Tom Schreiner’s book Spiritual Gifts is a masterclass in disagreeing well. In a debate which is frequently characterised by misrepresentations, accusations and inflammatory distortions on both sides, Tom has written something completely different: fair and balanced, generous and wise. The book is clear, but not partisan; it builds its case in such a way as to embrace the strengths of some charismatic arguments, and recognise the weaknesses of some cessationist ones. Obviously I still disagree on a number of key points, and on the conclusion of the book, but we share far more common ground than you would know from hearing many people on both sides of the aisle, and this is the book I would recommend to any charismatic who wants to wrestle with a ‘nuanced cessationism’. Bravo.
I agree with virtually everything Tom says in seven of his eleven chapters. My disagreements with him boil down to just three things:
(1) Whether all NT prophecy is authoritative, infallible, and foundational revelation, and as such should be clearly distinguished from impressions, whereby ‘someone senses that God is leading them to speak to someone or to make some kind of statement about a situation’. This is the argument he makes in chapter 7, and as we have already heard, it is crucial to the discussion.
(2) Whether the gift of tongues, for Paul, is about the speaking of human languages, as it is for Luke, rather than that which is usually practised by charismatics today. He makes this argument in chapters 8–9.
(3) Whether the case for ‘nuanced cessationism’ in his final chapter actually holds up. His argument, in outline, is that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and in particular on the authoritative and infallible revelation they communicated. Both of these have ceased, whether with the death of the last apostle or, in an intriguing aside, with the agreement on the final canon of Scripture after a few hundred years. (This concession, incidentally, seems to me to undermine some of the arguments he has made previously: if an ante-Nicene father could prophesy, yet without in any way undermining the final authority of Scripture, why couldn’t someone today? And how would anyone in the late fourth century know that Paul’s exhortations to prophesy had recently ceased to apply?) Tom then explains his position on the other gifts—tongues, interpretation, miracles and healings—which is essentially that they might exist today, but he is doubtful, and if they do, they are very rare. I disagree, unsurprisingly, but we seem to agree that there is no biblical reason for claiming that the gifts of healing and miracles have ceased. In that sense, Tom’s cessationism is nuanced indeed!
To begin with this last point, which in some ways is the most peripheral to Tom’s argument: it seems to me that many cessationists apply a somewhat unfair standard when it comes to miraculous events like healings, or the speaking of unlearned human languages. Yes, the apostles were more successful at these things than we are. There is, indeed, a discrepancy between our experience and what is described in the NT. But the apostles were also far more successful at evangelism. And church planting. And leadership. And cross-cultural mission. And church discipline (unless the Southern Baptists have figured out the Ananias and Sapphira thing). And teaching. And standing firm under persecution. And selling their possessions and giving to the poor. And handling disappointment in ministry. Yet in none of these cases do we conclude that the gulf is so wide, their ‘success’ so much greater than ours, that to tell people how to share the gospel, or teach, or lead more effectively, is to encourage people to be satisfied with sub-biblical Christianity. Rather, we acknowledge the disparity and seek to learn from it. What did they do? How did they do it? What can we learn? What are we missing? Which contemporaries of ours is God using in this area at the moment? What can we learn from them? As such, it looks like a standard is being used with respect to the ‘miraculous’ gifts (where charismatics claim more ‘success’ than cessationists) that is not applied to those areas in which conservatives typically pride themselves.
Cards on the table: I have personally witnessed a large number of miracles like this. Blindness, deafness, paralysis, unlearned earthly languages being spoken (in one recent case, a Rwandan tribal language that was being spoken by a white British girl in our prayer meeting, and understood by a native speaker of that language standing a few feet away), life-long conditions, the whole kit and caboodle—not third-hand stories from Majority World countries, but in front of me in the UK—and many of the healings have subsequently been verified by medical staff, which is something we always encourage. (In my favourite story, which was featured in the national press in the UK, the government continued paying disability benefits to a wheelchair bound lady even after she had been completely healed. When she rang to say she no longer needed the money because she could walk again, the bureaucrat at the government department said, ‘We haven’t got a button to push that says “miracle”.’) I agree with Tom that such things are rarer than they were in Acts—but then so are sermons that see 3,000 people saved, and so are missionaries who plant churches from Jerusalem round to Illyricum. That is not a reason to seek those things less; it is a reason to seek them more.
