Sunday, September 04, 2011

Mark Driscoll, cessationists, and God's love letter to us written by committee

I.e. Mark Driscoll says he sees stuff and Christians and unbelievers alike have lots to say about this:

I should mention that most people don't bother to actually source most of Driscoll's statements about spiritual superpowers very accurately. Some statemens he has made come from the 2008 series on Spiritual Warfare (yeah, I did listen to nearly all of it). Other statements are from a "christus victor" sermon that goes all the way back to 2008.

But since Driscoll-preaching 2008 was the great year of recycling whether it was the doctrine series or rehashing stuff from the 2005 Atonement series or letting campus pastors preach through Jonah (they did a good job, actually), and culminating in 2008's quarter-year rerun of Peasant Princess Driscoll critics would do well to recognize that material mentioned in 2008 was frequently material that had been taught in some form or another in the previous nine years. The spiritual warfare marathon was for pastors and leaders and not made available in services. You had to know about it and go looking for it in the audio library in order to find it.

One of the common objections in Team Pyro side of things is that the Spirit couldn't be giving Driscoll these visions because essentially Driscoll says he's shown movies of sexual abuse and affairs and violence. So God divinely siphons hardcore porn into Driscoll's mind and that's spiritual discernment? That doesn't sound like something the Spirit would do. If Driscoll were a true prophet and even a real Christian this couldn't be. Either he's a sideshow salesman of snake-oil or a demonized madman. Driscoll is trotted out as an example of the evils of all continuationist theology. I'm not exactly a continuationist or a cessationist at this point because it strikes me that both sides are essentially playing political and institutional games with the Scriptures to prop up the team they're on that they believe should have more clout. Call that cynical but that's where I'm at.

Considering Driscoll's warnings and lengthy discourses on the perversions of men I must grant Team Pyro and other similar critics a significant point, if Driscoll's so eager to hammer men for sleeping around and watching porno why is it Driscoll claims that God's occasionally downloading the hardest of hardcore stuff into his brain during spiritual counseling sessions? See in my Pentecostal days when someone got the sense the Spirit was showing him or her something things were pretty vague.

Yeah, I already know what both cessationists and atheists would say about that and cessationists have to consider that their being in the same field as the atheist on this is more telling in its way then they are going to admit. The main trouble of a formal cessationist position has been, at its most rudimentary level, building an expectation in Christian life that though we read about miracles and divine guidance in the lives of saints in the scriptures absolutely none of that is for us. Well, the scriptures are for us but everything we get is in the scriptures, which is better than, say, Abraham speaking with God about the city of Sodom, or Moses speaking with Yahweh personally.

You see the reason people like Driscoll can say that cessationism is a road that ultimately leads to atheism is not so much because Driscoll thinks a cessationist like John MacArthur is an atheist. He's a former student of MacArthur's flamboyant, winner-take-all rhetoric, though, so when Driscoll says that the cessationist is basically moving in the direction of atheism (or deism) is because he'z zeroing in on what amounts to a spiritual double standard. We speak confidently about saints in the past, before the canonisation process was done by the still catholic church. But anyone who claims any of those sorts of things may be possible now is basically wrong.

Pentecostalism is rife with all sorts of theological weaknesses but contrary to the claims of various confident cessationists whose goal is merely to make a list of every heresy known to Christendom and draw a straight line through them to modern Pentecostals, the movement began with a dissatisfaction with the deadness of American churches. We can say that while Pentecostalism's "second blessing" pneumatology is deficient and has led to a lot of chaos it would be dishonest historically and in plain old daily life to claim that the average Christian can meaningfully speak about a relationship with God of the sort described in the scriptures.

As Michael Spenser used to put it, there are those of us who are real Christians who don't hear voices in our heads that we are sure are proofs of God's speaking directly to us. As I put it now regarding the cessationist, if the Bible is God's love letter to us then it was a letter put together over thousands of years and overseen in a generation by a committee of people who figured out what manuscripts fit the best description of who Jesus was. The compilation being canonised, we were given the text, those of us who can read anyway, as something we could consult. Given how many people over millenia couldn't read to say that the Bible is God's love letter to us meant that it was for most Christians prior to the printing press a love letter that had to be read to them by someone trained to read. And as love letters go, I suppose it's got the decorum of a love letter a husband would write to his wife that was read to her through either a child or a family servant.

Which gets back to the concerns about Driscoll's super powers. Because, after all, this is all of a piece, it is important to note that many Christians see in the "love letter" analogy how remarkably indirect God is about how He communicates to the vast majority of believers. Anyone who claims to get a special dispensation of spiritual powers has a lot to answer for and rigorous criteria. Of course Driscoll would say he must be meeting those criteria in some way or he wouldn't be getting these things from the Holy Spirit. Of course cessationists say that's precisely what can't be true.

