Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
The Question of Cessation
An issue that continues, in large part, to divide between the Reformed tradition and the charismatic movement is whether certain gifts of the Spirit, essential to distinctive charismatic spirituality, are present in the church today. Specifically, the debate focuses on prophecy and tongues, and, to a lesser extent, the gift of healing.39 With the complexity of this issue and the time limits on us here in view, I confine myself to some reflections on the disagreement currently present within the Reformed community as to whether a credible case can be made from Scripture, with the passing of the apostles from the life of the church, for the cessation of these gifts, particularly prophecy.
2:1. Objections to cessationism
A number of Reformed writers hold that such a case cannot be made and that we should be open, in varying degrees, to the possibility or perhaps even expect that one or more of these gifts may occasionally be given today.40 Further, and more significantly, in 1991 the synod of the Reformed Churches of Australia adopted, and subsequently has acted to defend, the view that prophecy continues today, and so may be expected and sought.41
An overall objection to the argument for cessation is that "it is clearly a too-simple and too-mechanical conception of things."42 Such a "streep-theologie," as it has been labeled, involves positing a discontinuity, a break, between the apostolic and postapostolic periods of the church that draws more from the New Testament than it will bear. More particularly, substantial objection is taken to the view of most cessationsists that the continuation of prophecy in the church today would undermine the sufficiency and completeness of the biblical canon. To the contrary, these noncessationists maintain, New Testament prophecy is not on a par with existing Scripture or apostolic teaching but has a lower (nonbinding, presumably fallible) authority, so that cessationists are deemed guilty of creating a false and entirely unnecessary dilemma. I respond to these objections here in reverse order.
2:2. A lower view of N. T. prophecy
There are a number of problems with the lower authority view of prophecy which I can do little more than indicate here.43
First, this view does not have an adequate explanation for Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5, where within the apostle's sweeping outlook (2:11ff.), the prophets are pictured, along with the apostles, as part of the foundation of the (one) church-house being built by the exalted Christ in the period between his resurrection and return.44 The (New Testament) prophets, like the apostles, belong to the (temporary) time of laying the church's foundation, not the period of the superstructure that follows. Specifically, their foundational role, together with the apostles, consists in providing a foundational, once-for-all revelation to the foundational, once-for-all redemption accomplished by the "cornerstone," Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11).45
Second, the two explicit instances of nonapostolic prophecy in the New Testament — the prophecies of Agabus in Acts 11:28 and 21:10-11 — do not support the view that it was nonbinding and/or fallible.46 To the contrary, there is no indication in these passages that Agabus spoke anything less than the inspired word of God. In fact, the lower authority view of prophecy is unable to offer a single supporting New Testament example.
Third, some brief comments may be made about several texts frequently offered as evidence that (nonapostolic) prophecy has a lower authority.
In 1 Corinthians 14:29, the passage most often cited in support of the lower authority view, the verb applied to prophecy diakrino has a broad semantic range; it may have a variety of senses, depending on the particular context, and may be variously translated ("evaluate," "test," "judge," "weigh"). Here there is nothing in Paul's usage to demand that, because what is prophesied is subject to "testing," it is therefore fallible or had a lower authority.47
It is difficult to see how 1 Corinthians 14:36a provides convincing evidence of lower authority prophecy. Paul's question there ("did the word of God originate with you?") is almost certainly addressed not to the prophets specifically but to the whole church at Corinth, in relation to other churches (see v. 33b). Together with the question in the latter part of the verse, it is "biting rhetoric";48 it has the force of something like "Does the truth begin and end with you?," "Do you have a corner on the gospel and its implications?"
Nor does Paul's peremptory command to the prophets in verses 37-38 establish their lower authority. No more than his sharp rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 means that the latter did not teach with full, infallible authority when he properly exercised his apostolic office. At issue here (and throughout this passage) is not the content of prophecy (and its relative authority), but the conduct of those who prophesy.
Of itself 1 Thessalonians 5:20 ("do not treat prophecies with contempt") does not seem to carry much weight, if for no other reason that in 2 Corinthians 10:10 Paul uses the same verb to describe his opponents derogatory assessment of his preaching, as "beneath contempt" (New English Bible). True, this applies to the formal side of his speaking (his "style"), in distinction from that of his letters, but a disparaging reflection on content as well can hardly be eliminated.
