Abstract:This article first defines the scope of the debate over whether or not Christians today should earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy. The author then offers three key arguments for the charismatic position and concludes by raising and responding to the strongest argument for cessationism.
It is a huge privilege to open this discussion on spiritual gifts, with Tom Schreiner and other individuals from whom I have learned so much in so many areas.1 “The first to present his case seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17 ESV).
Because this exchange is based on two books, rather than one, and because Tom’s book and mine come to different conclusions on the continuation of the charismata, it would be easy for a discussion like this to become repetitive.2 To try and avoid that, in this article I plan to do three things. First, I will try to define the scope of the debate as simply as possible, so we don’t end up talking past each other. Second, I will lay out the charismatic case in a positive way, with what seem to me the three key arguments for it. Third, I will summarise the strongest argument for cessationism, and then challenge it, before concluding. I will leave a discussion of the other cessationist arguments until we engage with Tom’s book later on.
1. The Scope of the Debate
To crystallise the debate in one sentence, I suggest this: Are disciples today intended to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy? I’m pretty sure that Tom Schreiner and Ligon Duncan would say no, and that Sam Storms and I would say yes. Prophecy, that is, is the most helpful focus for a concentrated discussion. We are not primarily debating the continuation of the ἀπόστολοι, since we would all agree that eyewitnesses of the resurrection have ceased (the sense of ἀπόστολος in Acts 1:21–26 and 1 Cor 9:1; 15:1–9), and that itinerant missionaries or messengers have not (the sense of ἀπόστολος in 2 Cor 8:23 and probably Rom 16:7). It is also noteworthy that in those passages where Paul urges believers to pursue the gifts, he does not include apostleship as one of them. And although we may disagree about the continuation of the gifts of languages, interpretation, healings, miracles, and discerning spirits—although maybe not so much, as we will see!—I think we would all agree that the key question concerns the continuation of prophecy. Should disciples ‘earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy’? Clarifying that might keep us from getting lost in the weeds.
2. The Charismatic Case
For the charismatic, the first reason to say yes is a hermeneutical one—namely, that Paul says so. This sounds like a facile remark, and certainly not worthy of such a sophisticated audience, but it is actually very important. Sometimes the exegetical debate over the pursuit of the gifts can look like a no-score-draw, with continuationists pointing out that the New Testament never says the gifts will cease, and cessationists responding that it never says they won’t, either. But this is to reason as if Paul’s instructions to pursue the gifts were not relevant, which they clearly are. ‘Earnestly desire the higher gifts’ (1 Cor 12:27). ‘Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy’ (14:1). ‘Earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues’ (14:39). ‘Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith’ (Rom 12:6). ‘Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good’ (1 Thess 5:21). Given the clarity and frequency of this apostolic instruction, and given that we would normally assume that New Testament imperatives apply to us unless it is clear from the context that they don’t, charismatics believe that the burden of proof rests with those who say Paul’s instructions don’t apply to us, rather than to those who say they do. (I tend to call this the Presumption Of Obedience, although I’m not wild about the acronym.)
Sometimes, of course, this burden of proof can be met. When we read the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, we recognise that “go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5) is not applicable to Christians living this side of the command to “go and make disciples of all nations” (28:19). Nor have there been any Christians in history who have made it their business to go to Troas and look for Paul’s coat; it is obvious from Paul’s letter that his request applied only to Timothy. But if an instruction appears frequently, to multiple different churches, at some length in one case, and there is no clear indication in the text that the instruction has since been superseded or relativised, we should assume it also applies to us, and require a significant burden of proof from those who say it does not. (We will look at the attempts to meet this burden of proof, or even to argue that the burden of proof lies elsewhere, in due course.) That is the hermeneutical argument for the charismatic gifts.
