Super Christians and the new Gnosticism:
by Richard Rice
"The grass withers and the flower
falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever"
(1Pet 1:25; cf. Isa 40:7).
If you like adventure books, you may have read about Richard
Burton. He was a Victorian explorer and linguist, whose travels
took him to Asia and Africa and whose hard work enabled him to
master dozens of languages and dialects. His linguistic skills
were so acute that he could pass for a native in settings as
diverse as the back country of India and the streets of Cairo. His
accomplishments were as diverse as identifying the source of the
Nile and translating the Kama Sutra. What is less well known about
Burton is the fact that he was a spiritual adventurer as well. He
diligently studied the teachings of a number of religions,
including Hinduism and Islam, and was one of the first Westerners
to visit Mecca and publish a description for the outside world.
Burton's spiritual explorations were driven by the fundamental
conviction that there has to be somewhere, in some religious
tradition or another, a secret source of knowledge, something far
outside the ordinary, some secret or esoteric knowledge that lies
well beyond the grasp of the ordinary worshiper.
Many people are spiritual adventurers like Burton. They believe
that there is a hidden source of knowledge, a special avenue to
the divine, and they are constantly seeking for an experience that
is inaccessible through the channels of conventional religion.
They quest for the new, the secret, the special, the unusual, the
esoteric, the one true thing that will set them apart from the
typical, run-of-the-mill religious person. They want special
access to divine power. As they see it, there are different
spiritual tracks—one for ordinary believers and an "inside
track" for a far more select group. And there is a clear
difference between then. The "insiders" will enjoy
superior knowledge and an experience of God that is available only
to the few.
Others are convinced that striking manifestations of Godís
presence and power are available to Christians generally. But in
order to enjoy them, they insist, you will have to break with the
thinking of conventional Christianity. God speaks to people today
just as he did in biblical times, they believe. And this sort of
divine communication is, in principle, available to everyone. So,
these are our questions. Are there really "super
Christians," people who enjoy dramatic experiences with God?
And is this sort of experience available to all of us?
Two positions on the issue
Jack Deere answers these questions in a book whose title pretty
much says it all: Surprised by the Voice of God: How God speaks
today through prophecies, dreams, and visions (Zondervan,
1996). As Deere sees it, there is no real difference between
biblical and post-biblical times when it comes to divine
communication. The ways in which the Holy Spirit operated in the
days of the apostles, can and should continue in the lives of
individual Christians today. In fact, anyone who sincerely asks
will eventually hear the voice of God. 235.
We find in the Bible itself, Deere argues, a mandate for
looking beyond the Bible for divine revelation. And we are guilty
of "explaining away the Bible" if we hold that special
revelation and guidance are not normal today, but were only for
the apostles, only for special people, only for unique situations,
and only for the period of the open canon. This view of things,
Deere insists, is "modern theological nonsense." 278. It
is nothing but "unbelief through theology." Earlier in
his experience, he recalls, "I only expected God to speak
through the Bible, so that's the only way I heard his voice.
After all, dreams, vision, and impressions couldn't be important
now that we had the Bible. I embraced a theology that justified my
unbelief in all forms of divine communication other than the
But Deere's outlook changed dramatically. Those who discount
divine revelation, he argues now, are "Bible deists."
They are guilty of worshiping the Bible rather than God. For Bible
deists, Christ cannot speak or be known apart from the Bible. So
they merge Christ into the Bible and preach the Bible in the place
of Christ. 251-52.
These people are also guilty of overemphasizing the importance
of knowledge. When we make the goal of our lives to know the
Bible, we exalt knowledge over experience—a tragic mistake. The
truths of Scripture can only be fully known through experience.
