Let me begin by saying that I really enjoyed reading Andrew Wilson’s book, Spirit and Sacrament.1 I wouldn’t endorse every detail of his work, but I think Andrew’s thesis is generally on target. Let me respond from my own background as a Baptist. As Baptists we have something to learn from charismatics and from those who are more liturgical. We need as Baptists the power of the Spirit in our churches, and we may stifle or quench the Spirit so that our churches become lifeless, dead, and boring. We need the joy and power that Andrew writes so eloquently about it, and we need to pray that the Spirit will enliven us, awaken us, and transform us. Charimatics have taught us: don’t forget about the Holy Spirit! We desperately need him every day and every hour. Still, we don’t want to overemphasize matters, for John Calvin was known as the theologian of the Holy Spirit, and John Owen was also known for his work on the Spirit.
Andrew is also right in saying that Spirit and sacrament should not be polarized. Again, I want to apply this to Baptist Churches. We should be open to celebrating communion more often or even weekly. Nor should we think that prayers composed in advance quench the Spirit. Many spontaneous prayers sound the same every week and are not marked by theological profundity, and sometimes they go astray doctrinally. We should recite the great Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds and other catechetical instruction in our services. The Spirit and the word are not enemies but friends. Paul says to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) and to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col 3:16). Andrew reminds us of those truths in this wonderful book.
I would want to nuance differently a number of things said in the book, but my task is to respond to what Andrew says about the continuation of charismatic gifts. Actually, the argument in the book on this matter is quite brief (just a few pages), and so I will respond to Andrew but also interact with an online article Sam Storms wrote about Ephesians 2:20.2
1. The Argument from History
Andrew points to the continuation of prophecy in the early church as an argument in favor of continuationism. My initial response is that the matter of whether the gifts continue is complex. We have to consider exegesis, history, and theology. Simply citing biblical texts doesn’t prove one’s case, for we need to consider the entire canonical context in applying scripture today. In other words, we have to engage in exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology. The argument from the continuation of the gifts in early church history isn’t decisive since it took time for the canon of scripture to be established and accepted—even hundreds of years. The gift of prophecy and presumably other gifts helped secure churches in the truth in the intervening period before the canon was accepted. We can’t draw a bright red line between the era when prophecy ceased and the canon was fully established. The transition was gradual and slow and probably imperceptible to those who lived during those times. Thus, we can’t pinpoint the exact date prophecy ended; it faded away gradually as churches in different locales received the full canon of the NT. Thus, instances of prophecy in early church history don’t demonstrate that the gift is present today.
2. Considering the Canon
It is true that the NT nowhere says the gifts will come to an end, and we can see why Andrew argues from 1 Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 4 that the gifts will continue to the second coming. But it should give us pause that the NT nowhere tells us that there will be a canon of collected writings that will function as authoritative scripture. We have no direct word in the NT on the matter of the canon, and we rightly engage in exegetical, historical, and theological reasoning in support of the NT canon. In the same way, the wording of 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t conclusive for the continuation of gifts since it would make no sense for the Holy Spirit to inspire Paul to say the gifts would cease to the Corinthians since they had no need to know about the cessation of gifts and the establishment of the canon. Similarly, there was no need for Paul to know about these matters since he would not live long enough to see the canon established. If God revealed such a matter to Paul, he would have known that Jesus would not come for hundreds of years. The scriptures do not engage in these kinds of abstractions since they address the circumstances facing the original readers. We must reflect theologically upon what the word meant for the first readers and how we are to appropriate the same word today. It is not at all surprising, then, that the cessation of gifts wasn’t specifically revealed to Paul or the other apostles since such a revelation would be irrelevant during the lifetime of the apostles and of the original readers of the Pauline letters.
3. The Problem with the Gifts Not Being the Same as in Apostolic Times
Andrew says that we should be zealous and eager to obey what scripture commands. Of course. But that’s just the question. What should we be seeking? He acknowledges that the gifts and healings are not what they were in the apostolic times, but says we aren’t as successful as the apostles in evangelism, church planting, leadership, and missions either. I don’t find this argument persuasive, and I think it involves equivocation as to the nature of the gifts, for evangelism is still evangelism even if we are not as successful as the apostles. But the differences between the gifts exercised in the NT period and the gifts as they are exercised today raise questions about whether we are talking about the same gifts. I remember when the Vineyard movement was popular that they contended that the signs and wonders of the apostles were still available today. But now the argument seems to be as follows. Well, they were getting the full river of the Spirit and we are just getting trickle. So, I guess that means that gifts of healing rarely work for the blind, those who are unable to walk, and those who have terminal cancer. I have already said we all agree that God can and does heal miraculously in some situations. The question, however, is whether people have the gift of healing, which means it would be exercised with some regularity. It seems that charismatics in effect end up saying that the gifts are dumbed down for us. They end up saying the following: Yes, God heals but not dramatically or often like in the NT. Yes, there is prophecy but now there are mistakes. Yes, there are tongues, but it isn’t speaking in unknown languages but in a prayer language or ecstatic utterances. Such views are hard to falsify, but it is a far cry from what we find in the NT. It seems as if the gifts are redefined to fit current experiences. Most of the “prophecies” uttered are rather general words of comfort and exhortation. When we hear such “prophecies,” it seems that anyone who knows the scriptures could offer the same advice without claiming to have the gift of prophecy.