And if it can't, for the sake of discussion, why do American cessationist Protestants spend any time talking about a personal relationship with God when the relationship is so indirect in all its mediated forms that the relationship is, well, mediated through the local church, the local preacher, the personal devotional time, and so on? I mean you take the position far enough what you get is not a deistic position or an atheistic position per Driscoll's polemic, you get the idea that he cannot God call his Father who does not regard the Church as his mother. Where ... oh where do we hear or read these sorts of sentiments? I notice at least one Pyromaniac has been writing for First Things. Well, I guess in a strange sort of way that answers that question, doesn't it?

But no Protestant from a cessationist camp would say "I don't really have a personal relationship with Jesus". They can't say that! If they did they'd have to concede the Church/church/God's people play an indispensable and unavoidable role in mediating the presence of Christ to His people. We can't have that! The solas! Of course there are plenty of Protestants who grant that ordinary means of grace are essential to Christian living but there are plenty of cessationists who don't really want to affirm that, or won't affirm it officially. There aren't any sacraments except baptism and communion, but the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession, or the Book of Common Prayer, or the Book of Hours, or the Canon of Repentance, or the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Pentecostals are all heretics because they claim to have spiritual superpowers but that's not, having grown up in Pentecostal circles, what drives their theology. They want to be able to feel the presence of God. How dare they want that. Bad, bad Pentecostals! You should be content with the love letter from God compiled by committee read to you by other people instead of wanting the heretical emotional experiences of actually being shown or told you are loved by the Lord.

I have other directions I want to go with respect to reflecting on the role God's people play in mediating His presence in the world but that will take time. The thing I notice about what Christians (Protestants at least) say and don't say about a "personal relationship" with Jesus on these kinds of occasions is that we pay lip service to an idea we know we don't live. The reason liberals and non-evangelical Christians consider evangelicals and fundamentalists to be jokes of spirituality is that we have a history of shouting about how we've got a "real" relationship with the risen Christ all those other Christians, if we dare even call them Christians, just can't possibly attain. Oh, except for those stupid Pentecostals. But if we admit that we DON'T have a personal relationship with God in the vast majority of our lives then we're in a place that may be scary.

So while Driscoll can get assaulted rhetorically by people who can't believe God would show him sexual assaults and I grant there's some seriousness to those concerns, if we put it in the context of the lip service evangelicals and fundamentalists pay to the "personal relationship with Jesus", we begin to see the lady doth protest too much. These are people who are complaining that a man publicly talks about how God gives him spiritual super powers to do his job as a pastor. Well, THAT can't be right! But if it isn't right ... then what is a "real" "relationship" with Jesus supposed to look like? Reading that church committee assembled love letter from Jesus, or having it read to you if you're not literate?

If that's a personal relationship with the risen Christ that's an awfully indirect one! It's like you're a junior high boy and you get a note from a girl who got it from a girl who's friends with a girl who says she likes you. You sit there wondering why the girl can't just come up to you and talk with you. Well, so it is with the cessationist conception of God. It's not that the girl doesn't exist, it's that if you're being told you need to have a personal relationship with and personal faith in Christ it sure would be handy if there were some, as Josh McDowell loves to put it, evidence that demands a verdict. She likes me! I got this note.

And for junior high boys that is, for a time, good enough. In fact I would suggest that a proper eschatological understanding of Christ and His work tells us that this actually is the kind of personal relationship with God we have. It's just not how evangelicals and fundamentalists want to sell the relationship because if they did that a lot of people would realize that it's not so different from the "impersonal" churches they could be going to.

But there are those Christians who, like high school boys I guess, don't want just words on the page. They're older now and they want to see some action or get some action. This is the point at which skeezy pop stars write songs with lyrics about how "more than words" is what they need from the girl. What would the girl do if the boy took the words from her? How would she show him how she feels? She could do something that would make sure the boy already knew how she felt about him and wouldn't need to use all those words, not that he doesn't want to hear the words but ... you know. I might be betraying a general loathing of love songs here that I might have to get over some day. There are very few of them I can stand and those usually on musical grounds rather than the lyrics but I digress.

What I meant to get at is that if we're honest about how indirect our relationship with Christ is as a Christian we will be able to better appreciate the appeal of a person being able to say "I see things". If cessationists could back up the truck a bit and concede that they have never had a truly personal relationship with God the way they do with, say, a sister or brother; a wife or husband; a friend or cousin, then it would be easier to provide a gentler critique of the problems inherent in charismatic and pentecostal theology.

The foundation of the critique could be anchored in, ironically, a 1 Corinthians foundation. An over-realized eschatology leads to sin because we think we have powers and liberties we have not necessarily been given because we lack the motive of maturing Christian love as the basis from which to serve each other with the gifts the Lord has already given us, gifts that we can identify in ourselves and each other, as well as gifts that we can seek to obtain. The cessationists and continuationists will remain so busy saing "I'm of John MacArthur" or "I'm of Warfield"; or "I'm of Mark Driscoll" or "I'm of Wayne Grudem" that these people have fallen into the error of Corinth while thinking they are correcting someone else's problems!

