Increase Not Decrease: Examining John 3:30

Some years ago, I was at a house blessing with several Christians, an atheistic Buddhist, some agnostics, and some Hindus. The focus, said the Hindu priest was to realize that we were all part of the same faith. We were blessing the house by emptying ourselves and embracing what unifies us all, that which welcomes us all: God.

This upset me. I didn’t know what to say. I wish I had responded better than angry tears.

I couldn’t articulate what was wrong with what was going on (on multiple levels). The Holy Man was being exceedingly spiritual, saying a whole mess of spiritual things to embolden our human selves to yearn for the spiritual; it was all tremendously dehumanizing—making one less than human.

Dehumanizing how?

Unfortunately in a way that Christians today have no problem with.

We look at a passage like John 3:30 and see a perfect quote that is often used to depict that we are to become less as Christ becomes more. The Physical, is taught, doesn’t matter: the Spiritual is what continues. But how does this differ from the Holy Man who called this “God” the “Spirit of Christ”? The only difference is that one has been Christianized.

Note John’s words occur when he is baptizing in Aenon, near Salim (John 3:22). This event, John the Evangelist reminds us, happened before John was arrested. Now of course we know that John wouldn’t have been arrested if he was out baptizing but it is likely because he knew about the accounts of the other Gospels which remind us very early in their text that John was arrested. (Mark 1:14; Matt 4:12-21; mentioned in Luke 3:19).

This John, after the heyday of his ministry, but before being arrested, is faithfully continuing his work. He’s already baptized Jesus (John 1). He’s already pointed him out as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But John is waiting while he is working.

A discussion gets kicked up about purification and there’s some spill-over. Apparently it had something to do with baptism since the disciple points out that Jesus’ group is baptizing people and all are coming to Jesus rather than to John. Indeed, in the next chapter, the evangelist records that Jesus was baptizing more than John even though Jesus wasn’t personally baptizing anyone (John 4:1).

John’s response is in three parts:

  1. Man Receives From God
  2. God grants the role
  3. Joy is Found in God-Given Vocation

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Modern Prophetic Fallibility

I am a cessationist insofar as all the gifts of the spirit are NOT (edit) in full operation today as they were in the early Church, but I am a continuationist in regard to “new” areas where the Gospel is being preached. I think that Holy Spirit purposefully functions in this capacity where the Gospel message is making inroads. I’m not putting this up here to justify some sort of circular reasoning but rather to qualify what I’m about to say as an argument I think continuationists should use if they’re going to want to push forward the idea that prophecy occurs today. So perhaps this opening should be read more as a warning: I don’t believe what I’m about to say, but I think it could be defended.

The popular argument for prophecy today goes something like this: (1) there is a difference from The Prophets which recorded Scripture and the prophets which didn’t. (2) The modern day gift of prophecy accords with the latter (3) Therefore we should expect revelation (4) This revelation is infallible in that it is from God but it can be misinterpreted (5) None of this is a threat to Scripture which has been codified. I am sure Continuationists will quibble about this initial presentation but it’s not even the main thrust of the post.

Cessationists rightly argue that this is a threat to the Doctrine of Scripture. If God is giving communication that is indeed revelation, then why isn’t it held on common ground with Scripture? Continuationists often respond that it is of a different kind: the revelation of Scripture is in regard to doctrine but the revelation of prophecy for the individual is in regard to their situation. But this bit of a different kind just doesn’t have any foundation.

That is, unless they dipped into the Roman doctrine of Papal Infallibility.

The Roman Church teaches that there are different spheres of Infallibility: Scripture being one of these spheres, the Magesterium being another and tradition being yet another. But these spheres are all fraught with fallibility when they haven’t been codified. So the Pope is always fallible because he is a sinful human. But when he speaks ex cathedra, that is specific teaching from the chair—his position of authority over the Church in the vein of Peter’s primacy—then the Pope is infallible.

The explanation for how this works varies but it can probably be stated in this way: it’s not the ability of the Pope but the ability of the Holy Spirit that historically gave Peter the primacy and then continues to ensure that when the Pope (in the tradition of Peter) invokes ex cathedra, then he will unconditionally, and yet freely, teach infallibly. Past Popes haven’t invoked this that much (though those few times have been doozies).

Of course, Protestants don’t think humans are ever infallible except that the Holy Scripture has so ordered events to ensure that the Scriptures would be infallible. This would mean that the Holy Spirit was directing people, but it is the text that is given the property of infallibility (I’m not bothering with the term inerrant because infallibility strikes me as a stronger affirmation: it’s not merely without mistakes—which could be an accident—it is impossible for it to even teach error) not the human.

So if Continuationists argue that all prophecy, even the Old Testament Prophets and the Apostles are fallible even when they’re prophesying and teaching then it wouldn’t matter if modern day Prophets are fallible. They can also all be fallible when they’re interpreting their own prophecies and teachings. What winds up being infallible is when the Holy Spirit ensures that the words on the page are Scripture. So whatever the authors might have thought in their context, and whatever the prophecies may have looked like when they spoke them, it doesn’t matter because what winds up being recorded, codified and confirmed as Scripture is what has the property of infallibility.

This probably generates problems and uncomfortable conclusions that I’ll ignore in this post but I think this might be a stronger way to go than the special pleading.

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