Sola Scriptura and Therefore Charismatic
Dr. Brown opens Chapter 6 by recounting his testimony as to why he believes healings and tongues are for today. He begins by telling about his coming to faith in Christ when he was 16 at a Pentecostal church. However, expectations of healing and supernatural happenings that never really materialized in his immediate circles caused him disillusionment.
He left the Pentecostal church in 1977 and began pursuing Reformed, cessationist theology, [AF, 164]. Becoming influenced by the publications of Banner of Truth and such books as B.B. Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles, he swiftly separated himself from his early experience as a Pentecostal.
When his sister-in-law was miraculously healed of an elbow injury, however, even having her injury called out from an audience of thousands by the speaker, Brown began to reevaluate the hard-heartedness toward miracles he had developed from his cessationist leaning ways. He then experienced his own personal revival at his church where people were slain in the Spirit and spoke in tongues. His heart was set ablaze with a passion for God and being so shocked with what he had encountered with God, he determined to do an intense study of divine healing throughout all of Scripture.
The ultimate determiner of whether or not healings and tongues are still active in the church has to be the Word of God. Non-charismatics like John MacArthur and all the speakers at the Strange Fire conference say they believe in Sola Scriptura, or the great Protestant doctrine of “Scriptures alone.” But Brown asks, “Would anyone really become a cessationist based upon reading the ‘Scriptures alone?’” [AF, 169]. If a Christian was to seriously study the “Scriptures alone,” there is no way he could conclude that any of the spiritual gifts, especially tongues and healings, have ceased.
He then turns to an extensive study demonstrating that cessationism cannot possibly be the conclusion a Christian will come to if he was to read the “Scriptures alone.”
“In short,” Brown writes, “it can be demonstrated that:
1. The New Testament clearly states that these supernatural gifts will continue until Jesus returns.
2. The New Testament encourages the use of these gifts.
3. The New Testament never states that the gifts will cease in this age.
4. In light of the consistent, multifaceted testimony of the Scriptures, the burden of proof is clearly on the side of the cessationists, since they must tell us where the Word of God states plainly that the normal, expected, and encouraged practice found in the New Testament is not to be the normal, expected, and encouraged practice today.
5. Therefore contemporary, documented reports of healings and miracles, performed in the name of Jesus for the glory of God and for the good of the Church and the world, should be embraced rather than scorned [AF, 171-172]“
Brown then develops those proofs for continuationism by outlining what he believes the Scriptures alone teach concerning supernatural gifts and their continuance for today.
First, he appeals to the miracles of Jesus and His proclamation that the Kingdom of God has come. When one reads the Gospels there is a important connection between the Kingdom of God and divine healing. The “Kingdom of God” equates to the “rule of God,” and where God rules, Satan’s dominion is broken. Light has overcome darkness, captives have been delivered, the sick are healed, and demons will be driven out [AF, 174-175].
Brown goes on to explain that Christ’s miracles were clear “indicators” of the inbreaking of the Messianic kingdom. Miracles are what happen when God arrives, and since the Messianic kingdom never left the earth when Jesus ascended to heaven, that doesn’t mean the kingdom went with Him [AF, 176]. Thus Christians must expect miracles to continue.
Brown then turns his attention to explaining the divine purpose of miracles.
Non-charismatics teach that miracles functioned only as signs. They merely affirmed to the Jews that Jesus was the promised Messiah and confirmed to the Jews and gentiles the Gospel message of the apostles. Instead, Brown states that nearly all of the miracles of Jesus spring from the character of divine compassion. The sick and suffering were healed, liberty was granted to the captives of Satan, and forgiveness of sins was granted to sinners. His healings were way more than just proving Himself to the Jews. Jesus had compassion upon those who were suffering and out of His abundant mercy would restore them to full health.
Furthermore, His healings were an earthly expression of His Father’s heavenly will. The heart of God is compassion, lovingkindness, and grace, and when people came to Jesus, He would heal them without fail [AF, 185]. The Father remains the same; Jesus remains the same; and the Spirit remains the same. Where does the Bible even hint of that changing?
Additionally, Jesus promised Christians in John 14:12 that they would do greater works than He did. The universality of Christ’s language in John 14:12 without doubt assures Christians that they will for sure do greater works than Jesus.
And then lastly, the healings of Jesus were connected with the power (dunamis) of the Spirit. When He healed, the Scriptures record that the power of the Spirit was manifest. When Christ commissioned the apostles, they were told they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). That not only means boldness; rather it referred in particular to the supernatural endowment of divine power to work miracles in Jesus name thereby testifying to His Resurrection from the dead [AF, 191].
