Have Spiritual Gifts Ceased?


Donald Macleod



So far we have said nothing about the most controversial of all Pentecostal claims, namely, that the proof of Holy Spirit baptism is the possession of certain charismata (spiritual gifts), especially the gift of tongues. Protestantism had traditionally taken the view that miraculous gifts ceased with the apostolic age. Edward Irving (1792-1834) asserted, however, that the gifts were for all ages of the church and through his influence a group of Christians in London set up the Catholic Apostolic Church, complete with apostles, prophets, healings and tongue–speaking. Irving's movement petered out, but in the 20th century, out of the Wesleyan–derived holiness movement, there arose the Pentecostal churches, holding, according to one of their leading spokesmen, that, 'Speaking with tongues is the only evidence in the Scripture of the baptism in the Spirit.' Since the Second World War adherents of this view have multiplied within the mainstream denominations, giving rise to so–called Neo–Pentecostalism. Reformed churches have not been exempt and many independent fellowships in England and Wales have been tragically split over the issue.

Any biblical response to this movement must insist on two fundamental points: First, some of the charismata have ceased; second, the church today remains a thoroughly charismatic institution. This chapter can deal only with the first of these but we must bear in mind that in the long term concern with the positively charismatic nature of the church is infinitely more important than the denial of modern charismatic claims.

The apostolate

The Pentecostal position requires the perpetuation of the exact situation which prevailed in the apostolic church. In particular, it requires that we must have all the gifts, all the experiences and all the offices enjoyed by the primitive community. The hopelessness of this claim becomes apparent, however, the moment we reflect on the office of apostle. Their charisma was clearly intended to be temporary, if only because it was an essential qualification that they should have seen the risen Christ. This is why Peter lays down in Acts 1:21-22 that the person chosen to replace Judas must be 'a witness with us of his resurrection'. Paul clearly related his apostleship to the same fact:

'Last of all, he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles' (1 Cor. 15: 8, 9). The Galatian denial of his apostleship also revolved around this issue: He was no real apostle because he had never seen Christ and had received his gospel only at second–hand. Paul protests vigorously that he had not received his gospel from men but had been taught it by a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:12). His call to be an apostle was intimately bound up with his having seen the Son of God (Gal. 1:16).

The argument from the unrepeatable nature of apostolic qualifications is reinforced by the fact that the apostles never designated successors; nor did they lay down the qualifications such successors should have. They were content to leave the founding of new churches to evangelists and the care of existing ones to pastors and teachers. The nearest we have to a successor to the apostles is Timothy and he is spoken of only as an evangelist, whose authority does not go beyond enacting in the churches the arrangements which Paul lays down.

The temporary nature of the apostolate is implied in its very nature. It was foundational: the church is built 'on the foundation of the apostles and prophets' (Eph. 2: 20). The same idea occurs in Rev. 21:14, which tells us that the walls of New Jerusalem had twelve foundations inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. It is true, of course, that the building of the spiritual temple goes on throughout the Christian era (1 Peter 2: 5) as each stone is chosen and prepared. But the laying of the foundation takes place once and for all in the period of the incarnation. Christ is the chief cornerstone. The apostles are the foundation. The once–for–allness of this is clearly seen in the New Testament itself. Just as Christ was once offered, so the faith was once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Consequently, the proper attitude to apostolic tradition is not to develop and add to it but to 'hold it fast' (2 Thess. 2:15). It is a sacred trust to be kept (1 Tim. 6:20).

The uniqueness of the apostolic period at the time of authoritative foundation–laying is integral to the New Testament and Oscar Cullmann is fully justified in asserting that, 'the scandal of Christianity is to believe that these few years, which for secular history have no more and no less significance than other periods, are the centre and the norm of the totality of time' .


We can claim with virtually equal confidence that the gift of prophecy has ceased. Prophecy in the New Testament was not a merely expository gift enabling a man to unfold the meaning of an extant revelation such as the Old Testament. The prophets were organs of revelation, men to whom God made known His mind and whom He had authorised to act as His spokesmen. In the church at Corinth, for example, they were the men who had a revelation and 'understood all mysteries'. Sometimes, the revelation was a prediction, sometimes it was a directive and sometimes (as in the Apocalypse of John) it was a sustained and complex disclosure of the mind of God ranging over a wide variety of topics, doctrinal, hortatory and eschatological.

We have a right, then, to expect from prophets 'mysteries and revelations'. When we apply this criterion to modern utterances, it is only too painfully obvious that the gift has ceased. The reasons are not far to seek.

First, like the apostolate, prophecy was foundational. The foundation referred to in Eph. 2:20 is that of the apostles and prophets. During the age of foundation–laying the prophets (like their Old Testament predecessors) were producing material which would later be incorporated into the Scriptures. They were also meeting the urgent need for instruction and guidance on a day–to–day basis until the church had a sufficient Scripture. But these responsibilities could not last longer than the age of foundation–laying itself.

