Lately, I've been grappling with the claims that cessationists make on how others in the body of Christ should interpret Scripture to understand the extent to which God has promised to guide, or not guide, believers with His Holy Spirit. One passage, one of my favorite in the Bible, that I want to examine in this cessationist/continuationist debate are the promises that Jesus makes to his disciples, recorded in the latter part of the Gospel of John, regarding the Holy Spirit's guiding role as Counselor and as the Spirit of truth. For this post I want to examine John 14:1-26 that includes Jesus' promise to the disciples in vc. 26 that the Holy Spirit will "teach you all things".
I have learned that it is a cessationist interpretation that Jesus' promise that the Holy Spirit would "teach you all things" was limited to those disciples at the hearing and was not intended to be a "time-transcendent" promise to all believers. I say that this is "a" cessationist interpretation, since not all cessationists may hold it. Based on what I currently understand about cessationism, I want to examine all of the ways a cessationist might approach this passage that would challenge the continuationist interpretion that I have of it. To begin to examine the cessationist interpretation of the Holy Spirit's role to "teach you all things", I want to carefully examine the use of the pronouns "you" and "anyone" in the context of the passage.
"Do not let your hearts be troubles. Trust in God; trust also in me. (2) In my Father's house there are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. (3) And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you with me that you also may be where I am am. (4) You know the way to the place where I am going."
It is not in dispute among Christians that the pronoun "you" is part of a promise for all believers, that Jesus will prepare a place for us. In the case of "You know the way to the place where I am going", it is spoken directly to the disciples, but the principle is not exclusive to them, as we Christians know the place where Jesus is going.
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" (6) Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one gets to the Father except through me. (7) If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on you do know him and have seen him." (8) Phillip said, "Lord show us the Father and that will be enough for us." (9) Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Phillip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say 'Show us the Father'? (10) Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. (11) Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.
The principle that "you do know him and have seen him" is a principle that Jesus applies to anyone, as Jesus says just a little farther on -- "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." One could question whether "anyone" is anyone in 30-33 AD. who had seen Jesus in his corporeal form while on earth. Later in the passage, it will be clear that this principle is not limited only to those who had seen Jesus walking on earth in corporeal form.
"I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (13) And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. (14) You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
Here, "anyone" and "you" are being used interchangeably. Anyone who has faith in Jesus may ask Jesus for anything in his name and he will do it. Of course, one may counter, "but what about all those faithful Christians who asked and nothing happened, is something wrong with their faith?" This deals with the issue of present experience, not the text, so I will save examining it for another day.
"If you love me, you will obey what I command. (16) And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever -- the Spirit of truth.
Here, the promise to "you" is the same promise for "anyone". If that's not completely clear, it will be.
"The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
Here, Jesus is speaking about the disciples' current relationship with the Holy Spirit in the same way that he has just spoken about their relationship with the Father. It is the Spirit who is in Jesus and is therefore "with" the disciples in the person of Jesus. In the verses that follow, Jesus equates himself with the Holy Spirit, and proceeds to say that he, Jesus, will be "in" the disciples. This is also consistent with Isaiah 9:6 in which the Messiah is the wonderful Counselor.
"I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (19) Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you will also live. (20) On that day, you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
Although, some could take this to refer to the time that Jesus could be seen in corporeal form after the resurrection, Jesus is actually referring specifically to the time when he, via the Counselor, will dwell in the disciples. When this happens, the disciples will have the spiritual gift of being able to see Jesus where the world cannot. The "sight" being referred to here is a spiritual ability to see Jesus that comes with one having the Counselor. And whoever sees Jesus sees the Father.
Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and who myself to him.
Here Jesus is extending this promise to anyone. Anyone who obeys Jesus' commands loves Jesus and will receive the Counselor, the Spirit of truth, and will have the gift of being able to see Jesus where the world cannot.
Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us, and not to the world?" (23) Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home in him. (24) He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
Here, Jesus reiterates the point that he had just made in John 14:21
"All this I have spoken while still with you. (26) But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
Now here is where we get to the rub between cessationists and continuationists. A cessationist could try to interpret "will teach you all things" as a special dispensational role that the Counselor will have only for the disciples who were present at the hearing. To interpret the text in that manner though, one must make an argument from silence or from an understanding that heavily modifies the meaning of the text by importing interpretive meaning from well outside the text. As for the text itself, in which Jesus has just equated with the Counselor and has used "you" and "anyone"/"whoever" interchangeably, it is an exceedingly weak textual argument to interpret that the promise to "teach you all things" was limited to an exclusive use of "you" referring only to the immediate disciples present at the hearing. Not even Paul was present at the hearing.
