Sunday, May 06, 2007

A Priori Skepticism

This week, the IMB Board of Trustees will receive and consider the report of the Ad Hoc Committees named earlier this year to study the new policies on “private prayer language” and baptism of missionary candidates. I, along with many others, am anxiously and prayerfully awaiting the soon to be announced outcome.

The other day, on Bart Barber’s blog, in a discussion related to this topic, I posed the following question: Why, from the point of view of those who favor the new policy, is the issue of PPL so important as to exclude people who agree on other points of doctrine from missionary service and leadership in the convention? The answer that was given to me (in the words of Bart Barber) was as follows: “I suspect that the IMB has enacted the PPL restrictions as a part of an ongoing effort to protect Baptist missions against Pentecostal/Charismatic encroachment around the world;” and “a rather large, rather diverse board of trustees has enacted this policy. I am not privy to all of their reasons for doing so…We have the trustees' word that these policies were needed. For now and until I have good reason to do otherwise, I believe them.”

It is not my intention to pick on Bart in this post. Actually, I have a great deal of respect for Bart and for his opinions in general. That is not to say that I am convinced of the validity of Bart’s answer to my question here, and I let him know as much in my answer to him on the same post. But I write all of this now rather because it serves as background information for another point I wish to make, which is the inverse of what I asked on Bart’s blog: Why do I think it is so important that we not exclude people who agree on other points of doctrine from missionary service and leadership in the convention, merely because they admit to having a PPL?

Actually, to tell you the truth, I am not all that concerned whether or not my future teammates in the IMB have a PPL or not. If none of my future teammates ever has a PPL, I am perfectly fine with that. What concerns me most of all, as a logical consequence of this new policy, is the possibility that we might evolve into a mission force around the world rife with what I call “a priori skepticism.”

By the term “a priori skepticism,” I am referring to the same thing I called “default-mode skepticism” on the comment string on this other post on Bart Barber’s blog. In order to make a point, I am also holding the position of “a priori skepticism” up alongside that of “a posteriori cessationism,” which is the position Bart defended on an earlier post on his blog, and, from what I understand, in the recent Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit in Arlington, Texas. The idea behind “a posteriori cessationism,” as I understand it, is that, although God is still able to use people in supernatural ways today like He did in the New Testament, the circumstantial evidence doesn’t seem to authenticate the claims of those who say God is doing so, and, as a result, these claims should not be accepted as legitimate.

What I am calling “a priori skepticism,” however, is a bit different. It is the position that anything that “smacks” of supposed Pentecostal or Charismatic practices, and is often associated (whether mistakenly or not) with the Pentecostal/Charismatic world or with the modern-day practice of the so-called “sign gifts,” is automatically suspect, more than likely fraudulent and/or heretical, and should be rejected on the front end, without the need of further investigation to see if it is legitimate or not.

I want to make very clear here that I am not saying that all those without a PPL are necessarily “a priori skeptics.” Nor, as I understand it, are all “a posteriori cessationists” necessarily “a priori skeptics.” But, in my opinion, the de facto import of the new policy at the IMB, and a natural consequence thereof, is a move towards a general organizational stance of “a priori skepticism.”

I have been in situations, in which it was assumed that I was in agreement with what was being said, in which Pentecostals and Charismatics were made fun of, and claims of supernatural manifestations routinely ridiculed. If you are from a Southern Baptist background, I imagine you have, at one time or another, been in these situations as well. I have even seen this on the mission field among colleagues, in response to what they have observed among national believers and people from other Great Commission Christian groups.