The second argument, to the surprise of some, is historical. That is, one of the best reasons to think the miraculous gifts continued beyond the deaths of the apostles is the fact that, according to many of the Church fathers, they did. In the context of contemporary debates this point is often lost, not least because the gift which has proved the most divisive in the last hundred years or so, namely the gift of languages, is the one over which the patristic evidence is least clear. But I am not aware of any writer before Chrysostom or Augustine making a cessationist argument about any of the gifts—and Augustine’s argument, famously, refers only to the gift of languages, and needs to be set alongside his extended treatment of miracles and healings in the City of God.
Justin Martyr claimed, ‘The prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time.’3 Irenaeus said, ‘Those who are in truth his disciples’ performed miracles according to the gift given them, including driving out demons, seeing visions, uttering prophetic expressions, healing the sick, raising the dead, speaking in other languages, and declaring the mysteries of God.4 (Eusebius uses this excerpt to demonstrate that ‘various gifts remained among those who were worthy even until that time.’5) Tertullian trash-talks Marcion, like Elijah on Mount Carmel, by daring his god to predict things to come, make manifest the secrets of the heart, interpret tongues or prophesy, before claiming that ‘all these signs are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty.’6 Origen regarded the scope of the gifts as having diminished but certainly not disappeared: ‘there are still preserved among Christians traces of that Holy Spirit which appeared in the form of a dove. They expel evil spirits, and perform many cures, and foresee certain events, according to the will of the Logos.’7 Basil the Great said, ‘The Spirit enlightens all, inspires prophets, gives wisdom to lawmakers, consecrates priests, empowers kings, perfects the just, exalts the prudent, is active in gifts of healing, gives life to the dead, frees those in bondage, turns foreigners into adopted sons.’8 Cyril of Jerusalem explained, ‘He employs the tongue of one man for wisdom; the soul of another he enlightens by prophecy; to another he gives power to drive away devils.’9 And Augustine, as we know, lists an extraordinary range of healings from blindness, rectal fistula, breast cancer, gout, paralysis, hernia, demonization and even death.10
From a purely historical perspective, then, the idea that the miraculous gifts suddenly stopped when the last apostle died is simply untenable. There are of course cessationists (like Tom) who grant this point, and see the cessation of prophecy and the other miraculous gifts as happening gradually across the first four centuries. But this concession is crucial, because it shows that there is no necessary conflict between foundational, infallible, apostolic teaching, and ongoing prophetic insight. That is the point that charismatics have been making for decades.
The third argument is eschatological. The gifts of the Spirit, and prophecy in particular, are seen by the apostles as characterising the entire era between Pentecost and the parousia, the coming of the Spirit and the return of Christ. So as long as we still live between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom—between D-day and VE-day, in Cullmann’s famous analogy—we should continue to expect, and pursue, all the spiritual gifts.11
This expectation is clear on the day of Pentecost itself. At the start of the first sermon ever preached by a Christian, Peter explicitly connects the last days, the pouring out of the Spirit on all nations, and the gift of prophecy, with the latter a clear demonstration of the former. (As charismatics are fond of pointing out, Peter doesn’t say, ‘In the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and they will prophesy—but after that I won’t, and they won’t.’) When Paul thanks God for the Corinthians, he reminds them that ‘the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you, so that you are not lacking in any charismata, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 1:7–8). In other words, the charismata are theirs while they wait for Jesus to be revealed. Similar things are true of the famous ending to 1 Corinthians 13, verses 8–10: ‘As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.’ Paul believes in the cessation of the gifts, but he believes it will happen ‘when the perfect comes’, and expresses the contrast in four ways: the partial versus the perfect, childhood versus maturity, dimness of sight versus clarity, and partial knowledge versus fullness. Despite occasional exegetical gymnastics to try and prove the contrary, this can only really refer to the return of Christ, as Tom (another spoiler alert) rightly points out in his book.12
When we read Paul with this eschatological framework in mind—recognising that believers live in the ‘last days’, between Pentecost and Parousia, characterised both by the gift of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit until the return of Christ—we see it everywhere. We observe that Paul’s exhortation to ‘be filled with the Spirit’, characterised by (among other things) singing ‘spiritual songs’, is given as long as ‘the days are evil’. We notice that the exhortation to use spiritual gifts (including prophecy) in Romans applies to the period between Jesus’s resurrection and return: the time during which believers need not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, as their salvation gets ever nearer. We see that the command not to quench the Spirit or despise prophecy, in 1 Thessalonians, appears in the context of living godly lives as we wait for Jesus to return. Some of these texts are more explicit than others. But it seems clear that Paul anticipates the charismatic gifts, including prophecy and languages, remaining with the Church until the coming of Christ—at which point they will no longer be needed.
