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Prophecy Shall Cease

Category Articles
Date October 24, 2002


Though building on the foundation begun by John Calvin and John Owen, Jonathan Edwards took the development of the Reformed doctrine of cessationism to new heights

Jonathan Edwards on the Cessation of the Gifts of Prophecy.

In the current Westminster Theological Journal (Vol. 64, No. 1 Spring 2002) Philip A. Craig has a twenty page essay on this subject, which is well worth studying. He begins thus:

This article will trace out the development of the Reformed view of cessationism (the doctrine that revelatory "sign gifts" such as prophecy ceased with the early apostolic church), with particular emphasis on Jonathan Edwards rather than B. B. Warfield as the culminating figure in this development. Edwards invites our attention especially because he is considered by many the theologian of revival par excellence, and encountered a supposed revival of prophecy firsthand during the Great Awakening. This article will further buttress John D. Hannah’s recent claim that contemporary charismatics are misappropriating Edwards’s theology as they seek to justify prophecy as a continuing gift for today.

Despite a renewal of interest in his theology; Edwards’s view of cessationism has been much neglected by evangelicals today. Edwards merits nary a mention, for example, in Wayne Grudem’s recently edited Are Miraculous Gifts For Today?: Four Views (Zondervan). This neglect may have come about because Edwards bases his case for cessationism far more on his understanding of redemptive history and canon than on his exegesis of disputed Scripture passages. I hope to demonstrate that Edwards’s position, a more full-orbed understanding of cessationism than has been suspected, has unfortunately been neglected, much to the endangerment of the contemporary evangelical church.

In order to unpack Edwards’s view of cessationism, I will examine a number of related strands:

(1) his distinctive understanding of redemptive history, with the sign gifts operative during the period of the early church’s minority (or immaturity);
(2) his understanding of Christian charity as the pre-eminent spiritual grace;
(3) his view of canon and its implications for the supposed continuation of prophecy;
(4) his repeated experience with failed prophecies during the Great Awakening;
(5) his controversy with Whitefield and also with Davenport and Croswell over so-called revelatory impulses;
(6) the Puritan view of prophesying as being intimately connected with preaching as the pre-eminent means of grace;
(7) the impact of the New England Antinomian Controversy on Edwards’s view;
(8) his expressed fear that the extreme New Lights marked the emergence of a counterfeit evangelical Christianity; and
(9) his view of Scripture’s sufficiency

And, eighteen closely argued fascinating pages later, this is Philip Craig’s conclusion:

Though building on the foundation begun by John Calvin and John Owen, Jonathan Edwards took the development of the Reformed doctrine of cessationism to new heights. The depth and breadth of the arguments Edwards has marshalled against restorationism (the belief in the restoration of apostolic sign-gifts such as prophecy) marks out the apogee of cessationism, which is indeed one of the main themes of his writing and a matter of urgent concern for him.

Edwards clearly considered the revival of prophecy, or new revelation, as the gravest threat to the continued revival of the church, which he hoped would usher in the glorious times. This error threatened to undo, for all eternity, "great multitudes" and to make the Bible of little account in the eyes of the average professor.

Edwards’s many arguments against the restoration of prophecy can be summarized as follows.

First, in discussing spiritual enlightenment, he presses home the Puritan Reformed view that the Spirit works in, by and through the word, not by new revelation.

Secondly, prophecy was a temporary and extraordinary gift, given only to support the church in its infancy before the canon was completed and to authenticate the new revelation given the apostles.

Third, the canon closed with the death of the apostles, has remained closed for over 1600 years, and Scripture gives us no reason to expect new revelation or any new dispensation.

Fourth, the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit are what will glorify the church and fit it for heaven, not extraordinary gifts; prophecy, far from glorifying the church, is a stumbling block to further revival.

Fifth, Scripture is a sufficient and perfect rule for Christian life and faith.

Sixth, preaching, not prophecy is the prime means of grace appointed by God for the extension of His kingdom.

Seventh, failed prophecies abounded during The Great Awakening, often with disastrous results.

Eighth, church history as well as Edwards’s experience demonstrates that the elevation of prophecy causes the denigration of Scripture: the church stops following the sure polestar of Scripture and wanders after the jack-o’-lantern of prophecy

Finally, the so-called direct witness of the Holy Spirit had "eternally undone" what he described as "great multitudes" in the Great Awakening by leading them to presume assurance of salvation without any evidence of Christian practice. Indeed, Edwards believes this teaching is producing a counterfeit evangelical Christianity.

With his Puritan Reformed heritage, Edwards takes great pains to reaffirm an emphasis sadly lacking in contemporary evangelicalism, the primacy of the preached word. As Edwards made clear in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, it is not prophecy, but preaching that God has appointed to "impress upon sinners their misery and need of a Savior and the glory and sufficiency of Christ."’

The Westminster Theological Journal is published by Westminster Theological Seminary, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19118, USA.

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