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Has God Caused Some Gifts to Cease?

Has the "perfect" come?

Denominations which reject the practice of speaking in tongues, commonly argue that tongues, and the other "revelatory" and miraculous gifts, passed away after the death of the original Apostles. They usually base this argument in large part upon I Corinthians 13:8-12, which states:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail: whether there be tongues, they shall cease: whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (KJV)

The argument from this passage for the cessation of tongues, posits first that it is "obvious" that the "perfect" thing, the completion of all knowledge referred to in verse 10 is the completed canon of the Bible. It then argues that, since the "perfect" came when the Bible was completed, prophecy, tongues and wisdom became unnecessary at that instant and, therefore, necessarily ceased. It is also commonly argued that, because, by assumption, the gifts of healing, miracles and miraculous faith served only to authenticate the message of the Apostles, these gifts also became unnecessary after John died, and therefore passed into permanent disuse.

However, "that which is perfect" in verse 10 cannot be the Bible. When the perfect comes, we will see God face to face and know as perfectly as He knows us (v. 12). Manifestly, this has not yet occurred. Rather, it appears that the "perfect" thing spoken of here is Jesus himself, and that it comes when he returns. Indeed, John uses very similar language which plainly speaks of Jesus' return:

Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.
I John 3:1-3

Thus, it would appear that, until Jesus returns, the "revelatory" gifts, or, more accurately, the communicatory gifts — along with the other gifts of the Holy Spirit — retain their validity and their purpose of building us up as a body.

It is also commonly argued that the "perfect" thing in I Corinthians 13 must refer to the canon of Scripture because Church historians generally state that these gifts completely ceased to operate prior to the Second Century, A.D.. These arguments generally rely upon a quotation from St. Augustine to this effect. However, there is an at least equally plausible alternate explanation for this observation. Augustine, and the other early Church historians whose writings are recognized and cited by present-day theologians, were all churchmen loyal to an existing ecclesiastical organization. Therefore, they would be likely to either ignore or label as heretical any Christian who claimed to have direct communication with God outside the restrictions placed on communication with God by that organization. It is well documented that there were some such occurrences, which were, in fact, labeled heretical. One particularly well-known example of this was the manifestations of tongues, healing and prophecy which were reported to have occurred among the Montanists, of the late Second and early Third Centuries, and who were labeled by the majority Church as heretics in part because of these manifestations. However, there are other examples.

However, it is also well documented that, by sometime in the Second Century, the organized Church started to adopt a sacramental system with a strict division between clergy and laity. It is also quite clear that, from this time forward, the organized Church ceased to rely on the spiritual gift of discerning of spirits to keep its message pure and started instead to rely on blind allegiance to its bishops, on catechization and on individual conformity to written creeds for the same purpose. The reasons for this development are interesting, involving the political and social need of the church organization to recognize as true Christians many who had no personal relationship with Christ, but the historical details are outside the scope of this essay.

Thus, from the Second Century until the Reformation, the official Church taught that God's grace was dispensed only through the official Catholic Church organization and that God could speak to His people only through that organization's bishops, as successors of the Apostles, who in turn spoke through the mouths of the ordained clergy. Thus, anyone who claimed to hear from God directly, rather than merely through the church hierarchy, would naturally be labeled as a heretic and not a true Christian. In the context of this article, however, reliance on Church historians' use of this label to deny the occurrence of manifestations of communicative gifts after the beginning of the Second Century leads to a circular proof in which any claimed occurrence of them is ignored or labeled as heretical (and, hence, false) because the hierarchy of the organized Church decided that these gifts should cease. Thus, the orthodox Church historians' statements that these gifts ceased do not prove the point. Moreover, throughout these centuries there are many isolated examples of communities that claimed to be Christian — though rejected by the Catholic Church — in which these gifts were manifested. Thus, the historical assertion that all of the communicative gifts ceased after the beginning of the Second Century appears to be the product of a circular proof in which anyone who appeared to manifest them was simply placed outside the true Church by official definition.

It seems far preferable to leave God His freedom to communicate with us whenever and however He deems appropriate, and to exercise Scriptural discernment as to the content and underlying or originating spirit of the message communicated. See I John 4:1-4.

NEXT PAGE: The Purpose of Spiritual Gifts

Ian Johnson
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