That, in a very, very small nutshell, is the charismatic argument for the continuation of the charismata. Eschatologically, we would expect them to continue; historically, they did; and hermeneutically, we would expect to eagerly desire them, especially prophecy, since Paul says so.
3. The Strongest Cessationist Criticism
The strongest criticism of this position, and the best way of attempting to meet the burden of proof I have mentioned, is the argument from the infallibility of New Testament prophecy, as expressed in writers like Richard Gaffin and Tom Schreiner. If New Testament prophecy is infallible and foundational, and associated with the infallible and foundational witness of the apostles, then claims to fallible prophecy today—‘I think the Lord is saying this, but I may be wrong, so my words need to be weighed and tested’, or whatever—cannot be sustained as biblical. So whatever we think of that phenomenon, and whatever else we call it (impressions, insights, intuitions, insanity!), it is not what the New Testament means by προφητεύω. Plenty of other cessationist arguments are made, of course, but as I said at the start, we will leave those for later.
The logical shape of the argument goes like this:
- Prophesying in the Old Testament was infallible divine revelation. Aside from the numerous ‘thus says the Lord’ statements, the key texts here are Deuteronomy 13 and 18, especially 18:22: ‘When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You shall not be afraid of him.’
- There is no indication of a change between Old and New Testaments on this point. Therefore, we should assume that prophesying in the New Testament is also infallible divine revelation.
- Paul describes the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20), which indicates that New Testament prophecy is not just infallible but also foundational.
- Therefore, the Pauline exhortations to pursue spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, should be considered as unique to the first century (or the first four centuries), and no longer binding on the church today.
If the first three steps are all true, then the fourth one follows. But there are good exegetical reasons to challenge all three of them.
(1) Is prophesying in the Old Testament always infallible divine revelation? Iain Duguid, in the Festschrift for Vern Poythress, demonstrates that in all sorts of instances where the word ‘prophet’ or ‘prophesying’ is used in the Hebrew Bible, ‘there is no suggestion of anyone listening to or being instructed by authoritative pronouncements’ (e.g. Gen 20:7; Num 11:25–29; 1 Sam 10:6; 19:20–23; 1 Kgs 18:4; 2 Kgs 2:3; 4:38; 6:1; 9:1; 17:13; 1 Chr 25:1–3; 29:29; 2 Chr 9:29; 12:15; 13:22).13 Rather, the person in view may be engaged in prayer, or ecstatic speech, or leading worship, or writing court history, or none of the above. In such cases, Duguid argues, ‘prophecy functions not to convey divinely inspired information but to identify divinely indwelt individuals.’ It is therefore possible—we might even say common—for Old Testament prophesying not to involve infallible divine revelation, but to mark out those in whom the Spirit of God is at work. It is this, rather than the demand for further infallible divine revelation, that is behind Moses’s famous challenge in Numbers 11:29: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!’
