Thursday, August 04, 2016

On the issue of dreams and visions in the mission field

The second evasion—and this one is increasingly popular—is that God speaks today to unevangelized heathen (especially, it would appear, to Muslims) by dreams or visions. A number of former Muslims have said that Christ appeared to them in their Islamic lands in a dream or vision and told them to go to such and such a place to hear God’s Word from such and such a church or person. [Angus Stewart, "Charismatism (IV): Ongoing Prophecy," Salt Shakers 38, 8]

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. (Mk. 9:38-40)

I seriously cannot believe I am doing this — defending "ongoing prophecy" against a Reformed minister. But of course, I am not defending ongoing prophecy, but rather the viewpoint that God could very well grant dreams and visions to lead people to Christ.

One may be a cessationist or a continuationist, but the reason why and how one is a cessationist or a continuationist is just as important. The cessationism that I am promoting is similar to that by Dr. Richard Gaffin, but not the same. True biblical cessationism has to do with the telos, or the purpose or end, of the gifts. It is not an arbitrary drawing of the line between "this is the period when the gifts are functioning," and "this is the post-apostolic era when the sign gifts have ceased." Such a thinking is not defensible by any means, and tying them to the apostles as people (instead of their telos within the apostolic era) (1) elevates the significance of the gifts into special "superpowers" instead of gifts given for a purpose, (2) breaks the continuity of the giving of gifts between the Old and New covenant administrations, (3) goes against the biblical data where the gifts were given to other people besides the apostles including women. Ironically, this version of cessationism pushes people uncommitted to either view into the charismatic camp because of their unbiblical view of the gifts, and making the gifts into superpowers invite curiosity and desire for them.

Taking a telic understanding of the gifts means that one does not start with some desire to draw a line between the "era of the functioning of the gifts" and the "era where gifts have ceased." There is definitely a difference between the apostolic and the post-apostolic eras, and a difference between the kingdom inauguration and the kingdom established, but that is not where we should be starting. If we understand the telic nature of the gifts, then we know that the presence or absence of a gift is defined not by the "era," but whether there is a need for the gift to function. For the sign and revelatory gifts in general, God's purposes of giving them have been fulfilled, and therefore they are not given today to believers and to the church.

But since our view of the gifts start with God's intended purposes and not some temporal limitations, therefore we do not have an idea of cessation limited to time but rather limited by God's purposes. This plays out in how we are to think of dreams and visions reported in closed countries that lead people to Christ. Can God give those dreams and visions? Of course He can. Did He? Perhaps, perhaps not. We know that God's revelation is always true, therefore any dreams and visions that lead people to cults are by definition not from God. So the question then becomes: Does God give dreams and visions, that lead people to true Christianity, especially to those in closed countries?

It is here that the telic idea of the gifts come into play. Since dreams and visions has its telos in revealing God's truth, therefore the question then becomes whether there is a need in those contexts where dreams and visions can operate, and we should affirm there is such a need. In those closed countries, those people do not have the remotest chance to hear the Gospel, such that God if He wants them to be saved must either lead an evangelist or a Christian to them, or lead them to an evangelist or any Christian. God obviously does the former, and God does the latter too through providence. Since God works according as He pleases, and dreams and visions have the telos of communicating God's revelation in a more direct manner, it is not inconceivable that God may use them to lead those in close countries to the Gospel message so that they may turn to Christ for salvation. We must note that it is precisely the close nature of these societies that cause these nations and societies to more closely resemble the apostolic era than the post-apostolic era, and therefore the notions of dreams and visions being given to lead them to the place when they can hear the Gospel message is a fitting use of God's communication through the use of these supernatural means. We further note that, with their purposes being fulfilled, God would no more communicate in dreams and visions to these new converts, since post-conversion, they would now be in a situation that resembles the post-apostolic era.

Pastor Stewart therefore is in error when he thinks that those dreams and visions are false. In fact, if at least some of them lead people to true Christianity, Stewart is taking the position that the Devil uses false dreams and visions to lead people to true Christianity, a strange (and ridiculously false) position to take. Or Stewart can bite the bullet and asserts that anyone who is led by dreams and visions must necessarily be a false Christian, a truly horrible and judgmental position to take.

Steward compounds his error by stating that "We do this because receiving a revelatory dream or vision from God, especially one that does not declare divine judgment upon the recipient (cf. Daniel 2; 4), constitutes a person as a prophet" (Steward, "Charismatism," 8). This is so obviously erroneous that one does not know where to even start. Was Abimelech, a pagan king, a prophet (Gen. 20:3-7)? Was Nebuchadnezzar a prophet (e.g. Dan. 4:4-18)? Yes, Nebuchadnezzar's dreams were ones that have the element of judgment in it, but he does not hold the office of a prophet, ever. The Old Testament narrates other episodes where those who do not have the office of prophets receive dreams and visions, so Stewart's assertion is just plain wrong. Those who have the office of prophets especially in the Old covenant economy obviously receive dreams and visions (c.f. Num. 12:6-8), but the mere receiving of dreams and visions does not constitute a prophet (If p,q does not imply If q, p). Stewart did not defend his assertion in this article, but a possible defence based on the fact that those with the office of prophet receive dreams and visions unto revelation, therefore dreams and visions mark the office of a prophet, commits a major logical fallacy.

In conclusion, while I agree that continuationism in any sense is an error, I cannot agree with errant arguments that imply that anyone who turned to Christ because of a dream or a vision must not be a believer. While I hold that sign and revelatory gifts have ceased in general, to make that into a general prohibition based upon a difference in epochs is unhelpful and leads to wrong conclusions regarding how God works in the former times and in the present.


Reformed Apologist said...

Would you tie salvation to belief in the already crucified Christ or would you say that in a closed country where one only had the OT God could visit one with salvation through belief in the OT promises of God?

Daniel C said...

Reformed Apologist,

I think that the Scriptures are clear that salvation is found in Jesus alone, after the crucifixion.

Plus, closed countries never had the OT anyway.

Reformed Apologist said...

Scripture is clear that salvation is through faith in Jesus alone; yet Scripture also teaches that Christ is received through the foolishness of preaching. Preaching brought by the beautiful feet that bring good tidings.

You posit an exception to preaching, visions. So isn't it fair to entertain another exception? I'm not intending to be combative. Not at all. I merely ask you to assume all the same sort of restrictions that might prohibit God from sending a preacher. Please also assume that the OT was the only special revelation available.

If God can revert back to a former means of salvation (assuming that visions were indeed a means of *converting* souls), then why can't He use the OT if that is all there is in a particular place? The gospel was embedded in the OT.

Daniel C said...

Reformed Apologist,

actually, I don't think I posted an exception to preaching. The visions those new converts in closed countries had led them to biblical churches and biblical preaching. In other words, they were not led to the faith through visions, but rather led to biblical preaching where they could hear the Gospel proclaimed.

I don't doubt God could use the OT, but only the Jews had the OT. And most of them had rejected God from the time of Jesus

Reformed Apologist said...

Thanks for the clarification. I must have misunderstood.

Thank you.


Daniel C said...

Hi Ron,

you're welcome.