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CESSATIONISM, JACK DEERE
AND THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE

© Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA, Pastor


The following is a discussion on the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, revelation and the position championed by Dr. Jack Deere. While many in the charismatic movement do not carefully consider the doctrinal views or develop a good systematic theology, this cannot be said of Dr. Deere. In my experience, having been evangelized and baptized by charasmatics (Maranatha Christian Fellowship), I have only heard one or two men who were able to biblically defend the charismatic perspective on the gifts. One was a charismatic Bible church pastor in Columbus, MS and the other is Jack Deere, a former professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Dallas Theological Seminary currently with the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Many non-charismatic evangelicals have relinquished their position on these issues because of Dr. Deere's papers (presented at the Evangelical Theological Society Meetings, especially 1990 & 1991, and then 1996) and his book, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Zondervan, 1993). It is therefore vital to understand the position and arguments of Dr. Deere and reply to them or embrace them.
 
  • INTRODUCTION AND RELATED ISSUES
  • In the pages that follow, I attempt to discuss three crucial reasons for not embracing the position of Dr. Deere. While it is admitted at the outset that I would not pretend to hold my own in a discussion of the exegetical particulars of Dr. Deere's areas of specialty nor his general linguistic and exegetical skills; nevertheless, all believers are called to defend the faith (I Pet. 3:15; Jude 3), hold a sound theology (I Tim. 6:3; Tit. 1:13) and understand the nature and purpose of biblical revelation and submit to its authority (II Tim. 3:16-17; II Pet. 1:20-21, 3:16). It is because of these general responsibilities that I have labored to reply to the position of Dr. Deere and the growing numbers who are persuaded of the same view.

    I should clarify, at this point, what I am not saying also. I do not think that we must deny the possibility of contemporary miracles. A miracle is an event which is contrary to the normal working of nature (contra naturum) by an immediate and evident work of God for the purpose of His own glory. A miracle, therefore, can be seen. A miracle is an evident work of God. It is at this point that those in the charismatic and "Third Wave" movements are often misguided, if not down right deceptive.

    For the last five years while I have wrestled with this issue, one of which was spent leading worship in a church committed to the Vineyard/"Third Wave" theology, I have purposed to ask specific questions to those claiming miracle experiences. When an individual would begin to talk about "power encounters" and the "power of God" in miraculous works, I would ask the individual(s) the following questions:

  • What miracles have you personally eye-witnessed?
  • What took place, exactly?
  • Was the miracle like a miracle in the Bible? (healing from blindness, lameness, leprosy, or resurrection, etc.)
  • It is amazing, almost miraculous (!), that of the scores of individuals with which I have conducted this interview, all without exception are not truly eyewitnesses to a biblical miracle. A specific example may serve to illustrate this problem. At the 1991 Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Kansas City, MO, Dr. Deere presented the second paper on the continuing revelation. At that meeting, there was a panel discussion on miracles/God's power in missions which had a Pentecostal, a "Third Waver," a dispensationalist, and a reformed theologian. The discussion was virtually closed when toward the end of the meeting Dr. Charles Kraft ("Third Waver" and professor of anthropology and intercultural communication at Fuller Theological Seminary) appealed to his experience of continually/daily seeing miracles in his own healing ministry. Following the session I diplomatically went through the above interview only to find that miracles he was appealing to were healing from headaches and backaches. When I asked him about healing of the the biblical miracle-type, Dr. Kraft said, "I haven't really seen any of the 'biggies'--my gift is more for headaches." At this point it seems to me not a matter of theological positions and exegetical warrant, but simple honesty.

    I do not mean to imply that because no one that I have interviewed has eyewitnessed miracles that they do not exist. That would be the fallacy of hasty generalization. Further, I pray for and believe that God may directly intervene for the purpose of healing (James 5:16), or deliverance (cf. many Psalms), and perhaps other purposes. Nonetheless, I would not begin to shout "miracles, miracles!" from the highest mountain unless they pass the biblical criteria of organic change, externally evident, and unexplainable apart from the work of God. Further, even true contemporary miracles (though I have not been able to confirm that they do exist in my own experience) in answer to prayer should be distinguished from the miracles for the purpose of revelatory attestation (showing that revelation to be from God) by those possessing sign and revelatory gifts. I agree with Dr. Deere that there is no exegetical/biblical reason to deny that God would not do amazing and miraculous works today. However, I do deny that God is giving new revelation to latter day prophets which is "non-doctrinal" or for a specific situation. Guidance, direction, illumination, and similar experiences which are often categorized under "revelation" more appropriately fit within the continual sustaining work of providence by which God is intimately working in the world. It is my studied conviction that these experiences are not what the Old or New Testaments call "prophecy" or the "word of God." If we understand the gifts of word of knowledge/wisdom as non-revelatory gifts that continue, then they are just that--non-revelatory. If we take them to be revelatory, then they are words from God and are by definition not part of the continual sustaining work of providence by which God is intimately working in the world.

    Finally, I do not wish to abolish the subjective aspects of the Christian faith. The call to pastoral ministry and missionary service as well as knowing the will of God in prayer and decision-making all involve an important component of subjectivity. The Christian worldview foundationally stands on the objective Word of God (the Bible) providing for epistemological, ethical and aesthetic standards and supports rationality and the general reliability of sense perception. Within the Christian worldview the subjective area which involves personal factors such as relational dynamics, the appraisal of beauty, and many aspects of spiritual disciplines provides for a mutually supportive role for subjectivity. Christian subjectivity is in support of and consistent with objective rational biblical structures. Therefore, it is not because there is no place for subjectivity that I argue against Dr. Deere's position. However, subjectivity in the Christian worldview may not encroach on the sure Word of God in its objective dimensions.

