Over at Faith Promoting Rumor and Times and Seasons there have recently been some great (and long) debates over the issue of cessationism, particularly as it relates to contemporary Mormonism. Briefly, cessationism is the idea that spiritual gifts (such as healing, prophecy, tongues, etc) played a crucial role in the foundation of Christianity but have since ceased to be operative. Similarly, cessationism as it relates to Mormonism would be the idea that spiritual gifts were frequently present during the founding years of the Restoration but have since become inoperative, or as the FPR author, BiV, illustrates, that they were transformed or re-interpreted, e.g., the gift of tongues became the miraculous ability to understand and speak a foreign language. Visit those blogs for the details, which are very informative.
I think a case can be made, on the whole, for Mormonism as non-Cessationist. I’m not going to try and defend that position in this post, and I do think Mormonism as non-Cessationist is somewhat tenuous. But it seems to be fairly important to Mormons generally that Mormonism is a faith that embraces spiritual gifts, both as signs of the covenant and as blessings to the faithful. As I read, though, (and I only skimmed the comments so maybe this came up) I was struck that Paul’s metadiscourse–in 1 Cor. 12-14–concerning spiritual gifts was not mentioned. This is extremely significant, it seems to me, because Paul essentially warns against the overvaluation of spiritual gifts, and this point is crucial. That is, Paul and the Corinthian community he was writing to took the actual existence of spiritual gifts for granted. For them, such gifts certainly existed, and in spades. The issue, then, was not in their existence but in their locality within the faith community, and therefore their actual substantive significance to this community.
The Corinthians, it seems, were hierarchizing their spiritual gifts. They had favorites. Certain gifts were considered more important than other gifts. Paul points out that this was problematic, for two reasons. First, all the gifts, in their variety, came from the same source, the Spirit (12:4-11). They didn’t proceed from multiple sources of greater and lesser value; they were all given from the same divine source. Thus, they were all spiritual, all spiritually significant. Paul flatly names all the gifts, relativizing all of them by simply listing them and not elaborating on their functions. Second, all of the gifts were necessary in order for the community to thrive. Here Paul uses his famous analogy of the body: one cannot say the hand is unnecessary, or the ear, or the nose; all are necessary for the healthy and holistic well-being of the body. Similarly, all the spiritual gifts were necessary for the spiritual well-being of the community, and to excise some would be to amputate the community (12:12-22). Then, in a seemingly contradictory move, Paul himself hierarchizes the spiritual gifts, ranking them in importance from first to last. Tellingly (no pun intended) tongues and interpretation (often yoked together) are ranked last (12:27-31). (Earlier, in his spiritual gift list, Paul had listed tongues last as well [12:10], but had not explicitly ranked them).
Two questions arise here: first, why did Paul commit the same fallacy of which he was accusing the Corinthians? One possible answer: Paul’s ranking can be seen as ironic. Paul was mocking the Corinthians by almost sarcastically grading each gift and purposefully placing tongues last. This leads to the second question: why is tongues ranked last? There is a lot about tongues and interpretation that could be said here, but suffice for the present that for the Corinthians, the gift of tongues was a gift that they were particularly taken with. It was the gift that they valued the most. Thus, Paul ranks it last as a rhetorical gesture meant to emphasize precisely what the community was misunderstanding about spiritual gifts. Not that they were misusing or treating lightly their gifts per se, but that they were overvaluing them, and this overvaluation was creating divisiveness and discord. The Corinthians were rightly seeking after spiritual gifts, but not necessarily to help and serve one another, to build up the church; instead, very often in order to build themselves up, to edify themselves. But more than this: there was one gift that the community was lacking, without which all of the spiritual gifts were worthless: the gift of love or charity. This is what 1 Cor. 13 is essentially about: that the Corinthians manifested all these spiritual gifts, and had great knowledge and spoke in tongues, and even prophesied. But without love these things were nothing. Love was the junction or node that connected each person’s spiritual gift to everyone else in the community, and thus served to build up the community, to edify others, and not oneself. Spiritual gifts were means to ends, not ends in themselves.
Importantly, it was not that spiritual gifts were relegated to a position below love, and that what they really should have been seeking was love alone. Instead, love was to gracefully activate the gifts in a way that was salvific and redemptive for the community. Thus Paul would say, “Pursue love and strive for spiritual gifts” (14:1). Now, Paul, in chapter 14, and with decidedly no irony, does rank the gift of prophesy as the gift he would most seek to have. This does appear to somewhat disappointingly remove some of the force of his flattening of the ontology of the gifts in chapter 12, but his purpose for listing prophesying first at this point is that to prophesy is to build up and encourage other members of the community, unlike tongues, which appeared to manifest for the sake of one’s own upbuilding. Thus, to speak in tongues was ok, but to interpret redeemed the gift of tongues because it, like prophesying, would serve to edify the community and not a single individual. Paul speaks extensively about these particular gifts in chapter 14, but always in the context of building up others, edifying the church community. In other words, always in the context of love.
So are Mormons Cessationists? Probably not. But more importantly, so what? If that is, the importance of love and charity is not emphasized and undervalued. Significantly for Mormons, D&C 46 repeats 1 Corinthians 12, and their lists and explanations of spiritual gifts, with some additions and changes, thus reinforcing their relevance for the Mormon community. The same for charity, repeated in nearly the same language by Mormon in Moroni 7. Spiritual gifts and the love that must be present to make them truly valuable are reinforced, redoubled in Mormonism. Mormonism is thus doubly burdened with the task of ensuring not only that such gifts are manifest in its communities, but also that they are appropriately employed through the love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things, the love without which Mormonism, like Christianity, is reduced to nothing. Whether Mormonism is Cessationist really becomes an important question only within the agapic hermeneutic.