Language policy in the IMB, (cont'd.)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 7 14:18:13 UTC 2007

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A Priori Skepticism

This week, the IMB Board of Trustees will receive and consider the report
of the Ad Hoc Committees named earlier this year to study the new policies
on private prayer language and baptism of missionary candidates. I, along
with many others, am anxiously and prayerfully awaiting the soon to be
announced outcome.

The other day, on Bart Barbers blog, in a discussion related to this
topic, I posed the following question: Why, from the point of view of
those who favor the new policy, is the issue of PPL so important as to
exclude people who agree on other points of doctrine from missionary
service and leadership in the convention? The answer that was given to me
(in the words of Bart Barber) was as follows: I suspect that the IMB has
enacted the PPL restrictions as a part of an ongoing effort to protect
Baptist missions against Pentecostal/Charismatic encroachment around the
world; and a rather large, rather diverse board of trustees has enacted
this policy. I am not privy to all of their reasons for doing soWe have
the trustees' word that these policies were needed. For now and until I
have good reason to do otherwise, I believe them.

It is not my intention to pick on Bart in this post. Actually, I have a
great deal of respect for Bart and for his opinions in general. That is
not to say that I am convinced of the validity of Barts answer to my
question here, and I let him know as much in my answer to him on the same
post. But I write all of this now rather because it serves as background
information for another point I wish to make, which is the inverse of what
I asked on Barts blog: Why do I think it is so important that we not
exclude people who agree on other points of doctrine from missionary
service and leadership in the convention, merely because they admit to
having a PPL?

Actually, to tell you the truth, I am not all that concerned whether or
not my future teammates in the IMB have a PPL or not. If none of my future
teammates ever has a PPL, I am perfectly fine with that. What concerns me
most of all, as a logical consequence of this new policy, is the
possibility that we might evolve into a mission force around the world
rife with what I call a priori skepticism.

By the term a priori skepticism, I am referring to the same thing I called
default-mode skepticism on the comment string on this other post on Bart
Barbers blog. In order to make a point, I am also holding the position of
a priori skepticism up alongside that of a posteriori cessationism, which
is the position Bart defended on an earlier post on his blog, and, from
what I understand, in the recent Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit in
Arlington, Texas. The idea behind a posteriori cessationism, as I
understand it, is that, although God is still able to use people in
supernatural ways today like He did in the New Testament, the
circumstantial evidence doesnt seem to authenticate the claims of those
who say God is doing so, and, as a result, these claims should not be
accepted as legitimate.

What I am calling a priori skepticism, however, is a bit different. It is
the position that anything that smacks of supposed Pentecostal or
Charismatic practices, and is often associated (whether mistakenly or not)
with the Pentecostal/Charismatic world or with the modern-day practice of
the so-called sign gifts, is automatically suspect, more than likely
fraudulent and/or heretical, and should be rejected on the front end,
without the need of further investigation to see if it is legitimate or

I want to make very clear here that I am not saying that all those without
a PPL are necessarily a priori skeptics. Nor, as I understand it, are all
a posteriori cessationists necessarily a priori skeptics. But, in my
opinion, the de facto import of the new policy at the IMB, and a natural
consequence thereof, is a move towards a general organizational stance of
a priori skepticism.

I have been in situations, in which it was assumed that I was in agreement
with what was being said, in which Pentecostals and Charismatics were made
fun of, and claims of supernatural manifestations routinely ridiculed. If
you are from a Southern Baptist background, I imagine you have, at one
time or another, been in these situations as well. I have even seen this
on the mission field among colleagues, in response to what they have
observed among national believers and people from other Great Commission
Christian groups.

