The Canon Is Closed: The Cessation of Special Revelation

Read Part 1.

I believe the gifts of NT prophecy and tongues served an important but provisional role in the founding of the New Covenant community. To establish this thesis I will need to demonstrate two premises: First, scripture-quality revelation has ceased. Second, NT prophecy and tongues are forms of scripture-quality revelation. The first premise, which is the focus of this post, is (generally) affirmed by all parties. This fact is critical in that it clarifies the real point of the debate and helps us to avoid mischaracterizations.1

Major Premise: The Canon Is Closed

Special revelation reaches its ultimate historical goal in the apostolic witness to the person, words, and work of Jesus Christ. And this inspired apostolic witness reaches its final covenantal form in the canonical writings of the New Testament. Since special revelation has reached its ultimate goal and final form, the church should not expect any more scripture-quality revelation until the bodily return of Christ. I develop this argument with some detail in my three-part lecture series “The Necessity of Scripture.”2

This has been the historical position of the Christian church, both Catholic and Protestant. For the past twenty one centuries, the church has recognized no inspired writings later than those of the apostolic period.3 Only cults like the Mormon Church and a few radical Pentecostal groups argue for an “open canon.” In fact, nearly all Pentecostals and Charismatics believe the canon of Scripture is closed.4 For example, Wayne Grudem, a leading exponent of the continuationist position, is unambiguous in his support for the cessation of scripture-quality revelation:

The New Testament writings contain the final, authoritative, and sufficient interpretation of Christ’s work of redemption. The apostles and their close companions report Christ’s words and deeds and interpret them with absolute divine authority. When they have finished their writing, there is no more to be added with the same absolute divine authority. Thus, once the writings of the New Testament apostles and their authorized companions are completed, we have in written form the final record of everything that God wants us to know about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and its meaning for the lives of believers for all time. Since this is God’s greatest revelation for mankind, no more is to be expected once this is complete. In this way, then, Hebrews 1:1-2 shows us why no more writings can be added to the Bible after the time of the New Testament. The canon is now closed.5

Grudem’s affirmation of the cessation of Scripture-quality revelation is important for the following reasons:

Clarifying the Point of Debate

The real issue for evangelicals is not whether scripture-quality revelation has ceased. With respect to the canon, all evangelicals are cessationists! The point of debate is whether the miraculous gifts of NT prophecy and tongues are forms of scripture-quality special revelation.

Grudem argues that the revelation of Scripture falls in a different category of revelation than that of NT prophecy and tongues. Therefore, Grudem and those who share his perspective argue for the cessation of scripture-quality revelation on the one hand and the continuation of NT prophecy and tongues on the other. Thus, the debate over NT prophecy and tongues hinges on the nature of these modes of revelation.

Avoiding Misrepresentation

Sometimes cessationists portray all continuationists as if they have a low view of Scripture and disregard its authority. In some cases, there has been warrant for this concern. In the preface to his book entitled, The Spirit Bade Me Go, David du Plessis, former secretary of the World Conference of Pentecostal Churches, makes the following astounding claims:

This book really “just happened.” Most of the material came from talks and lectures given without script or notes as the Holy Spirit gave or manifested the Word. These messages were tape-recorded and afterwards transcribed. In a sense, it was my privilege to edit and prepare for publication in this form those revelations that I received from [the Spirit] while ministering in councils, institutions, and churches.

On numerous occasions … friends have been pleading with me to put into print the things I have said, or rather those things that the Holy Ghost has said through me. To attempt to write about these things would not be quite the same as quoting more directly the utterances made under the unction of the Spirit.6

Du Plessis seems to place his utterances on a level with divine canonical revelation. A little later, he cites Jesus’s promise to the apostles and applies it to himself: “But when they shall lead you … take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.”7

Statements like those of du Plessis make cessationists wary of people who advocate the ongoing gift of prophecy. There are Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers, however, who have a high view of Scripture and treat the Bible as their supreme authority in faith and practice. Donald Gee, an Assembly of God theologian, exhibits a cautious view towards the gifts as well as a high view of Scripture when he writes,

[There are] grave problems raised by the habit of giving and receiving personal ‘messages’ of guidance through the gifts of the Spirit…. Many of our errors where spiritual gifts are concerned arise when we want the extraordinary and exceptional to be made the frequent and habitual. Let all who develop excessive desire for ‘messages’ through the gifts take warning from the wreckage of past generations as well as of contemporaries …. The Holy Scriptures are a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.8

Therefore, those of us who disagree with our continuationist brothers must strive to be fair and gracious in the way we represent them. The Bible itself forbids us to “bear false witness against our neighbor” (Exod. 20:16; Eph. 4:31; Jas. 4:11). For this reason, I have attempted to highlight the various shades of difference among continuationists in the following table:

As the table above illustrates, there are various shades or degrees of difference among continuationists. The more radical continuationists, like the Mormons or the Apostolic Christian Church of America, not only affirm ongoing manifestations of NT prophecy and tongues but also believe in ongoing canonical revelation. They would argue that there are still living Apostles today who are still receiving direct, inspired scripture-quality revelation from God. The Mormon Church has even added certain books to the canon of Scripture.

