Every theological system has flaws in it. Systems of theology are man-made efforts to understand, organize, and explain the divine. As such they will always be prone to incompleteness or error. This is important to keep in mind as one approaches the study of the Spiritual Gifts. Each of the four dominant views was introduced last week, and some general highlights of their strengths was made. This week, however, I want to humbly admit that no single view perfectly captures all that Scripture teaches regarding the spiritual gifts. They have their own weaknesses. Each view is weak in its own way.
The four dominant views introduced last week run a spectrum from complete termination of the miraculous gifts, to full and identical continuance of the gifts. Each view emphasizes a certain doctrinal point and as such it has some great strength. So, the Cessationist view emphasizes the authority and sufficiency of Scripture as God’s Holy Word. Advocates of this view make special effort to remind others that the canon of Scripture is closed. At the same time, the Pentecostal view demonstrates that if we do not allow the Scriptures themselves to formulate our experience of the Spirit then we will impose a false standard on the Bible. The Scriptures reveal that believers experience the power of the Spirit of God in dramatic and somewhat specific ways. Their commitment to let the Word dictate our expectations is to be commended. In between these views we have nuanced expressions that tend toward one or the other of the ends. Each emphasizing a doctrinal truth that we want to heed. Yet, none of these views is without weaknesses. So, we want to take some time to consider the major issues in each view.
The Cessationist view, for all its commitment to Scripture, doesn’t actually have an agreed upon textual proof for the cessation of the spiritual gifts. If you ask for a book, chapter, verse reference for their theological conclusion you will find none. There are, of course, larger theological arguments, and arguments drawn from inductive reasoning which advocates will point to. Yet there is no textual argument. Some, over the years, have suggested that 1 Corinthians 13 actually articulates that once Scripture is completed then the miraculous gifts will cease. Yet, that is not what the text says. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul states:
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Some scholars from years past have interpreted the “perfect” in verse 10 to mean Scripture, but that is not what the text says nor does it seem to do the most justice to the context. For, clearly Paul’s reference in verses 12 is to the Day of the Lord. We are “fully known” and shall “know fully” when we see Christ “face to face.” The text says nothing about the completion of the canon. This interpretation has long since been abandoned by knowledgeable scholars.
A second shortcoming with the Cessationist view is the supposed symmetry of the revelatory or word gifts with the canon. The logic of the argument flows this way: if the canon is closed there can be no further revelatory or word gifts. Or, in reverse, if there are revelatory or word gifts then the canon is not complete. Such a view is inconsistent, however, with the Scriptures themselves which predict future revelation through prophets in the last days. What do we do, for example, then with the two witnesses of Revelation 11? In conjunction with this point, we might also wonder what of all the prophecies made under the Old Covenant which did not make into the Scriptures. These were not canonical, but this does not mean that they were any less revelatory gifts from God. In Acts 15 and 21 we read that individuals prophesied, and in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Thessalonians 5 we know that prophesy was taking place. But none of these prophetic words are included for us to read. They were not canonical, yet still prophetic.
There’s no doubt that the continuance of prophetic gifts creates interesting challenges. After all, the canon is closed. One must, then, come to some understanding of the relationship between prophetic utterances and the holy, inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God in Scripture. In an effort to maintain the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, however, we should not overlook what Scripture actually says. I fear that some in the Cessationist camp do just that. Instead of wrestling with the relationship between the gifts and the Word, they have simply erased the relationship all together.
There are, to be sure, very good arguments for a Cessationist position. Arguments about the uniqueness of the era of the Apostles, and on the function of the miraculous gifts in the early church are challenging and worth confronting. Yet, like all the views, this one has its weaknesses. I find its lack of blatant textual support a major shortcoming, and I find it’s intertwining of prophecy and canon problematic. It is no doubt that the position’s strongest doctrinal point is the authority of the Word of God, and yet on this point we find that the view has major holes. Attempts to address those holes have been, in my opinion, significantly wanting.
There is much to commend in the Cessationist view. Scholars, pastors, and Christians who affirm it have a high view of Scripture and are dear brothers and sisters. Yet, like all theological systems it has weaknesses, and it is those weaknesses that necessitate further discussion about the Spiritual Gifts.