On Cessationism

For whatever reason, maybe because we are at a time when Western existentialism values spirituality, or because of the popularity of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology among American evangelicals, continuationism is a widely held position among American Christians. Personally, I used to be on staff at a charismatic church and identified as a cautious continuationist. This functional non-position stemmed from not believing I could find any verse in the New Testament that stated prophecy, tongues, and other sign gifts would end prior to the second coming of Jesus, while not believing that I’d ever witnessed true, contemporary examples of these things. Looking back, I understand that my former position was a result of simplistic Bible reading that was not sufficiently informed by all three contextual horizons, textual, progressive, and canonical. That is to say, while I’d been well trained by public teachers like John Piper and local teachers at my church to pay close attention to the grammar and structure of whatever verses were in immediate question, I had an insufficient understanding of Biblical theology and its necessary impact on correct interpretation.

I write now as a committed cessationist. For the sake of the explicit defining of terms, by continuationism I mean the belief that every gift given to the church in the New Testament by the Holy Spirit is still given to the church today. By cessationism, I mean the belief that the revelatory and sign gifts that we see given to the church by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament are no longer given to the church today. That means that a cessationist contends that there are no more prophets in the church, no longer those who speak in tongues, no more miracle workers, though miracles can still happen, and no more healers (sorry Benny).

While a matured grasp of Biblical theology has provided me with a more comprehensive answer to the question of sign gifts in general in the church today, my migration from cautious continuationism to cessationism happened as a result of the training I received from godly charismatics, like John Piper and Raymond Goodlett, training that, while lacking an emphasis on the impact of progressive revelation and canonical context for textual interpretation, taught me to look closely at verses and their immediate contexts. The migration to cessationism was made possible by the faithful teaching of charismatics, and instigated by Thomas Schreiner, professor of New Testament Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Schreiner wrote a brief article for The Gospel Coalition entitled, “Why I am a Cessationist“, paired with an article by Sam Storms entitled, “Why I am a Continuationist“. Schreiner’s article is so logically superior to Storms’ writing, that it forced me to grapple with a theological question I really didn’t want to touch.

In the remaining space for this article, I will trace my textual path to the conclusion that there is no more prophecy given to the church today, meaning that while churches benefit from prophecy that has been given, and recorded in the prophetic word of God, new prophecy is no more.

First we must address the positive question of why the Holy Spirit gives any gift whatsoever to local churches. The answer is twofold. He gives gifts to the church both for her edification and the exaltation of her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:11ff, 1 Corinthians 12, 14).

So every gift is broadly given for the edification of the local church and the exaltation of Christ. And each gift furthers this twofold end in its own way (administration edifies and exalts differently than teaching edifies and exalts, for example). We can therefore consider any spiritual gift with the question, “How does the Spirit intend this gift to exalt Jesus and build up his people?”

Let us then specifically do that with the gift of prophecy. In what way does the gift of prophecy edify and exalt? When this positive question is asked, we find a direct, “BCV” answer given by Paul in Ephesians 2:20. Ephesians 2:19-21 reads, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” In this passage we see that two gifts have been sovereignly given by the Spirit to the church for the purpose of laying for her a foundation. These two gifts are apostleship and prophecy. This foundation is revelatory in nature, and the revelation is the word of Christ, what he has done and what it means for the New Covenant people of God through the end of time. The church is a holy temple. Her foundation is the word of Christ. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus is the final word, his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and the Christ directed, inerrant, authoritative explaining from the apostles and prophets.

Why are there no more apostles? Because the foundation for the church has been laid. No new foundation is required in these last days. The building project has progressed.

Why are there no more prophets? Because the foundation for the church has been laid. No new foundation is required in these last days. The building project has moved on from its foundational stage.

Now, because Paul logically links apostleship and prophecy to the laying of a foundation for Christ’s church, the only way to deal with Ephesians 2:20 as a continuationist is to make the case that the verse is speaking to Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, and that the prophecy written about by Paul in 1 Corinthians and by Luke in Acts is of a different nature than the prophecy of the Old Testament. The problem with this interpretive approach is that Ephesians renders it obviously false. Paul uses the phrase “apostles and prophets” three times in his letter to the church in Ephesus. It is the same phrase in Ephesians 2:20, 3:5, and 4:11. Apart from some obvious textual evidence to the contrary, it is only reasonable to understand that the meaning of the phrase is as consistent as the wording. And Ephesians 3:5 and 4:11 make very clear that Paul is referring to prophets of the New Covenant, not Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:4-5). By the revelation of God, Paul is able to explain the mystery of Christ that was not made known to previous generations, those saints of the Old Covenant. New revelation has come to God’s people through God’s “holy apostles and prophets”. New revelation. New generation. New Covenant foundation. How these two foundational gifts relate to contemporary gifts in the church is illuminated for us in Ephesians 4. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:11-14). Contemporary evangelists, shepherds, and teachers are dependent on the revelatory foundation provided them by the apostles and prophets of the New Testament. Like a sonorous reverberation speeding down a red rock canyon, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers declare to people today what was declared in days of old, 2,000 years ago.