Second, there are “inconsistent” continuationists. These are Pentecostals or Charismatics who sometimes speak as if the canon is closed and sometimes as if God is still giving fully inspired revelation. For example, W. R. Jones calls NT prophecy “a supernatural utterance,” which has “no connection with human thought, reasoning, and intellect.” In other words, he seems to regard the very utterance as a form of divine revelation. Yet, Jones goes on to say that NT prophecy is “not to take the place of the Written Word of God.”9 But if God superintends both the thought and the utterance of NT prophecy, how does that revelation differ in quality from the revelation we find in Scripture? The distinction between NT prophecy and scripture-quality revelation is, in this case, blurred.

But as the third column in our diagram illustrates, there are continuationists today, like Grudem, who do seek to maintain a consistent distinction between the canonical revelation of Scripture and what they see as the non-canonical revelation of tongues and prophecy. In their view, scripture-quality revelation is infallible and supremely authoritative because the Holy Spirit not only superintends the thoughts but also the utterance of the human recipient/agent of revelation. In the case of NT tongues and prophecy, however, God does not necessarily superintend the NT prophet’s utterance. Hence, NT prophecy and tongues are not infallible and are subordinate to Scripture in the life of the church and the believer.

Finally, there is the position of many evangelicals and some reformed Christians who are “open but cautious” about the question of tongues and prophecy. These believers are firmly committed to the cessation of Scripture. They are open to the possibility that God may confer the gifts of NT prophecy and tongues today. Yet, they are to varying degrees skeptical about many of the contemporary claims for NT prophecy and tongues. Moreover, many in the open-but-cautious camp do not believe the church should view the manifestation of these gifts as the norm. The Holy Spirit normally reveals divine truth and edifies the church through Scripture. God might employ the gifts of NT prophecy and/or tongues on special occasions and in unique circumstances (e.g., conferring the gift of tongues on the missionfield to reach a people whose language the missionary has not yet learned).

Application

The point in recognizing these various distinctions is to avoid the sin of misrepresentation. I do not appreciate it when a charismatic brother portrays me as someone who denies the supernatural and depreciates the work of the Holy Spirit because that is not true. I do believe in the supernatural, and I do not want to make light of the Holy Spirit. In this respect, I want to be fairly represented.

May God help us to treat our continuationist brothers, as we would want them to treat us (Matt. 7:12)!

Notes

1 For Part 1 of this series click the following link: https://sharperiron.org/article/nt-prophecy-and-tongues-today-introduction.

2 The doctrine of “the necessity of Scripture” construes the Bible as the exclusive source of redemptive revelation based on the inadequacy of general revelation and on the cessation of other modes of special revelation. My lectures on this topic are featured here: http://rbseminary.org/featured/2018/6/17/bob-gonzales-on-the-necessity-o….

3 For a survey of the historical development and recognition of the canon, see F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988). Michael Kruger provides a theological argument for the closure and recognition of the canon. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

4 Some Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians are inconsistent. On the one hand, they hold that the canon of Scripture is closed. On the other hand, they fail to make a clear distinction between the canonical revelation of Scripture and the less-than-canonical revelation of tongues and prophecy. I shall argue below that such a distinction does not exist in Scripture. Thus, their inconsistency suggests a problem with their continuationist position.

5 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 64.

6 The Spirit Bade Me Go, Faith & Power Series (1970; repr. Bride Logos, 2009), xvii.

7 Emphasis his. The Spirit Bid Me Go, 10-11.

8 Spiritual Gifts in the Work of Ministry Today (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1963), 51-52.

9 From Jones’s essay “Nine Gifts of the Holy Spirit,” in P. S. Brewster, Pentecostal Doctrine (Grenehurst Press, 1976), 58, cited in James Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical & Evangelical, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 215.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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G. N. Barkman's picture

Dr. Gonzales present a very useful analysis of this controversial subject.

G. N. Barkman

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