NT Prophecy and Tongues Today? An Introduction

Reposted from It Is Written. Read the series.

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.

“Special revelation”

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.

“Scripture-quality”

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

Notes

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.

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.

1032 reads
3711 reads

There are 13 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Solid intro. Looking forward to more. 

Andrew K's picture

I was in the third category ("open but cautious"), until I encountered a good representation of charismatics in various countries overseas, rather than the generally moderate and Reformed-ish American types I was familiar with in the States.

The doctrinal chaos and spiritual abuses I witnessed helped move me into the second category (cessationist). 

TylerR's picture

Editor

The best, short introduction to this important topic from a cessationist point of view (that I've seen) is by Peter Masters and John Whitcomb, entitled, The Charismatic Phenomenon. It's only $3.25 on Kindle. It's shorter and more to the point than MacArthur's two books.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

JMac's books seemed to mix the study goal with the anti-charismatic polemical aim. They go together, but for a large number of us, a good study is enough. 

T Howard's picture

Bob Gonzales wrote:
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.

If they didn't make the canon, they are categorically different writings than NT Scripture. They are not inspired texts and therefore are not guaranteed to be authoritative, infallible, and inerrant.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

We are told that "all Scripture" is God breathed, but we are not told that "all that God breathed is in Scripture." It's true that it must be "categorically different," but which categories? At the least, what God did not choose to include in Scripture for the benefit of all, would be in the "not for everyone" category. But I can't think of any reason off hand why the Spirit could not inspire writings that were were fully authoritative, infallible, and inerrant for a particular audience only at a particular time only.

So in the category of scope, different, but in the category of quality and authority, not different. 

There is some biblical evidence for this. There was a NT gift of prophecy for a while. And in OT times, prophets came and went. We do not have a record of every message these prophets delivered, but in OT times, it was assumed that any genuine prophet spoke infallibly with God's authority. I believe this extends to NT as well. If part of our reasoning for inerrancy is that "God could not speak any other way than infallibly and inerrantly," this would also have to apply to writings/sayings He did not choose to include for all.

So I believe in both OT and NT that utterances or writings were either genuine prophecy -- and 100% infallible and authoritative for their intended audience -- or were false prophecy. (contra Grudem et al.)

T Howard's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

We are told that "all Scripture" is God breathed, but we are not told that "all that God breathed is in Scripture." It's true that it must be "categorically different," but which categories? At the least, what God did not choose to include in Scripture for the benefit of all, would be in the "not for everyone" category. But I can't think of any reason off hand why the Spirit could not inspire writings that were were fully authoritative, infallible, and inerrant for a particular audience only at a particular time only.

So in the category of scope, different, but in the category of quality and authority, not different. 

Not everything an apostle wrote or said was "fully authoritative, infallible, and inerrant." Peter is a perfect example of this. Paul's disagreement with Barnabas over John Mark is another. So, I would argue that we should not assume an apostle's spoken or written words are "fully authoritative, infallible, and inerrant" apart from the imprimatur of the Holy Spirit. And, in the case of Paul's "lost letters," we don't have that imprimatur.

Don Johnson's picture

Paul refers to a former letter in 1 Cor 5.9 which he clarified in this verse. He implies he expected the "former letter" to be understood and obeyed. While it is true that there are examples of errors in the life of Peter and Paul as you note, I wouldn't say that their letters outside of Scripture lacked apostolic authority. However, 1. the extent of their authority is unknown, and 2. the application of their authoritative content is obviously not permanent since they weren't preserved as Scripture.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

T Howard's picture

Don Johnson wrote:
While it is true that there are examples of errors in the life of Peter and Paul as you note, I wouldn't say that their letters outside of Scripture lacked apostolic authority. However, 1. the extent of their authority is unknown, and 2. the application of their authoritative content is obviously not permanent since they weren't preserved as Scripture.

Don, my argument isn't that Paul's "lost letters" lacked apostolic authority. My argument is that his "lost letters" are not "Scripture-quality revelation." They fall into a different category other than Scripture because the church did not recognize them as inspired Scripture.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It comes down to the nature of prophets and prophecy. The OT consistently assumes that prophets knew when they had an inspired message to speak or write and when they didn't. Absent strong evidence to the contrary, I think we have to assume NT prophets knew this as well. In both OT and NT, recipients are expected to test the speaker's claim to prophetic utterance, but there is never any doubt that if the prophet was legit and was truly prophesying, the word was to be received as God breathed.... with all that that implies.

So the word is always authoritative for its intended audience. 

Don Johnson's picture

T Howard wrote:

Don, my argument isn't that Paul's "lost letters" lacked apostolic authority. My argument is that his "lost letters" are not "Scripture-quality revelation." They fall into a different category other than Scripture because the church did not recognize them as inspired Scripture.

I think I agree with that, as long as we don't limit apostolic authority to the Scriptures alone. I am willing to limit it to the 1st C. apostles alone, although perhaps not everything they ever said.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

Paul's rebuke of Peter comes to mind as a clear example of a place where at the very least, Peter's actions lacked apostolic authority, no?  I'm quite content with having a degree of mystery over how God chose the specific letters and documents for the New Testament, and eliminated others.  

It strikes me as well that the major premiss is the kicker here; I'm aware of an argument from verb tense in 1 Cor. 13 that is used by the cessationist side of the argument, and also you've of course got the "if it's special revelation, it is authoritative" reality.  Add to that the reality of some rather strange behaviour among charismatics, and I can at least get to the "I want to be very cautious with this" position, if not a full cessationist position. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

Bert Perry wrote:
It strikes me as well that the major premiss is the kicker here; I'm aware of an argument from verb tense in 1 Cor. 13 that is used by the cessationist side of the argument, and also you've of course got the "if it's special revelation, it is authoritative" reality.  Add to that the reality of some rather strange behaviour among charismatics, and I can at least get to the "I want to be very cautious with this" position, if not a full cessationist position. 

I wouldn't put much stock in the Greek verb argument in 1 Cor 13:8 for cessationism (i.e. middle voice = gift of languages will cease by themselves). I know JMac does, but the verb tense form used in 1 Cor 13:8 doesn't really mean what JMac and others think it means.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.