no need or warrant for debate or doubt, while its discussion of association, will, and feeling, was lucidity itself, and fitted for our practical country.”16
There were several key assumptions involved in Common Sense Realism. Among these was the objective tangibility of the world as understood by Newtonian physics. Thomas Reid himself had contended that without this key assumption man was cut off from certain knowledge that could be gained by the inductive method.17 The ultimate result of this severance would be hopeless skepticism. Secondly, Common Sense posited the reliability of the senses in perceiving reality.18 By means of one’s senses the individual was able to know “the thing in itself.” Thirdly, there was a strict subject-object dichotomy. From this distinction flowed the characteristic methodology of Common Sense: empiricism. Truth was to be discovered strictly through the inductive method. The empiricism of the method did not, however, belie a materialism. Common Sense saw the universe ruled by natural law, a law that included moral precepts.19 The method assumed that there was objective truth available to man and that such truth was unchanging.20
Common Sense Realism was self-consciously employed by the Princeton theologians as they contributed what has come to be recognized as a uniquely American expression of classic Reformed theology. This bent can be seen particularly in the rationalistic apologetics of B. B. Warfield who saw the task of apologetics not as the culmination of the theological disciplines defending conclusions, but as functioning as the establishing of truth.21
The strict subject-object dichotomy of Common Sense also gave rise to an anti-mystical approach to theology and life, which viewed with suspicion all claims to certainty in matters of faith not grounded in rational processes.
While many examples of Common Sense rationalism could be adduced, four specific examples illustrate the phenomenon.
Common Sense Rationalism & the American Evangelical Community
John Nevin, Philip Schaff, and the Nature of the Eucharist
One historic example of the rationalism within our tradition can be seen in the debate about the nature of the Eucharist during the 1840’s. Philip Schaff, a recent emigrant from his native Switzerland to the United States together with American John Nevin became proponents of what became known as “Mercersburg Theology,” an articulation of Reformed thought that was then current on the continent.22 A part of Nevin’s and Schaff’s theological articulation included an understanding of the Eucharist that followed Calvin, insisting that there was a dynamic personal presence of the Spirit present at the Lord’s Supper. Astonishingly this doctrine drew fire from all corners of American Protestantism, including Lutherans! At this point in the nation’s history, American Protestants of all stripes operating under the assumptions of a worldview informed by Scottish Common Sense were universally committed to a Zwinglian understanding of the Eucharist as strictly a memorial. Charles Hodge went so far at to associate the Mercersburg doctrine with Roman Catholicism.23
The Lordship Salvation Debate
A contemporary issue that demonstrates the underlying rationalism of Evangelicalism is the so-called “Lordship Salvation Debate.” This controversy has raged over the past two decades and even spawned a theological society and a journal dedicated to the concept of “free grace,” as opposed to Lordship Salvation.
The chief architect of the “free grace” position is Zane Hodges who has articulated his position in two works, The Hungry Inherit and The Gospel Under Siege. In Hodges and in those who follow him there is an explicit disavowal of the concept of the witness of the Spirit in the life of the believer.24 As with the Princetonians one finds a decidedly “anti-mystical” tendency that, in effect, strips the Christian life of its relational qualities in order to raise the authority of the scripture as that to which the individual can cling for assurance. In so doing faith is reduced to something close to bare mental assent. The late S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. noted that Hodges “never carefully defines faith.”25 However, in his discussions of faith, his working definition seems often to have reference to notitia, and possibly assensus but without fiducia26 an assent to facts rather than trust in a person.27 As his position is worked out he insists that faith can exist without commitment.28 If pressed, there is a danger of reducing salvation to a kind of magical incantation, or an ex opere operato, whereby, for example, the individual repeats the prayer at the end of the Four Laws, with the barest assent to the gospel, and then is considered to be eternally saved, assured by the promises in the scripture.
Canon Rationale For Evangelicals
In about 1988 I had just completed my first article for publication, an examination of the evangelical rationale for the canon of the New Testament.29 During my research I had discovered, much to my amazement, that the virtually unanimous position of American evangelical theologians and exegetes was that our assurance for the shape of the canon of the New Testament rested ultimately either on the authority of the Church or on the “assured results of higher criticism.” This stands in sharp contrast to the heritage flowing from the Reformation that asserts the “witness of the Spirit” as the basis for the final assurance of the canon. I gave a copy of the article to a friend who was then completing his doctoral study. His reaction to my insistence that we return to the Reformer’s canon apologetic was, “How is this any different from the Mormon’s burning in the bosom?”
