Thoughts on the Spirit

I used to think that cessationism (the view that some spiritual gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and apostleship were given by God for the foundational period of the church and then ceased) was based on a severe misreading of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10:

“Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part an we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.”

Some cessationists argue that “the perfect,” which eliminates the need for these spiritual gifts, is the completed New Testament canon. That dog won’t hunt. I think that reading is completely unsustainable. The context obviously points to the Second Coming of Christ as “the perfect,” and Paul’s point is not to lay out a scheme for various phases in the age of the church but rather to show that love always endures. If that were the only argument for cessationism (as I used to think it was), then it would be an untenable position.

However, I have come to see that arguments for cessationism have been derived from other biblical teachings, particularly the link between apostles and prophets in Ephesians 2:20 (and other passages) and the eschatological significance of Pentecost and the early period of the church’s life. Richard Gaffin’s book Perspectives on Pentecost is the best thing I have read on the subject, and he has gone a long way toward convincing me that a moderate form of cessationism is true to the flow of Scripture. He also addresses 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 and agrees that “the perfect” is the Second Coming, but he shows how this text is basically irrelevant to the issue, since Paul did not have in mind distinctions within the present age but simply made a contrast between the partial, mediated knowledge we have now and the perfect knowledge we will have when we see face to face in the coming age. I won’t rehash all of Gaffin’s arguments here, but I will commend the book to you for your consideration.

The point of this post is to draw out an argument from Gaffin’s book and relate it to a new issue that confronts the church today. Cessationists have been accused of putting God in a box, limiting the freedom of the Spirit to blow where he wills by a rigid theology. Whatever you think of the debate between charismatics and cessationists, this issue confronts us in another form today. Pluralists and inclusivists argue that the Holy Spirit is at work in revelatory and salvific ways apart from Scripture and the preaching of the gospel. The distinction between common grace and saving grace has been blurred to the point that God’s revelatory and salvific work has been discerned pretty much everywhere and in everything. Critics of this theological trend (like myself) have been accused of putting God in a box, limiting the freedom of the Spirit to blow where he wills, illegitimately subordinating the Spirit to the Word. Does this criticism hold any water? Gaffin provides a solid answer in his defense of cessationism, which I believe applies to this debate as well:

One frequently voiced objection to the view that tongues and prophecy have ceased is that it denies the freedom of the Holy Spirit (“puts the Spirit in the confining box of our limited theologies”) and conflicts with the biblical teaching that the Spirit distributes gifts “just as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). The weight of this objection is more apparent than real. At issue here is not the sovereign right and power of the Spirit to do what he pleases, but the pattern by which God chooses to reveal his Word to the church, the structure or order which the Spirit has set for himself in his freedom.

No doubt the Spirit is like the wind, which “blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8); much about his working we find incalculable and mysterious. As the Spirit of the living God, truly his ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts, just as the heavens are higher than the earth (Isa. 55:9). But the impenetrability and incomprehensibility of the Spirit’s work must never be stressed one-sidedly or absolutized, so that the bounds of his revealing activity, definitely indicated by the Spirit himself in Scripture, are obscured or denied. Those bounds, as I have tried to show, provide the church with a foundational, apostolic revelation, adequate and complete for every need and blessing, permitting no additions, until Christ’s return–an event which when it takes place with its precursors, the New Testament suggests, will not be the occasion for widespread division and uncertainty within the church about whether or not it has occurred.

My purpose is not to stir up debate between cessationism and continuationism. There are adherents to both sides who would agree with my general concern about inclusivism and pluralism (on the continuationist side, John Piper and Wayne Grudem would probably be good examples). But I do see Gaffin’s argument as applicable to our modern situation, where it has become unfashionable to “test the spirits” by the Word of God. I believe the Spirit is at work in all of creation, but this does not mean we can identify his revelatory and salvific work wherever we think we see something good. All things must be tested by Scripture. This is not limiting the freedom of the Spirit; it is, rather, affirming his freedom to fulfill his purpose not to speak on his own initiative, but to testify to the revealed, incarnate Christ (John 15:26; 16:12-15). In a world where many antichrists have already come (1 John 2:18), Scripture is our guide to test the spirits and hold on to the truth of God while disregarding that which is false. This is an indescribable gift of God, not an unwarranted limitation.


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