I am a cessationist. That is to say, I believe that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit -namely, the "sign gifts" of healing, tongues, and miracles—were employed in the early church to authenticate that God was doing something new, but that they ceased with the death of the last apostle. This is what distinguishes me from a charismatic Christian, who believes the Holy Spirit still uses sign gifts today.
While I still consider myself a cessationist, the last few years have shown me that my spiritual life has gotten off track—that somehow I, along with many others in my theological tradition, have learned to do without the third person of the Trinity.
This has not hindered my academic work. Mine has become a cognitive faith—a Christianity from the neck up. As long as I could control the text, I was happy. I lived in the half-reality that theological articulation is valid only if it is based on sound exegesis and nothing else. Like the proverbial frog in the slowly simmering pot of water, I did not sense that I was on the way to self-destruction.
Two-and-a-half years ago, the Almighty suddenly and graciously turned up the heat. He provided me a wake-up call to get me out of the pot. I am sharing my testimony in hopes that many others who are in cauldrons of their own making might realize the danger—and get out.
RUN, WALK, CRAWL
I grew up in a conservative Baptist church in southern California. My youth was characterized by timidity: I was a Clark Kent with no alter ego. I was afraid of life, afraid to explore, afraid to question aloud. In spite of this -or, perhaps, because of this—I was a leader in the youth group.
But I had questions that would not go away—questions about whether I had had an authentic Christian experience. Because of the turmoil in my soul, I quickly agreed when a friend invited me to a charismatic revival at Melodyland in Anaheim, California. The speaker said some things that disturbed me intellectually. When he gave an altar call, I was ready to go forward and give him a piece of my mind. As I got up out of my seat, the Holy Spirit grabbed my heart and said, "No, this is not the reason you're going forward. You need to get right with God." Now, he did not speak audibly to me—these words are not to be put in red letters. But as I rose, before I took one step, I was overwhelmingly convicted of my own sin. The Spirit of God was definitely in that place.
As I came forward, about four or five hundred other people streamed forth to the center stage. With hundreds of people there, I was amazed when the speaker, microphone in hand, selected me. "Why have you come forward, young man?" he queried. "I came to rededicate my life to Christ," I answered. It was a good thing that the Holy Spirit changed my heart before my lips got in gear.
That night, January 6, 1969, was the major turning point in my life.
Before I left Melodyland, a man invited me to visit his fellowship in Huntington Beach. I joined the group and became a charismatic. The group was vibrant in its worship and courageous in its evangelism. My faith was alive. My prayer life was thriving. And I gained courage.
I would pray for hours daily, asking God to grant me the gift of tongues. After a weeknight meeting, when one of the "apostles" discovered that I had not spoken in tongues, he asked if I had been baptized in the Spirit. When I answered in the negative, he laid his hands on me and did the job right there on the sidewalk. Observing that nothing had changed, he doubted my salvation.
So I quietly left the group and the charismatic movement. But my zeal for God was not quenched. I continued to pray, evangelize, and read my Bible.
There was a long stretch of time in which I read my New Testament, cover to cover, every week. I saw God's hand in everything. And the Lord granted me a measure of courage that was not naturally mine.
Because of my interest in spiritual things, I decided to attend Biola University. Afterward I married and came to Dallas Theological Seminary for theological training. Through these years, I began to slip away from my early, vibrant contact with God. My understanding of Scripture was heightened, but my walk with God became a crawl.
Joe Aldrich, the president of Multnomah Bible College, once told me, "It takes the average seminary graduate five years to thaw out from the experience." For most graduates, I suspect, that thawing out may come through the natural course of events. But it took several crises before the Lord started warming me up again. The latest one was what happened to my son Andy just short of three years ago—when he was eight years old.
