what to believe (4b)

This is part two of a discussion on James Melton’s views of the Holy Spirit. For part one, go here. If you’re new to this ‘what to believe’ series: welcome. To catch up on how things have progressed, go hereherehere and here.

10. Do you believe that the apostolic sign gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and the gift of healing, are not for today, since they were for the purpose of confirming the preached word of God to Israel in the first century?
In the words of Frank Barone: ‘Holy crap!’ Before getting into the details, I need to point out one bit of curiosity. As should be obvious from this question, Melton is not a charismatic; in fact, he is adamantly opposed to charismatic/pentecostal theology.[1] Here’s the curiosity: question 9 (see here) is one that Melton believes must be answered with an unequivocal ‘yes’, yet the essence of question 9 is one of the foundation stones in charismatic/pentecostal theology (i.e. baptism in/by the Spirit)–and both use the same passages to support their case.

This means: the lack of clarity in meaning for question 9 allows for an affirmative response to be given to what he promotes as well as what he reject. To say it differently: in his attempt to distinguish what he considers biblical truth from heresy, the ambiguity of question 9 blurs his line between truth and heresy, thus making it difficult to provide an unequivocal ‘yes’ to this question. If Melton wants me to read the text as he reads it and respond in a way that agrees with that reading, he’s going to need to give me solid reasons for how to understand the text(s) in question. But I must confess that I have other reasons for not being able to agree with the implicit theology of this question.

Now to the details . . . sort of.[2] I’m a bit confused about a number of items in this question: his use of the phrase, ‘apostolic sign gifts’, what he means by ‘speaking in tongues’, why he includes ‘the gift of healing’ as things no longer relevant, and his one-to-one connection between these gifts and their specific significance for ‘confirming the preach word of God to Israel in the first century.’ Since there is some ambiguity in the first two items, I will limit my remarks to the the third and the implicit logic and theology at work in Melton’s question.

In view of Melton’s non-charismatic/pentecostal stance, his belief that tongues and healings ‘are not for today’ is rooted in his reading of 1 Cor 13.8 (as noted on his clarifying site). What strikes me is that 1 Cor 13.8 says nothing about healings becoming irrelevant or no longer necessary (or even possible), and yet he employs that text to support his argument. Instead, that passage includes two items that Melton ignores: prophecy and complete knowledge, both of which the text says will cease and will be done away (respectively). Thus, why does he not say prophecy and complete knowledge ‘are not for today’, which would seem to have the support of 1 Cor 13.8? Why say tongues are no longer relevant, which would also seem to have biblical support, and yet say healings are no longer relevant, which does not have the support of 1 Cor 13.8 (or any passage, for that matter)?

My only assumption, and I invite him to correct me, is his reading of 1 Cor 14.22: ‘Tongues are for a sign not for those believing but for those in unbelief, but prophecy is not for those in unbelief but for those believing’ (my translation). My assumption is that because this text says prophecy is for the believer and not the unbeliever, it would seem that prophecy still has relevance for today. (Although, Melton does not clearly define what he means by ‘prophecy,’ and how his definition is to be distinguished from what he opposes–i.e. charismatic/pentecostal theology). However, while this assumption might be true, this implications of this text would seem to create more difficulties for Melton than solve. Specifically, tongues are a sign for ‘those in unbelief’, yet that state of being is not limited to 1st century Israel; it is a state that is quite timeless and timelessly applicable. Thus, if tongues are a sign for those in unbelief, and since unbelief is not a 1st century problem, 1 Cor 14.22 does not promote that gift’s demise but seems to proclaim its necessary continued existence.[3]

Moreover, to support the idea that the so-called ‘apostolic sign gifts’ (especially tongues and healings) were not limited to 1st century Israel, we need only consider the biblical texts to see how Melton’s assertion does not consistently fit the evidence. The first instance of ‘tongues’ is Acts 2: the sermon at Pentecost. (NB: the ‘speaking in tongues’ here is known, human languages/dialects; it was not some mysterious, spiritual language–see Acts 2.7-8). Here the context certainly points to a Jewish audience, both local (i.e. Jerusalem) and those from other regions (see the list in 2.9-11). The first healing, and I’m operating on the assumption that by ‘apostolic sign gifts’ Melton means things performed during the time of the apostles, is Acts 3.1-10: the healing of the man born crippled. We might safely infer that the crippled man was Jewish and that those who witnessed the healing were also Jewish. The second instance of healing is the passing reference in Acts 5.14-16. Recipients of this? Most likely Jewish. So far, Melton’s theory is doing all right.

Following the outbreak of the persecution of the early church, the next mention of a healing (in connection with the preaching of the gospel) is Acts 8.4-8. It is this account that makes me think Melton has in mind the apostolic period rather than the apostles themselves. Why? Because Philip is not an apostle (see Acts 6.5).[4] Recipients? Samaritans (i.e. neither Jews nor Gentiles).[5] Next healing? It’s a two-parter: Acts 9.32-35 and Acts 9.36-42. Recipients in both parts? Most likely Jewish. This double account is followed by the second mention of tongues (in connection with the preaching of the gospel): Acts 10.34-48. Recipients? Gentiles in Caesarea. Next healing? Acts 14.8-10. Recipients? Gentiles in Lystra. Next (and final) mention of tongues (in Acts)? Acts 19.1-7. Recipients? Gentiles in Ephesus. Next healing? Acts 19.9-12. Recipients? Gentiles in Ephesus. Next healing, though not necessarily connected with preaching the gospel? The humorous story in Acts 20.7-12. Recipients? Gentiles in Troas. Last healing (in Acts), again not linked with the gospel? Acts 28.7-10. Recipients? Gentiles in Malta.

If it were true that the ‘apostolic sign gifts’ of ‘speaking in tongues and the gift of healing . . . were for the purpose of confirming the preached word of God to Israel,’ then it is certainly odd to see the majority of references to such things being associated with preaching the gospel to Gentiles (i.e. not Israel). Thus it would seem that Melton’s necessary condition in this question (i.e. sign gifts are only relevant proofs for [1st century] Israel) does not align with the biblical evidence. On those grounds, I cannot supply a ‘yes’ answer to this question because I cannot agree with the premiss. Also, before answering Melton’s question, I would have to pose one of my own: ‘Mr Melton, in saying that the “apostolic sign gifts” of speaking in tongues–whatever you mean by that–and healing “are not for today”; are you asking me to say such things do not and cannot happen today because their role was fulfilled in the 1st century?’

[1] It should be mentioned that Melton sees much of charismatic/pentecostal theology as heresy. His reasons for doing so, and the methodology he employs to make such a conclusion, are not entirely clear.
[2] I might need to do an extra post on this particular subject, seeing that my response here will have to be rather limited.  We’ll see how it goes.
[3] Admittedly, all of this is forgoing a detailed discussion and analysis of biblical passages about tongues–i.e. what that means, what it looks/sounds like, and/or what it is.
[4] If, however, Melton means gifts or wonders performed by the apostles, then he needs to explain the Acts 8.4-8 passage.
[5] Per C.K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles: A Shorter Commentary (2002), 118; see also C.K. Barrett, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (2004), 396.


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