Mere Supernaturalism

As I have discussed my transition away from cessationism with various people, it has become clear that there are actually two related issues entangled together. In my life, they came as a set, but there’s no reason why everybody’s experience would be the same as mine.

The first issue is the question of whether certain miraculous spiritual gifts ceased operating as individually vested gifts after the initial launch of the Church. This is the issue around cessationism proper. Many charismatics don’t understand this, and thus are confused when a cessationist professes to believe that miraculous healings still happen today, that God answers prayer today, and perhaps even that God can still speak through visions and dreams today. The issue in cessationism is not healings, but a particular person having the gift of healing; not someone hearing from God in a general sense, but a particular person having the gift of prophecy. (Generally. This distinction does not hold for tongues — every cessationist I know says it’s over and done with, period.) So with cessationism vs. continuationism, we’re talking about whether the Spirit continues to dispense all the biblically attested spiritual gifts in the present day.

The second issue, although related, is distinct from cessationism: the expectation that God will intervene supernaturally. From the Red Sea to the present day, God’s people have struggled with the temptation to forget that God intervenes in the world. We tend to think of this as a peculiarly modern temptation, but a quick look at the Exodus generation shows us this is not the case.

Hold that thought a moment.

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In eschatology, the wide dividing line has typically been between premillennialists on the one hand, and post- and amillennialists on the other. That’s where the bright political fault lines have been drawn. I want to suggest that this is a mistake.

The lines ought to have been drawn between those who look to the future with hope and expectation, and those who look to the future with gloom and the spirit of Chicken Little. This is the difference that makes a difference. I’m an optimistic premil (or if you like, a dominion dispensationalist), and I have much more in common with a patient postmil than I do with either my doom-and-dystopia premil brethren or most amil folk.

This is not to say that the theological question of when Christ returns relative to the millennium is unimportant. I believe it is an important question, and one which Scripture plainly answers. What I am saying is simply that optimism or pessimism about the future is vastly more important. We who can look at the nations raging, laugh at them with Yahweh, and seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness on earth as it is in heaven — we are one breed. The Chicken Littles are something else, and whatever their doctrinal statements might say, their spirit of fear and their little pronouncements about “polishing the brass on a sinking ship” are not from God, because He doesn’t give that spirit or talk that way.

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In similar fashion, I believe that in the battles over the charismatic movement, evangelical Christians drew the bright political line in the wrong place. I know folks who are charismatic in their theology, but day in and day out, expect no divine intervention in their lives. I also know charismatics who go to church, belt out a couple of paragraphs in tongues, and go home — but don’t pray with authority, don’t seek to hear from God, and don’t seek to minister to others in any supernatural way. By the same token, I know rock-ribbed cessationists who believe God speaks in dreams, pray for miracles, and trust Him to supernaturally order their affairs and relationships.

We drew the political line between those who practice all the biblically attested spiritual gifts today, and those who do not. However, the far more important issue is whether, on either side of that line, a person will seek to resolve his problems through doctrine alone, or whether in his daily practice he will also expect God to intervene supernaturally.

I’m open to suggestions for naming these positions, but for our present purposes, I’d like to call them doctrinalism and supernaturalism, respectively.

Two points of clarification. First, I’m talking about habits of practice, not talking points. I know lots of people who on paper, and when pressed will admit that it’s possible God would intervene miraculously today, but in practice, from day to day, they rely on doctrine alone, and they teach their followers to rely on doctrine alone. These people are doctrinalists, no matter what they say.
Second, I am not setting up an either-or situation here. It’s not either doctrine or supernatural intervention. I am talking about people who rely on doctrine alone versus those who look to doctrine, but also seek for God to intervene supernaturally in the present.

Again, I am not saying the cessationism question is unimportant. Not at all. I think the stakes are very high in that conversation. In the interests of full disclosure, let me just go ahead and spill the beans: I believe that most cessationists and most charismatics have one critical thing in common: an allergy to biblical discernment. I believe that the Church will not grow into health and maturity unless she employs all the biblically attested gifts (cessationists, I’m lookin’ at you), and she employs them with testing and discernment, as Scripture requires (charismatics, I’m lookin’ at you too), and all of that in the context of loving God enough to take His Word seriously and be visibly united with His people. So yeah, I think it’s an incredibly important issue.

However, supernaturalism/doctrinalism is a much more important issue. The question of whether God will intervene through the gift of healing is important, but the question of whether God will intervene at all is obviously an even more important question.