122. Intelligence, he insists, actually plays a limited role in
understanding God's voice. 261. More effective, he asserts are
things like an audible voice (revelation can't get any
clearer than that). 262. dreams (one of God's favorite
ways of speaking). 219. and our thoughts (particularly
thoughts that are radically different from our own) (cf. Isa
So, the Bible itself directs us to encounters with God that lie
outside the Bible and underscores the importance of actually
experiencing God. The Bible is not "a book of abstract truths
about God," but "a guide into the supernatural realm of
God's power" (26), "a guide to dynamic encounters with
a God who works wonders." It was given to us that we might
"hear God's voice and respond to that voice with
life-changing faith." 28. We should have the experience of
people in biblical times, who heard God speak "through an
audible voice, dreams, visions, circumstances, fleeces, inner
impressions, prophets, angels, and other ways as well as through
scripture." 19. The book of Acts represents normal
Christianity, Deere insists, and it is filled with accounts of
supernatural communication. Accordingly, the very same things
could happen to us. 63.
In a nutshell, Deere's position is "the Bible
plus." The Bible is valuable, the Bible is important, indeed,
the Bible is supreme, but in the final analysis the Bible is not
enough. And there is plenty in the Bible itself to show that it is
not enough. The Bible itself directs us to look for encounters
with God outside the Bible. Emphasizing the Word at the expense of
the Holy Spirit leads to a costly divorce, Deere concludes, and
many in the church today are content to live with only one parent.
They live with the Word, and give the Spirit limited visiting
rights. We need both parents. 358.
For someone like Jerry Vines (SpiritWorks: Charismatic
practices and the Bible, Broadman&Holman, 1999), virtually
every aspect of Jack Deere's position is mistaken. Instead of
distinguishing the Bible and the Holy Spirit, Vines brings them
together. Since the production of the Bible was the Spirit's
greatest work, he argues, it is a mistake to separate the two.
Does this exalt the Bible above Christ? Of course not. "The
Holy Spirit exalts Christ by composing a book." 40. The
central message of the Bible is not the Holy Spirit and his gifts,
but Jesus and his resurrection. 41. Accordingly, the Bible defines
the scope of God's revelation to us, and provides the
means for us to achieve a knowledge of God. The Holy Spirit does
not communicate to us independently of the Bible.
What about the dramatic manifestations recorded in the Bible?
Don't they provide a precedent for subsequent religious
experiences? No. Their role was a temporary one. The things
recorded in the Bible are important because they contributed to
the production of the Bible. And once the production of the Bible
was complete, they were no longer necessary. Accordingly, all
dramatic manifestations of divine power, and all gifts of the
Spirit, belong to a certain period in the history of God's
dealings with human beings, and that period is now past. So it is
erroneous to look for them to continue in our time.
In particular, Vines argues, we shouldn't build doctrine or
establish church practices for today on the Book of Acts. 78. (Nor
on Old Testament passages, for that matter. 125.) What happened at
Pentecost was a biblically promised event, and cannot be repeated,
so it cannot be the norm for us. There can be no second Pentecost
just as there can be no second Bethlehem. The apostles of Acts had
a special role in the founding of the church. But we should not
expect the events of the early church to be the norm for today.
For Vines, the New Testament itself supersedes the signs and
wonders recorded in the New Testament, including the "sign
gifts" of the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit's primary
work is to create the Bible, the fundamental purpose of the
dramatic events its records is to confirm the unique value of the
Bible, not to provide a precedent for further activities of the
Holy Spirit. Vine is therefore a "cessationist." The
gifts were given to the church for a limited time, and for a very
specific purpose—to help launch the Christian church and provide
a written guide for future generations. When the written Word was
completed, the sign gifts ceased. 128.
These two writers join the issue before us in a helpful way,
because the differences between them are so clear. For Jack Deere,
revelation continues beyond the Bible. The supernatural
manifestations we read about in the Bible—prophecies, dreams,
miracles, and so on, extend beyond biblical times on into the
Christian era and right up to our own day. Accordingly, we should
not be "Bible-bound." We should not limit our knowledge
of God to what the Bible says. Just as people did in biblical
times, we too can hear "the voice of God."
For Jerry Vines, divine revelation ended with the Bible. The
revelation contained in the Bible is definitive. It is
comprehensive, conclusive, and concluded. There is
no further revelation. To look for the dramatic events of the
Bible to repeat themselves in our experience undermines the
authority of the Bible and ignores its unique role in God's
plan. If there is further revelation, he asks, shouldn't it be
included in the Bible, too?
Neither view represents an acceptable position for Seventh-day
Adventists. Vines is helpful in upholding the uniqueness of the
Bible, but he denies that God has further things to say to his
people. Deere is open to the idea that God continues to reveal
himself to human beings, but he denies the Bible its unique role
in Christian history. In short, one author exaggerates the
uniqueness of the Bible, while the other underestimates it. What
we need is a view of things that acknowledges the distinctive
place of the Bible in Christian history, but allows God the
freedom to reveal himself to subsequent generations.
We can achieve this understanding, I believe, if we look
carefully at the way the biblical canon developed, in particular
the canon of the New Testament. We will discover that early
Christians wrestled with the very questions that perplex us here.
What is the relation between God's activity in the life of Jesus
and his immediate followers and his activity in our lives today?
Is their experience just like ours? Is it completely different? Or
are they similar in some ways but different in others?
The very existence of the canon suggests an answer to these
questions. Early Christians developed the canon because they were
convinced of two things. One was the realization that Jesus is
God's supreme revelation to human beings. The other was the
conviction that God also reveals himself in the Christian
community. Put these together and we come to the conclusion that
God continues to reveal himself, but all subsequent revelation is
subordinate to the revelation in Jesus Christ. That is the
definitive revelation of God to human beings. It is unique. It is
unrepeatable. It is authoritative.
Seventh-day Adventists obviously have a stake in this, because
we hold that Ellen G. White is divinely inspired, yet we maintain
that we are Protestants and take the Bible and the Bible only as
our rule of faith and practice. How can we have it both ways? How
can we hold to both the supreme authority of the Bible and the
inspiration of Ellen White? The answer lies in a careful
understanding of what the Bible represents, as well as the way in
which early Adventists, including Ellen white herself, regarded
the spiritual gift in her ministry.
The Bible is a miracle—several miracles, in fact. For
centuries the Bible was painstakingly copied by hand. Then in the
mid-fifteenth century Johann Gutenberg used movable type to
publish a Bible. And the rest is history. If you have ever seen a
Gutenberg Bible you have never forgotten it. Large, imposing,
magnificent after 500 years, it is a testimony to the marriage of
faith and ingenuity. Thanks to further developments in technology
and economy we now mass produce the Bible in many versions and
hundreds of languages. The American Bible Society sells copies of
the Bible for $2.95. Imagine being able to purchase the living
word of God for the price of a fast food meal!
The Bible as we have it is a collection. Actually, it's a
collection of collection of collections. The Old and New
Testaments together contain 66 individual documents, 39 in the Old
Testament and 27 in the New Testament. We call them books. The
books of the earlier collection were first written almost entirely
in Hebrew; the books of the later collection were originally
written in Greek. Now there are indications in the Bible that some
writers viewed other biblical writings as inspired, but there is
no list of biblical documents in the Bible itself. There is no
place in the Bible that enumerates all 66 books and says,
"These are the books that belong in the Bible—just these
66, no more, no less." So, even if we accept the belief that
these documents are individually inspired, we still haven't
answered the question, "Is the list inspired?" Why are
these particular documents in the Bible and not others?
The word "canon" refers to a body of sacred writings
that carry the highest authority for some religious community. The
Jewish canon consists of the Hebrew Scriptures. The canon of Islam
is the Koran. The Christian canon contains the Hebrew Scriptures
(Old Testament) and an additional collection of documents
originally written in Greek (New Testament).
By the time of Christ there was a well established, rather
widely accepted, collection of writings which carried unique
divine authority. Actually, there were three collections of
documents that carried authority in the Jewish community,
comprising a total of 24 books. They were the "law," the
"prophets," and the "writings." The law
consisted of the five books of Moses (Gen-Dt). The prophets
contained eight books—four "former prophets" (Joshua,
Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and four "latter prophets"
(Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets
[Hosea-Malachi]). The Writings included Psalms, Proverbs, and Job;
the "five scrolls"—Song of Solomon, Ruth,
Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther—then Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah
and 1-2 Chronicles.
When we find in the New Testament expressions like "the
law and the prophets" (Mt 7:12), or "Moses and the
prophets" (Lk 24:27), or "Moses, the prophets and the
psalms" (Lk 24:44), we know that the entire Old Testament, as
we know it, was what the author had in mind.
Jesus accepted all three collections as divinely authoritative,
as did the Pharisees of his day. (The Sadducees accepted only the
Law.) These works formed the original Scriptures of the early
Christian church. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures
in particular, the version known as the LXX, was popular among
early Christians. When the writers of the New Testament spoke of
the "scriptures," it was these documents they had in
mind (cf. Jn 5:38-39; Lk 24:27; Ac 18:24; 2 Tim 3:16).
From a Christian perspective, the most significant thing about
the Old Testament, as the very expression indicates, is the fact
that it points to Christ. It provides the background and the
material that enable us to comprehend the significance of Jesus as
the Messiah of Israel, the Christ, and God's own Son, whom he
sent to save the world from sin. Jesus and his early followers
believed that the Sacred Scriptures pointed to him as their
So, from a Christian standpoint we might say that the Old
Testament is part of the overall, comprehensive revelation of God
in Jesus. To accept Jesus is to accept the Scriptures he
accepted—the scriptures which he studied and discussed, which he
taught, which he quoted, which he applied to himself, and which he
recommended to others throughout his lifetime. "I have not
come to abolish the law or the prophets," said Jesus, "I
have come to fulfill" (Mt 7:17). The Old Testament was the
Bible of the early Christian church.
Now, how did the collection we know as the New Testament come
The Christian church added the writings of the New Testament to
form our present canon in a gradual process that was not complete
until the fourth century after Christ. What factors led early
Christians to form another list of writings and add it to the one
they already accepted as divinely authoritative?
The apostles occupied a position of great significance in the
early church. Paul described them as the foundation of the church,
along with the prophets (Eph 2:20), and as the most important of
the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:28). The reason for the
importance of the apostles to the church was their unique relation
to Jesus. In a nutshell, the apostles were the official witnesses
of Jesus' ministry. They bore the authentic, authoritative
testimony to his life, death, and resurrection. Indeed, in their
work and words, the ministry Jesus began continued in the world.
(This seems to be the strategy of Luke's two part contribution
to the New Testament, which we have in the form of the third
Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles. It shows that the work of
Jesus keeps on going in the ministry of the apostles.)
From the beginning the words of Jesus carried the same
weight in the Christian community as the writings of the Old
Testament. According to Ac 20:35, Paul exhorted the Christian
elders from Ephesus by appealing to something Jesus said:
"remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself
said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"
Emergence of heretical sects with their own sacred writings.
As is often the case, heresy proved to be the mother of
orthodoxy. The first canonical list of New Testament writings
was compiled b Marcion, who rejected the entire Old Testament
and accepted only an edited version of Luke and ten letters of
Paul. Christians in general rejected his position in favor of
a much more expansive collection of writings.
- Needs of worship. Which documents were acceptable to read in
Persecution made it necessary for Christians to know which
writings they could renounce and which carried authority for
The invention of the codex form of manuscripts made it
possible to put the sacred writings in a single volume. So,
people needed to know which ones should go into it and which
should be left out.
The most important factor in the development of the
Christian canon was the death of the apostles.
The apostles all met two qualifications: personal contact with
Jesus and divine ordination for their work. For the most part, of
course, the original apostles had been among Jesus' twelve
disciples. After Judas' death, the eleven, with divine guidance,
selected Matthias to take his place from among several men who had
contact with Jesus during his earthly life (Ac 1:21-26). The
apostles often appealed to their personal contact with Jesus to
authorize their message (cf. 2 Pet 1:16; 1 Jn 1:1-3).
Among the apostles, Paul was a special case, as he himself was
acutely aware. He did not know Jesus during his life on earth. But
he claimed to be the recipient of a resurrection appearance (1 Cor
15:8), and he was adamant that he had received an apostolic call
from God (Gal 1:1).
Because the apostles provided a "living link" to
Jesus, their preaching was essential to the church. As they died
one by one over the years, their writings became the only from in
which their witness was available. So it was natural for the
church to invest these writings with authority, just as they had
the preaching of the apostles.
This, then, is what the New Testament represents. It is the
written record of the apostolic witness to Jesus. Early Christians
accepted as authoritative only documents written either by an
apostle himself or by someone closely associated with an apostle.
Mark, for example, was a close friend of Peter; Luke was Paul's
companion. In this way, the testimony of the apostles continues to
guide the church and proclaim Christ in the world.
So, the most important criterion of New Testament canonicity
was apostolicity. To be accepted as authoritative, a writing or a
document had to be connected to an apostle. It is important to
notice this, because we often speak of the Bible as inspired. And
we frequently link the words revelation and inspiration in ways
that suggest that the most important thing about the biblical
writings is the fact that they were inspired. Inspiration was an
important criterion of canonicity, for early Christians believed
that all the writings of the apostles were inspired. But they did
not believe that only apostles were inspired. After all, there
were also prophets in the early church. So, they believed that all
biblical documents were inspired, but it did not necessarily
follow that all inspired documents were biblical.
This distinction is important because it provides a way for
Adventists to resolve the connection between EGW and the Bible.
Like good Protestants, we accept that principle of sola scriptura,
the belief that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority in
matters of faith and life. Many people feel that our conviction
that EGW was inspired conflicts with this idea. They see us adding
her writings to the canon. We've always denied that she
represents an addition to the canon, but it is difficult to
maintain that view if the canon is the collection of
authoritative, inspired writings. We can solve this problem by
making apostolicity rather than inspiration our criterion.
Ultimately, the authority of the Bible rests on the authority
of Jesus. The authority of the New Testament arises from the
authority of the apostles, but the authority of the apostles comes
from Jesus. So Christians base their attitude toward the New
Testament on their belief in Jesus Christ. They believed that the
life of Jesus was utterly unique. In him God was personally
present to human beings in a way he has never been before or
since. As a result, the testimony of those who witnessed the
history of Jesus is likewise unique and unrepeatable. This fact
has three important consequences.
First, it means that the canon is closed. No post-apostolic
writing can have the same significance, because no later writer
can have the same contact with Jesus. The canon is historically
limited. The New Testament reflects the unique situation of that
first generation of believers, who had personal contact with the
Second, the authority of the apostles cannot be passed on from
one generation to another. The apostolic office was not an
institutional function. It was an activity for which only the
first generation of Christians could qualify, because of their
personal acquaintance with Jesus on earth. Early Christians
formulated the canon because they recognized the unrepeatable
character of the apostles' work.
Third, it means that the Bible has authority over the Christian
church. It is true that the canon is the creation of the church.
During the first three hundred years after Christ, Christians
selected from among a large number of different writings which
ones should be accepted as authoritative. The New Testament as we
now have it reflects the universal consensus the church had
achieved by the late fourth century. There was no question about
most of the New Testament documents. The four Gospels, Acts,
Paul's letters, 1 John and 1 Peter were accepted everywhere from
the beginning. Several writings were accepted for a time by
Christians in certain areas of the church but not in others. Some
of them eventually gained universal acceptance and are included in
the canon. Among them are Hebrews and Revelation and several of
the "general epistles." Others failed to acquire
universal acceptance, and were finally left out.
In time Christians reached a consensus. A letter written by
Athanasius of Alexandria, a bishop in Egypt, in A. D. 367 lists
for the first time the "books that are canonized and handed
down to us and believed to be divine." Included are the Old
Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. So, it
took nearly three hundred years after the apostolic generation for
the church to settle on the canon.
Lessons from the history of the canon
The history of the canon has a lot to tell us about the nature
of the Bible and how we should approach it. The story of the canon
tells us something about Ö
Contribution of tradition. When we accept the Bible as our
rule of faith and life, we are agreeing with the convictions
of other Christians who lived 1600-1900 years ago. We accept
the judgment of the church as to which writings carry the
highest authority. This conclusion raises questions because it
seems to set the Bible under the control of the church. After
all, if the church created the Bible, doesn't the Bible get
its authority from the church? And in that case, doesn't the
church have the right to tell us what the Bible teaches? This
is one of the watershed issues that concern Protestants and
Catholics. One of the principal goals of the Protestant
Reformation was to establish the independence of the Bible
from ecclesiastical control. That's really what the idea of
"sola scriptura" was all about.
Authority of the Bible.
When we look closely at the process of canonization we see
that early Christians developed the canon because they
recognized that these writings were inherently authoritative.
In the words of biblical scholar F. F. Bruce, "The New
Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church
because they were formally included in a canonical list; on
the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because
she already regarded them as divinely inspired" (The
New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? [5th ed. rev.;
Grand Rapids, Mich.: William Bible. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,
1960], p. 27).
So, in creating the canon early Christians were not conferring
their authority on the Bible, they were acknowledging the
authority in the Bible. They didn't place the church
over the Bible, they placed the Bible over the church. The
documents were authoritative for Christians because of their
association with the witness of the apostles. The witness of the
apostles was uniquely important because or their special
relation to Jesus. They bore the authentic, authoritative
testimony to his life, death and resurrection. And of course,
Jesus was decisively unique because God acted in him for the
salvation of the world. Because the Christ event was unique and
unrepeatable, the apostolic witness to Jesus was likewise unique
and unrepeatable. And that is why the written record of their
testimony is so important to the church.
In acknowledging the authority of the Bible, the early
Christian community effectively drew a line between the earliest
strand of Christian teaching and everything that followed. The
authority of the apostles, or of the apostolic witness to Jesus,
would carry unique significance for the church for all time to
come. As Oscar Cullman observes, "The fixing of the
Christian canon of scripture means that the Church itself,
at a given time, traced a clear and definite line of demarcation
between the period of the apostles and that of the Church,
between the time of foundation and that of construction, between
the apostolic community and the Church of the bishops, in other
words, between apostolic tradition and ecclesiastical tradition.
Otherwise the formation of the canon would be meaningless"
("The Tradition," p. 59; italics his).
God's use of human instruments, history. God uses human
beings to accomplish his purposes. This means that there are
always some unanswered questions. We don't have time to deal
with the question of the Apocrypha, books and passages found
in the Greek translation that did not appear in the Hebrew
original. Do those writings belong in the Bible or not?
Catholics say yes. Protestants generally say no. When it comes
to the canon, the center is clear, but the edges are a bit
fuzzy. The history of the New Testament canon, as we saw,
shows that the edges of the canon were not sharp at the outset
of the process.
The humanity of the Bible. The Bible is thoroughly human, as
individual parts and as a collection.
The New Testament does not contain everything the apostles wrote.
In 1Cor Paul mentions that he had already to the church in Corinth
(1Cor 5:9). His letter to the Colossians mentions a letter written
to the Laodiceans (4:16). What happened to these letters? Are they
included in some other parts of the New Testament, or were they
We should not try to eliminate or minimize the human
participation in the production of our Bible, either in the
composition of the documents or in the process of collecting and
preserving them. Although the Bible is thoroughly human, it is not
reductively human. To say that it is thoroughly human is not to
say that it is merely human, that it is nothing more than a
product of human ingenuity.
Even more important than how we got the Bible is what we do
with it. We must open our hearts to its influence. We must live by
the word of God. It brings life and healing. Let us determine to
make the study of God's word the center of our lives.
On the negative side, the history of the canon helps us to
avoiding two mistakes when it comes to the relation between the
Bible and the Holy Spirit. It can prevent us from either
underestimating or overestimating the role of the Holy Spirit in
the church. The activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus
and his immediate followers was unique. What happened then will
never happen again. The activity of the Holy Spirit in the
experience of Jesus' closest followers and designated messengers
was also unique. Their testimony to Jesus was defined by their
place in history. So, for that reason, there will be no more
apostles in the life of the church. The way in which the apostolic
witness exerts an influence in the church today is through the New
Testament. That is how their ministry continues to bless and guide
So, it is a mistake to think that what happened in the early
Christian church can just keep right on going throughout Christian
history. That was a unique period of time, and the Christian
church recognized that importance very early on, as we have seen.
So Jack Deere and others like him slight the unique activity of
the Holy Spirit in bringing the Christian church into existence
when they see nothing but continuity between the early church and
subsequent generations of Christians and talk as if there should
be the same spiritual manifestations today that they had then.
The fact that the earliest generation of Christians was unique
for the reasons we have discussed does not mean that the
discontinuity between them and us is as sharp as someone like
Jerry Vines makes it. Vines talks as if the events of the
apostles' lives took place primarily to bring about the creation
of the Bible, and that the process was designed to produce
precisely the book that we have. That was what the Holy Spirit was
up to in the early years of the Christian era, and once the book
was created, the Spirit had effectively completed its work. But
there is nothing is the New Testament that suggests that the gifts
of the Spirit, anymore than the fruit of the Spirit, were only for
the first generation of Christians.
To be faithful to the New Testament itself and the insights of
the early generations of Christians, we must allow for the
possibility that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in human
lives, both quietly and dramatically if it chooses, to bring about
the fulfillment of God's saving purposes. But we must insist
that every operation, or purported operation, of the Spirit be
measured by the New Testament descriptions of the Spirit's work.
In particular, does it direct people to Christ? Does it serve the
fundamental objective of the Spirit's work? Does it build
community, bind us together in the body of Christ, and enable us
to serve one another? Manifestations or abilities whose
fundamental function is to give their subjects a sense of
uniqueness or superiority to others are suspect. They do not
promote the Spirit's goals.
Even as we allow for the continuation of the Spirit's work
among Christians today, to be faithful to the New Testament we
will recognize that nothing can add to the ministry of Jesus or to
their record of Jesus' ministry. So, the Bible will always be
the primary, irreplaceable source of our knowledge of God. The
idea that the Bible isn't enough, that focusing your attention
completely on the Bible as your avenue to divine truth, as the
guide for your life, limits your contact with God or your
spiritual development, as Jack Deere maintains, is totally
unacceptable. Being Bible bound, as he puts it, it hardly a
problem. It would be wonderful to be Bible bound. The word of God
has everything we need. It is unique, it is comprehensive, and
there is no higher goal in life than to understand and live by it.
When the Holy Spirit transforms the words of the Bible into
life-giving power within us, we won't need anything more
The work of the Holy Spirit is not it to separate Christians
into different levels of spiritual attainment, to elevate one
group in the church above another. Instead, its work is to bring
Christians together, to unite them into one community, the body of
Christ. To do this, it creates differences in service and
occasionally it may even provide unusual manifestations of its
presence. But the purpose of all such activity is to benefit the
community as a whole, and to bring the community together.
Throughout his writings, Paul insists that what Christians are
together is more fundamental, and more important, than what they
are individually. In fact, he specifically speaks against the idea
that Christians have different spiritual identities (depending on
who their mentor was). 1Cor 1,10-13. So, it violates Paul's
vision of the church to regard the Holy Spirit as a divisive
factor in Christian experience.
Similarly, the idea that there is a special sort of knowledge,
accessible through special insight or learning only to the few,
who are thereby set apart from run-of-the-mill believers, is
erroneous. Paul insists, to the contrary, that Christ is "the
mystery of God," "in whom are hid all the treasures of
wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2,2-3). In other words, when you
have Christ you have everything. There is nothing more you can
have. The idea that there are different classes of Christians
ignores Paul's insistence that we all have the Holy Spirit. We
receive the Spirit at baptism and the Spirit unites us in the body
of Christ. Are there super Christians? Yes, there are. But only in
the sense that all Christians are super. There is one Lord, one
faith, one baptism, says Paul. And we might add, one Holy Spirit.
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