Second, even within the New Testament itself there is evidence that the re–instatement of the prophetic office (after the long silence from Malachi to John the Baptist) was only transitional. While it figures prominently in the picture of church–life given in 1 Cor. 12-14 it is almost entirely absent from Paul's last epistles, the Pastorals (Timothy and Titus). It is also absent from other late New Testament documents such as 1 John. This strongly suggests that the ministry of the prophets was being superseded even before the canon was closed.

Third, the prophetic ministry, being revelational, was closely linked with the development of the canon. So long as the canon was incomplete, the church had to have access to the mind of God in other ways, notably through prophecy. Now that the canon is complete, all that is necessary to salvation is either expressly set down in Scripture or may be deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence, as the Westminster Confession reminds us. To say that prophecy is still necessary is to say that Scripture is incomplete and imperfect and therefore needs to be supplemented. Whether the supplementation is offered by Pentecostal prophets or by Papal decrees, the principle is the same: the conscience of the church is being bound by something additional to Scripture.


Tongue-speaking has a special place in Pentecostalism, not only as the commonest of the gifts but as the initial sign of the baptism in the Spirit, the means of deeper devotion and, all too often, as the supreme object of Christian longing. Despite all the arguments marshalled by the Charismatics, however, we see no reason to abandon the traditional view that this gift also ceased with the apostles.

For example, it seems indisputable that as a matter of fact this gift did disappear. This does not mean that no claims to it were made between the first century and the nineteenth. But these claims were sporadic, localised and debateable. Michael Harper cites Justin Martyr in support of the perpetuity of the gifts . Cullmann, with equal confidence, cites him against. More significantly, in the long period between the New Testament and Edward Irving, the gift of tongue–speaking was never claimed by even the most outstanding leaders in the church. This is true of such Fathers as Athanasius and Augustine, Bernard and Chrysostom; of the Reformers, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Knox; and of outstanding modern preachers like Whitefield, Chalmers, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones.

This fact of the gift being withheld from outstanding men of God is surely the total answer to the claim made by Wesley (and frequently repeated by Pentecostals) that the reason for the decline in this and other gifts was that 'the Christians were turned heathen again and had only a dead form left'. It is absurd to dismiss either Chalmers and Spurgeon or the churches they represented as dead and lifeless shells of Christianity.

Another fact which weighs heavily against the Pentecostal view is that it is now exceedingly difficult to be sure what exactly the gift of tongue–speaking was. He would certainly be a bold man who would undertake to prove by exegesis of the New Testament that what passes for tongue–speaking today corresponds to the gift which prevailed in the days of the apostles.

There are two levels, at least, of uncertainty.

First, it is far from clear that the phenomenon described in the second chapter of Acts is the same as that of 1 Cor. 14. The one is defined as 'speaking in other tongues'; the other as 'speaking in tongues'. In Acts, the speakers were easily understood by the multitude; at Corinth, they could be understood only by those with a special gift of interpretation. At Corinth, they were a sign of God's judgment on unbelievers; there is not a hint of this in Acts. In view of these difficulties, we cannot lightly assume that the two phenomena were the same.

Second, there is uncertainty as to the nature of tongue–speaking itself; and not only is there a lack of agreement as to what occurred in New Testament tongue–speaking, but there is a lack of agreement as to what takes place in Pentecostal assemblies at the present day. According to some Charismatics, the tongues are foreign languages, recognisable as such and in principle translatable. According to others they are a form of ecstatic speech, in which the Christian expresses concepts and emotions which transcend language - what Donald Gee calls, 'an almost spontaneous expression of otherwise unutterable emotion'. Such utterances would not only be untranslatable but un-interpretable. According to yet others, tongue–speaking is 'a manifestation of the Spirit of God employing human speech organs'. On this view, although the utterance has a language pattern the vocal cords are controlled not by the human intellect (which lies fallow, 1 Cor. 14:14, N.E.B.) but by the Holy Spirit.

For the moment it is not important to settle this question of identification. We need only note that there is no agreement among New Testament scholars or among Pentecostals themselves as to what tongue-speaking was –– or is. This is passing strange if it was meant to be, in perpetuity, the initial sign of the Holy Spirit baptism. How can I know if I have spoken in tongues when I do not know what tongue–speaking was?

Diminishing importance

We must add to this problem of identification the fact that we can see tongue–speaking diminishing in importance even within the New Testament itself. Within the Book of Acts, taking us up to the time of Paul's first imprisonment at Rome, the gift is fairly prominent. It is still clearly in evidence when the apostle writes his first epistle to Corinth. But in the Pastoral epistles there is no mention of it, although Paul is concerned to lay down the qualifications for office (which do not include tongue–speaking) and to give detailed instructions as to the conduct of worship and the behaviour of Christians in the public assembly. Furthermore, tongues are not mentioned, even as occasions of disorder, in the Lord's Epistles to the Seven Churches of Asia (Rev. 2-3). Nor are they mentioned in the Epistles of John, although these epistles show considerable interest in the ministry of the Spirit.

These facts strongly suggest that the transitionalism which we saw to apply to the gift of prophecy applies equally to the gift of tongues. By the time the canon is complete, tongue–speaking has been virtually superseded.

This is not an argument which Pentecostals will readily accept. It is tantamount, they say, to taking scissors to the Bible and throwing large chunks of it away.

