Is the Gift of Prophecy for Today?

Introduction

Inside the evangelical church, a debate rages.  This debate has to do with the question of spiritual gifts: namely, are the spiritual gifts as described in the New Testament available to the church today?  The classical view in the Reformed tradition is that these gifts have ceased with the closing of the canon, drawing insight from Ephesians 2:20 which states that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” meaning that when the last of the apostles died, the availability of the gifts went with them.  On the other hand, there are multitudinous theologians, even some within the Reformed tradition, who argue that the gifts continue to the present age.  These “continuationists” argue that there is little biblical basis for the cessation of the gifts, and therefore, there is no reason we should not expect them to continue today.  The purpose of this paper is to place Sinclair Ferguson, a cessationist, and Craig S. Keener, a continuationist, in conversation in order to determine whether or not the spiritual gifts continue today.  The scope of this paper is rather limited, so the primary gift in focus will be that of prophecy.

Initial Assumptions

Before turning to consider the relevant points in the discussion, it is necessary to establish a few initial assumptions.  First, both sides of the debate readily acknowledge that the Spirit works today.  The Spirit regenerates sinners from spiritual death to life (John 3:3ff), convicts the world of sin (John 16:8), illuminates minds to the truths of the Spirit-inspired Scripture (Psalm 119:18; 2 Timothy 3:16), and glorifies Christ in all that he does (John 16:14).  Thus, the root issue is: what is the nature of the Spirit’s work today regarding the gift of prophecy?  To say that the cessationist camp does not believe the Spirit works today is a gross caricature.

Second, it should be noted that both sides regard this issue as secondary in the evangelical church.  This by no means diminishes the significance of the debate; a variety of practical applications stem from either understanding.  Yet this issue is not in the realm of soteriology, nor does it directly affect the nature of the gospel.  This means that holding either position does not constitute heresy or apostasy from the faith.  To be sure, there is a massive charismatic movement that holds to what is typically called the “prosperity gospel,” and both sides of the cessationism-continuationism debate denounce that movement as apostate.  Yet on the whole, this discussion takes place in-house for the edification of the church, and to say that conservative continuationists support the chaos happening inside some areas of the charismatic movement is great misrepresentation.

A Case for Continuing Prophecy: Craig S. Keener

Having laid the groundwork for the discussion, a case for the continuation of prophecy can now be established.  Craig S. Keener defines prophecy in this way: “the biblical terminology for prophecy is broad enough to include any message that the prophet received from the Lord and made clear was from God.”[1]  Thus, continuationists understand prophecy, at least in the biblical sense, to be a message from God and that its divine origin was subsequently made known to its hearers.[2]  A necessary distinction is made between prophecy and teaching.  On this, Keener notes, “While all inspired speech is ‘prophetic speech’ in the broadest sense of the term…, by ‘prophecies’ Paul specifically means revelatory words, in this case spoken in a congregational setting.  He did not confuse the gift with teaching.”[3]  Thus, “God’s authority was in the prophecy itself to the extent that the prophecy accurately reflected what the Spirit was saying…In prophecy, one was inspired to speak directly as God’s agent, essentially declaring “Thus says the Spirit” (Acts 21:11; Rev. 2:1; 3:1).[4]

For Keener, there appears to be two different levels of prophecy itself.  The first level is receiving.  Properly, this is God’s action of revealing words to the prophet through “visions, dreams, audible voices, ecstatic trances, and…bringing words to the heart and/or mouth of the prophet.”[5]  The implication of this is that these direct words from God are true (Titus 1:2) and unfailing (Isaiah 55:11).  Therefore, it might be concluded that prophecy in current age should be considered as authoritative as the Scriptures.  But, Keener points out via his two-level distinction, this need not be the case.  The second level of prophecy is the proclamation of it, and this proclamation may contain errors: “human error can interfere in our prophecy—even apostles could be mistaken in some assertions or actions (Gal. 2:11-14).”[6]

In light of this, there is a certain discontinuity between prophecy in the Old Testament, which was seen as infallible and authoritative, and the New Testament, which is on a slightly lower authoritative level and potentially fallible.  Insofar as the New Testament prophecy conforms to the already revealed word, it is authoritative.  As far as it differs, it can be cast aside as human error.  Therefore, there is now a basis for the continuation of prophecy that coincides with the closing of the authoritative canon.  Moreover, Paul’s statements to “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22) seem to indicate the continuation of prophecy as well as the distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative words from the Lord.