Of course, the dispute in the cessationist/continuationist debate is to what extent, if any, the Spirit's role to "teach you all things" extended beyond the disciples and extended beyond the writing of the Bible canon. In my understanding of cessationism, a cessationist interprets "all things" to be the Bible canon, since it is the cessationist position that the Holy Spirit is not still communicating or teaching anything to anyone in any way that can be readily and conclusively perceived as the Spirit's voice or even the Spirit's guidance. Based on this understanding of cessationism, if Jesus' use of "you" in "teach you all things" was not strickly exclusive to the immediate hearers, it was an exclusive promise to those believers, or to some sub-set of believers, before the Bible canon became completely established.
In regard to the promise that the Spirit would "...remind you of everthing that I have said...". it is true that Jesus' disciples would need special help in being reminded of everything that Jesus had said for the purpose of their ministry and for their writing down his words in what became the canon (synoptic Gospels, etc...). However, it is not clear from the text that that the Spirit's role to "...remind you of everything I have said..." is limited to aiding the disciples in created the Bible canon or that the Spirit's role to "teach you all things" is limited to reminding the disciples of Jesus words. It is safe, of course, to interpret that anything the Spirit teaches will not contradict, but rather complement, anything that Jesus has already said.
Some cessationist will argue that "teach you all things" is a promise only for canonical doctrinal knowledge that the apostles were to receive via the Spirit after Jesus' death and ressurection to complete the canonical doctrinal knowledge that they already had from Jesus at that time. In this interpretion, the disciples' experience at Pentacost, Peter's vision concerning dietary guidelines (Acts 10:9-15), John's revelation on the island of Patmos, and the ways that Paul and the other apostles elaborated and clarified the teachings of Jesus would be the only things to fall within this promise to "teach all things" as the Spirit operated in His role of canonical doctrine completer.
While the Spirit did, in fact, have a role in the lives of the apostles as canonical doctrine completer, to interpret this role of the Spirit as the exclusive purpose of "teach you all things" assumes that the "you" is an exclusive "you" when Jesus has not been making the promises to "you" exclusive to the disciples heretofore in the text. In this interpretation, "all things" must be interpreted as "all the canonical doctrinal knowledge that the Spirit will communicate within your lifetimes as apostles".
A cessationist may argue that the Spirit's role to "teach you all things" extended beyond the specific role of canonical doctrine completer to include all of the ways in which the Spirit guided and empowered the apostles in specific ministry directives. In this interpretation, the Spirit's role to "teach you all things" extended beyond the role of canonical doctrine completer only for the purpose of establishing the apostles' roles as bearers of the Gospel and of the docrine for the church. In this interpretation, "teach" would be understood to including the idea of "guide", as in the Spirit would teach the apostles both according to truths as they related to their general form and according to truths as they related to specifics of particular decisions and situations. As the Spirit guided/taught the apostles according to the promise "teach you all things" for the purpose of advancing canonical doctrinal knowledge, the Spirit would be operating in His role as apostle verifier. Again, while canonical doctrine completer and apostle verifier may have comprised some of the Spirit's purpose in the first century that is included in "teach you all things", to say that "teach you all things" was limited to this role is to rely on an exclusive interpretation of "you", which is not strongly supported by the text.
A cessationist may argue that the promise to "teach you all things" extended to any display of gifts and words of prophecy and knowledge that sustained the church before the establishment of the canon. This cessationist position on the text operates on an exclusive interpretation of "all things" as being the Bible canon, while interpreting "you" in "teach you all things" as including believers beyond the disciples and apostles. In this interpretation, the "you" is only inclusive to those believers before the final establishment of the Bible canon in the fourth century. In this idea, the Spirit's role was to sustain the faith and doctrine of believers until the establishment of the canon in the fourth century as the Spirit operated in the role of pre-canon faith sustainer.
To begin to unravel my problem with the idea that the Spirit had a dispensational role in regard to "teach you all things" as pre-canon faith sustainer as opposed to post-canon faith sustainer, I must start by saying that there is nothing in the text in John 14 that indicates that the Spirit's role to "teach you all things" was limited to canonical doctrine completer, apostle verifier or pre-canon faith sustainer or that "teach you all things" is even limited to prophecy and words of knowledge. That said, if we take the liberty to examine 1 Corinthians as a window into the early church's gifting of prophecy and words of knowledge, Paul does not speak of the administration of prophetic gifts as though it were something unique to the Corinthians, but rather as something that was normative throughout the early church.
