Monday, August 15, 2011

The Charismatic misue of 1 Cor. 14:1

[continued from here]

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1)

In the argument for some form of continuationism, Charismatics have insisted that their view is the "natural" reading of the biblical texts. They point to texts such as 1 Cor. 14:1 and assert that the cessationist reading of the text would negate its meaning to "not desire the spiritual gifts." However, is that really the case?

The cessationist counter-argument is that texts must be read in context. When read in context, cessationists CAN and DO indeed agree that we should earnestly desire the spiritual gifts. In this light, does Paul's exhortation to desire the spiritual gifts lead one to conclude that one must desire the gift of tongues, of foretelling prophecy, miracles and others like them? I would contend not.


There are many ways to arrange and understand the biblical material, many of which are not legitimate. For example, one can create the idea of a "central dogma" and assert that all the biblical material must be interpreted through such a controlling dogma. Non-reformed biblical theologians tend towards atomism, as texts from various authors are read in isolation and interpreted according to perceived deconstructed and reconstructed interests of the authors, perhaps based upon new findings in secular fields like Second Temple Judaism for example. Thus, such "biblical theologians" have many disparate and even contradictory "biblical theologies," where the "theology of Paul" is one thing, and the "theology of Peter" another, which are all of course different from the "theology of Q."

When it comes to reading texts, cessationists and continuationists differ. Continuationists tend to read the biblical text as a flat immanent text. Therefore, they demand biblical proofs for the cessation of the sign-gifts since it is obvious that the text of Scripture teaches the existence of the sign-gifts. There are of course many shades of cessationists around, but my position is that reading Scripture redemptive-historically would show the fallacy of the basic continuationist premise that places the burden of proof on cessationists to prove the continuation of the sign-gifts.

Reading the Scriptures redemptive-historically means we read the Scriptures as the story of God's progressive revelation of Himself and His works. It presupposes, as Reformed biblical theology does, that Scripture is a contiguous whole and is not actually disparate works of Man. In other words, systematics in the area of prolegomena is the basis for proper reading of the Scriptures. This should not surprise us since the manner of reading the Scriptures are to be derived from the Scriptures themselves. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states,

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly (2 Peter 1:20-21, Acts 15:15-16).

—WCF, Paragraph 1, Section IX

When we read the Scriptures redemptive-historically, we recognize that the Spirit works differently in different times according to how God desires to reveal Himself at that period of redemptive history. For example, God did not appear as a cloud by day and and a pillar of fire by night to anyone else in history except the Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness. While God appeared as a man to many people in history like Abraham, Jacob, Gideon etc, God did not do so to Isaiah or Ezekiel or to any of the Israelites during that time. Instead, Isaiah and Ezekiel saw theophanies of God; visions of God in His glory at a level tolerable for finite sinners without killing them.


As Heb. 1:1-2 teaches, revelation can be roughly divided into two periods: the period before Christ, and the period pertaining to Christ. In former times, God has revealed Himself in various ways, but now God reveals Himself in His Son, and thus the Eternal Word codified His revelation to us in the Scriptures, the enscripturated Logos.

It has been mentioned that the New Testament era, while indeed differing in how God works, do teach the presence and practice of the sign-gifts. That, however, is not a problem for us. For when we read Scriptures redemptive-historically, we realize that the revelation and gifts of God are always given for a purpose and a time. With the final revelation of Christ, that period of redemptive-history has passed with the establishment of the Church as the Apostles passed away. Now 2000 years later, we live in another period of redemptive-history and we are to take that into account as we exegete the passages of Scripture for contemporary applications on our part.

Therefore, how should we interpret 1 Cor. 14:1? We can see that Paul's first letter to the Corinthians deal with the mess that the Corinthians have created. The immature Corinthians have caused no end of problems for Paul to address. In 1 Cor. 12-14, Paul's addresses the Corinthian believers' abuse of their spiritual gifts in much detail. After establishing the primacy of faith, hope and love, and chief among them love, Paul goes on to use these as criteria to evaluate and establish the ways of how the Corinthians' spiritual gifts should be publicly used in the church.

In asking the Corinthians to "earnestly desire the spiritual gifts," Paul therefore is calling on the Corinthians to desire the spiritual gifts for the sake of proper usage in the building up of the church. As he remarks later, "since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church" (1 Cor. 14:12). The thrust of Paul's teaching here therefore is for the Corinthian believers to re-direct their desire for greater gift and manifestations of the Spirit into those gifts which are in fact actually greater and which benefits the church, instead of their carnal desire for an appearance of power.

Thus, the text in its context teaches us that the Corinthians are to desire the greater gifts which edify the church, especially the gifts of prophecy which was especially needed in the Corinthian church at that time. Such is the plain teaching of the text of Scripture. But for us in our contemporary context we will have to translate the teaching of the text from their time to ours. The principle of course remains the same. In their period of redemptive history, the greater gifts are those like prophecy and, to a lesser extent, tongues, and the other sign gifts. In our period of redemptive history however, things have changed. We are not in the same position as the Corinthian church. We have the complete Word of God in the Scriptures and the establishment of the foundations of the church (Eph. 2:20). Therefore, the spiritual gifts that are greater which we are to desire are similarly different. For example, one very important spiritual gift that the Church currently needs is the gift of discernment. Therefore, we should earnestly desire this gift for the edification of the Church.

Cessationists therefore do believe, teach and preach the text of 1 Cor. 14, without altering the text of Scripture. We do believe that Christians are to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts. Where we differ from the Continuationists is that we believe that (1) the Holy Spirit gives gifts as He wishes for His purposes — a certain gift does not always continue being given throughout time (i.e. nobody has Samson's gift of extreme strength now), and (2) we are not in the same period of redemptive history as the apostolic church was. Therefore, keeping in mind the place we occupy in redemptive history, and knowing the purposes of God in the giving of gifts, we apply this text analogously and ask for the spiritual gifts that are required to edify the Church for our time.

1 Cor. 14:1 therefore is NOT a charismatic proof-text. It does not prove continuationism, neither does it prove that we should seek the sign-gifts. When we read the verse using biblical redemptive-historical hermeneutics, we understand the text in context and learn how to apply it properly to our context. 1 Cor. 14:1 thus is a cessationist verse so to speak, which is misused by Charismatics with faulty hermeneutics and a deficient understanding of redemptive history. May we stand firm in the biblical truths which is held by the majority of the Church and not capitulate to the lights and sounds of the Charismatic shows, of which many are in the same state as the Corinthian believers who desire the mere appearance of power more than the reality of true power given by the Spirit, seen in events such as the so-called Toronto Blessing of John Wimber and the Lakeland "revival" by Todd Bentley.

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