Prophecy and Truth
Testament Reading: 1 Kings 19:9-12
Testament Reading: Acts 2:1-8
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.
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
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?
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,
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.
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.
Copyright©2009 by Robert
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