WHEN SCRIPTURE IS INADEQUATE
In December 1991, Andy was kicked in the stomach by a school bully. He developed persistent stomach pains. Two months later, through a providentially guided indiscretion, Andy left the bathroom door open when my wife walked by. She saw something that horrified her: his urine was brown. That same day, she took him to our family physician. This began a series of visits to doctors and specialists. None of them had a clue as to what was wrong. Finally, he was admitted to Children's Hospital in Dallas on April 20, 1992, scheduled for a kidney biopsy.
Before the biopsy was to be performed, a sonogram was conducted. We had anticipated a blood clot on the kidney, but the sonogram revealed that something more was present. Perhaps it was a tumor. One physician suggested exploratory surgery instead of a biopsy. This sounded crazy to me, but we agreed, grudgingly, to this procedure.
The surgery took place on Wednesday, April 22. That's when the nightmare began. One of the physicians prepped us ahead of time: "Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, I wouldn't be overly worried about this operation. What the sonogram revealed may still be just a blood clot. And if it's not a blood clot, then, most likely, it's a benign tumor. And if it's not benign, then it is probably a Wilm's tumor. This is a congenital kidney cancer found in children. It's treatable and curable. However, if it's not a Wilm's tumor, there is the very slight possibility that what your son has is renal cell carcinoma. But that is such a rare cancer in children that the likelihood is quite remote."
As the hours during and after the surgery wore on, we found ourselves getting hit with wave after wave of dreaded news. Andy, indeed, had renal cell carcinoma (RCC). And it was not just the normal type—which was lethal enough. Andy had the more potent strain of RCC. Worldwide, fewer than ten children ever diagnosed have lived beyond two years with this strain of RCC. Apart from radical surgery, it is virtually untreatable and incurable.
There was good news through all this, news of a providential character, news that gave me and still gives me hope that my son will live. First, the bully who kicked Andy in the stomach probably saved his life. In only one-third of the cases of RCC is there bloody urine. The other symptoms, usually a mild stomach ache and an occasional lowgrade fever, belie the seriousness of the problem. That kick to the stomach probably triggered the bloody urine. Second, the one physician who insisted on exploratory surgery instead of a biopsy also saved his life. RCC is so potent a cancer that every case on record in which a biopsy was performed resulted in the death of the patient. In the midst of wondering, of confusion, of crying out to God, I could still see his hand in all this.
Andy's kidney was removed and he went through various grueling tests in which his body was probed for any remnants of cancer. The bone marrow test was the most traumatic. My brave wife held Andy in her arms for 20 minutes as this little boy clutched her, screaming, "Make them stop, Mommy! Make them stop!" Six days of testing produced no trace of cancer.
RCC in children is so rare that Andy's case was the first one reported in the United States since 1984. Globally, he is the one-hundred-sixty-first child ever diagnosed with it. There are no support groups. Before Andy left the hospital, a team of ten physicians could not decide whether to administer chemotherapy. It would strictly be a preventive measure, but with RCC, prevention is everything.
We decided to go with the treatment. I cannot adequately describe what the next six months were like—for Andy, for me and his mother, for his three brothers. But I can tell you that I was in an emotional wasteland. I was angry with God, and I found him to be distant. Here was this precious little boy who was losing his hair and losing weight. At one point, he weighed only 45 pounds. His twin brother at that time weighed 85 pounds. Andy was so weak that we had to carry him everywhere, even to the bathroom.
Through this experience I found that the Bible was not adequate. I needed God in a personal way—not as an object of my study, but as friend, guide, comforter. I needed an existential experience of the Holy One. Quite frankly, I found that the Bible was not the answer. I found the Scriptures to be helpful—even authoritatively helpful—as a guide. But without my feeling God, the Bible gave me little solace.
In the midst of this "summer from hell," I began to examine what had become of my faith. I found a longing to get closer to God, but found myself unable to do so through my normal means: exegesis, Scripture reading, more exegesis. I believe that I had depersonalized God so much that when I really needed him I didn't know how to relate. I longed for him, but found many community-wide restrictions in my cessationist environment. I found a suffocation of the Spirit in my evangelical tradition as well as in my own heart.