In conclusion, let me briefly address some common objections to what I have just put forward.

“Doesn’t 1 Corinthians 13 assert that prophecy and tongues will not pass away until the return of Christ?” My answer to this question is that is misses the point of the passage. Paul is writing to a church that is treating very important gifts as supreme, supreme over love. Paul provides the Corinthian church with correction, correction that includes a contrast between the time limited nature of spiritual gifts to the church, and love among God’s people. The claim of 1 Corinthians 13 is that even the finest of the gifts are but temporary, while love is forever. It is not in 1 Corinthians 13 that Paul makes any argumentation about which gifts will endure until the end of the age, and which gifts will not and why.

“The same Spirit that ministered to the church in the New Testament ministers to the church today. Therefore, mustn’t we conclude that he acts towards the church today as he acted in the time of the New Testament?” Well, no, the one does not logically follow the other. Just because God is unchanging in nature does not mean he acts uniformly. At one time he spoke through a donkey. At one time he descended upon the tent of meeting, his glory visible as a cloud. At one time, through the Son, God incarnated, was crucified, and resurrected. The list goes. Same God, all sorts of activity bound by his singular will.

“It is clear that there were women prophets in the early church. They were not apostles. Doesn’t this distinguish New Testament prophecy from an apostolic gift that would cease?” The fact that there were women prophets is irrelevant to the question of cessation, for the case for cessation does not hinge upon locating prophecy as a part of apostleship. The New Testament just argues that there was a foundational season in which God gave his word to his people through prophets and apostles. Seasons come, seasons go.

“Doesn’t a cessationist have to completely disregard Paul’s exhortation to desire the gift of prophecy, in 1 Corinthians 14?” Not at all. The proper disposition toward and use of prophecy was a live issue for the Corinthian church. The New Testament is largely occasional, meaning that authors wrote to address specific issues. Church members in Corinth were misusing gifts, not out of love and not in order. At the time, prophecy was still being given, the foundational season still unfolding. Paul urges them to desire the gift of prophecy, for by God’s word, God’s people have life and direction for that life. Churches today benefit from this glorious chapter of Scipture in being called to a greater valuing of God’s word, the necessity of how we worship God corporately being regulated by his word, and the great act love that is intelligibility of speech and action. Our worship should be word centered, regulated by the word, intelligible to the people (not in Latin).

“When Paul tells the Corinthians to test the prophecies spoken to them, does not this distinguish New Testament prophecy from that of Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.?” Nope. In God’s Mosaic law, false prophets are to be killed. How would one discern whether to obey the word of a prophet or kill that man? By testing what he says. Is his speech true, aligned with the revelation of God, or is it not? Answering this correctly is itself a gift of the Spirit. This same testing was called for with angels and apostles, and is called for with evangelists and teachers today. As the word water has the same meaning in the Old and the New Testaments, so does the word prophecy. Prophecy is God’s word, his breathed-out, inerrant, and authoritative word, to his people, through a human mouthpiece. It is divine revelation, to be received and obeyed. It is the utterance of Aaron to Pharaoh, received from the mind of Moses and transmitted with exactitude to the intended audience. It is impossible to believe that there is a closed canon of Scripture, a set body of text that is universally authoritative for the church, the set source material for all sermons everywhere, if one believes God is still giving people prophecy to speak. Wherever and to whomever he gives prophecy, it is to be understood as trustworthily binding on his people.

“But I know people who have experienced the revelatory and signatory gifts.” Well, that’s fine, but as a Christian, my epistemology is Sola Scriptura, not sola experienca. All experience is to be interpreted by Scripture. Scripture provides all my interpretive presuppositions, by which I come to understand the experiences of my life and the lives of others. If someone comes to an unscriptural conclusion about their genuine experience, it is because they used a false presupposition in their interpretation.

For a dealing with the question of tongues today, see the following article.

 

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