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Prophecy and Truth


Old Testament Reading: 1 Kings 19:9-12

New Testament Reading: Acts 2:1-8

Introduction: I cannot help but remember a remark made many years ago by a Conservative Baptist pastor in a nearby church I once attended. The congregation had just finished singing, with some gusto, the old hymn, "Lord, Send the Old Time Power, the Pentecostal Power," and the preacher mused, "Have you ever thought about what you were just singing? Suppose God did send an outpouring of the Spirit, as at Pentecost, just now? Would you really want him to? Would you be prepared for the results if he did? You sure wouldn't get home in time for lunch, that's for sure!"

I think of this remark every time the Day of Pentecost rolls around on the liturgical calendar, and we observe it, we churches who are quietly modernistic or staidly liturgical. Are we celebrating something, or merely commemorating it? Isn't Pentecost, with all its wildfire and prophesying something we are glad is over? Aren't the churches who try to stoke the Pentecostal fire precisely the ones we think are the craziest and the most detrimental to the Christian image? 

If this is the way we feel, then the irony goes deeper than merely the celebration of a day that would have mortified us had we been present. Our embarrassment raises the question of how far we have strayed from the pattern of New Testament Christianity as a whole, and whether this is a bad thing.

A Historical Survey: The first thing I would like to do with you this Pentecost Sunday morning is to undertake a brief historical survey within the period of the New Testament itself. Within the canonical boundaries I think we can already trace the very same process of retreat from the fervor of Pentecost. As we will see, depending on your viewpoint, you may view such a process as either a quenching of the Spirit or a putting away of childish things.

We begin with Paul's words to the church in Corinth. He recalls the simplicity of his initial preaching in Corinth, how he did not try to bedazzle them with reason and rhetoric. "When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

I think the idea is that Paul did not want to be simply one more wandering Cynic philosopher or missionary propagandist for a mystery religion, trying to compete against other soapbox preachers with possibly more cogent arguments. If he had managed to convince the Corinthians with cogent arguments, their assent would have been necessarily tentative, as all rational persuasion must be. If one is to remain rational, one must remain open in the future to what may prove to be even better arguments. Theoretically, a rational Corinthian Christian might find himself duty-bound one day to leave Christianity for Mithraism or Stoicism if one of their preachers could make a better argument than Paul had made.

And that is just what Paul wanted to prevent. He was shrewd enough to know that while an opinion adopted on rational grounds might later be abandoned on the same grounds, an opinion adopted on a tide of emotional conviction would not be amenable to future rational persuasion.

Test this for yourselves, next time some sectarian evangelists cross your doorstep! When we lived in North Carolina, Carol used to meet these people at the door and tell them I was really the one they wanted to talk to! Then she would tell me it was my duty as a Professor of Theology to talk to them and try to set them straight! I told her it would be a waste of time; that people like this weren't interested in a dispassionate discussion of the issues. To prove my point, I decided I would talk to them the next time they showed up if I happened to be home. Well, one Saturday afternoon shortly thereafter, the knock came. It was a couple of Mormon missionaries. I welcomed then in, and we sat down to a couple of hours of conversation. I have to give them credit. One could really talk with them. I think, however, this was because I caught them off guard. I didn't have the typical responses, so they couldn't use the standard come-backs!

And then, so help me God, as they were getting up to go, across the porch came a Jehovah's Witness! I said, "Come on in!" and resigned thus to sacrifice the remainder of the afternoon. This time my expectations were fully fulfilled. This man had a canned spiel, and Doomsday itself could not have moved him from his path one inch! There was just no point in talking with him! And why? Because he and his ilk got into these sects, not because someone convinced them rationally of the truth of them, but because they were told Hell lay in the balance, and they'd better convert! One simply cannot combat emotionalism with reason! The glue of enthusiasm is stronger, thicker, than that of mere reason. And Paul wanted the Corinthians to stick fast!

Much is implied here. When rational persuasion is discounted as the basis for belief, the risk of faith is understood as a ­leap­ of faith over a yawning abyss. Faith is really another name for gambler's courage, for radical daring. It has a certain bravado verging on foolhardiness, as when we see a daredevil trying to jump a chasm on a motorcycle. Admittedly it takes courage, but is there really any reason for doing it?

Christians who believe in this way will begin to exalt faith over reason, and will end up exorcising reason in the name of faith. You begin to hear remarks like Tertullian's, who proclaimed, "I believe because it is absurd!" and "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" It was Martin Luther who repudiated Dame Reason as "the Devil's Whore."

The word of prophecy has rung out, at least supposedly; will you dare to believe? Only those who do, we are told, by the charismatic, by the channeler, by the enthusiast, will be saved, or enlightened.

I must side with the great skeptic Walter Kaufmann on this point. 

