Signs and Wonders for the Reformed

NOVEMBER 2008: REVIEW

by J. Todd Billings

I was trying to nap in the bedroom of my small mud-floored, grass-thatched hut in Uganda, but I was bothered by a commotion in my sitting room. “Oh no,” I remember thinking to myself. “Another exorcism. I just need some sleep!” In Uganda, exorcisms are commonplace activities, not the stuff of Hollywood special effects. There, as in much of majority-world Christianity, spirits–and the external signs of the Holy Spirit–are a lively presence.

Encounters with indigenous peoples have often exposed a gap in the western Christian worldview. On the one hand there is God; on the other, human, animal, and plant creation. The middle realm of angelic and demonic power, along with extraordinary signs and wonders of the Spirit, seems to be missing. This excluded middle contrasts with the views of Christians in the majority world, as well as those of many catholic Christians before the Reformation and of many among the first generations of Protestant believers.

Thus, it was with some interest that I saw the publication of Signs and Wonders: A Reformed Look at the Spirit’s Ongoing Work, by John A. Algera, from the Christian Reformed Church’s Faith Alive publications.Signs and WondersThe book is set up to be a congregational resource, written at an accessible level. It is distinctive in drawing upon the Reformed (especially Dutch Reformed) confessions, and concludes each chapter with questions for discussion and resources for further reflection. The book promises to fill a gap by exploring how the Reformed tradition can promote discernment when it comes to the difficult and often divisive issues related to signs and wonders.

Algera’s book offers some notable virtues. It is written in a warm, pastoral tone. It engages widely with scripture. It integrates concerns for evangelism and social justice, particularly in Algera’s heartening narrative of the racial reconciliation that has taken place in his New York City congregation. Most of all, the book touches on the significant issue of relating Reformed identity to the role of signs and wonders in the church’s life.

In spite of these virtues, I cannot recommend the book for congregational use. Briefly stated, it takes the issue of discernment much too lightly, often capitulating to superficial biblical exegesis and thin misconstruals of the Reformed tradition. In this way the book amounts to a defense of the latest neo-Pentecostal “third wave” movement that is currently rising in Reformed circles, and exemplifies some recent trends in how both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America deal with signs and wonders claims.1 As in these denominational discussions, Algera casts the issue as a choice between cessationism on the one hand (relegating signs and wonders to the age of the apostles) and the Third Wave on the other. Rather than revisiting the history and theology of the Reformed tradition along with its older catholic heritage, these discussions largely let the non-Reformed discourse of the Third Wave movement set the terms for the debate. The opportunity is lost to catechize congregations deeper into their Reformed and catholic identity in response to this important global and missional issue.

For Algera, a Third Wave lens supplies the interpretive grid for both scripture and the Reformed tradition. In his scriptural exegesis he slips between the descriptive accounts of the apostles and the prescriptions of the New Testament, so that whatever the apostles did we should expect to continue (68-9, 96). At times Algera admits the highly contentious assumption behind this position–that Paul had no “intention” that the “office” of the “apostle” cease (68). Algera fails to note the strong tension that this interpretation has with the historic Christian tradition in general, and not just with cessationism. (Thankfully, the CRC’s 2007 Majority Report on Signs and Wonders explicitly denies this claim.) At other times, Algera makes highly dubious linguistic arguments–for example, that “logos” and “rhema” are the two separate senses of the “word” of God. Allegedly, logos refers to “the Bible, which is the foundation of how we know God. Rhema is the current word that God continues to speak to people through spiritual gifts, angels, visions, dreams, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit” (69). Not only is it highly problematic to say that scripture is not “the current word” to believers, thus rendering the living Christ mute to speak anew through the scriptures; the differentiation does not have lexical merit.2 While Algera is helpful in pointing to a wide range of scripture in this book, his brief glosses are frequently dubious. One cannot simply quote scripture and expect it to point in a straight line to Third Wave appropriations, particularly when these appropriations often contrast with other Christian, non-cessationist readings of scripture.

A Third Wave interpretive grid is also at play in Algera’s appropriation of catholic and Reformed materials. It is good for him to put these on the table. But he persistently and simply assimilates them into a Third Wave interpretation rather than letting them have their own voice. For example, Algera makes repeated reference to the mention of Satan in Calvin’s writings, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Belgic Confession. This should not be surprising, as Satan and demons are biblical categories. But after quoting them, Algera assumes that because these documents mention demons, they mean the same thing by demons that the Third Wave does. Algera forces a choice between seeing spirits as merely “metaphorical” or as “actual beings” with a significant amount of autonomy (141). This amounts to a false choice when one considers the fluidity of biblical language about spirits and the tendency in scripture to associate spirits with the “powers and authorities” in human systems. Algera suggests that one cannot truly experience what Heidelberg 1 calls freedom from “the tyranny of the devil” unless one has a robust demonology (11, 184; cf. 150-2). But that simply does not follow. The imperative of Heidelberg 1 is not to believe in the devil but to reassure believers that they belong to a Christ who has conquered all that threatens his reign. Documents like this–as well as the patristic documents he quotes–are not simply anticipating the theology of the contemporary signs and wonders movement. They have their own message to speak to us, if we are willing to hear.

The occasion of Algera’s book sets forth a challenge for Reformed Christians to move beyond simply saying “yes” or “no” to the most recent trends in evangelical circles, and to find our own way into a catholic and Reformed Christian identity instead. This involves revisiting our history–the wisdom of Jonathan Edwards, the ecstatic Calvinist spirituality of eucharistic Holy Fairs in Scotland and early America, the traditions of healing and exorcism in early Catholicism–in conjunction with theological reflection. It also means returning to scripture, not in the modernist manner that many Third Wave thinkers do, with a paucity of historical memory and ecumenical theological sensitivity, but with the conviction that scripture still is God’s “current word” to the church. Scripture continues to be God’s instrument for transforming believers deeper and deeper into Christ’s image by the power of the Spirit. If our current tendencies toward either cessationism or a Third Wave school insulate us from hearing God’s living, transformative word through scripture, then we know we have lost our way.

ENDNOTES

1 See, e.g., the Majority Report of the CRC’s Third Wave committee in 2007, although this document does disagree with Algera at points; and the RCA’s online “Resources for Church Multiplication,” which has numerous Third Wave titles but not a single book on Reformed identity.
2 Counterexamples to this supposed lexical dichotomy between logos and rhema abound. For logos referring to a prophetic word, see Acts 2:40; 4:29, 31; 5:5; 1 Cor 1:5; 12:8, 14:9; 2 Cor 8:7; Eph 6:19; Phil 1:14; Col 3:17; 1 Thess 1:8; 2:13; 4:15. For rhema referring to God’s abiding revelation in scripture, see Matt. 4:4, John 6:68; John 15:7; Rom 10:8, 17; Eph 5:26; 1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 3:2; Jude 17. My thanks to Dr. James Brownson on this point.
J. Todd Billings is assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.