Thanks for the healthy debate and interaction on the previous post. Obviously, those who believe that miraculous prophecy continues after the apostolic age should not be lumped together with radical movements like the New Apostolic Reformation. Nevertheless, it does provide an occasion to think carefully about the compatibility of Reformation theology with Charismatic emphases. This is especially the case when there have been renewed calls for a “Reformed Charismatic” synthesis in our own circles.
I’ve never been willing to die on the hill of cessationism: that is, the belief that the miraculous gifts such as prophecy, healing, and tongues have ceased. I’m still not. Nevertheless, I am convinced that non-cessationism is neither exegetically sound nor historically compatible with Reformed theology. Furthermore, the surprisingly widespread popularity of more radical views of ongoing sign-gifts, coupled with political ambition, pushes me into the unpleasant position of challenging the views even of far sounder brothers with whom I agree on so many important points.
As a Charismatic Calvinist, Wayne Grudem has been used by God to bring the doctrines of grace to many who would likely not have encountered these truths otherwise. I have immense respect for his clear defense of many cardinal doctrines of Christianity. At the same time, the Calvinism-Charismatic bridge goes in both directions and his view of continuing prophecy has contributed to a curious hybrid that in my view cannot survive in the long run. Reformed theology is a system—not one imposed on Scripture, but one that arises from the self-consistent Word of God.
Mark Driscoll, a student of Grudem’s, has recently claimed to have regular visions of the sinful—usually sexual—behavior of people he encounters. “I see things,” he says, although the gift he describes is nowhere exhibited even in the apostolic era. Also posted on his Mars Hill website is a critique of cessationism as “modernistic worldliness,” lumping this view with deism and atheism. “Functional cessationism is really about the mind, but functional charismatic theology is really about the heart.” He concludes with a plea: “…you Reformed guys, especially you who are more Presbyterian, you tend to ignore the Holy Spirit and attribute everything the Spirit does to the gospel.” Sovereign Grace Ministries, led until recently by C. J. Mahaney, has also followed Grudem’s path toward a synthesis of Calvinistic and Charismatic emphases.
There is much to admire in these men and their labors. I am not targeting these friends and brothers, but pleading with them—and with all of us—to rediscover the ordinary means of grace, ordinary ministry, ordinary offices, and to long for a genuine revival: that is, a surprising blessing of God on his ordinary ministry in our day. The false choice between head and heart, the Spirit and the Word, has been a perennial polemic of the radical wing of Protestantism. Mark Driscoll’s plea above reveals that dangerous separation of the Spirit from his Word. Only by assuming such a cleavage can one argue that Reformed theology ignores the Holy Spirit.
We have had enough “apostles,” “prophets,” and “Moses-model” leaders who build ministries around their own gifts. We need to recover the beauty of Christ alone upon his throne as the Priest-King of his church, exercising his ministry by his Spirit through preaching, sacrament, and discipline in mutually accountable communion with the wider body of Christ. Reformed theology is not just the “five points” and “sovereign grace,” but a rich, full, and systematic confession. It’s a human and therefore fallible attempt to wrestle with the whole counsel of God—in both doctrine and practice, soteriology and ecclesiology. Until we rediscover this richness, “Reformed” will mean “whatever my leader or circle believes.”
Of course, the biblical case that must be made cannot be made well in this brief space. However, I’ll focus on the question of whether the gifts of prophet and apostle have ceased. In Ephesians 4:7-16, the apostle says that offices prophets and apostles as well as pastors, teachers, and evangelists are gifts of his heavenly ascension.
Against both Rome and the radical Anabaptists, the Reformers argued that prophet and apostle are extraordinary offices, for a foundation-laying era. They are sent at key moments in redemptive history, and their writings are added to the canon of Scripture. Like the distinction between a nation’s constitution and its courts, the biblical canon is qualitatively distinct from ecclesiastical interpretation. The former is magisterial (normative), while the latter is ministerial (interpretive).
Particularly in the wake of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, this question has divided Christians into two camps: cessationists (believing that the gifts of healing, prophecy, and tongues have ceased) and non-cessationists. Non-cessationists find no exegetical reason to distinguish some of these gifts and offices from others in terms of their perpetuity. However, cessationists hold that the New Testament itself makes a distinction between the foundation-laying era of the apostles and the era of building the church on their completed foundation (1 Cor 3:10-11). Although the New Testament establishes the offices of pastors/teachers, elders, and deacons, it does not establish perpetual prophetic or apostolic offices with their attendant sign-gifts. With this in mind, we must examine each gift in question.
