Several months ago, shortly after the Strange Fire Conference, notable continuationist pastor, John Piper, responded to some of the claims of the conference via his question-and-answer program, Ask Pastor John. Over the last couple of weeks, John MacArthur has begun responding to Piper’s remarks over at the Grace To You blog. These posts represent valuable, rubber-meets-the-road exegetical discussion as it relates to the cessation of the miraculous gifts, and it’s happening between two lifelong students of Scripture who many in our generation consider to be fathers in the faith. It’s surely an exchange you don’t want to miss.
I want to devote today’s post to recapping what’s been said there so far.
In the first post, MacArthur begins with some comments of appreciation for John Piper and his ministry, speaking of his gratitude for Piper’s friendship and partnership in the Gospel. He also takes some time to briefly clarify an apparent misunderstanding of what and wasn’t being said about Piper at the Strange Fire Conference.
He then moves quickly into addressing the issues that Piper brought up in his first podcast. First, he comments on Piper’s definition of prophecy, and notes how he “illustrates one of the central concerns of . . . Strange Fire: the charismatic movement, even down to the most conservative continuationists, has entirely redefined the New Testament miraculous gifts.” He goes on to engage with that redefinition.
Next, MacArthur addresses Piper’s comments regarding Christians’ “obedience” to texts like 1 Corinthians 12:31, 1 Corinthians 14:1, and 1 Corinthians 14:39. Piper says he tries to obey those texts and teaches others to obey them. MacArthur observes that the implication that cessationists disobey those texts is a sort of begging the question, since “the very claim in question is whether the miraculous gifts have continued past that foundational apostolic era. To simply appeal to those texts, which were addressed to believers during a time in which the gifts were operational, and to assume Christians are to apply and obey them in precisely the same way today,” is to assume what you’re trying to prove. He also revisits the implied accusation at the end of the post, showing how cessationists do not disobey these clear passages of Scripture.
Before that, though, MacArthur goes on to provide a sound exegesis of those texts, quoting both from his book, Strange Fire, and Thomas Edgar’s Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit. These provide helpful answers to how cessationists understand these key texts. I would really encourage you to read the full post to learn more.
In this second post, MacArthur began responding to the three texts Piper cited as exegetical defense for his view of fallible prophecy, which included 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21, 1 Corinthians 11:4–5, and 1 Corinthians 13:8–12.
In his handling of 1 Thessalonians 5, Piper proposes that the command to test prophecies necessarily implies that legitimate prophecies can be fallible. Why test and evaluate them if prophets “spoke with infallible, inerrant, Scripture-quality authority?” A common assumption behind the continuationist case, MacArthur addresses this helpfully:
But isn’t that precisely what we see in the Old Testament—God commanding His people to test those who spoke with infallible, inerrant, Scripture-quality authority? Whether someone predicted falsely (Deut. 18:20–22), or predicted truly and yet prescribed falsely (Deut. 13:1–5)—if what he spoke was not in accord with God’s previously revealed words—God commanded the people to judge him as a false prophet and condemn him to death. So, does the command to test and judge Old Testament prophets imply they could legitimately deliver fallible prophecies? Absolutely not. . . . To assume, as Piper does, that being told to test New Testament prophecies implies a brand-new category of “fallible prophecy” is baseless.
MacArthur goes on to make the important observation that if Piper’s view of fallible prophecy was true, it would constitute a radical shift between the nature of OT prophecy and NT prophecy, without the slightest hint from any NT writer. He provides a clarifying quote from pastor and professor Sam Waldron. Dr. Waldron writes,
If New Testament prophecy in distinction from Old Testament prophecy was not infallible in its pronouncements, this would have constituted an absolutely fundamental contrast between the Old Testament institution and the New Testament institution. To suppose that a difference as important as this would be passed over without explicit comment is unthinkable.
This is an important observation because it places the burden of proof upon the continuationist to explain how the nature of prophecy changed radically between the OT and NT without any explicit Scriptural comment. Inferences drawn from texts like 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21 won’t meet that burden. Read the whole thing.
In the third post, MacArthur addresses Piper’s second exegetical argument for fallible prophecy. Piper turns to 1 Corinthians 11, and says that for women to prophesy infallibly (1 Cor 11:4–5) would undermine the biblical teaching on headship and submission (1 Tim 2:12). Thus, he concludes that prophecy must be fallible.
