Saturday, September 2, 2006

A Posteriori Cessationism

I am an a posteriori cessationist.

Someone somewhere will complain that I am not employing the terms "a priori" and "a posteriori" correctly, and they will be right. I realize that I have co-opted these terms into a context other than their strict usage in epistemology, but they work well here and suit my purposes. I am clearly defining what I mean by them, so I don't think there will be much in the way of confusion.

An a priori cessationist (which I am not) I am defining as someone who believes that the Bible teaches us that certain of the spiritual gifts were to cease at the close of the apostolic age. This is the view typically indicated by the use of the term cessationism. Although I do see a New Testament statement that tongues will cease (1 Corinthians 13:8), I tie this event with the occasion when we no longer "see through a mirror darkly, but then face to face." I connect it with that time when "I will know fully just as I also have been fully known." In other words, I think that this prophecy is connected to our eternity in heaven. I remain unconvinced by a priori arguments in favor of cessationism, although I love and respect greatly many who seem to hold this view.

An a posteriori cessationist (which I am) I am defining as someone who, if he were to encounter something resembling the biblical gift of tongues, would acknowledge it as such, but who sees no evidence of that gift in operation in present-day Christianity. The standard terminology refers to this as the "open but cautious" perspective. So, I find myself in the position of saying, basically, "There may be a gift of tongues in operation today, but you certainly aren't exercising it." Guess how popular that makes me?

So, why dump the standard terminology? Because I think maybe there is an awful lot of territory indicated within "open but cautious," and I'm trying to indicate where in that territory I am. "Open and cautious" could, theoretically, mean, "Hey, I found a little bit of genuine speaking in tongues over here in this church, but they are the exception rather than the rule." But that's not me. I wind up drawing basically the same conclusion as the cessationists—that God just doesn't give this gift out today—but I arrive at that conclusion by defining the practice from the Bible; looking around to see whether I can locate any modern-day phenomena that match that description; and then, having found none at all, concluding that God is not giving people the gift of tongues today. The difference between myself and standard cessationists lies not, as far as I can tell, in where we wind up, but in how we get there. They get there a priori (before we even look at specific instances, we know from the Bible what we believe about the continuation of tongues); I get there a posteriori (I had come to no conclusion until examining the specific instances and drawing conclusions from them).

By the way, I want to take this opportunity to recommend highly Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism. Anderson grew up as a Pentecostal, and as such he offers one of the most interesting analyses that I have ever read regarding the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. Many will find his work very enlightening. It is one of the only places you can turn to find an exploration of phrases like "cryptomnesic xenoglossy," a phrase that doesn't even generate a single hit on Google (until I post this blog entry, that is). UPDATE: Dr. Malcolm Yarnell has just published an excellent white paper on this subject that you can read here.

So, I'll certainly have to defend myself on this one (perhaps from both sides), won't I?

The Holy Spirit in the Twenty-First Century

One reason I'll have to defend it so vigorously is that the whole concept of a posteriori cessationism calls into question the central assumption of the current doctrine of the Holy Spirit. What is that assumption?
The Present-Day Assumption: If I tell you that the Holy Spirit has done something in my life, you are under obligation to accept that it was the Holy Spirit who did it.
In other words, it is considered by many to be presumptuous and rude to evaluate or challenge whether claimed works of the Holy Spirit are indeed works of the Holy Spirit.

But the basic assumption of a posteriori cessationism is that such evaluations can and ought to be performed. And indeed, this is a basic assumption in the New Testament, which tells us to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). Since the Bible is willing to apply this testing to the highest of gifts (1 Corinthians 14:32), I think it is safe to say that we are authorized to apply it to all of the gifts.

But what is the biblical standard against which these phenomena ought to be measured? Dr. Yarnell's paper came to twelve conclusions about the biblical nature of glossolalia, all of which I affirm (thank you, sir, for saving me a great deal of typing on a Saturday). I will emphasize three central points, which I will state in my own phraseology. First, tongues-speaking in the Bible involved communication. A tongue is a language, not the utterance of random sounds. Somebody somewhere will understand it. Second, all genuine tongues-speaking in the Bible was capable of interpretation. This is related to the first point, but goes further. It assumes that the sounds given are coherent, but further assumes that there is such a thing as the gift of interpretation. Third, in every sanctioned glossolalia event in the New Testament, somebody did indeed understand or interpret what was said. In the three occasions in Acts, it was possible for Luke to record the generic nature of what was said while people were speaking in tongues.