I do not believe personally that everything that purports to be the supernatural working or gifting of the Holy Spirit is necessarily legitimate or authentic. The Word of God clearly states: “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible” (Matthew 24:24). Whenever I hear, therefore, of some supposed miracle or supernatural manifestation of the Holy Spirit, I normally seek to hold it up to the light of the following considerations:

  1. Does the doctrine of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit the supernatural manifestation square with sound biblical teaching? On this point, I do not demand 100% conformity to my own understanding and interpretation. I recognize there are others who may deviate on minor doctrinal issues whose ministry in other areas I do not necessarily reject as a result. But, when the doctrine of someone claiming to do miracles is significantly heretical, I view with corresponding skepticism the spiritual legitimacy of those supernatural manifestations they are claiming as well, whether they be regarded as fraudulent, demonic, or inspired by the “latent power of the soul.”
  2. Does the lifestyle and moral character of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit the supernatural manifestation meet up to the standards that one might expect from someone making such a claim? On this point, I am not looking for moral perfection. There is none perfect but the Lord. But I am looking for someone who is not a hypocrite, purporting to be something in public that doesn’t square with what they really are in private. I am looking for fruit of the Spirit to correspond with their supposed gifts of the Spirit.
  3. Does the ministry of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit the supernatural manifestation take advantage of innocent people in order to exercise some sort of psychological power over their lives, or for dishonest financial gain? It causes me great sorrow to see innocent people taken advantage of through the practice of so-called “faith ministries” or “prosperity gospel” hucksters. Our Lord had no qualms in driving the money-changers out of the temple, and I believe some of His harshest judgment and eventual eternal condemnation is reserved for those who make merchandise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Does the ministry of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit the supernatural manifestation tend towards the manipulation of gullible, easily-led people? I have been in meetings where the atmosphere was so emotionally charged and laden with human manipulation that I have compared it to Elijah, in his contest with the prophets of Baal, dowsing the altar with gasoline instead of with water. If God wants to work miracles and show His mighty power in an awe-inspiring way, He doesn’t need our help in setting the stage beforehand, working the audience into an emotional frenzy, in order for Him to do what He chooses to do in the way He chooses to do it.

However, whenever I find no convincing reason to conclude that the supposed miracle or claim of a supernatural manifestation fails the test on any of the above accounts, my first response is to accept as legitimate the testimony of the one who makes the claim, praising God for His mighty deeds in the lives of men. I make as my goal, in regards to claims of the supernatural, to be as much as possible like the Bereans, who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). It is not enough, however, just to “examine the Scriptures” to see if what people are saying is true, if you do so out of an attitude of “a priori skepticism.” A balanced view, as I understand it, is one of both openness and expectation in regard to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, coupled with caution and discernment in order to confirm that what is going on is truly in conformance to the revelation of God’s will in Scripture.

As I have heard reports of miracles and supernatural manifestations, I have sought to evaluate them in light of these considerations. Some of them, to the best of my ability to discern, have not passed the test. However, others, in the light of my admittedly limited skills of observation and spiritual discernment, have not failed the test.

Actually, from my perspective, many of the most effective and godly spiritual workers I have observed on the mission field, among both national believers and foreign missionaries, as well as among Baptists and those of other denominations, have been those who would admit to having a “private prayer language,” and/or to being used of God through other supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit. In those places around the world in which spiritual revival is taking place, multitudes are coming to Christ, and church planting movements are sprouting forth, the norm, from what I understand, are frequent reports of supernatural manifestations and the free-flowing operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I do not believe this gives us warrant to let down our guard in regard to evaluating and discerning spiritual manifestations on the basis of considerations like those I reference above. I believe it is God’s will that we “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). At the same time, though, I believe we must enter into the kingdom of heaven with faith like that of a little child (Matthew 18:3-4). And, as I understand it, child-like faith precludes “a priori skepticism.”

I am concerned that the natural tendency of a missionary force that has been intentionally “weeded” of those with a “private prayer language” may well be one of “a priori skepticism.” I am also concerned about a corresponding backlash of distancing ourselves as Southern Baptists from other believers and movements of God around the world in which He is manifesting Himself through signs and wonders, and supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus did not do many miracles in His hometown of Nazareth because of the lack of faith of the people who lived there (Matthew 13:58). I personally don’t want to miss out on what God is doing around the world due to being an “a priori skeptic.” Neither do I want us as Southern Baptists to miss out on our part of what God is doing around the world due to a de facto position of “a priori skepticism.”

