One of the effects that all the discussion surrounding Strange Fire has had on me, personally, has been to renew my interest in the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. And not just the discussion as it relates to the gifts of the Spirit, but in all the ways the Third Person of the Trinity exists and works to be worthy of all worship.
To that end, I’ve been reading some stuff on pneumatology. And one of the books that has invariably come up in discussions of good theology books on the Holy Spirit is George Smeaton’s The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, first published in 1882. Having been published two decades before Charles Fox Parham and Agnes Ozman would introduce the modern versions of the miraculous gifts to the church, Smeaton’s discussion of the gifts is particularly interesting to me. So, I’ve been reading selections of his work, and wanted to share with you some of the things he includes in his lecture entitled, “The Work of the Spirit in the Inspiration of Prophets and Apostles.” I’m quoting from the 1958 Banner of Truth edition.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
“These extraordinary gifts of the Spirit were no longer needed when the canon of Scripture was closed. Up to that time they were an absolute necessity. They are now no longer so. Nor is the Church warranted to expect their restoration, or to desire prophetic visions, immediate revelations, or miraculous gifts, either in public or in private, beyond, or besides, the all-perfect canon of Scripture. The Church of Rome, which still claims these extraordinary gifts, is to that extent injurious to the Spirit as the author of Scripture. And enthusiastic sects [he gives as examples ‘the Montanists of the second century and the Irvingites of the nineteenth century’] that cherish the belief of their restoration, or an expectation to that effect, have not learned or duly pondered how great a work of the Spirit has been completed and provided for the Church of all times in the gift of the Holy Scriptures.” (150–51)
Here Smeaton hammers a point that I don’t think we can reiterate enough: the absolute sufficiency of Scripture. The kind of communion with God that many Christians seek through ecstatic experiences and subjective “revelations,” we have in infinitely greater measure in the Scriptures themselves. That the Apostle Peter saw the unveiled glory of the Transfigured Son of God, and yet could admonish the churches in his care to pay close attention to the more sure prophetic word (2 Pet 1:16–21), continues to astound me. The written Word of God, more sure than the personal experience and vision of the glory of God the Son? That’s what he says. “How great a work of the Spirit has been completed and provided for the Church of all times in the gift of the Holy Scriptures!”
And, as far as Smeaton could see, expecting any renewal or restoration of the miraculous, revelatory gifts of the Spirit such as prophecy, tongues, and miraculous signs and wonders, necessarily subtracts from the absolute sufficiency of the written Word of God. To suggest that any other revelation was necessary —inscripturated or not—was to impugn the character of “the all-perfect canon of Scripture,” and to be “injurious to the Spirit as the author of Scripture.”
The Purpose of the Revelatory Gifts
“That rich supply of supernatural or miraculous gifts with which the apostolic Churches were adorned, was a standing pledge and sign that the inward miracle of inspiration continued. The cessation of these gifts, after they had served their purpose was a significant fact. But during the whole time of their continuance, these miraculous gifts, and especially the gift of tongues—that is, the gift of speaking in languages which had never been learned—were a conclusive proof and illustration that the miracle of inspiration was still present in the church. […]
“When it is alleged that the restoration of these gifts is not an unwarrantable expectation, the answer is, they are no longer required. The closing of the canon has superseded their necessity and value, inasmuch as the Church possesses in the Scriptures all that they were intended to accredit and commend.” (150, 151)
Note that Smeaton sees the purpose of the gifts as attesting to the reality that the miracle of inspiration was occurring. The gifts were given to certify that the revelation being brought by Christ and His Apostles and their associates was indeed infallible truth from the God of all truth Himself. Now that such revelation has been codified in the Scriptures, there is no further revelation that needs attestation by miraculous gifts. Scripture itself is its own self-attestation. The Word of God is self-authenticatingly glorious.
