Where Have All the Spiritual Gifts Gone?: A Defense of Cessationism

Saturday, 28 Feb 2015

'Apostolic succession' in a personal sense'¦ is a contradiction in terms.

According to the Nicene Creed, the “one holy catholic” church is also “apostolic.” What does that mean? What constitutes the apostolicity of the church? Answering that question biblically is the important first step in the case for the cessation of certain gifts of the Spirit. Here the focus will be on those gifts most contested today’namely, prophecy and tongues.

In the latter half of Ephesians 2 (vv. 11-22), Paul provides as comprehensive an outlook on the New Testament church as anywhere in his writings or, for that matter, the rest of Scripture. To use a favorite biblical metaphor for the church (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-8), the one church composed now of Gentile as well as Jew is the great house-building project that God, the master architect-builder, is at work on in the period between Christ’s exaltation and return. The church is, Paul says, “God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (vv. 19-20).

Two considerations, closely related, are noteworthy in this description. First, the foundation in view is finished; it is a historically completed entity. When a builder knows what he’s doing (as we may assume God does in this instance!), the foundation is poured once at the beginning of the project; it doesn’t need to be repeatedly relaid. The foundation’s completion is followed by the ongoing work of building the superstructure on that foundation until the building’s completion. From our vantage point today, we are in the period of the superstructure; laying the foundation is done, a thing of the past.

This conclusion is reinforced, secondly, by considering exactly how, in this description, the apostles and prophets, along with Christ, are the church’s foundation. For Christ, that plainly consists in his saving work, in who he is as crucified and resurrected: “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11; cf. 15:3-4). But the apostles also belong to the foundation. That is so not because the saving work of Christ is somehow incomplete, but because of their witness’a witness authorized by the exalted Christ himself, which is fully revelatory (e.g., Acts 1:22; Gal. 1:1; Thess. 2:13). This unique redemptive-historical role of the apostles comes to light in Ephesians 2:20. As the revelatory word focuses on redemptive deed’a correlation that marks the history of salvation throughout its unfolding to its consummation in Christ (Heb. 1:1-2a)’the situation is this: the foundational work of Christ, that is, his once-for-all and finished work, is joined with the foundational apostolic witness to that work, likewise once-for-all and finished. Indicated here is the matrix for the eventual emergence of the New Testament canon.

Ephesians 2:20 then points to the temporary, noncontinuing role of the apostles in the life of the church. Their place was in the foundational era of the church’s history. Their function was to provide revelatory, infallibly authoritative, canonical witness to the consummation of salvation history in Christ’s finished work. That function does not belong to the superstructure period to follow, but provides the completed basis on which that superstructure rests, as it continues to be built.

Several lines of New Testament teaching confirm the temporary role of the apostolate: one job prerequisite was to have been an eye and ear witness of Christ prior to his ascension (Acts 1:21-26). In 1 Corinthians 15:7-9 Paul sees this requirement being met in his case by an exception (see 9:1), and along with that, he is the last of the apostles. The Pastoral Epistles are largely concerned with making apostolic preparation for the post-apostolic future of the church beyond. Two of these letters are addressed to Timothy, viewed by Paul as his personal successor more than anyone else in the New Testament. Yet Paul never calls him an apostle. “Apostolic succession” in a personal sense, for the redemptive-historical rationale already noted, is a contradiction in terms. The apostolicity of the church is not secured by an unbroken succession of officeholders that can be traced back to the apostles, but by the uninterrupted possession and maintenance of their witness or tradition (2 Thess. 2:15), inscripturated in the New Testament.

Notice that in the current debate about spiritual gifts, many in the charismatic movement (but probably not most Pentecostals) agree that apostles’in the sense of those who are “first” among the gifts given to the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11), such as the Twelve and Paul’are not present in the church today. In that respect at least, whether or not they care to think of themselves as such, the large majority of today’s charismatics are in fact “cessationists.” Anyone then who recognizes the temporary nature of the apostolate needs to think through, in the light of other New Testament teaching, what further implications this basic cessationist position may carry.

Ephesians 2:20 itself includes one such implication’and an important one at that. Along with the apostles, the prophets have a foundational role. Who are these prophets? Surely not the Old Testament prophets, as some hold. What works against that view is the word order, “apostles and prophets” (not “prophets and apostles”); Paul’s point is not that the foundation is composed of witnesses from the old as well as the new covenant. More importantly, just a few verses later and in almost identical wording, the prophets in view are said to belong to the “now” of the new covenant, in contrast to the “other generations” of past covenant history (3:5).

Nor are the prophets here identical to the apostles (“the apostles who are also prophets”), as some have argued more recently. Because of the syntax of the Greek text of verse 20 and in view of Paul’s next reference to apostles and prophets beyond this context (4:11: “some to be apostles, some to be prophets”), this view is hardly plausible. Ephesians 2:20 points us to conclude that prophecy was a temporary gift for the foundational period of the church and that New Testament prophets, along with the apostles, are no longer a present part of its life.

