More Unconvincing Exegesis About the Spirit: Cessationism

8Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.  l When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 12:8-13

If Pentecostal two-stage baptism in the Spirit is on exegetical thin ice, then the traditional cessationist argument that spiritual gifts (charismata) no longer exist is down there with the Titanic.

1 Cor 13:8-12 says that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will pass away “when the perfect comes” (v. 10). Faith and hope will no longer be needed when God is fully seen but love will remain.

The traditional cessationist argument has been that the ‘perfect’ means the completion of the NT canon or some puted maturity of the church around the end of the first century. The fact that this would have been incomprehensible to the Corinthians (and to Paul himself) makes this a slightly dodgy theory.

Others cessationist interpretations get even more speculative. Some acknowledge that the ‘perfect’ refers (as it obviously does) to the return of Christ, but propose that only knowledge once gained from revelatory gifts will come to an end at that time, and therefore the passage does not address when the gifts themselves will cease.

Full marks for creativity, zero for persuasiveness.

And in similiar creative (desperate?) mode others have proposed that Paul is only talking about the experience of spiritual gifts in the lives of a generation of early Christians. These gifts will cease when Jesus returns IF they are alive at that time. But if they die before he returns (which they of course did) then their spiritual gifts die with them.

? Yup, me too,

Saying there is thin to no exegetical basis for cessationism is one thing; the implications for contemporary worship is another. As Max Turner says in his Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts about what is the typical expectation / description of the Spirit life in the church

What IS normative in Scripture is that ‘Paul anticipated a lively ‘charismatic’ church in which every area of Christian life and ministry was deeply shaped by experiential awareness of the Spirit.’ [163].

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Origins of the Irish

It’s hard enough anymore knowing what it means to be Irish today, but how do you figure out where the Irish came from in prehistory?  And when do you identify people who lived on this island as Irish?

These are not dry academic questions. Rather a lot politically has been hung on that particular question over the years. All nationalist narratives love ripping simple stories from the complexities of the past. And there continues to be a lot of hokum talked about the essential character of ‘us’ Irish, Scottish and Welsh ‘Celts’.

Away back in the nearly prehistoric past, I did a degree in Irish archaeology. One of my lecturers was J P Mallory. [I remember spending three summers on my knees digging up a Neolithic settlement in Co. Antrim under his direction – come sun, hail or rain we kept going!] He has recently published the fruit of a lifetime’s study, The Origins of the Irish.

You get a flavour of the book and the man in the Preface. The book, Mallory assures the reader, will not be full of stories of chats in the back of pubs over a pint of Guinness in which Paddy Seandalai (Irish for archaeologist) pulls out a beautiful stone axe with a twinkle in this eye. ” I don’t do twinkle” says Mallory.

He does do wit though and the book is a joy to read.

In it he covers everything from geology (the origins of Ireland itself – Ireland used to be down by Australia apparently), to the archaeology of first colonists (there might have been the odd hunter setting foot in Ireland c 11,000BC but the first firm evidence of residents is in the Mesolithic c. 8,000BC probably from Scotland or the Isle of Man or Wales). The story thereafter is one of constant contact and influence between Ireland and Britain (and wider Europe) through the Neolithic, Bronze Age, iron Age.

He also considers what ‘The Native Version’ of Irish origins – basically a 8th-11th Cent Christianised version of history can tell us about Irish origins (not a lot)

A chapter on the origins of the Irish language is fascinating and complex with the most probable date for the introduction of Irish between c 1000 BC and the 1st Cent AD.

Things get more high-tech in a chapter on ‘Skulls, blood and genes’.  Theories are in development here, tracing possible movements of population via genetic markers. It is here that it becomes apparent how arbitrary and subjective it is to define any form of ‘Irish genetic purity’.

Mallory, cleverly and for sake of argument throughout the book, has identified 5th Century Niall of the Nine Hostages as a true Irish man. He pre-dates later Northumbrian, Viking, Anglo-Norman raids and settlements. Yet even Niall was half-British (his mother Cairenn had been carried off from Britain by his father Eochaid).

In other words, it all depends on where and when you say ‘Irishness’ exists. Such decisions are purely arbitrary.

