The End of Charismatic Gifts
- A. The Nine Gifts of the Holy Spirit
- B. Various Forms of Cessationism
- C. The Ministry of an Apostle
- D. The Ministry of a Prophet
- E. Canonicity and Sola Scriptura
- F. Criteria of a True Prophet
- G. The Purpose of Other Gifts
- H. Objections and the Cessationist Presuppositions
In this article, we will examine the validity of the charismatic belief, that is, whether the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit are still present in the Church of Christ. The charismatic belief affirms that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still present, and have never ceased to be in operation from the birth of the Church on the day of the Pentecost until the present. The gifts will continue to exist until Christ's return. The charismatic belief is referred to as the continuationist view, or continuationism, while the opposite view is known as the cessationist view, or cessationism. We will show that continuationism is incorrect by examining the important arguments that are present in the issue.
The basic and underlying assumption for the article is that the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14 are of a supernatural character. If one tended to interpret mentioned gifts, e.g., the gift of prophecy or gifts of healing, in a natural sense, it is quite a deviation in the use of these biblical terms from the rest of the Bible. A charismatic continuationist understanding of the supernatural character of gifts is quite correct, which is the very reason why we discuss this issue. The supernatural character of a true prophecy is grounded upon the fact that its direct source is God, who addresses the Church through His prophets, the bearers of the gift of prophecy. By that token, modern prophecies constitute new revelations from God, and as such open up many issues pertaining to the question of open canonicity of the Bible, the validity of Sola Scriptura, etc. If the Corinthian gift of prophecy is understood in the natural sense then it would not raise any issues related to the canonicity of the Bible.
Our main concern is with the form of cessationism that appeals to the principle of Sola Scriptura. Because it appeals to the principle of Sola Scriptura, we call such cessationism principled cessationism, and it is to this form of cessationism that we subscribe. We will also briefly introduce an alternative form of cessationism, namely empirical cessationism, and compare it to the first one. Empirical cessationism does not necessarily subscribe to Sola Scriptura, but rather relies on historical testimony for denial of continuationism, e.g., writings of the Church Fathers. We do not subscribe to the empirical form of cessationism, and therefore, in this article, the term "cessationism" will refer to principled cessationism unless otherwise specified.
The underlying theme of the article is the conceptual investigation of the relation between the charismatic continuationist view and the principle of Sola Scriptura, where we are particularly interested in the question of whether the principle of Sola Scriptura would be violated if the charismatic practice were followed. We will show that charismatic continuationism is charged with inconsistency if it is committed to Sola Scriptura, where the Scriptures are understood as a closed canon. However, some continuationists, e.g., charismatic Roman Catholics, do not subscribe to Sola Scriptura. In such a context, there would not be much common ground for such continuationists and the principled cessationists. As such, the dispute would lose much meaning, since the whole principled cessationist rationale for the denial of continuationism would be begging the question. Appealing to Sola Scriptura, in the context of the discussion with a charismatic Roman Catholic, is question begging. A charismatic Catholic would ask, "Why should we accept Sola Scriptura in the first place?" However, at the end of the article, we will question the cessationist presuppositions in order to see whether charismatic continuationism is a viable position if Sola Scriptura is denied.
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A. The Nine Gifts of the Holy Spirit
The reason we should regard these gifts as supernatural is the mention of prophecy, healing and miracles. It is of course a possibility to regard other gifts like faith and knowledge in a natural sense. But it is strange to regard knowledge as a gift. To be aware of some information does not require some special talent, unless the information in question is acquired through the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. Faith is not a gift unless it pertains to announcements of extraordinary events, e.g., moving a mountain. When Paul says, "and though I have faith, so that I could remove mountains" (1 Cor. 13:2), he is referring to this supernatural quality of faith.
What kinds of gifts are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14? There are nine gifts grouped in three groups:
- The Gifts of Inspiration: tongues, interpretation and prophecy
- Tongues were languages spoken by a speaker who had never learned these languages.
- Interpretation was an interpretation of a message given through the gift of tongues. A speaker gave an interpretation of the message, through the Spirit, in spite of the speaker's lack of knowledge of the language in question.
- Prophecy was a speech in which God directly addressed the Church.
- The Gifts of Revelation: the word of knowledge, the word of wisdom and discerning the spirits
- The word of knowledge was a piece of information acquired from the Holy Spirit.
- The word of wisdom was supernatural guidance of the Spirit in the Church.
- Discerning the spirits was a gift possessed by an individual to discern the spirits.
- The Gifts of Power: the gift of faith, gifts of healing and the working of miracles
- The gift of faith was the possession of a supernatural conviction pertaining to the performance and announcement of miracles. The gift of faith should not be confused with two other kinds of faith, namely the saving faith (Eph. 2:8) and the fruit of faith (Gal. 5:22). Not every child of God has the gift of faith (to move mountains) but every saved child of God has the saving faith. A fruit of faith is one of the fruits of the Spirit in our daily life with our Lord, a fruit growing in our life. I understand it as a confidence in our Lord during our daily spiritual life, a belief that the Lord cares for our daily needs.
- Gifts of healing (note the plural) were gifts enabling supernatural physical healing.
- The gift of the working of miracles was a gift possessed by an individual in the Church to perform miracles.
These nine gifts were present and manifested through the members of the Church in the first century. They were so common that every local Church had the manifestation of all nine gifts in the service. Even the Corinthian Church had all nine gifts even though there were many problems and much spiritual immaturity. If continuationism is true, we would expect that any local charismatic Church have all nine gifts. However, only tongues, interpretation and the gift of prophecy dominate the charismatic scene. The other gifts are very rare to find.
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B. Various Forms of Cessationism
Cessationism has various forms and can be differentiated in two kinds of classifications. The first classification is with regard to the question of reemergence of gifts and the second classification is with regard to the types of justification of cessationism.
With regard to the possibility of reemergence (reappearance) of the charismatic gifts, we differentiate three versions of cessationism: (1) strong cessationism, (2) moderate cessationism and (3) restorationist eschatological cessationism. With regard to the forms of justification of cessationism, we make a distinction between principled and empirical cessationism. Both strong and moderate versions of cessationism belong to the principled forms of cessationism, while the restorationist eschatological view is an example of the empirical form of cessationism.
In this article, we will not deal with restorationist views about charisma, but will just briefly introduce them. In general, we have two types of restorationist views: (1) the restorationist charismatic view teaching that gifts ended between the second and fourth centuries AD, but reemerged at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century, and (2) the restorationist eschatological view teaching that gifts ended between the second and fourth centuries AD, but will reemerge during the Great Tribulation. Note that restorationist views can be both charismatic, i.e., affirming that the gifts are present in our modern age, and cessationist, denying that the gifts are present. The restorationist charismatic view is a peculiar charismatic position in that it is not a continuationist view. The restorationist eschatological view is practically the same as a moderate cessationist view (see below). Both restorationist views differ from principled cessationism in that they do not presuppose the principle of Sola Scriptura, but rather rely on historical research of the early Church practices and doctrines of the Church Fathers. We have chosen to ignore the restorationist views for two reasons: (1) restorationist views are semi-continuationist because they do not offer a biblical (principled) reason why gifts have ceased, but take the cessation of gifts as a mere contingent historical fact: gifts could have continued if certain historical circumstances had taken place; and (2) we are interested in the argumentative strength of invoking the principle of Sola Scriptura for the justification of cessationism. Restorationist views, thus, would not offer us this kind of insight in that they do not presuppose the principle of Sola Scriptura for accepting cessationism.
1. Strong Cessationism
Strong cessationism denies the possibility of the reemergence of gifts on grounds of principle, that is, the denial is on a priori grounds; i.e., no matter what, even if we met prophets or healers who prophesied or healed in the name of Jesus, a strong cessationist would deny the possibility of existence or reemergence of genuine God's prophets and healers in the post-apostolic age, i.e., after the first century. A strong cessationist would appeal to the principle of Sola Scriptura, insisting on three propositions:
- the completion of the canon of the Bible (pr. 1);
- the infallible and sufficient authority of the Bible (pr. 2); and
- the perfection of the scriptures to guide the Church (pr. 3).
Given the above three propositions, a strong cessationist would conclude that there would be no new prophets in the periods after the first century, as follows:
The Bible represents the complete revealed truth from God (pr. 1) capable of guiding God's people (pr. 3) as the infallible and sufficient authority for the Church (pr. 2). Therefore, there will no longer be any new prophets guiding God's people.
A strong cessationist might concede that prophecies might be useful in the guidance of the Church. Nevertheless, he will insist that the Church can be perfectly guided to reach the right decisions if applying principles, teachings and examples from the Bible.
According to a strong cessationist, a person with a gift of power is also a prophet because healing and miracles are always signs associated with divine confirmation of the genuineness of a prophet, but only in the periods where God revealed new truths with respect to the doctrine.
