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Tongues! Signs! Wonders! An Interview with Dr. Sam Waldron

There are few subjects more debated and more hotly debated in the church today than whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit continue to this day. We have recently seen a great deal of discussion about this issue in the blogosphere. It is an issue which leaves many believers confused, unsure as to what they believe and what they should believe. Cessationists, who believe that the miraculous gifts have ceased, often point to the excesses of the charismatic movement as proof that God surely could not stand behind such manifestations of His Spirit. Many continuationists, who believe the gifts continue to be poured out on the church, suggest that it is unfair to rely on the extremes of the movement and point instead to the more biblical, moderate charismatics, among whom are often cited Sam Storms, John Piper, Wayne Grudem and C.J. Mahaney.

In an attempt to bring clarity to this difficult and sometimes contentious issue I arranged a pair of interviews. The first is with a firm cessationist, but one who has studied the issue and has written a book in which he provides a clear, gracious and convincing argument. The other is with a continuationist, but one who is known as being firmly grounded in the Scriptures. Both men adhere to the tenets of the Reformed faith. It is my hope that these interviews will prove both illuminating and practical and will bring a measure of clarity to this topic. Thus this week I present an interview with Dr. Samuel E. Waldron and next week a similar interview with Dr. Wayne Grudem.

This is the first part of an interview I conducted with Dr. Samuel E. Waldron. The conclusion of the interview will be posted tomorrow. Dr. Waldron holds a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Baptist seminary and a Ph.D from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Owensboro, Kentucky and Professor of Systematic Theology at The Midwest Center for Theological Studies. He has authored or co-authored several books, including The End Times Made Simple (Calvary Press, 2002) and To Be Continued? (Calvary Press, 2005). His most recent book, To Be Continued? argues that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, including prophecy and tongues-speaking, are no longer operative in the church today.

I expressed to Dr. Waldron my belief that there is a lot of assumed knowledge that lies behind the issues of the miraculous gifts and that this can prevent Christians who do not have a great deal of theological knowledge from making informed decisions about what they believe. I told him that I would like to clarify some of those issues and try to make this discussion relevant to any Evangelical.

I wonder if, to start, you could provide a brief definition of both cessationism and continuationism so we can be sure that we have defined our terms.

Alright. For me cessationist is the position that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy and tongues-speaking, have ceased subsequent to the apostolic period of the church. The continuationist position, of course, is the opposite, that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit continue after the apostolic period of the church and especially prophecy and tongues speaking are the centerpiece there. One other thing that needs to be said about continuationist as I use the term, and I say this in my book, it includes all charismatics. “Continuationists” specifies the one issue in which the third wave and the Vineyard are still charismatic. They don’t hold some of the other typical charismatic views like, as I understand it, a second work of grace and so forth and the characteristic views of the baptism of the Spirit. This is the really controversial issue today - that is the continuation of the extraordinary and miraculous gifts.

Right, so what we’re talking about here today with continuationists would apply to people who consider themselves Reformed charismatics.

That’s right.

So we’re not dealing with a worst case scenario here. A lot of people when they read MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos, for instance, felt that he had really focused in on a worst case scenario, and refuted an argument that was not really relevant to them.

That’s right.

And what we’re discussing should not have that critique applied to it, correct?

Repeat that question?

Well, people thought that MacArthur made an argument against a worst-case scenario that a lot of Reformed charismatics, for instance, feel would not be applicable to them.

That’s right. Though I’m not terribly familiar with MacArthur’s book I certainly think that is the reaction most people have had. I have really taken not the big picture but focused in on one specific doctrinal tenet, and specifically the tenet of continuationism, and tried to avoid smearing people, not that MacArthur did that of course, or intentionally did that, but trying to avoid smearing people with all the things that are under the label charismatic that they may not hold. I’ve tried to stick pretty much to a single issue and prosecute it in the book.

In the book you follow a cascading argument. Would you be able to give just a brief overview of that argument?