Modern nationalist narratives are just that – modern innovations. Mallory asks the reader to imagine a Martian scientist analysing ancient DNA from 2525 of Brendan O’Hare, Seamus Naujokaitis, Ciaran Kostrzewski and Sean Wang.  Everyone of these 4 had an equal claim to being ‘native Irish’ in 2525. Equally, going back in time Mallory concludes

Distinguishing a Lithuanian, Pole or Chinese from a ‘real’ Irishman would be as idle and meaningless as distinguishing someone whose genes had come from an early Mesolithic colonist from northern Britain, a Neolithic farmer from Scotland, a pilgrim from the Church of the Holy Megalith from Brittany, a mead-drinking Beaker-using metallurgist from the Rhineland, or anyone else who had  sunk their roots into Ireland by the time Eochaid had dragged poor Cairenn from Britain.

In other words, us Irish are all immigrants.

Now what, I wonder, are the contemporary political implications of that conclusion?

Comments, as ever, welcome

‘A slippery customer, the Holy Spirit’

“A slippery customer, the Holy Spirit”, so remarked someone in (a very interesting) conversation the other day.

I suspect what he meant by this was that there is a lot of uncertainty and confusion, not to to say disagreement, over what is, or should be, the ‘normal’ experience of the Spirit in a Christian’s life. By ‘normal’ I mean the type of Christian life described in the NT.

For much of the past century, disagreement has tended to centre on those who hold to some form of two-stage experience of the Spirit (primary reception of the Spirit at conversion, followed by some sort of deeper or higher or second-level experience of the Spirit subsequent to conversion). Two-stagers most famously include classic Pentecostal pneumatology around ‘baptism in the Spirit’, but also forms of Wesleyan and ‘higher life’ holiness theologies. J I Packer’s landmark Keep in Step with the Spirit engaged in depth with these sorts of debates in the 1970s from a Reformed viewpoint.

Maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is that the discussion around ‘two-stage’ reception of the Spirit has lost momentum.  Yes, scholars like R P Menzies have produced robust defences of Pentecostal normative two-stage Spirit reception. But increasingly I get the sense that even within classic Pentecostal denominations and churches that there is a softening / moving beyond older set positions.

A number of factors may be in play here. One might be the increasing diversity of a post-denominational age where strong identity markers (like speaking in tongues and baptism in the Spirit) are just not so important any more.

But perhaps there is increasing scholarly consensus that the exegetical basis of a classic Pentecostal two-stage Spirit reception, has, over time, become increasingly unsustainable. Don’t get me wrong – I have a lot of respect for Pentecostal spirituality – its immediate sense of God, vitality of worship, expectation of answered prayer, passionate evangelism, emphasis on all members using Spirit given gifts in service … But none of these good things need to be tied to a two-stage pneumatology.

Even a Pentecostal like Gordon Fee finds no basis for this theology in his magisterial book on Pauline Pneumatology, God’s Empowering Presence

One of the key figures in this debate among others has been Jimmy Dunn. In a new book of articles in honour of Max Turner of London School of Theology, The Spirit and Christ in the New Testament & Christian Theology, Dunn has an excellent chapter on ‘”The Lord, the Giver of Life”: The Gift of the Spirit as Both Life-Giving and Empowering’. 

In it he argues that life is the fundamental mark of the Spirit. Throughout the NT he is known as the life-giving Spirit. Most of the time this refers to soteriology – he is the Spirit who gives spiritual life (Jn 6;63; Romans 8:11; 1 Cor 15:45; 2 Cor 3:6; Jn 3:3-6; Jn 4:10-14; Jn 7:38-9; Romans 8:2, 6, 13; Gal 5:15; 6:8.)

This rich picture is of a dynamic life, of living water (not a stagnant pool). This is the normative Christian experience, a made possible and sustained by the empowering and soteriological Spirit.

All this means there is no need to develop artificial two-stage theologies; what  Dunn calls a sort of ‘booster rocket’ theology. All Christians are given this dynamic and empowering Spirit to drink (1 Cor 12:23).

And this means that in John’s Gospel, it does not hang together to say that the disciples had drunk the Spirit during Jesus’ pre-resurrection ministry. In John 7:39, the giving of the Spirit was to be a future event. The disciples had NOT been ‘born again’ already – they receive the Spirit in Jn 20:22 in the context of being commissioned for mission.