Paul treats prophecy (prophēteia) as preaching, which although illumined by the Spirit is (unlike the scriptures) un-inspired and therefore must be tested (1 Cor 12:29; 1 Thes 5:19-21). At Pentecost, the gift of tongues was a Spirit-given ability to proclaim the gospel in languages that one had not been taught. The diverse crowd of visitors to Jerusalem for the feast asked, “And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Ac 2:8). We should therefore understand “tongues” as synonymous with natural languages, which some were miraculously gifted to speak and others to interpret. This served not only as a sign that Christ’s universal kingdom has dawned but as a practical way of disseminating the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. None of these gifts was given for the personal edification of believers alone, but for the spread of the gospel and the maturity of the saints in that Word.
Similarly, the gift of healing was a sign that Christ’s kingdom had arrived, bringing a preview of the consummation in all of its fullness at the end of the age. Yet signs always cluster in the Bible around significant turning-points in redemptive history. Like the temporary prophesying of the elders in Moses’ day, the extraordinary gifts of signs and wonders are given to validate the sacred ministry of human ambassadors. Once that ministry is validated, it no longer requires further confirmation. (For an excellent treatment of this topic, see Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost (P & R, 1979), especially 94-95, in relation to Wayne Grudem’s contention that “prophets and apostles” in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11 refer to the same group.) It would seem, then, that the gift of prophets and apostles (along with the gifts of miracles, prophecy, and tongues) was given but fulfilled its foundation-laying function. Just as Paul’s understudy Timothy is an ordinary minister, we find no evidence that his ministry was attended by extraordinary signs and wonders.
Some theologians, such as Wayne Grudem, recognize that the office of apostle has ceased, but are “unsure if this question” of the cessation of spiritual gifts “can be decided from Scripture.” [This and following Gruden quotes from his Systematic Theology, 906-912, 1031; cf. Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament Today (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), 226-252.]
With Grudem I agree that 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, which speaks of prophecies and tongues passing away “when the perfect comes,” is inconclusive. Paul is most likely referring to the consummation, when there will be no need for faith and hope and all that will endure into eternity is love (v 13).
However, I do not find Grudem’s case for continuing prophecy persuasive. He clearly distinguishes prophecy today from the prophecy that delivered the sacred oracles of Holy Scripture. This is both the strength and the weakness of his position. Grudem believes that the kind of prophecy that is ongoing in the church is distinguished from preaching and teaching by being “a spontaneous ‘revelation’ from God….” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1058)
So the distinction is quite clear: if a message is the result of conscious reflection on the text of Scripture, containing interpretation of the text and application to life, then it is (in New Testament terms) a teaching. But if a message is the report of something God brings suddenly to mind, then it is a prophecy. (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1058)
In my view, this interpretation introduces a definition of prophecy that is not consistent with its practice in the apostolic church. Nowhere is prophecy distinguished by its spontaneous quality. Furthermore, in spite of his salutary caution against raising such prophecies to the level of Scripture, this interpretation still raises the question as to whether the Spirit issues new revelations that are not already communicated in Scripture. If prophecy is defined simply as Spirit-given insight into Scripture, then is this not synonymous with preaching?
Today, the Spirit validates this ordinary ministry of the gospel through preaching and sacrament: the signs and wonders that Christ instituted to confirm his Word. If it is true that the apostles understood their work to be an extraordinary ministry of foundation-laying and their miraculous signs as its validation, then “no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ….If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward” (1 Cor 3:11, 14, emphasis added).
While living stones are continually being added to the temple, the edifice itself is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20). As the person and work of the head is distinct from that of its members, the foundation-laying ministry of the apostles is different from the “up-building” ministry of their successors.
Where apostolic preaching became Scripture, our proclamation, faith, and practice stand in continuity with the apostles to the extent that they conform to that rule. To understand Scripture as canon, within its Ancient Near Eastern treaty background, is to recognize that, like the redemptive work to which it testifies, it cannot be revised by addition or subtraction (Dt 4:2; Rev 22:18-19). While interpretations are always subject to change, the constitution has been given once and for all.
Similarly, the canon that witnesses to Jesus is the covenant that he ratified in his self-sacrifice. In its appeal to this canon and its practice of its stipulated rites, the church participates in the heavenly reality as servant rather than Lord of the covenant. Just as Jesus-history is qualitatively distinct from our own, the apostolic canon is qualitatively distinct from the subsequent tradition (or preaching) that interprets it. One is magisterial, the other ministerial. Just as the church does not extend or complete the work of redemption but receives, interprets, and proclaims it, the church does not extent or complete revelation. The interim between Christ’s advents is not an era of writing new chapters in the history of redemption. Rather, it is a period in which the Spirit equips us for the mission between Acts and the Apocalypse—right in the middle of the era of the ordinary ministry with its new covenant canon. Just as the church cannot extend the incarnation or complete Christ’s atoning work, it cannot repeat Pentecost or prolong the extraordinary ministry of the apostles, but must instead receive this same word and Spirit for its ordinary ministry in this time between the times.