Of course, none of us here in the 21st century were there at those early church meetings. A cessationist may argue that to the extent that a) believers were being gifted by the Spirit with prophetic utterances and words of knowledge and that b) believers had yet to learn of important doctrinal truths from the apostles, the Spirit would not have been co-opting the apostles' role in regard to diseminating foundational doctrinal truths. In this understanding, the Spirit would not have been teaching new believers foundational doctrinal truths that had not yet been taught to them by the apostles. In regard to foundational doctrinal truths, The Spirit may have been reminding believers of what Jesus said, and what the apostles said that elaborated on what Jesus said, but only after those believers had first learned of it through the apostles.
If this conclusion is true, to the extent that the Spirit was guiding people in the early churches with what Paul describes as gifts of prophecy, the Spirit must have been providing the early churches with prophetic knowledge that was of direct benefit to the early churches in the particulars of their circumstances and decisions. In other words, the Spirit was providing "low level" revelations that gave specific directions to those in the early church on specifics on how to apply that which was already doctrinally known to them in a general fashion. Furthermore it is not clear that all of the early churches were lacking in any important foundational doctrinal knowledge. Paul, himself, says that he laid the foundation for the church in Corinth as an "expert builder" -- 1 Cor. 3:10. While each of these "low-level" revelations would have been edifying for the hearers throughout the churches in the first century, we in the 21st century are not the worse for not having them all included in the Bible canon because they would not have been time-transcendent revelations of foundational doctrinal knowledge necessary for all the body of Christ.
A cessationist will argue that a present-day gifting of prophecies and words of knowledge or any other form of guidance under the umbrella of "teach you all things" would be of no benefit to us today because we in the 21st century have the complete Bible canon at our disposal. Even as the content of the prophecies would have been oriented around specific directives in the early church and not new canonical doctrinal knowledge, the cessationist is confident that the gifts of prophecy only had a limited purpose. The cessationist may argue that the gifting of prophecies throughout the early church was a manifestion of the Spirit's role as pre-canon faith sustainer only to remind believers of what had been taught to them by the apostles in the absense of having the apostles' words in writing. In this cessationist interpretation, "... will teach you all things", the Spirit's role to "teach", in regard to believers outside of the circle of apostles, is not made distinct from the Spirit's role to "remind" (as the promise that the Spirit's role to "remind" is interpreted to include reminding pre-canon believers of the apostles words and not strictly Jesus' words). In this interpretation, it was still the exclusive province of the apostles to have "all things" revealed to them by the Spirit and to disseminate "all things" throughout the early church.
A cessationist who argues that the Holy Spirit was not filling a "doctrinal knowledge gap", may argue that the Holy Spirit was filling some other sort of "wisdom gap" in the lives of early believers that was filled when the canon was completed. A cessationist will not be able to say what this "wisdom gap" was other than to say that, whatever it was, it was rendered inoperative by the establishment of the Bible canon. A cessationist might argue that since Paul's writings were primarily elaborations of the teachings of Jesus, other believers throughout the early church who were not brought to discipleship through Paul and who had not been exposed to his teachings, might nevertheless have arrived at some of those same elaborations without the direct benefit of Paul. Along this line of argumentation, "teach you all things" would include doctrinal wisdom that was consistent with aspects of Paul's teachings but may not have been exclusive to Paul in the first century. The same principle would be applied to the teachings/writings of Peter and James. In this interpretation "all things" would still be limited to only that which was included the Bible canon, and "teach you all things" would still represent a closed, completed promise that believers should not count on in this present day.
Conclusion: based on my understanding of cessationism, a cessationist applies his particular understanding of the exclusivity of Scripture to interpret that Jesus' promise to the the disciples that the Spirit would "teach you all things" is a promise only to certain believers in a dispensation before the completion and/or codification of the Bible canon. This dispensational division is not supported directly by the text in John 14 and runs counter to the many ways in which Jesus had made the promises therein available to "anyone" and "whoever" loved Jesus and obeyed his commands. To arrive at this dispensational divide, the cessationist is modifying the meaning of Jesus' words to fit the cessationist interpretation of the exclusivity of Scripture, which is based on a cessationist interpretation of certain verses of Paul's writings. It is my continuationist position that "teach you all things" is a time-transcendent characteristic of the Spirit's role as Counselor and Spirit of truth and characterizes what is available in the Holy Spirit to all those who love Jesus and obey his commands. It is my continuationist position that "teach you all things" includes the role of completing the canonical doctrinal knowledge via the disciples but is not limited to that role for the body of Christians beyond the apostles, then or now.
I'll explain later in greater detail why this does not put me in danger of "adding to the canon".