This is a little follow on from Stephen Kneale’s article on dreams. I think I was probably one of the people he has been talking about this subject with recently.
It’s worth saying a little bit more about what cessationism is. This is the view that the spectacular gifts of the Spirit, specifically tongues, prophecy, healing etc were given specifically to the apostles in order to authenticate their ministry as witnesses to Christ. Once Scripture was given, those gifts were no longer needed and so ceased (hence cessationism).
Conservative Evangelicalism has tended towards a cessationist position (although not exclusively). Here are some reasons why I think this is the case.
- Scripturally, it comes down to how we understand two Bible verses. The first is 1 Corinthians 13: 8-12 which talks about tongues and prophesy passing away when the perfect comes. Some Christians take this to refer to the completion of Scripture. However, I think it more likely to refer to the return of Christ. The other passage is Hebrews 2:2-3 where supernatural events are presented as attesting the first witness. The question here is whether those gifts exclusively testify to the apostles or are more generally available.
- The Reformers spent a lot of time responding to and refuting the superstitious practices of Roman Catholicism which included a heavy emphasis on the ability of the church to do miracles through relics, holy water etc. This superstition was a money making racket and a way of enslaving people to the priests.
- Similarly, the miraculous has constantly been associated in recent history with charlatans and hysteria. This is particularly seen in the extremes of healing and prosperity movement.
- Western conservative evangelicalism has to some extent interacted with and been influenced by dispensationalism, a view of church history that divides it into different epochs or dispensations. Under this view, miracles are excluded from the dispensation of the Church.
A category error
I’ve mentioned before that I think the problem stems from a category error. We’ve tended to see God’s revelation exclusively in terms of Special Revelation and failed to distinguish this from General Revelation.
Therefore, if someone has a dream, picture, vision, word, intuition, we assume that they are claiming for it the same status as for Scripture. This means that Charismatics are likely to look for such an intervention as a means to guide and confirm decision making. They will wait for the picture or word before they act and they will act quickly on the basis of a word or picture. Dreams and visions quickly compete with Scripture for priority and because they seem more immediate, intimate and spectacular, they win!
On the other hand, conservative evangelicals want to defend Scripture and so they reject the dreams and visions as counterfeit.
In “How do we know?” I argued that these things belong better in General Revelation. My argument is that God is sovereign and so everything that happens in creation and providence must show us something of his character and will. It is part of God’s nature to reveal who he is and to speak. However, in this category, we must also include the architect, accountant and church historian’s observations. We cannot raise dreams and visions on a pedestal.
I also think it is worth considering a bit more about how dreams work. Basically dreams happen as the brain organises data at night. Dreams are not random events, they are linked to our waking experiences. This means that we don’t see God stepping into a vacuum at night and speaking to silent, inactive minds. It is probably better to think of God using the freams that we are having to draw our attention to important things.
So, my take is that when someone says they have a dream or a picture, then it is worth listening to, in the same way that I listen to other people round the table. Their dream does not trump the others. Also, everything we talk about must be in submission to and read through the lens of Scripture.
This draws our attention to a further point. As I’ve argued here, the believer should be soaked in and shaped by Scripture. It shouldn’t be that we have our ideas, observations and dreams and then turn to Scripture as a kind of grade sheet. Rather, as we are thinking, talking and even as we are dreaming, we want all of our thoughts to be shaped and led by Scripture.
I want to conclude with two further thoughts on where I think we run the risk of going off piste.
I find a lot of my interaction is with people who have been in circles where a lot more emphasis on these things is given. The result is that they find themselves in a church where we don’t headline or make a big deal about dreams and pictures (though they are definitely happening). They feel rudderless and devoid of guidance.
Now because I’ve seen dreams and prophetic words abused I think it is important to give people enough space to make their minds up. So, when it comes to church and personal decisions I encourage them to focus on what Scripture says and to think through the practicalities. I think some people struggle with that. They want the confirming word/picture -and even a Scripture functioning in the same sort of way.
When I look at the New Testament however, I see something different. These things don’t provide the discernment, they are themselves to be discerned. Hence, even those prophesying in Corinth had to be submissive to discernment. How do we discern? Well first of all it must be firmly aligned with Scripture. Secondly, I would suggest that there would follow on some practical considerations.
This links to the other factor. I think we can rush through to interpreting and acting. Those who share the dream also want to give the interpretation. I would encourage people to simply share what is in their heart without over dramatizing -without labelling. Then we can go through a number of steps.
- What did you hear?
- Where did you hear it from? You see this could be anything from too much cheese at supper through hearing something from the Lord but also the possibility that the enemy has sown an idea in your mind.
- What does it mean?
- How does it fit with everything else we know and are hearing?
- What (if anything) should we do about it?
 I’m also tempted to say not always consistently either. I’ve heard people who to all intents and purposes appear cessationist sometimes make exceptions in three areas. 1. During revivals 2. Pioneer missionary contexts. 3. The Call where pastors and missionaries are expected to hear an inner voice from God which would be unacceptable with reference to any other aspect of Christian life.