Spiritual Gifts

Are Tongues for Today? Part 2

Originally published as a single article: “Tongues—Are They for Today?,” DBSJ 14 (2009). Part 1 explained the need for revisiting the tongues issue, defined key terms, and summarized the history of tongues-speaking.

An argument for cessationism

How, then, is this new, more careful continuationist to be answered? There are, after all, many descriptive texts in favor of tonguesspeaking in the NT, and even prescriptive texts that detail the proper practice of tongues in the church. Could it be that the continuationist who allows his experience to skew his exegesis has a counterpart in the cessationist who allows non-experience (or perhaps better, his rationalism) to skew his exegesis?1 Those who argue thusly are not without some warrant, and the cessationist does well to hear them. The dismissal of glossolalia because it is not “normal” to our postenlightenment sensibilities proves too much,2 and certainly cannot substitute for careful theological argumentation. This being said, however, I do believe that a careful theological argument for cessationism can be mustered.

The quest for an elusive proof text

Perhaps the easiest way to argue a point of theology or practice is to cite a concrete text or set of texts that unambiguously affirms the point to be made. Some, in fact, will accept nothing less than such a proof text. For cessationists in this category, 1 Corinthians 13:8–13 reigns as the end-all argument for cessationism. I do allow for the possibility that this passage argues for cessationism in the present age; however, I am also keenly aware that the two interpretations that argue thusly are minority positions that must compete with a formidable alternative interpretation that is held by the majority. To be specific, the point of cessation in this text, viz., the arrival of the “perfect” (v. 10)3 may possibly be the completion of the canon4 or the maturation of the church,5 but more probably refers to the state of affairs that accompanies the revelation of Jesus Christ to the believer either at the point of physical death or at the Second Advent—a revelation that immediately renders all lesser forms of revelation unnecessary. This final view is the majority view among modern commentators and the virtually unanimous understanding of continuationists;6 further, it is the preference of not a few cessationists.7 The latter would argue that the revelatory gifts will finally cease at the revelation of Jesus Christ, but are presently in a state of suspension (as is the case in much of biblical history) due to theological factors other than the message of 1 Corinthians 13.

In short, despite the great furor that surrounds this passage, the argument for cessationism does not rise or fall on the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13 alone. Further, the formidable exegetical case against this “proof text” for cessationism virtually guarantees that this passage alone will not convince skeptics. So while I allow the possibility that this passage might argue for the cessationist position, I am convinced that the more prudent course of action for the cessationist is to pursue a more robustly exegetical-theological argument for cessationism. This concession will no doubt scandalize some, but broad appeal to the analogy of faith instead of a single text does not, in my opinion, weaken the cessationist argument; instead, it deepens and strengthens it.

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Are Tongues for Today? Part 1

Originally published as a single article: “Tongues—Are They for Today?,” DBSJ 14 (2009).

Why revisit the subject of tongues?

On March 7, 2009, David Wilkerson, a seasoned “prophet” from New York City, issued a warning that shook his readers: “An earth-shattering calamity is about to happen…. It will engulf the whole [New York City] megaplex, including areas of New Jersey and Connecticut. Major cities all across America will experience riots and blazing fires.” Though Wilkerson was able to give few details about this impending conflagration other than “I know it is not far off,” he was able to provide some advice for his readers, including “laying in store a thirty-day supply of non-perishable food, toiletries and other essentials.”1

Most of those who were aware of this “prophecy” reacted to it with more amusement than alarm, but a few bloggers responded to Wilkerson’s doomsaying remarks in an effort to calm the panicked naïve among their readership. It seems that the previously simple task of answering this kind of alarmism, however, has been rendered increasingly complex by an uptick in sympathy for prophecy and tongues in conservative evangelicalism today. Simple denunciation of such foolishness is apparently no longer acceptable in today’s “open but cautious” evangelical milieu.2 Instead it would seem that one is now obliged to give Wilkerson a hearing and remain cautiously open to the possibility that his prophecy might be accurate. John Piper, for instance, cautiously proposes that Wilkerson’s prophecy “does not resonate with my spirit…. God might have said this. But it doesn’t smell authentic to me.”3 Somehow, I am not reassured.

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