Perhaps one of the most debated topics among modern Christians is the subject of New Testament (NT) prophecy and tongues. Many believers in our day are raising the question, “Are the New Testament gifts of prophecy and tongues still for today?” This isn’t just a modern question. It’s been raised from time to time throughout the history of the church.
In the early church there were different responses to that question. For example, the early church fathers Irenaeus (c. 130-200) and Tertullian (c. 150-212) both refer to ongoing manifestations of prophecy and tongues in their day (i.e., 2nd and 3rd century). On the other hand, both Chrysostom (c. 350-407) and Augustine (354-430) argue that the gift of tongues had ceased by their time (i.e., 4th and 5th century).
During the Protestant Reformation various Anabaptist sects claimed to be recipients of direct revelation. Luther and Calvin were skeptical of these claims. In general the Reformers seem to argue for the cessation of extra-ordinary gifts. But there are inconsistencies in their writings. For example, in his commentary on Ephesians 4:11, Calvin argues that the offices of apostle, prophet, and evangelist have ceased, and only the offices of pastor and teacher are perpetual.1 In his Institutes, however, Calvin suggests that the Lord “now and again revives them as the need of the times demand.”2
A more thorough and consistent answer to the question of prophecy and tongues did not develop until the modern era. It was not until the emergence of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements that more definitive and clear positions were taken.
Three Basic Positions
There are basically three positions that are held among Bible-believing Christians in modern times.3
The Continuationist (Non-cessationist) Position
This view argues that all (or nearly all) the NT gifts of the Holy Spirit are for today, including the gift of prophecy and tongues.4 Modern representatives would include Pentecostals, Charismatics, and the Third Wave movement. There are also a number of ministries emerging that are reformed in their soteriology but charismatic in their pneumatology.5
The Cessationist Position
The cessationist view argues that the NT miraculous gifts were revelatory and therefore, they belonged to the foundational stage of church history. Since that stage has been completed and since canonical-level revelation has ceased, the NT revelatory gifts are not for today. Both Dispensational and also Reformed theologians defend this position. The Westminster Confession (WCF) and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (2LBCF) appear to adopt or at least to favor this position6 though some debate whether these confessions actually take a clear and definitive position.7 Whatever the position of the Reformed confessions, there have been and are Reformed Christians who have been open to the possibility that God could revive some of the extraordinary gifts in unique situations, which leads to a third, mediating position.
The Open but Cautious Position
Those who hold to this position are open to the possibility of miraculous gifts today (perhaps as a precursor to the Second Coming of Christ). They are cautious, however, and often skeptical about many modern claims of miraculous gifts. For example, Martin Lloyd-Jones, a Reformed pastor and commentator, said of the extraordinary gifts, “In the sovereignty of the Spirit, [God] can give any one of these gifts at any time; we must therefore be open. But we must also always be cautious and careful.”8 This may be the most prevalent view among mainline evangelicals today.
I plan to argue for the cessationist position, and I’d like to frame my argument for the cessation of NT prophecy and tongues in the form of a syllogism:
Major Premise: All Scripture-quality special revelation has been completed and has, therefore, ceased.
Minor Premise: NT prophecy and tongues are forms of Scripture-quality special revelation.
Conclusion: Therefore, tongues and prophecy have ceased.
Defining the Terms and Setting the Tone
Before I attempt to develop this argument, I’ll need to (1) define some of the terminology and (2) set the tone for the spirit of the argument.
Bible scholars and theologians commonly distinguish general revelation and special revelation. In general revelation, God reveals himself to humanity through creation (Ps 19:1-6; Rom 1:18-21), providence (Acts 14:16-17; 17:24-28), and the human conscience (Acts 28:4; Rom 1:32; 2:12-15).9 In special revelation, God reveals himself through special means, including theophanies and audible speech (Gen 1:28-29; 2:16-17; Deut 4:12, 33), special symbols or sacraments (e.g.s., tree of knowledge and tree of life, rainbow, circumcision, sacrifices, the tabernacle and temple, baptism and the Lord’s Supper; etc.), miracles (e.g.s., the signs and wonders associated with the Exodus and with Christ’s ministry), dreams and visions (Jacob; Joseph; Pharaoh; Peter; etc.), prophetic messages (Moses the Prophet, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, etc.), and Scripture.
One the one hand, both general and special revelation are equally authoritative. God speaks with the same level of authority through creation or through conscience as when God speaks through a theophany or through Scripture.
On the other hand, Special revelation is clearer and more specific than general revelation. General revelation is clear enough to reveal that there is a God who’s created the world and who’s powerful, holy, wise, just, good, and truthful. It’s clear enough to reveal that all humans as images of their Creator are obligated to reflect him ethically. Our conscience tells us that we’re to be holy as God is holy. But general revelation does not reveal God’s attributes and God’s law as clearly and with the same amount of details as special revelation.
Moreover, general revelation can convict us of our sinfulness and alienation from our Creator. But it cannot show us the way of salvation. We need God to reveal himself to us in special ways that are clearer and more specific than creation, providence, and conscience if we would be saved. Accordingly, the greater clarity and specificity of special revelation give it a priority over general revelation. Both are God’s word. Both are equally authoritative. But special revelation tells us who God is and what he requires with greater clarity and detail. Hence, its authority for us is relatively superior to general revelation.
Not all special revelation has been inscripturated. For instance, Jesus taught many things and performed many miracles that weren’t recorded in the Gospels (John 20:30-31; 21:25). But these non-inscripturated teachings and miracles of Christ are of the same quality of revelation as those recorded in Scripture. Likewise, the apostle Paul expected the churches he founded and cared for to submit to his apostolic teaching or tradition whether it came to them orally or in the form of writing (2 Thess 2:15). It’s even likely that some of Paul’s apostolic letters never made it into the NT canon (1 Cor. 5:9; Col. 4:16). But that fact doesn’t require us to place them into a different category of revelation from Scripture. By Scripture-quality revelation, we’re referring to revelation that is by its nature divinely authoritative, infallible, and inerrant.
“Ceased” (i.e., the cessation of special revelation)
The claim that special revelation has ceased calls for immediate clarification. After all, does not God still reveal Himself to men? If so, is it really biblical to speak of the cessation of special revelation?
I believe it is biblical and even necessary to speak of the cessation of special revelation provided that we clarify what is meant. Negatively, the “cessation of special revelation” does not mean God has ceased to reveal Himself to men. Not only does God continue to reveal Himself to men through creation, providence, and conscience, but He also continues to reveal himself through Scripture (Ps. 19:7; Heb. 4:12). And so, God still reveals Himself through special revelation.10
In what way, then, has special revelation ceased? Positively, by the “cessation of special revelation,” we are arguing that the process whereby God imparts new revelation has ceased. In other words, God has said everything He needs to say for the salvation of sinners and for the good of the church, and therefore, we should not expect any new revelations from God until Jesus Christ returns.
Technically, then, we might speak of the cessation of “pre-parousia” special revelation. Pre-parousia refers to that period of time before Christ’s Second Coming. Stated as a formal proposition, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the final form and goal of pre-parousia redemptive revelation. Therefore, with the completion of Scripture pre-parousia special revelation has ceased.
The Tone of the Argument
I do want to make clear at the outset that the question of tongues and prophecy is not a simple issue. There’s not one conclusive proof-text, to my knowledge, that settles the issue for any position. The advocates of each position appeal to Scripture and advance theological arguments for their viewpoint. Nevertheless, I do believe the weight of biblical evidence tips the scales toward the cessationist position. Hence, by God’s grace I shall argue for the cessationist position in a spirit of grace and humility, acknowledging that there are good men representing each of these positions.11
1 Calvin’s New Testament Commentary, vol. 11, ed. David Torrance and Thomas Torrance (Eerdmans, 1965), 179-80.
2 The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Westminster Press, 1960), IV, 3.4.
3 For historical surveys, see Victor Budgen, Charismatics and the Word of God, 2nd ed. (Evangelical Press, 1989), and Benjamin B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles (1918; reprint, Banner of Truth, 1995).