The apologetic for the shape of the canon, especially the canon of the New Testament, has been often explored. In the mid-1980’s Christianity Today devoted a featured series of articles on the subject. That series of articles adopted the classical defense of canon articulated by the Princetonians over a century ago.
The Princetonian explanation of the canon-determination process was made in the context of the Roman Catholic claim that the Church had determined the canon. In this they mirrored the concerns of the Reformers. In contrast to Rome, Charles Hodge contended that the principle for canon-determination in the Old Testament was that those books, and only those, which Christ and his apostles recognized as the written word of God, were entitled to be regarded as canonical.30 When it came to the canonicity of the New Testament books, the scriptures offer no such christological endorsement. Here echoing the sentiment of the early church, the issue became the primacy of apostolicity in canon-determination.31 Warfield argued that apostolicity was a somewhat wider concept than strictly apostolic authorship, although in the early church these two issues were often confounded.32 “The principle of canonicity was not apostolic authorship,” contended Warfield, “but imposition by the apostles as law.”33 The practical effect of this subtle distinction is to allow for the inclusion of books such as Mark, Luke, James, Jude, and Hebrews which were not actually penned by the apostles, but were, according to tradition, written under apostolic sanction. Warfield asserted that the canon of scripture was complete when the last book of the New Testament was penned by the apostle John c. A.D. 95. From the divine standpoint the canon of scripture was complete. However, human acceptance of an individual book of that canon hinged upon “authenticating proof of its apostolicity.”34
Elsewhere he concluded:
We rest our acceptance of the New Testament Scriptures as authoritative thus, not on the fact that they are the product of the revelation-age of the church, for so are many other books which we do not thus accept; but on the fact that God’s authoritative agents in founding the church gave them as authoritative to the church which they founded…. It is clear that prophetic and apostolic origin is the very essence of the authority of the Scriptures.35
In yet another place, Warfield explicitly denied that the witness of the Spirit was in any sense direct and supra-rational, insisting that the Spirit works in giving assurance only through rational evidence. Any concept of direct supra-rational assurance was dismissed as “mystic.” In so doing he reduced the concept of the witness of the Spirit to a sanctified rationalism.36
To demonstrate the logic of canonicity, Warfield took as a test-case the epistle of Second Peter, a book whose canonicity had been repeatedly doubted over the centuries, and proceeded to investigate the provenance of the epistle to prove its canonicity.
Warfield’s argument is closely reasoned and rationally convincing. He incisively demolished the arguments of his opponents showing their inadequate basis and contradictory presuppositions. However, even his colleague and friend at Princeton, Francis Landy Patton, in eulogizing Warfield, noted that the rationalism of Warfield’s system of logic was built upon probability which precluded the absolute certainty of his conclusions.37
In contrast to the Princetonians, Charles Briggs made the classic Reformed doctrine of the Witness of the Spirit the centerpiece of his apologetic for canon.38 The Princetonians, however, remained unimpressed by Briggs’ arguments. C. W. Hodge’s reaction to Briggs’ position is illustrative of the Princetonian perspective on the necessity of rational certainty in the establishment of the authority of the Bible as divine authority: “…that the canon is determined subjectively by the Christian feeling of the Church, & and not by history, & that it is illogical to prove first Canonicity, & then Inspiration, …then you have given away the whole historical side of the argument of the Apostolic origin of the Books & of Christianity itself.”39 Certainty of validity of the canon as the word of God, for the Princeton theologians, was established by rational and historical proofs without recourse to the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit in any vital way.40
Decision Making and the Will of God
From the perspective of the ordinary individual believer, the question of discovering the will of God for one’s life has been viewed mystically and even superstitiously. Interpretation of events for divine messages, asking for signs, setting out fleeces and the like have all been a part of the popular evangelical piety. Over twenty years ago Garry Friesen published his Decision Making and the Will of God based upon his Th.D. dissertation research. In this work he boldly challenged the popular piety with sound exegesis and logic and placed explicit scriptural revelation over “impressions” and “leading” and circumstances. Friesen instead put forth a “wisdom” model for determining the will of God for the individual’s life, whether the subject be career, school, or marriage. His work has served as a helpful corrective for much of the teaching that was predominantly mystical and confusing. While I believe Friesen has done us a great service and I regularly recommend his book to those struggling with questions regarding the will of God for their lives, I do detect an underlying rationalism communicated as much by what is not said as by what is said. Many have noted that they came away from his presentation with a great disquiet, a disquiet that arises from a tone that implicitly denies that existential dynamic of the Spirit in the life of the believer and substitutes instead a formula (albeit a thoroughly biblical formula) for determining legitimate options in any situation.
