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The Spiritual Gifts
Welcome to Episode 45 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes I will try to challenge one of the dominant myths in the modern Reformed churches – or, I should say, churches who pass for “Reformed” – namely, the myth of cessationism, the myth that the Bible says it, somewhere, no one knows where, that the gifts of the Spirit described in 1 Corinthians 12-14 were supposed to cease, to pass away at some point in AD 1st century. That is, what was described as a normal and normative in Scripture for the early church, and especially for its worship gatherings (1 Cor. 14), suddenly became obsolete and even heretical for the church after AD 1st century. That the gifts which Scripture describes as “of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:1-11), and therefore present wherever the Spirit is present (Mark 16:17-18), have suddenly become only “apostolic” (a word Scripture never uses), and therefore have passed away with the passing away of the apostles. And if we have the time, I will also show how that doctrine is partially responsible for the retreat of the Reformed churches in America from their previous position of cultural influence and dominance, and also for the ghettoization of the Church and for the rise of the celebrity cult in the churches.
If you are a Reformed Christian in any kind of Reformed – or supposedly Reformed – denomination or church, odds are, you have been taught that cessationism is the default Reformed position. And of course, it is dominant today in the supposedly “Reformed” seminaries, and since Reformed churches only get their teaching elders from those seminaries, it is also the dominant position of most “Reformed” pulpits. If you ask about sources, you will be referred to Benjamin Warfield’s book, Counterfeit Miracles, which, despite its multiple examples of poor logic, poor historical scholarship, and lack of any Biblical support – mostly rationalist conjectures and a priori reasoning fallacies – is considered a classic in the field. Among Christian Reconstructionists, Greg Bahnsen had audio lectures and Ken Gentry has a book against the continuation of the spiritual gifts today. (Unfortunately, for all my respect for these two men, their position on this specific issue is just as un-Biblical and illogical as that of Warfield; but I will probably give them a specific refutation in a future episode.) If you ask about direct Biblical justification of cessationism, what you will be given is 1 Cor. 13:8, “Love never fails; but if there are gifts ofprophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.” We will talk about the meaning of the this verse in a few minutes, but for now it is worth mentioning that even if that verse really spoke of cessation of gifts in history, it is only one verse. The rest of the argumentation you will be given will be either rationalist conjectures or experientialist complaints. Among the rationalist conjectures you will find arguments like, “We have Scripture, we don’t need any other supernatural revelation,” as if supernatural revelation must by default compete with Scripture. Or, “the gifts were given only as a testimony to the Jews” – a claim that has no support in Scripture. Among the experientialist complaints, the main one is, “We don’t see the gifts practiced today, therefore they must have ceased.” Another one is, “Look at the abuses in the modern Charismatic churches; therefore, the gifts must have ceased.” In the final account, the whole intellectual defense of cessationism relies on one isolated verse and on a number of extra-Biblical conjectures and logical fallacies. Whereas the Bible contains systematic – and in some places, quite detailed – description of the function of the spiritual gifts and their importance in the New Covenant, the Biblical support for cessationism is quite meager.
