What I liked best about The Cessation of Special Revelation: A Humble Argument for the Cessation of NT Prophecy and Tongues, a blog series posted last year by Dr. Robert R. Gonzales, Jr., Dean of Reformed Baptist Seminary is the refreshing way that it takes the “humble” part seriously. Dean Gonzales comports himself as a gentleman throughout, without the faintest whiff of ad hominem. He also approaches the subject as a scholar, concentrating his argument on how best to understand the relevant scriptural texts. In this he takes on Wayne Grudem’s position on prophecy, as laid out in The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today. The fact that he chooses a worthy interlocutor such as Dr. Grudem is commendable. As a whole Dean Gonzales takes an approach that ought to be widely emulated.
He is also clear. He lays out his main thesis in a form of a syllogism, and backs it up with scriptural citation and logical discussion. The syllogism reads as follows:
Major Premise: All pre-parousia divinely authoritative special revelation has been completed and has, therefore, ceased.
Minor Premise: NT prophecy and tongues are forms of pre-parousia divinely authoritative special revelation.
Conclusion: Therefore, tongues and prophecy have ceased.
Appreciative as I am of his approach, I am not, however, convinced by his argument. It is a variation of a fairly conventional one, tying the term of charismata to that of the Canon. In fact I have to object to his references to “scriptural-quality revelation.” The Bible ascribes, I think, unique attributes to itself. There is no other revelation, never has been, of equal “quality” to that of Scripture.
This is why the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, to which both Dean Gonzales and Reformed Baptist Seminary ascribe states that:
“The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.”
In multiple places Dean Gonzales makes reference to oral prophecy in the early New Testament church as “canonical.” If this is so, I cannot see how to avoid the conclusion that not only the Holy Scripture, but also every genuine prophecy ever uttered would constitute the Canon. The Confession, at least, would seem to limit canonicity to those prophecies that the Holy Spirit saw fit to inscripturate.
Similarly, the Bible warrants application of the term inspiration to the Scriptures, the written product of the Holy Spirit’s work. Whether we are justified in using “inspired” for other manifestations of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:7) is not readily obvious, to me at least, and his doing so tends to give Dr. Gonzales’ argument a certain circularity, assuming facts not in evidence.
Again, to the Confession, the Bible is the only “infallible” rule. Contrary to the dean’s assertion or assumption and (perhaps) even Dr. Grudem’s understanding, even Old Testament oral prophecy was not “infallible” in the way that the Scriptures are.
If OT era prophecy were infallible, how could there be false prophecies? I find it odd that verses such as Deut. 18:22 are often cited to suggest that OT era oral prophecy was inerrant or infallible, when it demonstrates precisely the opposite:
“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; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”
We are never similarly warned to watch out for “false Scriptures.” In both the OT and the NT era, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32). The Word of the Lord came to the prophet (Gen. 15:1, 1 Sam. 15:10, 2 Sam. 7:4). In this last reference, Nathan received the Word of the Lord precisely because Nathan the prophet had spoken presumptuously to David earlier in the day (2 Sam. 7:3). There is no great intertestamental shift involved that would allow for similarly presumptuous utterances in the NT era, such as the instructions to Paul not to go to Jerusalem, which he sees fit to ignore (Acts 21:4).
The OT prophet was responsible to report the Word of the Lord accurately, though he could fail to do so. The Scriptures, on the other hand, by being theopneustos are guaranteed—certified to be the Word of the Lord. They are thus of a quality above and beyond that of oral prophecy, in any era. This is why Peter specifies “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Pet 1:20, emphasis mine). The distinction of two levels of prophecy: “Scripture-quality” and otherwise, does not originate with Dr. Grudem, but is apostolic.
Now, one specific line of argument calls for special mention. In his part seven he makes a point about the word “mystery” (μυστήριον), which at first blush gives an impression of decisiveness and may in fact be persuasive to many people. Yet I’m afraid it does not hold up to scrutiny.
As he makes the point succinctly, I will simply quote him:
What I really want to call your attention to is the fact that according to 13:2 and 14:2 both prophecy and tongues reveal “mysteries.” The term “mysteries” is not referring to garbled nonsense. That term translates the same Greek word that Paul used in Ephesians 3 to speak of the canonical-level NT special revelation uttered by apostles and prophets. And according to these passages in 1 Corinthians, these “mysteries” are “known” through the gift of prophecy (13:2) and they are “spoken” through the gift of tongues (14:2).
This argument fails in at least three ways:
1. In bringing in Ephesians 3:3-9, Dean Gonzales commits a neat little fallacy known as “illegitimate totality transfer.” The red flag that should tip us off to this is his phrase “the same Greek word that Paul used…to speak of…” This is meant to imply that the Eph. 3 passage provides us the definition of the term μυστήριον, that is, that it refers to “canonical-level NT special revelation uttered by apostles and prophets.” But this semantic information is not carried by the single noun μυστήριον, but by an entire descriptive clause: “which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (v. 4). This is not even a description of what a “mystery” in general is but specifically what Paul there calls “the mystery of Christ.”
The word “mystery” (μυστήριον) essentially denotes a “secret.” The term was well known in the Greco-Roman world due to the plethora of “mystery religions” in which as part of the initiation, certain items of secret knowledge were imparted to the novice. The practice has survived to this day in the arcana of societies such as the Freemasons, who possess a convoluted mythology which members are forbidden to reveal to outsiders.
Dean Gonzales simply overloads the word with extraneous meaning, as if he had reached into Eph. 3 with sticky fingers and pulled away half the context along with the noun. Looking elsewhere, we come away with a more Ockham-friendly understanding that what μυστήριον conveys is the concept “secret” or something unknown or whose meaning is not easy to discern.