Working backwards, my second disagreement with Tom concerns the gifts of tongues and interpretation. Tom argues that the tongues in 1 Corinthians are all unlearned, human languages, a la Acts 2; I think there are several reasons to suggest they are not (whether or not we see Paul as alluding to the difference in his famous comment about ‘the tongues of men, and of angels’, 1 Cor 13:1). Tongues in Acts were immediately understood by those who heard; tongues in 1 Corinthians required interpretation. The former demonstrated blessing, as those who speak other languages understand, in reversal of the curse of Babel; the latter demonstrated judgment, as those who speak other languages do not understand, in fulfilment of Isaiah. The former is assumed to function like prophecy by Peter; the latter is explicitly differentiated from prophecy by Paul. The former is aimed at people with a declarative, even evangelistic, purpose: ‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ The latter is described in terms of prayer, song, and thanksgiving, and is aimed at God. The purpose of the former is the edification of the hearer; the purpose of the latter, if there is no interpreter, is the edification of the speaker. If tongues were all comprehensible, earthly languages, it would be extremely strange for Paul use the gift so much in private, yet be so cautious in public.
The tongue-speaking at Pentecost is understood because the hearer already knows the language; for anyone to understand Corinthian tongue-speaking requires the speaker to ‘pray that they may interpret what is said’, which would be a strange remark to make of earthly languages in a polyglot city like Corinth (unless we are to imagine that the Spirit prompted people to speak only in earthly languages that nobody in the congregation understood, which would be thoroughly bizarre). As David Garland points out, it is also hard to understand Paul’s rhetorical question in 14:6—‘if I come to you speaking in tongues [γλώσσαις λαλῶν], how will I benefit you?’—if γλῶσσα here refers to xenoglossia rather than glossolalia. For Garland, ‘this rules out the view that tongues refer to the miraculous ability to speak in unlearned languages.’1 I am inclined to the view, as articulated by a variety of scholars, that there are ‘various kinds of tongues’, that some of them are human languages and some of them are not, that they are used primarily in prayer and praise rather than for prophetic speech, and that there is no biblical reason to believe they have ceased (although, clearly, they should always be used within the parameters Paul identifies in 1 Corinthians). Call it a nuanced continuationism, if you will.
The third area of disagreement—and, we would all agree, the main one for this discussion—concerns prophecy, and this takes me back to my previous paper. I argued there that the burden of proof rests with the person who says we should not follow a particular apostolic instruction, rather than with the person who says we should, and gives hermeneutical, historical and eschatological reasons in support of the charismatic position. Tom’s argument, as we have heard, is that (1) all OT prophecy is authoritative, infallible divine revelation, (2) there is no indication of a change between the Old and New Testaments on this point, (3) NT prophecy also represents infallible, authoritative, foundational, divine revelation, as per Ephesians 2:20, and therefore that (4) since the closure of the canon, it has ceased. I gave reasons to disagree with each of these three steps in the argument.
Deuteronomy 18, certainly, draws a very sharp line between the new prophet like Moses, who will speak all that Yahweh commands him, and the presumptuous prophet who speaks words God has not spoken and/or speaks for other gods. But it is far from clear that this proves all OT prophecy is authoritative, infallible divine revelation. In a number of examples of OT prophecy, not only is prophesying not about conveying authoritative and infallible divine revelation, it doesn’t seem to be about conveying any information; its purpose, rather, is more to identify divinely indwelt individuals than to communicate divinely inspired content, and I mentioned a number of examples in my earlier article.2
The kingship of Saul, for example, is bookended by parallel stories in which groups of people prophesy, including Saul himself. We simply have no idea what sorts of things they were saying, whether it purported to be infallible, and whether anyone subsequently appraised their accuracy as per Deuteronomy 18 and even killed them accordingly (although it seems very unlikely). We must also reckon with the fact that Saul’s prophesying in 1 Samuel 19:23–24 is prompted by the Spirit, but looks remarkably like madness: ‘he stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied [וַיִּתְנַבֵּא] before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night’ (some translators render נָבָא as ‘raved’ or ‘went into ecstasy’ here). This is not to say that we should pursue such prophecy, of course! But it is to say that the first premise of Tom’s argument, namely that all OT prophecy is authoritative, infallible revelation on the basis of Deuteronomy 18, is not necessarily true.