4. Sam Storms on Ephesians 2:20
I turn here to an article by Sam Storms where he argues that Ephesians 2:20 is wrongly adduced as signifying the end of prophecy since the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”3 The cessationist appeal to Ephesians 2:20 is flawed, according to Storms, because it assumes that all the prophecies uttered in the churches were part of the apostolic foundation of the church, but that can’t be right, says Storms, since there were virtually hundreds and thousands of prophecies uttered, and many of them were addressed to individuals. How could all these prophecies be part of the once-for-all foundation for the church? Storms says the prophecies of the Ephesian twelve in Acts 19 can’t be part of the foundation of the church, nor the prophecies of Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), nor the prophecies of the sons and daughters mentioned in Acts 2, nor the prophecies that reveal a person’s sins in 1 Corinthians 14:24–25.
4.1. Ephesians 2:20 in Its Original Context
Storms makes a very interesting argument, but I remain unconvinced. The problem is one of slippage when speaking of the apostles and prophets as the foundation of the church. Storms reads that foundation as the once-for-all foundation for the universal church. He reads it as if Paul writes about the canon of scriptures—the foundation we have today. But I note in my other article appearing in this same issue of Themelios that Paul, though he believed his writings were authoritative, had no concept of a canon. We must make a distinction here between Paul’s original meaning and its theological reception. We rightly appropriate and apply Ephesians 2:20 theologically in terms of the canon, but we need to think more about the original Pauline intention.
Let me explain further. When Paul says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20), it is legitimate to deduce theologically from this verse that the NT canon comprises the foundational teaching of the apostles and the prophets. Still, Paul wasn’t thinking about the canon when writing this verse, nor does it follow logically that we have preserved today everything the apostles and prophets ever said and taught, and yet the teaching of all the apostles and all the prophets was still foundational—even the teaching that isn’t inscripturated.
4.2. Example of the Apostle Andrew
Perhaps an example will help unpack what I mean. Let’s think about the apostles for a moment and consider the apostle Andrew. We have no written word from Andrew preserved in the scriptures, but we have every reason to believe that as an apostle he faithfully communicated to his hearers what was necessary for their salvation and sanctification. It would be quite presumptuous to say that Andrew’s words aren’t included in the NT because they contained errors. Nor should we conclude that his oral teaching wasn’t foundational since it is not recorded. When Paul wrote Ephesians 2:20 he viewed the ministry of Andrew and all the apostles as foundational, even though there is not a single word in the NT from some of the apostles.
Let me state this still another way. The teaching of Andrew as an apostle and the words of the prophets which are not preserved today were part of the foundation in the churches they established, even if those words aren’t preserved for us today in the scriptures. The Lord has preserved for us all the foundational teaching we need in what has come down to us in the canon of the scriptures. On the other hand, in churches which did not have the completed canon of the NT, the words of the prophets helped supplement the teaching of the apostles until the canon was consolidated and accepted by all. The early churches needed orally transmitted infallible apostolic and prophetic teaching before the canon was established so that they didn’t stray from the gospel. Not all of that teaching was recorded and preserved for the universal church, but all of that teaching was foundational for particular local churches.
4.3. All the Teaching by the Apostles and Prophets Was Foundational
Sam contends that the words of the prophets are only foundational if they are written down and preserved for all time. But I am arguing that those early apostolic and prophetic words, which aren’t in the canon today, were infallible and part of the foundation of the various churches established. Every local church needed such foundational apostolic and prophetic teaching before the canon was accepted and recognized and received by all the churches.
What about Sam’s objection that prophecy often deals with personal matters that can’t be part of foundational teaching? We need to be careful, however, about segregating too rigidly the personal and the corporate. Everything prophets revealed in local churches contributed to the upbuilding of churches because churches grow as individuals grow. If someone was saved through a prophetic word, adding a person to the church through a prophetic word is one way the church grows. Words that bring people to salvation and which aid in sanctification are foundational! In other words, prophets helped their churches because everything they said when prophesying was completely true, and if it edifies and helps a believer, then it contributed to the growth of the church.
Prophets, of course, did much more than address concerns and stresses facing particular individuals. Still, just as the NT in its foundational and authoritative role strengthens and comforts and builds up individuals today, so too the authoritative and prophetic words granted in the early Christian era strengthened and edified early believers, even if these words aren’t preserved today.
