January 26, 2012

DCRSN’S Defense of Continuationism

by Jesse Johnson

My continuationist friends (and I do have a few) proudly trumpet D. A. Carson as being one of them. In fact, I have met more than one person who has told me that they are continuationist in large part because of Carson’s book, Showing the Spirit, which is his exegetical work on 1 Corinthians 12-14.

And, truth be told, this is one of Carson’s best books, and certainly is one of the best books on spiritual gifts ever written. It is thorough, compelling, and takes the reader deeper into the meaning and significance of every verse in those chapters…with one obvious and comical exception.

In the NT, the gift of tongues was the ability to speak in actual languages. Just about every NT scholar grants that. Carson establishes that as well, and his case is unassailable. With that in mind, there are really only two semi-plausible ways to legitimize the modern use of “tongues.”

One is to say that what happens today is an actual known language. What you hear at your local Pentecostal church is some language that you simply are not familiar with, such as Swahili.  But with the advent of tape recorders and airplanes (and the field of linguistics), these claims are really untenable. Carson even grants that to be the case.

Instead, Carson opts for a second approach, which I dub the Vern Poythress way: grant that NT tongues were actual languages, and also grant that the modern day use of tongues is not the speaking in actual languages. But if that is the case, why does Poythress say that the gift is still on going? Because what happens today, Poythress argues, is analogous to the NT gift of tongues. It may not be the same thing, but it is the same family of thing. This view is critiqued remarkably well over at Pyromaniacs, and I will not rehash it here.

Which brings us back to the strange section in Showing the Spirit where Carson defends this view. He too grants that the NT gift was actual languages. But the tongues spoken today, he writes, are more like a computer language (picture Pig Latin put to code) than Swahili. While human language is decipherable, Carson’s understanding of the modern day gift of tongues is that it is just like a real language, except that it is undecipherable. Tongues may sound like gibberish, but that is because we don’t have the key to unlock the code.

I want to reprint Carson’s argument here because I think reading it (out loud, please) is actually the best critique of it. Keep in mind as you read it that these two pages are surrounded by some of the best exegetical work of our generation, and the overall benefit of Carson’s book far, far, far outweighs the nature of these two pages. In fact, what makes these two pages astounding is the contrast between this argument and the rest of the book. Finally, keep in mind that this argument is what is often put forward as one of the best defenses of continuationism out there. So if you are a cessationist, read this and weep (or slightly chuckle). It is pages 85-86:

“Suppose the message is:

Praise the Lord, for his mercy endures forever.

Remove the vowels to achieve:

PRS TH LRD FR HS MRC NDRS FRVR.

This may seem a bit strange; but when we remember that modern Hebrew is written without most vowels, we can imagine that with practice this could be read quite smoothly. Now remove the spaces and, beginning with the first letter, rewrite the sequence using every third letter, repeatedly going through the sequence until all the letters are used up. The result is:

PTRRMNSVRHDHRDFRSLFSCRR.

Now add an ‘a’ sound after each consonant, and break up the unit into arbitrary bits:

PATARA RAMA NA SAVARAHA DAHARA DAFARASALA FASA CARARA.

I think that is indistinguishable from transcriptions of certain modern tongues. Certainly it is very similar to some I have heard. but the important point is that it conveys information provided you know the code [bold reflects Carson’s use of italics]. Anyone who knows the steps I have taken could reverse them in order to retrieve the original message…

It appears, then, that tongues may bear cognitive information even though they are not known human languages–just as a computer program is a ‘language’ that conveys a great deal of information, even though it is not a ‘language’ that anyone actually speaks. You have to know the code to be able to understand it. Such a pattern of verbalization could not be legitimately dismissed as gibberish. It is as capable of conveying propositional and cognitive content as any known human language. ‘Tongue’ and ‘language’ still seem eminently reasonable words to describe the phenomenon…”

Carson goes on to say that not all that is practiced today under the auspices of tongues is the real deal (phew!), but that there may be uses of it that are an actual language (in the computer sense of the word), and that the biblical gift of interpretation is the ability to know the code, and thus unlock the meaning.

And that is one of the best exegetical defenses of the modern day continutationist movement.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • bmh

    Hmm. I’ve always thought the best defense for the continuationism is that spiritual gifts are merely the extension of regeneration…that if regeneration is a supernatural act that is evidenced in the world today, that gifts are just an extension of that act. Anyway, interesting argument by Carson.

    • Good point. There is a difference between supernatural spiritual gifts, and supernatural acts. Both cesationists and continuationists would agree that the supernatural are on going.

  • Richard

    I’m speechless.

  • Richard

    Analogous … NLGS … I no Legos … No logos … Neo legs …

    How do we know if you got the code right? How do we know if you got the decode right?