21 comments:

Debbie said...

A Southern Baptist Amen David to all you have written.

Steve Sensenig said...

I was really touched by this post. And I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see someone within the SBC viewing this issue with the amount of reason and gentleness and love that you have shown.

I am, by definition, a charismatic. I grew up in an environment that, while not SBC or even Baptist in name, was pretty much Baptist in doctrine and behavior.

That changed about 8 years ago when I finally began to explore the issue for myself instead of just believing the party line.

As someone outside of the SBC, and someone with an openness to things charismatic, the reports I was hearing about the way PPL was being handled by the IMB grieved me. Really grieved me.

Of all the charismatic things to draw lines over, why something that by very definition is private??

Anyway, your post really touched me, and I hope and pray that many within the SBC will see things the way you do. Your position is one that both sides of the issue could learn from.

Thank you for showing the heart of Christ in this, David. I do really hope we can meet up while you're over here.

Bart Barber said...

A great post. Clever. And it reminds me how remiss I have been in getting those old posts back up. I'll put up A Posteriori Cessationism right away, just so you can link to it.

Bart Barber said...

It is back up.

Alan Cross said...

David,

I wrote a similar post last night. I obviously agree with you completely. Wade Burleson wrote his statement yesterday as well. I almost get the feeling that we know which way this is going to go and we are all getting our final statements in before the decision comes down. I pray that the policies will be revoked, but I am not very optimistic. But, God is in control and He will work this for good, one way or another. Thanks for your thought provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a well written, articulate post brother David.

It shares the feelings of many in SBC life.

Darren Casper

David Rogers said...

Thanks Bart. I have included the updated link to "A Posteriori Cessationism" in the body of the post now.

Strider said...

This is a good post and I mostly agree with what you have said. I am a little concerned with your four points because they rely heavily on what I think the basic conditions for a miracle might be. I do know personally of a woman who was being witnessed to but who remained very skeptical. When her son became deathly ill she prayed for him in Jesus' name- she couldn't find the M's in time- and the boy was healed. She then became a believer. So, did her doctrine or lifestyle line up even close- no. But God moved anyway.
I think your four points are good guidelines but we have to continually remind ourselves that God acts as he wills without our permission.
As far as the main point of your post I am in complete agreement. When I came on the field I was told that the miraculous would happen but we mostly could not report this back to our very skeptical constituency. I have seen a great acceptance of the miraculous that I have had opportunity to report. If these policies stay unchanged and this negative atmosphere continues we will go back to the old days when we could proclaim the great works of God in our lives to everyone except our beloved Churches in the US.

Todd Nelson said...

David,

Thanks for articulating the "a priori skepticism" idea. I think it has been characteristic of SBC seminary education for generations, as applied to both Holy Spirit and demonic spirit manifestations. Please excuse my turning the attention to the dark side for a moment.

From first-hand experience in Malaysia, I know that many missionaries, myself included, were ill-equipped in our first term to deal with demonized people we encountered. Our learning came quickly and on-the-job.

And like Strider has commented, when we report stateside, we have to be careful not to scandalize local churches who are not accustomed to hearing about such encounters from credible witnesses -- whether it be about miracles or casting out demons. Though such stories are not main points in our messages, still I think it's unfortunate that we feel constrained to leave some out -- and thus perpetuate "a priori skepticism."

(BTW, my wife and I are SWBTS grads and supported by a few SBC churches, but not IMB-appointed, specifically because of our convictions and experiences with certain spiritual gifts.)

I'm praying for a spirit of wisdom and cooperation to prevail in Kansas City this week.

May your upcoming stateside assignment bring you encouragement and clear direction for your future service to the Master.

David Rogers said...

Strider,

I think I would agree with you here. The bottom line in the miraculous is God's sovereignty, and not our doctrine or lifestyle. However, I still think I would generally question (and I believe you would too) someone who claims to be spiritually gifted in the miraculous while at the same time exhibiting aberrant doctrine and/or lifestyle. I guess I would say that none of this is an exact science. But that still does not relieve us of the responsibility to exercise discernment.

