Reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated: a humble response to Dean Gonzales

by Marv

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 guaranteedcertified 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.


7 responses to “Reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated: a humble response to Dean Gonzales

  1. Marvin,

    You’ve offered a fine counter-point to my series on the revelatory gifts in which I argue for a cessationist view of NT prophecy and tongues. I appreciate your Christ-like demeanor and (as time permits) will definitely give your caveats some serious consideration. May the Lord bless your ministry and help us both come to a deeper understanding of and love for the teaching of his infallible Word!

    Your servant,
    Bob Gonzales

  2. 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.

    I think one of the greater examples of prophecy being 1) authoritative but 2) not necessarily canonical, is found in 1 Tim 1:18-19:

    18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience…

    These words Paul refers to were never written in Scripture, and why would they have to be? They were specifically spoken to Timothy, though there are plenty of specific prophecies or words spoken to people that would also be a blessing to the entire body of Christ.

    But, it is interesting to note that these prophecies spoken to Timothy and the were extremely helpful in waging the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. That is pretty powerful.

    And this is where we have to recongise that both the graphe/written word of the Lord and the spoken word of the Lord carrying authority in the believer’s life. It doesn’t mean we canonize everything. That is a false assumption, as God has been speaking since the beginning but not everything becomes canonized.

    So I think we need to allow for God to speak, even those prophecies having authority in situations today, but not always equate it with the canon, which carries definite authority for the body of Christ throughout the ages.

  3. Dear Marv and Scott,

    I apologize for the ambiguity in my use of the terms “canon” or “canonical.” I agree that these terms normally predicate inscripturated revelation in theological discourse or, more precisely, the collection of inspired and authoritative writings which the church recognizes as “Holy Scripture.” Gerald Sheppard distinguishes the first, which is Scripture in process, as Canon 2, and the second, which is the complete corpora of Scripture, as Canon 1 (see “Canon,” The Encyclopedia of Religion, 3:62-69.).

    As I’m sure you’re aware, the Greek term kanon is also employed metaphorically for the concept of “rule” or “norm” in the LXX and NT (see 4 Maccabees 7:21; Galatians 6:16). Theologians distinguish the norms of ecclesiastical authority (norma normata; the norm that’s normed) from the norm of special revelation (norma normans; the norm that norms), the latter being the supreme “rule” or “norm” for all belief and conduct.

    I sometimes use “canon” or “canonical” in this broader sense to refer to the supremely authoritative quality of special revelation whether or not that revelation is oral or inscripturated. In fact, I do not believe special revelation must be inscripturated in order to carry absolute and infallible authority. For instance, the revelation God imparted to Abraham (e.g., Gen 17) was absolutely authoritative the moment it came to Abraham. Its authority and infallible quality was not contingent on its later inclusion within the canonical writings of Moses. God’s words to the nation Israel through Moses were fully canonical, in the sense of being supremely authoritative and infallible, before they assumed inscripturated status some time later. Not all the special revelation that came from Jesus during his ministry on earth was included in the Gospel accounts (see John 20:30; 21:25). Yet Jesus’ non-inscripturated oral teaching carried the same weight of authority and quality of truth as did his oral teaching that was later inscripturated. Finally, apostolic tradition carried the same authority for its recipients whether oral or written (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

    Granted, you and I don’t have access to the non-inscripturated oral prophetic or apostolic words or messages alluded to in Scripture. Accordingly, those non-inscripturated oral prophecies no longer have authority for us today. Nevertheless, the original recipients of that special revelation were responsible to submit to it as the word of the Lord regardless of whether it was simply oral or also written.

    It seems to me that Grudem wants to portray NT congregational prophecy as God superintending a message to the prophet’s brain (phase 1) but not necessarily through his tongue (phase 2). Hence, what comes out the mouth (phase 2) may or may not correspond accurately to what came in the mind (phase 1). I’m not convinced that this kind of disconnect between the mind and the tongue is what the Bible has in view when describing genuine prophecy. Of course, when a so-called prophet speaks his own mind rather than God’s, we may call him a prophet, but we must prefix that title with the adjective pseudo.

    Hope this explanation of the wider semantic range of “canon” and “canonical,” as I employ these terms, is helpful. I’m sorry I don’t have time right now to engage in Marv’s other criticisms.