    Let me guess… Scripture? In which case why not just read that? Isn’t it a “more sure thing.”

    • Jerry Wragg

      Richard –
      Exactly!

    • Jerry Wragg

      Richard –
      Exactly!

  • Riaanboer

    If all I had was the extract from the book you reprinted, I would have been seriously put off from getting it and even more so, disappointed in such a respectable scholar as Carson. So thank you Jesse for saying all those good things about the book and about Carson. I might still get it and as you said; benefit from “some of the best exegetical work of our generation”.

    • Yeah. It really is a good book, and very helpful. That is exactly why these two pages stand out so.

  • Larry

    One could defend same-sex marriage using the exact same tactic. Sure it’s not exactly what we see described in scripture but it is analogous to it – in the same family of things.

    • Brian B

      Great point Larry, and where does it end? We could easily apply that “tactic” to any number of Biblical principles such as divorce, substance abuse, being unequally yoked, you name it.

  • Jerry Wragg

    Jesse –
    At least Grudem ATTEMPTED to ground his prophets-of-lesser-authority proposal in Scripture. When I first read Carson’s section on this I suspected instantly, given his obvious exegetical integrity, that he must’ve encountered the tongues-phenomena at some point, perhaps with a colleague or close friend, and found it too difficult to dismiss it’s apparent authenticity. No scholar of Carson’s skill would ever stoop to invent and publish such a tedious, complicated, and non-biblical defense of modern tongues without having been influenced by personal experience.

    • Bob Schilling

      Well said Jerry – in reality that’s what so many of these things boil down to – we lose our objectivity in the midst of what amounts to an emotional attachment to a position. Continuationism has all the appearances of the more loving, gracious, not-putting-God-in-a-box, catholic-spirited, thoughtful position. And cecessationism is repeatedly caricatured as “not believing that God can heal,” Driscoll’s “Solo-Scriptura,” dry pseudo orthodoxy that has to control everything, no willingness to let the Spirit be the Spirit and on and on it goes. I love Carson, I love Grudem, but it’s just me as a Baptist loving most of the books on my shelf written by paedobaptists – to read them on Acts 2:39 is usually astounding. I can thoroughly love my brothers, as I know many of them love me and yet have strong disagreements with their understanding of certain texts and issues. A book that is so overlooked on this subject is Victor Budgen’s “Charismatics and the Word of God” published by Evangelical Press. Budgen survey’s church history, and in my opinion gives some of the best exegetical defense of the cessation of the revelatory and the sign-miracle gifts. At the end of the day it highlights and exalts the far better way, the thing far more excellent – the completion of the Word of God. I agree with you that Grudem’s ATTEMPT was to give a defense of a second-class kind of prophecy from Scripture – and that THAT fell woefully short – how much more this kind of pig-Latin defense by Carson. You just have to cry out, “O Lord WHERE am I clearly misunderstanding your revelation? What emotional attachments or otherwise are keeping me from spiritually sensitive objectivity?

    • Bob Schilling

      Well said Jerry – in reality that’s what so many of these things boil down to – we lose our objectivity in the midst of what amounts to an emotional attachment to a position. Continuationism has all the appearances of the more loving, gracious, not-putting-God-in-a-box, catholic-spirited, thoughtful position. And cecessationism is repeatedly caricatured as “not believing that God can heal,” Driscoll’s “Solo-Scriptura,” dry pseudo orthodoxy that has to control everything, no willingness to let the Spirit be the Spirit and on and on it goes. I love Carson, I love Grudem, but it’s just me as a Baptist loving most of the books on my shelf written by paedobaptists – to read them on Acts 2:39 is usually astounding. I can thoroughly love my brothers, as I know many of them love me and yet have strong disagreements with their understanding of certain texts and issues. A book that is so overlooked on this subject is Victor Budgen’s “Charismatics and the Word of God” published by Evangelical Press. Budgen survey’s church history, and in my opinion gives some of the best exegetical defense of the cessation of the revelatory and the sign-miracle gifts. At the end of the day it highlights and exalts the far better way, the thing far more excellent – the completion of the Word of God. I agree with you that Grudem’s ATTEMPT was to give a defense of a second-class kind of prophecy from Scripture – and that THAT fell woefully short – how much more this kind of pig-Latin defense by Carson. You just have to cry out, “O Lord WHERE am I clearly misunderstanding your revelation? What emotional attachments or otherwise are keeping me from spiritually sensitive objectivity?

    • Richard

      I’m literally surrounded by people who fall into that category. I’ve gone through my own struggles from anger (when they tried to teach it to my daughter), to confusion (why not me), to tears (why why why), to endless study/searching (what is going on really). I believe you come to the belief it’s true because of an experience you had, or people you love dearly doing it in a pure heart. Some of our friends have stopped, one because a woman they knew stopped. Clint’s post on handling it with kid darts was good for my soul and I would encourage others to remember that real godly men and women believe in what they are doing. I’ve focused on how I believe it is unhelpful in my conversations rather on how I believe it is absurd. R.C. Sproul’s TT article I found helped me a lot in being gracious. I hope to be more gracious and more honest. May the Lord of Heaven and Earth have mercy on us!

