30 October 2013

Strange Fire Conference #4: Steve Lawson on Calvin and the Charismatics

by Dan Phillips

First post
Second post
My overall summary report to CBC
Third post

Steve Lawson's session focused on what John Calvin would say to modern Charismatics. Lawson is a lot of things: senior pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama, teaching fellow with Ligonier Ministries, visiting professor at the Ligonier Academy, The Master’s Seminary, and Samara Theological Seminary in Russia — and a constant fixture at conferences. (Seriously: how do you get that gig?)

It was really a terrific session. Lawson showed a surprising facility for spontaneous humor, particularly on display when a remark drew one person's applause ("Thank you to the one person who clapped" — and then, when everyone applauded, "I can tell when you don't mean it").

Having read Lawson's recent book on Luther (the review of which I plan to post after this series), I appreciate all the more the extent of research that goes into his talks. This was laced liberally with direct quotations from Calvin.

Lawson observed that Calvin faced foes who also believed they had inner light and direct revelations from God — the Anabaptists and the Libertines. He quotes Calvin as saying that they were 100 times worse than Roman Catholicism. Some of the libertines wore torn robes and seemed to want a "grunge" look. (When the audience laughed, Lawson remarked, "I feel like I just stepped on something," to more laughter.)

Lawson largely found Calvin's thoughts revealed in his commentaries on related passages. I looked them up to add to my notes and to BibleWorks as needed. Here are just some of the highlights:

On Acts 2:38, Calvin said:

Therefore this doth not properly appertain unto us. For because Christ meant to set forth the beginning of his kingdom with those miracles, they lasted but for a time; yet because the visible graces which the Lord did distribute to his did show, as it were in a glass, that Christ was the giver of the Spirit, therefore, that which Peter saith doth in some respect appertain unto all the whole Church: ye shall receive the gift of the Spirit. For although we do not receive it, that we may speak with tongues, that we may be prophets, that we may cure the sick, that we may work miracles; yet is it given us for a better use, that we may believe with the heart unto righteousness, that our tongues may be framed unto true confession, (Rom. 10:10,) that we may pass from death to life, (John 5:24,) that we, which are poor and empty, may be made rich, that we may withstand Satan and the world stoutly.

Calvin's note in the Institutes is particularly telling as to his Biblically-derived view of the attesting/revelatory gifts' purpose:
In demanding miracles from us, they act dishonestly; for we have not coined some new gospel, but retain the very one the truth of which is confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought.
In other words, Calvin saw the purpose of the gifts as being to confirm the new message of the gospel and its messengers. When his contemporary critics demanded that he and the other reformers perform miracles, his response in effect was "Why should we? We are not bringing any new message, but the old message which has already been revealed and attested by God's supernatural power."

As I've often argued: define the gifts' purpose Biblically, and you define their intended shelf-life. Describe the gifts Biblically, and you refute modern substitutes.

Calvin again notes tongues' long-past cessation in his comment on Acts 10:44 —

The gift of the tongues, and other such like things, are ceased long ago in the Church; but the spirit of understanding and of regeneration is of force, and shall always be of force, which the Lord coupleth with the external preaching of the gospel, that he may keep us in reverence of his word, and may prevent the deadly dotings, wherein brain-sick fellows enwrap themselves, whilst that, forsaking the word, they invent an erroneous and wandering spirit. 

It was particularly interesting to hear that Calvin, in his remarks on Acts 21:9 some 500 years ago, made the same point about errorists in his day that I've made again and again about Charismatics (bolding added):
Prophecies had now almost ceased many years among the Jews, to the end they might be more attentive and desirous to hear the new voice of the gospel. Therefore, seeing that prophesying, which was in a manner quite ceased, doth now after long time return again, it was a token of a more perfect state. Notwithstanding, it seemeth that the same was the reason why it ceased shortly after; for God did support the old people with divers foretellings, until Christ should make an end of all prophecies. Therefore, it was meet that the new kingdom of Christ should be thus furnished and beautified with this furniture, that all men might know that that promised visitation of the Lord was present; and it was also expedient that it should last but for a short time, lest the faithful should always wait for some farther thing, or lest that curious wits might have occasion given to seek or invent some new thing ever now and then. For we know that when that ability and skill was taken away, there were, notwithstanding, many brain-sick fellows, who did boast that they were prophets; and also it may be that the frowardness of men did deprive the Church of this gift. But that one cause ought to be sufficient, in that God, by taking away prophecies, did testify that the end and perfection was present in Christ; and it is uncertain how these maids did execute the office of prophesying, saving that the Spirit of God did so guide and govern them, that he did not overthrow the order which he himself set down. And forasmuch as he doth not suffer women to bear any public office in the Church, it is to be thought that they did prophesy at home, or in some private place, without the common assembly.
Lawson also noted that, when challenged as to why he invested so much time in responding to errorists, Calvin replied, "Even a dog barks when he sees someone assault his master." This clearly resonated deeply with us who heard. This foolish error opens the door to Satan, leads the simple away from the truth, and provokes God. For Calvin, a charismatic Calvinist would be an oxymoron.

