Volume 44 - Issue 1

It All Depends Upon Prophecy: A Brief Case for Nuanced Cessationism

By Thomas R. Schreiner


Nuanced cessationism can be defended from a number of angles, but one of the most significant is from the nature of prophecy. The argument defended here is that NT prophecy is infallible and inerrant just like OT prophecy. Various arguments are given by some continuationists to establish the fallibility of NT prophecy, but it is argued here that they are unconvincing. Since NT prophecy is infallible and inerrant like OT prophecy and since the church is established upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets (Eph. 2:20), we have significant evidence that NT prophets no longer exist today inasmuch as the doctrinal foundation of the church has been laid once for all. First Corinthians 13:8–13 is a good argument for all the gifts lasting until the second coming, but this text does not demand that all the gifts continue until the second coming.

It is important to set the context for our discussion on spiritual gifts.1 We are considering a matter on which evangelicals who believe in the inspired and authoritative word of God disagree. I celebrate the biblical faithfulness of continuationist friends like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Sam Storms, and Andrew Wilson, even though I dissent from their understanding in some respects. I also acknowledge that they may be right and that I may see things wrongly, though I don’t think I am wrong as I will endeavor to point out in the discussion. Furthermore, as a cessationist I believe God still heals and does miracles today, though I think such events are relatively rare. Still, I pray for the healing of the sick and believe God can do so miraculously. My argument isn’t that miracles and healings never occur. Instead, I am claiming that believers today don’t have the gifts of doing miracles and healing. It is possible in cutting-edge missionary situations that the Lord may be pleased to do the signs and wonders granted during the apostolic era. I call myself a nuanced cessationist since I don’t believe such experiences and events are what ordinarily takes place in the life of the church.

The heart and soul of my case for the cessation of some gifts depends upon prophecy. Richard Blaylock’s definition of prophecy in his Themelios article is helpful.2 “New Testament prophecy can be defined as (1) a miraculous act of intelligible communication, (2) rooted in spontaneous, divine revelation and (3) empowered by the Holy Spirit, which (4) results in words that can be attributed to any and all members of the Godhead and which therefore (5) must be received by those who hear or read them as absolutely binding and true.” I argue that there are compelling reasons to think that the spiritual gift of prophecy no longer exists today. And if that is true, questions are raised about the continuation of some other gifts as well, but there is not time to pursue the latter issue here. The argument from prophecy has two elements. First—and most important—there is no basis for saying prophecy is mixed with error. So, those who contend that the gift of prophecy exists today should argue that such prophets speak infallibly and inerrantly, but such a prospect threatens the sole and final authority of scripture. The second argument is that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, as Ephesians 2:20 says, and that foundation has been deposited for us in the canonical scriptures, and the canon was closed with the writing of the NT.

1. Old Testament Prophecy and New Testament Prophecy Are Inerrant

Several arguments support my contention.3 First, the burden of proof is on those who say that NT prophecy differs from OT prophecy. We see in Deuteronomy 18 that the mark of true prophets is that their prophecies come true. If their prophecies contain errors, they are to be rejected as false prophets (Deut 18:20–22). The infallibility of OT prophecy is confirmed in the case of Samuel when we read that “none of Samuel’s words [fell] to the ground” (1 Sam 3:19 NIV). In other words, Samuel was confirmed as a prophet because his prophecies were always fulfilled. We have no evidence in the OT that the prophecies of OT prophets were mixed with error. In fact, errors in prophecies indicated that one was a false prophet, and we see this clearly in the dramatic story of Hananiah in Jeremiah 28. Hananiah prophesies that the articles of the temple will be restored in two years, but Jeremiah is vindicated as a true prophet and Hananiah is exposed as a sham when Jeremiah prophesies Hananiah’s death, and Hananiah died that same year. As Jeremiah says false prophets prophesy “a lie in my name” and “a false vision” (Jer 14:14).4 Ezekiel indicts prophets “who see false visions and speak lying divinations” (Ezek 13:9). It is clear, then, that OT prophecy was infallible and flawless, but that leads me to reiterate the main point: we expect NT prophecy to be infallible like OT prophecy, unless the NT makes it abundantly clear that NT prophecy diverges from OT prophecy. I suggest we don’t have such clear evidence.