4 For a summary of the varying positions among evangelical continuationists, see Wayne Grudem, ed., Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? Four Views (Zondervan, 1996), 10-13.
5 These would include many of the so-called “New Calvinists,” such as John Piper, C. J. Mahaney, and Mark Driscoll. Mahaney is actually part of a denomination formerly called PDI or “People of Destiny International” and now called Sovereign Grace Ministries that requires its ministers to affirm a Reformed soteriology and continuationist pneumatology. One can find more information about Sovereign Grace Ministries here: http://www.sovereigngraceministries.org/.
6 Compare the following references in the 2LBCF: 1.1, 6, 10; 8.8; 10.1; 18.3; 22.1. See also the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America’s position paper entitled, “Revelatory Gifts in the Present Day,” which is available on ARBCA’s website: http://www.arbca.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=71&Ite….
7 See Dean R. Smith, “The Scottish Presbyterians and Covenanters: A Continuationist Experience in a Cessationist Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (Spring 2001), 39-63; Byron Curtis, “‘Private Spirits’ in The Westminster Confession of Faith § 1.10 and in Catholic-Protestant Debate (1588-1652),” Westminster Theological Journal 58 (Fall 1996), 256-67; Garnet H. Milne, “‘Private Spirits’ in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in Protestant-Catholic Debates: A Response to Byron Curtis,” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (Spring 1999), 102-11. Milne recently published his dissertation in which he concludes that the framers of the WCF intended to affirm a cessationist view of special revelation with some qualification: “The Westminster divines intended the cessationist clause to affirm that there was to be no more extra-biblical, ‘immediate’ revelation for any purpose now that the church possessed the completed Scriptures…. At the same time the divines did not intend to deny that God could still speak through special providences that might involve dreams or the ministry of angels, for example, but such revelation was always to be considered ‘mediate.’ The primary means was held to be the written Scriptures, illuminated by the Holy Spirit. The unity of the Word and Spirit was maintained, and God’s freedom to address individual circumstances remained intact.” The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Cessation of Special Revelation: The Majority Puritan Viewpoint on Whether Extra-Biblical Prophecy is Still Possible (Wipf & Stock, 2007), xvi-xvii.
8 Cited by Iain Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith (Banner of Truth, 1990), 487.
9 The scope of general revelation is universal, and the content of general revelation is God’s divine nature and his moral law. General revelation is sufficient to leave all men without excuse (Rom 1:18) but it’s not sufficient to reveal the way of salvation. Like an X-Ray machine, general revelation can reveal the problem, but it cannot provide the remedy.
10 I would also affirm that the Holy Spirit is still at work convicting hearts of sin (John 16:8), illuminating minds to understand God’s word (1 Cor. 2:12-15), bearing witness to our spirits that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16), granting the ability to make wise decisions based on the light of nature and principles of Scripture (James 1:5), interceding for us (Rom. 8:26-27), sanctifying us (Gal. 5:22-24; Eph. 5:18ff.), and enduing God’s people with boldness to speak the truth with love (Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 13:9-11). Moreover, I affirm the supernatural and God’s ongoing prerogative and freedom to perform miracles today.
11 When teaching this series in an adult Sunday School class, I placed framed photographs of three continuationists (or open-but-cautious) brothers whom I deeply respect and whose ministries have impacted my life–D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, John Piper, and a missionary friend–on the podium so that they were visible to me and to my audience. I wanted to present the case for cessation as if these esteemed men who are not cessationists were present.
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 Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.