Lawson closed his stirring talk with three principles:
  1. The exclusivity of Biblical authority. Either there is one stream of revelation, or there are two. Either Sola Scriptura or something else. Calvin faced the "two streams" model in Roman Catholicism, and then in another form with the Anabaptists and libertines. It is the notion of the word of God and ______ that Calvin opposed, insisting that the Word of God formed the one and only stream.
  2. Priority of Biblical preaching. Look to two streams and pulpit is diminished. Bible mandates Biblical preaching. Two streams dilutes that. 
  3. The unity of Spirit and Word. The Holy Spirit is not opposed to the Word of God, but is its divine Author, and uses it as His means.
Dan Phillips's signature


LanternBright said...

"Define the gifts' purpose Biblically, and you define their intended shelf-life."

One of the sanest things I've ever heard.

Daniel Kleven said...

"For Calvin, a charismatic Calvinist would be an oxymoron."

I'm all for clarity in identification, but couldn't it also be said "For Calvin, a baptist Calvinist would be an oxymoron." or "a dispensationalist Calvinist", etc. ?

In other words, it seemed like one of the intended points was "if you're going to call yourself a charismatic, don't call yourself a Calvinist."

Why not the same with "baptist," etc.?

DJP said...

I'm sure you're right, Daniel. In itself, it isn't a dispositive fact, Scripture must have the final say.

Daniel Kleven said...

Right, no one is looking to settle the issue with "What saith Calvin?" how ever helpful he might be.

But the comment being made is "you're not a real Calvinist." Which seems kind of ironic coming from dispensational baptists.

DJP said...

"We must/mustn't believe X because Theologian Z did/didn't believe it" is not an argument that I'd make.

However, if a harmful and/or Biblically-deviant movement such as Charismaticism/continuationism were to try to paint itself with false respectability by cloaking itself in Calvin's name or associating itself with his teachings, that's worth pointing out.

When the topic of the post is being baptistic or dispensatoinalistic, we can explore that further. Meanwhile, back to Charismaticism....

Cathy M. said...

My husband and I were actually able to stream this session. The most memorable quote for me was about the dog who barks when he sees someone assault his master. Nothing irritates the "neighbors" of our faith like a barking reformer. ;-)

Kent Brandenburg said...


How much would allegorical interpretation or spiritualizing of scripture move outside of the stream of truth? When highly subjective interpretation comes out of an allegorical approach, let's say related to an attempt at overt continuity between the Old and the New Testaments, could that be something different than scripture having its say, and, instead, the man or some subjective spirituality be having the say?

Eric said...

Actually Dan, wouldn't there be three streams of revelation: general revelation, special revelation, and really special revelation (for me, because I'm really special)?

Anonymous said...

" 'Define the gifts' purpose Biblically, and you define their intended shelf-life.'
One of the sanest things I've ever heard."

Really? Was not the primary purpose for the gifts, biblically, to build up and strengthen the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12-14)? What is the "shelf life" of the Body of Christ?

Anonymous said...

" 'Define the gifts' purpose Biblically, and you define their intended shelf-life.'
One of the sanest things I've ever heard."

Really? Was not the primary purpose for the gifts, biblically speaking, to build up and strengthen the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12-14)? What is the "shelf life" of the Body of Christ?

DJP said...

Welcome to Pyromaniacs!

The actual post is above the comments. You have to to up to the big print that says the title and "by Dan Phillips," then read what comes after that, between "First post" and "as His means."