2. Prophets Judged by Prophecies

Second, those who support the notion that NT prophecies are mixed with error, either in the reception or transmission of the prophecies, say that in 1 Thessalonians 5:19–20 and 1 Corinthians 14:29–32 it is the prophecies that are judged, not the prophets. The prophets, according to this reading, are not excluded as false prophets if they err. The prophecies are sifted and the errors in the prophecy are rejected, not the prophets themselves. This attempt to distinguish NT from OT prophecy doesn’t persuade because the only way to determine whether one is true prophet, both in the OT and the NT, is by assessing their prophecies. The standard in the OT and the NT is the same. We know that Hananiah was a false prophet because his prophecy was mistaken. So too, Paul tells the church to evaluate prophecies because the church distinguished between true and false prophets by assessing their prophecies.

3. Beware of False Prophets

Third, Jesus warns about the danger of “false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves” (Matt 7:15). He says that “many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (Matt 24:11). Peter admonishes the church to be on guard against “false prophets” and “false teachers” (2 Pet 2:1). John tells us not to “believe every spirit” but to “test the spirits to see if they are from God” (1 John 4:1). The testing of the spirits in 1 John 4 and the evaluating and assessing of prophecies in 1 Thessalonians 5 and 1 Corinthians 14 have the same function and work in exactly the same way. In every instance, the church must discern what is false and what is true, and such an activity is crucial because there were as John tells us many false prophets in the world. Discerning who the false prophets are, if NT prophets make mistakes, ends up being a nightmare. Those who prophesy falsely could protest that they are genuine prophets since true prophets make mistakes. It is instructive that many of those who talk about prophecy today say very little about false prophets, but there is a great concern about the danger of false prophets in the NT.

4. All Genuine New Testament Prophets Prophesy Infallibly

Fourth, we have no credible example in the NT of true prophets making mistakes. When Agabus prophesies that there will be a famine in Acts 11:27–28, his prophecy comes true. In the same way, Agabus’s prophecy about Paul being bound and delivered over to the Gentiles in Acts 21:11 was not mistaken. Those who see errors in NT prophecies say that the events didn’t turn out as Agabus prophesied since Paul was rescued from the Jews, not handed over by them. But when Paul recounts to the Jews in Rome how he “was delivered [παρεδόθην] as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans” (Acts 28:17), he uses the very word παραδίδωμι that Agabus used in making the prophecy (21:11). We should conclude from this that Luke believed Agabus wasn’t mistaken.

Agabus also demonstrates that he is a prophet by using prophetic symbolism, which was typical of OT prophets. Agabus takes Paul’s belt and ties his hands and feet. We are reminded of Isaiah walking naked to signify the judgment that would come on Israel (Isa 20) or the miniature siege works that Ezekiel built against Jerusalem (Ezek 4). It is quite unlikely that Luke pauses to emphasize the binding action taken by Agabus to tell us that Agabus got it wrong. The OT background suggests otherwise. Agabus used prophetic signs just like OT prophets. Indeed, we have to ask what role it would play in Luke’s narrative in Acts to note that Agabus made a mistake. The whole purpose of the story is to explain how Paul got to Rome just as the Holy Spirit said he would (Acts 19:21; 23:11), and seeing an aside about Agabus’s alleged mistake diverges from the Lukan intention.

Agabus’s genuineness as a prophet is also attested by the prophetic formula he uses, when he declares, “This is what the Holy Spirit says.” The word τάδε translated “this” is used hundreds of times in the OT for the authoritative words of the prophets. We find the same pattern in Revelation (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, l7, 14) where the authoritative words of Jesus are introduced with the word τάδε. Luke uses this formula to underscore that Agabus speaks by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus does in Revelation and just as the OT prophets did. He is not telling us that Agabus made a mistake.

The fulfillment of Agabus’s prophecy raises another issue that should be addressed briefly, and it relates to those of us who believe Scripture is inerrant. Modern Western conceptions of accuracy must not be applied to the Scriptures when we speak of accuracy. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy introduces the kind of qualifications that are needed in defining the term.5 The careful work of Craig Blomberg also demonstrates that inerrancy must be nuanced properly so that we don’t impose upon the Scriptures the kind of computer accuracy we have in our culture today.6 What I am saying here is that if Agabus is said to be in error, the same kind of judgment could be used to assess other texts which some claim have errors. To avoid misunderstanding, I am not saying that those who think NT prophecy is mixed with errors in any way deny inerrancy. The point is that a restrictive definition of what constitutes error could also apply in principle to the doctrine of inerrancy. Those who think that Agabus erred define error too narrowly and rigidly.

