The fastest-growing branch of Christianity is the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. More than five hundred million Christians identify as Charismatic or Pentecostal. There are many divisions within the movement, but generally speaking that means that half a billion people who confess Christ believe in the ongoing gifts of miracles, tongues, and revelatory prophecy. To put that in perspective, there are 9 million Jehovah Witnesses; 15 million Latter Day Saints (Mormons); and between 250 and 500 million atheists. Those numbers are worldwide. So for half of a billion Christians to profess a belief in the “gifts of the Spirit” is certainly significant. One author wrote, “my research has led me to make a bold statement: In all of human history, no other non-political, non-militaristic, voluntary human movement has grown as rapidly as the charismatic movement in the last 25 years.” — Ralph Martin, The Catholic Church at the End of an Age: What is the Spirit Saying, 1994, p. 87.
There has been consistent rejection of this movement by many of the traditional branches of the Church, and often this has resulted in a flurry of conferences from each camp, aimed at the “errors” of the other side. The charismatics and pentecostals are generically referred to as Continuationists, and the traditional Chrisitans who believe that these signs ceased during or shortly after the Apostolic age are generically called Cessationists. Pruned down to the basics, the primary criticisms are quite simple: The Continuationists take the power of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, as described in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians very seriously. They view the absence of these gifts as a slight to the Holy Spirit and a loss of the key evidence of the power of God in the life of the believer. The Cessationists take the detailed descriptions, the order, and the limitations imposed on those gifts in those same texts very seriously. They see the emphasis placed on these gifts and the nearly universal way they are practiced as antithetical to Biblical doctrine.
Continuationists have a strong Scriptural case. All Chrisitans agree that the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by great signs and wonders, foremost among them was the gift of tongues. Miracles and prophecies are almost always included as manifestations of the Spirit, however, the Apostles (and Old Testament prophets) were already performing miracles and prophesying long before the Spirit was given at Pentecost. However, what did change with Pentecost was the demographic of those healing and prophesying. It was no longer only the “official” prophets. The prophecy of Joel, that Peter said was fulfilled at Pentecost, was that their sons and daughters would be given this power. In a sense, it was the fulfillment of Moses’ wish that all the people of God would prophesy. Hence, Continuationists point to the promise of these signs, the outpouring of these signs, the Biblical record of these signs, and the apostolic enjoinders to not despise or impede the manifestation of these signs; and on these points they have occupied the high-ground.
The Cessationists must weave and bob to make a case that these signs were limited and expired sometime shortly after the death of the Apostles. Biblically, this is a tough order to fill. There are indications in the text, but there is no slam-dunk prooftext. This is evident in that the Cessationists don’t even agree exactly when they ceased, nor why they would cease at all. They agree that the other gifts of the Spirit — enumerated in the same lists that include tongues, miracles, and prophecy — have not ceased. If the truth be told, the principle evidence upon which Cessationists reject Continuationism is empirical: They don’t see the Biblical gifts of tongues, miracles, and prophecy actually being exercised anywhere in the world today or anywhere in history since the Apostolic age. The best Biblical assault Cessationists can muster is a two-pronged argument: first the vague observation by Paul that tongues would cease followed by the semi-attached prophecy that when “that which is perfect shall come, that which is in part (tongues according to them) shall be done away with” — hold that thought, more on this Scripture later. This doesn’t have the same fundamentalist appeal as the “first principles” argument of the Continuationists, but it does play to the point where the Cessationists have a clear Biblical advantage.
Cessationists have a very strong case when they demonstrate in Scripture what these gifts actually were, why they were given, and how they were commanded to be used. All of which the Continuationists almost universally and unabashedly dismiss. So the Continuationists are rock solid in proving that the Spirit gives gifts that no man can revoke, but they are dismal in following that up with a Biblical definition of those gifts. Whereas the Cessationists come into their own when demonstrating that tongues were real, terrestrial, understood, living languages and their exercise was highly regulated in the assembly. On this point the roles reverse and it is the Continuationists who are left grasping at uncertain implications of “angelic tongues” and “praying with the spirit” and “edifying himself”. These are as loose and teetering a foothold as the round stones the Cessationists stand on when trying to nail down “the perfect” and what it is and when it will come; to which none of them even agree on — again, more on this later.