That part has the answer to your question.

Or for more, listen to Lawson's whole talk.

DJP said...

Um... same answer as to the other guy.

L. Bryan Burke said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
FX Turk said...

I’m breaking out of Hiatus to respond to Bryan Burke. This will be my only response, so I guess by default he gets the last word.

| ... I must still be lost because I can't find a
| sufficient answer to my question.

It’s because you don’t want an answer to your question, if I may be so bold: you think that if you keep asking, you can imagine you are still in ignorance.

Most people following this discussion overall – not just you personally, but the Strange Fire wildfires everywhere – know your question(s) have been answered and are puzzled that you folks asking these question still have the confused dog look on your faces.

| Do you really think I should gullibly ...

Don’t put that word into play here. If you’re going to admit there’s some kind of gullibility runninga round in this discussion, the obvious fact that it’s all over the “continualist” side of this discussion cannot be escaped, and as such it needs to be dealt with.

When “continualists” can explain their native gullibility when it comes to the long list of frauds and charlatans in their own camp in such a way that it is a virtue, we can then worry about so-called “hermeneutical gullibility”.

| ... concede to the hermeneutical
| gymnastics you guys have done around
| I Corinthians 12-14 while preaching
| Sola Scriptura, by simply re-reading this
| post and re-watching Steve's
| peremptory sermon?
| "Define the gifts' purpose Biblically, and
| you define their intended shelf-life."

That is actually all the answer you need. That is actually all the argument, biblically, you need. The question “What are the gifts for” so badly ruins any form of modern charismaticism that it is embarrassing to watch you guys toss it out there as if it’s your lifeline to some future where there are no more Todd Bentleys or Paula Whites or Benn Hinns.

The answer to the question “what are the Gifts for?” excludes all the things indicative of the charismatic movement, because let’s face it: whatever they are good for, they are certainly good for, as they are practiced today, leading people away from wisdom, sanctification, repentence, and fellowship in Christ.


FX Turk said...


| I'll re-phrase my question:
| Was not A primary purpose for the gifts,
| biblically, to build up and strengthen the
| Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12-14)?

Here’s one answer which I think is utterly appropriate given the way you allegedly make your case:

“The purpose of the Gifts are to cause people to know Jesus is Lord and Christ (Book of Acts).”

My prooftext is bigger than yours, so I must be right – but let’s face it, that answer is as shabby as your question and alleged prooftext are, so let me be more sober and serious for a moment.

If what you mean to say is that 1 Cor 12:4-11 indicates that the Holy Spirit has many gifts for the common (meaning: general) good of the body of Christ, you have to ask yourself a couple of things as you reach for the term “shelf life” and try to leverage it to your point:

1. How does 1 Cor 12:22-26 fit into your trump doctrine? That is: which gifts or “parts” are weaker, the less honorable? You better not turn the page to 1 Cor 13:8-12 to answer that, otherwise you’re going to find yourself worried about the shelf life of the things a child understands rather than the things which go on forever.

2. At what point will any of you, but you specifically LBB, give us examples of these so-called gifts you’re practicing actually doing good in the body of Christ? Where can you show me these gifts making people better lovers of others, better grace-givers, people more full of joy, peace, patience, and goodness? I’d like to see two, if you please, because I think anyone can find one example if they are remotely clever. StrangeFire has demonstrated the overwhelming tide of sewage coming out of this doctrinal gutter. You show us the baby, please.

3. If you mean 1 Cor 14:26, do you find yourself at all abashed by the fact that what Paul is talking about there is the minimization of ecstatic stuff and the maximization of corporate, orderly worship? If not, why not? You want to avoid being gullible, after all, so please: let’s not be gullible about what passes for a worship service in most Charismatic churches.

| What is the "shelf life" of the Body of
| Christ?

That’s a joke, right? A punchline? If that’s an argument, why did Jesus ascend into heaven – or is the right use of that argument that because the Church doesn’t have a shelf life, Jesus is still physically here on Earth someplace?

| Perhaps their intended "shelf life" is
| until the revealing of the Lord Jesus
| Christ? (I Corinthians 1:7-8)

You say that as if, for example, there is more Scripture to be written as opposed to the plain text of Heb 1:1-3a.

I’m not impressed.

LanternBright said...

Turk: Nothin' but net.