Those who pit commitment against reason and advise us to blind and destroy our reason before making the most crucial choice of our life are apologists for one specific set of doctrines which, to use Paul's word, are 'foolishness' to those who have not taken leave of reason. They say their doctrine is infallible and true, but ignore the fact that there is no dearth whatsoever of pretenders to infallibility and truth. They may think they chose their doctrine because it is offered to us as infallible and true, but this plainly no sufficient reason: scores of other doctrines, scriptures, and apostles, sects and parties, cranks and sages make the same claim. Those who claim to know which of the lot is justified in making such a bold claim, those who tell us that this faith or that is really infallible and true, are presupposing in effect, whether they realize this or not, that they themselves happen to be infallible. Those who have no such exalted view of themselves have no way of deciding between dozens of pretenders if reason is proscribed. Those who are asking us to spurn reason are in effect counseling us to trust to luck. But luck in such cases is unusual. (The Faith of a Heretic, p. 86).

Yet by chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, we find that things are not so simple! Perhaps it is not the greatest of virtues to cast worldly reason to the winds and dare to accept the voice of prophecy! Suddenly we find that one must rationally scrutinize prophecy after all! Some of the Gnostic prophets are denigrating the human Jesus in favor of the disembodied Christ-Spirit. They rise to their feet in the assembly and cry: "Thus says the Lord, Jesus be cursed!" Well, now, we can't have that!

Once a friend of mine related how, late one Sunday night, he had been driving home and turned the car radio to the weird end of the dial and tuned into the broadcast service of one of the inner-city Pentecostal churches, the Holy Ghost Apostolic Fire-Baptized Temple or some such. It was already twenty minutes into the program, and the preacher had evidently lost control of the service! The whole place was erupting in Pentecostal chaos! He, poor fellow, was now with difficulty trying to regain some semblance of control. Above the din he was shouting "Cut out the Holy Ghost noise! Cut out the Holy Ghost noise, I say!" Well, essentially that's what the writer is saying in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14!

In 1 Corinthians 12:3 we read, "I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says 'Jesus be cursed!' and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord!' except by the Holy Spirit." So there are some criteria! We can scrutinize prophecy before we accept it -- and not be condemned as doubters and unbelievers! Perhaps Paul himself had already been brought to see that things were more complex than he had first thought. But I wonder if this whole section on the control and testing of spiritual gifts is not an addition to the original epistle by a later hand. I wonder if in the next generation, Paul's rather uncritical posture vis-a-vis prophecy and revelation had caused such chaos that some later Corinthian bishop has appended these chapters by way of toning down the Apostle's enthusiasm. At any rate, here, in the New Testament itself, we have a greater reliance on rational scrutiny, a greater hesitation to take prophecy at face value.

But things went further. In 1 Thessalonians (which I am pretty well convinced is a post-Pauline writing from somewhere near the end of the first century) we read that prophecy had become so troublesome that some wanted to dispense with it altogether! The writer thinks that is a bit of an over-reaction, so he urges, "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good" (5:19-21). Notice that now rational scrutiny has become the rule and not the exception! Prophecy is so dangerous, so liable to be fanatical spewings, that one can at most find a few gems amid the rubbish!

Back to 1 Corinthians. I view chapter 13, the famous prose-poem on love, as a subsequent insertion into the section earlier added to control spiritual manifestations. I suspect chapter 13 is a still later attempt to draw readers away from glossolalia and prophecy altogether, to suggest that love and its virtues are where the abiding work of the Spirit is really to be found. It is "a more excellent way," and when one passes beyond a childish grasp of Christianity, one will graduate to love and put the glittering toys of prophecy and tongues away for good.

I think the range of New Testament opinions we have just traced represents a maturing process, a putting away of childish things. Insofar as we lack love, we are still immature, I admit. But to have left behind the childish preoccupation with the spectacular and the paranormal, with all the fanaticism and invincible narrow-mindedness that brings, is a gain, not a loss.

I suspect that many of you have yourselves undergone the same process of personal religious evolution. You began in a church context where the stress was heavy on the miraculous, the apocalyptic, the emotional. Eventually you realized that these things spelled not the sanctification of life but rather the escape from it. You sought reality elsewhere. Now you are looking for it here. I hope you are finding some measure of it.

A Pentecostal Question: But the question remains: have we any right to celebrate Pentecost, seeing we do not embrace the religious excess it seems to embody? Yes, we do indeed have the right to celebrate it. I admit that with the Prophet Elijah we are more apt to hear the word of God in a still, small voice than in a raging whirlwind such as was heard on Pentecost, but I believe we are no less committed to the Spirit of Truth for that. I believe the essential risk of  hearing the truth is the same, whether one thinks one receives it by trusting to luck and accepting a prophecy at face value, or whether one seeks it out carefully, patiently, tentatively, rationally. To commit yourself to obey the truth is to step into the lion's den! And to find the truth you ­must­ commit yourself to obey it whatever it may turn out to be. If you approach it with provisos and conditions, you may not recognize it when you see it. You must be willing to take up the cross if the truth bids you to. You must be willing to take Isaac to Mount Moriah, knife in hand, if the truth should require it. There is no guarantee the truth will be attractive or convenient! It is no light thing to commit yourself to accept it when you hear it.

But I think you are more likely to hear it if you test all things, ever in the more excellent way of love, than if you leap into the arms of the next self-appointed oracle you hear. 


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