5. 1 Corinthians 13 Doesn’t Demand Continuationism

Scholars debate whether prophecy continues because we have no text that says directly that prophecy has come to an end. In fact, we would expect from reading the last part of 1 Corinthians 13, as continuationists point out, that prophecy would last until the second coming. Certainly 1 Corinthians 13 permits such a reading, and I understand why some continuationists think it demands such a reading. If we look at the context of 1 Corinthians 13:8–12, the coming of “the perfect” brings what is “partial” to an end (13:10). Paul says that now we “know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known” (13:12). Presently, our knowledge is incomplete, and “we see only a reflection as in a mirror,” but then we will see “face to face” (13:12). It is clear, therefore, that “the perfect” is another way of describing “face to face,” and seeing “face to face” most naturally refers to Christ’s second coming. Understanding “the perfect” to refer to Jesus’ coming is something the Corinthians would clearly understand, and also fits with the emphasis on Jesus’ second coming in Paul’s theology. Still, when we do theology, we have to consider every text and see how each text fits into the fabric of divine revelation. The NT doesn’t explicitly teach that a canon of scripture would be established either since none of the apostles or early Christians anticipated such, nor did they envision history lasting for thousands of years. One of the reasons the issue is debated is that we live in a time period that the NT doesn’t specifically address. We need to remember that 1 Corinthians was addressed to the Corinthian church in the first century, and it would mean nothing to them to be told that gifts would cease after the canon was established.

6. The Interpretation of Acts 21:4

Perhaps the most difficult text for those who think prophecy in the NT is infallible is Acts 21:4 and 21:12–13. Paul’s friends tell him not to go to Jerusalem “through the Spirit” since it is predicted that he will suffer there, but Paul insists on going to Jerusalem and claims that he is led by the Spirit in his decision (19:21–22). Those who think NT prophecy is mixed with error say we have a clear example here of an error in prophecy. This interpretation is certainly possible. There wouldn’t even be a debate if this matter were easy to resolve! But another reading of the evidence is more compelling, and this reading supports the notion that NT prophecies are infallible.

In Acts 21:4 the prophecy is correct (Paul would suffer), but the inference drawn from the prophecy (Paul shouldn’t go to Jerusalem) is mistaken. Otherwise, if we follow the wording of the text and there is an error in the prophecy, Luke is attributing the error to the Holy Spirit! For he says that they spoke “through the Spirit” (Acts 21:4). Even charismatics don’t want to say (at least I hope so) that the error in speaking is from the Spirit himself. A better solution is to say that the inference drawn from the prophecy was not part of the prophecy itself. Thus, the prophecy that Paul would face suffering in Jerusalem was accurate and Spirit-inspired; the conclusion that people drew from the prophecy—that Paul should not travel to Jerusalem—was mistaken. It did not derive from the Spirit. C. K. Barrett gets it right when he says, “Luke does not express himself clearly. His words taken strictly would mean either that Paul was deliberately disobedient to the will of God or that the Spirit was mistaken in the guidance given. It is unthinkable that Luke intended either of these.”7 Barrett goes on to propose the same solution offered above. By the way, what Barrett says should not be construed as a criticism of Luke. It wasn’t Luke’s purpose to be precise about the nature of prophecy here, and he assumed that his readers would realize that prophecy is never in error. We have to recall again that the purpose of the story was not to reflect on the nature of prophecy. We can’t demand more of the account than is warranted, as if Luke was writing a treatise on prophecy.

7. The Import of Ephesians 2:20

We see implicit support for the cessation of NT prophecy in Ephesians 2:20 where the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” The canon of the NT contains the authoritative apostolic and prophetic teaching, and thus apostles and prophets are no longer needed. Recognizing the foundational role of apostles and prophets doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that apostles and prophets ceased to function at exactly the same time. Apostolic teaching was preserved in apostolic writings, but prophets may have continued to exist for hundreds of years since it took a long time for the NT canon to be established and recognized. We can’t pinpoint the exact date prophecy ended; it faded away slowly as the canon was established in various locales.