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2. Moderate Cessationism
A moderate cessationist would also deny the possibility of gifts on a priori grounds. He would deny the existence of manifestations of genuine charismatic gifts in the Church under any circumstances, even in the event of seeing apparent miracles or healing. However, a moderate cessationist allows for the possibility of a new charismatic period in the future, when God would powerfully guide His people. This openness to the possibility of a new charismatic period is motivated by premillennialist eschatological expectations, where it is assumed that Christ's Second Coming will occur before the establishment of Christ's millennial kingdom on Earth. Within this premillennialist conceptual framework, the Great Tribulation is seen as a future period immediately preceding Christ's Coming. A moderate cessationist would insist that the new charismatic period is possible only during the Great Tribulation, for otherwise the genuine gifts would be in operation before the Tribulation, and, thus, charismatic gifts could not be rejected on grounds of principle. Moderate cessationism is compatible with all premillennialist positions (pre-trib, post-trib, mid-trib and pre-wrath).
The moderate cessationist understanding of the principle of Sola Scriptura is almost identical to the strong one. A moderate cessationist would agree with all three propositions (pr. 1-3), but with an important qualification: all three propositions are valid only in the post-apostolic age of the Church before the Great Tribulation, i.e., in the period after the first century until the days of the Great Tribulation. Thus, in practical terms, both strong and moderate cessationism are the same. They differ only in eschatological terms, that is, whether the gifts will reemerge in the last days immediately preceding the time of Christ's Second Coming. The strong cessationist eschatological view is not a premillennialist, and, thus, does not share the premillennialist conceptual framework, such as the premillennialist view of the Great Tribulation as something belonging to the future.
Biblical grounds for moderate cessationism is the reference to two powerful prophets of God in Revelation 11:3-11. According to a moderate cessationist, events described in Revelation 11 are in the future, during the Great Tribulation. Moreover, a moderate cessationist has a ready answer to the question of why the Bible is so vague about the cessation of the charismatic gifts. The Bible is obscure on this point precisely because the gifts will reemerge during the Great Tribulation. They will absolutely end at the Second Coming of our Lord, at the end of the Great Tribulation.
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3. Principled Versus Empirical Cessationism
Cessationism can be founded either a priori, on grounds of principle, or a posteriori, i.e., on experience or empiria. Thus, we have two forms of cessationism: (1) principled cessationism and (2) empirical cessationism. Both strong and moderate versions of cessationism belong to the forms of cessationism on principle because they appeal to the principle of Sola Scriptura. Their denial of the possibility of gifts is on a priori grounds, or on grounds of principle. However, empirical cessationists deny the possibility of charismatic gifts on empirical grounds because they do not immediately discard an apparent miracle, healing or prophecy as counterfeit. An empirical cessationist would rather first investigate the genuineness of the manifestation of the charismatic gift in question.
According to an empirical cessationist, there is no Christian group practicing genuine charismatic gifts because, if thoroughly investigated, many healings and other "miracles" would most certainly be shown to be false. In other words, an empirical cessationist denial is based on experience coupled with the probabilistic expectation that apparent miracles, healing or prophecies are mostly improbable.
In this article, the term "cessationism" will refer to the principled forms of cessationism, i.e., either to a strong or to a moderate version of cessationism, because both of these forms of cessationism share the same biblical ground for denying the charismatic continuationist view. The rationale for empirical cessationism is not biblical arguments, but rather experience or observation of counterfeit miracles, healing and prophecies. We believe that those disputes where cessationism is founded upon grounds of a (biblical) principle are more of interest than those founded on empirical observations of counterfeit miracles, fake prophecies and the like. Proving that some cases of miracles are counterfeit does not show that all cases of miracles are inauthentic. This article therefore does not cover the dispute between empirical cessationism and continuationism. In addition, we are more interested in the biblical reasons figuring in the dispute than in historical reasons. Consideration of biblical data should be the decisive factor in the resolution of the dispute concerning charismata, notwithstanding the overwhelming historical testimony we have for either the continuation or the cessation of the gifts in the early church.
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4. Cessationism - What It Does Not Imply
A cessationist denies the presence and manifestation of genuine supernatural charismatic gifts in our local churches. A cessationist maintains that all nine gifts, mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14, are no longer present in local churches of the followers of Christ. However, we have to be clear on what the cessationist view does not imply. A cessationist does not deny that miracles can be seen in our churches. Neither does a cessationist deny that God still heals in the present day.
Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that God still speaks to His children. We, who are in Christ, have the Holy Spirit, who guides us in our lives. We, as God's children, have a personal contact with our Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ. In our daily contact with the words of the Bible, we grow in His wisdom. God leads us when we read His words, which we do find in the Bible. In our prayer we can be guided by the Holy Spirit to think about certain things that will help us to grow in our spiritual life. In our spiritual growth, we also develop sensitivity to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit. God can influence our thoughts when we are in our prayer, because He is in us through His Spirit.
We are all baptized in His Spirit and we do not need tongues for the confirmation of that baptism: "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body ... and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13). Thus, every child of God is a part of the Body of Christ through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. If we are in Christ, then we are baptized in His Spirit. To be saved is a sufficient condition for baptism in God's Spirit. We do not need to have any supernatural gift confirming our baptism in the Holy Spirit. If tongues were condition for the baptism then it is strange that God says that we are all baptized in God's Spirit, but that not all speak in tongues (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13, 28-30).
The fact that we have God's Spirit leading us in our daily life implies that God does individually speak to us, that God can heal us and even perform miracles for our comfort. The crucial question is in which way God speaks to us, i.e., how God speaks to His children, his manner of speaking to them. To repeat, a cessationist strongly believes that God speaks to His children and that He can heal us when we pray to Him. Nevertheless, a cessationist contends that God neither speaks through some specially chosen prophets nor heals through some specially chosen healers.
The next section deals with the first reason why we should reject the charismatic continuationist thesis.
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C. The Ministry of an Apostle
If we maintain that every gift and ministry still exists in the Church of our century as it was in the Church of the first century, then we must maintain that we do have apostles today. But this is simply false to maintain, for the following reasons.
1. The Special Meaning of Apostolos
The word apostolos is one of the few Greek words that are not translated in our English Bibles. Why did we not translate this word from Greek, which means "a messenger, one who is sent, a delegate, one sent forth with orders"? There are many other Greek terms for expressing the meaning of someone sent as a messenger (e.g., angelo, pempo, and their derivates). Angelo is translated into the English word "messenger" only when it denotes an ordinary human messenger, but it is not translated when it denotes angels, i.e., nonhuman messengers. When it refers to nonhuman messengers, the meaning of the term would not be correctly conveyed under translation. The same applies to the term apostolos. It is not translated because the term has a special meaning, not easily conveyed in languages that do not have the same concept of apostolos. Apostolos does not just mean an ordinary messenger or some delegate. It is more than that. The following example will illustrate the significance of the term:
In ancient times, when a king sent his apostolos to some distant town, the people of the town would regard the king's apostle as if the apostle was the king himself. They would bow to him and address him as if it was the king himself who sent him. The apostle had the authority of the one who sent him.
Thus, Jesus' apostles were messengers with Jesus' authority. They were the foundation for the Church of the New Testament (with Prophets, cf. Eph. 2:20).
Both the Bible and many Greek theological dictionaries confirm this perspective of apostleship. Biblical passages teaching this concept of apostleship are Matthew 10:40 and Luke 10:16. What becomes clear in the exegetical study of apostolos is that above all it applies to the group of men who held the supreme dignity in the primitive church. The force of apostolos is "one commissioned" - it is implied by Christ's use of the term. Rengstorf, in particular, has elaborated the theory that it reflects the Jewish shaluah, an accredited representative of religious authority, entrusted with messages and money empowered to act on behalf of the authority (for the idea, cf. Acts 9:2); also, Gregory Dix and other renowned Greek scholars have applied ideas and expressions belonging to the shaluah concept (e.g., "a man's shaluah is as himself") to the apostolate.1 Kittel also connects the ministry of apostleship with the Judaistic ministry of shaluah:
The legal institution of the shaluah, which is ancient but takes shape in the first century, involves commissioning with specific tasks and stresses authorization. The legal element of giving and obeying orders is decisive. The person sent represents the sender, e.g., in betrothal, divorce, or purchase. Full adherence to the commission is presupposed. The applicable law is that of messenger, whose honoring or shaming is an honoring or shaming of the sender (1 Sam. 25:40-41; 2 Sam. 10:1-2). The person sent is as the person who sends.2
Saying that we nowadays have Christ's apostles around in our churches will imply that we have persons who have the authority of Christ.
