I am not a charismatic. It is hard for me to describe myself as a traditional cessationist either. I refer to myself as a “de facto” cessationist. What does this mean? Essentially, when it comes to the so-called supernatural sign gifts such as gifts of tongues, prophecy, workers of miracles, etc, I have never seen anything which would convince me that there are modern day manifestations of these gifts. There certainly could be, I just have not seen them. (I have written about it here.)
Concerning the gift of prophecy (the idea that one can speak on behalf of God in a “thus-says-the-Lord” type way), I have never seen this either. I would love to have God speak to me, or better, through me, in such a way, but he never has. I have never heard the voice of God and have never been his spokesperson other than through my interpretation of Scripture. Although, I must admit, I had a strange occurence twenty years ago. I had a drunk I gave a ride to in downtown Oklahoma City tell me that God told him I was going to be a preacher. At that time in my life, it was a joke to think such. It was not enough for me to think much of, and the guy was drunk!
I could not make a very strong argument that God has stopped sending prophets or stopped speaking directy to people. My theology does not demand such. I have simply just never seen one. However, there is an argument out there that more traditional cessationist’s (those who’s theology argues that the supernatural sign gifts have ceased in the first century, usually with the death of the last Apostle or the completion of Scripture) make to argue their case. It is an argument that I think is very weak and fails to understand the nature of prophecy and the nature of what constitutes Scripture. It goes like this:
If the gift of prophecy is still being given and there are people out there who speak directly on behalf of God, then the canon is still open.
What this means is that if God is still speaking in any way, whatever is spoken, by virtue of it being God’s words, needs to be added to Scripture. Maybe a new book, letter, Psalm, or just a page added to the end of the Bible, this argument insists that a belief in modern day prophecy demands an open canon.
Here is the basic problem I see with such an argument: It misunderstands the nature of prophecy and the nature of the canon.
1. Nature of prophecy: There is no reason to think that prophecy always has corporate or salvific implications. To think that everything that God has ever said is relevant to all people simply cannot be defended. Prophecy can be individualistic. While it is true that the nation of Israel had their prophets that spoke concerning the nation as a whole and the future of the nation and the church has had its Apostles and prophets who spoke on behalf of God concerning the Gospel, the nature of the church, and the consummation of all things, this does not mean this is all prophets speak about. In fact, there are plenty of indications that many of prophets spoke to individuals about rather mundane things such as the location of lost donkeys (1 Sam 9:6, 20), an adulterous affair (2 Sam 12:7), and corporately about issues with no transcendent purpose at all such as acts of God in nature (Acts 11:28). One could argue that these “non-transcendent” prophecies were setting the stage for the prophet so he could qualify to speak about more transcendent issues, but this does not seem to be the case. What transcendent issue did Nathan speak about? What about Abigail?
In the end, while prophets were given by God to speak about issues of paramount importance, they were also given to speak about rather non-consequential stuff as well. Therefore, the drunk who told me I was going to be a pastor could certainly qualify even though his “prophecy” was of no ground breaking importance.
2. Nature of the canon: This is related to the first, but involves a slightly different assumption. The supposition here is that the canon of Scripture is made up of everything that has ever been inspired. Here inspiration equals canon. If it is inspired, it should be added to the Scripture.
But why would we ever assume such a proposition. Scripture is not made up of everything that has ever been inspired. There is very good reason to believe that there were a lot of inspired words from God that never made the canon cut. A great example of this is the early years of the prophet Saul. While were are given some background to his story on how he was called to be a prophet, we don’t know anything about how he was established among the people as a legitimate spokesperson for God. Yet as we follow the narrative in 1 Samuel, we see that Saul considers him an already established prophet due to many prophecies that we don’t have recorded in Scripture. Notice what Saul says in 1 Sam 9:6: “Behold now, there is a man of God in this city, and the man is held in honor; all that he says surely comes true. Now let us go there, perhaps he can tell us about our journey on which we have set out” (emphasis mine). We don’t know all that he said that came true since it is not part of the canon. This is a definite occurrence of God speaking through someone that was not recorded in Scripture. Therefore, the principle “if it is inspired, it belongs in Scripture” fails here. We could do the same with many of the Prophets. Look at Nathan. We barely have anything from him. His most famous encounter is when he indicts David for his affair and murder, but are we to suppose that this was his only prophecy? He was already a respected prophet, yet Scripture does not record his prophecies. What about Christ? Everything he said was, by definition, inspired. Yet we obviously don’t have an exhaustive account of all that he said. In fact, even John says that there were many other miraculous signs that Christ performed which were not written down, letting us know that even signs, wonders, and miracles were not always recorded because of their non-transcendent purpose.
“Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Therefore, I think that it is evident that not everything that God says belongs in Scripture. The canon of Scripture is made up of everything that God has said that is relevant to all people and, normally, pertains to salvation history.
Again, I am not a charismatic. I have never heard the voice of God. Nor have I seen what I believe to be modern-day prophets. However, I don’t think that it is wise to attempt to argue for a theology that demands the cessation of God speaking today, especially if the argument’s main thrust is that if God is still speaking, then the canon is still open. This argument simply does not work and is contrary to the biblical evidence.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]