Sam Storms thinks the view of prophecy defended by me can’t be correct because there are hundreds, yes thousands of prophecies, that are not preserved in the scriptures.8 He says that if prophecies were entirely true and authoritative they would need to be written down and preserved in the Scriptures. Actually, such an objection is baseless and says nothing about the nature of NT prophecy. Even OT prophecies didn’t have to be written down and preserved to be true and authoritative. In fact, many prophecies—indeed most OT prophecies—aren’t part of the Scriptures, but such a state of affairs doesn’t indicate that prophecies that weren’t written down contained errors. Everything Elijah and Elisha said when they were speaking in the name of the Lord was true, but most of what they prophesied hasn’t been preserved in the Scriptures.9 We have no record of what the fifty prophets hidden by Obadiah prophesied (1 Kings 18:4). Nor do we know the prophecies of the sons of the prophets who were associated especially with Elisha (2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1). Both of these groups must have prophesied since they are called prophets. But nothing that the sons of the prophets prophesied is contained in Scripture. Still, everything they prophesied was true! They didn’t make mistakes in their prophecies even if their words haven’t been preserved for all time. Notice that we have the words of at least sixty prophets in these two examples that were not written down or saved for posterity, showing that prophecies don’t have to be included in Scripture to be completely true.

Andrew Wilson hints in his book that some of the OT prophets might have erred as well.10 But this should be rejected, for then how could they discern who was a true prophet? The texts cited earlier show that genuine OT prophets spoke infallibly. Furthermore, we don’t have any examples of OT prophets whose prophecies were mixed with error. Let’s think about what could be assessed as a relatively trivial example of prophecy. We read about “Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah—six—under the authority of their father Jeduthun, prophesying to the accompaniment of lyres, giving thanks and praise to the LORD” (1 Chron 25:3). What they prophesied is not written down, but there is no suggestion whatsoever that what they said contained errors. So too, Saul prophesies when the Spirit rushes upon him (1 Sam 10:10–13; 19:23–24), and even though Saul isn’t a godly man, there is no hint that there were mistakes in what he said. The author doesn’t reflect any interest in the content of what Saul said; the point is that the Spirit came upon him. Still, there is no basis for suggesting that the words he uttered were untrue, even if the main purpose was not to instruct those present.

What I am arguing, then, is this: Since prophecy is without error, there are not prophets today. Both apostles and prophets have ceased. The foundation has been laid once-for-all in the teaching of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). God has spoken to us in the last days finally and definitively in his Son (Heb 1:2). The faith has been handed down once-for-all time to the saints (Jude 3). The completion of revelation in the NT era makes sense since the climatic fulfillment of redemptive history was accomplished in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We don’t have any new revelation because the final and definitive revelation has been given in Jesus Christ. The next event in redemptive history is the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. No more apostles or prophets will arise. The work of laying the foundation, which culminated in the canon of the scripture, is finished. No further word of God is needed or sought. What we need is the illuminating work of the Spirit and prayer to understand the word that has been vouchsafed to us.

8. Conclusion

A nuanced cessationist position is established since the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20), and that foundation has been laid once for all, as the apostles and prophets unpacked the significance of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have no need for apostles and prophets today because we don’t need any further revelation now that we have the canon of the NT. The case for cessationism is established further by the nature of NT prophecy, for there is no evidence that NT prophets erred when they prophesied, and we don’t have among us today any prophets who declare to us the word of the Lord. If anyone claims to be such a prophet, they threaten the sole and final authority of scripture, and their claim to be a prophet should be rejected.

[1] An earlier version of this article was delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Denver, CO, 13 November 2018) in the Perspectives on the Spiritual Gifts session, moderated by Patrick Schreiner, with responses from Andrew Wilson and Sam Storms.

[2] Richard Blaylock, “Towards a Definition of New Testament Prophecy,” Them 44 (2019): 41–60.

[3] Some of the content and even exact wording in the following comes from my book Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H, 2018). B&H granted permission to use this material.

[4] All citations are from the CSB unless noted otherwise.

[5] International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” JETS 21 (1978): 289–96.

[6] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987); Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001); Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Assessment with Contemporary Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2014); Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016).

[7] C. K. Barrett, Acts 15–28, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 990.

[8] See e.g., Sam Storms, “Why NT Prophecy Does NOT Result in ‘Scripture-quality Revelatory Words,’” in Michael L. Brown, Authentic Fire: A Response to John McArthur’s Strange Fire (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 2015), 379–81.

[9] We should not understand the prophets to be without error in everything they said during their lives. They were ordinary human beings. But when they spoke in the Lord’s name, their words were without error.

[10] Andrew Wilson, Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 111–12.

Thomas R. Schreiner

Tom Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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