Fourth, 1 Corinthians 12:28, it seems to me, presents the lower authority view of prophecy with a monumental predicament. Here the order is expressed: "... first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, ...." There is general agreement that this ranking has to do with value or usefulness.49 If that is so, then the lower authority view is left with the following conclusion: in the church, prophecy, always subject to evaluation as fallible and therefore never binding on anyone, is more useful and edifying than teaching based on God's clear, authoritative, and inerrant word! Prophecy takes precedence over such teaching! An obviously unwanted and unacceptable conclusion, I would hope. Yet how, on this view, can it be avoided?
Finally, virtually all who hold the lower authority view insist that such prophecy as does or may occur today is always subordinate to Scripture and must be tested by it, so that its unimpaired sufficiency and authority is not only not threatened but maintained.
But, we must ask, how will such testing take place? Prophecy in the New Testament (e.g., Agabus), and as it allegedly takes place today, sometimes has a specificity that simply can't be evaluated by existing Scripture. For instance, a particular course of action urged upon an individual or group on the basis, say, of the contents of a dream, can't be judged by the Bible other than where the proposed action would involve violating a biblical commandment.
For the rest, it is a matter of trying to judge "apples" by "oranges." Scripture by its very nature is silent just on those details that give the dream its specific and distinct (and sought-after) "revelatory" significance and appeal.50 The tendency of this view, no matter how carefully qualified, is to divert attention from Scripture, particularly in practical and pressing life issues.
2:3. The organic nature of revelation
Rather than it being the cessationist position that is "too mechanical," it is those who hold that prophecy does or at least may, in principle, continue today, I suggest, who have too abstract and too inorganic a conception of the origin and nature of the New Testament canon and so of the role of New Testament prophecy. What this view fails to assess is that the prophetic activity described in the New Testament takes place, by the nature of the case, in an "open canon" situation (relative to our 27 book canon); in other words, prophecy occurs at a time when the New Testament documents were still in the process of being written. To put it another way, the "canon" (=where God's word may be found) for the church during its foundational, apostolic period was a fluid, evolving entity, made up of three factors: 1) a completed Old Testament; 2) eventual New Testament and other inspired documents, no longer extant (e.g., the "previous letter" mentioned in 1 Cor 5:9), as each was written and then circulated; and 3) an oral apostolic and prophetic voice. Provocatively stated, the church at the time the New Testament was being written, was not and could not yet be committed, as a formal principle, to the sola Scriptura of the Reformation; they lived, to be sure, as we do today, by God's word, but in doing so they lived by a "Scripture plus" principle of revelation and authority. The noncessationist view being considered here, certainly despite its intention and its clear desire to subordinate contemporary prophecy to Scripture, nonetheless takes us back, anachronistically, to the open canon situation of the early church. But that happens without the control of a living apostolate or, apparently, of those with the companion gift mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10, which most likely functioned for infallibly distinguishing between true and false prophecy.
This view, it remains difficult for me to see otherwise, opens the door to revelation in the life of the church today that is neither (inscripturated) special, redemptive revelation nor general revelation. What is affirmed is a third kind of revelation that goes beyond both. It is more than "revelation" in the sense of the Spirit's illumination for today of already revealed truth (Eph. 1:17; Phil. 3:15),51 more than thoughtful reflection and prayerful wrestling, prompted by the Spirit, about contemporary circumstances and problems in the light of Scripture. In view is additional, immediate revelation, that functions, especially where guidance is concerned, beyond Scripture and so unavoidably implies a certain insufficiency in Scripture that needs to be compensated for.52
But God does not reveal himself, as this view would in effect have it, along two tracks — one public, canonical, for the whole people of God, infallible and completed; the other private, to individual persons and groups, fallible and continuing. I do little more than assert that here, but that assertion, I take it, the fabric of Scripture from beginning to end, as a covenant-historical record, massively supports. During this century, especially, I remind us, we have become increasingly aware that the Bible is a redemptive — or covenant-historical record, not a systematic-theological textbook or a manual of ethics (as there has been a long tendency to treat it, at least in practice); it is "not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest."53 But there is need as well to recognize, much more frequently than has so far happened, the redemptive-historical rationale not only for the content but also for the giving of revelation. Here, once again, the historia salutis-ordo salutis distinction proves crucial. Revelatory word is tethered to redemptive deed, in the sense of once-for-all accomplishment, not its ongoing application.54 With the completion of the latter (redemption) comes the cessation of the former (revelation).
2:4. The working of the Spirit
Finally, I wish to say here that any sound theology of the Holy Spirit will be left with a certain remainder, an unaccounted-for surplus, an area of mystery. The cessationist position, at least as I wish to maintain and defend it, is least of all driven by a rationalistic discomfort with the supernatural or a desire to have everything tied up in a nice, tidy little package. The truth of John 3:8a, for instance, has to be respected; the sovereign working of the Spirit, like the wind, is ultimately incalculable.
At the same time, however — and this appears to be an increasing danger in our time — we ought not to embrace a kind of "whimsy of the Spirit," a heightened preoccupation with the unexpected and incalculable and unusual in what he is presently doing in the world. For in his own sovereignty the Spirit has seen fit to circumscribe his activity and to structure what he does today largely according to the patterns revealed in Scripture. Those patterns, not what may take place beyond them, need be and must be our only concern. The truly incalculable in the Spirit's working today ought to remain just that, unexpected and, more importantly, unsought. Conversely, what can be anticipated ceases to that extent to be unpredictable.
It seems to me that this point is being missed by proponents of the view that the New Testament leaves prophecy an open and live, but no more than optional, possibility today. In the New Testament there is nothing optional or merely possible about prophecy. It was a normal and integral part of church order and life. When God's people gathered for worship there was nothing unusual about the occurrence of prophecy; it was an expected element in their worship (e.g., 1 Cor 12-14). For the church today prophecy is either mandatory and therefore ought to be sought (1 Cor 14:39), or it has ceased. To entertain some other, presumably more "moderate" option only confuses the church, with the unhealthy consequences I have already tried to indicate.
The cessationist view is accused — I've heard it often enough — of trying to "put the Spirit in a box." But we must not fail to recognize that for now (that is, in the postapostolic era of the church), until Jesus comes, according to Scripture, the Spirit has sovereignly chosen to "box" himself in. The dimensions of this "box" we may never minimize; they are large and liberating, indeed awesome. But, in the freedom of the Spirit, they are fixed. That was the rediscovery granted especially to the Reformation and led, inevitably, to its two-front stance — against the tradition principle of Rome, on the one hand, against the Radical Reformation with its claims of extrabiblical revelations, on the other. On both fronts it asserted what it saw threatened: the inseparability of word and Spirit (Spiritus cum verbo), the unbreakable bond between the Spirit's working and the inscripturated word.
That struggle is not over; it is in fact perennial and carries the potential for undermining the power of the Reformation today. In the name of the Spirit, some continue to place church tradition on a virtual par with Scripture and others claim new revelations and guidance apart from Scripture. Nothing on a par with Scripture and nothing apart from Scripture — that remains the critical issue. Of that Reformed churches surely owe it to the Lord of the church continually to remind both themselves and those in the charismatic movement.
Currently, Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadephia, PA.
B.A., Calvin College, 1958; B.D., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1961; Th.M., 1962; Th.D., 1969; Graduate studies, Georg-August Universität, Göttingen1962-1963; Westminster, 1965-. He is the author of: The Centrality of the Resurrection [= Resurrection and Redemption]; Perspectives on Pentecost. Calvin and the Sabbath.
Contributor: Jerusalem and Athens; Studying the New Testament Today; The New Testament Student and Theology; The New Testament Student at Work; The Book of Books; New International Version New Testament (editorial committee consultant); Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation; The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (editor); Biblical Principles & Business: The Foundations; Inerrancy and Hermeneutic; Dictionary of Christianity in America; Theonomy: A Reformed Critique; Right with God; The Vitality of Reformed Theology; Dictionary of Paul and His Letters; Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?
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