A Case for the Cessation of Prophecy: Sinclair Ferguson

On the other hand, there are a variety of arguments put forth by cessationists that the gift of prophecy has not continued to the present day.  First and foremost, Sinclair Ferguson notes, “In the Old Testament the prophet…was the mouthpiece of God, and the instrument of divine revelation.  That revelation came, of course, in various forms and was delivered in a variety of ways (Heb. 1:1; Acts 2:17).”[7]  Thus, the definition given above for prophecy (i.e., a message that the prophet receives from the Lord and then makes known that it has divine origin) can be adopted by cessationists as well.  However, the distinction Keener makes between receiving and proclamation is not made by the cessationist.  Ferguson argues, “Common to all modes [of prophecy], however, was the notion that the words of the Lord became the words of the prophets: his words in their mouths and on their lips (Dt. 18:18-19; cf. Je. 1:9).”[8]  Thus, the departure between cessationists and continuationists seems to be at this point.

This lack of distinction between receiving and proclaiming means that prophecy in the New Testament is of the same kind as that found in Old Testament.  Therefore, “when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken” (Deuteronomy 18:22).  Thus, it may be concluded that any supposed “word from the Lord” during the New Testament age that does not come to pass renders that particular person a false prophet.  It is not simply that they have erred in what was otherwise a genuine word from the Lord; it is that “the prophet has spoken it presumptuously” (Deuteronomy 18:22).  Commenting on the distinction between receiving and relaying prophecy, Ferguson states, “The problem with the thesis is that, if this is the case, the line between fallible and false becomes dangerously thin.  We may well ask: How fallible is false?”[9]

Probably the central argument that cessationists make is from Ephesians 2:19-20, Paul says that “the household of God [is] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”  Therefore, the cessationist argues, if the offices of apostles and prophets have ceased, so have the gifts associated with their respective offices.  The foundation need not be rebuilt in every generation; rather, it is firmly established by the apostles and prophets once for all.  Thus, there need not be apostles and prophets in each new generation, and if there is no longer a prophetic office, prophecy is no longer given.  At this point, it should be noted that cessationists are seeking to defend the sufficiency of Scripture (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17).  With the passing of the prophetic office came the cessation of new revelation.  It is then argued that the current revelation, the Bible, is sufficient for a life pleasing to God.  This renders new revelation, that found in prophecy, unnecessary.  God has already given his people sufficient revelation to know him and live a life pleasing to him, and there is therefore no need for any more special revelation.

Questions and Responses

There is an assortment of questions that continuationists could ask to cessationists at this point.  First, What biblical basis do you have for saying that prophecy has ceased?  There is no explicit text in the Scriptures that argue for the cessation of prophecy (or the other gifts, for that matter).  It is mostly an argument from silence.  Second, What do you do with texts that explicitly teach us to eagerly pursue the spiritual gifts?  1 Thessalonians 5, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Romans 12 all contain discussions of the gifts, with no indication that they will cease.  Thus, a cessationist will have to account for the apparent purposelessness of these texts.  Third, Does your view threaten the sovereignty of the Spirit of God?  Often, a charge against the cessationist position is that it “puts God in a box.”  This box, neatly constructed so as to remove the unpredictability of God, makes the Spirit controllable, limited only to the pages of Scripture.

To the first question, a cessationist might answer: there is no explicit text saying they will continue either.[10]  This is an argument from silence as much as the other side is as well.  Second, those individual texts must be read in light of the audience to whom it was written.  Moreover, the canon had not yet closed at that point, and new revelation was certainly to be expected.  Third, a cessationist might argue that God has constrained himself to working within these boundaries.  The question is not whether God can add to his revelation via prophecy; it is simply that he has promised that he will not.  This is confirmed by statements like Hebrews 1:2 which says he has spoken once for all by his Son.