J. I. Packer has noted that more foundational to discerning the will of God for the individual is the renewing of the mind taught by Paul:
But without this renewal, no matter how much thinking we do, and however correct our theological formulations, personal discernment of the will of God will not take place. For the will of God covers not only what we do outwardly as performers, but also how and why we do it from the standpoint of our motives and purposes, and if these inner aspects of action are not as they should be we fall short of the perfect (that is, in the Greek, the fully-fashioned and complete) will of God, as did the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.41
While Friesen is clear that God is more interested in who we are than what we do, his lack of development of the foundational theme to which Packer points implicitly contributes to a rationalistic mindset.
The Quest for Certainty of Assurance
Within the evangelical community there remains to this day a quest for absolute rational certainty with reference to our beliefs. This reality is vividly illustrated by some of the assertions coming from the Grace Evangelical Society. In his preoccupation with the ability to demonstrate with absolute certainty that an individual possesses salvation, for example, society founder Bob Wilkin has tried to demonstrate that a believer can have “100% certainty” that he is saved, without any doubt.42 This concern reflects a key assertion of Zane Hodges. In this concern one hears the echoes of Calvin who states that faith “requires full and fixed certainty, such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved.”43 While Wilkin and Hodges reflect the Reformers’ perspective that assurance of salvation is the birthright of believers, and is of the essence of faith, they fall far short of endorsing Calvin’s insistence that such assurance comes from things “experienced and proved.”
Seeing all certainty as of the same type, Wilkin indicates that the level of assurance which the believer may have is akin to the certainty he may have that 2+2=4, mathematical certainty, or the certainty that the sun is shining. That certainty is based on the objective testimony of the word of God.44 Such a view is at best simplistic. Certainty falls into several categories. (1) Mathematical certainty: In the abstract theoretical and ideal world, we can know things with absolute certainty. There are no contingencies to qualify a reality, thus, there can be certain knowledge in the truest sense. (2) Empirical certainty: This is demonstrated by the scientific method in the real world, as opposed to the ideal world of mathematics. (3) Legal certainty: This involves proof by evidence, given by witnesses. It, however, admits the possibility of error depending upon the truthfulness and credibility of the witnesses. (4) Moral certainty: This is the realm of psychological certainty.45 It is obvious that nearly all human knowledge outside the realm of mathematics fails the test of absolute certainty. Likewise, salvation is not something that can be analyzed in the test tube; thus it does not fall in the realm of scientific certainty. Salvation falls in the realm of contingent reality, the variety of which cannot be tested. Thus, it is impossible from a psychological perspective to achieve the mathematical level of certainty for which Wilkin seeks. Rightly, he posits the ground of certainty outside the individual, on the basis of the objective word of God. But he neglects the means of certainty, which must take into account the subjective psychological factors of human existence. He posits objectively certain assurance of salvation without recourse to psychological realities—ideal mathematical certainty for an internal psychological reality.
On the other side of the debate we find again a quest for certainty that one is saved. John MacArthur, reacting to the implicit antinomianism of the free grace position adopts a radically different means of assurance of salvation that is ironically as rationalistic as that adopted by the free grace position.
The dynamic of assurance espoused by MacArthur has its roots deep in the tradition of the Puritans and the Scottish Calvinists. The Scots referred to this process as the Practical Syllogism. The Puritans called it the reflex action.46 By whatever name, the process is the same. The believer is denied direct access to the Savior for assurance. Instead he must look inside and complete the syllogism. “The Scripture tells me that he who believes shall be saved. If upon examining myself I find fruits of righteousness in my life, I may then complete the syllogism ‘But I believe, therefore I shall be saved’.”47 However, such a doctrine lays the ground of assurance solely within ourselves as opposed to relying in any way on the dynamic of a vital relationship with the Holy Spirit “causing the believer to rely more on his own works for assurance, than on the work of Christ on our behalf.”48
This rationalistic search for certainty is endemic to the evangelical mind and traceable to its Enlightenment roots. The discussions in the latter part of the 20th century have become more sophisticated, and there have been many in our community who have explicitly adopted a “hard foundationalism” as the basis of epistemological certainty.