The dunamis of the Spirit is also promised to all believers even to this day (1 Corinthians 12:10, 28-29; Galatians 3:5). And so, if the Spirit that comes upon believers today carries the dunamis or power of God why shouldn’t we expect to see some of the same demonstrations of power that took place in the Gospels and Acts [AF, 192].
Thus, with those major points in mind, Brown concludes with a challenge to all cessationists to provide him with explicit passages that nullify what the whole of Scripture teaches on the miraculous gifts. Because nowhere does any NT author say that the impartation of the Spirit was given for a few decades, at most, and nowhere does the NT say that the gifts were only given to confirm the apostle’s message. Rather, they are the gracious workings of the Spirit through the body for the common good and they will continue until the Lord Jesus returns [AF, 200].
Review and Analysis
This chapter is probably one of the longest in his book, and it provides a clear and concise outline of the classic Pentecostal and charismatic understanding about signs and wonders-style spiritual gifts like tongues and healings. In fact, a lot of what is argued in this chapter has already been articulated by Jack Deere in his book, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, which is his testimony of how he became a charismatic. (His book, by the way, has been answered by Thomas Edgar’s masterful work, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit.)
Chapter six is, in my mind, the apex of Brown’s entire presentation, because he finally takes his readers to the Bible to make a biblical case for why he believes what he believes. Up until this point, much of what he presents against MacArthur and the Strange Fire conference is, in all honesty, his opinion and hearsay testimony against MacArthur’s criticisms of Pentecostalism in church history and the modern world. Here in this chapter we finally have some Scripture to interact with.
This chapter also contains a number of aggravating side issues I wish I had time to review. For example, Brown comes close to pulling a Frank Viola by insinuating that MacArthur believes “the perfect” of 1 Corinthians 13:10 is the closing of the NT canon. Citing a review by Thomas Schreiner in which he gives something of a wishy-washy critique of the Strange Fire book, Brown highlights his positive comments that 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 can be used to support continuationism until the Second Coming. He gleefully points out that a cessationist like Schreiner concludes the exact opposite about that text than what most modern cessationists do who argue it teaches the gifts ceased with the closing of the NT canon [AF, 170-171].
Though he doesn’t attribute that view to MacArthur directly, it is implied that this has been the majority view of most cessationists that have only in recent times abandoned it. As Lyndon Unger has demonstrated in his review of Viola’s specious critique of Strange Fire, that view has never been MacArthur’s, and I would add, neither has it been the majority view of cessationists, who generally believe it is either the Second Coming or the eternal state. I’m made to wonder why Brown even raises that point about “the perfect,” seeing that MacArthur has argued against it in his own published material addressing the charismatics.
At any rate, there are several similar rabbit trails like this one, and in many respects they are important ones to investigate because it reveals the legitimacy of one’s criticisms, but I’ll try to center my review and analysis around his key, biblical presentation, so let me move along.
It may be helpful to begin with the term “Sola Scriptura” in the title of the chapter.
Traditionally, the term has its roots with the Reformation. Protestants refer to Sola Scriptura in the sense that the Bible alone is the Church’s final and absolute authority for faith and practice, apart from the Roman Catholic view of Sola Ecclessia, or the Church alone being the final authority for faith and practice. Consider a couple of definitions:
Pastor David King writes this formal definition of Sola Scriptura,
Historically, the Bible alone has been regarded by Protestantism as the directive and definitive expression of the mind and will of God, and therefore, the final authority for faith and the life of the Church of Jesus Christ. In other words, holy Scripture is not regarded as the subordinate standard subject to the authoritative norms of other standards, nor a norm that rules (norma normans) among the norms of equal or higher authority, but as the norm that norms. [Holy Scripture The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Vol. 1, 237-238].
James White provides a more clarifying definition,
Sola Scriptura literally means “Scripture alone.” Unfortunately, the phrase tends to be taken in the vein of “Scripture in isolation, Scripture outside the rest of God’s work in the church.” That is not it’s intended meaning; again, it means “Scripture alone as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church.” [Scripture Alone, 27-28].
Brown isn’t using the term “Sola Scriptura” in this chapter according to its historical understanding. Rather, what he has in mind is more along the lines of a “literal hermeneutic.” In other words, when Brown refers to Sola Scriptura, he means that if a Christian just reads the whole Bible alone at face value without any outside, preconceived, theological notions forced onto the text, no Christian could possibly come to the conclusion that the supernatural gifts of tongues, healings, and prophecy have ceased. Hence, any person who truly believes and practices “Sola Scriptura” will be a tongue-speaking, divine-healing seeking, prophecy-receiving Christian.