David Rogers said...

Debbie, Steve, Alan, Darren, Strider & Todd,

Thanks for the encouragement and support.

Bart,

Thank you, as well, for being consistent and kind in the expression of your convictions. I value your input, and sincere thought you put into what you write on these topics.

Jonathan said...

David,

You've written a great post. I tend to agree and think if someone is a "skeptic," be it "a priori" or otherwise, then how can that be from a posture of faith, but really is unbelief. The Bible is very clear that we need faith in order to please God and see the Kingdom of God in our midst. So, isn't being a skeptic antithetical to that - ???

But David, I have a question for you. In your response to Strider's comments, you made the following statement: "The bottom line in the miraculous is God's sovereignty, and not our doctrine or lifestyle." Would you further explain and clarify your point here??? Maybe I've misunderstood your point here, but I've been taught as a charismatic that as believers, we should expect God to use us (in our everyday lives) to pray for people, and see signs, wonders, and the miraculous in our midst. In other words, we should live a lifestyle in the miraculous. What do you think about that, in light of your comments to Strider? Thanks.

Blessings,
Jonathan

Steve Sensenig said...

David, in light of Strider's comment and your reply, I wonder if I misunderstood something.

I thought that your four points of "testing" were in regard to claims of miraculous things. Do you also apply this to things that you might witness, yet not be sure of the origin of the "power"?

It doesn't affect my earlier positive comments. I just read this exchange and realized that I had come away with one particular understanding of the situations in which you would apply these four points.

todd, your comment broke my heart to realize that some of you might have to actually restrict good news that you might be able to share because of the skepticism.

Friends of ours went to a country in Africa for six months to minister there and help in an orphanage. When they came back, one of them came to our gathering in our home and shared some of what she had seen.

Part way through, she hesitated and said, "I don't know what I can share here because some people don't believe in the things I've seen." We gave her permission to be completely open, and we were blessed to hear reports of what God had done. But, like when I read your comment, it made me sad to realize that she couldn't freely share that with everyone she knew.

How I long (deeply, passionately long) to see faith grow here in America to the point that we not only believe those reports, but see the same power at work here.

David Rogers said...

Jonathan & Steve,

When I say that "The bottom line in the miraculous is God's sovereignty, and not our doctrine or lifestyle," what I mean is that God is not subject to us as humans in His use of the miraculous. Rather, we, as His servants, are always subject to Him. Jesus Himself (though fully God) even subjected Himself to the will of the Father in His use of the miraculous.

Thus, although the norm would be that God would choose to use a clean vessel, and one that would proclaim the truth and not a lie, there are times, as the Bible shows us, when God might even speak through someone such as Balaam, or even, for that matter, Balaam's donkey. He is not strictly subject, therefore, to the four testing points I have mentioned.

Steve, your first impression was correct in that I was referring to "claims" of the miraculous, and not so much to knowing the origin of the "power" of anything I might happen to witness. That, although, perhaps related, would be a different matter.

Jonathan said...

David,

Thank you very much for your comments and your clarification. I sure did misunderstand you, and for that I am sorry. So thanks for clearing that up.

Blessings,
Jonathan

Grosey's Messages said...

David you may be amazed to see that I agree with your four points of discernment.
I guess my difficulty is the increasing frequency where I have to counsel folks who have been taken in by shucksters who fail on your four points of discernment.
The money one is a BIG one here these days, particularly when the victims are those weakened through diagnosed mental illness.
My mother was severely mentally ill, so I have enormous compassion for these folks, particularly when shucksters intentionally manipulate and harm them.
Things may be different elsewhere in the world (and yes I saw both genuine miracles and miracles of a different type on the mission field in Papua New Guinea during the Baiyer River Revival where 40,000 were swept into the kingdom). I pray they are differnt elsewhere.
Steve

Paul said...

David,

As you well know by now, I've gotten hooked on your blog.:)

As an Assemblies of God pastor and district(state)/national church official, I think you might find what I am about to share helpful.