(2) That, of course, is exactly what the Lord does at Pentecost. And that is the sense in which there is a substantial change between Old and New Testaments when it comes to the gift of prophecy: not that prophecy suddenly becomes fallible, but that its scope is dramatically widened (‘I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy’, Acts 2:17), and its purpose explicitly connected with the new age of the Spirit, in which the Lord will put his Spirit on all believers, as Moses had asked all those years before. We can argue the toss about whether Agabus was mistaken in certain details in Acts 21:10–11, and there are plenty of interpreters on both sides. But the key point in Acts is that lots of prophesying does not look at all like Deuteronomy 18, in which we either get the new prophet like Moses, or an impostor who speaks in the name of other gods. The term is used far more broadly than that: it might refer to declaring the mighty works of God to others, extolling God, encouraging and strengthening the brothers, or simply speaking in ways that reveal the individual to be filled with the Spirit (2:11; 15:32; 19:6; 21:9). That same polyvalence is present in 1 Corinthians 12–14, as we will see.
(3) We also have to ask: Does Ephesians 2:20 show that all prophecy in the New Testament is infallible, divine, foundational revelation? Clearly, this is the role of the prophets to which Paul is referring in this text (and in 3:5), whether or not we agree with Grudem on the grammatical point (which Tom doesn’t, and nor do I).14 But is it the only purpose of prophecy, such that anything which does not qualify as ‘foundational’ does not qualify as ‘prophecy’? Richard Gaffin, interestingly, comes clean about which texts have interpretive primacy in his view: ‘As a general guideline for interpretation, the decisive, controlling significance of Eph 2:20 (in its context) needs to be appreciated. It and the other passages that bear on prophecy, like 1 Cor 14, are not of the same order of magnitude exegetically.… Eph 2:20 makes a generalisation that covers all the other New Testament statements on prophecy.’15 To which we should ask: really? One mention in Ephesians—in a subclause of a sentence that is primarily about the unity of the church—counts for more than three chapters on the gifts in 1 Corinthians? Why?
If we suspend judgment on that for a moment, and look at 1 Corinthians on its own terms, we get a far more varied perspective on the purpose of prophecy. It is given to encourage, console and edify other believers in the local church (14:3). It brings unbelievers under conviction (14:24), witnesses to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the assembly (14:25), and enables the congregation to learn and be encouraged (14:31). If we add 1 Timothy into the mix, prophecy also provides personal guidance for ministry (1:18), and is associated with appointment to eldership (4:14). Consequently, several of the major commentaries on 1 Corinthians now include Anthony Thiselton’s definition as standard:
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.16
None of this is to deny that Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 are speaking of foundational divine revelation. It is simply to deny that those texts provide a Procrustean bed onto which every other use of the word should be forced to fit. The reason we sometimes talk about capital-A and small-a apostles, or capital-T and small-t teachers, or capital-E and small-e evangelists, is that we recognise such gifts come in different ways and for different purposes. We know there is a difference between the kinds of ἀπόστολοι in Acts 1 and 2 Corinthians 8. We assume there is a difference between the διδάσκαλοι that Hebrews 5:12 says we should all aspire to be, and the διδάσκαλοι that James 3:1 says we should not aspire to be. There may even be a difference between the sort of εὐαγγελιστής Philip was and the sort Timothy was told to be (Acts 21:8; 2 Tim 4:5). So yes, the προφῆται in Ephesians 2–3 were foundational for the entire subsequent church. Whether those in 1 Corinthians 12–14 were as well—and I have deliberately omitted the references in Romans and 1 Thessalonians, of which similar things are true—needs to be shown, not assumed.
Thus, I think there are good hermeneutical, historical and eschatological arguments for the charismatic position, and that the strongest argument against it ultimately falls. But I want to finish with a story from a fellow pastor of a London Baptist megachurch. Charles Spurgeon, as far as I know, never uses the word ‘prophecy’ to refer to this sort of phenomenon, although he does talk about revelation, God speaking, and the moving of the Spirit. But this gives a historical snapshot of the kind of thing I Paul may have been talking about, and perhaps also the various church fathers I quoted earlier. He writes:
While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, ‘There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!’
The man explains:
I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul.
I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did.’17
Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.