“As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (Rev. 1:20)
“But the angel said to me, “Why do you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her.” (Rev. 17:7)
In these two cases the “mystery” is the secret to what the visionary imagery symbolizes. John saw some strange things, knew they meant something, but did not know what they meant, needed to have someone decipher them.
2. This is what is happening in 1 Cor. 14:2. Paul is pointing out that a message given in a tongue sounds strange to the hearers, who know it means something, but do not know what it means, and cannot know unless there is someone who can decipher them.
Paul gives us no excuse for not understanding this, because he restates his point multiple times. Verse 2 alone makes Paul’s meaning clear: the problem with one giving a message in tongues in the church assembly, the problem is “no one understands him.” Then he restates his point: “but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.”
Dean Gonzales states that by “mystery” Paul is “not referring to garbled nonsense,” but the issue is not nonsense versus meaningfulness, but meaning that is hidden versus meaning that is known. That by “mystery” here Paul means a message with hidden meaning (due to being in a foreign language) is evident from the many ways he says it:
“…speaks not to men but to God” (2)
“no one understands” (2)
“speech that is not intelligible” (9)
“speaking into the air” (9)
“I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” (11)
“when he does not know what you are saying?” (16)
In short, the meaning of the word “mystery” in 1 Cor. 14:2 is made so abundantly clear within the context of the chapter itself, that giving preference to examples in remote context, theologically rich though they be, does not make exegetical sense.
3. In 1 Cor. 13:2, Paul is talking about prophecy, not tongues, and so the concept of unintelligibility is not the issue. Indeed, here he is making reference to “secrets” in the sense of deep, hidden, unrevealed knowledge. This is clear because of his parallel of “all mysteries” and “all knowledge”:
“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…”
But does this verse justify Dean Gonzales assertion that “Paul portrays NT prophecy as a revelatory gift by which the one who possess the gift comes to understand ‘all mysteries’”? That Dean Gonzales would make such a claim is rather surprising in view of the fact that he knows perfectly well that in verses 13:1-3 Paul is engaging in hyperbole. He argues as much within this very discussion: “Paul’s reference to the “tongues … of angels” may simply be a form of hyperbole.” Indeed, it is clearly hyperbole to suggest that any mortal human being would “understand all mysteries and all knowledge.” This is a hypothetical gift of prophecy taken to the nth degree, not any reasonable expectation of what a given prophecy from a given church member would entail on a given Sunday.
Dean Gonzales then is very seriously overstating the nature of oral prophecy in the New Testament church. It may well be opening up secrets of a sort. Paul says as much in 1 Cor. 14:24-25:
“But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”
But these secrets are not theological or doctrinal truths, hidden in the recesses of God’s eternal plan, things which, once revealed, find their place in God’s Canon, as a “prophecy of Scripture,” alongside the writings of Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, and John. They are individual details of a particular person’s life, revealed to that person, through the Holy Spirit for “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3) or else to convict regarding “concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).
This is what Jesus does in John 4:17 when he says to the Samaritan woman:
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
To which she replies:
“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.”
Jesus’ words to her, while perfectly true, and divinely authoritative, were for her specifically, not for the Canon, even though a few of the details occur as recorded speech within a canonical gospel. Jesus told her more, things which are not reported by John, since the woman says Jesus “told me all that I ever did.” They are important for her, but not “canonical” for the people of God.
On another occasion when Jesus gave a prophecy, he revealed future secrets of Peter’s life, but when asked about John’s life, Jesus said “what is that to you?”
Yet these are acts by which Jesus, prophesying through the Holy Spirit, spoke faith-enhancing words to individuals, none of which constituted temporary stand-ins for Scripture, the Canon being as yet incomplete. Even these were not in the same class as Scripture, not “canonical.”
This brings us to the main problem with Dean Gonzales’ conclusion that prophecy ceased as the Canon closed: it contradicts the express teaching of Jesus. Jesus prophesied, and intending that His church also would prophesy, He sent the Holy Spirit:
“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:11-12)
“Whoever believes in” Jesus, is considerably broader than just those living prior to the close of the Canon. Indeed, it has nothing to do with the Canon.
And Jesus did just as He said, pouring out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with the promise:
I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)
The difference between OT era and NT era is not thus “canonical” versus “non-canonical”: there has always been this distinction. It is not “infallible” versus “fallable,” since a prophet could always (though should never) speak presumptuously. The significant difference, post Pentecost, is what we may call the “democratization” of prophecy. In pouring the Spirit on “all flesh” so that even the most humble believer may prophesy, prophecy is no longer tied to the theocratic functioning of the nation of Israel. While the prophet still has responsibility to speak the revelation accurately, there is, in the church, no death penalty for failure to do so. In fact we are explicitly told “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). Our instruction is to “test everything” and “hold fast what is good” (1 Thes. 5:21).
“Good,” the apostle calls it, to which we may “hold fast.” This is not something to be rejected, but among the good works which we are told to stir up (Heb. 10:24) not to douse (1 Thes. 5:19).
That is the importance of Cessationist arguments such as Dean Gonzales’, to which, I respond, I hope, with equal respect and gentleness, yet with conviction that it does not teach what the Lord and the apostles in fact taught regarding prophecy and tongues. To teach that prophecy and tongues have ceased in the Body of Christ, if in fact they have not ceased, is to discourage our brothers and sisters from the good that Our Lord has intended them to do. Therefore, any argument that they have ceased had better be significantly more decisive than the one we have been examining.