Continuationists are rightly upbraided for their enormous tolerance for fakery, quackery, and knavery in their ranks. This is truly a real word example of the wry hyperbole of 99% giving the other 1% a bad name. And it isn’t going to get any easier on them. We no longer live in a time or in a world where fantastical occurrences happen in far away, mystical places and are only recorded in the quickly yellowing pages of a broadside daily and announced on street corners by newsies. Practically every person on earth has a high definition camera in their pocket, and yet there is more video and better video of Bigfoot in cowboy boots, riding the Chupacabras, lassoing a UFO than there is of real, Biblical-style miracles, tongues, and prophecy being performed. But there are unabridged anthologies of endless conmen healing diseases that don’t exist, speaking in languages that are obviously mindless babble, and uttering prophecies that are consistently wrong, regardless of how much they hedge them in vague and non-descript language.
The Continuationists would convince us that this Glossolalia (the technical term for the gift of tongues) is a spiritual, angelic language that can only be recognized and understood by God and someone gifted with interpretation. Perhaps. However, they also must explain how there is no recognizable structure, pattern, or complication to the language of heaven. How is it that Klingon, Elvish, and Adunaic are more sophisticated and recognizable as languages than the language of God and his holy angels? And how does the firm reassurance of Paul (that we have received the spirit which is of God, that we might know the things that are freely given us of God; 1 Cor 2.12) square with the idea that we can’t know if they are speaking in a tongue given by God, and many times they themselves aren’t even sure? They all admit that there are some pretenders in their midst, but they can’t identify them, and hence they are, by their own admission, incapable of trying the spirits whether they are of God; which in turn seriously calls into question their claimed gift of prophecy.
The Cessationists are adamant that these particular gifts have faded away. They point to the aforementioned prophecy of the arrival of “the perfect”. However, that text requires a certain creativity coupled with a degree of farsightedness to make work. What is that which is perfect? The common Cessationist interpretation is “The Bible.” Which fits their theology like a glove, which is not saying a whole lot, since they are the ones who fashioned the glove and the hand. It just doesn’t fit the facts or the text. The assumption that the Bible was not perfect at one point, but then at another point in time it became perfect is not the opinion of any author of Scripture. The Scripture is always spoken of as perfect — regardless of how one defines perfect: Without error, complete in content, or complete in purpose. And, if we are punctilious with the text, then we can make the sound argument that it isn’t tongues that would be done away with, only prophecies and knowledge. The text says that prophecies will fail, tongues will cease, and knowledge will vanish away because 1) we know in part, and 2) we prophesy in part. So when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part (partial knowledge, partial prophecy) will be done away with. Now it is legitimate to argue that the grammatical structure of this paragraph indicates that when partial knowledge and partial prophesy are done away with, so will prophecies, tongues, and knowledge. However, that really stretches the simple comprehension of the lexical semantics of the passage. Additionally, there are more than ample parallel passages that clearly indicate what the perfect is and when it will come and how the partial will be terminated. The clearest parallel passage is Ephesians 4.7-16; the context is the gifts to the church, the perfect is again the point of cessation, and the gifts are done away with. However in Ephesians it is crystal clear that the perfect has nothing to do with the Bible. It is the full and complete maturity of the entire Church collectively, attained at our gathering to Christ. There are other parallel texts, both in the New and Old Testament that confirm this prophecy. This actually is a common theme of the Scripture. However, none of these passages are agreeable to the Cessationist insistence that 1 Corinthians 13 requires tongues to cease with the completion of the writing of the Bible.
I am very amenable to being persuaded of the Continuationist claims. I would very much like to see evidence of true miracles, performed on command, as Jesus and the Apostles did. I am not referring to the relatively occasional Divine intervention as a result of faithful prayer of righteous people; I mean calling healing down from heaven. The blind seeing, not wearing a slightly lower eyeglass magnification. The lame walking, not walking with a little less of a limp. The leprous healed and presented to the proper, and skeptical, health authorities for verification. I could devise a means of trying the spirit of tongues and interpretation, and suspect that absolutely no evidence of reality would be found. In fact, this has been demonstrated many times already. Those with the gift of interpretation have not been able to identify that an actual language, such as Hebrew, is being spoken in the assembly and rather proceed to “interpret” a completely different message than the one spoken. As for prophecy, unless they can achieve better than the nightly news weather forecast, then all they are doing is reading the wind vane and guessing.