      Sproul article: http://www.inchristalone.org/ZealWOKnow.html

    • Anonymous

      “influenced by personal experience”.

      Having talked to a lot of continuationists, that’s the bottom line to them. No matter where they start defending continuationism, when they face all the contra-arguments from cessationists, that’s where they end the discussion, “personal experience”.

      I might not buy this book, but I am still planning to get his “Exegetical Fallacies” one.

  • Anonymous

    “And that is one of the best exegetical defenses of the modern day continuationist movement.”

    I can only imagine the worst! Ok, I didn’t weep, I chuckled.

    I wonder… have we seen this take on “exegesis” before? I mean, fit-your-pressupositions-into-the-bible-no-matter-what kinda thing??!!

    Nothing surprises me anymore. Not even from bright minds.

  • michael Henry

    From the uneducated section of the bleachers, although I have great respect for Carson, this is nonsense. What struck me almost instantly was the similarity to Darwinist’s expecting a watch to randomly come from nothing by pure chance.
    I believe that continuation is man’s sinful pride, “God has to talk, he has to say more to ME”, in living color. The Bible is never enough, we are so special we must have gifts, we must be able to (insert gift here).

    • That is a really good point that I had not thought of Henry. Not only does language require content and meaning, but it requires that the person speaking it know the content. If gibberish is generated at random, it is not really plausible to assign “meaning” to it, and justify the jibberish sounding nature of it by claiming that we simply don’t have the code.

  • dude. seriously?

  • Peter Oppel

    “provided you know the code’?!??! Really? Didn’t he write a book titled “Exegetical Fallacies”?

    • I know, right? But to be fair, I can picture Carson saying that his point is simply that something can sound like gibberish but still contain information, and thus still be a language. However, that is the very point that his argument breaks down. The ability to convey information is the essence of language. Yes you have to know the language to understand it, but that is not secondary to the essence of communication.

  • Noah Hartmetz

    Fitting title.

    To the blog post, that is.

  • Joshua Grauman

    I just wanted to make sure someone acknowledged the wittiness of your title.

    • Thanks Josh. I toyed with writing it right to left in honor of the “when we remember that Hebrew is written without vowels” line, but decided to stop while I was ahead.

  • I’m glad someone else has noticed this. I first had to read this book about ten years ago and, while I follow his reasoning, I remember thinking then that had I not already read significant amount of Carson, I’d have been done with him after this.

    He really is superb most of the time so this goes to show that no one gets it right all the time.

  • Down4jesus

    That just goes to show that even one of the greatest exegetist’s of our generation is not only capable but guilty of eisegesis. It is truly amazing what we will force on the text, even with the best hermeneutical methods and practices. It’s only difficult because we have a hard time seeing Christians we know and love who are deceiving themselves by practicing such nonsense, so we impose ourselves on the text to justify their behavior. I get it but wow…… Lord help us not to do this and to be true to your Word no matter where it conflicts with our minds/hearts.

    • Richard

      Oh yeah and just because noise has the potential to carry information that doesn’t mean it actually does. Take DNA for example: All DNA is made up of a base consisting of sugar, phosphate and one nitrogen base. There are four nitrogen bases, adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). The nitrogen bases are found in pairs, with A & T and G & C paired together. These bases have to be arranged in a particular sequence in order to spell out instructions to build proteins. These bases however in and of themselves are just chemicals “components” if you will, just like sound is a component of speech. In this sense ALL sound has the potential for language/communication just like when you have these four nitrogen bases it has the potential to be arranged “sequenced” in a meaningful way to create proteins; however that in no way suggests that just because it possesses the proper components it actually communicates anything . I believe Dr. Carson is confusing the potential for language( i.e. Making any kind of sound) with the components. In other words just because the components are there that must mean that it actually has meaningful information.

    • Richard

      Oh yeah and just because noise has the potential to carry information that doesn’t mean it actually does. Take DNA for example: All DNA is made up of a base consisting of sugar, phosphate and one nitrogen base. There are four nitrogen bases, adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). The nitrogen bases are found in pairs, with A & T and G & C paired together. These bases have to be arranged in a particular sequence in order to spell out instructions to build proteins. These bases however in and of themselves are just chemicals “components” if you will, just like sound is a component of speech. In this sense ALL sound has the potential for language/communication just like when you have these four nitrogen bases it has the potential to be arranged “sequenced” in a meaningful way to create proteins; however that in no way suggests that just because it possesses the proper components it actually communicates anything . I believe Dr. Carson is confusing the potential for language( i.e. Making any kind of sound) with the components. In other words just because the components are there that must mean that it actually has meaningful information.