I agree with him that a more literal hermeneutic is the preferred approach to reading and interpreting the Bible (though I wouldn’t necessarily call it “Sola Scriptura”). Of course there are a number of governing factors that help to shape a literal hermeneutic like context, grammar, syntax, lexicography, authorial intent, audience, and so on. Those governing factors contribute to the theology surrounding what we believe about supernatural gifts. (By the way, Lyndon Unger also wrote a helpful article going into more detail about a literal hermeneutic).
Yet, in spite of his stated commitment to a literal hermenuetic in regards to what he insists Christians should believe about spiritual gifts, Brown appears to pick and choose how he applies his literalism.
For example, when I read Ezekiel 40-48, I see a description of a real, literal temple that will be built in the future, particularly after Jesus returns. As I have argued elsewhere, nothing in Ezekiel’s temple vision brings me to the conclusion that it is a spiritual temple that merely pictures the church, or the New Heavens and the New Earth, or whatever. Yet, in Brown’s second volume on answering Jewish objections to Jesus, he argues specifically for the non-literal interpretation .
Moreover, he has recently gone on record as suggesting that a non-literal interpretation of the word “day” could be a possible way to read the creation week of Genesis. When answering a group of objecting commenters who took issue with his view on the Hebrew word, yom, Brown writes,
“…it’s pretty clear that Hebrew yom has the same range of meanings as the English word day. More importantly, I’m convinced that the purpose of Genesis 1 is to teach us about God (and I also accept it as being accurate and true in whatever it says). Again, the more natural reading of the text points to a young earth; but it is absolutely not the only possible reading of the text, as I mentioned on the air as well.”
Now, I would imagine Brown would respond by saying there are good “exegetical” reasons why he doesn’t take those two things literally in the same way he does with the idea of continuing supernatural gifts. I also employ a robust literal hermenuetic when I read the Bible. I read the same passages about “miracles” Brown does, but I would argue there are extremely good “exegetical” reasons why I believe the whole of Scripture, when interpreted literally, tells us miraculous sign and wonders gifts ceased after the closing of the apostolic age. I draw that conclusion without any outside, preconceived notions blinding my reading of the Bible. I base it strictly on the text itself, or “Sola Scriptura.”
Now as I go forward, the reader has to keep in mind that Brown operates under a couple of presuppositions. First, he believes that when biblical texts speak of miracle workers or gifted individuals or the power of the Spirit, the implied meaning is the supernatural ability for ALL Christians in ALL ages to perform healings and miracles. Brown is extremely dismissive of the non-charismatic perspective that understands that signs, wonders, miracles, and healings were only for the purpose of authenticating the ministry of Jesus and His apostles. [AF, 180-184]
As I see it, however, if one were to apply Brown’s understanding of “Sola Scriptura” to the relevant texts, that authenticating nature of the sign gifts would be manifestly clear. This is the stated purpose for them according to John 20:30-31, Acts 2:22,42, 4:33, 5:12, 14:3, Romans 15:18-20, 2 Corinthians 12:12, and Hebrews 2:3-4. Once those signs served their purpose of confirming who Jesus was and His ministry, and the witness of the apostles and their proclamation of the Gospel message, the foundation of the church was laid, the apostles passed away, and those signs ceased their operation.
Secondly, Brown also seems to believe that cessationists are saying God could do no miraculous works today or that they never will happen. He implies what I call the Hume fallacy, which suggests that non-charismatics take an almost anti-supernatural, atheistic skeptical view of the works of God in the modern church. But cessationists are supernaturalists and far from being skeptical deists.
Cessationists believe the “gifts” of healings and tongues ended or ceased, not that God stopped working miracles or no longer does any thing supernatural. Cessationists certainly affirm what Lyndon has described as B.U.M.P.s, or Bizarre and Unusual Manifestations of Providence. They just don’t affirm that God BUMPs with the use of specially gifted individuals divinely blessed with the ability to lay hands on people and heal them instantaneously.
And I should further note that cessationists are not being atheistic and skeptical when they insist that the healings claimed by charismatics should match and equal the healings recorded in Scripture. Allegedly healing a hurt elbow or bad back or straightening a leg is not the same as a person laying hands on a leper and his disease scarred flesh instantly disappears and the individual’s skin is fully restored, or a man who has been a cripple for 40 plus years is instantly healed and his atrophied legs are repaired, the muscle tissue strengthened and restored to full function. Those are the kind of miracles of healing non-charismatics insist should be done.
