I have been following with interest C.Michael Patton’s discussion of why he is not a Charismatic on his blog Parchment and Pen. I don’t know anything about the author of the blog but I find the subject both new and interesting to me from a Mormon pespective.
One of the arguments Patton puts forward that there are no longer spiritual gifts such as speaking tongues and prophecy, is that early and later church fathers didn’t think that such things.
He explains in his post Why I am not a Charismatic Part 5: An argument from history:
Notice what John Chrysostom (347-407), the great Antiochean exegete, says when he comes to 1 Cor. 12 about spiritual gifts.
“This whole place is very obscure . . . but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur, but now no longer take place.” (ECF 184.108.40.206.29.0)
Chrysostom is “ignorant” of the facts because of his experience of their “cessation.” He is not living in the time of a charismatic controversy, he is just stating the way things were in his day, just a few centuries after the last Apostle died. He is a de facto cessationist. If the gifts were still being practiced in his day, the implication is that he would have been able to explain to his listeners what these gifts were. But since they had ceased, he does not know how to explain this passage.
The same can be said of the great St. Augustine (354-430). Notice what he says when it comes to the gift of tongues.
“In the earliest time the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spoke with tongues which they had not learned ‘as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ These were signs adapted to the time. For it was proper for the Holy Spirit to evidence Himself in all tongues, and to show that the Gospel of God had come to all tongues [languages] over the whole earth. The thing was done for an authentication and it passed away.” (Ten Homilies on the first Epistle of John VI, 10).
Augustine limits the practice of the charismaton (particularly tongues) to the “earliest time.” Augustine believed that these were “signs adapted to the time.” The adaptation has to do with the necessity of authenticating the Gospel message. While Augustine gives more of a theological explanation for their supposed passing, he still seems to be a de facto cessationist. If you were to ask Augustine “How do you know these gifts ‘passed away,’” my guess is that he would simply say “Because they passed away. Because no one has them anymore!”
This early church de facto cessationism is not unlike the canon of Scripture. Why has the canon “closed”? Because God stopped inspiring writers to add to it. It is that simple. It is a de facto closing. Sure, some could provide a theological explanation as to why the canon closed (i.e. the fullness of time, the finality of Christ’s revelation, the completion of soteriological history, etc.), but the fact is the reason why people believe that the canon had closed was because it had closed. No inspired verified prophet or apostle was adding to it.
Mormons would refer to this lack of “verfied prophets” as evidence of the Great Apostacy. Leaving aside the argument of whether it is any such thing, I think it raises a compelling argument to those Evangelicals who do believe modern day prophecy is possible and happening:
If God is still speaking, why shouldn’t the canon be open, why can’t people now explain doctrine as well as Paul did? (a man who never met Jesus and knew him personally only through his claimed visions of the risen Christ).
It seems to me that you either believe that men like Paul could be around today or you don’t. If you do, then you should be open to considering what they reveal to be scripture. If you don’t then you are left with no one to guide you out of the possible pitfalls of the limited bible.
This exposes one of the problems of considering the Bible the infalliable or inerrent standard for anything about God. Ultimately the conventional interpretations become completely intractable doctrine, along with any possible mistakes made by the ancient authors or subsequent scribes and editors.
Here is a stylized hypothetical scenerio that shows the problem I am attempting to describe:
- Biblical author writes proposition A.
- Proposition A is basically true but is only truly understood in light of a belief in Proposition B.
- Proposition B is not found in the biblical text simply because the Bible is not an exhaustive theological treatise and we can assume much more was written and said about the religion of Jesus by his apostles.
- Without a belief in proposition B, a reader is likely to think that Proposition C must follow from proposition A.
- Proposition C makes Proposition B appear false or heretical.
- Those who believe only in the current Bible, are left unable to accept the true Proposition B over the false Proposition C.
Frankly, given the wide range of interpretations and unanswered questions that scripture raises, It seems to me that in order to believe that the Bible is all that it is cracked up to be, you have to believe that there is yet a lot more to be said. Unless there are current authoritative sources to fill in gaps, there seems a high probability that the current bible could lead people astray
In order to combat the consequences of scenerios like this, Evangelicals and other believers in sola scriptura have concocted implausible and ultimately unsupportable theories that the current Bible was essentialy edited by unseen forces to be whole, inerrent, and complete rather than a document shaped by the the accidents of history and human intervention that are surely shaped by a good measure of human falliability. I think its easier to believe that Jesus rose from the dead than believe that those that wrote about it got all of the facts right without injecting ANY errors of doctrine.
Indeed the author of the last verse of the Gospel of John admits that that Gospel was only the tip of the iceberg:
John 21:25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
I say unsupportable because I think that there is no compelling argument, either from the text of the bible, or from history or archeology that would suggest that the bible we have now was meant to be the only authoritave teaching on theology that should supercede all other teachings. (Most christians don’t even accept the sola scriptuar arguments and often consider extra-biblical tradition and contemporary teachings as authoritative as well. )
This leads me to think Evangelicals and other sola scriptorians (is that a term?) are in a bit of a dilemma:
- They either have to accept the cessationist arguments that prophecy does not happen, leaving them to the necessarily incomplete (and possibly misleading) teachings of the Bible or
- they believe that prophecy does currently exist but leaving them unable to accept true prophecy that may lead them in a direction that is not spoken of in the bible we have.
To use a well-worn analogy, Sola Scriptura seems to be like a tether around the sheep’s neck that would prevent from following a new benevolent shepherd very far (or even recognizing that a new shepherd is possible).
Of course these arguments are completely independent of whether Joseph Smith or Thomas Monson are such shepherds, but it seems to me that in order to avoid pitfalls you need a way to determine true prophets that goes beyond biblical scrutiny.