Protestants today find themselves polarized over the issue of the spiritual gifts. The charismatic movement has made inroads within the Protestant church, affirming that God pours out a full range of spiritual gifts that include speaking in tongues (a heavenly language), healing, and the offices of apostle and prophet.
Other Protestants have declined to believe that all spiritual gifts continue today, arguing that the spirit gave certain gifts during the early church to establish it (namely, apostles, prophets, tongues, and healing). Still others believe in the continuation of all gifts but in less potent forms.
So what should we think about these matters? Well, it’s impossible to provide a thorough discussion here. But I would like to highlight the argument of John Calvin, the sixteenth century genevan Reformer.
In his study of Ephesians 4:11, Calvin calls evangelists and pastors part of the “ordinary office in the church” (1056, §4.3.4). In contrast, apostles and prophets are extraordinary offices. Calvin explains further, “the Lord raised up the first three [apostles, prophets, and evangelists] at the beginning of his Kingdom, and now and again revives them as the need of the times demands” (1056, §4.3.4).
For Calvin, God specially gifted the church with apostles, prophets, and evangelists at its foundation. And from time to time, God revives these offices when the need arises. In his day, Calvin perceives God as reviving the role of apostle (or perhaps evangelist). We know this because he indirectly calls Martin Luther an apostle: “Still, I do not deny that the Lord has sometimes at a later period raised up apostles, or at least evangelists in their place, as has happened in our own day” (1057, §4.3.4)
Yet these extraordinary offices are not the norm. They are exceptional and for special occasions (e.g., like the Reformation or at the foundation of the church). The regular offices, pastors and teachers, are offices that “the church can never go without” (1057, §4.3.4).
Someone once told me about the idea of centrifugal cessationism (CC),* and I think this idea captures what Calvin is saying. The idea behind CC is that God provides all the gifts and offices when he is doing a formative work (founding the church, some missionary activity, etc.). After the church(es) get set up in a region, then the need for the extraordinary gifts cease; and then the need for the ordinary offices becomes real for the “church can never go without” pastors and teachers. I think Calvin is saying something like this.
Calvin strikes the right balance of biblical fidelity and historical reality. In other words, the Bible does not conclusively say that God can never revive the extraordinary offices of the church for a short time. And yet: we know that many of the extraordinary offices (apostle, prophet) and gifts (e.g., healing) no longer exist.
If the gift of healing did exist as described in Scripture, then why not enter a children’s hospital and cure all and sundry? Why does this never happen? Why are healings either obviously accomplished by prayer and God’s mighty hand or not miraculous healings at all (e.g., someone’s back pain decreased)? If they are accomplished by prayer, then God heals (and not our gifted touch, for example). If you decrease someone’s back pain but haven’t made a paraplegic walk, then how do you have the biblical gift of healing?
It seems clear that when someone claims the gift of healing, it never is as miraculous as the Bible describes the gift. And if anyone did have the gift of healing, then it would be obvious to all. They could walk into a cancer ward and discharge every patient.
In short, Calvin gives us a guide to understanding this complex and heated issue. And I think we should at least consider what he has to say to help us understand the world that we live in today. After all, that’s one reason why history is so important: it teaches us to live virtuously in the present.
*I think it was called centrifugal cessationism. If I am wrong, the idea that I am explaining still represents the idea.