It was this experience of my son's cancer that brought me back to my senses, that brought me back to my roots. And out of this experience I have been wrestling with practical issues of pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit). I want to offer seven theses, which deal with the areas God is addressing in my own life. I hope and pray that this essay will help other cessationists avoid the traps I fell into.
1. Although the sign gifts died in the first century, the Holy Spirit did not. We all can affirm this theologically, but pragmatically we act as though the Holy Spirit died with the early church. This is my fundamental thesis, and it is well worth exploring.
What can we—speaking to cessationists—affirm that the Holy Spirit is doing today? What did Jesus mean when he said, "My sheep hear my voice" (John 10:27)? What did Paul mean when he declared, "Those who are led by the Spirit are the children of God" (Rom. 8:14)? What did John mean when he wrote, "You have an anointing from the Holy One" (1 John 2:20)? In my own experience, I am finding God communicating to me beyond the Scripture, but never contrary to Scripture; not audibly, but nevertheless personally.
2. While charismatics sometimes give a higher priority to experience than to relationship, rationalistic evangelicals give a higher priority to knowledge than to relationship. Both of these miss the mark. And Paul, in 1 Corinthians, condemns both. Knowledge puffs up; and spiritual experience without love is worthless. By overemphasizing the cognitive element of Christianity, my view of God became distorted, in three ways:
First, this emphasis on knowledge over relationship produced in me a bibliolatry. For me, as a New Testament professor, the text is my task—but I made it my God. The text became my idol. As shocking as it may sound to many in the cessationist circle, the Bible is not a member of the Trinity.
One of the great legacies Karl Barth left behind was his strong Christocentric focus. It is a shame that too many of us have reacted so strongly to Barth, for in our zeal to show the deficiencies of his doctrine of Scripture, we have become bibliolaters in the process. Barth and Calvin share a warmth, a piety, a devotion, an awe in the presence of God that is lacking in too many theological tomes generated from our circles.
Second, the net effect of such bibliolatry is a depersonalization of God. Eventually, we no longer relate to him. God becomes the object of our investigation rather than the Lord to whom we are subject. The vitality of our religion gets sucked out. As God gets dissected, our stance changes from "I trust in … " to "I believe that … "
Third, part of the motivation for depersonalizing God was my craving for control. What we cessationists dislike most about charismatics is their loss of control, their emotionalism. We take comfort in the fact that part of the fruit of the Spirit is "self-control." But by this we mean, "do all things in moderation"—including worshiping God. But should we not have a reckless abandon in our devotion to him? Should we not throw ourselves on him, knowing that apart from him we can do nothing?
3. God is still a God of healing and miracles. As a cessationist, I can affirm present-day miracles. God is still a God of healing even though I think his normal means is not through a faith healer. God heals through the exercise of faith, not through the power of faith healers. The problem with some charismatics is that they believe that God not only can heal, but that he must heal. God thus becomes an instrument, wielded by the almighty Christian.
At the same time, the problem with noncharismatics is that although we claim that God can heal, we act as if he won't. I don't really think we believe in God's ability—we don't really believe that God can heal. Thus, the problem with charismatics is a denial of God's sovereignty; the problem with noncharismatics is a denial of God's ability or goodness or both.
4. Evangelical rationalism can lead to spiritual defection. I am referring to the suffocation of the Spirit in postgraduate theological training, as well as the seduction of academia. Most seminary professors can think of examples of gifted young students who seemed to have lost their Christian convictions in an academic setting. For many of us, this recollection is painful. How many times have we sent Daniels into the lions' den, only to tell them by our actions that prayer won't do any good?
