New Testament,  Theology

The Cascade Argument against Miraculous Gifts

There are a variety of ways to deal with the issue of continuationism (i.e., the belief that miraculous spiritual gifts like prophecy and tongues are currently in operation in the church today). In these discussions I often point to the cascade argument which is well summarized by Sam Waldron in his book, To Be Continued? His argument goes like this.

There are no Apostles today.

photo of book, To be Continued: The Case against the miraculous gifts

This is an important starting point, and fairly obvious to anyone who reads Scripture. Although there are apostles in the sense of general “sent ones” (cf. Phil 2:25; 2 Cor 8:23), there is also a clearly defined special group of Apostles. These Apostles were: (1) eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:22; 10:39-41; 1 Cor 9:1; 1 John 1:1-3), (2) directly appointed by Christ (Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13; Acts 1:2; 10:41; Gal 1:1), and (3) were able to confirm their mission through miraculous signs (Acts 2:43; 4:33; 5:12; 8:14; cf. especially 2 Cor 12:12).

This special group of apostles spoke authoritatively for Christ as his representatives (1 Cor 14:37-38; 2 Cor 13:3; 1 John 4:4-6). As such, they were foundational for the building of the church. In Matt 16:18 Jesus promises to build his church (future tense), and Eph 2:20 makes it clear that the Apostles and prophets were essential to that process. It would make sense then, that once the church had been established, the purpose for having Apostles would be fulfilled and they would no longer be necessary. Hence, Paul states that he was the last eyewitness of Christ’s resurrection and thus the last appointed apostle (1 Cor 15:5-9).

Interestingly, in 1 Cor 12:28 Paul lists the gift of Apostle as being the best of the spiritual gifts. However, although Paul encourages seeking the best spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:31), seeking the gift of Apostle is never encouraged. This seems to verify what we would assume from the previous information—that the gift of Apostle is no longer operational. Many who hold to continuationism would agree with this point.

The big takeaway from this point is that if Apostles are spiritual gifts to the church (which they are), and Apostles are no longer operational (which they can’t be given the 3 qualifications), then at least one spiritual gift is done away with (and others could be too).

There are no prophets today.

A prophet is someone who speaks for God. Biblically, a prophet’s message must never contradict Scripture (Deut 13:1-5), and it must always come to pass (Deut 18:15-22). If a prophet’s message does not come to pass, he must die (Deut 18:20), because he is representing God’s very words. A prophet is important because he stands in the place of God and speaks for him (cf. Exod 4:10-17).

Although many proponents for the continuation of miraculous gifts have tried to argue that NT prophecy is different than in the OT (i.e., NT prophets can make mistakes), there is no cogent argument for this assertion, and it is often utilized as an argument from convenience to support what passes for prophecy in many churches today.

Like the Apostles, the prophets were foundational to the start of the church (cf. Eph 2:20). After the church is established, the need for authoritative revelation passed from the Apostles and prophets to the written Scripture.

There are no tongues-speakers today.

The only mention of tongues in the NT is Acts 2, 10, 19, and 1 Cor 12–14. In each of these occurrences, tongues is simply defined as normal human languages which are spoken without the speaker having learned the language. Although some try to argue that 1 Cor 14 speaks of a non-human language gift of tongues, 1 Cor 14:13, 26-28 all refer to interpretation which argues strongly that these would be human languages which could be interpreted. Further, in 1 Cor 14:21 Paul cites Isa 28:11 which confirms that Paul is referencing actual human languages.

However, Paul’s citation of Isa 28:11 is important for another reason as well. By citing Isa 28:11, Paul links the gift of tongues with judgment upon the Jews. In other words, when Jews heard the foreign languages being spoken, it was an authentication that they had rejected their Messiah and were now under judgment. Further, the Gentiles (those who speak foreign tongues) were now going to be spearheading God’s plan of redemption.

Importantly, the gift of tongues seems to be equivalent to prophecy when it is interpreted (1 Cor 14:5; cf. Acts 2:14-18). Thus, making sense of our previous argumentation, if prophecy and tongues are closely equated, it is not surprising that at the same time the Apostles and prophets fade from established church, so too does tongues.

There are no miracle-workers today.

It is important to note that miracles have not ceased (God can intervene whenever and however he wants). But, the divine ability of certain individuals to perform miracles on command is a very rare occurrence. In fact, as I have stated elsewhere, miraculous gifts are tied to the Kingdom of God. Additionally, miracle-workers are tied to role of divine revelation. Note the following:

  • Miraculous signs attested Moses and his message (Ex 4:1-5; Deut 34:10-12)
  • Miraculous signs attested OT prophets and their message (Deut 13:1-5; 18:15-22; 1 Kgs 18:36; Psa 74:9)
  • Miraculous signs attested Jesus and His message (Jn 2:11; 5:36)
  • Miraculous signs attested the Apostles and their message (2 Cor 12:12; Heb 2:3-4) [Apostles also had the ability to impart to others the ability to do miraculous signs attested them (e.g., Philip in Acts 8:1-24)].

Importantly, miracle-workers show up whenever God has given a new period of revelation (e.g., Moses, Elijah/Elisha, Jesus, Apostles; the two witnesses in Rev 11). However, since the church has been firmly established and has been given the authoritative NT canon, like the Apostles and prophets, the gift of miracles has passed from the scene until the last days.

This logic is called the cascade argument against continuationism (or the miraculous gifts). It starts with the fairly universally recognized point that there are no Apostles today. If we understand why the church does not need apostles today, we can also surmise why the church does not need prophets, tongues, or miracle-workers today either. For more detail on the argument I encourage you to pick up To Be Continued? by Waldron.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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