Thursday, September 20, 2012

Can We Accept the Early Church's Experience as Normative ?

I was reading a sermon from John MacArthur shortly after a friend posted something about people wanting God to be predictable and reasonable, but He sometimes shows up in weird and wacky ways...for example Pentecost.  While I agree that God does do what seems weird, there is much about Him that is reasonable and there are many of His traits and commands that fall squarely in the realm of reason. Or put another way, He is not always against reason. I am certain my friend would also agree.  My point is not necessarily about that, though more could be said.

My friend is, what I would consider a charismatic. I think he would generally agree. However, what I appreciate about him, other than his passion for Christ and the youth, is that he is a fairly reasonable Charismatic, which is not often the case with many charismatics. Certainly not my experience. Or the experience of many folks that I know.
My response to him in reference to this was, "But not every weird and wacky thing we see in church (or done in His name) is from God." I think this is important because there are a lot of weird and wacky things that have happened in church (especially the Pentecostal-types) that have wrongly been attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. ie... barking, vomiting, or being drunk in the Spirit, Benny Hinn, many folks from TBN, being "slain in the Spirit", Todd Bentley's kicking people to heal them, not to mention the many false teachings done in the name of "I feel like God is telling me"...I could go on, but for the sake of the post's length, I will not. Some of the problems with charismatic theology is not confined to these extremes. It has crept into many mainline churches as well.
Anyway, I thought this portion of the sermon , What Was Happening in the Early Church, was appropriate to the topic. I will highlight some of the points. I especially like the quote from Gordon Fee on the error of seeing the book of Acts (or the early church) as normative, or to be expected for believers today.
But on the other hand, Charismatics who have an insatiable craving for experiences and particularly for the experiences described in the book of Acts, have assembled a doctrinal system that views the extraordinary events of the early apostolic age as necessary and continuing hallmarks of the Holy Spirit's work. They view the book of Acts as normative or what should be normative for all Christians in all ages. They see the working of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts as tokens of spiritual power that are to be routinely expected by all Christians living in all times.

Now that is a rather serious interpretive error. In fact, it undermines the Charismatics' comprehension of Scripture. It muddies several key Biblical issues crucial to a right understanding of Scriptural doctrine. Gordon Fee, a writer who himself is a Charismatic, commented in the hermeneutical difficulties posed by the way Charismatics typically approach the book of Acts with these words, and I quote, "If the primitive church is normative, which expression of it is normative? Jerusalem? Antioch? Philippi? Corinth? That is why do not all the churches sell their possessions and have all things in common. Or further, is it at all legitimate to take any descriptive statements as normative? If so, how does one distinguish those which are from those which are not? For example, must we follow the pattern of Acts 1:26 and select leaders by lot? Just exactly what role does historical precedent play in Christian doctrine or in the understanding of Christian experience?" Now, he introduces a very important point. If we're going to take the book of Acts as normative, then we must take the book of Acts in its total as normative and we're gonna have some immensely difficult issues to deal with.

The fact of the matter is that Acts was never intended to be the primary basis for teaching doctrine to the church. The book of Acts records only the earliest days of the church age and shows the church in tradition coming out of the old age into the new. Coming out as it were, the Old Testament into the New Testament. The apostolic healings and miracles and signs and wonders evident in the book of Acts were not even common to all believers even in those days, but were uniquely restricted to the apostles and those who worked alongside of them. They were exceptional events, each with specific purposes, and always associated with the ministry of the apostles and their frequency can be seen decreasing dramatically even from the beginning of the book of Acts to the end. It seems as though at the opening of the book of Acts there is flurry of the miraculous and toward the end it's absent.
There is more on the website and I encourage you to go listen to or read the rest of the sermon, but I think the point is made.  This was not something the early church experienced regularly and it seemed to be decreasing from Pentecost to the end of Acts. I think that is significant, as well as the point that it was not even common with the regular believers at that time.

I also think the point offered by Gordon Fee that questions what part of the early church do we find as normative? Why don't we select leaders using lots? Why don't we sell everything and give it to the church community? And any number of other things. Instead we usually pick speaking in tongues or healing as the main things.

No matter where you land on the spectrum, it is wise to be careful that we do not equate what happened in God's redemptive history as the normal, expected way the church is to function.

What are your thoughts?

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