D. A. Carson has written a masterful book on the Holy Spirit called Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Carson is one of the world’s premier conservative theologians working today, is not a charismatic, and works through some of the toughest questions.
I find him respectful of the text and willing to entertain whatever possibilities the text suggests. You see, Carson exegetes with no concern for whether the Charismatic movement is affirmed or disproven — making him a nearly unique commentator. In fact, in my own studies, other than the scriptures themselves, the two most useful books I’ve read are this one and F. D. Bruner’s A Theology of the Holy Spirit.
Carson believes that 1 Cor 13 does not mean that spiritual gifts will end when the New Testament is complete. Rather, he concludes that “that which is perfect” is the state of affairs following the Second Coming. Thus, he concludes,
[T]here does not appear to be biblical warrant, at least from this chapter, for banning contemporary tongues and prophecies on the grounds that Scripture anticipates their early demise. This does not mean, of course, that everything that passes for prophecy or the gift of tongues is genuine. …
Second, … “Now … love and the charismata are set in antithesis to each other, and we have the eschatological argument that the latter will cease. They are accordingly, unlike love, not the appearance of the eternal in time, but the manifesting of the Spirit in a provisional way. Thus, these very gifts hold us fast in the ‘not yet.’”
(page 75). That is, gifts such as tongues and prophecy are reminders that what we have today is not nearly what we’ll have when Jesus returns.
On the other hand, Carson relates how several experiments into the validity of modern tongues and interpretations uniformly fail to support the genuineness of tongues and interpretation. (pp. 86-88). For example, a Greek student recited a New Testament verse in koine Greek at a Pentecostal service, only to have an interpreter find an entirely different meaning in the words. And a recording of tongues was given to multiple interpreters, with each interpreter producing a different translation.
Carson concludes, however, that the absence of proof is not proof of absence. Carson notes that there are records of tongues uniformly throughout church history, going back to the Second Century — but tongues have nearly always been experienced in groups that were “small and generally on the fringe of Christianity” (p. 166). He also notes that many revival and reformation movements have been very effective without tongues or prophecy.
Reflecting on church history, Carson says,
[i]t is probable that prophecy waned with the rise of Montanism [Second Century heresy marked by claims of miracles] because the church was seeking to protect herself from the extravagant claims of the Montanists. The more the latter claimed to enjoy Spirit-given, prophetic gifts of superlative authority — so sterling an authority that much of Scripture could confidently dismissed — the more the church was bound to respond by stressing the stability and immutatbility of the apostolic deposit [the New Testament]. … That fact that the church made room for prophecy until the Montanist abuse strongly suggests that what the church understood for “prophecy” up to that time did not in any way jeopardize the apostolic deposit.
(pp. 168-169; emphasis in original). You see, Carson sees the prophecy described in the New Testament as qualitatively different from the prophecy of, say, Isaiah, pointing out that there were many prophets in Corinth and elsewhere, and yet their work did not supplant apostolic instruction.
You see, the Churches of Christ (and many others) have traditionally taught that New Testament prophecy was given in lieu of the New Testament until the canon was complete — and thus that prophecy served to fill in the gaps of inspired literature. But if that’s so, why did Paul need to write to Corinth? Why didn’t the several prophets who were already there straighten things out?
Just so, as Rome had prophets (Rom 12:6), why did Paul write Romans to them? Why didn’t the prophets already know this material and teach it straight from the Spirit?
Carson notes that the Old Testament prophets were supposed be tested, and once shown to be true prophets, obeyed. However, Paul says that the declarations of New Testament prophets are to be “weighed.”
(1 Cor 14:29) Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.
In Old Testament usage, the prophet was tested and then his words obeyed. In New Testament usage, the prophet’s words were to be tested, meaning one person might speak both weighty and non-weighty prophecies. Moreover, in the Old Testament, a false prophet was to be killed, whereas there’s no hint of excommunication (much less death) for those New Testament prophets whose words are found wanting. And why else would Paul declare,
(1 Cor 14:37-38) If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.
This clearly says that not only are prophets of less authority than an apostle; they are to be tested against apostolic instruction. They hardly carried anything like the weight or the purposes of an apostle. In 1 Thes 5:19-21 Paul has to urge his readers not to treat prophecy with contempt. In 1 Cor 14 Paul has to advance prophecy above tongues. And in Acts 21:4 a prophet tells Paul not to go to Jerusalem, and yet Paul goes anyway.
Finally, just reflect a bit on 1 Cor 14. If there were men and women at Corinth with the Spirit of an Isaiah or Jeremiah, why on earth would Paul have to tell them to take turns and not interrupt? Rather than treating them like adolescents, Paul would have been urging them to take their God-given leadership and join him in proclaiming the will of God.
Clearly, the New Testament prophets were inferior in status and power to the Old Testament prophets — and hardly people given by God to fill in the gaps of scripture not yet written (pp 95-99). And this opens up the possibility that prophecy of this sort continues today.
If this historical assessment is correct, then there may be reason to suppose that noncharismatic wings of the contemporary church may still enjoy some use of “prophecy” without calling it that. ….
One begins to suspect, then, that prophecy may occur more often than is recognized in noncharismatic circles. We may happily agree that preaching cannot be identified with prophecy, but what preacher has not had the experience, after detailed preparation for public ministry, of being interrupted in the full flow of his delivery with a new thought, fresh and powerful, interrupting him and insinuating itself upon his mind, until he makes room for it and incorporates it into his message — only to find after the service that the insertion was the very bit that seemed to touch the most people, and meet their needs? Most charismatics would label the same experience “prophecy.”
Carson ends the book (p. 185 ff) with some conclusions drawn from his own congregation, which had been divided over tongues. He taught the church certain conclusions he thought he could draw with confidence —
The first and most important of these was that tongues cannot possibly serve as a criterion of anything; the second was that I could not find any unequivocal criterion for ruling out all contemporary tongues-speaking, even though I thought much of what I had seen was suspect or was manifested outside the stipulations Paul had laid down.
Carson notes the importance of demonstrating that tongues do not prove one to have a superior spirituality, as tongues often produce jealousy or feelings of spiritual inadequacy in the modern church. But by refusing to deny the reality of the experience, he avoided running the tongue speakers out of the church.
Carson then had his members testify regarding their experiences with tongues, many telling how it helped them feel affirmed in their faith. He then asked a long-time, well-respected member who’d been converted in a Pentecostal church if he’d spoken in tongues. The member said that as a young Christian, he had. The experience had helped ground his faith. Carson asked if he still spoke in tongues. He said he no longer did so: “I guess it’s because I don’t need it now. It think that was for when I was a baby Christian.”