The Spirit and the Word, by the Word
“Whatever enthusiasts may have held, no judicious divine ever asserted that the Spirit gives this internal criterion, or testifies without the word or apart from the word itself. On the contrary, they always, in express terms, declared that we owe this testimony to the efficacy of the Spirit and word conjointly not separately. They ascribed the effect to the Spirit not without the word, but by the word.” (173, emphases added)
One of the greatest travesties of the heterodox pneumatology of Charismaticism, which has trickled down even into the streams of conservative evangelicalism, is the notion that Christians can either be Spirit-people or Word-people. Smeaton actually goes on to say, “The enthusiasts . . . have been wont to call the written word a dead letter” (173), and many non-cessationists today suggest that if we want to have a living relationship with the living God, we must look to the living Holy Spirit to communicate with us by direct, personal revelations—not merely to some static, ancient book such as the Bible. Such would be to “put God in a box,” to “confine Him to a single book.” But Smeaton, following the “judicious divines” through the ages, following the Scripture itself, teaches us that we do not choose between the Spirit and the written Word; rather, we honor the Spirit by going to and revering and honoring the written Word, of which He is the author. We do not find communion with God through His Spirit apart from the Word, but by the Word.
The Nature of Tongues, and 19th-Century German Liberals
“Many . . . interpret the expression [i. e., tongues] . . . as a speaking in ecstasy. That is the modern German speculation, devised to escape the full admission of the extraordinary miracle.” (57)
How interesting that the 19th-century German liberals, in their zeal to make Christianity acceptable to the Enlightenment rationalism of the day by explaining away the miraculous, believed to aid their case by redefining tongues as gibberish. Apparently they realized that (a) if the gift of tongues was the ability to speak in previously unknown human languages (as the Scripture teaches), they’d be forced to admit the supernatural, but that (b) anyone could fabricate “ecstatic utterance,” which could be explained as a natural phenomenon. It’s a little funny, but mostly sad, to think that the contemporary continuationists have an ally in the German liberals on this issue—and that cessationists get accused of having their pneumatology birthed in the Enlightenment!
Liberalism and Experientialism
Smeaton eventually traces the experientialism inherent in non-cessationism to the parallel experientialism in the liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher, often referred to as “the father of modern liberal theology.”
“Schleiermacher, to whom the school owes its origin, broke away from a faith of authority, and assumed the Christian consciousness or pious feeling as the source of knowledge and the matter of his science. . . . And, with a boldness amounting to bravado, the leaders of that school propound the most negative opinions. To affirm that the Christian consciousness is the source of spiritual knowledge is, in fact, a Quaker principle—defective and one-sided. It puts in the place of authority the Spirit within instead of the word without, the only full expression of the Spirit’s mind. It furnishes nothing but guesses at truth.” (174)
This “Quaker principle” is that “inner light” that the Quakers, who claimed to be receiving new prophecies and revelations, held to exist in all men—an indwelling of the Spirit that gives revelation even to unbelievers. Steve Lawson did an excellent job in introducing us to this in his second session at Strange Fire.
This “Quaker principle” elevates the subjective, internal “testimony” of “the Spirit” to the place of paramount authority, and thus denigrates the objective, external revelation of the written Word, which is the only full expression of the Spirit’s mind.
And he’s right to point out that the result of this is nothing but “guesses at truth.” This is precisely what John MacArthur said in his most recent Sunday morning sermon. Even the most conservative continuationists acknowledge that the supposed “revelations” that they receive from the Holy Spirit are fallible and are often incorrect. Grudem writes, “There is almost uniform testimony from all sections of the charismatic movement that prophecy is imperfect and impure, and will contain elements which are not to be obeyed or trusted” (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament, 90). When explaining how one can tell whether such a prophecy is truly from the Lord or not, Grudem advises asking oneself, “Did the revelation ‘seem like’ something from the Holy Spirit? . . . Beyond this it is difficult to specify much further, except to say that over time a congregation would probably become more adept . . . at recognizing a genuine revelation from the Holy Spirit and distinguishing it from their own thoughts” (ibid., 100).
I don’t know that Smeaton could have characterized it better than “guesses at truth.” What an unspeakable blessing that we are not subjected to the uncertainty and ambiguity of such guesses at truth, but have the more sure prophetic word, which is unquestionably and infallibly 100% accurate revelation from God Himself. You will do well to pay attention to it, dear friends, as to a lamp shining in a dismal place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. (2 Pet 1:19).
May God grant that it be so.