I would contend that in most ministry venues, supernaturalists — charismatic or not — are natural allies. Doctrinal statements can create a barrier where no biblically founded barrier exists, of course, but those who look for and appreciate God’s intervention can work together, if they’re allowed to — or if they simply choose to move forward no matter what their more sectarian brethren might prefer.

And then later, over a bottle of wine, they can argue over whether the miraculous healing they just prayed for, and received, was the result of the gift of healing, or whether it was simply an answer to prayer.

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5 Responses to Mere Supernaturalism

  1. Jim Reitman says:

    I appreciate the distinctions you have made. I had not thought about your subdivision of cessationism into supernaturalism and doctrinalism, but I have definitely experienced it. Along these lines, a common “test case” in Scripture for the difference between a particular charismatic and a particular cessationist view has been the Book of Acts: Who would expect the kinds of things we see in Acts to occur today? As one goes through the narratives of Acts, you don’t see much about whether a given person or persons in Acts have particular gifts, and when you do, it’s kind of a negative thing, as in Acts 8 or 19, compared to whether the Spirit was being listened to and heard in that narrative, which absolutely pervades the entire book.

    To wit: I am a little uncomfortable with the notion of “seeking for God to intervene supernaturally in the present,” especially if it comes at the expense of “seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” that you aptly underscored earlier. Both sides of the debate in my opinion are notorious for having more vocal advocates who don’t really know or teach how to listen well. On the supernaturalism side, the problems emerge in the “expect a miracle” attitude vs. what I might call the “eat your broccoli” approach (“study to show yourself approved”) on the doctrinalism side.

    I have had my own “test case” living in my basement since January: a homeless guy with a past background of parental abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, and a Biker mentality. He’s now an unapologetic “name it and claim it” guy and a pretty bold street preacher who loves “ministry” to the homeless. He knows his Scripture pretty intuitively but prefers to appeal to “claiming” when he reaches out to others in need. God has been dealing with him, however, and for one with his background he has a remarkably sensitive conscience. What typically happens is that he gets very defensive with people in authority, especially those in the Body who have a tendency—shall we say—to “throw their ecclesiastical weight around.” … and with women who hurt him. The impressive thing about this guy is his ability to spiritually “turn on a dime” when he comes under the Spirit’s conviction in a given situation after operating entirely out of the flesh. Increasingly, he will not rest until he works through and responds to what God is telling him vs. claiming the problems to be “solved” to reassure himself or others that he is taking God seriously.

    The polarity of his responses gives me “whiplash” sometimes, but he’s no different from Peter—or me, really, when you remove some of the attendant drama. The bottom line I’m seeing more and more as I observe growth in wisdom and spiritual maturity in myself and others is whether we have a good sense of hearing (1 Cor 2:6-3:4) or are acting on impulse to “defend” something . . . the one is more fear-based, the other comes more out of love. And that is the high point of 1 Cor 12-14, the classical locus on gifts and their exercise.

    So how do we “listen” to the Spirit more adeptly? I would suggest it depends on context and our particular “addiction” of choice. Along these lines, I think one particularly subtle issue that recurs on a fairly regular basis among biblicists but may not be recognized as such is the question of obedience to God. If we have a dull sense of hearing, then obedience for a biblicist may often boil down to “If you see it in Scripture, you should do it, period.” If our sense of hearing is being progressively honed by wisdom and the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:6-16), then obedience boils down to first asking how the Spirit is speaking in a given situation and then whether we are listening carefully or not. More and more often in heated discussions, I hear the Spirit saying “OK, that’s it, you need a “time out”—when you are ready to listen instead of talking over me, THEN come back.”

    And that’s what my homeless guy has been showing me lately.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,

    I agree with the primacy of hearing God well first of all (which was primary for Jesus as well — Jn. 5:19, etc.), but that said, I’m not sure how you’d arrive at the conclusion that the issue of individual giftedness is a negative thing. Acts focuses primarily on Peter and Paul, which means that we’re following apostles around most of the time, and we see a lot of the miraculous from them, but we also see a number of prophets, Stephen doing miracles, and so on.

    When it comes to the matter of “seeking for God to intervene miraculously in the present” versus “seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” — I don’t get the opposition you’re setting up there. From where I’m sitting, it was precisely seeking the Kingdom, and praying for its coming, that led me to look for God to intervene miraculously; I wouldn’t have the courage to pray the way I do if Jesus hadn’t said to do just that. The Kingdom is miraculous from end to end; what part of it are you seeking without seeking miraculous intervention?