Prophecy’s Superiority to Tongues

First Corinthians 14 deals with prophecy and tongues in far more detail than any other New Testament passage. As a quick perusal will show, a contrast between prophecy and tongues’like a backbone’structures the entire chapter, beginning in verses 2-3, continuing throughout, and culminating in verse 39. The broad concern of this argumentation is to show the relative superiority or preferability of prophecy to tongues. Prophecy is “greater” because (as speech is intelligible to others) it edifies the church, while tongues (unintelligible to others) do not. The immediate proviso, however, is that tongues when interpreted are on par with prophecy for edifying others (vv. 4-5). Tongues when uninterpreted are eclipsed by prophecy, while interpreted tongues are functionally equivalent to prophecy. A close tie exists between prophecy and tongues. We may even say fairly that tongues, as interpretable and to be interpreted (vv. 13, 27), are a mode of prophecy.

What these two gifts have in common and what makes them contrastable in this way is that both are word gifts. Specifically, both are revelation. Both bring to the church God’s word in the primary, original, nonderivative sense. That prophecy is revelation is explicit in verse 30 and also clear, among other considerations, from the only instances of prophecy existing in the New Testament’those of Agabus (see Acts 11:27-28 and 21:10-11) and the book of Revelation (see 1:1-3).

That tongues are revelation is plain from verses 14-19; they are inspired speech of the most immediate, indeed virtually unmediated kind. In its exercise, the gift completely bypasses the “mind,” in the sense that the intellect of the speaker does not function in the production of what is said. Speech capacity and organs are so taken over by the Holy Spirit that the words spoken are not the speaker’s in any sense. Also, “mysteries” (v. 2), as an indication of their content, confirm this fully revelatory understanding of tongues (as well as the link with prophecy; see 13:2). Elsewhere in the New Testament, at least without any clear exceptions, this word always refers to revelation; more specifically, the redemptive-historical content of revelation (e.g., Matt. 13:11; Rom. 16:25-26; 1 Tim. 3:16).

From those passages that are most pertinent and decisive, then, the basic thread of the argument for the cessation of prophecy and tongues is this: By divine design, apostles and prophets have a temporary role in the church’s history and do not continue beyond its foundational era. The redemptive-historical “specs” of the church-house are such that they are not permanent fixtures (Eph. 2:20), and so neither are tongues, tied, as we have seen they were, to prophecy (1 Cor. 14). They too pass out of the life of the church, along with the passing of the apostles and prophets (and other means of bringing God’s word).

What About 1 Corinthians 13?

Noncessationists on prophecy and tongues feel most secure in their view biblically at 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. For them this is a “gotcha” text that by itself settles the issue. But this passage is not as unambiguous as they believe.

Paul’s primary point is to compare the believer’s present and future knowledge. Present knowledge is partial and obscured (vv. 8-9) in contrast to full “face-to-face” knowledge that will be ours (v. 12), with the arrival of “the perfect” knowledge (v. 10), at Christ’s return. With this accent on the partial quality of our present knowledge, the particular media of that knowledge are incidental. Prophecy and tongues are no doubt singled out given Paul’s pastoral concern, within the wider context (chapters 12-14), with their proper exercise. But the time of their cessation is not a concern he has here. To insist on the contrary from verse 10 is gratuitous. His stress, rather, is on the duration, until Christ returns, of our present, opaque knowledge’by whatever revelatory means that knowledge may come (including, by implication, even inscripturation) and whenever they may cease.

This reading is reinforced in Ephesians 4:11-13, which says that the exalted Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets . . . until we all reach unity in the faith . . . and become mature [or perfect] attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Almost certainly the “unity” or “fullness” of verse 13 is the same state of affairs as “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 (echoed perhaps as well in the use of “perfect” in Eph. 4:13), namely, the situation brought by Christ’s return. On that assumption, Ephesians 4’read as noncessationists insist 1 Corinthians 13 must be read’leaves us with the unavoidable conclusion that there will be apostles, as well as prophets (and tongues), until the Parousia, or second coming of Christ, a conclusion that many (though not all) noncessationists reject.

But how can they do this coherently? In terms of gifts related to the ultimate goal in view, how is this passage any different from 1 Corinthians 13:8ff? Those noncessationists who correctly recognize that there are no apostles today, in the sense of Ephesians 2:20 and 4:11, can’t have it both ways. If these passages teach that prophecy/prophets and tongues continue until the Parousia, then so also do apostles. A sounder reading of both passages is to recognize that whether prophecy or tongues (or any other gift) will cease before the Parousia is not addressed by them but left an open question to be settled from other passages.

A dilemma confronts noncessationists. If prophecy and tongues’as they function in the New Testament’continue today, then the noncessationist is faced with the quite practical and troublesome implication that Scripture alone is not a sufficient verbal revelation from God; the canon is at best relatively closed. Alternatively, if, as most noncessationists insist, “prophecy” and “tongues” today are nonrevelatory or less than fully revelatory, then these contemporary phenomena are misnamed and are something other than the New Testament gifts. Noncessationists are caught in a redemptive-historical anachronism, seeking within the superstructure of the church’s history what belonged to its foundational era. They are involved in the contradictory effort of trying to maintain, along with a closed New Testament canon, the presence of those revelatory gifts that were for the open canon period when the New Testament documents were in the process of being written.

Prophecy and tongues have ceased. What remains’supremely and solely sufficient and authoritative until Jesus comes’is “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:10).

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