In Luke’s volume of Acts, the Spirit’s empowering and saving (life giving) functions are inseparable. Luke describes this in a wide variety of ways but the fact is that there is NO second action of the Spirit on believers.

The first one is both soteriological and empowering and is tied to ‘believing in the Lord Jesus’ (11:16-17); forgiveness of sins (2:38);  new fellowship; commissioning for mission (9:15-16; 26:16-18); inclusion of the Gentiles (Cornelius – see 11:17-18 where they have been given ‘life-giving repentance’)

And in relation to the controversial and contested case of the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19, Paul’s question to them “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” assumes that the life-giving Spirit is the gift given following belief. There is no life before receiving the Spirit. This is contra Calvin who argued that the Ephesian disciples were ‘regenerate’.

Dunn concludes with these words

“It is the character of the Spirit that the life thus given is vitality, a life that liberates, energizes, empowers, and expresses itself in a wide variety of forms all indicative of the fact the that the Spirit is life!” (17)

This emphasis is not only persuasive biblically, but it helps move the discussion on to where it really matters – not a two-stage normative experience or not (who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’), but a focus on the good news of the empowering and life-giving Spirit given to all as a gift of grace to all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And the expectation and possibility of a subsequent life ‘filled with the Spirit’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The kindness of God (2) Mission, violence and suffering

Kindness of GodWhat can we make of the fact that Christian history is soaked in blood?

Christianity is a cross-shaped faith. Christians follow a Messiah who freely gives up his life on the cross for us. The death of Jesus, God’s son, is the critical event of the NT and forms the core of the missionary proclamation. The message of the gospel is one of reconciliation and peace with God and with one another.

Yet in events like the Crusades, the cross of Christ was paraded as a symbol of God’s blessing on military carnage. Where soldiers were promised forgiveness and absolution for participating in God’s work on the battlefield (a sort of Christian jihad when you think about it).

What do we make of the fact that spiritual giants like Bernard of Clairvaux could write hundreds of deeply devotional hymns and yet be a passionate supporter of the wars against Muslims?

These are some of the questions considered in chapter 3 of David Smith’s The Kindness of God, called ‘Mission, Violence and Suffering’.

David points to different voices and approaches to Islam such as Francis of Assisi, who ‘waged peace’ on Islam in Egypt (interesting story this). Smith gives other examples; his point is how to engage ‘on the frontier’ with other cultures, particularly Islam, is a critical challenge in global mission.

Conversion is at the heart of mission. But there is a difference between proselytism and conversion. The former seeks to make the other exactly like me.  Conversion sees the other come to Christ but does not necessitate the other losing his/her cultural identity. You see this cultural pluralism in Acts 15 and the inclusion of Gentiles into the budding church.

Smith offers three guidelines or principles for doing mission in our troubled and deeply divided world.

1. ‘Other worlds’ across cultural boundaries are going to be places of surprise.  Mission is ultimately God’s initiative and we are given the privilege of joining in what he is already doing. This means for example, suggests Smith, that God may already be at work within Islam, preparing the way  and he quotes an Islamic prayer as an example.

What do you think of this notion of (some) divine revelation within other religions? Smith points to how God was ahead of Peter, working in a pagan Gentile’s life (Cornelius).

I recently met an ex-student who comes from Iran. It was not only wonderful to see him again, but encouraging to hear of many stories of what God is doing among Iranians in Iran – very often through dreams and visions. God is present and active well beyond the ‘reach’ of formal mission contact.

2. The need for an informed and sensitive understanding of the social, political and religious factors that may have caused a negative reaction to evangelism. Smith mentions Muslim and non-Western reactions to Western imperialism. (Ireland is a good example here too with its long legacy of politicised Protestantism suppressing the Catholic threat to English rule.)

3.The task of disentangling the gospel from the cultural wrapping in which it has been contained. Along with an understanding, in our post-Christendom west, of the factors why Christianity has, and is, being rejected. Only then can the church begin to re-translate the gospel afresh to the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome

The Kindness of God (1)

At IBI we are looking forward in a couple of weeks to a visit by David Smith, who is senior research fellow at International College Glasgow and the author of significant books on urban mission and theology – some of which I have blogged on. David is coming to teach for a week on our Masters programme.