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2. Apostleship and the Testimony of Christ's Resurrection
Another important function of an apostle of Christ was that he was a prime witness of Jesus' bodily resurrection. The necessary condition for a person to be an apostle of Christ was that the person had seen the bodily-resurrected Jesus, in order to give the prime testimony for the truthfulness of our fundamental Christian belief. The only possibility for truthfulness of such a testimony was that the person had seen Jesus before His bodily death, witnessed (or known for sure) the fact of Jesus' bodily death, and was able to recognize the bodily-resurrected Christ (cf. Acts 1:21-22). However, today, if someone claims to have seen the resurrected Jesus, we are entitled to ask the person how they can know for sure that it is Jesus they have seen. How can such a person nowadays recognize Jesus of Nazareth, who died on the cross 2000 years ago? It is obvious that the person has not seen Jesus while Jesus was walking in human flesh among us. If the person answers our question by saying that Jesus was seen in a vision, such a testimony is not reliable. The testimony of Christ's bodily resurrection should be based on certain objective criteria enabling recognition of the resurrected Christ, and not on mere subjective criteria. The testimony of an apostle should be of prime quality. The testimony should have the highest quality or value as a testimony for the fundamental Christian belief, fundamental by virtue of the fact that the whole Christian faith is based on the testimony of the truthfulness of the bodily resurrection of our Lord.
The first century is, therefore, rightfully called the apostolic period in the history of our Church. At that time in Judea there were at least 500 persons who had truly witnessed the appearance of the bodily-resurrected Messiah, and many of them were appointed by Jesus to be prime witnesses for His resurrection. There were two kinds of apostles.
The first important group was the circle of the Twelve, and they were the foundation of the First Church in Jerusalem. However, also other persons were appointed as prime witnesses of our Lord in order to spread the Gospel throughout the whole Roman Empire. Jesus Himself appointed them, e.g., Paul. We know that there were at least 83 apostles: 12 minus one, plus 70, plus Paul and Barnabas (cf. Luke 10:1, about the 70 more apostles; Acts 1:26, about Matthias' replacing Judas of Iskariot; Acts 14:14, about Paul and Barnabas). But it is clear that the Twelve had a special role, especially seen in light of the Acts of the Apostles 1:26, probably because they were close to Jesus during His ministry before His death.
In any case, all apostles were the foundation for the continuing mission to spread the Gospel for the whole world. Christianity was spreading at an exponential rate in spite of the persecutions. At the end of the first century, Christianity was already established in the whole Roman Empire and it had also already spread to other areas outside of the Roman Empire. I believe that Christianity began to be known in Ireland, Armenia, and even in some provinces of India at the end of the first century. It is interesting that the Apostle Thomas, according to the Christian tradition, extended his apostolate into India, where he is recognized as the founder of the Church of the Syrian Malabar Christians, or Christians of St. Thomas. The origins of the Christians of St. Thomas are uncertain, though they seem to have been in existence before the sixth century AD.
Implied in apostleship is the commission to witness by word and sign (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12) to the risen Christ and His completed work. This witness, being grounded in a unique experience of the incarnate Christ, and directed by a special dispensation of the Holy Spirit, provides the authentic interpretation of Christ, and has ever since been determinative for the Church. In the nature of things, it follows that the office of apostleship could not be repeated or transmitted any more than the underlying historic experiences could be transmitted to those who had never known the incarnate Lord and seen Him resurrected. Therefore, we do not have apostles in our age after the first century AD.
Given the above considerations, we can be sure that the apostolic ministry is not present in the Church any more. If some ministries are gone, then is it not plausible to assume that some gifts are gone as well, especially those gifts pertaining to the sign of the apostleship (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12)?
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D. The Ministry of a Prophet
What about the prophets - do we have them in our modern age? There are three considerations that lead us to the cessationist conclusion that the prophetic ministry ended at end of the first century:
- the force of prophetic self-declaration;
- the uniform authority of prophets; and
- the divine origin of the prophecy.
1. The Force of Prophetic Self-Declaration
A prophetic speech, or prophecy, is a first person utterance, spoken in the name of the Lord. A prophetic speech begins with a strong and authoritative declaration such as "and so says the Lord," signifying the divine character of the speech, i.e., it is spoken in the name of the Lord. This means that a prophecy functions as a message from God directly addressing the Church. Prophetic self-declaration is strong because it emphasizes the divine source of the speech. Because a prophet begins with such a strong declaration, we should regard the speech as infallible. Thus, a prophet, through verbal inspiration from God, directly speaks the words of God to the Church.
If we maintain that prophetic words do not present direct and infallible words of God, then the person in question is not entitled to say a first-person utterance in the name of the Lord by using a strong declaration such as "and so says the Lord." If a person comes with such a strong prophetic declaration and begins to speak in the first person in the name of the Lord, as if God were directly speaking to the Church, then we should surely regard the speech to be the direct and infallible words of God; for otherwise the prophetic speech act would be deceptive. In the biblical study of the ancient prophets of both the Old and the New Testament (Moses, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Esaias, Jeremiah, Agabus, etc.), we observe the above practice of prophetic declarations among prophets. When ancient prophets delivered their prophecies, they spoke in the name of the Lord by introducing their speech with a strong prophetic declaration about the divine character of the speech, i.e., a declaration that the speech presents the direct words and message of God by using a phrase such as "and so says the Lord."
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2. The Uniform Authority of Prophets
The second observation is that orally-spoken prophecies were assigned the same authority as written, acknowledged prophecies. Consider, for instance, the great prophets Nathan and Elijah. These two prophets were as great in authority as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Yet we do not have canonical books written by Nathan or Elijah. Although some prophets, such as Moses, were greater in clarity and reception of God's revelation, that does not imply that they were greater in authority than prophets who had less clear revelations.
The New Testament writers also recognized and acknowledged the authority of the oral charismatic tradition that flourished in Judea in the last three centuries before Christ. Much of this oral prophetic tradition was not included in the canon of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, they were recognized as authoritative as the written prophecies of the Old Testament. For instance, Matthew and Judas referred to prophecies that are extra-biblical (outside the canon of the Bible). Here follows brief comments on the passages in question.
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, 'He shall be called a Nazarene'. (Matt. 2:23, my emphasis)
Notice that we are talking about spoken prophecies, referring to a charismatic prophetic tradition (notice plural "prophets"). The phrase "He shall be called a Nazarene" is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. Yet Matthew tells us that Christ's dwelling in the city of Nazareth is a fulfillment of a prophecy spoken by prophets. If the reference is to the written body of prophetic books of the Old Testament, then we should have found two or more prophetic books prophesying this event. We do not find any reference in the Old Testament.
There are some proposed solutions to explain Matthew 2:23. They range from trying to find some word-play on "Nazarene" in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, to viewing this text as loosely "fulfilling" a conglomeration of the Old Testament passages that refer to a despised Messiah. For instance, the closest passages are in Zechariah (3:8, 6:12): these passages talk about God's servant whose name is the Branch, but they are not prophecies saying, "He shall be called the Branch." Besides, the expression is translated from tseh'makh, not resembling the phonetic "Nazareth." However, another word for "branch" phonetically similar to "Nazareth" is nay'-tser, as used in Isaiah 11:1: "[A]nd there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots." However, Isaiah 11:1 cannot be the passage referred to, as some commentators propose, e.g., John Gill. The wording is not the same and the meaning of the prophecy is not the same. Matthew 2:23 is talking about the city of Nazareth, but Isaiah 11:1 talks about Christ's genealogical branch.
Matthew is drawing on oral tradition for this saying. If this is the case, it is significant that he places this prophecy on the same level as the ones he attributes to written prophecies of the Old Testament.
Jude relates an altercation between Michael and Satan:
Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee.
This incident is not mentioned in the Scripture, but has its source in some "extra-biblical" revelation in Jewish oral tradition, which is well known to the readers of this epistle. Some versions of the story circulating in ancient Judaism depict Satan trying to intervene as Michael buries the body.
This text provides another example of how oral charismatic tradition of the Old Testament carries the same authority as the written body of prophetic writings of the Bible. In other words, these two kinds of prophecies have the same form of authority, i.e., divine and infallible. Therefore, both kinds of prophecies are uniform in authority.
Given the above, any true prophetic speech carries the same authority as prophecies of ancient prophets of both the Old and the New Testament. Consequently, modern prophets, in the capacity of their office, would have the same authority as the ancient prophets of both Testaments of the Bible.
The passage in question is as follows:
And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.
This passage is also found in the non-canonical book of Enoch (cf. 1 Enoch 1:9). Does it mean that the Book of Enoch is a completely divine inspired book? One can say at most that the Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) was written as a result of oral traditions that have preserved some of the true ancient extra-biblical prophecies.
From the examples above, it follows that God's revelations or prophecies outside the Scriptures of the Old Testament enjoyed the same authority as written revelations or prophecies in the Scripture. Practically this means that the canon is not regarded as strictly closed as long as we have oral prophecies or revelations that enjoy the uniform authority of the canonical ones. If the canon is closed then we should not accept any new revelations or prophecies. This question of closed canonicity and its bearing to the continuationist thesis will be further discussed in the next sections.
