Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cessationism and continuationism, never mind the Torah, what do we think happened in the golden age when the canon was forming?

The debate between cessationists and continuationists within Protestantism is likely going to remain a permanent one.  The reason why can be approached from an ostensibly different direction.

In Mark Noll's book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis he points out when the United States could be identified as dominantly Protestant and evangelical in which the parties at least nominally all agreed to the authority and veracity of Scripture, the debate about race-based slavery was intransigent.  Noll, however, adds that what is important to notice about this time period was that it was not as though there were no answers. 

Evangelicals were able to make the case that while on textual and hermeneutical grounds slavery was permitted in biblical texts and all but universally accepted as an economic reality of ancient life there were not defensible exegetical grounds to employ this as a defense of race-based slavery in the United States.  Noll elucidates further that in rabbinical and Catholic intellectual traditions it was stated by a number of clerics that despite the fact that slavery was acceptable within the biblical texts nothing about American slavery was defensible on the basis of such an appeal.  Noll pointed out in his book, perhaps a bit dryly, that these voices regarding biblical interpretation and application were sidelined by American evangelical Protestants in the 19th century.

The bluntest way of putting it is that the average American evangelical Protestant wasn't going to accept any proposals from apostate Papists and Jews about what the Bible said about slavery. 

Which gets us conveniently right back into cessationism and charismatic theological debate.  You see, dear reader, it can sure look as though a comparable impasse will remain within Protestantism in the United States on this issue because while cessationists will appeal to sola scriptura, so will the charismatics.  Cessationists often seem determined to anchor their appeals to scripture itself and to the importance of sola scriptura as an end point to be affirmed in the process of fielding these debates at all.

The trouble is that there is no exegetically viable way of getting cessationism into canonical texts.  For another matter the issue becomes even more intractable if a cessationist is a complementarian who would defining "prophecy" as bound to anything like preaching and teaching.  Why would Paul provide instructions to women regarding prophecy if they were barred from prophecy simply for being women?  A charismatic who is complementarian could propose a number of ways this would work and the simplest textual explanation would be that because prophecy is not what is now identified as preaching or teaching (which were priestly roles in most cases anyway) that women prophecying in gatherings is simple enough. 

But if prophecy is "preaching" what about the daughters of Phillip the evangelist?  How could their gifts in prophecy have been recognized if by "prophecy" what was meant was authoritative teaching or preaching in some expository fashion?  One possible explanation is that the entire working definition of what prophecy was and what prophets did has been so constrained by debates about the veracity and authority of the canon that that debate shoves the very square peg of a sola scriptura concern into the round hole of what the real aim of prophecy was as described in the canonical texts that in many cases seem to be nothing more than a footnote to what charismatics and cessationists are probably really debating about, the nature and scope of institutional authority in religious movements.

Let's remind ourselves that these debates are settled, comparatively speaking, in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. 

As I've been writing for a few years now, if we anchor any definition and debate about the nature and role of prophets and prophecy in the canonical texts we may begin to find that the categories used by charismatics and cessationists turn out to be red herrings.  What if prophecy presupposed that accepted divine revelation, though sufficient and complete enough for a religious community to form and for individuals to have some understanding of the divine, was in itself considered insufficient enough in terms of comprehensive precepts to require supplements? 

To be more blunt still, Deuteronomy 16-18 presents us with what looks like a judicial precedent pattern.  The prophet is the end of the line after all other more readily available options are considered.  Let's also keep in mind that scholars like Frank Crusemann and Barry Webb have pointed out that prophecy did not initially include an eschatological component or even a predictive function.  What we did see, significantly in Judges, is a prophetic role that rebukes Israel for failing to be obedient to the divine revelation they already have.  And if we cast the net broader from Judges into the Samuel/Kings narrative we begin to see that Deborah was not the only prophet/judge, Samuel was, too.  The conflation of the prophetic office and activity with a judicial role in Israel is something that neither charismatics nor cessationists seem to have taken as seriously as they could.  The existence of a prophet within the OT granted that the case law and narrative of the Pentateuch was not so comprehensive as to preclude the necessity of divine consultation.  For that matter within the Torah itself cases emerged that could not be adjudicated without divine consultation via prophets.

And in the New Testament canon it is not a foregone conclusion that the teaching of Jesus would have accounted for the onset of a drought or a famine.  Enter Agabus.  Enter the daughters of Phillip the evangelist.  Enter Paul's instructions that desiring to prophecy was a good thing and that teaching prophecy should not be despised in the pastoral epistles.  So what was it?

Whatever it was, in light of the canonical body of literature, it was not "writing books of the Bible" even if it could eventually include that.  We must remember that within the times of prophets someone like Jeremiah was accused of being a false prophet and a traitor because of things said about the Temple and Jerusalem.  We must also bear in mind that Jeremiah wrote that claiming to rest on the scriptures is worthless when the scribes and teachers of the law have perverted the scriptures themselves into lies. 

Complementarians don't have a strong case that women serving as prophets were somehow defying a natural order.  There's nothing in the narrative of Judges about Deborah or about Huldah's role in Josiah's reforms that suggest either woman was arrogating some role that was inappropriate to their gender.  Even if we take as given the narrative arc in Judges having to be Israelite decline into Canaanite customs there is still no condemnation of Deborah as prophetess and judge.  And the combination of prophet with judge, if we look at Deuteronomy 16-18, makes a great deal of sense.  After all, what was the Mosaic law for?  Yes, Christians can talk about how it points to Jesus but let's not forget that it was also considered a foundation for case law in a civil society as well as a religious text.

Furthermore, what we can see in Deuteronomy 16-18 is that the trajectory is to rely on case law at the level of the clan or tribe first; to consult chieftains and judges when cases are difficult; to go to the judge of the nation or the priest when cases are too difficult even then; and that if the priest cannot divine the solution to not resort to divination but to consult a prophet.  To be sure we're told of priests who also had prophetic abilities but to give it a deliberately and overly American spin here, what we see is a recognition that there were going to be separations of powers and offices more often than not.  Consolidating the prophetic and priestly role, or consolidating the prophetic and judicial role, was unusual enough that we get mention of those unusual cases in canonical texts rather than an attempt to name the names of people who may have had just one role or the other and not both. 

If the nature and scope of prophecy was as an ultimate ad hoc committee dealing with a situation that was not directly or even indirectly addressed in accepted divine revelation available up to the time then it would make sense why prophecy would continue even after a canon was closed.  After all, Deuteronomy 29:29 didn't preclude the writing of psalms any more than early Christian authors thought it precluded the writing of pastoral epistles.  While a cessationist might say the apostles knew they were writing scripture that's immaterial to the fact that the scriptures accepted up to that point, whatever those were, were considered to point to Jesus within a truly Christian understanding, and yet epistles were getting written anyway.  Whatever was revealed was incomplete.

And if Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever then two different closed canons still include instructions on how to field prophetic activity.  Even if the canon of the New Testament is closed instructions about women prophesying with an uncovered head remain.  If prophecy is grounded in a judicial/civil/community role that fields gaps in case law in the Torah then by extension prophecy in the New Testament would take the form of Agabus anticipating drought and famine that would not be mentioned in teaching from Jesus or in apostolic transmission of early Christian doctrine. 

If we keep this in mind that the aim of prophecy is not really to "create" scripture or to supplant existing scriptures but to supplement them while being subordinate to them.  And if that is the case then neither the charismatic nor the cessationist are necessarily getting anywhere trying to focus on the canon being open or closed.  The relationship of prophetic activity to the canon seems to have changed.  The books of the prophets began to emerge, let's say, as the tilt toward exile became more and more inevitable.  Israel was nearly always flirting with if not outright practicing polytheism for much of its history and in a way this doesn't seem to have ended until after the exile kicked in, at the risk of casting the portrait in terms that are way too simple.

Again, let's consider that as scholars of Judges have pointed out, what prophecy looked like in the time of the Judges isn't precisely the same thing as what it looked like in the monarchy or in exile.  If charismatics and cessationists just debate what is supposed to be happening now in light of what people would claim was normative in the apostolic period that is very probably missing the boat.  What, if this is even possible to discover, would have authors from the apostolic period have understood the role and activity of the prophet to be?  It may have been considerably more and considerably less than charismatics and cessationists might insist it must be.    If as yet no cessationist has come up with a particularly exegetical case for cessationism from NT canon the charismatic has seemed too uninterested in grounding definitions of prophetic or apostolic activity in the canon.  Not all apostles had the same role as the Twelve and it may be worth noting that several of the churches founded by Paul don't exist and didn't exist.  Let's playfully propose that while Paul wrote documents that became canonized the churches he founded did not necessarily survive while, if we're going to heed traditions, that churches reputed to have been founded by the Twelve made it far enough to let us witness debates about which one of them is greatest.  :)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written and thought provoking.

I recommend you look at "A High View of Scripture?", written by Craig Allert, who teaches up at TWU. It is about the formation of the Canon, and very valuable in my opinion. Here is a review from WTS bookstore: