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Sunday, 11 May 2014

More Satanic Statistics and Diabolical Data

I wrote a blog post a few months back which made a statistical argument that the frequency with which Satan or the devil is mentioned basically remains constant across the New Testament writings (once the length of individual books by word count is taken into account). This runs counter to the claims of some Christadelphians that references to Satan or the devil peter out as one moves from the narrative portions of the New Testament (the Gospels and Acts) to the epistles and Revelation.

In parts of the Western church, the devil has become conspicuous by his absence in recent years. For instance, the Church of England made headlines a few months ago when they removed any reference to the devil from the liturgy of the christening service. A journalist writing before Pope Francis' accession noted that Pope John Paul II only mentioned Satan twice during his 27 year papacy and that his successor Benedict XVI was similarly reluctant to mention the devil in public.

By contrast, Pope Francis' first year in office has seen a shift of emphasis, with the pope having apparently performed an exorcism and emphasizing in a homily that the devil exists.

Christians have different ways of bridging the gap between the pre-scientific worldview of the biblical writers and the modern scientific worldview. Very often the literal devil which the New Testament speaks about doesn't make it across the gap but is de-mythologized into a vague symbol of evil, and ultimately dispensed with altogether, being remembered only through a few pithy sayings like "Speak of the devil" or "The devil's in the details."

It is fair to ask whether the marginalization and disappearance of Satan from the teaching of some parts of the church is something of which Jesus and the earliest Christians would have approved. Some simple New Testament statistics make such a claim difficult to affirm. By my own count, the devil is mentioned explicitly by a name or title 102 times in the New Testament in 67 distinct passages. This count excludes terms which symbolically represent the devil rather than referring to him directly, such as strong man, birds, enemy that sowed the tares, serpent, and dragon. It also excludes references to demons, evil spirits, etc. I think this frequency is enough to show that Satan is an important theological theme within the New Testament -- much more so than in the Old Testament.

I also think that the number one impetus for the prominence of Satan within the New Testament is the frequency with which Jesus referred to him. The Gospels record 23 sayings of Jesus which mention Satan. If we remove duplicates (those sayings recorded in more than one Gospel) and one in which he is merely referring to what the Pharisees said, we still have 17 distinct sayings of Jesus which mention Satan. This is roughly equal to the number of distinct sayings of Jesus which explicitly mention 'resurrection' or rising from the dead. Jesus told three parables involving Satan. He also mentioned Satan in the context of moral teaching, prayer, and prophetic discourse. His vocabulary across the Gospels includes five distinct terms for Satan: Satan, the devil, the evil one, the ruler of this world, and the enemy. We can also add that Satan is mentioned in four of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. The author describes these letters as dictated to him by Jesus, so on this basis one could arguably add four more sayings of Jesus about Satan, bringing the total to 21. Even if we are reluctant to attribute all the sayings ascribed Jesus in the New Testament to the historical Jesus (which I am not), there is little doubt that Satan formed an important part of Jesus' worldview. This should give pause to any church which is in a hurry to jettison Satan from its teaching and liturgy.

Christians who seek to demythologize the New Testament worldview often look to Paul as their model, because they believe that Paul himself was a demythologizing influence on the early church. Bultmann1 and Phipps2 are two writers who have taken such an approach. However, two recent studies on Paul's view of Satan by Williams3 and Becker4 have challenged this reading of Paul and reminded us that his worldview was not that of a modern rationalist but that of an ancient Jew. If we accept the historicity of Acts and take Paul as the author of all the epistles from Romans to Philemon, then we from Paul's lips or pen 22 distinct references to Satan. Paul's vocabulary for Satan is even more diverse than Jesus' within the New Testament. He uses eight distinct terms for Satan: Satan, the devil, the evil one, the god of this age/world, Beliar, the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the children of disobedience, and the tempter. It is unlikely that Paul would be so colourful in his vocabulary if he viewed Satan as an obsolete tradition.

In summary, while some might think that the church risks losing touch with today's culture by maintaining its traditional teaching that Satan is real, the alternative is surely to lose touch with the priorities and practices of Jesus, Paul and the early church. The statistics bear this out.


1 Bultmann, R. (1984). New Testament Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
2 Phipps, W. E. (2008). Supernaturalism in Christianity: Its Growth and Cure. Macon: Mercer University Press.
3 Williams, G. (2009). The spirit world in the letters of Paul the Apostle: a critical examination of the role of spiritual beings in the authentic Pauline epistles. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
4 Becker, M. (2013). Paul and the Evil One. In Koskenniemi, E. & Fröhlich, I. (Eds.), Evil and the Devil (127-141). London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

1 Corinthians 13:8-13: Have the Holy Spirit gifts ceased?

A cessationist is a Christian who believes that the Holy Spirit gifts (e.g. speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, etc.) are not presently available to the church because they ceased soon after the death of the apostles. This is in contrast to a charismatic, which is the term for a Christian who believes that these Holy Spirit gifts are presently available to the church. The term charismatic is taken from the Greek word for gifts, charismata. The charismatic position is often associated with the Pentecostal movement whereas churches in the Reformed tradition tend to hold to cessationism.

Many Christadelphians hold to a position that might be called 'absolute cessationism.' Evangelical cessationists generally do believe in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. That is to say, they believe the Holy Spirit is presently at work in the church; it is only the visible manifestations of the Spirit gifts which are not available. By contrast, some Christadelphians teach that the Holy Spirit is totally inactive in the church at the present time. The term 'Spirit-Word' was coined to convey the idea that the only access we have to the Holy Spirit today is through the Bible, the Word of God which was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

I want to focus on a particular passage which has served as perhaps the cornerstone of the biblical argument for cessationism: 1 Corinthians 13:8-13:
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 NRSV)
Some have interpreted Paul to be saying here that the spiritual gifts of tongues, knowledge and prophecy would come to an end in the near future as part of the maturation process of the early church. Indeed, it appears that the term 'cessationism' takes its name from the word "cease" in v. 8.

One can first observe that even if this interpretation is correct, it provides no support for the Christadelphian position of 'absolute cessationism', since Paul only states that these outward manifestations of the Holy Spirit will cease and not the Holy Spirit per se. I have argued elsewhere that Paul's use of the Greek term for a 'down payment' for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers rules out the possibility that the Holy Spirit could be withdrawn, since (in terms of Paul's financial imagery) this would constitute a breach of contract on God's part.

However, most scholars agree that 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 provides no support for cessationism of any kind. Read in the context of Paul's eschatology, as well as the explanation provided in v. 12, it is apparent that what Paul meant here was not that the spiritual gifts would fade away gradually, but that the spiritual gifts would stop at the Second Coming of Christ which would render them obsolete because "now we see in a mirror, dimly; but then we will see face to face." Let's look at what some recent commentaries have to say about this passage.

Garland writes the following on 1 Corinthiand 13:8:
"On the day of the Lord their assignment will be finished and they will be scrapped as functionless. Paul’s choice of which gifts to contrast with love is directly relevant to the situation in Corinth. The Corinthians treasure tongues and knowledge. Paul adds what he considers to be the most beneficial for building up the church: prophecy. All three are transitory and suitable only for ‘between the times’ – between the inauguration of the end, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the consummation of all things, when God will be ‘all in all’"1
On v. 10, Fitzmyer comments:
"To what ‘the perfect’ refers is much debated. It is scarcely related to the completion of the NT canon, as some have tried to take it; such an extraneous meaning is foreign to this context. To teleion has been understood as Christian maturity, as in 2:6 (so in ancient Montanists, Mani; among modern interpreters, Salvoni, ‘Quando sara venuto’). It seems, however, to express rather some sort of goal; it has undoubtedly something to do with the eschaton or what Paul calls ‘the Day of the Lord’ (1:8; 3:13; 5:5) or with the telos, ‘end’ (of the present era), as in 15:24."2
Commenting specifically on v. 11, Ciampa and Rosner write:
"The point is not to insult the Corinthians and suggest that they are immature (although he does that elsewhere) or that the gifts themselves or their use in Corinth or elsewhere is immature. They are perfectly appropriate for this time in the church’s life. But when we go through the final transition at the end of this age, from this old creation to the fullness of the new heavens and the new earth, we will leave behind many of the things that were natural, good, and healthy in this world as being unsuitable for the world into which we are introduced at that point."3
Fee summarizes Paul's point regarding the spiritual gifts in the whole passage:
"These gifts have to do with the edification of the church as it ‘eagerly awaits our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed’ (1:7). The nature of the eschatological language in v. 12 further implies that the term ‘the perfect’ has to do with the Eschaton itself, not some form of ‘perfection’ in the present age…At the coming of Christ the final purpose of God’s saving work in Christ will have been reached; at that point those gifts now necessary for the building up of the church in the present age will disappear, because ‘the complete’ will have come. To cite Barth’s marvelous imagery: ‘Because the sun rises all lights are extinguished.’"4
Thiselton sums up the significance of this text (or lack thereof) for the cessationist debate:
"Similarly, ‘if it be tongues, these will cease’ hardly addresses the debate between Reformed and neo-Pentacostalist writers about ‘tongues will cease’ after the close of the canon or at a given stage of individual or historical maturity. Here Paul states that, like prophetic preaching and ‘knowledge,’ they will become redundant at the last day. As Carson observes, too much discussion of this issue directs us away from Paul’s main point. This issue must be determined on other grounds than exegetical discussions of this verse.”5
The problem in Corinth that Paul is addressing is an 'over-realized eschatology': the Corinthians seem to have thought that they had arrived at their ultimate spiritual destination through the manifestations of the charismata, and had lost sight of the fact that the present reality was just a shadow of what was to come - the very point Paul addresses at length in chapter 15. Furthermore, because of their preoccupation with the spiritual gifts they had lost sight of something much more important: love (which will not cease at the last day but will endure for eternity). For Paul, the spiritual gifts themselves were not the problem, or the cause of the Corinthians' spiritual immaturity; it was the Corinthians' attitude that needed correction.

In conclusion, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 does not state or imply that the spiritual gifts would come to an end prior to the day of the Lord. Indeed, the language of 1 Corinthians 1:7, "so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ", suggests that Paul thought the spiritual gifts would remain until the return of Christ. This is an event which Paul probably expected to occur in his lifetime (1 Corinthians 15:51, 16:22, Philippians 4:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). He had no way of knowing that 'this present world' would continue for another two millennia.

Anyone who claims that the Holy Spirit gifts have ceased, or that the Holy Spirit is currently inactive in the church, must do so on grounds other than what Paul wrote here.


1 Garland, D.E. (2003). 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 621.
2 Fitzmyer, J.A. (2008). First Corinthians: A New Translation and Commentary. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 498
3 Ciampa, R.E. and B.S. Rosner. (2010). The First Letter to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 657
4 Fee, G.D. (1987). The First Letter to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 646.
5 Thiselton, A.C. (2000). The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 1062.