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3. The Divine Origin of True Prophecies
From the foregoing, we have observed the strong authoritative character of prophetic self-declaration and the uniform authority of prophets. Both these features are grounded upon one biblical fact: the origin of prophecies and revelations is divine. The prophetic declaration would lose its meaning unless its source is grounded upon true revelation and inspiration from God. Precisely because the origin of all true prophecies stems from God, all prophecies enjoy the same uniform authority.
Consequently, a spoken prophecy is, in principle, of the same authority as the written words of the Bible, provided that the spoken prophecy is genuine, i.e., has its origin in God. Therefore, if we assume that there are genuine modern prophets of God, then there would not be any distinction between the authority of their prophecies and the authority of the Bible. This observation prompts the question of whether the presence of genuine modern prophecies or revelations would repudiate the sufficient authority of the Bible.
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4. Corollary From Biblical Observations
The main point with the thesis of the uniformity of prophetic authority is that modern prophets would enjoy the same authority as the ancient prophets Jeremiah or Agabus, even if we did not literally add any new book to the canon. This point is reinforced with the observation about great prophets as Nathan or Elijah. These two prophets were as great as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Yet, we do not have books written by Nathan or Elijah.
A cessationist's main motive in the denial of the continuationist thesis about charismatic gifts is that he is not prepared to accept the authority of new prophets. A cessationist is not prepared to accept their authority precisely because it would commit him to the view that their authority is the same as the authority of biblical prophets, such as Jeremiah and John.
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5. Foundational and Non-Foundational Prophets
Some continuationists, such as Wayne Grudem, make a distinction between two kinds of prophets, foundational and non-foundational prophets.3 The foundational prophets were those apostles that were also prophets, while the non-foundational prophets would be prophets that were not among the apostles. This distinction is significant in the dispute because a continuationist, by appealing to this distinction, can avoid the conclusion that modern prophecies may have content with new doctrinal import. Only foundational prophets could come up with prophecies with new doctrinal import that serve as the foundation of the Church. Therefore, Wayne Grudem can readily agree with cessationists that we no longer have foundational ministries such as the apostolic and prophetic ministries, as referenced in Ephesians 2:20.4 These ministries ended at the beginning of the second century. Nevertheless, the gift of prophecy is still in operation because not all possessors of the gift of prophecy had the foundational ministry of a prophet. Thus, we have a distinction between foundational and non-foundational prophetic ministries. A non-foundational prophetic ministry would not involve prophecies with new doctrinal import and, as such, would not contribute anything to the foundation of the Church.
The two main arguments for maintaining this distinction between prophetic ministries are the following:5
- The Greek grammar of the text of Ephesians 2:20, specifically the semantic range of the article-noun-kai-noun construction in the NT permits us to interpret ton apostolon kai profeton as meaning "the apostles and the apostles who are also prophets."
- We are commanded to test prophecies, implying that a prophecy can have a mixture of both true and false elements. Consequently, such prophecies are fallible. This cannot possibly be said of prophecies given by foundational prophets; otherwise they would be fallible, and as such could not serve as the foundation of the Church.
In this section, we will take a look only at the first argument, while the second one is discussed in the next section, where we deal with the question of the verification of prophecies.
According to R. Fowler White's reply to Grudem's grammatical argument,
Grudem's exegesis is not at all compelling from a grammatical point of view. For one thing, Grudem interprets the syntax of ton apostolon kai profeton without due regard for the fact that this construction involves plural nouns. As odd as it may sound, with the exception of Eph 4:11 (on which I shall comment below), Grudem fails to cite a single example of the construction in question in Eph 2:20: every one of the texts he adduces in favor of his exegesis is an example of a construction involving something other than two plural nouns.
Even if Grudem were to correct this problem, his case would have another serious obstacle to overcome. The obstacle is that Grudem interprets the syntax of the article-noun-kai-noun plural construction in Eph 2:20 in a way which, as D. B. Wallace has demonstrated, has neither clear nor ambiguous parallels in the NT. In addition, Wallace has shown that even the one true grammatical parallel that Grudem cites (Eph 4:11, tous de poimenas kai didaskalous) has been widely misunderstood because few exegetes have ever seriously investigated the semantic range of the article-noun-kai-noun plural construction. In fact, Wallace boldly challenges the exegesis of Eph 4:11 by Grudem and others, emphatically insisting "that such a view has no grammatical basis" in the NT usage. According to Wallace's findings, the least likely interpretation of Eph 4:11 is that it means "the pastor-teachers, that is, the pastors who are also teachers"; more likely, it means "the pastors and other teachers."6
Another consideration is to compare Ephesians 2:20 with Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28, where there is also a mention of apostles and prophets together with other ministries and gifts. White notes "that 1 Cor 12:28, together with Eph 4:11, establishes a burden of proof for those who like Grudem would see something other than a distinction between apostles and prophets in Eph 2:20. It remains for Grudem to produce the evidence that shifts the burden of proof from himself to those who differ with him."7 White's position is strengthened by his discussion of Gaffin's observation that 2:20 and 4:11 are parts of a larger context in which Paul discusses the church:
Gaffin's observation that 2:20 and 4:11 are parts of a larger context, viz., 2:11-4:16, in which Paul discusses the church (universal and local) and its composition as the newly-created body of Christ. Within that larger unit, 4:7-16 expands on Paul's description of the church in 2:11-22 by pointing out the harmony of the differing gifts distributed by Christ in the body. Given this connection between the two sections, it is extremely unlikely that the prophets mentioned as foundation stones of the church in 2:20 are other than the prophets who contribute to its upbuilding in 4:11-12. In fact, in view of the larger context of 2:11-4:16, the prophets' specific role in the housebuilding work pictured in 4:7-16 would have to be none other than their foundational function described in 2:20.8
Even some continuationists, such as Craig Simonian, do not buy Grudem's argument: "If Paul wanted to speak of the apostles who were also prophets, he most likely would have used a construction that emphasized the point."9 Nevertheless, they would make a similar distinction between prophecies carrying a canonical weight from prophecies that do not.10 Craig sees in Moses "an archetype of a unique strand of prophets which was ultimately fulfilled in the Messiah as indicated in the NT."11 Such an archetype of prophets had a canonical authority and not all prophets were of that archetype. Other prophets received revelation via visions or dreams, and as such did not carry the foundational weight. Thus, a continuationist does not accept the cessationist premise of the uniform authority of prophets.
Craig cites several biblical observations supporting the distinction between canonical (foundational) and non-canonical (non-foundational) prophets. Some of these biblical observations are reports of people who began prophesying after the Spirit of God had fallen upon them: e.g., Numbers 11:25, when elders started to prophecy; 1 Samuel 10, when Saul prophesied. In these biblical reports, we observe people who were not ordinarily prophets, but who spontaneously prophesied when the Spirit of God had fallen upon them. Craig notes that "what Saul prophesied was not recorded that day and it is likely that his prophesies lacked any lasting significance."12 Craig's additional objection against the cessationist notion of the uniform authority of prophets is as follows:
We should also consider the breadth of OT Prophets. They would include prophetesses such as Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Huldah (2 Ki 22:14), and Deborah (Judges 4:4). Had God called these women to be His authoritative messengers to Israel so that to disobey them was to disobey God Himself? Indeed, was Balaam, an enemy of God, to fill this position of Scripture-writer as he received infallible revelation from God in Numbers 11:6-24?! When Joel wrote his book which, of course, became part of OT canon, he prefaced what would follow with the words, "The word of the Lord that came to Joel." Here, Joel is speaking with canonical weight behind him. Now, representing the very words of God, he puts his life on the line. If he errs in his delivery of God's message, he should, according to Deuteronomy 18, be put to death. However, in his book he refers to an experience where God would pour out His spirit on all people ... and, as a result, "sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions" (Joel 2:28-29). Should these daughters and young men have been subject to death, as per Dt. 18:20, if they had spoken in error?13
Therefore, a continuationist can maintain that not all prophets have a "canonical authority" by observing two strands of prophets in the OT and that this pattern continued in the NT:
If we are right in saying that there are, in fact, two strands of prophesy in the OT (both being revelatory yet not having the same function and authority), then it is likely that these two strands of prophesy would be presented in the NT as well. This would preserve the theological unity of prophesy in Scripture, as the Cessationists attest to, and would show that the function of NT prophesy itself not only had a canonical role but a community or congregational role as well.14
A cessationist would have a different interpretation of biblical data and not reach the same continuationist conclusion concerning the non-foundational authority of "lesser prophets." A cessationist would concede that some prophets, such as Moses, were greater in clarity and reception of God's revelation, but not conclude that they were greater in authority than prophets who had less clear revelations. A cessationist would raise many questions concerning these "lesser prophets." Although there were occasions that the Spirit had fallen upon some persons who were not ordinarily prophets, why would we suppose that their prophecies had a lesser authority? Were not their words spoken in the name of the Lord? Would not this imply that at the moment of their prophetic speech act, they were the very mouthpiece of God? Would not their word be infallible in the virtue of being God's word? If not, why would we call their messages prophecies? How could they be entitled to speak in the name of the Lord, if their words did not carry the weight of divine infallible authority?