Kindness of GodI’m going to do some posts on his new book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World, (2013). David writes both passion and with compassion – a rare combination. And I can guess he ain’t go to be popular with Christian supporters of the blessings of free-market capitalism.

One of the flip sides to global mission is that it is not a one-way process. In the past, there was the notion of Western missionaries bringing the ‘pure gospel’ to the pagan rest of the world. This gospel was imagined to be culturally free. But as David Smith, says, mission “triggered entirely unanticipated critical question concerning the relationship between the message of Christ and the missionary’s own culture.’ (39)

And the critical questions he refers to revolve around the relationship of Christianity in the West with free market capitalism. He puts it this way,

“I want to propose that in truth the most urgent dialogue which needs to take place is that with the advocates of modernization and Westernization and that therefore our primary task is to reflect on the degree to which the fundamentally secular assumptions of the ideology of market economics may have distorted our understanding of the gospel and compromised our mission.” (36)

In chapter 2, he traces the story of the rise of economism, where economics began to be treated like science, with the associated credibility and prestige of being ‘true’. This development was a fruit of Enlightenment optimism and confidence in human reason. The future would be brighter, richer and progressive. As economics advanced, theology retreated to the realm of the private and personal – even as evangelicalism grew in strength in the 19th century.

Quoting Newbigin, who talked of the ‘syncretism’ of the church in with West, Smith’s argument is that Christianity in the West has developed a dualistic theology that has left it dangerously comfortable with the status quo (the quasi-religious deification of the sovereign power of the market and the privatised world of faith). A result is that the church has been ill equipped to offer prophetic critique to the gods of the age.

Returning to the theme of mission, Smith suggests that it is Western Christianity’s captivity that led Western missionaries to engage in mission without questioning their assumptions around capitalism and colonialism. And of the greatest challenges of world mission today is Islam, for it is Islam which has resisted such dualism and fears Christianity is but a vehicle for Western imperialism. It is the Islamic vision of the just state which offers for many a powerful and attractive alternative to the ugly ruthlessness of Western capitalism.

So, Smith asks, will it be places like Africa that will develop new theologies of the political and economic realm? For it is Africa that Christianity intersects with Islam and with the terrible realities of human suffering and injustice.  (there’s a challenge to Hargaden, off to do a PhD in Aberdeen on the theology of money!).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

and a bit more Hauerwas

And a bit more of vintage Hauerwas from War and the American Difference

The political novelty that God brings into the world is a community of those who serve instead of ruling, who suffer instead of inflicting suffering, whose fellowship crosses social lines instead of reinforcing them. The new Christian community in which walls are broken down not by human idealism or by democratic legalism but by the work of Christ is not only a vehicle of the gospel or a fruit of the gospel; it is the good news. It is not merely the agent of mission or the constituency of a mission agency. It is the mission. (167)

The church is the gospel, the church is mission.  By this he means to break down any abstraction whereby there is a gap between what we say we believe and how we actually live.  The Christian community ‘performs’ the gospel as well as believing it; it ‘performs’ mission as well as subscribing to the idea of mission and witness.

I have huge sympathy with this. The Christian faith not simply a good idea, but a transformed identity; a transformed life; a transformed purpose.; a life shaped by a new story – that of belonging to the risen Lord, Jesus the Messiah of Israel.

So deep is the Enlightenment disjunction between ‘faith’ and ‘knowing’ that the former is privatised and individualised and separated from public life. Hauerwas will have none of this. The gospel is public truth; the church is publicly to embody that gospel.

But this is also of course deeply uncomfortable. If the church ‘is’ the gospel; if the church ‘is’ mission – then how many churches would we gladly and unhesitatingly send our friends to ‘see and taste that God is good’? And if not, why not?

And a PS

While I see his point, for me that language here is too close to identifying the church with the kingdom of God / with the gospel.  While there is real danger of abstraction (look at what we believe, not what sort of community we are!), I would still want to create some distance between the church and the gospel.  The gospel is the ‘gospel of God’ – it is the good news of his saving action in his Son. The church is formed by the Spirit in response to that divine initiative.,

To equate church and gospel is to conflate Christ and church. This, it seems to me, comes close to the classic Protestant objection to Roman Catholic ecclesiology whereby ‘Christ and his church are one’ with all the problems associated with such an identification. By problems I mean where the Church (and its Pope) has unquestioned authority; where salvation can become sacramentalised (to put it crudely, once you are ‘in’ you are OK); and where the kingdom of God tends to be limited to the structures of the institution and so on.