Not all Reformed theologians in the last 100 years have been cessationists, of course. A few have remained unconvinced in the Biblical veracity of the doctrines of the cessation of gifts. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is perhaps the most well-known name among them; in his series of sermons, The Sovereign Spirit, he has shown the inconsistency of cessationism with the Biblical message. Even among those who have adopted a mildly cessationist view, there are those who have remained mindful of the impossibility to defend cessationism directly from the Bible. Greg Bahnsen, even in the context of his lectures against the spiritual gifts, still admitted that the only verses that directly speaks of cessation of gifts, 1 Cor. 13:8, is not a good proof text for the doctrine. This left him without any direct support from the Bible, and he had to find extra-Biblical proofs for his thesis. A more interesting case is Rushdoony, who, even though he followed the academic tradition of modern Presbyterianism to assert the cessation of gifts (he believed they have ceased in AD 70) still rejected the main intellectual argument for cessationism, namely, that there can be no more direct revelation after the completion of the canon. In his Systematic Theology, in the chapter on the Holy Spirit, he pointed to the logical connection between the Reformed and the Charismatic doctrines:
But, as he continues, “this is clearly not the case.” He hits the core of the problem when he discusses the philosophical reason for it:
In the same chapter, Rushdoony figured out that at the foundation of modern cessationism is Enlightenment rationalism, and he said clearly on page 324 of his book. “The result,” he said, “was that the form of Christianity remained, but its power was diminished or negated.” And then he concluded,
Saying these things, Rushdoony was not out of line with historic Reformed theology. To the contrary, modern cessationism is a novelty compared to Reformed theology. It indeed, didn’t enter Reformed churches until the Enlightenment took hold of their theology. Before the 1850s, the continuing validity of the spiritual gifts was an established doctrine in Reformed circles. Puritan and Presbyterian divines (including names like John Knox and Samuel Rutherford) acknowledged the validity of the spiritual gifts; the belief in their continuation was even included in the Second Book of Discipline of the Scottish Kirk of 1578 (which means that modern Presbyterian cessationists would have been excommunicated for their cessationist beliefs). Scotland and England in the 16th and the 17th centuries saw a higher concentration of miraculous and revelatory gifts than even the early church. Both Presbyterian and Puritan church leaders and ordinary members experienced and practiced different supernatural gifts and manifestations, from word of knowledge and prophecies to healing ministries, speaking in tongues, and even raising people from the dead. (Yes, some Scottish divines even raised people from the dead.) All these were abundantly documented at the time, and were summarized in several books, the most popular among which was John Howie’s Scots Worthies. The book was published in 1775, when Presbyterians still believed in the validity of the spiritual gifts. When the book went through a second publishing, in the late 1840s, the editor purged from it all mentions of supernatural gifts – at the time, the rationalism of the Enlightenment had already permeated the Reformed churches, and the doctrine of the spiritual gifts was rejected. Historically, as far as the Reformation goes, the real novelty was cessationism. The original views of the Reformed churches were Charismatic. If anything, the modern Charismatic renewal is only a reaction to the Reformed churches dropping the ball on the doctrine of the spiritual gifts.
Before 1900, every single theologian interpreted 1 Cor. 13:8 as applied to the last day of history. Obviously, the “perfect thing” can’t happen before the end of history. Calvin himself declared “stupid” any discussion that referred it to an intermediate time. Calvin himself made a few isolated cessationist statements, but he never gave any Biblical foundation for them, and at times sounds unsure of them. Meanwhile, his spiritual and intellectual heirs developed both the doctrine and the practice of the gifts. When reading all the occurrences of miraculous gifts and manifestations in the Reformation in England and Scotland, the question is: “Where were the cessationists to tell these people that such things shouldn’t be happening?”
It becomes even more interesting when we go back to the early centuries of the church. Not only didn’t the church believe in a cessation of gifts, but even the designations “apostle” and “prophet” were maintained for most of the history of the church. John Knox was called by his heirs “the Prophet and Apostle of our nation.” The history of the church is full with such apostles: St, Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland; St. Boniface, The Apostle of Germany, Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slavs, etc. Throughout its history, the church also had its acknowledged – and some unacknowledged – prophets and even prophetesses. Prophecies were seldom despised, even if they sounded weird. My favorite example of such Biblical attitude to prophecies is Oliver Cromwell’s military council on the Christmas night of 1648. The council had convened to decide the fate of Charles I. That night, the procedures of the council were interrupted by the intrusion of a woman who claimed to be a prophetess of God, and that she had a message from God to the council. The message was that the council should refrain from sentencing the King to death. The message was clearly against the desires of most military commanders; and yet, these same commanders interrupted their gathering for the purpose of examining the woman to decide if the message was really from God. The examination and the discussions over the prophecy continued for several days, and they included distinguished Puritan divines like John Owen, who was Cromwell’s personal chaplain at the time. Again, the question is, Where were the cessationists? And such historical examples are way more than we are aware of.