Conversely, several questions must be asked of the continuationist camp.  First, What biblical basis do you have for making New Testament prophecy different than Old Testament prophecy?  The New Testament seems to assume the same view of prophecy as the Old Testament, which means that prophecy should be just as authoritative and inerrant across both testaments.  Thus, a second question: Is today’s prophecy authoritative and inerrant?  If not, why not?  If it is authoritative and inerrant, at least in the classical understanding of those terms, then it cannot be said that it can be intermingled with error, as Keener claims.  If God is powerful enough to put his words in the mouth and on the lips of his prophets, how can it be said that the prophet failed to adequately communicate the exact message he or she received from God?  Third, Does your view do damage to the sufficiency of Scripture?  This is, admittedly, an indirect argument but one that has much practical and theological significance.  In what sense can we trust that the Scriptures really are enough for our lives if God needs to provide new revelation now?

Regarding these three questions, a continuationist might answer as follows: First, as Keener notes, “our prophecies are not perfect or complete, for we all ‘know in part and prophesy in part’ (1 Cor. 13:9).”[11]  A distinction seems to be made clearly in this text.  Secondly, today’s prophecy is neither inerrant nor authoritative in the same way that the Scriptures are.  This is due to the distinction between receiving and relaying the prophecy.  A prophet’s proclamation of a word from the Lord might be fallible because of the prophet’s own failings; this is not due to the inerrancy of the original message, but only to that fallibility of the prophet.  Thirdly, this view does not do damage to the sufficiency of Scripture because this way of thinking about prophecy elevates Scripture above contemporary forms of prophecy.  It is not on the same level as the Bible, and therefore should not be considered a threat to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.

Implications for Pneumatology

To close, an exploration of some of the implications of this study can now be brought to light.  First, the Spirit’s work in one area will not contradict his work in another area.  This might be rather obvious, but it is vital to an understanding of the nature of prophecy.  This means that any alleged prophecy received must conform to the revealed Word.  Any message that explicitly or implicitly contradicts the Word is not from the Lord and should be rejected immediately.  Next, the work of the Spirit is not constrained to the gifts he administers.  That is, the Spirit works at times apart from the gifts he gives to the church.  His work of regeneration, conviction, and illumination is not properly a gift he gives to his people.  Thus, his work is not limited solely to the distribution of spiritual gifts.  It is important to keep this in mind when discussing the work of the Spirit.  Third, ministry in this age is empowered by the Spirit.  One point to make here is that these are spiritual gifts, given by the Spirit.  Humans cannot attain them in their own power, nor are they grounds for boasting for having certain gifts.  On the contrary, these gifts should make the church dependent on the Spirit for its very existence and sustenance in ministry.

Implications for Christology

Finally, implications for Christology should be noted as well.  First, The Spirit always works with a Christological focus.  In John 16:14 Jesus declares that the Spirit “will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  This means that in one way or another, either directly or indirectly, the Spirit’s work glorifies Jesus.  With this in mind, discussing the work of the Spirit apart from a Christ-centered locus is naïve.  The Spirit’s work is to glorify Jesus.  Without that important qualifier, one may be tempted to discuss the work of the Spirit with no practical control.  Thus, everything may be seen as a “work of the Spirit,” regardless of whether the Spirit actually wrought it or if it was simply a burning in one’s bosom, so to speak.  This focus allows Christians to have practical, biblical limits on what we assign to be the work of the Spirit.  If it points to, confirms the divinity of, and glorifies Jesus as the Christ, then we can be confident that it is the work of the Spirit, no matter how the work may manifest itself.


[1] Craig S. Keener, Three Crucial Questions about the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 117.

[2] It should be noted that cessationists also affirm this scope of the meaning of biblical prophecy.

[3] Keener, Three Crucial Questions, 118.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 117.

[6] Ibid., 119.

[7] Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 214.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 216.

[10] 1 Corinthians 13:10 is hotly disputed regarding this point.

[11] Keener, Three Crucial Questions, 119.


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