Sure. Let me give you a little background and then I’ll give you the brief overview. In doing my doctrinal program at Southern Seminary we had to do a reading and I was constantly perturbed and disturbed by the assumption of a lot of theologians that the whole cessationist point of view was kind of nonsensical. And that was the point of view of some of the people we read. That’s not the view of Southern seminary, of course. The people we read in my doctoral program (and at the same time these people that would assume that cessationism was nonsensical and not even discussable) would in almost the same breath admit or assume that Apostles no longer exist in the church today (“big A” Apostles). And I thought ‘that’s inconsistent.” And that was really the birth of my desire to prosecute and my understanding of what I call the cascade argument which is fundamentally this:

That we must begin as cessationists with what is most clear in Scripture and it is also admitted by many continuationists, and that is that there are no longer “big A” Apostles, or what I might call, strictly speaking, Apostles of Christ or the church. But what I argue is that that is a great or even fatal admission for continuationists to make, and it is also something that’s made plain in the Scriptures. If there are no Apostles of Christ that creates the precedent for saying that, at least in certain respects, the apostolic period and the church today are distinctly different because the absence of Apostles of Christ is a great difference between the apostolic period and today. The first gift, the most important gift, is now missing in the church. I think that exposes a fundamental flaw in continuationist argument and in the mockery of cessationism that you meet in some circles.

Then I argue that if Apostles are no longer in the church that creates a precedent for discussing the issue of whether prophets are in the church. And then I bring, on the basis of the absence of the Apostolic gift, arguments for the absence of the prophetic gift. And then on the basis of those two things I argue that tongues-speaking was a form of prophecy and on the basis of the precedent set by the absence of Apostles and prophets, we may also argue the absence of tongues-speakers. And with those three arguments set and clear I then proceed to say that we can also argue that miracle workers are no longer given to the church. And therefore you have a kind of cascade from Apostles to prophets to tongues-speakers to miracle workers.

So if you were not to grant that the “big A” Apostles are no longer available to the church, then the argument would…you have to accept the upper level to then accept the lower.

It’s an argument from the greater to the lesser in a certain sense, that’s right. If someone were to reject the idea that Apostles of Christ had ceased, then of course that would be…they would not be able to accept the argument I bring.

Right, but you’re saying that even a lot of Reformed charismatics already do accept…

Oh yes. I think that’s true. Reformed charismatics would generally accept that. I think a lot of continuationists accept the idea that there are no longer Apostles of Christ in the world. I think Wayne Grudem, for example, accepts that proposition and would accept it if it’s properly framed and qualified. So that’s why I think the argument is so good, because it assumes something that I think is clear in the Scriptures and so clear that many continuationists themselves accept it.

So you’re pointing out what you call a fatal flaw. You’re pointing out what you feel is poor reasoning within their argument.

As I’ve tried to get inside, and I’m no expert on charismatics, but I’ve read them and tried to get inside their minds. I think there is, as I say in the book, the mentality that we ought to want to be exactly like the early church. In many senses that’s a very good thing and a very good mentality. They are supernaturalists and that’s a very positive thing as well. All I’m saying is that the assumption you have in many charismatics that the church ought to be just like the apostolic church - that’s a very attractive assumption in many respects - has a fatal flaw in it because the Bible is clear and most charismatics admit that there are not Apostles of Christ today.

Do you feel that this is a theological issue that belongs in the academy or is this an issue that every believer needs to wrestle with and address in his own mind?

I think this is an issue that has tremendous ramifications for members of local churches and not just pastors and certainly not just academicians. The reason is that it profoundly affects the character and practice of local churches with regards to their services. It also involves issues that are foundational to the Christian faith and which, if you don’t get this issue right, raise questions. For instance, while I admit someone like Wayne Grudem and other reputable continuationists certainly place the Bible on a level that is superior to any kind of prophecy that they admit today, nonetheless the assumption that there is continuing prophecy begins to raise all sorts of questions, maybe not right on the surface but just below the surface, about the Bible. For instance, as I argue in the book, the very structure of Old Testament Scripture is based on the idea of the infallibility of the prophetic word. When you get continuationists arguing that at least New Testament prophets are not infallible that begins to, I think, erode the foundation for what they want to hold and that is the superiority of Scripture to any modern prophecy and its fallibility. I think they hold it but I think they are eroding some of the foundation by the distinctions they are making about one kind of prophecy verses another.

And certainly the whole matter of the sufficiency and finality of Scripture is tied directly in with the whole premise of my argument and that is the nature of the apostolate.

Do you think it is possible to emphasize the miraculous, as continuationists do, without de-emphasizing Scripture? Is it possible to raise one without lowering the other.

I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking.

I think a lot of cessationists would say that with the increased emphasis placed on the miraculous, on ongoing revelation, you have necessarily de-emphasized the revelation we have in Scripture. Would you consider that a valid argument?

Boy, that’s a good question. I certainly want to admit that continuationist like Wayne Grudem and John Piper emphasize Scripture.

Absolutely. There is no doubt there.

There’s no question about their submission to the written Word. But you kind of lump two things together that I think I try to separate in the book and that is: a continuing revelation and prophecy is one thing. I argue that is not going on today. But when you talk about the miraculous, in that chapter of my book I try to make a very careful distinction between the gift of miracles (and the gift of miracle workers I should say) and the actual existence of miracles that may occur today - healings, maybe other supernatural occurrences, but they’re not tied to an individual in the way that a gift is. So I would make a distinction between miracle workers and miracles, between miracles strictly defined and miracles more loosely defined, and so I do think you can emphasize more than many evangelicals do the miraculous, and we probably should, without undermining our attachment to scripture.

What’s at stake in this discussion about continuationism and cessationism? In other words what might a continuationist gain if he were to see what you feel are the truths of Scripture and become a cessationist? What might he gain in his faith? What are the real practical ramifications?

Well, that’s a good question. When you ask that question my first reaction is what would John Piper or what would Wayne Grudem gain? And men like that - I’ll respond to that first of all - because those are the men that are very moderate continuationists. And obviously, because their views are so carefully defined and restricted, they don’t stand to gain as much as a lot of other people.

I would think you’d gain a tighter view of the nature of Scripture and a clear ability to defend the uniqueness of Scripture. I think you’d get a point-of-view that protects people from the danger that the mere admission of any kind of continuing prophecy puts them in. And I think you get some protection from the practice of tongues-speaking which is ultimately not going to be beneficial. It’s going to absorb a lot of energy, a lot of time, a lot of emotion on the part of Christians and if you’re any kind of continuationist, because these things exist, you obviously want them you want to aspire to them. I think you’re going to gain a tighter focus on the things that are really important in the Christian life and avoid being preoccupied, being distracted by, things the Bible teaches when rightly understood that don’t exist today and which, as they’re practiced today, commonly aren’t of benefit to the Christian. So that’s my response to the more moderate continuationists.

But you see, here’s the thing, Tim. I’ve tried to be very kind and focused on what all continuationists say and even the most moderate of them. But clearly the charismatic movement is not characteristically like Wayne Grudem and John Piper. The practice of tongues speaking and prophecy, as carefully as it’s defined and restricted in their theology, is somewhat rare and so when you take my thesis and begin to apply it more broadly to even mainline charismatic churches I think it’s going to serve to make a radically more Word-centered kind of Christianity. I don’t want to say that about Grudem and Piper, but they are theologians and pastors who understand all the issues and qualifications that they need to make even as continuationists. The people in the pew, the people in the Assembly of God churches out there, the other charismatic churches, aren’t making those restrictions and qualifications and for them I think my book would strike a tremendous blow - the thesis, the argument of the book - would strike a tremendous blow against something that is very distracting and takes them in an emotional and distracting direction that is not true to a Word-centered Christianity. I think my book would help them to see the problem and reject it root and branch and become more Word-centered and avoid a lot of the misguided practices and the false directions of life and guidance that they’re taking in response to the teaching of continuationist prophecy and tongues-speaking.

Read Part 2

I will post the conclusion to this tomorrow. Dr. Waldron and I continue to discuss the miraculous gifts and how an understanding of cessationism applies to God’s guidance and other important issues.