  • Richard

    That just goes to show that even one of the greatest exegetist’s of our generation is not only capable but guilty of eisegesis. It is truly amazing what we will force on the text, even with the best hermeneutical methods and practices. It’s only difficult because we have a hard time seeing Christians we know and love who are deceiving themselves by practicing such nonsense, so we impose ourselves on the text to justify their behavior. I get it but wow…… Lord help us not to do this and to be true to your Word no matter where it conflicts with our minds/hearts.

  • Morgan H

    Well, I guess this is good news for all those churches who have been speaking tongues in “jibberish” all this time and haven’t had someone present with the gift of interpretation…

    Now that we know that there’s an objective, discernable pattern, it will just be a matter of time until they can use SIRI on their iPhones to interpret and give them that edification they’ve been missing out on.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Carson goes on to say that not all that is practiced today under the auspices of tongues is the real deal (phew!), but that there may be uses of it that are an actual language (in the computer sense of the word), and that the biblical gift of interpretation is the ability to know the code, and thus unlock the meaning.”

    Can anyone (but more helpful if it was D.A. Carson himself) who can provide a valid, legitimate example of someone biblically interpreting someone’s else’s tongue utterances?

    Is there a link to a post or a youtube of such an example? If so, great! If not, then Carson is speculating, albeit a charitable speculation.

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      Jesse Johnson: “My continuationist friends (and I do have a few) proudly trumpet D. A. Carson as being one of them.”

      Jesse, can you ask your continuationist friends to provide a valid, legitimate example of someone biblically interpreting someone else’s tongue utterances.

      If they could provide a link to a post or a youtube example, that would be helpful.

  • Eric Davis

    Profound title, Jesse.

    I remember when I first came across the argument and carson’s book, I thought he was being joking at first, in part b/c as you said, the rest of the book is wonderful. Thanks for combining grace and truth to speak clearly to this issue.

  • Jared Baergen

    I chuckled. If that is the only argument for continuationism, that is quite sad.

    Elainebitt hit it head on:
    “No matter where they start defending continuationism, when they face all the contra-arguments from cessationists, that’s where they end the discussion, ‘personal experience.'”

    I have had this same *experience.* I have reasoned with continuationists to the point where they firmly can agree that whatever is happening today with the gifts is not the same thing that happened during the N.T. times. Then you just critique the poythress argument like Teampyro did, and ultimately go back to Scripture.

    I would have to say that anytime you turn to something other than Scripture you run into all sorts of problems. In this case, human reason or experience. The Bible doesn’t tell us anywhere about some “computer code.” How can we then rationalize and add our presuppositions and experiences to Scripture? Then you have ultimately stripped the power of the Word of God in the believer and fallen victim to the leaky-cannon view.

    It is also sad that many of my continuationist friends worship the Holy Spirit far more than they worship Jesus Christ, and in a sort of unholy manner. That is one big reason I hold to cessationism. I don’t remember Paul being the type of mystic/spirit-worshiper that we see today. No. He lived and breathed and died for Jesus Christ (1 Cor 2:2).

    Thanks Jesse for sharing this. Didn’t know Carson was a continuationist.

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  • I love DA Carson and have been helped by him over the years but this is…. inexplicable. The funny thing is that the book’s been out since 96 and I’ve never heard this “interpretation” mentioned previously. Does anyone know if he still holds this or has he since recanted?

  • SPlodinec

    Whaa?? From D.A. Carson!? This is freakishly similar to when they used to play Led Zeppelin songs backwards to find the secret Satanic message in them. Well, Carson is from that era.

  • cba

    So what exactly is wrong with Carson’s argument? You seem to be trying to make it sound ridiculous, but I don’t really see why. Could you spell it out so that people who are not as “in the know” can understand what you’re trying to argue?

    From what I understand, the Bible also doesn’t say that it has ceased. So if the Bible does not say that it has ceased, and one has genuine experience that it happened, say in the case of first corinthians 12-14, then one has no reason to reject it, unless you hold to some kind of regulative principle of scripture. But if that’s the case, you would need to find the regulative principle in the scripture. Which it is not. All that Carson needs to argue is that the Bible does not contradict the existence of tongues as they exist today, not that the Bible support it, and that’s why he’s providing a way to understand it. At least that’s how I read it.

    I myself is farther away from continuationism. I’ve never encountered a legitimate “tongues” experience. But I don’t know if that’s enough to say that it has ceased.

    So…I think i may be missing something. Could you supply the argument that Carson’s argument is wrong? Namely, could you supply proofs from scripture that tongues have ceased?

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