While many in the mainstream of the evangelical tradition are loathe to acknowledge the crucial role of experience in our theological understanding and even its formulation, in the past two decades a number of evangelical theologians and exegetes in this tradition have broken with its rationalism and embraced the Vineyard movement. Among these are Wayne Grudem, Sam Storms, and Jack Deere. Deere has directly challenged conservative evangelicalism on the point of rationalism. In his Surprised by the Power of the Spirit49 Deere surveys and critiques his own former understanding regarding the cessation of the charismata. He says:
There is one basic reason why Bible-believing Christians do not believe in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit today. It is simply this: they have not seen them. Their tradition, of course, supports their lack of belief, but their tradition would have no chance of success if it were not coupled with their lack of experience of the miraculous. Let me repeat: Christians do not disbelieve in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit because the Scriptures teach these gifts have passed away. Rather they disbelieve in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit because they have not experienced them.
No Cessationist writer that I am aware of tries to make his case on Scripture alone. All of these writers appeal both to Scripture and to either present or past history to support their case. It often goes unnoticed that this appeal to history either past or present is actually an argument from experience, or better, an argument from the lack of experience.50
My point here is not to argue for the continuation of the charismata; rather, it is to look critically at our own apologetic for the cessationist rationale within the evangelical tradition.
Isaac Dorner, reflecting Calvin, argued that spiritual truth made a demand on the soul if certainty were to be attained. Thus, certainty and assurance of spiritual truth were qualitatively different in nature than certainty of all other knowledge. Faith became the principium cognescendi. This faith was a product of the personal experience of the presence of God and the medium of his presence. “…Faith has a knowledge of being known by God, and of its existence because of God, and in such a way that it knows God as the one self-verifying and self-subsisting fact…”51 Thus faith offers a divinely assured certainty since it involves a genuine reciprocal divine communion attested in the human soul. This is not mysticism in the classic sense of the term since this experience of God retains the subject-object dichotomy. The individual does not lose personal identity in the experience of the divine. Rather God, as a person, reaches out to directly touch the soul of the individual and give certain knowledge of himself.
Likewise Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper insisted that the “mysticism of the Spirit is necessary for the theologian.”52 He broadened the basis of the means by which the Holy Spirit might operate from the narrow conception that the scripture alone was the divine authority in the construction of theology, noting: “Coordinated under one head, one might say that the Holy Spirit guarantees this organic articulation through the agencies of the Holy Scripture, the Church, and the personal enlightenment of the theologian.”53
Rationalism, Reality, Truth, and Certainty
Hand in hand with our heritage of rationalism the evangelical tradition has held firmly to the Protestant Scholastic idea that the truth of scripture is communicated in timeless propositions “During that time revelation came to be identified strictly as propositional in nature and timeless/universal in expression. Particularly the historical nature of divine revelation slipped into the background.”54 This period also saw also a “tendency to identify these ‘revealed truths’ (often rationally deduced via a scholastic theological method) with an expression of the divine mind. And the Spirit was merely an aid to the will in acknowledging that which can be shown as truth on the basis of historical probability.”55 Thomas Torrance observed that theologizing from this time forward succumbed to the “Latin Heresy,” i.e., a one-to-one identification with the deposit of faith with a fixed formula handed down from one generation to the next consisting of “irreformable truths” whose verbal expression was seen as identical to the reality rather than pointers to a reality beyond themselves.56
Likewise, while they continued to affirm the Reformers’ doctrine, the mindset shifted to an Enlightenment framework. God was no longer understood as “utterly different from us. God’s omniscience, omnipotence and infinite goodness are the same sorts of qualities we have, differing only in degree.”57
Key in inculcating this mindset among 20th century evangelical scholars was Gordon Clark. In an age when fundamentalists fled from scholarship, eschewed the laws of logic, and promoted a superpietistic irrationalism, Clark insisted that faith and reason are not antithetical and in so doing laid the foundation for contemporary evangelical scholarship.58 In his articulation he defended the central role of special revelation in giving the Christian worldview its content.59 Central in the assertion of special revelation was the propositional nature not only of revelation but also ultimately of reality. During his tenure at Wheaton College, Clark influenced a generation of scholars for intellectual engagement with contemporary assaults on Christianity. Among this group of future scholars were many of the future luminaries of Evangelicalism including Carl Henry, E. J. Carnell, Paul K. Jewett, Edmund Clowney and Billy Graham.