Part of the answer to this is that the portions excised are not all that large because the references to tongue–speaking are remarkably few. Furthermore, to say that tongue–speaking no longer exists in the church is not to say that biblical references to it have nothing to teach us today. For example, eating food offered to idols is no longer a live issue (so far as we know). But the principles Paul lays down in the course of discussing it are still directly relevant to Christian life and practice. Similarly, despite the cessation of tongue–speaking Paul's teaching in 1 Cor. 14 still has much to say on the nature of worship and the use of our continuing gifts.

More important, every Christian accepts in practice that some parts of the Bible have been superseded. We no longer offer the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus or cleanse lepers according to the Old Testament ritual. Not even theonomists would stone adulterers and Sabbathbreakers, nor administer circumcision nor celebrate the Passover.

But does that not leave the New Testament still intact, so that everything for which we can claim a precedent from the New Testament is still binding? The moment we accept, however, that we can no longer have apostles, we have breached this principle. We have recognised that the New Testament church had something which we are not to have. In actual fact, the range of superseded principles and practices is much wider than we might at first expect. Today's missionaries are not bound by the directive of Luke 10:4, 'Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way'. Nor are they under orders to confine their evangelism to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Mt. 10:6). Similarly, we are not bound by the ecclesiastical arrangements of Acts 2-5, whereby the apostles did all the teaching and all the administration –– and the Christians practised a strict community in goods. Even when we look at the attestation of Holy Spirit baptism, we find only what is an embarrassment to Pentecostalism, because the sign in Acts 2:2-3 was not tongue–speaking alone, but 'a rushing mighty wind and cloven, fiery tongues'. If the tongue–speaking is normative and perpetual, why not the other signs?

The truth is, we simply cannot freeze revelation at Acts 2:4 or at 1 Cor. 14:26, any more than we can freeze it at Luke 10: 4 or Leviticus 17. Revelation is progressive and cumulative, and although God never denies the truth of what He revealed earlier, He does enact that some structures and institutions be superseded. 2 Timothy not only has an equal right with 1 Corinthians to be our norm. Wherever they differ, it has a greater right to be the norm because it lies further along the line of a cumulative revelation.

The reason for tongue–speaking gradually disappearing is exactly the same as applies to prophecy. It was a revelatory gift. As Pentecostal theologians themselves admit, tongue–speaking plus interpretation equals prophecy: 'In the Spirit, he speaketh mysteries.' As such, it would meet the needs of the church while the canon was being formed, but would give way to the expository ministry of the teacher once revelation was complete.

Unbiblical framework

Space allows only a brief mention of one other argument: the whole theological framework within which Pentecostalism sets tongue–speaking is unbiblical. The claim is not only that tongue–speaking persists in the church but that it is the indispensable initial sign of a special post-conversion baptism in the Spirit which ushers those who experience it into a 'higher life' of deeper devotion, greater power and new–found joy. This perspective is wholly false. As we have already seen, some of the greatest figures in the post–apostolic church never spoke in tongues and would have to be dismissed as second–-rate Christians if the Pentecostal doctrine were true. Besides, there is considerable ambiguity in the doctrine . Is baptism/tongue–speaking something secured by our own holiness? or is it the cause of our holiness? Logically, we should expect the latter: Spirit baptism is the precondition of the 'higher life'. In fact, the order is commonly reversed. Torrey's 'seven easy steps' include renouncing all known sin and make holiness the condition of spirit–baptism. Wesley's claim that the church lacks spiritual gifts because it is spiritually dead belongs to the same perspective. If the church could revive itself, the Spirit would return.

Two further points may be made.

It is very difficult to argue that tongue–speaking of the type prevalent today is a sign of special Christian spirituality when, according to many observers, the same phenomenon can be found among non–Christian religions such as Islam. The same problem is inherent in the incidence of tongue–speaking among Roman Catholics. We would not take it on ourselves to deny that many Roman Catholics are devout, if mis–guided Christians, but it is difficult to believe that anyone enjoying an outstanding measure of the Spirit's fullness could have so little insight into Scripture and so little understanding of the experience of salvation as to adore the host, worship saints and images, do homage to the Virgin and distance himself by an anathema from Luther's doctrine of justification.

Last, there is not the least suggestion in the New Testament that tongue–speaking is a sign of special spirituality. The church at Corinth came behind in no gift (1 Cor. 1:7). Yet it was beset by a whole host of problems ranging from disunity to heresy to immorality. It was certainly not a 'higher life' church. Moreover, in 1 Cor. 13, Paul makes it very plain that it is possible to speak with the tongues of men and of angels and yet lack love. Christ Himself speaks to the same effect in Mt. 7:22. Men may be able to claim that they have prophesied, cast out devils and performed miracles –– all in the name of Christ––- and yet be total strangers to fellowship with the Saviour. And when Paul asks 'Do all speak in tongues?', clearly expecting the answer 'No!' he does not give the least hint that the omission is a grave one which they should instantly seek to remedy.


The Spirit of Promise. Donald Macleod. Christian Focus Publications. 1986, pages 29-38.