Let me also say, however, that we must beware of individualism. NT prophecy typically related to the mission of the church and to the expansion of the gospel, even if individuals were addressed. One of the curious things about how the alleged gift of prophecy operates today is that it is often limited to individual or privatistic concerns, and issues of mission and doctrine and truth may never surface relative to prophecy. Such individual concerns should not be scorned and mocked, but we need to be careful because evangelical Christianity tends to be privatistic and individualistically focused to a fault, and we wonder again if what is called prophecy truly matches the NT.
To sum up, Sam in his exposition of Ephesians 2:20 restricts the verse to the canon of scripture we have now, to the once-for-all foundation for the universal church. In doing so, he confuses what the verse means for us, as we apply it to our circumstances, and what it meant to Paul’s original readers. Everything the prophets and apostles taught was foundational for the churches established, even if they are not preserved for the church today.
5. The Role of Impressions
Before I conclude two matters should be addressed. First, what should we think about impressions, and second, does the word prophecy always have the same meaning? The discussion here must be brief. Some people have amazing experiences that they call prophecy, but I would argue that what is called prophecy today is better identified as impressions, and God can use such impressions—sometimes in remarkable and helpful ways, but impressions aren’t the same as prophecy since they reflect human insight, hunches, and desires, which may or may not be from God. Both Jonathan Edwards and C. H. Spurgeon were cessationists, but they also believed God would sometimes impress something on a person’s heart. Spurgeon had some remarkable experiences where the Lord gave him an impression about someone or something that could not be known apart from the Lord’s work. Andrew cites some of Spurgeon’s amazing experiences, and I believe the Lord used those experiences, and he can use such today. Still, it is interesting that Spurgeon didn’t think he had the gift of prophecy but identified his experience as impressions. Spurgeon was wise and didn’t rely on receiving impressions, and Edwards warns that those who base their life on impressions will become unstable and may be led into wild fantasies.4 The story of Thomas Müntzer, where he thought God was leading him to fight against civil authority, reminds us all about the danger of thinking God is speaking to us. God can use impressions, and we should not rule them out, but they are not the same thing as the gift of prophesy, and we need to be careful about relying on them.
We find an example of an impression in 1 Corinthians 16:12 where Paul thinks Apollos should come to Corinth immediately, but Apollos disagrees! Paul does not claim to be prophesying in this instance. He urged Apollos to go—he had a sense and a conviction that Apollos should visit—but Apollos did not think the time was right, and Paul grants Apollos freedom to make his own decision. What Andrew and Sam call prophecy is better identified as the reception and transmission of impressions.
6. Variability of the Word Prophecy
One final matter should be addressed, and it is helpful for the sake of clarification. I am not saying that every use of the words “prophecy” and “prophesy” in the scriptures has the same meaning, but that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that I am embracing the continuationist view of prophecy, nor do I think it is correct to say that prophecies are ever mixed with errors. We have to beware of “illegitimate totality transfer” in using the word prophecy, just as with any other word in the scriptures.5 Context is king. For instance, we are told in Revelation 11 that the two witnesses prophesy, and I take that to mean that the church testifies to the gospel from the time of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus to the second coming.6 The prophesying of the two witnesses should not be equated with the gift of prophecy where people receive spontaneous revelations from God. John uses the word prophesy loosely in terms of the proclamation of the gospel. When John speaks of the two witnesses prophesying, he has in mind the preaching of the gospel by the church until the end of the world. He doesn’t refer to the experience of receiving spontaneous revelations from God. Even though the notion of prophecy in Revelation 11 differs from what Paul has in mind when he speaks of the spiritual gift of prophecy, one constant remains. There isn’t any notion in Revelation 11 that the prophetic proclamation of the gospel contains both truth and error. The church truly testifies to the gospel. If someone were to say that the church consists of humans and we also make mistakes, such an objection introduces a concern that strays outside of John’s intention. John’s purpose wasn’t to say that the message of the church is partly flawed! His point is that the church truly proclaims the gospel.
I have argued that all NT prophecy functioned (along with apostolic teaching) as the foundation for churches in early church history, and all authoritative teaching needed for us today is preserved in the canon of scripture. We must distinguish between what Ephesians 2:20 meant in its original context and how we appropriate and apply the verse to our circumstances today. References to prophecy is early church history don’t prove prophecy exists today since the gift slowly faded away. It took a considerable amount of time for the canon to be recognized and utilized in various locales. A significant problem for continuationists is that the gifts as they are exercised today don’t match NT descriptions, which supports the claim that the sign gifts don’t exist today. Of course, God still heals and does miracles, but people don’t have the gifts of miracles and healing. The miraculous gifts were given in the early church to provide a foundation for the church’s doctrine and practice (Ephesians 2:20) and to accredit the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, what continuationists call prophecy should be identified as impressions instead.7