If we allow that non-foundational prophets can give fallible prophecies, i.e., prophecies containing error, how do we distinguish true erroneous prophets from false prophets who presumptuously speak in the name of the Lord? It would be impossible to distinguish these two kinds of prophets. So, to Craig's question, "Should these daughters and young men have been subject to death, as per Deut. 18:20, if they had spoken in error?", a cessationist would answer that any person who spoke presumptuously in the name of the Lord is subject to death.
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6. Verification of Prophecies
Continuationists that make the distinction between foundational and non-foundational prophets would further contend that a prophecy given by a non-foundational prophet can contain both true and false elements, and for that reason the Scriptures command us to test prophecies (cf. 1 Cor. 14:29, 1 Thess. 5:20).15 Thus, a continuationist concludes that modern prophecies do not represent an infallible source of authority for the Church and, as such, the principle of Sola Scriptura is not violated.
The Scriptures command us to test prophecies (cf. 1 Cor. 14:29, 1 Thess. 5:20), but does this imply that a prophecy can be a mixture of both true and false elements?
According to the cessationist perspective, we are commanded to test prophets by observing their fruits, and this would involve both their words and actions (cf. 1 John 2:18-19 with 1 John 4:1-6, Matt. 7:15-20 with Matt. 12:33-37 and Matt. 24:23-26). According to 1 John, false prophets could be in the Church trying to deceive the elected. Thus, Paul instructed Corinthian Christians to test the prophets. As White notes,
But let us take another look at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 ... In the Corinthians passage, the apostle looks at an individual meeting of the local church (14:26) and envisions a plurality of prophets speaking during any given meeting: "let two or three prophets speak" (14:29a) ... [H]is instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 ... presume that his readers would be hearing a plurality of prophets speaking their oracles.
My point in making this observation is that while Grudem reads Paul's words as preparing the churches to sort out the true and false elements in any one oracle, it is clearly more in keeping with Paul's very words to read them as preparing the churches to sort out the true and false oracles among the many oracles they would hear. To put it another way, while Grudem says that "[e]ach prophecy might have both true and false elements in it," we should say that the many prophecies heard in the meetings of the local church might have both true and false prophecies among them.16
Therefore, from the cessationist perspective, it is odd to say that a prophecy given by a genuine true prophet, i.e., a prophet who was inspired by God's spirit, can be a mixture of both false and true statements. How can a prophet be entitled to declare "and so says the Lord" and utter false statements, as if the Lord were a liar?
A continuationist reply is that an oral prophecy might be fallible due to the human fallibility. C. Samuel Storms gives an explanation of how can prophecies be fallible:
The key is in recognizing that with every prophecy there are four elements, only one of which is assuredly of God: There is the revelation itself; there is the perception or reception of that revelation by the believer; there is the interpretation of what has been disclosed or the attempt to ascertain its meaning; and there is the application of that interpretation. God alone is responsible for the revelation ... It is infallible as he is. It contains no falsehoods ... Error enters in when the human recipient of a revelation misperceives, misinterprets and/or misapplies what God has disclosed. The fact that God has spoken perfectly does not mean that human beings have heard perfectly.17
A cessationist would be skeptic towards such a continuationist theory of inspiration due to the following problems:
First, Deuteronomy 18:20-22 teaches us that a false prophet, who speaks presumptuously in the name of the Lord, is exposed by discovering falsehoods in his prophetic predictions. Deuteronomy 18 is about oral prophecies, and thus, it is about non-canonical prophecies. If we allow true prophecies to contain error, we could not distinguish true (non-foundational) prophets from false prophets who presumptuously speak in the name of the Lord. According to Deuteronomy 18:20-22, prophets who spoke fallible prophecies were subject to death.
Second, there is no ground for restricting the continuationist theory of inspiration only to non-canonical prophecies. Consequently, canonical prophecies might be fallible as well. If we allow fallibility of canonical prophecies, the continuationist theory of inspiration would violate the principle of Sola Scriptura because Sola Scriptura teaches that the Scriptures is the only infallible authority for the Church.
In the logic of prophetic self-declarations, we should treat a genuine prophecy as divine and infallible. A prophetic self-declaration does not carry any weight if we treated the spoken prophecy as human and fallible.
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E. Canonicity and Sola Scriptura
When discussing the principle of Sola Scriptura in this context, it should be noted that the principle presupposes the closed character of the canon, that is, the body of the Holy Scriptures is closed and not open for new additions. Affirming Sola Scriptura is stronger than affirming the closed nature of the canon. One might accept that the canon is closed and deny Sola Scriptura, but not vice versa. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church denies the principle of Sola Scriptura, but affirms that the canon is closed. Sola Scriptura presupposes the idea of closed canonicity because the principle makes sense only in a context where one raises the question of the sufficient and final authority of the Holy Scriptures qua an established and closed body of books. The historical background of the formulation of the principle was during the Protestant Reformation, when the central question was how authoritative this body of Holy Scriptures is: whether it is the only infallible and final authority for the Church. This question presupposed the view of the closed canon.
Would the principle of Sola Scriptura be false if the canon were open? Sola Scriptura would neither be false nor true. The very question of the sufficiency of the Bible presupposes the view of the closed canonicity of the Bible. The point with Sola Scriptura is that doctrinal truths are justified only by appealing to an established and closed canon of the Holy Scriptures. The canon is not established as long as it is uncompleted. However, if the body of the Scripture was treated as growing, but not yet complete, then the already written books would be treated with the utmost respect and reverence, as holy and infallible words from our Lord, together with the living voice of the prophets and apostles.
Would the presence of genuine modern prophecies or revelations repudiate the sufficient authority of the Bible? In order to investigate this question, we will deal with the following problems:
- How does the continuationist view relate to the canonicity of the Bible?
- How does the continuationist view relate to the principle of Sola Scriptura?
1. Prophecy and Canonicity
Assuming that there are new prophets, we have to ask ourselves whether there is a distinction between the authority of God's words uttered through some modern prophet and God's words written in the Bible. If we follow the logic of the previous part, the answer is obvious: prophetic self-declaration, the uniform authority of prophets and the divine origin of true prophecies makes the prophecy in question equal in authority to God's written words of the Bible.
Nevertheless, a continuationist would not necessarily agree with such an answer. He would point out that every true prophecy given today has to be consistent with the Bible. The Bible has a greater authority, a continuationist might say, because it is by the Bible that we test prophecies. It is not by modern prophecies that we test the Bible, but rather the other way around: prophecies are tested by the Bible. The Bible is the paradigm of true prophecies. Furthermore, every oral prophecy has to be tested and verified, while this is not the case with the Bible.
Verification means, in this context, an evaluative conclusion by some reliable test that something is true. Falsification, on the other hand, means an evaluative conclusion by some reliable test that something is false. How would a prophecy be verified (or falsified) by the Bible? A continuationist understands the test as judging the doctrinal content of a prophetic message with the teachings of the Bible. If a prophecy, by its content or implications, contradicts the teachings of the Bible, then the prophecy in question is false.
A cessationist would object to the above charismatic account on the matter of verification of a given prophecy; he contends that the Bible cannot provide a sufficient verification as long as we allow that God continues to speak through prophets. The cessationist contention is thoroughly discussed later, but suffice it to say that a prophecy consistent with the Bible is not necessarily inspired by God. It is even possible that demon-possessed persons can issue true prophetic utterances that are wholly consistent with the Bible (cf. Mark 3:11, Acts 16:16-18). As we shall see later, in the course of our discussion about the criteria of a true prophet, a true prophecy (revelation) can also contradict with the established canon of the Holy Scriptures.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that the Bible provides a sufficient standard for testing prophecies. Would this establish that the Bible has greater authority? What is at most established is that the Bible is the most reliable source of knowledge of God's revelation, but not that it is greater in authority than other sources of God's revelation, e.g., new oral prophecies. The fact that the Bible is the most reliable source of knowledge of God's revelation is the result of having been verified and testified. All prophecies and revelations in the Bible were also subjected to tests. After being verified as true revelations from God, they enjoyed great authority in the same way other true non-canonical prophecies did. The point is that these other non-canonical prophecies could, in principle, also be included in the canon. The fact that they were not included does not mean they were second-rate prophecies. Nathan, Elijah and Elisha were great prophets, but their prophecies were not included in the canon. Prophecies from such great prophets would surely not be characterized as second-rate. Their prophecies could, in principle, be included in the canon, had they been written down and preserved. Therefore, given the cessationist biblical observation of the uniform authority of prophecies, modern prophets would carry the same authority as Jeremiah or the Apostle John, even if we did not add their prophecies as new prophetic books to the canon.