One particular instance is very difficult for me to think about. One of my brightest master's students about 13 years ago went on for doctoral work at Oxford. His seminary training prepared him well in exegesis, but not in prayer. A couple of years ago I caught up with him and discovered that he was not only confused about his evangelical heritage, he was questioning the uniqueness of Jesus. This student had suppressed part of the arsenal at his disposal: the witness of the Spirit—something nonbelievers cannot touch. To this day I wonder how much I contributed to this man's confusion and suppression of the Spirit's witness.
It is not the historical evidences alone that can lead one to embrace Jesus' resurrection as true. The Spirit must work on our hearts, overcoming our natural reticence. When we forget that the Spirit brought us to Christ in the first place, and suppress his witness in our hearts, we are ripe for spiritual defection. We need to be reminded especially those of us who live in an academic setting—that exegesis and apologetics are not the sum of the Christian life.
5. Most of the power brokers of evangelicalism, since the turn of the century, have been white, obsessive-compulsive males. Ever since the days of the Princetonians (Warfield, Hodge, Machen, et al.), American noncharismatic evangelicalism has been dominated by Scottish common sense, by post-Enlightenment, left-brain, obsessive-compulsive, white males. This situation reveals that we are suppressing a part of the image of God, suppressing a part of the witness of the Spirit, and that we are not in line with historic Christianity. The implications of such demographics are manifold.
First, I find it fascinating that the experience of God in the black noncharismatic community is quite different than in the white noncharismatic community. In many ways, it resembles the white charismatic experience more than the white cessationist experience of God. A full-orbed experience of God must take place in the context of community—and that community must be heterogeneous. If, as has been often stated, 11 o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, then something is desperately wrong with the church.
Second, we act as if the Holy Spirit only works on the logic centers in our left brain. But he also works on the right brain: he sparks our imagination, causes us to rejoice, laugh, sing, and create. That is why Christians should be involved with the arts. We have too few hymn-writers, novelists, painters, playwrights. What are our seminaries and churches doing to encourage these right brainers?
Third, we men have failed to listen to the women in our midst—and this failure is related to our not hearing the voice of the Spirit. If the imago Dei is both male and female, by squelching the contribution of women we distort that very image before a watching world.
6. The Holy Spirit's guidance is still needed in discerning the will of God. The rationalism in our circles logically leads to decision-making as a purely cognitive exercise. There is no place for prayer. There is no room for the Spirit. I believe there is a middle ground between expecting daily revelations, on the one hand, and basing decisions solely on logic and common sense, on the other. I may not receive revelations, but I do believe that the Spirit often guides me with inarticulate impulses.
7. In the midst of seeking out the power of the Spirit, we must not avoid the sufferings of Christ. This is the message of Mark's gospel: the disciples could not have Christ in his glory without Christ in his suffering.
Several weeks ago, one of my students died of cancer. Another was about to die. I began urging students at the seminary to pray for God's intervention. The Lord did not answer our prayer in the way we had hoped. Three weeks later, Brendan Ryan was buried. My own pain was increased when I saw his three small children paraded in front of the mourners at his memorial service.
Two more of my students are on the verge of death. As I visit with them, I learn about suffering and honesty with God. Out of my pain—pain for these students and their families, pain for my son, pain for myself—comes honesty and growth. I have moments when I doubt God's goodness. Yet I do not doubt that he has suffered for me far more than I will ever suffer for him. And that is the only reason I let him hold my hand through this dark valley. In seeking God's power, I discovered his person. He is not just omnipotent; he is also the God of all comfort. And taking us through suffering, not out of it, is one of the primary means that the Spirit uses today in bringing us to God.
There is a lesson in this both for cessationists and charismatics. To my charismatic friends, I say: We must not avoid suffering as though it were necessarily evil, for we cannot embrace Christ in his resurrection apart from embracing him in his death. To my cessationist friends: We must not anesthetize our pain by burying our heads in the text, as if a semi-gnostic experience of the Word will somehow solve the riddle of our misery.
And to my son I say: I love you, Andy. And I am grateful for all that you, in your childlike faith, have taught me about life and about God.
Daniel B. Wallace is assistant professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.
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