But MacArthur asks a helpful question that I think really models a sound methodology for this discussion. He writes,
But again I ask: Is the only legitimate answer to infer such a radical redefinition of the gift of prophecy, especially without a single explicit comment from any New Testament author? Is there another interpretation, which fits all the biblical data, does not depend on inference, and requires less explaining away of explicit prohibitions? Indeed, there is a still more excellent way.
Again, I appreciate these questions, because they put the burden of proof where it belongs: on the continuationist. The cessationist is often chided because he does not point to a NT text that says, “The miraculous gifts shall cease at the closing of the canon.” But, particularly where prophecy is concerned, the cessationist is simply defining prophecy as it had always been defined. It’s the continuationist who insists that a radical redefinition has taken place, and that based only on inferences. But, as MacArthur says, if we can provide an alternative interpretation that strains credulity just a bit less, that interpretation should be preferred by default.
MacArthur goes on to offer those very interpretations in the rest of the post. Strongest amongst his three points is the observation that the existence of Old Testament prophetesses (like Miriam [Exod 15:20], Deborah [Jdg 4:4], and Huldah [2 Kgs 22:14]) prophesying with infallible, Scripture-level authority (since all agree that was the only kind of prophesy in the OT) did not undermine biblical gender roles. If Piper’s argument is that women exercising infallible prophecy doesn’t square with complementarianism, he’s either got to argue that the Old Testament was egalitarian or he’s got to abandon his objection. Read the whole post for a full explanation.
In this fourth post, MacArthur responds to the last of the three texts Piper provides as his support for continuationism and fallible prophecy: 1 Corinthians 13:8–12. Anybody remotely familiar with the cessation/continuation discussion knows how much ink has been spilled over this passage, specifically on the nature and timing of “the perfect.” Both cessationists and continuationists vigorously insist that this text supports their view, and puts the nail in the coffin for the other view.
What’s instructive, however, is that MacArthur demonstrates both of the following: (a) cessationists can disagree on what the perfect is and still be cessationists, and (b) cessationists and continuationists can agree on when the perfect comes and yet still disagree about when the gifts cease. He then draws the following helpful conclusion:
This demonstrates that a conscientious student of Scripture—whether cessationist or continuationist—should not look to 1 Corinthians 13:8–12 as a trump card in this discussion, imagining that a simple quotation of the passage should make it obvious that his view is the right one. This text has to be carefully handled to make the author’s intention plain (2 Tim 2:15).
Both he and Piper agree that “the perfect” does not come until the believer sees Christ face to face. But while Piper says the gifts continue until the perfect comes, MacArthur says that’s inaccurate. In 1 Corinthians 13, “Paul is not trying to teach the Corinthians when the gifts will cease, but rather that there will come an end to the knowledge conveyed through those gifts.” He concludes:
So, although it is often used as a “slam dunk” text to support continuationism, 1 Corinthians 13 teaches nothing directly about when the gifts cease. Paul is once again correcting the Corinthian believers—the knowledge they so highly prized, which came as a result of prophetic gifts, would one day be outshined by the enduring character of love. Rather than trying to show one another up with ostentatious displays of their giftedness, they should focus their energy on loving one another.
Given the assumptions many bring to this text, that interpretation may seem a bit hard to swallow at first. But I would encourage you to patiently read through MacArthur’s arguments (as well as those of Sam Waldron and Thomas Edgar, whom he quotes) and test it against all of the biblical data. I think he makes a sound case.
It looks like there’s more to come in this series, but both cessationists and continuationists ought to be encouraged by the dialogue that has been spawned so far. Two key evangelical leaders who are both solidly committed to the authority of Scripture, are digging into the text and seeking to bring clarity to a difficult doctrinal issue. Certainly we would all do well to pay careful attention to what is said.
Further, I think I’m on safe ground when I claim that neither of them is simply engaging in theological exhibitionism. Neither of them is content merely to spawn dialogue and generate discussion, as if we should be “always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth.” These men expend their efforts so that God’s people might be guided into coming to conclusions—answering questions, not merely raising them. As you engage with their (and others’) arguments and measure them against the text of Scripture, do so asking the Holy Spirit to grant you illumination and understanding—that you might come to a firm position on this issue. Come down off the fence and stand firm on the rock of Scripture.