I particularly appreciate your sharing Bart Barber's assessment that the primary IMB concern is "to protect Baptist missions from Pentecostal/Charismatic encroachment around the world."

I can understand that. That has, to some degree, been happening for a few decades. I vividly remember C. Peter Wagner's stories of his own experiences in Fuller D. Min. classes, sneaking over the mountains in Bolivia to visit the pentecostals.

As for what is happening today, let me share a couple observations:

1. On the one hand, the global body of Christ is being pentecostalized (Philip Jenkins has documented this well). The last holdouts are in the Global North/Western world, both liberals on the left (the leaders of the Anglican orthodox rebels are mostly charismatic) and fundamentalists on the right. Both of those groups have been deeply impacted by the anti-miraculous and secularizing elements of the Enlightenment. I'll stop there with that.

2. On the other hand, in the Global North/Western world, in the last century, it seems to me that the non-charismatic evangelical camp has impacted the pentecostal camp much more so than the reverse. You and your readers might find that shocking, but I would submit that Rick Warren and Bill Hybels have more influence in the Assemblies of God than does our General Superintendent, Thomas Trask, and definitely more than someone like Benny Hinn. I have to chuckle trying to imagine a reverse scenario--imagine if A/G missionary candidates would be disqualified if they had a copy of "The Purpose Driven Church" in their library.:) I know it's not a totally accurate analogy, but consider this--while the official A/G doctrine says that all should speak in tongues, less than 40% of A/G adults do. Many, if not most, of our young pastors have never led someone into the experience of Spirit Baptism as we teach it. Charles Stanley may well be the most popular TV preacher in our circles, and when people leave our congregations, they seem to often wind up in SBC or equivalent congregations. I submit that the SBC has impacted the US A/G more than we have impacted you, but conversely, in the Global South the impact of pentecostals has superceded that of non-charismatic evangelicals.

So, there are two worlds here--the Global North/Western World and the Global South. The Global North has the money and is still trying to call the shots, but the Global South (according to Phil Jenkins) will overwhelm us in every way (particularly in pneumatology and ecclesiology within another decade or two).

The Global South tsunami is coming. No Global North denomination will be the same. The Africans telling the Archbishop of Canterbury where to get off is just the start.

Stay tuned. The "mission field" has come of age and we will soon be listening/receiving from them as much as we have been speaking/giving to them in the past.

Bottom line--I believe the Holy Spirit may be leading us all into a balanced, NT restored, empowered life. We have much to learn from the 'other stones,' so we not?

Paul said...

last line--"do we not?"

Sorry.

Grosey's Messages said...

Whoa.. yeah I'd concur with that, except to say that Sydney evangelical anglicanism is the force among Anglican evangelicals in Africa (through CMS), and some in South America through SAMS.
Paul, who exactly are you, your profile doesn't tell us.
Steve

David Rogers said...

Paul,

Very helpful and interesting information. I am definitely going to have to get caught up to speed on the writings of Philip Jenkins.

Steve Grose,

Thanks for the comments, and recognition of our points of agreement. It looks like a little bit of dialogue really does help every now and then.:-)

FYI, Paul's blog can be found here. And the web-site of his church can be found here.

Grosey's Messages said...

David,
I think that Paul's comment is telling. The Pentecostalism you see in the USA and Europe at the moment is not the Pentecostalism that is sweeping the globe.
Counterfeit doctrine (modalism, liberalism,libertinism, prosperity gospel equivelent to "the secret") and counterfeit conversion (80% of the "converts" fall away after a short period of time, some prominent pentecostal pastors decimating christian testimony through pedophilia)and counterfeit experiences (Toronto blessing and a great variety of non-biblical experiences), leading folks away from the Saviour.
Of course, expository preaching is rejected as bibliotry and situational ethics become normative among these groups.
Ocassionally, as with the spiritualist churches (involved in necromancy etc), some miracles do occur.
As the Lord miraculously heals, so Satan has his counterfeits (and his authentics) that distract people from the gospel.
Steve