So with that bit of background let me move on to Brown’s key arguments for continuationism:
The Coming of the Messianic Kingdom
The concept of the Kingdom of God is a vast one, so it is near impossible to address all the theology pertaining to it here in a review. Suffice it to say, Brown argues that Christ is the Messiah of the Kingdom of God and with His first coming, Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God. Since the Kingdom of God arrived, then God’s rule arrived, and where God’s rule is, the powers of darkness are broken. The miracles of Jesus, then, demonstrate the rule of God, and since the Kingdom of God never left when Jesus ascended to heaven, then we can expect miracles to continue among Christians.
Brown takes his understanding of the Kingdom of God from George Ladd, who wrote a number of books advocating what is called an “already/not yet” view of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is set into motion with Christ taking the Davidic throne, but it is not yet all here until His Second Coming. The late John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement, took Ladd’s “already/not yet” view of the Kingdom and added the element of signs and wonders to it. Because the Kingdom of God is already here with the inauguration of Christ’s death and Resurrection, and His being elevated to the Davidic throne, the miracles of the Kingdom are bestowed upon those who come under the rule of Jesus.
I would agree in part with what Brown is saying here. Jesus is, in fulfillment of Psalm 110:1, as proclaimed by Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:34, 35, sitting at the right hand of God and rules with Divine authority. But there remains unfilled elements of that Psalm that will not take place until Christ’s Second Coming, thus His Kingdom is not fully in operation.
Alva McClain, in his magisterial work, The Greatness of the Kingdom, stated that a “kingdom” entails three key elements: A ruler with adequate authority and power; a realm of subjects to be ruled; and the actual exercise of the function of rulership [McClain, 17]. Jesus is a ruler with adequate power to rule. Moreover, miracles were the signs that authenticated His authority to exercise His rule. They are tied directly to who He is the ruler over the Kingdom of God.
The major flaw with Brown’s argument is that nothing in Scripture suggests that those signs and wonders have to continue once Jesus ascended into heaven. Those signs and wonders were associated with the ruler and He is currently not on earth to rule over all the realm that has been granted to Him by the Father. Such will not happen until after His return when He will consummate the New Covenant and fully establishes His Kingdom here on earth.
Furthermore, He only invested that authority to perform signs and wonders in His immediate spokesmen, the apostles. They had a unique ministry with establishing the NT church and in a number of cases they laid hands upon particular individuals who also received the giftedness to do signs and wonders. The ability to do miracles authenticated the role of the apostles and their immediate disciples as divine spokesmen for the King. When they too died, that authority left with them as well.
Brown appeals to John 14:12 where Jesus says “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to the Father” and argues that the language used here is universal in scope. Meaning that Jesus is clearly stating that all Christians without exception will not only do the same miraculous works He did, but will do even greater ones than even He did.
Thankfully, Matt Waymeyer has helped me out by writing up a thorough response to Brown’s use of this passage. I refer readers to his discussion to get a fuller understanding of what Jesus was saying, but I’ll provide brief summary and some additional comments.
While it is true, as Waymeyer points out, that the language of Jesus is universal, it is only “universal” to a specific group: the immediate apostles to whom He was addressing. All of them certainly did works equal to, and even greater than, Jesus. So that promise of Jesus is not given to all believers throughout church history.
One of the key reasons, as Waymeyer notes, is the fact that Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that the gifts of healings and tongues are listed among the other gifts given to Christians and are distributed according to the Spirit’s will within the body of Christ. Thus not everyone can speak in tongues and heal because it is not the will of God for everyone to do so.
I would add that the alleged works that charismatics claim they do are nowhere near being the same quality and magnitude as those done by Jesus. Even charismatics recognize and admit this reality. For instance Jack Deere bluntly states,
“As I look across the body of Christ, I don’t see anyone who has the quality and quantity of miracles that took place in the apostles’ ministry. But that no longer leads me to conclude that God is not using people to do miracles and healings today, [Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, 68].”
Deere then goes on to explain why he believes God is using people to do miracles today in spite of the fact he doesn’t see anyone doing miracles like Jesus and the apostles. The “proof” he offers is several anecdotal stories from the so-called supernatural ministry of Paul Cain who was later exposed as being a secret homosexual and an alcoholic. Maybe I am a doubter, but if that is his “proof,” I am not inclined to offer my affirmation.