Thus, the fundamental problem of the charismatic perspective is as follows:
Let us assume that we have tested a prophetic utterance and are certain that it is true: God is the source of the prophecy. Why should not this prophecy enjoy the same authority as the canonical prophecies of the Bible?
This is the fundamental problem for the charismatic continuationist perspective if we grant that the canon of the Bible is closed. This is not a problem for groups or churches that regard the Bible as an open canon, such as the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Mormons are quite consistent with their doctrine that the presence of new revelations and prophecies implies that the canon of the Bible is open. It is not surprising that they venerate their prophetic books with the same authority as the books of the Bible.
Some continuationists misconstrue the cessationist appeal to the closure of the canon as if cessationists do not acknowledge non-canonical revelations, and then try to show that the Bible makes clear the existence of non-canonical revelations.18 However, the cessationist question regarding non-canonical revelations is about their authority. The cessationist appeal to the closure of the canon does not imply that cessationists are blind to the existence of non-canonical revelations. The cessationist point is rather that new prophecies and revelations would enjoy the same authority as the canonical prophecies and revelations of the Holy Scriptures. Consequently, non-canonical revelations could, in principle, be included in the canon, had they been written and preserved. The cessationist main concern is how modern prophetic speech would differ in authority from the inspired speech of canonical prophets and apostles:
[W]hat sense can there be in trying to maintain both a closed canon and the occurrence of inspired speech today? "Canon," after all, is not merely a literary designation or cataloging term. It carries connotations of authority. The "canon" is whether I find God's inspired word for today. If inspired speech continues today, then, as our canon, Scripture is not complete; no matter how highly we may otherwise view it, the Bible is but a part of that canon.19
Another continuationist approach is to limit the scope of modern prophecies. A continuationist might say that prophecies do not provide new doctrinal content. He would maintain that prophecies are more concerned with "edification, and exhortation, and comfort of the Church" (cf. 1 Cor. 14:3-5, 12). Given the limited scope of the prophecies, modern prophecies do not present an addition to the established canon.
The above continuationist approach is begging the question. "Why limit the Spirit's work?" a cessationist might ask. Why would modern prophecies be different from the prophecies of ancient times? Edification of the church also involves doctrines of God, and there is no scriptural evidence that the gift of prophecy was so limited in its scope. The Old Testament prophecies are full of doctrinal import, and there is no reason why this would not apply to the New Testament prophecies.
All the evidence from the examples of prophetic ministry in the NT shows that it was entirely of a piece with OT prophecy in its character and form. The ministries of John the Baptist, Agabus and the John who wrote the Apocalypse alike comprise the classic unity of prediction and proclamation, of foretelling and forth-telling, and the same is true of Zechariah, Simeon and others.20
Christ's Church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:20-21). No other foundation is allowed. If we have the gift of prophecy in operation nowadays, then the prophetic foundation is at work today and was not completed by the end of the first century. Therefore, modern prophecies could, in principle, add a new doctrinal content to the Scriptures - new doctrinal elements not necessarily in contradiction with the Scriptures.
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2. Sola Versus Prima Scriptura
The principle of Sola Scriptura is the principle teaching that the Scripture is the sole infallible authority in the Church. The Scripture presents both the necessary and sufficient infallible authority in all matters pertaining to Christian doctrine and practice.
The key implication of the principle is that interpretations and applications of the Scriptures do not have the same authority as the Scriptures themselves; hence, the leaders in the Church are subject to correction by the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura, however, does not ignore Christian history and tradition when seeking to understand the Bible. Rather, it sees the Bible as the only final and infallible authority in matters of faith and practice.
For principled cessationists, who reject continuationism by appealing to the principle of Sola Scriptura, the main issue is the logical relation between Sola Scriptura and the continuationist thesis. They contend that charismatic gifts would represent a second infallible source of authority for the Church, and we therefore cannot consistently maintain Sola Scriptura as as a true principle. Rather, we would regard the authority of the Scriptures according to the principle of Prima Scriptura.
The principle of Prima Scriptura is a principle teaching that the Scriptures are "first" or "above all" sources of divine revelation. Implicitly, the principle acknowledges that there are other authoritative guides in the Church, such as tradition, charismatic gifts, mystical insight, etc. Prima Scriptura is unproblematic if one does not understand other guides as infallible. In this weak sense of the term, Prima Scriptura and Sola Scriptura do not necessarily contradict each other. However, Prima Scriptura is problematic if understood in a stronger sense of the term. In the strong sense of the term, other authoritative guides are treated as infallible. The strong sense of Prima Scriptura is problematic for principled cessationists because it would contradict with Sola Scriptura. A principled cessationist contends that a continuationist view subscribes to the strong sense of Prima Scriptura. The crucial question is whether a continuationist can insist on Prima Scriptura on biblical grounds instead.
Do the Scriptures teach one of these principles? The continuationist Prima Scriptura is not a coherent principle with respect to the gifts of inspiration and gifts of revelation. The arguments from the force of prophetic self-declaration, the uniform authority of prophets and the divine origin of true prophecies show that there cannot be a "first" or an "above all" source of divine revelation. Revelation is revelation; it always has the same divine infallible source. A teaching that is incoherent cannot be true. Consequently, it cannot be a principle derived from the teachings of the Scriptures. Note also that the three above cessationist principles are taught by the Scriptures. Thus, Prima Scriptura, with respect to the charismatic gifts, is implicitly denied by the Scriptures. Does the Bible support the idea of Sola Scriptura? The Scriptures teach us implicitly about the their own sufficient authority. The Apostle Paul said that the Old Testament is inspired by God and is capable of guiding us:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
The New Testament teaches us that we shall respect apostolic teachings, either oral or written:
Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. (2 Thess. 2:15)
In other words, the Bible teaches us implicitly that our only authority is God's revealed word, be it through prophets or apostles. So, if we do not have prophets or apostles any more, it follows that we only have their writings as their authority. Given 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Thessalonians 2:15, both the OT and the NT are our authorities. Consequently, we have the truth of Sola Scriptura. For a detailed discussion of the validity of Sola Scriptura, see the article "Sola Scriptura - The Sufficient and Final Authority of the Scriptures."
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F. Criteria of a True Prophet
A continuationist maintains that the Bible is sufficient for testing truthfulness of prophecies. There are three main reasons why the Bible is not sufficient for these testing purposes.
- A prophecy consistent with the Bible is not necessarily inspired by God. It is even possible that demon-possessed persons can issue true prophetic utterances that are consistent with the Bible (cf. Mark 3:11, Acts 16:16-18).
- New revelations and prophecies could add new doctrinal content to the Scriptures, not necessarily in contradiction with the Scriptures, or provide an authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures. Given such a supposition, the principle of Sola Scriptura would not be a valid principle anymore, and by that token, the Bible could not provide sufficient ground for testing new prophecies.
- Given the observation of the uniform authority of prophets, new verified prophecies and revelations have the same authority as the established canon of the Holy Scriptures. Consequently, new revelations can contradict the established canon. Paul's new revelation about the ritual laws of the Mosaic Pact, namely that they were abolished with Christ's fulfillment of the Law, would not have been accepted had it been insisted that the established truths of the Old Testament were sufficient for testing new revelations. Therefore, the prophetic word is on the same footing as the words of the Bible.
Continuationists insist that the Bible is a sufficient guide in testing new prophecies.21 A cessationist might counter by asking, "How did the early Christians, in the period of the formation of the New Testament, test prophecies, given the fact that the churches at that time did not have all the books of the New Testament in their possession?" It is obvious that using the Holy Scriptures was not a sufficient guide, but that other methods of discernment were also employed. Furthermore, did not God give new revelations about the doctrine at that time, given the fact that the New Testament was not complete, such as the doctrine of the obsolesce of the Old Ritual Mosaic Law, justification by faith, etc.? Therefore, it is very reasonable to assume that these new revelations were conveyed through prophecies as well. If it were granted that prophecies given in the first century could contain new doctrinal content (which is a very plausible interpretation given all the biblical data in its support), why would not modern prophecies have this as well? Why would the fact that we have the complete Bible of Holy Books be a reason for limiting the scope of modern prophecies? God's sovereign Spirit, who inspired ancient prophets, is the same one that would inspire modern prophets as well, if the gifts had not ceased.