    One of the most meaningful exercises a theologian can do is to discriminate between important assumptions and premises when dealing with an issue. The following set of questions clarify the key issues in the cessation debate. An important biblical theme to remember is I Thessalonians 5:19-21. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good. Though it seems sometimes that a good case for any position can be made, I am encouraged to remember that God expects believers to hold fast to that which is good. That assumes that we can identify the "good." At the end of Dr. Deere's second lecture (on revelation) he asserted several important correlative positions. First, he did not believe any new doctrine is being given. Second, that there is thus, no new Scripture. And third, Scripture judges current prophecy and claims of new revelation.

    While I would be inclined to agree with the supremacy of Scripture, this concession opens a seam in the very skillfully woven and tight-knit arguments of Dr. Deere. The point of criticism here is very simple: Why no new Scripture? What is the basis, given the position of the continuation of revelatory gifts, for Dr. Deere's insistence on a closed canon?

    If he turned to the locus classicus of Jude 3 to demonstrate a close of the canon, then could that same text not be applied to any revelation, modern or scriptural? Yes it could; that is exactly what cessationists (those who do not believe in the continuation of the revelatory gifts) argue. You cannot have a closed canon on the basis of those passages and not have closed "new" revelation by the very same texts. Either it must be totally open like Mormonism or totally closed because the very arguments used to close the canon could also be equally applied to the close of revelatory gifts.

    Dr. Deere did not give any reason for his position on the closed canon/supremacy of Scripture. He seemingly demolished the cessationist (revelational cess.) point of view, but at the end of a thorough exegetical/theological scathing of cessationism he said, "Just to head off a few questions let me say that I believe this revelation should be judged by Scripture and I believe that there is no new doctrine..." But what he just demolished also applies to Sola Scriptura.

    I understand very well why cessationists argue for no new doctrine, because the Bible is finished along with all new revelation (and the substance of new revelation in biblical times is in the New Testament). But, on the basis of Dr. Deere's principles, why does he believe there is no new doctrine and that the Bible is complete? It seems that he either (1) believes this solely because of a subjective/fideistic reason (apart from any evidential basis) or he (2) must point to the objective verification of the Word of God in Scripture in its miraculous attestation. The view (1) of fideism may be consistent with most charismatic ideology, but it is inconsistent with the "Third Wave" theology which stresses miracles as demonstration (even in evangelism and especially in missions). A view such as (2) would be consistent with the general argument of power evangelism (cf. John Wimber's book by this title) which asserts that the gospel is proven to be true by miraculous attestation (and such attestation continues). However, if such an argument (2) is used, Dr. Deere has only proven that the canon is still open!

    Biblically, it cannot be denied that in redemptive history miracles are used as attestation that God is speaking (Deut. 18; Heb. 2:3). And if God is speaking, what He says is His word. Is it really possible for one word of God to be more authoritative than another? On what exegetical, biblical, or theological ground can the position be defended that the earlier word of God (in the Bible) is more authoritative and in fact, doctrinal, than the latter day revelation? "More authority" can only be seen in a hermeneutical sense with the pattern of biblical revelation which indicates a clear progression of meaning and unfolding of the history of redemption. Thus, the later words should be "more authoritative" only in this hermeneutical sense, or more clear than those earlier, just as the New Testament is a clearer disclosure of salvation than the Old Testament. But in this sense of a difference in "words of God", if anything, the authority of contemporary revelations should be heightened by the progress of redemption!--not lessened! For someone to make the claim that the older revelation is authoritative and the new must be judged by it and is not on par with it, breaks the historico-redemptive pattern of progressively clearer revelation. Therefore, the idea of the subordination of latter revelation is thoroughly unbiblical.

    This evidential apologetic for the Bible is supported by the tests for being a prophet or/and an apostle which are based on the Old Testament standard with New Testament evidence: Therefore, miracles were at least initially a requirement for the attestation of revelation. Further, Jude 3 gives us an expectation that the revelation is a closed body of content, a closed canon, and will be a finished Bible. This is clear from the Old Testament model, since the Old Testament canon was already complete about 400 years before Christ and was translated into Greek (LXX, the Septuagint) about 200 years before Christ. Thus, there was a precedent for First Century believers to expect the New Testament canon to also be closed. That is exactly what Jude was saying late (possibly 67) in the writing of the New Testament.

    In conclusion then, Deere cannot have his non-cessationist's cake and eat it too. We either have (1) an open canon, in which case the Bible is not really finished, since we still receive direct revelation from God today. Or (2), we must hold that the Bible is closed along with all other alleged words from God (revelation). As I have argued the tertian quid (third option) of contemporary "non-doctrinal" revelation that Dr. Deere wishes to hold is not consistent with his position of a closed canon nor with the cessationist's position.

    Supposing that Dr. Deere or some other more radical non-cessationist wished to avoid this inconsistency by holding to an open canon and continuing revelation of the same authority as biblical revelation, would my argument fail? If this position were not an ad hoc solution to temporarily avoid the inconsistency, my previous arguments would not be very forceful in dealing with such a position, with the exceptions of my brief and undeveloped citations of the biblical warrant for a closed canon. With a full-fledged view of continuing revelation the following lines of argument would need to be developed:
     

    Finally, therefore, Dr. Deere's position of having a completed Bible and contemporary "non-doctrinal revelation" from God in latter day prophets is not warranted because of the following: