Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 1 Cor 14:1
There is perhaps no more controversial doctrine in the church today than that of the continuation or cessation of the spiritual gifts; that is, whether the charismatic gifts are operative in the church today. The principal reason for the Cessationist denial of the continuation of the gifts is an appeal to the closure of the canon of Scripture which is believed to have marked the end of the manifestation of the gifts. Strong Cessationists will point to the coming of “the perfect” of 1 Cor 13:8-12, as fulfilled in the completion of the Scripture, thus making the spiritual gifts no longer necessary. However, the main Continuationist objection to this theory is that the Bible does not offer any explicit text that would support such an argument. Continuationists understand the key expression “that which is perfect” as referring to the final salvation of the church at the second coming of Christ; thus, the cessation of the gifts is associated with the end of time. To the Continuationist, knowledge, (13:9), is presently in a state of imperfection – “in part” – because “that which is perfect” has not yet come; but when it does come, our knowledge will cease to be imperfect, as Christ’s second coming completes our knowledge. Continuationists also argue that the consummation of the age at Christ’s second coming best fits the description of the expression “face to face” (13:12) which most likely refers to the state of heavenly glory, when we will see the Lord.
Those who reject Continuationism do so by appealing to the principle of Sola scriptura, suggesting that the charismatic gifts represent a second infallible authority in addition to Scripture – particularly since they are offered in terms such as “thus saith the Lord.” They logically argue: how can anyone distinguish between inspired Scripture which is “God’s word” and a prophetic utterance which is allegedly a word from the same God? Continuationists affirm Sola scriptura by attaching a weaker sense to the term ‘prophecy’ limiting its authority so as not to contain new doctrinal content, and be thoroughly consistent with the Bible. A Continuationist would say that all prophecies must be tested against the Scripture as taught in 1 Cor 14:29, so it must be the case that prophecy in ancient Corinth, as today, contains a mixture of true and false elements that is to be discerned by the hearer.
But one may ask: what about Deut 18:20-22 which teaches that a prophet, who speaks presumptuously in the name of the Lord, is exposed as a false prophet and subject to death? If we allow true prophets to err in their prophecies, we are left with no Biblical test to distinguish true prophets from false prophets. And if Continuationists are correct, there should be a lot of men stoned as false prophets. But then, if the Cessationists position is correct, what are we to do with 1 Cor 14? What applications can be drawn if there is no prophecy in the church today? Are we to completely ignore two chapters of the Bible as completely irrelevant?
It seems that no matter what position one takes, there are sound Biblical arguments made in favor of and against both positions. I think one of the hurdles that we need to overcome to understand this controversy is to eliminate the “straw men” and misrepresentation of both sides. Even the hardest of Cessationsists agree that modern preaching, for example, is analogous to prophecy, and they are therefore allowing a place for non-inspired gifts. Meanwhile, Biblical charismatics would never accept a prophetic message that differed from Scripture. Is it possible that there is a middle ground between blanket approval and blanket rejection of the charismatic gifts in the church today? Let’s consider that next Sunday as we look at “Tongues and Prophecy.”