Carl Henry has endorsed with approval his mentor’s position that propositional revelation is a fundamental category and that “the word truth can only be used metaphorically or incorrectly when applied to anything other than a proposition.”60 Ultimately for Clark only propositions are reality. As Hoover has observed:
Knowledge is always knowledge of the truth and truth, in Clark’s view, is a quality of only propositions—that is, only propositions are the sort of thing that can be true (or false). Hence only propositions can be known. But since the range of the real and the range of the knowable coincide—or, alternatively put, since the set of all real objects and the set of all knowables is the same set—then given the doctrine of immediate apprehension, the character of reality itself is propositional, Even God is a proposition because He is thoroughly known to Himself! Hence only propositions exist and Clark’s Idealism is a thoroughgoing rationalistic Idealism. No mental entity can be accommodated that is not a proposition.
And fourth, if all reality is propositional, we come to understand Clark’s view of how one reality relates to another, Propositions, it would seem, relate only by logic. Propositions are not spatio-temporal objects. They are not facts or events. Unlike spatio-temporal objects, propositions do not occupy space or take up time. Unlike facts, they may be false. And unlike events, propositions do not occur and befall objects. Thus, propositions do not interact causally: they do not affect one another by gravity or electromagnetism, they cannot bump into one another, fall off shelves, or shatter. Clark’s propositions, rather, relate by logical implication, and they form, presumably, the one coherent system of truth. As such, Clark’s world of “men and things” is held together (sustained) by logic.61
This insistence on the propositional nature of all knowledge is seen in Clark’s endorsement of an alternate translation of John 1:1: “In the beginning was the logic.”62 Henry posits that the logos of John 1:1 guarantees a universal rational epistemology.63 The net effect is to reduce the second person of the Trinity to a philosophical principle the contemplation of which grants salvation.
I would insist that salvation comes not from a rational principle but by the historical person of Jesus Christ. While the neo-orthodox reduce revelation to only the personal, the evangelical tradition has adopted a reductionistic view of revelation as simply rational/propositional. Erickson has recognized this impasse concerning the nature of revelation as a false dichotomy and argues instead that revelation is both propositional and personal.64
This discussion raises the issue of the historical nature of divine revelation. The concept of revelation communicated by Clark and Henry seems to reflect an Enlightenment concept of truth as absolute and unconditioned with all contingencies distilled off. Yet that which sets Christianity apart from other religions and philosophy is a “rootedness” in historical events that are by definition contingent.
Challenges to the Status Quo
With the rise of postmodernism there has been an increasing and explicit tendency by many, particularly in ETS, to rely upon a hard epistemological foundationalism as the bedrock upon which we can build genuine knowledge.65 Timothy Phillips in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation concluded that most advocates of inerrancy assume an “epistemological foundationalism,” seeing “genuine knowledge” obtainable only from a “foundation of apodictic certitudes.” This position is, says Phillips, indefensible—exegetically, theologically, and philosophically.66 Developing Phillips’ idea further Donald Dayton observes:
…clearly something like this is at work when the Evangelical Theological Society maintains discipline by requiring annual subscription to only one article of faith: “the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” The point is not so much the statement itself as the way it functions in a larger worldview—one that is being increasingly called into question.67
Donald Bloesch has undertaken a sustained critique of the idea that revelation is exclusively propositional.