    Bob Gonzales

  4. Dr. Gonzales,
    First, let me thank you for reading my post, and also for your kindness in responding to what I have to say. We will have no difficulty in agreeing that God has absolute authority and His word is truth. Every word that comes from His mouth is of supreme importance. Whenever God communicates to his creatures, whatever He has to say bears His authority.

    However, I think the Bible gives us some important distinctions. In the first place, the Scriptures are ascribed unique qualities. One of the reasons for this is that in being written, they are finished and fixed (transmission from the point of autographa is another can o’ worms). Second, and I am not sure quite the best way of putting this, but these are Canon, not simply due to bearing God’s authority but having in some way general applicability. Each book has its particular audience, but being part of the Canon, being Scripture, makes it then part of the “rule” for you and me and the whole people of God.

    A prophecy given from A to B orally, for example, (as my partner in crime Scott mentions) those mentioned in 1 Tim 1:18-19, bears authority for Timothy, but has nothing to do with me. It was not placed in the general body of written material to which we can all refer.

    Put another way, the Scriptures are at a level to themselves in that the Holy Spirit’s speaking through them is “supreme judge” (as the Confession says) over any oral prophecy. We don’t judge the Scriptures by any oral prophecy, never did. I don’t think we’d say that we judge one oral prophecy by another either, but by the Scriptures alone.

    In regard to Dr. Grudem’s work, I think it has been enormously helpful. Whether it is the definitive formulation of what the Scriptures say about NT prophecy, I don’t know for sure. I’m sure there is still much to tighten up. Indeed, since he originally wrote his book he has updated his understanding of Eph 2:20.

    What I don’t think is tenable, though, is a cessation of communication argument based on either a closed Canon of Scripture or trying to specifically tie “spiritual gifts” to the apostles. I just don’t find the Scriptures telling us this, and as far as I can tell, arguments attempting to make this point go well beyond what our infallible rule actually infallibly tells us.

  5. Marv,

    I’ll give further consideration to your rejoinder.

    I am interested in doing more study on this issue and wanted to ask if you could point me to the location where Dr. Grudem’s update on his understanding of Ephesians 2:20 can be found.

    Thanks so much,
    Bob Gonzales

  6. Dr. Gonzales –

    I must admit that, for me, though Grudem’s book on prophecy can be utilised as a step in the direction towards what I understand prophecy to be from biblical teaching, I still think it falls short of the fuller, biblical teaching on prophecy. His understanding comes out of his view that NT apostles replaced OT prophets as the only authoritative speakers and communicators and writers for God. I can’t see that ‘hard’ rule being established when you consider certain things like: 1) not all apostles wrote Scripture, 2) we don’t have every word of every apostle, 3) other people besides apostles wrote Scripture, 4) that not all OT prophets wrote Scripture, 5) that not all of the OT was penned by a prophet, 6) that prophecy not spoken by apostles carried authority, 7) that prophets are foundation layers with apostles (Eph 2:20), 8 ) that prophets were part of the team of ministries given by God to equip the saints (Eph 4:11-13) and 9) that there are measures (or ‘levels’) of authority with prophecy.

    In the end, I think Grudem has put together a nice package in his book, complete with bow on top. And it sounds good. And, again, I think it is a step in the direction of helping God’s people move towards a biblical understanding of the gift and being utilised in this gift. But I think the nice package fails to consider certain aspects that need to be discussed about prophecy, apostles, and prophets. One of our goals at this blog is to give book reviews on books that speak about the subjects related to pneumatology and spiritual gifts. Maybe I and/or Marv should do so with this book. I would just need to re-read it afresh.

    As for Grudem’s updated discussion on Eph 2:20, he has a revised edition of the book that came out in 2000. I don’t know if you have that copy. But in it, he still discusses Eph 2:20 in chapter 2, pgs45-47. But he adds more in his Appendix 6, pgs329-346. This is the major update around that discussion.

    Of course, I don’t agree with his conclusion that, from a new covenant standpoint, we should interpret apostles & prophets as one group, i.e., apostle-prophets. I think this argument does not hold much water. I have not written on it at this blog yet. But I have 2 articles on my personal blog that discuss the nature of Eph 2:20 – article 1 and article 2. I should probably say that, though you will catch my views if you are able to read those 2 articles, I believe apostles still exist today. 🙂 This is an area that Marv and I would not agree on.

  7. Dr Gonzales –

    Actually, I just posted a new article here on To Be Continued along the lines of discussing Grudem’s exegesis of Eph 2:20 and 3:5.

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