Charismatics, while insisting that Jesus promises all believers the ability to do greater works than what Jesus did, have a credibility problem. The reason being is that those works never materialize in any undeniable, verifiable public display. When Jesus and the apostles performed miraculous works, they did so in the public square first and foremost before unbelievers. That is a sharp distinction from healing services held at a large church or during a crusade at a basketball arena.
Additionally, Jesus and the apostles performed miracles without fail. Even Brown admits that in his chapter, [AF, 185]. If whoever believes in Jesus can ask God to demonstrate His healing and miracle working power through them [AF,188], then miracles of healings should be a common occurrence in every God-honoring church in the world whether or not they teach cessationism or continuationism. Yet we know this is not the case at all. Think of the parents who basically killed two of their children believing it was “lacking faith” to get their sick children medical help. There are countless thousands of individuals who prayed for healing and none ever came to them. Charismatics realize this bleak fact, of course, hence the reason they put in a “we believe God will use medical doctors, too” clause in their doctrinal statements. Note the vision statement at Brown’s home church, third paragraph from the bottom.
The Spirit will give you power!
Brown states that the word “power,” dunamis in the Greek, is used throughout the NT to speak of miracle working power. He notes a number of passages in the Gospels, Acts, and the epistles where the phrase, power of the Spirit is used to describe the ability of Christians to work miracles.
There are a couple of exegetical problems with that view. First, Brown attributes to the word dunamis one specific definition in every usage where it occurs in the NT, that being, divine power to accomplish or perform miracles. This is especially true, he says, when dunamis is coupled with the Holy Spirit. Yet any cursory review of its occurrences doesn’t necessarily mean it is referring to the ability to perform miracles.
Dunamis, according to the NIDNTT can mean not only “power,” but also “might,” “capability,” “ability,” “strength.” It carries the basic meaning of “The inherent capacity of someone or something to carry something out,” [NIDNTT, vol. 2, 601]. Context will help determine what is meant and dunamis does not automatically mean the power or ability to perform miracles as Brown suggests [AF, 190].
Consider Colossians 1:11 where Paul prays that his Christian readers will be “strengthened with all might (dunamis), according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy.” The dunamis talked about here is the Holy Spirit enabling ability to stand up with joyful patience and longsuffering particularly during trying circumstances. The dunamis certainly is from God’s Spirit, but the “miracle,” if we can call it that, is manifested in personal Godly character, not spectacular healing wonders.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18, the power (dunamis) of God unto salvation is the cross, which would mean the presentation of the Gospel. When Paul came to Corinth, certainly he performed the “signs of an apostle” among the people (2 Corinthians 12:12), but the true power of God was not a display of spectacular miracles, but the message of the Gospel which has the power to transform the lives of the people from being immoral pagans to becoming saints in Christ.
There are numerous other passages where dunamis is used in non-miraculous, ordinary fashion (though I don’t believe God-haters turned into God-lovers to be just “ordinary”).
A second exegetical difficulty with Brown’s understanding of power is that with nearly every passage where dunamis is connected to the Spirit and the ability to do miracles, either the works of Jesus are in view or the works of the apostles. Non-charismatics would expect for Jesus and the apostles to have the power to perform miracles because that is what the Bible tells us. The problem, however, is that nothing suggests that ability continues on throughout the whole of church history and is available for any and all Christians. Brown’s insistence that it does is merely his Pentecostal spin on the various passages.
The working thesis of Brown’s chapter begins with the unfounded presupposition that God promises to all believers throughout all the ages the ability to perform sign and wonders works. All that believers need to do is pray in faith, and healings can be claimed. If one were to truly apply “Sola Scriptura” argues Brown, that is the only conclusion an honest student of Scripture will draw.
On the contrary, if folks begin with that unfounded presupposition, they tend to read into the Bible what they want it to say regarding the work of God. The promise of God to give only the immediate apostles the ability to perform signs and wonders is now understood to mean that promise is extended to all Christians throughout all of church history. Passages are then interpreted according to that working presupposition.
But the reality of miracles, especially miracles on the level of what is recorded in Scripture, are not present. Certainly there are individuals who claim they are and they reproduce various testimonials that allegedly prove miracle workers serve within the body of Christ. But what miracle worker has laid his hands upon the scarred skin of a man severely burned from an automobile accident and watched it supernaturally return to normal? I would say none, but I don’t think that nullifies the view of Sola Scriptura or even a literal hermeneutic.
Brown provides a few other biblical passages to consider, so I will stop here with this general overview and return with a follow-up post that interacts specifically those key Scriptures he raises in this chapter.