We have to examine what the Bible says about testing the prophets. Let us first begin with Paul's relevant instruction: "Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge" (1 Cor. 14:29). As we have observed in the section Verification of Prophecies, Paul's instruction does not mean that a true, genuine prophet could utter false statements, but rather that there could be a false prophet among the members of the church. In order to understand how they tested prophets, we have to be clear on the meaning of the words "prophet" and the "gift of prophecy" as they are used in the Bible.
A prophecy does not necessarily mean to foretell the future. Nevertheless, a prophecy has a supernatural quality and it is not an ordinary speech. The sign of a prophetic utterance, as a confirmation of its divine origin, was usually to give information such that a prophet could not possibly acquire it in a natural way. The main point with this ministry was that God spoke directly to the Church. The biblical notion is that God speaks directly through such a person to edify, to exhort or to teach something of importance to the Church. But edification and exhortation of the Church could also be done through simple preaching or teaching by teachers and preachers. So, some distinction existed between edifying the Church through a prophecy and edifying the Church through simple teaching or preaching. What was the distinction? The distinction consisted in the peculiarity of God's speaking. God spoke His words directly through the prophet, while through a teacher or preacher He spoke indirectly.
Therefore, the gift of prophecy has a supernatural element by virtue of God's direct way of speaking with His people through such a gift. A prophet gave a direct speech of God, otherwise he was not entitled to announce a prophetic self-declaration in the name of the Lord.
How should we test such a prophet? How did Corinthian Christians understand Paul when he wrote to them "let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge"? They could not use the Scriptures for the testing purposes because at that time they did not have the whole New Testament complete. They had only some gospels and a few other letters by Paul. How could they use the Bible as a sufficient test when the canon of the New Testament was not yet complete? They could not. How could they judge then? The answer is very simple: they judged a prophecy by the supernatural quality of the prophetic utterance. This test was strong and very reliable. If we use this test, many modern prophecies spoken in the name of our Lord would easily be revealed as empty speeches. This test has a biblical basis, since the Bible tells us very clearly how we should test prophets.
But the prophet who shall presume to speak a word in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or who shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die. And if thou say in thine heart, "How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?" when a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously; thou shalt not be afraid of him. (Deut. 18:20-22)
To repeat our question: "When Paul said to the Corinthians that they should judge prophets (cf. 1 Cor. 14:29), how would they judge when they did not have the whole Bible?" But they surely knew how to test a prophet by their knowledge of Deuteronomy 18. On the basis of Deuteronomy 18, they tested a prophet by observing whether what was said would be fulfilled. Let the Scripture interpret the Scripture. Thus, we cannot apply 1 Corinthians 14:29 to mean that we nowadays shall test a prophet only by the Bible. A false prophet can even speak totally consistently with the Bible, but speaking through another spirit. However, prophesying in the name of the Lord about something that will not be fulfilled would expose a prophet who speaks presumptuously in the name of the Lord. Deuteronomy 18 precisely guarantees this.
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G. The Purpose of Other Gifts
What about the non-revelatory gifts, such as the gift of tongues and the gifts of power? How would these gifts violate the principle of Sola Scriptura?
We will briefly touch upon the question of other gifts, whether they have also ceased after the completion of the canon. The Gifts of Revelation will not be discussed here because much of what was said about the gift of prophecy is equally valid for the Gifts of Revelation. We will examine the question of other gifts by examining the purpose of these gifts. If their purpose was fulfilled then they have obviously ceased at the fulfillment of their purpose.
1. The Tongues and Interpretation
The tongues and interpretation were closely associated gifts of inspiration. Interpretation has its place only if the tongues are in operation. To repeat the definition of the gift of interpretation from the section dealing with the gifts of inspiration.
Interpretation was an interpretation of some message given through the gift of tongues. A speaker gave an interpretation of the message, through the Spirit, in spite of the speaker's lack of knowledge of the language in question.
Thus, we see that interpretation would have ceased if the purpose of the tongues has come to its end.
Why did God give tongues to the early Church and what were those tongues? A person spoke in tongues when the speaker could praise and pray to God in a language the speaker had not previously learned to use. Therefore, this gift was also supernatural, as other gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14. This sign was very common in the early Church. The important truth about the gift of tongues can be read in the following passage:
In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. If therefore the whole Church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? (1 Cor. 14:21-23)
In the exposition of 1 Corinthians 14:22, I am greatly indebted to G.-F. Rendal's book I Speak in Tongues More Than You All. Rendal says something interesting in his exposition:
In 1 Corinthians 14:22 the Apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tells us that the sign of speaking in tongues was not for believers, but for unbelievers. Then he turns around in the very next verse and says just the opposite! On the surface it looks as though the Holy Spirit is contradicting Himself when He says, "If therefore the whole Church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?" No one ever untangled this inextricable paradox for me. It is true that if the non-believers of verse 22, 23 and 24 are indiscriminately from Israel or from the Gentiles, the contradiction remains. But the problem disappears if you accept that Paul had two kinds of non-believers in view.22
Rendal observes two points:23
- The non-believers of verse 22 are identified in verse 21. Verse 21 has its reference to Isaiah 28:11-12. Therefore, the expression "this people" from "I will speak unto this people" (my emphasis) is referring to the Jews. The sign was for them.
- The others, the non-believers of verse 23, the unlearned ones who do not understand, were men of the common people, and not this people. In other words, they were Gentiles from the city of Corinth. The sign of tongues was not for them. That is what the Holy Spirit is saying here.
This exposition erases the contradiction and confirms that the sign of tongues was reserved for this people, the Jews, in order to bring them to believe that the Gentiles were grafted into the body of Christ which is the Church. Thus, the gift of tongues had a twofold purpose:
- as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (28:11-12); and
- to indicate that the Gentiles were grafted onto the body of Christ.
That is why God did not choose another supernatural sign, e.g., the gift of invisibility or tele-transportation, as the common gift among the children of God. Because of the gift of tongues Peter could understand that Cornelius had been accepted by God, even if Cornelius was not a Jew (cf. Acts 10:44-48). Jews could understand, through tongues, that the Gentiles were also saved if they believed in the truth of the Gospel. Both of these purposes had already been fulfilled by the end of the first century. Isaiah 28:11-12 had been fulfilled, since Caiphas, the high priest at the time, did not accept Jesus' messiahship. The Temple was then destroyed in 70 AD. It became an accepted truth that other nations could be saved in Christ. Gentiles in the beginning did not know this fact, and it was necessary that the first converted Jews understood the truth and that the Gentiles be encouraged to accept Christ. Nowadays it is a widespread and accepted truth that everyone, no matter what nationality, can become a Christian. As early as the first century AD, Christians were established in other countries, outside the boundaries of Israel. Speaking in tongues only made sense where Jews were present because the sign was for them. Recall the distinction between Jews and Greeks in 1 Corinthians: "For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom" (1:22).
Given the fact that the twofold purpose of the gift of speaking in tongues was fulfilled at the end of the first century, a principled cessationist concludes that the gift ceased once its purpose had been realized.
The second reason for the belief that tongues had ceased has to do with the prophetic dimension of tongues. The gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of prophecy belong to the same type of gifts, namely to the gifts of inspiration (tongues, prophecy and interpretation). As such, God speaks directly through the speaker. So, in some sense, speaking in tongues is a prophecy as well, when the gift of interpretation is in operation. Therefore, the gift of speaking in tongues ended at the same time when the gift of prophecy ended. Since prophecies came to their end after the completion of the Bible, we no longer have the gift of speaking in tongues. Moreover, the whole idea of the charismatic movement is that God is manifesting His Grace through the gifts of the Spirit in the same way He did in the apostolic period. In any case, if some gifts are not present in the Church nowadays, e.g., the gift of prophecy, why should we then expect that the gift of speaking in tongues is present at all? The problem is readily seen in the third reason below.
The third reason has to do with the universal manifestation of charismatic gifts. The Churches in the apostolic days had manifested all occurrences of the nine gifts, distributed among many persons in the Church. Every gift was like a member of the body, so every gift was important, whose purpose was to edify the Church. If gifts have not yet ended, then why do not all nine gifts manifest in the local charismatic (Pentecostal) churches? Personally, I have only seen tongues and "prophecies" (gifts that are very easy to fake), but never a person who has the gift of healing. Unless gifts have indeed ceased, every Church should manifest all nine supernatural gifts, as was the case in every apostolic Church in the first century. Even the Church of Corinth had all nine gifts of the Spirit, in spite of the immaturity of many of its members. The point is that we should either have all gifts manifested in equal measure, or none at all.
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2. The Gifts of Power
According to principled cessationists, as we have noted in addressing the strong cessationist perspective, a person with the gift of power is also a prophet. This is because healing and miracles were always signs associated with the divine confirmation of the genuineness of a prophet in periods when God revealed new truths with respect to the doctrine.