So the question is, do the modern cases that people claim for speaking in tongues measure up to the biblical definition?

The Retreat from Verification

Anderson's book (cited above) records the early Holiness experimentation with present-day tongue-speaking. Here's the most interesting thing I learned from his book: The earliest practitioners believed, as I do, that biblical tongue-speaking meant the speaking of human languages that one has never studied. This phenomenon has a name: xenoglossy. At the birth of this phenomenon, the first present-day tongue-speakers believed that the recovery of tongue-speaking would save untold dollars spent to try to teach, for example, the Chinese languages to missionaries. When they first started babbling, they were convinced that they were speaking some language somewhere. But then, they started sending missionaries overseas and discovering that they weren't speaking Chinese after all. When subjected to verification, their claims that the Holy Spirit was supernaturally enabling them to speak foreign languages were proven false.

So, tongue-speakers took a step back, claiming that they were supernaturally speaking in the "tongues of angels" rather than those "of men." Thus, it made perfect sense that nobody knew what they were saying, because nobody but the enlightened few could identify these special languages. And this solution worked for those who had to make it work—those whose very denominational existence and legitimacy depended upon the notion of second, third, and so on, "blessings."

But this solution did not facilitate the spread of present-day tongue-speaking very far beyond those denominations. Why? Because most of those who were not bound by denominational allegiance to affirm tongue-speaking could recognize the wide separation between the actual practice and the regulations in 1 Corinthians placed upon speaking in tongues. Contemporary practice involved masses of people tongue-speaking at the same time and without any effort at interpretation. But the Bible, in unmistakeable terms, absolutely forbade speaking in tongues in that format. The "one at a time" restriction is not so cumbersome, but the requirement to have an interpreter once again posed the dilemma of verification.

For Person B to be able to interpret Person A's ecstatic utterances—to be able to give the meaning of the utterance in terms that people could understand—it is necessary that Person A's utterances actually have some meaning to interpret. There is nothing miraculous about somebody babbling. Toddlers do it all the time. The true evidence of a miraculous happening is when somebody says something intelligible in a language that they do not know in such a way that someone else is able to verify the message and give its meaning. But this miracle just isn't happening today. As Anderson's research has shown clearly, present-day tongues-speaking is nonlinguistic—it contains no discernible grammatical units and nobody has ever objectively documented a successful case of tongues-speaking and interpretation. The events in Acts were easy to verify; present-day tongue-speaking is easy to expose as false.

This new challenge of verification posed no serious hurdle to the vast majority of tongue-speakers, who simply continued to ignore the Corinthian regulations. But as hinted at above, those who would try to bring tongue-speaking into Baptist life found the Corinthian regulations to pose a serious hurdle. But eventually, they found a way once again to lead present-day tongue-speaking into a retreat from the challenge of verification.

This time, that retreat took the form of something called "private prayer language." In other words, taking the Corinthian regulations to apply only to public tongue-speaking, some charismatics within Baptist life began to postulate a sort of private-only kind of tongue-speaking, ostensibly outside of the jurisdiction of 1 Corinthians. Thus, by pulling tongue-speaking entirely out of the realm of corporate Christian activity and relegating it entirely to private practice, pro-tongue-speakers believe that they have eluded the grasp of biblical verification yet again. And this they must do, for if present-day practice is ever subjected to any kind of verification, it immediately becomes evident that it is false.

Listen to me, I do not make that claim lightly. If the present-day practice of speaking in tongues were a genuine occurance of the biblical gift, then I would be guilty of a serious offront against the Holy Spirit to decry it as false. Yet knowing the stakes here I am willing to make the claim anyway. That is how strong the evidence is, in my opinion.

Private Prayer Language?

The concept of a "private prayer language", let alone the phrase itself, is absent from the New Testament. The New Testament only knows of "speaking in tongues" which one might apply to spoken prayers as well as to other public utterances.