So what is the Biblical position on the spiritual gifts?
It is obvious that the Bible speaks of the spiritual gifts in some very particular details. Three chapters are devoted specifically to the theory and practice of the spiritual gifts in the church: 1 Cor. 12-14. Other verses also point to the significance and meaning of the gifts, for example, Mark 16:16-18. The New Testament also contains a very strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit, one that is seldom replicated in the sermons of our modern Reformed churches. If anything, the New Testament has much more material on the gifts of the Spirit than it has on water baptism . . . and, as I mentioned in a previous podcast, every time it mentions of water baptism, it also mentions baptism in the Spirit, as a higher and more important baptism. (And yet, baptism in the Spirit is entirely ignored in the modern supposedly “Reformed” churches.)
The spiritual gifts are not described as something limited to a specific age; there is no such verse in the Bible. The gifts are specifically declared to be “of the Spirit,” and their purpose is specifically declared to be the establishment of Christians in the faith (Rom. 1:11). Obviously, such need for establishment can’t be limited to a specific period of history. There are more purposes of the gifts, as well, the main among which is the unity of the body. 1 Corinthians 12 is the chapter entirely devoted to this principle, starting with the gifts of the Spirit and continuing with the unity of the body which these gifts serve. Another purpose of the gifts is evangelism, and especially convicting unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:24). None of these purposes can be limited to AD 1stcentury; they are all relevant to the church in all of history, and they just as needed today as they were in the early church. And just as valid.
Obviously, also, the spiritual gifts have a function in what we call today a “church service,” or the gathering of the saints. 1 Cor. 14 is by fat the most detailed chapter in the Bible describing what a church service is supposed to look like. I will leave for a future episode the hypocrisy of those today in Presbyterian circles who beat themselves in the chest about the “Regulative Principle of Worship,” and yet judiciously avoid mentioning the only chapter that describes in detail Christian gatherings. The reason is obvious: 1 Cor. 14 give a very clear preeminence to the supernatural gifts in the church service, and specifically to the revelatory gifts, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation. Tongues are to be used in prayer and singing, in balance with prayer and singing with the mind, and the chapter specifically regulates the order of prophesying and the self-control of the prophets in church. Given this detailed information, it is absolutely absurd to imagine that one day, when the last apostle died, the church of Corinth had to all of a sudden change their mode of service, because the old mode had suddenly become “heretical.” In addition, the idea that the mode of service had abruptly changed with the completion of the canon leaves modern cessationists with a big scriptural problem: that the modern church service has no mandate in Scripture, for Scripture was written before the supposed cessation of the gifts. So much for sola scriptura.
It is then expected that there would be no specific, direct verse in Scripture that speaks of the cessation of gifts. For all the detailed descriptions of the gifts and their purpose and function and use, we have not a single specific verse to speak of any cessation before the end of history. Not a single verse. I have read as many cessationists interpretations as I could lay my hands on, and none of them give any Biblical verse supporting the idea of cessation. Everything they have is indirect rationalizations, but never a direct verse. Isn’t it strange that God would give such detailed descriptions and then fail to mention that they don’t count anymore?
The main such indirect rationalization used by cessationists is the claim that modern prophecy will by default undermine the authority of Scripture; or, if that prophecy is true prophecy, then it must be recorded as new Scripture. Ironically, the Bible contains a very direct refutation of this argument. The main argument for the sufficiency of Scripture are Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Tim. 3:16-17, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” According to the verse before, 15, Timothy knew the Scriptures from his childhood. And yet, it is that same Timothy whom Paul reminds to remember the prophecy which first pointed and on the basis of which he was ordained. And Paul mentions it not just once but twice: 1 Tim. 1:18 and 4:14. If prophecy conflicts with Scripture, why would Paul remind Timothy of a prophecy, if Timothy already had a near perfect knowledge of Scripture?
