On the nature, worth, provenance, and cessation of New Testament tongues, much is obscure and must remain so. Various interpretations on key points are viable, and perhaps the worst error in handling the relevant passages is to claim or insinuate that perfect clarity or certainty marks one’s own view. The texts (Acts 2:4-11; 10:46; 11:17; 19:6; 1 Corinthians 12-14) are too problematical for that.
– J.I. Packer
Keep in Step with the Spirit
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Update: Michael Newnham has also responded. Read “Dousing a Strange Fire.”
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Cheerleaders for the anti-charismatic “Strange Fire” conference keep challenging people to theological pissing matches. The latest bullying comes from Dan Phillips at Pyromaniacs as he throws a well-respected brother, Dr. J. I. Packer, under the bus in the name of defending truth.
Phillips calls some of Dr. Packer’s statements about tongues-speaking, which he has cherry-picked from his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit, pastorally irresponsible, and then says he finds the book as a whole a not “very reassuringly-conducted study.”
What makes Dan Phillip’s silly post distressing and maddening is that Packer is remarkably conservative in his approach to matters of charisma, and those at Team Pyro and the “Strange Fire” conference are in agreement with perhaps 95% of his interpretation of the Bible on this issue. However, because the irenic Dr. Packer actually believes what Scripture says about showing loving patience and generosity toward our charismatic brothers and sisters, even when views differ and may be in error, Phillips is willing to trash his whole study.
Phillips forgets that the one book in the New Testament which deals with this issue, 1 Corinthians, approaches the subject in much the same way Packer does, and not as the dogmatists in the really-Reformed-right-and-righteous camp do. Paul is exceedingly gracious, patient, and forbearing toward the Corinthians, affirming and praising their faith and even their possession of many charismatic gifts, while at the same time rebuking them where necessary, refining their understanding where they weren’t thinking clearly, and trying to help them take a more mature approach to gifts and the Christian life as a whole. He does not forbid speaking in tongues. He does not deny the signs and manifestations they were claiming and with which they were childishly enthralled. As a wise and patient pastor, he sought to bring some order and wisdom into the discussion. He loved them. And he encouraged them to focus on love above everything else, as the greatest gift and the one they most needed.
This is also the big message of J.I. Packer’s fine book. In the chapter, “Mapping the Spirit: Interpreting the Charismatic Life,” he analyzes the main theological claims of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement and finds them wanting. Could any statement be clearer than this? —
For the fact we must now face is that the theology most commonly professed within the movement to account for its own claimed distinctives is deeply unbiblical.
Unfortunately, that is where the “Strange Fire” folks stop. They make that the last word — well at least until they cast the charismatics out of the Body of Christ. J.I. Packer, on the other hand, taking the Apostle Paul’s approach, must let grace and love speak.
…we are left with only two options: either to reject the experiences as delusive and possibly demonic in origin, after all, or to retheologize them in a way which shows that the truth which they actually evidence and confirm is something different from what the charismatics themselves suppose. This is the choice we now have to make with regard to at least the main stream of charismatic testimony.
In other words, as Paul did with the Corinthians, Packer won’t simply cut off the charismatics because they are wrong in their understanding of the Bible, nor will he deny that they’ve had actual experiences that have some genuine connection with the Christian life. He suggests, however, that perhaps they have not interpreted those experiences with sound biblical and theological judgment. So, Packer makes an effort to “retheologize” charismatic experience — to understand it more clearly and maturely in the light of a more accurate interpretation of Scripture.
He is not afraid to pinpoint the shortcomings of the movement by saying,
What emerges, therefore, is intensity with instability, insight not always linked with intelligence, an oversimplified one-sidedness in spirituality, and an enthusiasm that is often escapist.
However, Packer also recognizes that it has a contribution to make to the Church:
The central charismatic quest is not for any particular experience as such, but for what we may call thoroughgoing and uninhibited totality in realizing God’s presence and responding to his grace. …The charismatic quest for totality is surely right, and even if this way of pursuing it is not one which all believers can happily buy into, it comes as a salutary challenge to the muddleheaded ideals of restraint and respectability that have bogged down so many within our older churches in a sort of conscientious halfheartedness. This challenge must be received as from God.
Packer’s book is rich, thoughtful, nuanced, generous, and characterized by excellent analysis. The author also humbly recognizes his limitations when it comes to being able to make absolute, dogmatic statements about many aspects of this controversy (see the lead quote above). We all could learn, not only from Dr. Packer’s fine study, but from his Jesus-shaped approach to matters like these. He is a treasure to the Church.
For Dan Phillips to take a couple of quotes that he disagrees with and then trash the whole study is ludicrous and unconscionable. And this is the way the Truly Reformed treat a non-charismatic!
When people start throwing careful and Christ-honoring scholars like J.I. Packer under the bus in the name of “truth,” you have to wonder who is truly involved with strange fire.