Healing and miracles were first and foremost signs of apostleship and prophethood and should always be seen in the context of the formation of new doctrines (cf. Acts 2:43, 2 Cor. 12:12). God always used healing and miracles to establish a prophet who came with radically new revelations. In the apostolic period of the Church, the gifts of power were expected to be made manifest in order to establish new prophecies and revelations in the formation of the doctrines and practices of the Church. The Church in the apostolic period was still young, and the doctrines were not yet fully formed. By the end of the first century, the Church was well established and had a completed canon of Holy Scriptures, and was no more in need of the gifts of power.
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H. Objections and the Cessationist Presuppositions
One objection against cessationism worth mentioning is that the Bible does not say that gifts of the Holy Spirit will come to their end before Christ's Second Coming.
It is true that the Bible does not say clearly that prophecies shall end. Even if 1 Corinthians 13:8 speaks about the cessation of gifts, it does not say clearly when this will happen. Why does the Bible not tell us more clearly that gifts will end after the death of the last apostle? There are two reasons, assuming that cessationism is true (here it is quite legitimate to assume that cessationism is true because the charismatic objection is targeting the coherence of cessationism, and thus, we have to evaluate it within the framework of cessationism).
- If God ceases to inspire His children with His spirit of prophecy then His children would stop prophesying by themselves. God does not need to instruct His children that we should stop prophesying in His name, since a genuine child of God would not give a prophetic speech verbally not inspired from God. We do not need an explicit instruction from the Bible that prophecies will end, since we would not presumptuously give a prophetic utterance unless the message were given directly from God. Because of this obvious fact, it is superfluous for God to give such instructions in the Bible. The laws concerning prophethood involve the danger of speaking presumptuously in the name of our Lord. Indeed, it is a grave sin to speak presumptuously in the name of our Lord.
- From the standpoint of moderate cessationism, gifts will reemerge on the days imminent to Christ's Second Coming. A moderate cessationist subscribes to a premillennialist view, according to which there will first be a period of great tribulation before Christ's Coming. According to a moderate cessationist, throughout the history of the communication between God and Mankind, there have been periods of silence. A period of silence is a period where there is no prophetic activity. We are now living in a period of silence. However, a moderate cessationist contends that the current period of silence will end during the Great Tribulation. God will again send prophets, but only in the days of the Great Tribulation. Given the moderate cessationist view, it is understandable that the Scriptures do not tell exactly when the gifts will end.
Cessationism presupposes the principle of Sola Scriptura where the body of the Holy Scriptures is treated as a closed canon. The next objection addresses exactly this presupposition: why should we accept the principle of Sola Scriptura and the closed canonicity of the Bible? It is sufficient to focus our attention on the validity of Sola Scriptura, since we have observed that the veracity of Sola Scriptura implies the truth of closed canonicity of the Bible.
A principled cessationist accepts the principle of Sola Scriptura on both biblical and historical grounds. On the question of the validity of Sola Scriptura, please read our article, "Sola Scriptura - The Sufficient and Final Authority of the Scriptures." However, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that the Bible is unclear on the question of Sola Scriptura. We would have a choice between (1) accepting that God still reveals His Holy Will through prophets, and (2) insisting only on the sufficiency of the Bible. Under such an assumption, a cessationist contends that it is safer to choose the cessationist alternative (2) than the continuationist one (1).
It is a more serious error to accept new prophecies if the cessationist thesis is true, than to reject new prophecies if the cessationist thesis is wrong. Given the cessationist conviction about the strong authority of prophecies, i.e., that their authority is equal to the authority of the Scriptures, a cessationist is not prepared to accept the authority of modern prophets. A cessationist, therefore, chooses to reject them for fear of degrading the authority of the Scriptures. Now, if the cessationist choice is wrong, it is not so serious when compared to the possibility of wrongly choosing the charismatic alternative. If the charismatic alternative is wrong, many Christians would be false prophets, and as such end in Hell. Jesus warns us about multitudes of lost charismatic Christians:
Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt. 7:22-23)
Notice that Jesus talks about a large group of charismatic Christians because it is about people who practice charismatic gifts in the name of Jesus. Among this group are also people who falsely prophesied in the name of the Lord. Prophesying falsely is also a form of iniquity because it breaks the Law of Moses concerning prophethood, i.e., it is a grave sin to speak presumptuously in the name of the Lord. It is interesting to observe that they believed that their prophecies were true; otherwise, why would they appeal to their prophetic ministry ("have we not prophesied in thy name?")? Nonetheless, they were never gifted with the genuine gift of prophecy because they were never saved; Christ's emphatic statement, "I never knew you" (v. 23), shows that they never belonged to Christ. Their prophecies and miracles were not a result of the genuine charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit; otherwise, how would it be possible for someone to have a genuine gift, but not be saved? Moreover, it is difficult to point out which large group of people satisfies Christ's criteria, unless we concede that Christ's warning refers to the modern Christian charismatic movement.
On the other hand, if continuationism is true, a cessationist would not be lost for doubting new prophets if he lives a righteous life in Christ, respecting His words as revealed in the Scriptures. However, even if we assume that continuationism is true, gifts cannot guarantee salvation (cf. Matt. 7:22-23), while obedience to the Lord's moral teaching, living in His righteousness by walking in His Spirit, guarantees our salvation even if we were wrongly insisting on the sufficiency of the Bible.
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We have seen that charismatic continuationism is not a viable position if it is committed to the principle of Sola Scriptura, where the Scripture is understood as a closed canon. Charismatic continuationism is likewise problematic even if the cessationist presuppositions are denied because the continuationist presuppositions are not clearly taught by the Bible. We are then confronted with the hermeneutic choice between open canonicity or sufficiency of the closed canon. It has been shown that the cessationist choice is much more prudent.
Charismatic continuationism would be attractive if there were still apostles who manifest the signs of apostleship. If there were such apostles, the open canonicity of Scriptures together with the charismatic continuationist view would be more plausible. It is either all or nothing. Most charismatics are in-between, not totally consistent. Few would say that we have such apostles. Therefore, if the ministry of apostleship has ended, why then insist that we still have prophets in the Church?
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A. F. Walls, the dictionary entry "apostle," New Bible Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (Intervarsity Press, 1982), p. 59.↩︎
Dictionary entry "Apostolos," Kittel's Greek Theological Dictionary↩︎
Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, in his exposition of Ephesians 2:20.↩︎
Wayne Grudem gives twelve reasons for the distinction in his exposition of Ephesians 2:20. R. Fowler White's article, "Gaffin and Grudem on Eph 2:20 - In Defense of Gaffin's Cessationist Exegesis," (Web. 16. Feb. 2013) discusses Grudem's twelve arguments. We do not have much space to dwell on all of Grudem's twelve reasons, but are considering only two of these that we deem worth mentioning.↩︎
R. Fowler White, "Gaffin and Grudem on Eph 2:20 - In Defense of Gaffin's Cessationist Exegesis," part III. 1, Web. 16. Feb. 2013.↩︎
Ibid., part III. 9-10↩︎
Ibid., part III. 9.↩︎
Craig Simonian, "A Challenge Against the Cessation of Prophesy [sic]," section "Prophesy [sic] in the New Testament." Web. 16. Feb. 2013.↩︎
Ibid., section "Prophesy [sic] and Prophets in the OT."↩︎
Ibid., section "Prophesy [sic] from the Intertestamental Period to Pentecost." Web. 16. Feb. 2013.↩︎
Grudem, op. cit., pp. 70-79, 104-5. See also Carson, Showing the Spirit, 95. M. M. B. Turner, on whom Carson is dependent, writes, "The presupposition [of 1 Cor 14:29] is that any one New Testament prophetic oracle is expected to be mixed in quality, and the wheat must be separated from the chaff" ("Spiritual Gifts Then and Now," Vox evangelica 15 :16). A similar position is taken by D. Atkinson in Prophecy (Bramcote: Grove Books, 1977) 13-14, 16-17.↩︎
White, op. cit., part III. 7, Web. 16. Feb. 2013.↩︎
C. Samuel Storms, "A Third Wave View," in Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 207-208.↩︎
Don Codling, Sola Scriptura and the Revelatory Gifts, 63-70.↩︎
Richard Gaffin, "A Cessationist response to C. Samuel Storms and Douglas A. Oss," in Are Miraculous Gifts For Today?, 293-294↩︎
L. L. Morris, "Prophecy in the New Testament," as the fifth section of the dictionary entry "prophecy, prophets," New Bible Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (Intervarsity Press, 1982), 985.↩︎
The prophecies in question are those uttered in the name of the Lord, but this would also apply for prophecies given in the name of other deities. The Bible would discard such prophecies as false given the fact that the Bible deems false any prophecy spoken in the name of other deities.↩︎
G.-F. Rendal, I Speak in Tongues More Than You All, (IMEAF, 26160 La Begude de Mazenc, 1986) 54.↩︎