In part 1 of this article I argued that the Bible most naturally suggests that the gift of prophecy is one that God will give until Jesus returns. And I argued too that all Christians should therefore certainly choose to obey the commands in 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39 to eagerly desire this gift.
In this second part I will move on to look at objections that cessationists often make to the continuist position on prophecy. I am confident that each objection can be answered adequately.
Prophecy today is no threat to the supremacy of the Bible
One of the main reasons why some Christians deny that we should seek the gift of prophecy today is because they think that if prophesying existed, it would threaten the supremacy of Scripture.
There is a big misunderstanding here. Prophecy today is a kind of revelation that exists on a far, far lower level than biblical revelation. It is communication, subordinate to Scripture and never contradicting it, by which God guides individual Christians or churches in their everyday walk with Him.
It is true that in the early church some of the prophecies were much more important. At that time, God spoke some things through prophets that He designed to end up in the Bible. But today God never gives revelation in prophecy that is remotely on a par with the authority of biblical revelation.
It is worth noting that even in the first century there must have been many other prophecies from God that are not recorded in Scripture. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 implies that prophecies would normally have been given when the Corinthian church met together. And the vast majority of these – probably all of them – do not appear in the New Testament.
Prophecy today is the same sort of thing as this. No genuine prophecies today even come close to threatening the supremacy of the Bible.
The usefulness of prophecy
Cessationists also often claim that there is no need for the gift of prophecy now that we have the New Testament.
There is another huge mistake here. The New Testament gives us crucial, general principles about how we should live. But it should be obvious that in the course of our Christian lives, we encounter numerous situations, sometimes complex ones, in which only reading the Bible will not give us full insight into how we should act. And when important decisions are involved, we need other direction from God.
For example, take the following situations:
(1) A Christian man is wondering whether to take a job he has been offered or to keep the one he has. Despite praying and asking advice, he finds that the pros and cons are evenly balanced.
(2) A Christian couple are very unsure whether they should move to a different town or continue to live where they are. And, again, the pros and cons seem to cancel each other out.
(3) A church is considering doing some evangelism. An opportunity opens up for them to do some outreach to older people. And another opportunity arises for them to reach out to teenagers. But they feel that they can’t manage both. So they have to choose.
I could give a multitude of similar examples. For individual Christians, Christian families and churches, situations will often arise where reading the Bible doesn’t give enough insight to know what the will of God is. The Bible is not designed to give us direct and specific information about how to decide in situations like these. Instead, it gives us general principles about how to live and what to do.
It should be an undeniable fact, then, that Christians and churches often have to choose between various courses of action that seem to fit equally well with the Bible. And some of these decisions are very big ones. What is more, it makes sense to think that God is almost never neutral about big decisions we make. Almost always He will want us to take one course of action instead of other alternatives.
So Christians and churches often find themselves in situations where they need to be able to hear God speaking to them about what He specifically wants them to do.
There are some who will readily accept this, but who still argue against prophecy today. They say that God is able to speak to us in other ways than by prophecy, and so there is no need to seek the gift of prophecy.
This argument is completely misguided. Of course God can and does give specific insight to Christians other than through prophecy. But it is wrong to think in terms of either-or here. It should be both-and. Prophecy is one major way in which God gives insight to Christians. And this should be allowed to take its place alongside other ways He speaks.
I should also note that the most common way in which I have seen the gift of prophecy used is to cite Scripture itself! Either a prophet gives a word to a person or church that a particular passage of the Bible is especially relevant to a situation they are facing. Or a prophet says that a certain passage applies in a special way to a Christian’s life. I will give one example of this below.
We must also bear in mind that no Christian knows the Bible perfectly. And young Christians often don’t know it at all well. Those cessationists who say that we have no need of prophecy now that we have the Bible often seem almost to assume that we all know the Bible perfectly. But we don’t. And prophecy – whether a quotation from Scripture or something else – helps to fill in our gaps in knowledge. That a loving God would choose to act in this way should not be a surprise.
In conclusion, then, the idea that we should not seek to prophesy because we have the Bible is completely mistaken. It is far too simplistic.
The Reformation and prophecy
Another argument that is sometimes made by cessationists appeals to the Reformation. One of the principles of the Reformation is sola scriptura, ‘by Scripture alone’, which means that Christians should be led by Scripture alone. It is sometimes claimed that this principle means that we should not expect to hear from God at all except through the Bible.
There are two points to make here.
Firstly, I admit that I am not an authority on the Reformation. But I think those cessationists who argue in this way have misunderstood what the Reformers meant by sola scriptura. At least as it seems to me, when they said that we should be led by Scripture alone, they were not saying that God never speaks other than through Scripture. Rather, they were rejecting what Roman Catholics taught.
Catholics said, and still say, that there are two major authoritative sources of instruction for Christians: the Bible and the teaching of the Catholic Church. When the Reformers said that Christians should be led by Scripture alone, they were denying – rightly – that Catholic teaching is authoritative. That is the context in which they were speaking. And I don’t think they were saying that God never speaks to a Christian other than through the Bible.
