Has the Spirit ceased giving authoritative revelation? If so, are apparent instances of modern-day prophecy and tongues spurious? Would the ending of the Spirit’s work in granting authoritative revelation mean that God has ceased guiding His people as well? Or is it possible to affirm the genuine existence of extraordinary gifts and the leading of the Spirit from a cessationist perspective?
The purpose of this paper is to argue that there is a way to affirm both that revelation has ceased and that the Spirit remains active in modern-day instances of extraordinary gifts and guidance. The cessation of revelation (and the consequent doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture), however, provide the framework within which we are to understand these continuing works of the Spirit.
We will proceed in four steps. First, we will make the case that the giving of authoritative revelation has ceased. Second, we set forth what it means to accept the Scriptures as the sufficient and final authoritative revelation of God. Third, we will explore the implications of these first two points for understanding what appear to be modern-day instances of revelatory acts of the Spirit. Fourth, we will seek to apply this framework to the specific instances of the leading of the Spirit in personal guidance and Scriptural interpretation—the two main areas in which His modern-day ministry is most often understood in a way that rivals the important doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.
Authoritative Revelation Has Ceased
There were three main avenues of revelation in the New Testament era—the apostolate, prophecy, and tongues. Therefore, to make our case that authoritative revelation has ceased, we will seek to demonstrate that apostleship, prophecy, and tongues ceased in the early church and are no longer operational today.
Apostleship Has Ceased
The term “apostle” can be used in a loose sense and strict sense. In the loose sense, it simply means “messenger.” The New Testament only uses apostolos in this sense on three occasions (John 13:16; Philippians 2:25; and 2 Corinthians 8:23). By far, then, the New Testament’s primarily use of the term is in its strict sense of designating those who held the office of apostle—that is, those who had been commissioned to serve as representatives of Christ (Matthew 10:2; Mark 6:30; Acts 1:2; Acts 1:26; Galatians 1:19; etc.) and were given unique authority over the church (2 Corinthians 10:8; 13:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:6), including the ability at times to speak on behalf of God and Christ (2 Peter 3:2; 1 Corinthians 14:37; 2 Corinthians 13:3; cf. Acts 5:2-4).
There are two main reasons for concluding that the office of apostle has ceased. First, the qualifications can no longer be met today. Second, there are passages of Scripture which expressly imply that the gift of apostleship would not continue.
The qualifications cannot be met today. The first qualification for being an apostle is to have seen the risen Christ. Paul connects this qualification with apostleship in 1 Corinthians 9:1-2: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” Further, when the eleven disciples were looking to replace Judas, they stated: “So one of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these men must become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22). It wasn’t just anyone who could be an apostle. The person had to have had personal contact with Christ—the resurrected Christ.
One of the reasons Paul’s apostleship was doubted by some was that he did not personally walk with Jesus during Jesus’ earthly life. Paul defended his apostleship, therefore, not by dismissing the importance of personal contact with Christ, but by pointing out that the resurrected Christ personally appeared to Him (1 Corinthians 15:8-9; 9:1-2), thereby qualifying him to be a witness of the resurrection. The need to have seen Christ was not set aside even for Paul, who had not personally followed Christ during his earthly ministry.
The second qualification for being an apostle is to have been specifically appointed as such by Christ. Jesus hand-picked the twelve disciples while on earth (Mark 3:4; Luke 6:13), and when the disciples needed to replace Judas they sought for God to “show which one of these Thou hast chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside” (Acts 1:24-25). Likewise, in the account of Paul’s conversion, we see Christ commissioning him as an apostle (Acts 26:15-18). 
With these two qualifications in mind, we are equipped to answer the question of whether the office of apostle continues today. For we see from these things that if we are going to hold that the office of apostle continues today, we must also hold that Christ continues making appearances today—not simply in visions, but in person. Further, we would also have to hold that Christ is active appointing such individuals as authorities over the church. There are no good indications that these things are happening today.
In fact, there are biblical reasons to conclude that this simply will not happen today. In 1 Corinthians 15:8 Paul says that Christ appeared to him “last of all.” The “last of all” seems to be best interpreted not to mean that Paul was simply stating this appearance last in his list, but rather to mean that he is the last one who would personally see the risen Christ. To say that something that happened to you was “last of all” is to say that it will not happen again for anyone else. This would mean, then, that the appearances of the resurrected Christ are completed (cf. 1 Peter 1:8).
Further, the nature of Paul’s discussion seems to take for granted that the appearances of the risen Christ were limited to the 40 day period after the resurrection in which the other apostles and the 500 saw him, and that the appearance to appoint Paul as an apostle after this was an irregular exception. Therefore, we should not expect Christ to continue appearing to other people, and therefore we should not expect more apostles.
The ending of the apostolic office is confirmed by recognizing that the apostles appointed elders, not more apostles, to oversee the church as it grew and their deaths became immanent (Acts 20; Titus 1:5). While we are to be submissive to elders, there is no indication that they have the same level of authority as apostles (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:6). Apostles had a “supreme” form of authority as representatives of the risen Christ; elders have a derivative form of authority—their leadership over the local church possess authority insofar as it accords with the teaching of the apostles and the role the apostles gave them. The office of apostle ceased, and now the church is to be led by elders and at a local level, not by apostles and at a universal level.
Express passages that apostleship would not continue. There are at least three passages which seem to directly imply that the gift of apostle has ceased. First, in Ephesians 2:20 we read that the church has been built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” The foundation is built and completed at the beginning of a structure so that everything else can be built upon it. The church today is thus built upon the finished work of the apostles. Since the apostolic office is part of the foundation, the implication is that apostleship is not an ongoing office—just as the laying of the cornerstone through the earthly work of Christ is not ongoing.
Second, it is noteworthy that Jude 17-18 seems to refer to the apostolic era as largely past, although that is not certain. Third, Revelation 21:14 seems to limit the number of the apostles: “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Although there is evidence in Acts and the epistles that there did come to be more than twelve apostles[14, this text nonetheless indicates that we should view the apostles as a restricted, select group—not as a group that would continue growing indefinitely throughout history. In the same way, the analogous “twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” were also a limited, definitive, once-for-all number (21:12).
Prophecy Has Ceased
Just as there are two possible uses of the term “apostle,” so also some have argued that there are two types of prophecy in the New Testament—that which is infallible, and that which is fallible. Both forms have in common, however, the proclamation of supernatural revelation. Although the discussion of these two types of prophecy will enter into our discussion later, it need not detain us here. Our current purpose is simply to demonstrate that authoritative (that is, infallible) prophecy has ceased, and then later ask the question of what to think of the notion of a lesser form of prophecy proposed by some. There are several reasons for concluding that prophecy, in this authoritative sense, has ceased.
The cessation of apostleship implies the cessation of prophecy. Edgar rightly points out that “anyone who believes that apostles were present only in the early church has already admitted that at least one gift has cease.” Therefore, the cessation of apostleship, which nearly all admit, necessarily implies a uniqueness to the early phase of the church. Thus, we have a prima facie reason to conclude that the Spirit “is not distributing gifts in the same way as in the early church.” The exact way in which the work of the Spirit differs cannot be inferred from the cessation of apostleship alone, but the hint is, at the very least, that there has been a change in the way authority is conveyed (since the main distinctive of the apostolic office was authority). The suggestion is that we should no longer look for ongoing authoritative communication (since the apostles who were the main spokesmen for the Risen Christ died and were not replaced), but that instead we should look to their writings as the continuing voice of Christ.
This points in the direction, then, that authoritative prophecy ceased with the apostolic era. Gaffin points out the apparent incoherence of holding that apostleship has ceased but prophecy has not:
Is it coherent exegetically and theologically to maintain, on the one hand, the cessation of the revelatory word gift of apostleship . . . and, on the other, the continuation of the prophetic gifts? Would not such continuation take us back to the open canon situation of the early church, and do so without the control of a living apostolate?
Ephesians 2:20. We discussed Ephesians 2:20 above in regard to the apostles. Since the text speaks of prophets as well as apostles as the foundation upon which the church is built as well, then we must conclude that this text teaches the ending of prophecy for the same reasons that it teaches the ending of apostleship. There are, however, two objections that can be brought up.
First, couldn’t the text have in view New Testament apostles but Old Testament prophets? At first, this seems very likely. However, this possibility is ruled out by Ephesians 3:5, where Paul uses the same phrase (apostles and prophets) in a way that clearly has New Testament prophets in view: “The mystery of Christ . . . was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” The mystery of Christ has now been revealed to the apostles and prophets in a way that it had not been revealed in times past. The prophets in view, then, must be those of the New Testament era.
Second, since there is only one definite article used to cover the words apostles and prophets, is it possible that we should take this phrase as a joint expression describing the apostles (i.e., they are “apostle-prophets”), rather than as treating the apostles and prophets as two distinct groups? This option is highly unlikely, for in Ephesians 4:11 Paul lists apostles and prophets in a way that indicates they are two distinct groups. Gaffin notes the relevance of this:
Inasmuch as this verse is part of the same larger unity (2:11—4:16) in which Paul is discussing the whole church and its composition as the “new creation” body of Christ, it is highly unlikely that without any explanation he would use “prophets” in two different senses. Ephesians 4:7-16 advances Paul’s description of the church by pointing out the harmony of the different gifts given by Christ to the body. Most likely, then, 4:11 shows that the prophets mentioned earlier in 2:20 and 3:5 are along with the apostles, but distinct from them, one among the gifts of the exalted Christ. It is not likely that the “apostles and prophets,” who are mentioned as the foundation of the church, are other than the “apostles” and “prophets,” who serve its “upbuilding” (4:12).
So it is most likely that in Ephesians 2:20 the apostles and prophets are two distinct groups. As part of the foundation of the church, therefore, the gift of prophecy should be regarded as having ceased.
Revelation 22:18-19 and the closing of the canon. This is a highly disputed passage, but there is solid reason for concluding that it is not simply a warning against adding to the book of Revelation, but a declaration of the end of all divinely authoritative prophecy. It reads:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
Even though “this book” is clearly a reference to the book of Revelation (note how the “which are described in this book,” for example, refers to the tree of life and holy city), there are several reasons for concluding that the warning speaks of adding nothing more to inspired Scripture in any sense.
First, it is noteworthy that John chose the “canonization formula” of Deuteronomy 4:2ff to make his point. As Thomas points out, Deuteronomy 4:1 came to be taken as a statement indicating the finality of the whole Old Testament, and so it is likely that John intended his readers to take 22:18 in this way as well concerning the New Testament (cf. Proverbs 30:6).
Second, the contextual finality of the book of Revelation, in which this warning appears, should be taken into consideration. It is possible, for example, that there is significance to the fact that Revelation is last in the order of New Testament books. Grudem notes: “The events described in Revelation are historically subsequent to the events described in the rest of the New Testament and require that Revelation be placed where it is.” We should not expect anything “after” Revelation any more than we should expect anything “before” Genesis.
More significant, however, is that Revelation was the last book of the canon that was written in a temporal sense. Further, it was written by the only remaining living apostle at the time as he came to the end of his life. In fact, Revelation was not simply the last NT book written in a temporal sense, but is comprehensive and final in its temporal scope—it covers the current time of its writing (chapters 1-3) up through the very end of history and beyond (chapters 20-22). There is a certain finality to the book of Revelation in many regards.
Third, the comprehensive scope of Revelation just mentioned should receive further consideration. As mentioned, it is comprehensive chronologically, covering the era of its present day through the return of Christ. But it is also comprehensive in terms of including all types of revelatory content, as it includes paraenesis and exhortation (chapters 2-3) as well as predictive prophecy (4-22).
In light of the comprehensiveness and contextual finality of the book of Revelation, is it credible to think that a prohibition against “adding” to it simply means that it is wrong to insert additional content somewhere in the midst of the book or at the very end or beginning, but that if you simply place the additional content alongside the book and give this content a different name and treat it as a distinct book, then it’s OK? It is hard to see how the writing of additional Scripture would not be, in spirit, adding to the book of Revelation itself.
For example, if I write a book and close it with an admonition not to add to it, but then someone comes along and adds an appendix, would we accept their claim that they are not really adding to my book since they have technically written a distinct document? Even if they were simply claiming to be writing a sequel, or a “volume 2,” assertions that they were not adding to my book would ring hollow. As long as they are writing about the same content (or attempting to “further” the content of a book that was comprehensive and had a finality to it) and in the same spirit (i.e., “the author of volume 1 would approve of what I am writing”), claims that they were not adding to my book would ring hollow, no matter what their intention.
The contextual finality and comprehensive scope of Revelation, taken together, indicate that the writing of any additional Scripture would have to be regarded as related to the book of Revelation in this “volume 2” or appendix-type sense. Hence, Revelation 22:18-19 is a warning not simply about altering the contents of the book of Revelation itself, but about claiming to add anything at all to inspired Scripture.
This text, then, is a statement declaring that the canon has been closed. This is relevant to the cessation of prophecy because prophecy had canonical-level authority. If the canon has been closed, consequently, all revelations of canonical-level authority have also ceased—which means, in other words, that all authoritative, conscience-binding revelation has ceased (for if a revelation binds the conscience, it is canonical-level because that is the distinctive that sets the canon apart from all other writings and communicatory acts—conscience-binding, divine authority). It would be hard to see, for example, how a claim to authoritative revelation that goes beyond the canon but is not to be included in the canon does not, in spirit if not in intention, amount to the very same thing as making an addition to the canon. Thus, the closing of the canon implies the ending of all authoritative revelation—and, therefore, of the gift of prophecy.
Tongues Have Ceased
There have been many good and extended arguments made for the cessation of the gift of tongues. However, for our purposes we need not develop any extended argument for the ending of this gift. According to the New Testament, tongues is a revelation gift. This is indicated by the fact that what the speaker says in a tongue may be interpreted (1 Corinthians 12:10, 30; 14:5, 13), even though he is himself speaking in words he does not know. The words must, then, be revealed. Further, Paul states that those who speak in tongues speak “mysteries” by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:2). As Gaffin concludes, “Tongues in the New Testament are always closely associated with prophecy and, when interpreted, are functionally equivalent to prophecy, as revelation from God which edifies others. In fact, tongues are a mode of prophecy.”
We have already established that prophetic revelation has ceased. Since tongues are a form of prophetic revelation, it therefore follows that they have ceased as well. In other words, the cessation of prophecy implies the cessation of tongues.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
It is almost universally recognized, at least among Protestants, that the Scriptures are sufficient as the only guide for faith and practice. But what exactly does this mean, and what implications does it have for the possibility of ongoing revelation? Wayne Grudem provides a very helpful definition at this point:
The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.
In other words, the sufficiency of Scripture means that there is nothing we need to know in order to obey the will of God which is not contained in Scripture. The contain all we need to know in order to live a fully obedient life. A corollary of the sufficiency of Scripture is the doctrine of sola Scriptura—that only Scripture can bind the conscience. For if something other than Scripture can bind the conscience, then Scripture is by definition not sufficient—for there is something beyond Scripture to which we must conform in order to please God. As Ferguson states, “The logical implication of the sufficiency of Scripture is that no additional revelation is needed by the church or the individual.”
The sufficiency of Scripture is taught in several places in the Scriptures themselves. In 2 Peter 1:3 we are told that God has granted to us “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we read that the Scriptures are inspired and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training and righteousness “that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” There is, consequently, nothing beyond the Scriptures that is necessary to make us adequate and equip us for any good work. As Grudem states, “there is no ‘good work’ that God wants us to do other than those that are taught somewhere in Scripture: it can equip us for every good work.”
Psalm 119 also contains very instructive teaching on this point. In verse one we read: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!” This verse equates walking in the law of the Lord with being blameless. The implication, then, is that there is nothing beyond the law of God which we need to follow in order to walk in complete obedience to God. Verse 9 is also very instructive: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” Once again, the implication is that if you are keeping the word of the Lord, you are walking in complete purity. Hence, the only way to sin is by disobeying Scripture. Otherwise, this verse could not say that if we keep ourselves in accord with the Word, we will be pure.
The sufficiency of Scripture and the cessation of the granting of authoritative revelation (apostleship, prophecy, and tongues) combine to form a crucial first principle which will affect our understanding of the modern-day work of the Spirit: Since the only way to sin is by disobeying Scripture, no instances of apparent on-going revelation may bind the conscience. This is simply, in other words, an affirmation of sola Scriptura. The Scriptures alone may bind the conscience. The cessation of authoritative revelation dovetails with the sufficiency of Scripture—nothing beyond Scripture can bind the conscience (the sufficiency of Scripture) because God is no longer giving authoritative revelation (authoritative revelation has ceased). The two doctrines mutually include and imply one another—although each can be defended on its own. We have, then, two independent legs supporting our principle that no instances of modern-day extraordinary communication may bind the conscience.
There are some who would object to this understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. As suggested above, some hold that the sufficiency of Scripture entails that God no longer gives authoritative revelation for the whole church, but that he still may give authoritative revelation to individuals. But such a distinction between corporate-intended and individual-intended authoritative revelation still fails to preserve the sufficiency of Scripture.
The reason is that this essentially creates two canons—one for the individual, and one for the church. For that by which the individual’s conscience is bound (his “canon”) becomes the canon of the church (Scripture) plus the new revelation he has received from God. It is very hard to see what purpose a closed canon serves if, in practice, God will “add” to the instructions that must be followed by any individual Christian. The closing of the canon would have meaning for the church as a whole, but not for any of the particular individuals within the church (for God might give any of them, at any time, an addition authoritative revelation which binds the conscience). Further, if God in principle can give new revelation binding the conscience of an individual, then what exactly is the reason we think he would not do this for the whole church? The distinction seems arbitrary.
Ferguson thus perceptively notes that in affirming ongoing authoritative revelation for individuals, “while it is denied that additions are being made to the canon of Scripture, it is nevertheless implied that an addition is being made to the canon of living. Otherwise, the illumination of Scripture and the wisdom to apply it would be sufficient.”
Gaffin makes a similar point:
If prophecy today . . . is of divine inspiration and authority, then, whatever the intention, in effect Scripture has been added to. Now the “canon” (i.e., where God’s word is found today) becomes not only what God has said in Scripture but also what he is saying beyond Scripture, and we are bound to attend and submit to both of these. . . . To see here a relativizing threat to the canon and its authority is anything but a red herring.
It does not work, therefore, for one simply to say that they never equate anything God says to them today with Scripture. This usually is meant in a way that misses the point. What one needs to do is, as Grudem has done, explicitly define that by this it is meant that it is never sin to do other than what modern-day prophecies and impressions direct—except when such things simply repeat what Scripture itself already requires. For whatever one’s intention, whenever God is thought to speak authoritatively today beyond the Scriptures, those words are in fact, if not in intention, being viewed the same as the Scriptures—even if one says that the words are not functioning as Scripture.
It is not enough, either, simply to say that God never speaks today in contradiction to the Bible. That qualification also misses the point. The sufficiency of Scripture necessitates that God never speaks beyond the Bible in any way. To speak something not taught or implied by the Bible but nonetheless not contradicted by the Bible is still to speak beyond the Bible, and is still to create a divine obligation to believe and or obey communication, thought to belong to God, beyond Scripture.
Others might want to say that new revelation simply never concerns anything “essential.”
But as Gaffin notes, “however nonessential, an addition is still an addition. Further, it has to be asked: what really is the disqualifying, limiting force of ‘nothing essentially,’ when it is God’s won utterance, possessing divine inspiration and authority?”
Understanding the Modern Gifts
If apostleship, prophecy, and tongues have ceased, and if the Scriptures are fully sufficient as the only rule of faith such that the only way to sin is by disobeying Scripture, then how shall we understand apparent modern-day instances of the continuance of these revelatory gifts? It might seem that the implications of our conclusion that only Scripture can bind the conscience rule out the possibility that instances of these gifts can be regarded as authentic—for if something is revelatory, then must not we also conclude that it is divinely authoritative?
But this is not, in fact, a necessary inference. It is a necessary inference that these gifts have ceased in their New Testament, authoritative form. But if it were possible to conceive of these gifts as functioning with a lower form of authority, then it would also be possible to affirm their continuance. Is it possible to do this? We will examine the possibility in terms of each of the revelatory gifts discussed above—apostleship, prophecy, and tongues.
Claims to Modern-Day Apostleship
Peter Wagner argues in chapter five of his oddly titled book Churchquake that the office of apostle has been restored. Throughout the chapter, there is no indication that he is conceiving of his modern day apostles any differently than the New Testament apostles. In fact, he very often seems to rebuff attempts to view modern apostles as having a lesser form of authority.
Because of his apparent claim that apostleship continues in the same form it took in the New Testament, a view like Wagner’s must be rejected. For we have already established that the office of apostleship was a foundational gift which the New Testament saw as temporary. It had a unique level of revelatory which does not today continue.
But would it be possible to hold that the office of apostle continues today not in the authoritative form we find in the New Testament, but in an analogous form with a lower level of authority similar to elders? We will examine below whether it is possible to do this with prophecy and tongues. But the unique and supreme authority of the apostle is such an essential part of the office that you simply no longer have an apostle without that authority—you would simply have an elder, a prophet in Grudem’s sense, or a church planter. As Edgar rightly comments:
Some may believe that there is a gift of apostle for today in some sense different from the ‘apostles of the Lord.’ However, such an apostle is merely a nonapostle. Such a position lacks biblical justification. There are no apostles today.
Finally, some might want to use the term “apostle” for church planters, missionaries, or elders, arguing that these roles are analogous to that of the apostles. But, again, in light of the unique authority that is essential to the office of apostle, and the fact that this authority is simply not replicated in those other roles, there is not sufficient analogy to warrant such a manner of speaking. Thus, Grudem rightly notes that using the term “apostle” for such individuals “seems inappropriate and unhelpful to do,” since it “simply confuses people who read the New Testament and see the high authority that is attributed to the office of ‘apostle’ there. . . . If any in modern times want to take the title ‘apostle’ to themselves, they immediately raise the suspicion that they may be motivated by inappropriate pride and desires for self-exaltation.”
Our conclusions about the cessation of apostolic authority, then, lead us to the conclusion that there is no sense in which the office of apostle continues being given today. The office is simply too unique for it to continue in the form of any analogous gift.
Must modern-day prophecy be regarded in the same way as claims to modern-day apostleship? This much is clear: There is no more authoritative, conscience-binding prophecy today. That has been established by our case for cessationism and the sufficiency of Scripture. But is it possible to conceive of prophecy with a lower-level of authority without stripping it of the essence of what makes it prophetic?
The best advocates of the continuation of prophecy expressly acknowledge that modern prophecy does not have the same authority as Scripture. C. Samuel Storms, for example, states that although prophecy is “eminently profitable,” it “does not carry intrinsic divine authority” as the Scriptures do. Wayne Grudem, likewise, argues that prophecy is “subject to Scripture” and not equal to Scripture in authority because it is not a conveyance of words we know to be the very words of God. In fact, Grudem quotes George Mallone to the effect that, to his knowledge, “no noncessationist in the mainstream of Christianity claims that revelation today is equal with Scripture.”
Could Grudem, Storms, and the others be correct that there is a type of prophecy with this “lower level” of authority? It is my judgment that they are correct in essence, but that they are wrong to equate this with any NT references to prophecy and their mechanism they have conceived for explaining how prophecy can be fallible is flawed.
Two points need to be made to flesh this out. First, that God may supernaturally bring things to mind things which we would not otherwise know is consistent with a cessationist framework as long as the information is not regarded as authoritative. But is it consistent to hold that God can reveal something in a non-authoritative way? This is one of the central questions to which we have been driving.
The word “reveal” has connotations of direct divine, authoritative disclosure. To speak of God “revealing” something that is not authoritative, therefore, seems like a contradiction because it can be taken to imply that there are instances where God’s own speech is not binding upon us. To guard against such connotations, I think it is probably unhelpful to use the term “revelation” in this context. We will discuss more fully below whether it is possible to forgo the idea of “revelation” in prophecy without destroying the essence of what makes something prophetic.
To get to the main issue, we need to rephrase the question. At this point, the question we need answered is not whether God can reveal something in a non-authoritative way, but whether God can work to bring something to our attention through non-natural means which is fallible and non-authoritative.
To this question, the answer must be yes. We simply need to remember that it is wrong “to confuse involvement of God with full divine authority in the product.” God is involved in many things at the natural level without thereby investing them with divine authority; it seems reasonable, then, that he could also work in this way at the supernatural level. For example, God is involved in making the grass grow (Ps 104:14), but, as Poythress states, “growing grass is not inspired.” Similarly, God is involved providentially in the evening weather forecast. He brings certain information across the weatherman’s path, enables the weatherman to discern certain patterns and make certain predictions, and then providentially brings it to pass that we see the forecast. God is involved in the process from start to finish, simply by virtue of the fact that he superintends all things whatsoever.
In fact, we may also acknowledge that God may have specifically wanted us to see a particular forecast so that we could make certain decisions based upon it. But would this mean that the weather forecast is divinely authoritative? Certainly not. It may be very wrong, partially wrong, partially right, or totally right. God was involved, but not by acting in an authoritative sense. He acted in a real sense, but not conscience-binding sense. He expects us to make conclusions about how likely the forecast is to be correct, and then make the appropriate decisions based upon our conclusions. Even when the weather forecast is correct and we know it, it is not sin to ignore that information if we desire to (although it may be a bad idea).
In light of the fact that authoritative revelation has ceased, I propose that instances of modern-day prophecy should be understood in a similar way. Modern-day prophecy is not based upon authoritative revelation—that ceased around the time of the canon’s closing. But we need not conclude that God has ceased acting to bring things to our attention in an analogous supernatural way. God is—in some mysterious way—continuing to give some individuals, at certain times, a “supernatural capacity” to discern certain information through non-natural means. God is not inspiring such information, any more than he inspires the weather forecast. But he is involved in bringing it to pass, and his intention is that we take it into consideration.
This does not give the information divine authority, or make it infallible, because there is no reason to think that the simple bypassing of natural means grants special authority to the information. We have a tendency to invest such experiences with divine authority because they are non-discursive—that is, we are not aware of the way we came to know the information, and the means were likely supernatural. But, in fact, there is no reason to conclude that an awareness which arises non-discursively is any more authoritative than that which arises discursively. God may be equally involved in both means, and neither has special status as a direct line from God.
The ending of authoritative prophecy and the sufficiency of Scripture, as we have seen, indicate that God does not desire us to view information gained non-discursively as binding on the conscience. God is involved in such things in “non-authoritative” ways—just as He is involved in the weather forecast in a non-authoritative way. As such, it is not inconsistent to say that some of the information will be true and some will be false—just as some of the weather forecast is true, and some is false, yet God is providentially involved in all of it. Divine involvement does not mean divine authority or infallibility when God does not intend his involvement as such.
Second, this understanding renders unnecessary the mechanism by which most continuationists explain how prophecy may be fallible. Grudem, for example, states that the reason modern-day prophecy is not binding on the conscience is that God simply gives the revelation, and the human then reports the revelation in his own words. It is possible for human error, therefore, to enter in, and as a result we can never be certain that we are hearing from the Lord.
This mechanism seems contrived and unnatural. It is definitely an intelligent way of harmonizing all the data, but there is no indication in the Scripture that this is how it really works. The alternative explanation that I have proposed is much simpler, and therefore preferable. Further, as we will see below, it has the advantage of not having to redefine the meaning of prophecy.
Grudem himself, in fact, seems to implicitly acknowledge the understanding that I have proposed: “And even if God did bring the specific words to mind [in a modern-day prophecy], the New Testament gives us no warrant for saying that God wants us to hear those words as his own words, carrying his own authority.” So Grudem himself, then, seems to acknowledge that God can be involved in a product without granting divine authority to it. Why, then, is his other mechanism even necessary?
Finally, we have to address the question of whether the understanding of modern-day prophecy which I have proposed can still be called prophecy. Grudem, for example, states that essential to any notion of prophecy is that it is based upon a revelation. I have, however, expressed my hesitancy with using the term revelation for modern-day instances of new information supernaturally coming to mind. Although the mechanism I have described can possibly be understood as revelatory, it seems best that we understand instances of modern-day prophecy as analogous to biblical prophecy and not identical to it.
Consequently, whether the understanding here presented destroys the essence of what constitutes prophecy (and thereby prevents us from being able to genuinely refer to such events as prophecy) is beside my point. The main point is that, although we may differ on what to call it and whether the NT has this in view when it speaks of prophecy, cessationists may affirm that the reality of what Grudem and other continuationists are seeking to uphold—the granting of supernatural, non-authoritative insight—is genuine and helpful today. Thus, there is no substantial difference between the best advocates of continuationism and the best advocates of cessationism.
This framework illumines modern day tongues as well. It is possible that God could supernaturally enable an individual to speak in an unknown language, and even enable another individual to interpret him, without granting authority to the content or expression of the content. He could do so through the same mechanism by which he enables the instances of modern-day “prophecy” (or whatever we want to call it). Such a version of tongues may or may not be the same thing as Paul was speaking of in his discussion of tongues, but it is not our purposes here to decide that. For our purposes, it is enough to realize that even if this type of tongues-speaking is not the same as was experienced in the Bible, it can still be legitimate. There are many things in which we are appropriately involved today which were not dealt with in the Bible.
Another possibility is that modern-day tongues are simply gibberish—a purely human event of free vocalization, with no pattern of meaning and no supernatural guiding. But what harm is there in such a thing? Packer seems to understand modern-day tongues in this sense, and wisely notes that such a thing “could be a good gift of God for some people at least, on the basis that anything that helps you to concentrate on God, practice his presence, and open yourself to his influence is a good gift.” He adds:
Glossolalic prayer may help to free up and warm up some cerebral people, just as structured verbal prayer may help to steady up and shape up some emotional people. Those who know that glossolalia is not God’s path for them and those for whom it is a proven enrichment should not try to impose their own way on others, or judge others inferior for being different, or stagger if someone in their camp transfers to the other, believing that God has led him or her to do so. . . . Even if (as I suspect, though cannot prove) today’s glossalalists do not speak such tongues as were spoken at Corinth, none should forbid them their practice; while they for their part should not suppose that every would-be top-class Christian needs to adopt it.
Guidance and Tradition
We now have the appropriate framework in place for affirming the continuing guidance of the Spirit without compromising the sufficiency of Scripture. Evangelicals have tended to compromise the sufficiency of Scripture in their understanding of the Spirit’s guidance in personal decisions (through prophecy, impressions, etc.); Roman Catholics have tended to compromise the sufficiency of Scripture in their understanding of the Spirit’s guidance in Scriptural interpretation (through tradition). The solution to both of these tendencies is simply the application of the same principle: non-authoritative divine regulation. Since our framework has already been presented in detail in our discussion of modern-day prophecy, our discussion here may be brief.
Instances of personal guidance can be understood as a sub-set of modern-day prophecy. In the typical evangelical understanding of personal guidance, the Spirit often brings things to mind that you would not have otherwise known. Such guidance may involve two aspects—circumstantial content and directional content. Circumstantial content is when we become aware of information about a certain situation, or circumstance, that we would not have known through natural means. Directional content is when we become aware that it seems we ought to make a certain choice.
How shall we evaluate instances of directional and circumstantial content? First, we need to be aware that the Spirit may not be involved at all. It is possible for our own minds to generate ideas and give us strong convictions that they are from God when in fact they are not. Second, however, we need to be aware that God may indeed have providentially brought the information across our path. Third, we nonetheless need to remember that God no longer does so in an authoritative sense. Therefore, God intends that circumstantial and directional content be treated with the same level of authority as advice from a friend.
This means that we recognize that the information could be in error. But this possibility does not render it useless, for as Poythress notes “in actuality we are accustomed in many types of situations to respond to doubtful information.” If the guidance involves circumstantial content, it might be something we need to take into consideration as we seek to apply biblical principles to our context. For example, if we learn that a friend is in danger, biblical principles dictate that we try to help. If we learn of his danger through non-discursive guidance, then the same biblical principles apply.
Further, just as it is possible that such information about our friend’s state can be in error when we learn of it through natural means (for example, when it comes to us as a rumor, or from someone who seems to lack understanding of the situation), so also it is possible that the information received through non-discursive means is fallible. Whether we decide to respond to the information is based upon the past record of reliability of our non-discursive insights and the likelihood that it is correct—just as it is when information comes our way through natural means. In addition, since non-discursive insights are inherently uncheckable, they will never create the same urgency as information gained through natural means.
With directional content (i.e., “Go to China”), there are three possibilities. It is possible that the insight simply accords with a correct and necessary application of Scripture to our situation. In such instances the insight should be followed, not because we received it non-discursively, but because the Scriptures require the action, and the non-discursive insight simply called that to our attention. It is also possible that the content contradicts Scripture. In such a case, we should simply disregard it.
Third, it is possible that the content does not contradict Scripture, but neither is it required by Scripture. In such cases, it is not sin to do something else. Authoritative new revelation has ceased, and we have seen that the only way to sin is by disobeying Scripture. But we might want to strongly consider the possibility that the directional content illumines to us some “fatherly advice” the Lord would like to give us, or otherwise is a result of “sensing” some intangible aspects of a situation that render the particular decision in view the most wise. In no case when the Scriptures themselves do not dictate a particular course, however, does directional content bind the conscience and make it sin to go the other way.
Tradition—for our purposes, what Christians have predominately believed or how they have primarily understood a particular passage—can be understood in a similar manner. It is not authoritative. This means, as above, that it cannot bind the conscience. Only the Scriptures have such authority. Even when tradition speaks truly and consistently with the Scriptures, it does not bind the conscience unless it is stating something that can be deduced from the Scriptures themselves—and in those cases it is not the tradition that has authority, but the Scriptures which tradition is “repeating.”
Nonetheless, tradition can still provide guidance. As we have seen above in our discussion of non-discursive events, something does not need to be infallible to be useful. It is through tradition, I suggest, that the Spirit guides us in Scripture interpretation and theological development.
One of the main pieces of evidence that the Spirit guides in this sense is the formation of the canon. As the best explanations of how we can be certain we have the correct canon make clear, our confidence lies not primarily in historical verification (i.e., proving that the apostles or prophets wrote each book of the canon) nor in the testimony of the Spirit to the individual, as important as those things are. For neither is decisive (in the case of history) or objectively verifiable (in the case of the Spirit’s witness to the individual—i.e., how would you settle the case of two people each claiming the Spirit is testifying to them about a different canon?). Our confidence lies in the corporate testimony of the Spirit, to which the Spirit individually enlightens us to see.
As Roger Nicole observed, to know what the canon is, we simply ask the Christian church. Our confidence in the canon is based upon “the witness of the Holy Spirit given corporately to God’s people and made manifest by a nearly unanimous acceptance of the NT canon in Christian churches.” The canon of Scripture, therefore, is evidence that the Spirit often works to guide us through His corporate witness to the whole people of God. There is no reason to think that this work of the Spirit was limited to the canon alone.
Very often, modern Protestants understand sola Scriptura to mean that we are free to follow whatever we think the Bible teaches. As our above observations would indicate and Keith Mathison has extensively argued, this is a distortion of the doctrine. The Spirit intends us to interpret the Bible in a community. The simple fact is that Christians have been reading and studying the Bible for 2,000 years. There have been many godly and great minds that have poured over the Scriptures and recorded their insights for all generations. These insights deserve respect and being taken into consideration, not simply because of the intelligence of the community, but because, as we saw above, there is reason to believe that the consensus (or near consensus) of the community through the ages reflects the guidance of the Spirit and is thus His confirming witness to a particular truth.
Of course, as we have often stated, the witness of the church is certainly not infallible. We are free to disagree. And even when the witness is an accurate reflection of the Spirit’s guidance, it is non-authoritative guidance (since only the Scriptures themselves can guide the conscience). This should not diminish its weight, however, because we realize the importance of placing weight upon fallible advice every day when, as in the case of the community of faith, the person giving the advice is wise, respected, and godly. Consequently, and here is the key, whenever we are going to disagree with the majority view of the community of faith through the ages—or, at least with the majority view within our tradition—we bear the burden of proof.
There is, then, a certain protocol for disagreeing with the community of faith. The community of faith, like supernatural guidance, is not authoritative and not infallible. But it still may point us to wisdom and truth—and, indeed, is likely to do so in light of the great minds the Spirit has given the church through the ages. So it must be looked upon as a guide, even if it is not a perfect guide. The burden of proof is on us when we differ with a guide. The protocol for disagreeing, then, is to first become familiar with the traditional view and the reasons given for it, as articulated by its best exponents. One may (and must) then, and only then, give the reasons for disagreeing and accepting an alternative view.
We have come a long way in our study. We have seen the there is solid reason for holding that authoritative revelation has ceased. For the main avenues of revelation that bore intrinsic authority—the apostolate, prophecy, and tongues—have ceased, and since the closing of the canon the sufficiency of Scripture entails that nothing beyond Scripture can bind the conscience.
Nonetheless, there is still a place for affirming the continuation of prophecy and tongues (though not apostleship) in an analogous sense. Individuals often come to know things through non-discursive means (“modern-day prophecy”), and such instances may often be viewed as gifts of God, but that does not thereby grant the information divine authority. Tongues are no longer inspired ecstatic utterance, but merely human, natural free vocalization may still be regarded as a gift of God as well and a means by which some are enabled to draw closer to God.
Modern day guidance of the Spirit may be divided into two categories—guidance in personal decisions, and guidance in Scriptural interpretation. Both forms have frequently been understood in ways that threaten the sufficiency of Scripture. However, there is a way to affirm the legitimacy and usefulness of both forms of guidance while still regarding them as non-authoritative, and hence in consonance with the sufficiency of Scripture.
Personal guidance is to be understood along the same lines of modern-day prophecy. This allows us to be open to non-discursive events without being enslaved to them. Guidance in Scriptural interpretation is to be found in the witness of the community of faith through the ages. This keeps us from an overly individualistic approach to the Bible that is prone to make us overlook certain truths and go wrong on others.
- There are many helpful defenses of cessationism. Among them are: Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 223-235; Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost: The New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1979); Thomas Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit: Affirming the Fullness of God’s Provision for Spiritual Living (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996); O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1993); David Farnell, “When Will Prophecy Cease?,” Bibliotheca Sacra V150 #598 (April 1993): 171-203; Thomas Edgar, “The Cessation of the Sign Gifts,” Bibliotheca Sacra V145 #580 (October 1988): 371-386.
- See the discussions in Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, 52-56; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 906-911; cf. also Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 122.
- This can be confirmed by a word study of avpo,stoloj in the New Testament, and is noted in nearly every discussion of the term in the literature.
- So Grudem, Systematic Theology, 907; contra Lightfoot, 98-99.
- So Grudem, Systematic Theology, 907; contra Lightfoot, 98-99.
- For helpful discussions of these qualifications along similar lines, including a discussion of the number of the apostles, see Grudem, Systematic Theology, 906-911; Lightfoot, “The Name and Office of an Apostle” in The Epistle to the Galatians, 92-101 [although I have some differences with Lightfoot]; and Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, 53-63. For a good summary of the apostolic office, see Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1958), 585.
- I wouldn’t have a problem affirming that some today have had visions of Christ. That is how I understand it when someone in this era says they have “seen” Jesus. To be qualified as an apostle, however, Christ must appear to one not in a visionary sensation, but in person. W. L. Craig notes: “Paul, and indeed all the NT, makes a conceptual (if not linguistic) distinction between an appearance of Jesus and a vision of Jesus. The appearances of Jesus soon ceased, but visions continued in the early church. . . . A vision, though caused by God, was purely in the mind, while an appearance took place ‘out there’ in the real world. . . . It is instructive to compare here Stephen’s vision of Jesus in Acts 7 with the resurrection appearances. What Stephen saw was a vision, for no one else present experienced anything at all. By contrast the resurrection appearances took place in the world ‘out there’ and could be experienced by anybody. Paul could rightly regard his experience on the Damascus Road an appearance, even though it took place after the ascension, because it involved real manifestations in the world, which Paul’s companions also experienced” (William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics [Wheaton: Crossway, 1994], 286-287).