    Are we talking past each other somehow here?

  3. Jim Reitman says:

    It’s the “seeking” that bothers me, not the “miraculous”—of course God will intervene miraculously. The problem as I see it on the cessationist side is not allowing God to intervene through “externally evident” miracles. The problem on the charismatic side as I see it is presuming on God to intervene through the externally miraculous, and that’s the danger implicit in the word “seeking.” The “genius” of Matt 6:9-11, 33 is that we let God be God and seek simply to align with what he’s already up to: match up the reality on earth (among us) with what’s already true in heaven (God’s advancing Kingdom). The thrust of 6:19-33 is that when we seek first his Kingdom and righteousness, he will supply our needs however he wills (= “thy will be done”). We’re not asking for God to do a miracle among us; we’re asking for alignment with what He’s up to, and He takes care of the rest. We pray in His name (according to His character and will), and He takes care of the needs.

    My increasing sense from passages like the 1 Corinthians corpus on the sign gifts is that both spiritual edification and maturity are ultimately at stake: God provides for edification with “external miracles” whenever needed, but He is seeking to speak wisdom among the mature (1 Cor 2:6). In the use of spiritual gifting in our corporate life in Jesus, he is looking for us to “graduate” to prophecy—in its broadest, most edifying sense—and to love well. This is especially emphasized at the end of chap. 12, as it merges into chap. 13, and then as 13 merges in turn into 14. My point about Acts was that we see the “graduation” of wisdom-speaking through the Holy Spirit from reliance on external miracles to maturity of hearing/listening that—depending on need and circumstances—eventually obviates the need for the externally miraculous among individuals in Body life (“when I was a child …, but when I became a man …”). It’s like they were so aligned or attuned with the Holy Spirit’s lead (His “direction-finding” for the advancing Kingdom) by that point, they no longer needed the external signs as much.

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,

    I’d take the need to be personally aligned with what God is doing as an obvious first step — John 5 and all. But I’d also want to say that goes a different direction than just taking the circumstances for granted. From a certain storm-tossed Galillean fishing boat, one could make a solid case that leaving the boat is clearly not what God is up to — after all, who is responsible for the wind and the waves, if not God? He’s provided a place of relative safety in the boat; can’t we just take advantage of that? As Peter discovered to his considerable chagrin, the facts are on the side of the devil, and they have little to do with the Kingdom.

    I think you’re missing a step here: “match up the reality on earth (among us) with what’s already true in heaven (God’s advancing Kingdom).” You can’t equate heaven with the advancing kingdom; they’re not equivalent. The Kingdom advances when what is already true in heaven becomes true on earth, and that’s not the same thing. When a man whose sin is already covered by Christ’s blood in heaven repents and forsakes it, heaven is coming to earth. When a man who is blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ in the heavenly places submits himself to God and resists the devil, his heavenly victory is manifested on earth. But as there is no sin or spiritual defeat in heaven, so there is also no sickness or physical defect. A believer with stage IV cancer will most assuredly be cancer-free in heaven; Jesus bought his healing (see Isa. 53). When that man is healed on earth, the kingdom has broken out in exactly the same way. I don’t see where we’re to expect less of that as we get more mature.

  5. Jim Reitman says:

    I’ll readily concede the point about becoming true on earth. I really didn’t track where you were going with the fishing boat and the devil. But your last sentence accurately identifies where we disagree. I’m not a cessationist, but your use of the verb “expect” seems to echo my concerns about your use of the verb “seek” in the previous response.

    From our prior discussion of First Corinthians on another thread, I just think we have basically different views of the argument. I believe the exercise of sign gifts is smack-dab in the center of the wisdom/maturity/Body-life issue and that the Corinthians surfaced precisely the problem we are discussing. To use your example, my take is that if God chooses to heal a man with cancer on earth, it is because God is meeting a need for spiritual edification at a certain level of Body life maturity in a specific context of the advancing Kingdom. I would propose that what’s true in heaven becomes true on earth in that case not by the healing on earth per se but by depicting Kingdom shalôm through the healing in a way that funds the Kingdom-relevant needs of that Body in that context at that stage in their maturity as a Body. And that’s what I’m asserting Matt 6:9-11 and 19-34 is talking about.

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