The Reformers would certainly have been clear that any revelation about anything that God gives to a Christian would need to fit with Scripture and in a sense be subordinate to it. But I find it very hard to believe that they would have denied that God might give specific leading to Christians in areas such as what job they should do etc.
Secondly, even if – as I very much doubt – the Reformers did take the extreme view that God never speaks other than through the Bible, that doesn’t have to mean that they were right. There are unfortunately many evangelicals today who follow certain people in church history without questioning their beliefs nearly enough. Lutherans are often too quick to accept Martin Luther’s teachings without properly weighing them. The same can be said for Calvinists and John Calvin, and for Wesleyans and John Wesley.
Even if the Reformers did hold an extreme view on God speaking through the Bible, then, there is no good reason why we should follow suit. But, from what I have read on the subject, I very much doubt that their beliefs were so extreme.
Examples of false prophecy do not mean that prophecy is wrong in itself
Sometimes cessationists point to situations in which supposed prophecies were obviously not from God. And they then claim that these situations show that the gift of prophecy is not one that God is using at the present time.
It is certainly true that many false prophecies are given in Jesus’ name today. The gift is often abused, and there should be no denying that. It is also true that devout Christians will often make mistakes in prophesying, despite trying hard to hear God’s voice.
But to say that abuse and mistakes show that all prophecy is invalid today makes no sense at all. By the same logic, we should avoid anything that is abused or about which mistakes are sometimes made.
For example, teaching from the Bible is something that is massively abused in our day. Every Sunday there are thousands of so-called Christian pastors worldwide who say they are teaching from the Bible, but who are actually promoting heresy in one way or another.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, claim that the Bible does not teach that Jesus is divine. Those in the so-called Free Grace movement claim that Scripture teaches that people don’t need to turn away from their sins in order to be saved. And so-called liberal Protestants often claim that the Bible doesn’t teach that all homosexual practice is a sin.
These are just a few of many examples that I could give. Bible teaching is something that is often abused. But this doesn’t mean that all teaching from the Bible is false! It doesn’t mean that pastors on a Sunday should abandon giving biblical instruction to their flocks! And the same applies to prophecy. To say that abuses and mistakes mean that prophecy itself should be avoided is illogical.
Wherever there is something that is from God, Satan will almost always try to counterfeit it. He will also tempt Christians into using gifts, including prophecy, in ways that are less than edifying. And part of what it means to be a fallen human being is to make mistakes. So even Christians with good intentions and motivations can get things wrong at times.
Therefore, bad reports surrounding the gift of prophecy in no way have to mean that this gift is not available today.
Cessationists often argue that it must be wrong to claim that the gift of prophecy exists today, because it is only since the beginning of the 20th century that any orthodox (i.e., non-heretical) Christians have claimed to be able to prophesy.
Again, I acknowledge that I am not an expert on church history. However, I am sure that there were claims of prophetic experiences by orthodox Christians between the 1st and 19th centuries.
Even if there were no claims using the words ‘prophecy’ or ‘prophesy’ – which I very much doubt – we must be careful not to fall into what we could call ‘the word – concept fallacy’. This is the mistake of thinking that if a word that is commonly used to refer to a concept is not present, then that concept itself cannot be present.
The concept of prophecy or prophesying can be present even if the words ‘prophecy’ or ‘prophesy’ are not. Orthodox Christians between the 1st and 19th centuries could have referred to experiences as ‘divine leading’ or as ‘an impression from God’ etc., when in fact these experiences fitted with what Paul refers to as prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12-14.
Another, similar, argument used by cessationists is that if prophecy continued throughout the church age, it would surely have been widely used in every century of the church.
Regardless of what words were used to describe it, I do agree that there have been many more claims of prophecy since the beginning of the 20th century than there were previously. However, there are two important points to make here.
First, the Bible often makes receiving things from God conditional upon believing. The believing is very important. So when a Christian doesn’t believe that God wants to give a gift of some sort, it seems that God would almost certainly not give that gift, even if He wanted to. I would suggest that part of the reason why there has been a lack of prophecy throughout church history is because most Christians wrongly believed that God had no desire to speak prophetically at that time.
Second, and in my view even more importantly, we need to recognise that the Holy Spirit is thoroughly mysterious. And it is a mistake to claim that He must have chosen to do things in more or less the same amounts in each century of the church.
In 1 Samuel 3:1 we are told that when Samuel was a boy, ‘the word of the LORD was rare in those days’. Similarly, I think that even under post-Pentecost, New Covenant conditions, it is not all that surprising if there is considerable variation in how much the Spirit operates supernaturally from time to time.
There are other arguments too that cessationists sometimes make to support their view that God is not using the gift of prophecy today. But I have listed the most important of them. In short, none of their objections convinces.
In part 3 I will move on to give some personal testimony of how I have seen God use the gift of prophecy.