The purpose of NT prophecy, similarly, is far broader than the foundational, authoritative revelation that Paul refers to in Ephesians 2. NT prophecy can serve to declare the mighty works of God (Acts 2), extol God (Acts 19), encourage, edify and console other believers (Acts 15; 1 Corinthians 14), bring unbelievers under conviction, witness to the presence of God in the assembly, enable the congregation to learn and be encouraged (1 Cor 14), redirect Christian funds (Acts 11) and/or missionaries (Acts 13; 21), direct particular individuals to exercise their ministry in a particular way (1 Tim 1), impart gifts of leadership to newly ordained elders (1 Tim 4), and/or provide foundations for the church for all time (Eph 2–3)—and that’s without mentioning the prophesying that is mentioned in passing, without any clear description of what was said or why.
In that sense, it seems to me, the cessationist position depends on a far narrower definition of NT prophecy than is supported by the texts we have. (This is also true of some charismatic definitions, by the way; there are some church circles in which prophesying is defined in equally narrow terms, like ‘predicting the future’, or ‘challenging the status quo’, or even ‘saying Christian-ish things with your eyes closed and your arms outstretched’.) Many of the spiritual gifts Paul describes simply cannot be delineated in such narrow, specific ways. A word of παράκλησις can mean anything from the decision of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:31), to Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:15), to the epistle to the Hebrews (Heb 13:22). ἀπόστολοι can be anything from a messenger carrying a financial gift (2 Cor 8:23), to an eyewitness of the resurrection (Acts 4:33). Teaching, as Tom has rightly written in other contexts, can vary from ‘informal mutual instruction’ through to ‘authoritative transmission of tradition’. Showing mercy overlaps with giving. Shepherding overlaps with leadership. Nobody really knows what the difference is between words of wisdom and words of knowledge. What we know of the other gifts tells against the idea that all NT prophecy must be of the same purpose and weight as that mentioned in Ephesians 2.
Far more representative of 1 Corinthians, from a practical as well as a scholarly point of view, is the definition from Thiselton I quoted earlier:
Prophecy, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, combines pastoral insight into the needs of persons, communities, and situations with the ability to address these with a God-given utterance or longer discourse (whether unprompted or prepared with judgment, decision and rational reflection) leading to challenge or comfort, judgment, or consolation, but ultimately building up the addressees…. While the speaker believes that such utterances or discourses come from the Holy Spirit, mistakes can be made, and since believers, including ministers or prophets, remain humanly fallible, claims to prophecy must be weighed and tested.3
The example of Acts 21:4, in which the disciples ‘were telling Paul through the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem’, also raises the question of what exactly Tom means when he talks about all NT prophecy being infallible. If he means simply that what the Spirit has revealed is all true, then of course Sam and I would agree—that is a key part of the charismatic argument, not an objection to it. But to put this in the form of a question: is there ever a difference between what is revealed through the Spirit, and what is spoken by the prophet? Tom and I agree that what the Holy Spirit said in this case (as in every case!) was true. And we agree that what the disciples said to him—not to go to Jerusalem—was at least partly false. In other words, as Tom argues, what the disciples actually said ‘though the Spirit’ was a mixture of what God had revealed (which was true) and what they mistakenly concluded from it (which was false). Quite so. But that sounds to me like exactly the sort of thing that responsible charismatics would say about prophecy today: what God says is always perfectly true, but what disciples who are prophesying say may contain a mixture of true and false (which is why prophecies need to be ‘weighed’ and ‘tested’). As such I basically agree with Tom’s exegesis of the passage, but I think it confirms a continuationist view of prophecy, not a cessationist one.
I began my opening paper by defining the question before us today as this: Are disciples today intended to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy? I think Tom Schreiner has made just about the best case you can make that the answer is no, and he has done so clearly, graciously and well. I also think his case is ultimately unconvincing in three crucial areas—on healing and miracles, on the gift of tongues and especially on the definition of NT prophecy—and that as such, it fails to meet the burden of proof which is (and in my view should be) required to disregard a clear and repeated apostolic instruction. Nevertheless, it is exemplary both in its representation of the opposing view, and in the clarity with which it expresses its own. With enemies like this, who needs friends?