To be sure, the sort of upside-down kingdom community Hauerwas talks of in the quote above is a long way from this, but do you think, as I do, that the language of church = gospel opens the door towards an unhealthily exalted ecclesiology? Or am I too pessimistic about the possibility of a transformed community of the Spirit?!

Jesus and violence

In late July I did a seminar at New Horizon on ‘Jesus and violence’. Here are the ‘starters for 10’ used on the day.  I really enjoyed the interaction and discussion in a packed (and very hot) room.

And really enjoyed meeting Rikk Watts and his wife Katie and listening to his excellent Bible reading on Friday morning. Very encouraging to see loads of teenagers and young adults there.

Much to keep reflecting on, especially from reading Yoder’s War of the Lamb.















Hauerwas and ‘war and the Irish difference’

I’m writing this on a train sitting in Connolly Station. On the table in front of me is a book I’ve been reading by Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity. It is superb.

Back when, I wrote a book on evangelicals and nationalism in Northern Ireland but I can only dream of writing like Hauerwas on ‘War and the Irish difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity’.

In a quite brilliant chapter he unravels ‘Why war is a moral necessity for America’.  In it, he traces how the Civil War descended into a ‘total war’, vigorously supported by the clergy. The moral stakes were raised to justify obliteration of the other side. God and nation were joined together, the latter being given a messianic destiny that demanded utter loyalty – and utter violence. For both North and South, “Christianity offered the only terms out of which national identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued.’ [Hauerwas quoting Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: a moral history of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006), p.43]. Blood sacrifice and martyrdom for the noble national cause sacralised the war, elevating it to a moral battle. And nowhere is this more plainly seen in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work for which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people , by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

A nation determined by such words, Hauerwas proposes, means that it does not have the capacity to keep war limited.

Which brings me back to Connolly Station. Just across the platform on the wall is a plaque inscribed with the 1916 Irish Declaration of Independence. It begins

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

The context is different, the theology of blood sacrifice for national freedom the same. ‘Just war’ or ‘just violence’ lies at the heart of Irish identity and history, just as it does for America. And the unleashed power of sacred nationalism could not be controlled in Ireland either – it led straight to a vicious civil war and later to 30 years of IRA violence.

Later, Hauerwas talks of the silence surrounding war and killing.

To kill, in war or in any circumstance, creates a silence – and certainly it is right for silence to surround the taking of life. After all, the life taken is not ours to take. Those who kill, even when such killing is assumed to be legitimate, bear the burden that what they have done makes them “different”. How do you tell the story of killing? Killing shatters speech, ends communication, isolating us into different worlds whose difference we cannot even acknowledge. (67)

This is why, I think, the Irish Civil War was virtually erased from popular consciousness throughout the 20th Century. The shame and pain of Irish ‘fratricide’ was too deep to dare uncover.

And such is the stain of killing that establishing the legitimacy of violence becomes of crucial importance.  The battle for legitimacy of past violence continues to dominate Northern politics.

But, Hauerwas argues, the Christian alternative to war is worship and reconciliation.

The church does not so much have a plan or a policy to make war less horrible or to end war. Rather, the church is the alternative to the sacrifice of war in a war-weary world. The church is the end of war … Christ has shattered the silence that overwhelms our killing and restores those who have killed, because his sacrifice overwhelms our killing and restores us to a life of peace. Indeed we believe that it remains possible for those who have killed to be reconciled with those they have killed. This is no sentimental bonding represented by the comradeship of battle. This is reconciliation made possible by the hard wood of the cross. (69)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A cool resource: STEP from Tyndale House

This is a very impressive and, best of all, completely FREE Bible study resource from Tyndale House, Cambridge called Scripture Tools for Every Person (STEP) which has been in development for some time. The vision is easy access of top quality Bible study tools for pastors, preachers and students of the Bible in the majority world, not just the West.

To see a quick overview with screenshots of what is available go here.

To try out the beta version go to

It is packed with useful features – to  see a quick intro by David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House watch this;

This is scholarship in service of the church. Wonderful stuff. It also highlights the depth of confidence Christians can have in the Bible text, OT and NT.