Spiritual Gifts: The Cessationist Controversy from an LDS Perspective

Spiritual Gifts: The Cessationist Controversy from an LDS Perspective February 1, 2011

Debate over spiritual gifts is about as old as the first New Testament passage describing them. Paul’s discourse and description of the gifts in 1 Corinthians is a response to the first-century Church’s turmoil over the nature and practice of these gifts.

The Montanist heresy is evidence of continued confusion in the second and third century.  From references found in Eusebius and others we learn that one of the greatest arguments between Montanists and the Church in Asia Minor was whether or not true prophecy could take place in an ecstatic state of hallucination and frenzy. Writings by Hilary and Ambrose suggest that the gifts of prophecy and speaking and interpreting in tongues were present in the Christian church well into the fourth century. Beginning with the fifth century, theologians such as John Chrysostom began to lament the waning of these gifts, though revivals continued to crop up periodically. In A.D. 1000 the Rituale Romanorum (Roman Ritual) defined glossolalia as prima facie evidence of demon possession. But in the centuries following, prophecy and tongues were found in groups such as the Waldenses in the 1100’s, the Franciscans in the 1200’s, the Anabaptists in the 1500’s, the Quakers in the 1600’s, the Methodists of England in the 1700’s, the Second Great Awakening in the 1800’s, and the Pentecostal Revival in the U.S. in the 1900’s.

Spiritual gifts, especially those of tongues and prophecy, have been the subject of debate into the 21st century. Pentecostal and charismatic movements exhibit tension with other evangelical groups over the manifestation of these gifts. Often the discussion is framed in terms of their temporary vs. permanent nature. Among noncharismatics it has been relatively standard to regard the gifts of tongues and prophecy as foundational for the church and designed only to be temporarily experienced by the early saints. A view that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit pertained only to the Christian church’s apostolic era may be labeled “cessationist.”

Non-cessationists deny that any of the spiritual gifts ceased after the first century. These movements generally see tongues and prophecy as active in the present as it was during the first 70 years C.E.

In a humanistic, enlightened age, it is difficult to see the more extreme manifestations of tongues and prophecy as anything but “loony.” Glossolalia, in particular, is associated with an extreme and fringe portion of the Christian community. Modern Mormonism has attempted to deal with the problem in an interesting way. The perception has entered into LDS thought that the gift of tongues is a spiritual gift whereby a member may experience augmented facility in a foreign language, especially for the purpose of missionary work. I am not quite sure when this interpretation came into vogue. We know that glossolalia occurred in nineteenth-century Mormonism. But it gradually fell from favor and this new interpretation seems to have been firmly entrenched by the time of its inclusion into Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie.

“In their more dramatic manifestations [the gift of tongues and their interpretation] consist in speaking or interpreting, by the power of the Spirit, a tongue which is completely unknown to the speaker or interpreter. … Frequently these gifts are manifest where the ordinary languages of the day are concerned in that the Lord’s missionaries learn to speak and interpret foreign languages with ease, thus furthering the spread of the message of the restoration” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition [1966], 800).

During my mission I experienced this presentation of the gift of tongues. In my first area, we tracted into a Christian Bible study group meeting. They excitedly invited us in, only to bash us hard. We pulled out our scriptures and began to debate, and I felt that we held our own. My companion and I chattered freely, responding to questions, raising those of our own, and expounding scripture with our unique LDS interpretation. It was only an hour later, as we left the scene, that I realized the whole time I had been speaking in French! I’d been conversing with the same fluency I have in English. Given the weak state of my language ability, I saw this as a miraculous event. I’d experienced the Mormon gift of tongues.

LDS perception of the gift of prophecy has likewise been softened since the Kirtland and Nauvoo periods. We rarely see leaders or members predict future events. Rather, prophecy is now connected with receiving “inspiration,” usually concerning how best to serve those over whom one holds jurisdiction.

It is difficult to determine, therefore, whether the LDS conception of these two spiritual gifts falls into the cessationist or non-cessationist camp. The gift of tongues manifested as ecstatic vocalizing or singing of speech-like syllables in early Mormonism, but rarely thereafter. Prophecy was much more daringly given, as when Joseph predicted a War between the States. Are we then cessationist, holding that these gifts were valuable in founding the Restoration, but not as useful today?

Or are we non-cessationist, according to the words of the seventh Article of Faith: “We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth?” Do we believe these gifts are still as vital and consistent and important as they always have been?

Your turn.

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