- So Grudem, Systematic Theology, 910; Edgar, Satisfied, 60-61.
- Verses such as Acts 1:2 and the common New Testament notion of “the twelve apostles” as those that accompanied Christ on earth and were chosen from among the larger group of disciples to be with him also confirm that an instance like what happened to Paul was considered an exception, not the norm.
- C. Peter Wagner seems to think Timothy is designated as an apostle (Peter Wagner, Churchquake: How the Apostolic Reformation is Shaking Up the Church as We Know It [Ventura: Regal Books, 1999], 104). He probably has in mind 1 Thessalonians 2:7, where Paul says “we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.” The “we” would apparently include Silvanus and Timothy, with whom Paul wrote the letter (1:1). But this presses the language too far. It is probably simply an editorial use of the plural. Notice 2:18, where the “we” apparently refers to Paul alone (so Edgar, Satisfied, 56).
- As O’Brien points out, the reference to Christ being the cornerstone requires that we take this to mean that the foundation consists of the apostles and prophets, rather than that the foundation is simply that which the apostles and prophets laid (Peter T. Obrien, The Letter to the Ephesians, Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 213).
- If one were to object that since Christ remains alive today, the cornerstone still has an “ongoing” nature, and hence the foundation of the apostles must be ongoing, the response would be that the “ongoing foundation” of the apostles continues in the same sense as the cornerstone continues—like Christ, the original apostles continue to exist in heaven and the effects of their work continue on earth.
- See D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 460.
- See, for example, Grudem, Systematic, 907-908.
- It should be emphasized here that my point is not that there are exactly twelve apostles and that Revelation here intends that there will be a literal wall of the city with the literal names of the apostles on it. My point is that the fact that Revelation is able to speak in such terms implies that the apostles are a distinct, non-continuing group. On the use of the number twelve for the apostles here, when there was in fact at least thirteen (Paul), Lightfoot remarks: “This is only in accordance with the whole imagery of the book, which is essentially Jewish.” For example, “The Church there bears the name of Jerusalem” (Lightfoot, 99).
- So Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, new rev. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001); Ibid., Systematic Theology, 1049-1061; C. Samuel Storms, “A Third Wave View,” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, ed. Wayne Grudem (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 207-212; D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-12 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 91-100, 160-165.
- David Farnell emphasizes the supernatural, revelatory nature of prophecy in “When Will Prophecy Cease?” BSac V150 #598 (April 1993): 171-203. Although he does not share Grudem’s view of two levels of prophecy, Grudem would agree that all prophecy, including his second form, is supernatural in origin (see Systematic Theology, 1056-1058, and his discussion of 1 Corinthians 14:30 and how prophecy must be based on revelation in The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament, 95-100).
- Edgar, Satisfied, 231.
- Although there are a few exceptions, on which see below.
- Edgar, Satisfied, 232.
- Gaffin, in Four Views, 45.
- So Farnell, “When Will Prophecy Cease”; Edgar, Satisfied, 59-60; Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 93; Robertson, The Final Word, 75.
- This is widely recognized on all sides. See Gaffin, Perspectives, 93; Grudem, Systematic, 1051 n. 4.
- So Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982), 82-105, and Ibid, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament, 340-345
- Gaffin, Perspectives, 94. See also O’Brien, Ephesians, 213-218.
- In his Systematic Theology (1051), Grudem argues that his case for two types of prophecy still stands, even if apostles and prophets are two distinct groups. For there is no reason, he contends, to conclude that all New Testament prophets are in view here. It is possible that this passage only has in view a unique type of prophecy. I’m not convinced by this, but even if Grudem is right here, our conclusion remains established—at the very least, authoritative, foundational prophecy has ceased. Whether there is another type of prophecy with lesser authority will be discussed below.
- This is well argued by Robert Thomas in “The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy in Revelation 22:18,” JETS 32/2 (June 1989): 201-216; contra Alan Johnson, Revelation, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [CD-ROM].
- Grudem, Systematic, 64-65. He adds: “Thus, it is not inappropriate for us to understand this exceptionally strong warning at the end of Revelation as applying in a secondary way to the whole of Scripture. Placed here, where it must be placed, the warning forms an appropriate conclusion to the entire canon of Scripture.”
- Although some doubt John’s authorship of Revelation, see Carson, Moo, and Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 468-473, for a good case.
- Thomas writes: “The book is comprehensive in its inclusion of both the words of encouragement and paraenesis (chaps. 2-3) and the predictive elements of prophecy (chaps. 4-22). If nothing additional is allowed in these two areas, this in essence spells the end of the gift” (“The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy in Revelation 22:18,” 211).
- To this we could add that, in light of what we have seen, there is likely a divine meaning that intends Revelation 22:18-19 to apply to the whole of the NT, even if John himself did not have such a meaning in view. On the possibility of divine meaning going beyond the human meaning, see Vern S. Poythress, “The Divine Meaning of Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 48 (Fall 1996): 241-279. The evidence to which we have appealed, however, are generally things that were within John’s own purview of understanding and thus which illumine his own intention, thereby rendering unnecessary (although still helpful) to appeal to an extended divine meaning.
- As explained above but worth emphasizing again, by “canonical-level authority,” I mean the intrinsic authority that belongs to the very words of God—a “thus saith the Lord” authority which binds the conscience. Again, it should be noted that claims to a second form of prophecy of lesser authority are here beside the point. For they do not rival our claim that authoritative revelation has ceased—the type of “foundational” revelation provided by the prophets of the order of Ephesians 2:20.
- It would miss the point to try to argue that such an authoritative revelation does not add to the canon if it is not universalized for the whole church, but rather simply applies to a specific individual or group of individuals. The reason is that, for those individuals, the canon is added to in practice in that there is now something beyond the ordinary canon which is binding on their conscience. We will discuss this more fully below.