I don’t know that these gifts ceased; or if they did, when; or why exactly. I have some educated guesses, but I could be wrong. However, that doesn’t mean I am going to accept any and every lame attempt to replicate the powerful and fantastic gifts that God gave the church at one time. If God were to give me the gift of tongues, I would be thankful. I certainly wouldn’t rebuff it. But I am not going to ‘fake it till I make it.’ If I were given the authority to heal, I would be humbled that God had given such a gift to such a one as me. I wouldn’t decline it. But currently I am not a healer and I don’t play one at Church.
As for my educated guesses, if you are interested, it seems to me that these signs ceased independently of each other, roughly at the end of the Apostolic age. I think it is a mistake to accept the Continuationist bundling of these gifts. As I pointed out above, the gift of miracles is not tied to Pentecost nor is the gift of prophecy. Paul makes a case for the Biblical gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, citing an Old Testament prophecy that Peter did not quote at Pentecost, but that is telling. He cites Isaiah 28:11, ” 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.” Which if we take as a reference to the full context of Isaiah 28, we find that tongues are a sign that God promised to give to Israel foreboding its destruction — verse 13: “that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.” (It is interesting to note that tongues also are connected to the judgment and destruction of all people, at Babel.) Paul concludes that this prophecy of Isaiah proves that tongues are not for the church, or even for the speaker himself (“edifying himself” dismissive statements notwithstanding); they are a sign to the unbeliever. And given Paul’s apparent careful word choice in this chapter, it seems very plausible that the “unbeliever” is the Jew who doesn’t believe, not the gentile. The gentiles would correspond to the “unlearned” in this text. And this differentiation also fits with the prophecy of Isaiah that all of these terms are couched in. As such, this interpretation does not require an apostolic connection to tongues, which is important, since the prophecy of Joel does not hint at any such connection. So the short answer is that tongues would cease at the destruction of Jerusalem, or when those who had been given the gift before its destruction died off.
As for miracles and prophecies, these are obviously and decidedly signs of Apostleship and are intimately connected to establishing and authenticating Apostolic authority. They are actually called “the signs of an apostle” by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:12. There really is no getting around that. And the pathetic, last gasp effort by Continuationists to appeal to the etymology of the word “Apostle” shows just how weak their position is on this point. Regardless of what the word means, there is an undeniable difference between the word apostle and the specific people who that word was used to categorize. I’ll offer a free life-hack: Once you start parsing words, you have conceded defeat. The Continuationist argument that there are more than just 12, or 13, or 14 apostles is only persuasive insofar as the Cessationists foolishly claim these signs for only 12… or 13… or 14. There is no reason to doubt that there were up to 500 apostles. There are 12 principle ones, their names are engraved on the foundations of the New Jerusalem, so, I would say their identity is set in stone… jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, sardius, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth, and amethyst… to be precise. However, there are at least 4 others named in Scripture, and good evidence that everyone else who qualified as an Apostle, although not named one, was one — in the sense that Apostleship was as much a de facto description as it was an office. But that is a topic for another essay.
I should wrap this up acknowledging the deficiencies common in Cessationists that have contributed to the success of the Continuationist movement. Namely, the heavily starched formality of the liturgy, the effective consolidation of personal spiritual power in the clergy, the sterilization of the Spirit, and the stuffing and mounting of doctrine. It seems to me that Continuationism is in part a rebellion against a Chrisitanity that appears to be full of claims and demands, but void of power and experience. It is the cry of a substantial number of people who want a side of Real with their Truth. I sympathize with them with all my heart. And it saddens me that what they seem to receive instead is a big, steaming plate of sloppy poppycock with a small dash of truth and a hint of essence of reality mixed in.
I challenge the Cessationists to take a hard look at their own Christianity, not the doctrinal and liturgical abstraction of it, but their experiential faith itself; both their own and that of their congregants. Does it reflect the power and reality that is manifested in the book of Acts, the first epistle of John and the epistle of James? Is it a faith full of works and life and love and experience with God? The fruit of the Spirit is not miracles or tongues or prophecy or doctrine or hymns or sermons; it isn’t rolling in the aisles and it isn’t bound suit and tie in the pew. The fruit of the Spirit, the evidence of the Spirit, the manifestation of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance… and the list goes on to infinity and beyond. This is the true power of God. Tongues were a sign of God’s anger and the unbelievers impending destruction, but the fruit of the Spirit is a sign of God’s love and forgiveness and His incomprehensible goodness and power in our common, everyday lives.