A proposition… is a truth that is expressed in declarative statements that clearly affirm or deny what is at issue. A narration is a truth that is expressed in the telling of a story and may take the form of poetry as well as prose. Its truth is gleaned through an existential participation in the drama being depicted, so it is more experiential than strictly logical. A propositional truth is immediately accessible to reason whereas a narrational truth can be grasped only by a heightened imagination. Propositional revelation entails the communication of clear and distinct ideas (à la Decartes). Narrational revelation is the conveyance of insights that can be assimilated only through the obedience of faith. Propositional revelation carries the implication that revelation is exhaustively rational. Narrational revelation presupposes that revelation is polydimemsional—appealing to the will and the affections as well as to reason and logic. Propositional revelation imparts notional knowledge; narrational revelation imparts affectional knowledge.68
He is clear that he does not reject propositions.69 Rather he insists that “Revelation can be expressed in semi-conceptional as well as mythopoetic or narrational language, but in both cases the language is incomplete and awaits further illumination by the Spirit.”70 Likewise in opposition to Clark, Henry, and their followers, he draws a crucial distinction between truth of being and truth of statements, insisting, “The truth of being takes precedence over the truth of statements, but the latter can transmit the former through the power of the Spirit.”71
In opposition to the reductionistic tendency of rationalism Bloesch formally invokes the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Propositions can be gleaned from revelation, but they always point beyond themselves to mysteries that can only be dimly grasped by the enlightened human mind. I affirm both the necessity and the inadequacy of propositions in communicating revelatory truth. Propositions can serve but not exhaust the truth. They can elucidate the truth of the gospel but not secure this truth. Faith terminates not in propositions but in the reality to which they point.72
To put it another way, certainty of knowledge cannot ultimately be built on propositional revelation. That certainty must come through the Spirit. Bloesch refers to his understanding as “biblical personalism” which faithfully reproduces the message that resounds in the salvific events and in the scriptural text. “This message, however, does not inhere in the words but must be always spoken anew by the Spirit of God as he reaches out to both struggling saints and lost sinners with the word of life.”73
“The smell of a cup of coffee” and the Limits of Language
The nature of language to communicate accurately and adequately has in the past century been challenged on two fronts, one theological and the other philosophical. Neo-orthodoxy asserted the personal nature of truth as opposed to the abstract, the timeless and the propositional. On the philosophical front, Wittgenstein’s musings about the inability of language to communicate the smell of a cup of coffee powerfully illustrate the fact that language is at best an imperfect vehicle for communication. Wittgenstein further advanced the understanding of the working of language in the communication process with his observations about “language games.” While he had early in his career taught a “picture theory of meaning” contending that language always related to the world in the same way, later in his career he repudiated this understanding74 and instead argued that the use of language is different in different contexts. The utterance “Murder the guy in blue,” means something very different in a bank than it does at a baseball game.
This limitation of language has begun to be recognized among evangelicals. In his Symphonic Theology Vern Poythress lists “12 Maxims of Symphonic Theology.” The first maxim on the list is “Language is not transparent to the world.”75 While we think of language as simply giving us an accurate and adequate means to communicate with others our experience of the world, the actual process is much more complex than we normally realize.
Natural human languages are not simply perfect, invisible glass windows that have no influence on what we see in the world. Nor is there a perfect language available that would be such a perfect window. In particular, no language will enable us to state facts without making any assumptions or without the statements being related to who we are as persons. No special language can free us from having to make crucial judgments on the basis of partial analogies or similarities. No special language can immediately make visible to us the ultimate structure of categories of the universe.
Positively, natural languages are adequate vehicles for human communication and for communication between God and human beings. Some of the features that might be supposed to be imperfections are in fact positive assets. In the Bible, God uses ordinary human language rather than a technically precise jargon. He does not include all the technical, pedantic details that would interest a scholar. By doing so, he speaks clearly to ordinary people, not merely to scholars with advanced technical knowledge.76
While there is absolute truth, human grasp of that truth is always partial and perspectivally bound. The discipline of sociology of knowledge has convincingly demonstrated that the human knower is limited in space and time and culture. We might liken TRUTH to a flawless diamond that refracts the light from each of its many facets. However, we can only view the light from a single facet, or a single facet at a time. We recognize truth as it is refracted through the facet at which we gaze, but we err if we globalize that refracted ray of light from one facet in such a way that we deny the validity of the refraction from other facets. Regarding this insight Poythress has stated:
Among theists, at least, I suppose that no one would deny that human knowledge is relative in these respects… Nevertheless, I do not think that we have always appreciated the consequences of this relativity of our knowledge. We know that truth is absolute—in particular, the truths of the Bible. We allow ourselves, however, to slip over into excessive presumption with regard to our human knowledge. We do not reckon with the fact that our interpretation of the Bible is always fallible. Or if we know a piece of truth, we may erroneously suppose that we know it precisely and exhaustively. The Pharisees doubtless thought that they understood the Sabbath commandment exactly. Therefore they knew that Jesus was breaking the Sabbath. The Pharisees were drawing their boundaries very precisely. They knew, for example, exactly how far they could travel on a Sabbath day without “taking a journey” (i.e., working). But at this point the Pharisees were overconfident and presumptuous. They did not really understand the Old Testament. But let us apply this example to ourselves. We may erroneously suppose that we, in our knowledge, do not really need a background of other, related truths in order to make sense of a certain teaching. We make one truth the basis for a long chain of syllogisms, without considering its context.77
Personhood & Relationship
As I mentioned earlier there is a strange dynamic within the evangelical community. A key defining feature of evangelicalism is the insistence that Christianity involves a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Another key defining element is the final authority of scripture. Within our tradition these are often (perhaps unwittingly) pitted against one another. We must personally trust Christ for salvation, but we learn of God only through scripture.