While the regulations placed upon speaking in tongues might be different for some private practice of that sort (if such a private practice indeed were called for in the Bible or made any sense whatsoever), one cannot argue that the nature of a so-called "private prayer language" is any different than the nature of public speaking in tongues, at least not if one hopes to suggest that the Bible offers any sort of a foundation for this practice. Speaking in tongues is speaking in tongues is speaking in tongues. And, as the Bible clearly demonstrates, speaking in tongues (in the genuine spiritual gift) is linguistic and capable of being interpreted. But the present-day phenomenon is nonlinguistic and inscrutable to interpretation. The nature of the two phenomena are entirely different. But if there is such a thing as a "private prayer language," for it to be a genuine biblical phenomenon it must be something that one could legitimately bring out into corporate worship with an interpreter.

And indeed, without the public exercise of speaking in tongues, the spiritual gift cannot accomplish its purposes. The Bible describes the gift of speaking in tongues as a phenomenon that accomplishes two goals: First, it communicates either the gospel as in Acts or at least something edifying to the church as in Corinthians. Like all human discourse, it exists in order to communicate something and the only good reason to engage in the practice is when you have something to say and someone to hear. Second, it serves as a sign as promised in Mark, demonstrated in Acts, and reasserted in 1 Corinthians.

But a so-called "private prayer language" is a listenerless communication and a hidden sign. Before anyone accuses me of denying that God is listening in prayer, let me challenge anyone to produce a single hint in the New Testament that speaking in tongues takes place for God's listening benefit? Every sanctioned occasion of speaking in tongues in the New Testament had a human audience present. And how, again, is this "sign for unbelievers" supposed to work when no unbelievers (or believers, for that matter) are able to see or hear the sign? Biblical speaking in tongues, whether in proclamation or in prayer, requires a human audience in order to be effectual, to accomplish the stated goals given for this phenomenon in the New Testament.

So, if they will claim biblical authority for what they are doing, those who advocate "private prayer language" must also advocate public speaking in tongues. But those who advocate public speaking in tongues while holding any serious regard for the Bible will then face the test of verification that the interpretation requirement presents. They cannot do that, because the test will invalidate their practice. So, there is a dilemma.

The Gift We Really Ought To Be Talking About

And the root cause of this dilemma is the cessation of the gift of interpretation. Recovery of something purporting to be the biblical gift of tongues is easy: "ajlgheipihgbjdlsad" and you've got it. But recovery of the gift of interpretation requires something on the order of an actual miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, interpretation could be faked. But the Southern Baptist people we're talking about, although they may have deluded themselves, are not interested in deceiving others. They are not charlatans. Not having subjected their practice to vigorous biblical verification, they may sincerely believe that their babbling is from the Holy Spirit. I choose not to believe that they would deliberately fake an interpretation.

So, those who would not fake an interpretation are left with the dilemma of wondering why the gift of interpretation has ceased—why you can't hop up on Sunday morning and say, "Shablyblabla" and count on Fred in the next pew to hop up and say, "He just said, 'The pot luck luncheon has been moved to next week'" (and, of course, for the church to have some assurance that Fred's interpretation is indeed what the ecstatic utterance meant). Or even better, to conform to the examples in Acts, why can't you count on a dozen Fred's all to stand up and give identical reports of what the babbling meant? Why doesn't that happen?

And I don't know. That's precisely what seemed to have happened in the New Testament. I believe that God is just as capable of doing it today as He was then. Some might allege that we are just so carnal that God refuses to bless us with the gift of tongues. But why, then, is He still clearly blessing with other gifts that the Bible clearly regards as far superior to the gift of tongues? Are we worthy of prophecy but not of tongues? Does that make sense?

Maybe it is a simple as this: Maybe God no longer wishes or needs to use the gifts of tongues as He did then? Someday we'll get a chance to ask, assuming that we still regard the question as important then.

Until then, here I am. I'm looking for a genuine, verifiable instance of someone exercising the biblical gift of speaking in tongues. When and if it comes, it will be linguistic and verifiable. And then I'll acknowledge it as the real deal, no matter whom it offends.

But until then, I remain an a posteriori cessationist.

No comments: