Some Thoughts on Revelatory Gifts of the Spirit and the Sufficiency of Scripture1
Perhaps the single greatest criticism from cessationists is their belief that the charismatic embrace of revelatory gifts of the Spirit, such as prophecy and word of knowledge, undermines and is inconsistent with the sufficiency of Scripture. As odd as this may initially sounds, I believe the opposite is true. It is the cessationist denial of the on-going validity of revelatory gifts that compromises the sufficiency of Scripture.
By the sufficiency of Scripture many things are meant, but at the heart of the doctrine is our belief that the Bible contains every theological truth and every ethical norm that is required for living a Christ-exalting and God-glorifying life. What the Bible contains and teaches is “enough” to enable us to lead godly lives in this present age.
This then raises the question: “What precisely does the Bible say that God has done or provided to enable us to be edified and built up and thoroughly equipped for every good work?” Among the many things that it says God has done and provided is the blessing of the many spiritual gifts, those in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 in particular. The “all-sufficient” Word of God explicitly commands us to earnestly desire “the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31a), which Paul goes on to identify primarily as prophecy. He again commands us to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1). Again, “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:5a). And if there is any doubt about Paul’s meaning, he closes this chapter with the exhortation, “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39).
Note well: it is in the all-sufficient Scriptures that we find these exhortations. It is the Bible that we believe tells us everything we need for Christian growth and godliness in which we find these commands. Do we believe the Bible tells us what to embrace and what to avoid? Yes. Do we believe the Bible is altogether sufficient to give us every command that we need to obey and every warning that we need to heed? Yes. Do we believe the Bible warns us about those misguided beliefs and practices that may well threaten its own sufficiency? Yes.
Well, what then does the Bible say about revelatory gifts of the Spirit? It says we need them because they serve “the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). It says prophecy is given to God’s people “for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3). It says that when we come into the corporate gathering of God’s people “each one has a hymn, a lesson [or teaching], a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation,” and that all things should “be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26). And yet nowhere does it ever remotely suggest, much less explicitly assert, that the on-going validity of the very gifts it endorses are a dangerous threat to the reality of Scripture’s own sufficiency.
So, let me address myself to my cessationist friends.
Where do you think we continuationists derive our belief in the on-going validity of miraculous gifts of the Spirit? We didn’t concoct the idea on our own. We get our view from Scripture! It is the Scriptures, the all-sufficient Scriptures that teach us to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that we might prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1). It is the Scriptures, the all-sufficient Scriptures that teach us that such gifts are not merely given to authenticate the apostolic message but also to build up God’s people (1 Cor. 12:7; and all of 1 Corinthians 14). It is the Scriptures, the all-sufficient Scriptures that tell us to “earnestly desire to prophesy, and” not to “forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39). It is the Scriptures, the all-sufficient Scriptures that tell us that in the New Covenant age inaugurated at Pentecost God’s people, young and old, male and female, will experience revelatory dreams and visions and will prophesy (Acts 2). And it is the Scriptures, the all-sufficient Scriptures that nowhere tell us that these revelatory gifts will only last for about 50 or 60 years and then disappear.
My point here is that to believe in the sufficiency of Scripture means that we believe what it says and obey its commands. But you would appear to appeal to the notion of the Bible’s sufficiency in order to deny the Bible’s functional authority. That is the irony. You say you believe the Bible is inerrant and sufficient to tell us all we need to know to live godly lives, but then you deny the Bible’s teaching concerning the operation of spiritual gifts to build up and edify God’s people. If you truly believe in the Bible’s sufficiency, then tell me where in the Bible it teaches that the revelatory gifts of the Spirit and other miraculous charismata were designed only for the few decades of the first century.
I have heard not a few cessationists say something to the effect that God gave prophets to receive that revelation until the apostolic message reached its final maturity and so ceased. With the completion of the message, the need for the revelatory gifts was also complete. May I ask: Where in the NT does any author ever say that? What text or texts might you cite to support that assertion? One cessationist mentioned Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11 (the latter of which, by the way, says that apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastor-teachers were given “until” !!!! we reach our final and consummate maturity as conformed to Christ, and dare I say that won’t happen until the second coming). But where in any of these texts or in any others are we told that the spiritual gift of prophecy is not needed because we have the “completion of the message”?
If, as you cessationists undoubtedly believe, the Bible is sufficient for all instruction and sufficient to provide inerrant guidance for whatever we might need to grow in godliness, then why does the all-sufficient Bible not say what you continually assert? Wouldn’t it have been prudent for the apostles to have told us that their teaching on revelatory gifts was only intended by God to operate for a mere 50 or 60 years of church life?
What continues to boggle my mind is that cessationists who affirm the sufficiency of the Bible cannot admit that this very Bible fails to provide us with a single text in which we are told that the many gifts it encourages us to pursue and practice were temporary or were characterized by some inherent obsolescence.
I must repeat myself here. If the Bible is sufficient to give us all we need to live godly lives, and I certainly believe it is, then why does it not give us a single, solitary text in which it tells us to ignore the exhortations to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, or a single, solitary text in which it tells us that the revelatory gifts that were given to edify and encourage the people of God were not meant for any generation of Christians beyond those of the first century? Why does the written word only tell us to make good use of such gifts for the edification of the body and not tell us that such was only meant for the early church? I simply don’t know how my cessationist friends can affirm biblical sufficiency when they disregard without textual support the many examples and exhortations concerning the use of these gifts.
So, in summary, I contend that if you believe in the sufficiency and the functional authority of Scripture, you must necessarily believe in the on-going validity and edifying power of revelatory gifts of the Spirit.