In asserting the unique authority of the scriptures evangelicals not infrequently stand in danger of denying the validity of experience altogether. Over a century ago Charles Hodge declared that belief of the facts of Christianity, not an experience, made one a Christian.78 More recently Gordon Clark explicitly disavowed the relational/experiential aspect of Christianity as contributing to the knowledge of God or things divine: “Here I wish particularly to oppose Dr. MacKay’s statement, ‘The Christian gospel itself invites the test of daily experience in essentially the same spirit of openness to evidence that animates the enquiring scientist.’ This reduction of Christian doctrine to the level of allegedly uninterpreted observation is utterly anti-Christian. Christianity is not based on experience; it is based on a propositional divine revelation, the Holy Scriptures.”79 Likewise John Warwick Montgomery has labeled the hymnist’s assertion “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart” as the evangelical heresy.
The temptation of the Church to gravitate toward propositions over relationship is not new. In Rev 2 the apostle John recounts the words of the glorified Christ, while commending the Ephesians’ steadfast adherence to truth insists that this is not enough. Following commendation, he issues words of rebuke and warning: “But I have this against you: You have departed from your first love! Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—that is, if you do not repent” (Rev 2:4–5).
According to 17th century Anglican divine Jeremy Taylor a purely rational theology understands “by reason,” while a spiritual theology understands “by love.” In the case of the spiritual theology the theologian “does not only understand the sermons of the spirit, and perceives their meaning; but he pierces deeper, and knows the meaning of the meaning; that is the secret of the Spirit, that which is spiritually discerned, that which gives life to the proposition, and activity to the soul.”80 Or to put it another way, “Our assurance of God’s favor toward us lies in our being known by God (1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9) not in the certainty of human perception in logic.”81
Ironically this essay decrying evangelical rationalism has developed in a thoroughly rationalistic manner. In looking at the context of the development of the evangelical mind we have, I believe, seen that in this essay’s tongue-in-cheek title there is more truth than most of us would like to admit. American Evangelicalism has for a variety of reasons been thoroughly rationalistic from the nineteenth century onward. This is all the more amazing when we look just a bit further back historically at our Puritan forefathers and at the dynamic working of the Spirit in the First Great Awakening. In his book The Log College,82 Archibald Alexander, the first professor of Princeton Seminary recounts without even a hint of doubt about their veracity, numerous instances of what would be today considered revelation and miracles. Yet if we hear similar accounts today, many of us may nod condescendingly, sure that we in our theological wisdom know better, or try to persuade those who have seen such incidents that they are mistaken or naïve. Even I, who have wrestled with these issues for years, fall into this category.
A couple, friends from my home church (a non-charismatic Presbyterian Church), Zeus and Charlotte, recently shared such an experience with me. They had gone to Macedonia on a mission trip delivering relief supplies. They carried with them clothing, food, and Bibles. As they distributed supplies one elderly woman was particularly moved. Later as my friends spoke with her in her tent she related that the previous night she had received a revelation from God. She had been visited by an angel who told her that she would shortly be receiving her lifelong dream, a Bible in her language. “Touched by an Angel” notwithstanding, my cessationist mind viscerally rebels against such accounts. Yet over the years I have heard far too many such accounts by those whose integrity I trust implicitly. These have caused me to question the hard cessationism in which I was raised.
Certainly, God has told us that scripture gives us a finality of normative revelation. It is not to be added to or subtracted from. Yet may it not be legitimate to make a distinction between normative revelation and divine communication that is ad hoc for a specific immediate situation or intimate communion?
Essay continued in next post...