Paul's first letter to the church of Corinth is something that presents us with problems among cessationists and continuationists because Paul doesn't seem to care to define what gifts are and aren't supposed to be normally operating within the church. Personally I thank God that's how things played out in Paul's correspondence. Paul is concerned about what spiritual gifts are being abused but he is even more concerned with the partisan bickering and lack of mutual love in the church that causes them to tolerate sexual immorality, litigate against each other, and reinforce abuses and inequalities in love feasts where the poor don't even manage to eat and others have died due to the abuse of food and the Lord's supper. The fat Baptist cessationist who's dealing with heart disease is finally no better than the skinny fake-and-baked charismatic who is obsessed with a prosperity teaching. Paul's rebukes to Christians in Corinth covers both sorts of sins.

I am not here attempting to diminish concerns some people have about Driscoll's claim to spiritual superpowers. But I want to peel a few layers off of the onion here and bring up some issues that aren't so readily discussed by pro and con folks on Driscoll. This is why hymnals and prayer books and confessions and the like become battlefields and subjects for war within churches. They become battles because despite the lip service paid by evangelical and fundamental Protestants about "personal relationship with Jesus" we know on the ground level that this "relationship" is mediated. Even our relationship to Christ is mediated by what authors we read, which Christians we share faith with (as in we're sharing a journey following Christ with them, not proselytizing them to what we consider to be a truer faith).

The Christians who think they have just a "me and Jesus" relationship still have a relationship with Christ mediated by how they heard about Christ to begin with. This is why when a man or woman who led you to Christ renounces Him or is mired in terrible sin your heart sinks a little because, in a way, it should. You should feel grief that a brother or sister in Christ is lost, and in a way it's the kind of sinking feeling you have if you've seen friends or family divorce. "Wow, if they couldn't get things to work out how am I supposed to do any better?"

So a cessationist fan of MacArthur may find it scandalous that Driscoll talks about God siphoning explicit sex scenes into his brain. He or she may find it crazy to imagine that a personal relationship with God would involve seeing that sort of sin, God can't see that kind of sin. Well, if God can't look at that kind of sin then He couldn't have taken pity on us sinners and died for us on the Cross, could he? I think we know there's some rhetorical flourish in "God can't look upon sin." God can look upon it and decide to flood the world to destroy the sinful human race, save Noah and his family. It never ceases to surprise me how pedantic and selectively literal we Christians can be with biblical texts when we're assuming someone else is wrong. I shouldn't be surprised, as a fellow Christian, but I admit that I still am surprised.

But in a way the cessationist is saying that it seems crazy that Driscoll says God is siphoning porno straight into his brain, he is saying in a sense that a person really can't talk about having a personal relationship with God. There has to be a mediator. Jesus. Jesus is revealed to us in that love letter assembled by committee with explanatory notes by John MacArthur. See, the John Macarthur Study Bible is in its own way a sort of miniature magisterium, isn't it? Driscoll's paradoxical heresy and evil is that he actually talks as though he has a personal relationship with God. I'm not here saying everything Driscoll says is right, far from it. I'm just camping out on a pattern I have noticed with cessationists who use Driscoll as an example, and even non-cessationists who would use Driscoll as an example of how "not" to do things in the personal relationship with God part.

I have plenty of other things I could write but I have to set an arbitrary limit somewhere. Tonight/today the arbitrary limit is that I have written about how cessationist evangelicals and fundamentalists can be seen as hypocrites on the "personal relationship with God" issue, just as charismatics like Driscoll are hypocrites if they claim that cessationists take a path that ultimately leads to atheism or deism. The alternative, that our experience of Christ our mediator is itself entirely mediated through His people is quite possibly too scary for either the charismatic Calvinist or the cessationist. Why? Because then our responsibility as God's ambassadors to the world and to each other becomes far, far weightier. If it doesn't scare the crap out of you thinking about it then you haven't thought about it at all. Frankly to go by blogs and counterblogs using Driscoll as a case study for what's wrong with those other people ... I get the sinking feeling a lot of folks really haven't thought about it very much, including me.


chris e said...

I'm not sure the original claims were all that obscure. I seem to recall similar claims by Mark Driscoll in the series on Spiritual Gifts - which was available on the podcast and vodcast.

I also don't see that the solas mitigate against a communal aspect to our relationship with God. Similarly, 'personal relationship' (for which read 'near romantic') seems to owe more to Victoriana read through 20th century individualism rather than anything the Reformers or the Apostles had in mind.

I'm also not sure that simply yearning for something dignifies the yearning. I don't think that the Bible dictates that I should see God as just like my human best friend - except for being slightly bigger.

I have no truck with teampyro style cessationism, but extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence - and Pentecostalism is long on the first and short on the second.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I consider both cessationists and charismatics to be wrong. I am not close to done writing about this but it's Labor Day weekend. :)