The answer to this is that prophecy and Scripture are not in conflict; they just operate in totally different spheres. To quote Calvin on 1 Cor. 12:
So prophecy, under historic Calvinism, is revelation and special inspiration, but it is not writing Scripture, only applying it. That is, prophecy relates to Scripture in the same way engineering relates to science: applies general principles to present use. For this application, the human mind is not sufficient – while Scripture is clear and open to all, its applications in a complex may be quite difficult even for the brightest minds. In this, the Holy Spirit comes to aid by giving us revelation – in different ways, including prophecy and miracles – of how Scripture should be applied. Just reading Scripture won’t tell Timothy whether he was supposed to continue the business of his father or become Paul’s apprentice and later an apostle. Such everyday choices must be all controlled and guided by the Holy Spirit. As Rushdoony says in this regard, the charismatics have not gone far enough. We can’t limit the Spirit to specific meetings and revival sessions. We need Him to speak every day, in every place, to everything, in direct application of His Word.
The argument that “there are so many abuses with prophecies in charismatic churches” doesn’t hold water either. For one, if Reformed Christians have abandoned the doctrine of the spiritual gifts altogether, we have no real theological basis to know if something is an abuse or not. You can’t beat something with nothing. It is also an argument that works in many other directions. The vast majority of Presbyterian churches have severe cases of abuse of pulpit (disastrous sermons of the lowest possible quality) and of authority (cases of incredible injustice by church sessions against individual church members). Are we then to assume that preaching and church government have ceased? By the way, the Bible does say that in the New Covenant, the people of God will need no teaching and no guidance by men, Jer. 31:34 and Heb. 8:11, so there’s that. Perhaps we should argue for the cessation of preaching and church government because of the Biblical promise and the obvious abuses in Presbyterian churches?
But the most obvious argument against cessationism is the loss of cultural influence of the church in the 20th century. The abandonment of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts didn’t come at zero price. What it did to the churches is that it destroyed the concept of spiritual authority. Once the Holy Spirit was silenced through the introduction of a rationalist theology, the criteria for church leaders changed. No more are leaders expected to demonstrate any spiritual gifts as in the early days of Presbyterianism in Scotland. In fact, if anything, such manifestation of spiritual gifts would earn these elders ostracism and even excommunication. In fact, these days, even just an opinion that is off the mainstream center in the churches can earn that. Let’s not forget that both Rushdoony and Bahnsen had problems with the OPC, the former for his stance against government schools, the latter for theonomy. Modern church governments have become faceless bureaucracies manned by people who have no gifts, no identity, and bring nothing whatsoever to the table except for their ability to pass the bar for eldership. A mass of such faceless people is the fertile soil for the celebrity cult: gifted men skillful in manipulation rise above the mass and use the bureaucratic oligarchies in the churches to build their careers. The final result of all this is that the church suffers defeat after defeat in the culture, while at the same time its leaders only encourage apathy in their followers. The loss of the doctrine of the spiritual gifts naturally leads to the church being governed by men with no gifts at all. But this, after all, is what works for the leadership. For, as Rushdoony says in his Systematic Theology,
The only solution to all these problems – from the abuses in the charismatic churches, through the institutional abuses within the Reformed churches, to the lack of real spiritual authority in the churches today – is the rejection of the rationalist doctrine of cessationism. We as Reformed Christians need to start working on building a Biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and a Biblical doctrine of the purpose, function, and practice of the gifts. We can’t beat something with nothing. We better start working on the something.
The reading I will assign this week is an article in three parts I wrote: “A Truly Covenantal View of Prophecy and the Other Gifts.” It is my attempt at restoring the dominance of Reformed theology in a field we have abandoned. It is by no means exhaustive. If you disagree, that’s OK. Just give it its day in court.
And I would like to issue my regular call to help Bulgarian Reformation Ministries, a mission which preaches and teaches a comprehensive Gospel to all of life, in Eastern Europe. Help us continue our work in translating and publishing Christian books, and build the intellectual foundation of the future Christian civilization in Eastern Europe. Visit BulgarianReformation.com. Subscribe to the newsletter, and donate. God bless you all.
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