This is the fifth installment of an eight-part interview with Dr. Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary.
Craig is co-editing, with Michael Bird, the New Covenant Commentary Series (Wipf & Stock) that is scheduled for publication 2009-2014. He is writing the commentary on Romans for that series. Gordon Fee is contributing the volume on the Revelation.
An 88-page manual that Craig has written on biblical interpretation is made available for free at the Pneuma Foundation website. It can be downloaded here (allow a few seconds for downloading).
JR: In your book, Gift & Giver (Baker Academic), you mention that you have been used in prophecy and prayer for the healing of others. How do your cessationist peers in NT scholarship react to such unabashed charismatic beliefs and practices?
KEENER: Ah, those gifts are in the Bible, aren't they? If it's all right, I'd like to comment briefly on how one of those gifts, prophecy, has shaped me. Regarding the other, healing, it's true that I've seen some people healed in clearly miraculous ways; but the pain I see is inviting me to try to learn to trust God more in that area. I think anybody (cessationist or not) who prays with compassion for the sick and confidence in who God is, will sometimes see God answer their prayer; but I really need to grow in that area.
Regarding prophecy, when I was a young Christian God gave me a deep hunger to hear His voice. When I first started hearing the Spirit privately, I did not realize that it was a common experience. But as far as publicly, I understood that prophecy was biblical; I had been praying in tongues since two days after my conversion from atheism (and before I had ever heard of tongues) but learned from 1 Cor. 14 that for public edification we should seek prophecy more than tongues. So I started praying for the gift, and that one came quickly. Much of what God said shocked me --- both the deeply loving, comforting parts (I had not internalized the reality of such deep love before) and the scarier parts --- such as where the Church is missing it. Some things the Lord warned about back then may be afflicting the U.S. church today even more than back then.
I know that prophecy can take different forms. With a few exceptions, the form in which I have received it has usually not been telling people where their lost donkeys were (as Samuel could do). Mine has usually been less spectacular, yet deeply intertwined with my calling in the Word. It was like I was full of Scripture and the Lord would cause the message of the text to flow through me, to groups or individuals. Sometimes I have trouble even discerning guidance for myself; the more my personal feelings are wrapped up in something, the more difficult the subjectivity becomes for me, and sometimes that very subjectity has invited me to retreat more into objective exegesis of the Word. We very much need the objective foundation in the Word to keep our subjective experience from getting skewed. Yet if we read Scripture very much, we also see that God normally is active in our subjective experience; we can't take Scripture seriously and avoid that.
The gift that dominates much of my activity now is the gift of teaching, whether it's in explicit teaching or in research and writing. But in my case, that gift is very much shaped by my experience with prophecy. My objectives and goals in teaching are influenced by what I have felt the Lord saying to the church. In the same way, the insights I received in prophecy were bounded by Scripture: the ones I held fast to were the ones I could be sure of from Scripture, even though some of the insights about the state of the church would not have broken through my cultural and personal defense mechanisms without that gift. Prophecy doesn't determine my exegesis, but it influences what I feel passionate about the church needing to hear. That doesn't come out so much in my scholarly commentaries, which are "raw material," but comes out, for example, in application sections of my Revelation commentary, or in my preaching. I want to be tethered to God's heart.
How do my cessationist peers react? Surprisingly, most of them respond respectfully and graciously. I don't think most evangelical biblical scholars today are cessationist --- it's pretty hard to prove from Scripture. (It is easier to become cessationist by reacting to charismatic excesses. If it weren't for Scripture, I could have gone that route myself, because I often find myself reacting against such excesses!) Moreover, many who are theologically committed to cessationism are really good exegetes --- hence often recognize that the case is not very strong.
Still, even with strong cessationists, I have been quite surprised. The dividing lines in scholarship differ from what they once were. (Of course you have more skeptical scholars who deny anything supernatural today or in the past, but they are not "cessationists.") I have been very painfully and astonishingly torn to shreds over one issue that I did not expect on this level (my support of women in ministry; for several years, that seemed to be the litmus test of orthodoxy on both sides of its divide). But on issues where I expected major controversy, such as eschatology or tongues --- big debates in the 1970s --- it seems that most people who disagree with me have disagreed graciously. To my surprise, some faculty at places like Dallas and Liberty have reached out to me and graciously affirmed my work, focusing on our common ground rather than where we disagree. That has meant a lot to me. My academic training was mostly in Pentecostal, mainline and secular circles, and I had some stereotypes of some parts of evangelicalism that I had to surrender. That is not to say that no one fit the stereotypes, but they did not fit where I expected and I had to repent of my own prejudices.
Some non-Pentecostal, noncharismatic scholars have even approached me with their thoughts because they know that I am charismatic. One well-known evangelical scholar was telling me that it looked to him from the Bible like people should get healed on a regular basis. Then here I was, the charismatic, having to answer, "You do seem to be right but I have to admit that is not yet my experience." Being a biblicist, I realize that my experience is likelier the problem than our exegesis. But many people are hungry for more of the experience they see in Scripture.
On another occasion there was a scholar at SBL who was so sick he was going to leave the meeting and not give his paper the next day. A colleague in Hebrew Bible and I asked if we could pray for him, and laid hands on him in front of the book exhibit area at SBL. Just about that time the exhibit was closing and people were now milling all about us (quite politely, they seemed not to notice us!) I was surprised to learn that the scholar did present his paper the next day, reporting to us that God healed him after we prayed. That has nothing to do with me or my faith (maybe my Hebrew Bible colleague had more --- smile), but with our awesome God eager to show His love, mercy and power. I still have a long way to go in growing in faith, though.
NEXT FRIDAY'S QUESTION: You ministered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this summer. How did that go?
Tim Keller on Prayer - Timothy Keller. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. New York: Dutton, 2014. This is probably the best overall book on prayer that I know of ...