I do not believe personally that everything that purports to be the
supernatural working or gifting of the Holy Spirit is necessarily
legitimate or authentic. The Word of God clearly states: For false Christs
and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to
deceive even the electif that were possible (Matthew 24:24). Whenever I
hear, therefore, of some supposed miracle or supernatural manifestation of
the Holy Spirit, I normally seek to hold it up to the light of the
following considerations:

Does the doctrine of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit
the supernatural manifestation square with sound biblical teaching? On
this point, I do not demand 100% conformity to my own understanding and
interpretation. I recognize there are others who may deviate on minor
doctrinal issues whose ministry in other areas I do not necessarily reject
as a result. But, when the doctrine of someone claiming to do miracles is
significantly heretical, I view with corresponding skepticism the
spiritual legitimacy of those supernatural manifestations they are
claiming as well, whether they be regarded as fraudulent, demonic, or
inspired by the latent power of the soul.
Does the lifestyle and moral character of the person claiming to perform
the miracle or exhibit the supernatural manifestation meet up to the
standards that one might expect from someone making such a claim? On this
point, I am not looking for moral perfection. There is none perfect but
the Lord. But I am looking for someone who is not a hypocrite, purporting
to be something in public that doesnt square with what they really are in
private. I am looking for fruit of the Spirit to correspond with their
supposed gifts of the Spirit.
Does the ministry of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit
the supernatural manifestation take advantage of innocent people in order
to exercise some sort of psychological power over their lives, or for
dishonest financial gain? It causes me great sorrow to see innocent people
taken advantage of through the practice of so-called faith ministries or
prosperity gospel hucksters. Our Lord had no qualms in driving the
money-changers out of the temple, and I believe some of His harshest
judgment and eventual eternal condemnation is reserved for those who make
merchandise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Does the ministry of the person claiming to perform the miracle or exhibit
the supernatural manifestation tend towards the manipulation of gullible,
easily-led people? I have been in meetings where the atmosphere was so
emotionally charged and laden with human manipulation that I have compared
it to Elijah, in his contest with the prophets of Baal, dowsing the altar
with gasoline instead of with water. If God wants to work miracles and
show His mighty power in an awe-inspiring way, He doesnt need our help in
setting the stage beforehand, working the audience into an emotional
frenzy, in order for Him to do what He chooses to do in the way He chooses
to do it.
However, whenever I find no convincing reason to conclude that the
supposed miracle or claim of a supernatural manifestation fails the test
on any of the above accounts, my first response is to accept as legitimate
the testimony of the one who makes the claim, praising God for His mighty
deeds in the lives of men. I make as my goal, in regards to claims of the
supernatural, to be as much as possible like the Bereans, who received the
message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see
if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11). It is not enough, however, just
to examine the Scriptures to see if what people are saying is true, if you
do so out of an attitude of a priori skepticism. A balanced view, as I
understand it, is one of both openness and expectation in regard to the
supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, coupled with caution and discernment
in order to confirm that what is going on is truly in conformance to the
revelation of Gods will in Scripture.

As I have heard reports of miracles and supernatural manifestations, I
have sought to evaluate them in light of these considerations. Some of
them, to the best of my ability to discern, have not passed the test.
However, others, in the light of my admittedly limited skills of
observation and spiritual discernment, have not failed the test.

Actually, from my perspective, many of the most effective and godly
spiritual workers I have observed on the mission field, among both
national believers and foreign missionaries, as well as among Baptists and
those of other denominations, have been those who would admit to having a
private prayer language, and/or to being used of God through other
supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit. In those places around the world
in which spiritual revival is taking place, multitudes are coming to
Christ, and church planting movements are sprouting forth, the norm, from
what I understand, are frequent reports of supernatural manifestations and
the free-flowing operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I do not believe this gives us warrant to let down our guard in regard to
evaluating and discerning spiritual manifestations on the basis of
considerations like those I reference above. I believe it is Gods will
that we no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and
blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and
craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4:14). At the
same time, though, I believe we must enter into the kingdom of heaven with
faith like that of a little child (Matthew 18:3-4). And, as I understand
it, child-like faith precludes a priori skepticism.

I am concerned that the natural tendency of a missionary force that has
been intentionally weeded of those with a private prayer language may well
be one of a priori skepticism. I am also concerned about a corresponding
backlash of distancing ourselves as Southern Baptists from other believers
and movements of God around the world in which He is manifesting Himself
through signs and wonders, and supernatural manifestations of the Holy

Jesus did not do many miracles in His hometown of Nazareth because of the
lack of faith of the people who lived there (Matthew 13:58). I personally
dont want to miss out on what God is doing around the world due to being
an a priori skeptic. Neither do I want us as Southern Baptists to miss out
on our part of what God is doing around the world due to a de facto
position of a priori skepticism.


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