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A Response to Stephen Nichols, Steve Lawson, and Burk Parsons on the Continuation of Spiritual Gifts (Part One)

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Last year, at one of their conferences, the three men noted above led a panel discussion as a part of Ligonier Ministries. I watched the entire discussion and took careful notes. Quite honestly, I was surprised by how unaware all of them appeared to be of the widely published arguments against their position. So I decided to write them a rather long email response. As of the publication of this blog post I still have not heard back from any of them. I welcome their input and anything they find in my arguments that are misguided.

Because of the length of my email response, I will post this article in several installments.

Dear Stephen, Steven, and Burk:

I saw the link to your video on the issue of continuationism vs. cessationism. Steve (Nichols), you issued a challenge at the beginning to look closely at the texts on this issue. So, I would humbly ask that the three of you do the same.

I ask this next question without a hint of accusation. Please know my heart. But I can’t help but wonder, and thus ask each of you this question: Have you actually carefully and closely read and responded to the arguments for continuationism in my book, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Comprehensive Guide (Zondervan), or in Jack Deere’s book, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Zondervan)? I ask this question because every point you raised in your panel has been answered in these books (and others as well).

So, in the interest of being a Berean (Steve N, you exhorted us to do this), I ask that you consider the following. I would love to hear your response. If you find anything errant or misleading in what I say, please let me know as I continue to grow in regard to the work of the Spirit.

(1) Steve Lawson, you began the dialogue by referencing Ephesians 2:20.

The cessationist insists that, according to the analogy Paul employs, apostles and prophets belong to the period of the foundation, not the superstructure. That is to say, these two groups and their respective gifts were designed by God to operate only during the early years of the church’s existence in order to lay the once-for-all foundation.

The argument you put forth, as I understand it, is that once the apostles and prophets finished their role in laying the foundation of the church, their gifts were completed, which is to say, they ceased to function and eventually ceased to exist.

But several things must be noted.

The cessationist argument fails to take note of vv. 21-22 where Paul refers to the superstructure of the church as under construction, so to speak, as he speaks/writes (note the consistent use of the present tenses in vv. 21-22). In other words, the apostles and prophets of v. 20, among whom was Paul, were also contributing to the superstructure, of which the Ephesians were a contemporary part, simultaneous with their laying the foundation on which it was being built. We must be careful not to push the metaphor beyond what Paul intended by it.

To use an analogy, once a man establishes a company, writes its by-laws, articulates its vision, hires employees, and does all the work essential in laying the foundation for its future work and productivity, he does not necessarily cease to exist or to serve the company in other capacities. As Jack Deere points out, "the founding director of a company or corporation will always be unique in the sense that he or she was the founder, but that does not mean the company would not have future directors or presidents" (Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, 248).

Furthermore, on the cessationist’s view, all NT prophets functioned foundationally. But there is nothing to suggest that "the prophets" in Ephesians 2:20 is an exhaustive reference to all possible prophets in the church. Why should we conclude that the only kind of prophetic activity is "foundational" in nature, especially in light of what the NT says about the extent and effect of prophetic ministry? It simply isn't possible to believe that all prophetic utterances were part of the once-for-all foundation of the church. For one thing, the NT nowhere says they were. For another, the NT portrays prophetic ministry in an entirely different light from the one most cessationists attempt to deduce from Ephesians 2:20. Surely not everyone who ministered prophetically was apostolic. Therefore, the cessation of the latter is no argument for the cessation of the former.

For example, if your reading of 2:20 is correct, it would mean that all the people on the Day of Pentecost, including "sons and daughters, young men, old men, bondslaves, both men and women," all spoke with infallible apostolic authority. It would mean that Philip’s four daughters, all of whom were prophetesses, spoke with infallible apostolic authority and helped to lay the foundation for the universal church of Jesus Christ.

You are asking us to believe that the long-awaited promise in Joel 2 of the unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit on "all mankind", with its resultant revelatory activity of dreams, visions, and prophecy, was exhaustively fulfilled in only a handful of individuals whose gifting functioned in an exclusively foundational, initiatory, and therefore temporary fashion! Does this theory adequately explain the text? Is the revelatory and charismatic experience of the Spirit, foretold by Joel and cited by Peter, exhaustively fulfilled in a small minority of believers in a mere sixty-year span in only the first century of the church? It seems rather that Joel 2 and Acts 2 are describing normative Christian experience for the entire Christian community in the whole of the New Covenant age, called the "latter days".

Your view would also require us to believe that a group of anonymous disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7) who prophesied upon their conversion (none of which, be it noted, was ever recorded or mentioned again) did so with a view to laying the foundation of the church. It is no less a strain to think that the four daughters of Philip were a part of the once-for-all foundation of the church (Acts 21:9).

On your thesis, all prophetic activity is foundation-laying activity. But if it were, it seems unlikely that Paul would have spoken of prophecy as a gift bestowed to common people for the "common good" of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7-10). Are we to believe that Paul exhorted all believers in every church to earnestly desire that they exercise foundational significance for the universal church (see 1 Cor. 14:1)? On the contrary, prophecy is to be desired because its purpose is to communicate revelation from God that will "encourage" those who are discouraged, "console" those who are disconsolate, and "edify" those who are weak and untaught (1 Cor. 14:3).

Again, I must ask, how does the exposure of an unbeliever's secret sins in the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica and Rome and Laodicea and throughout the inhabited earth, sins such as greed, lust, anger, selfishness, etc., function in laying the once-for-all foundation of the universal church of Jesus Christ? Yet, this is one of the primary purposes for the prophetic gift (1 Cor. 14:24-25).

Paul anticipated that every time Christians gathered for worship that, at least potentially, "each" believer would come with or contribute, among other things, a "revelation" (1 Cor. 14:26). He anticipated that a normal part of Christian experience was receiving revelatory data or insight from God. It is difficult to read his instruction for corporate worship and conclude that he viewed all revelatory, and thus prophetic, ministry as foundational for the universal church. There must have been thousands upon thousands of revelations and prophetic utterances throughout the hundreds of churches over the course of the years between Pentecost and the close of the NT canon. Are we to believe that this multitude of people and their even greater multitude of prophetic words constituted the once-for-all foundation of the church?

You seem to believe that once apostles and prophets ceased to function foundationally, they ceased to function altogether, as if the only purpose for apostles and prophets was to lay the foundation of the church. Nowhere does the NT say this, least of all in Ephesians 2:20. This text need say no more than that apostles and prophets laid the foundation once and for all and then ceased to function in that capacity. But nothing suggests that they ceased to function in other capacities, much less that they ceased to exist altogether. Certainly it is true that only apostles and prophets lay the foundation of the church, but it is anything but certain that such is the only thing they do.

In a word, the portrayal in Acts and 1 Corinthians of who could prophesy and how it was to be exercised in the life of the church simply does not fit with your assertion that Ephesians 2:20 describes all possible prophets, every one of whom functioned as part of the once-for-all foundation of the church. Rather, Paul is there describing a limited group of prophets who were closely connected to the apostles, both of which groups spoke Scripture-quality words essential to the foundation of the church universal.

I conclude that nothing in Ephesians 2:20 (or any other biblical text) suggests, much less requires, that we believe the gift of prophecy ceased following the foundational period of NT church life.

 

2 Comments

Dear Dr. Storms,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to this conference. I am a simple lay person who has attended just about every denomination that exists in the Protestant faith over her life. Four years ago at age 54, my husband and I both had spiritual awakenings. We were both delivered from addiction, me from functional alcoholism and him from tobacco. God did a powerful work in both of our lives, and by the power of the Holy Spirit our lives became radically changed. I prayed to God a simple prayer: to please guide me in the truth. I want to know the truth. I have always believed the core doctrines of the faith, but the secondary issues were so jumbled they must have resembled a Picasso painting. All the parts were there I just didn't know where they belonged. As we really studied the Bible deeply for the first time, we embraced the doctrines of grace. However, my husband's dad was a Pentecostal pastor until he died in 1993, and we both were confused and put off by some of the things we've witnessed in the church down through the years. We've even attended word of faith churches. So in our "deconstruction" process of ridding our hearts of false doctrine and constructing the truth, I especially had many questions about spiritual gifts. I had been listening to S. Lawson's Bible Study podcast, and hearing him describe how the gifts passed away. I have to say that something about all of it didn't seem right to me when I was clearly reading in the Bible no where of indication that they were not for today's believers. At any rate, last week, a couple who are wonderful, older friends of ours in the faith came to visit our farm, and they recommended one of your books to us on the Spiritual Gifts. I ordered it, but in the mean time watched some of your videos and listened to some Bridegway sermons and podcast ( I had seen your name come up occasionally on the GC website. ) so I knew you must be a trusted leader. I can't thank you enough for guiding us both through this transformational process into the image of Jesus. One last thing, yesterday while I having a pedicure, I decided to check my messages. I follow Alistair Begg, and he is doing a series right now on evangelism. So his blogs were all of that nature, except right in the middle of them was a blog on the continuation of the spiritual gifts written June 6th. I believe completely that it was the Holy Spirit confirming what I had already learned and continue to learn.

Thank you, Dr. Storms!
Your work for the Lord is never in vain!
In Christ,

Rebecca Covert
Healing Brook Farm / Thaxton, VA
Thank you for going to the trouble of responding to such a pervasive and crippling doctrine. I had given up defending the truth of continuationism to my fellow co-laborers in the Gospel. I have made my stand and work with those who allow me.
I plan to copy this email and subsequent sessions to my sphere of influence. May God spread His Word and use these emails to cooperate to that end.

God bless you. I am grateful the prostrate challenges have not been able to deter your call or mission.

My wife is very frail (Parkinson’s) and I have been her sole caregiver for the last 3 years. I quit full-time Chaplaincy at a maximum security prison here in Amarillo to care for her. I have been volunteering as much as possible since then.

Your endurance is very encouraging as I have been reading after you through your retirement and persistent ministry. Thanks again.

Our kids have decided we must move to Assisted Living because I am unable to provide the level of care Kandy requires. Through this transition, I plan to make disciples wherever we’re planted. As long as I can.

God’s best blessings on you and your every concern.
Jack McCarty

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