Review of "The Final Word" by O. Palmer Robertson

The Final Word, a Biblical response to the case for tongues & prophecy today, by O. Palmer Robertson, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993, 150 pp.

“God’s ‘final word’ to his people is found in Jesus Christ and in the inspired explanation of his person and works as preserved in the old and new covenant Scriptures.” – Robertson, p. 78

In The Final Word, O. Palmer Robertson presents four descriptive elements about New Testament tongues. He argues that they were (1) revelation, (2) foreign languages, (3) for public consumption, and (4) a sign indicating a radical change in the direction of redemptive history. If Robertson is correct on any one of these four points (and I think he is) then the modern Pentecostal glossolalia is proven unbiblical.
To the first point Robertson notes that of the twenty-eight times ‘mystery’ is used in the New Testament “twenty-seven cases explicitly talk about ‘mystery’ as something once hidden but now revealed.” Thus, he argues, when in 1 Corinthians 14:2 Paul says “He who speaks in a tongue … utters mysteries” it is to be understood that the person “communicates a truth that has been made known to him by divine revelation.” (p. 26)
That the Biblical tongues were foreign languages Robertson makes very clear. I think this is the strongest point against the modern gibberish-speakers. Robertson writes, “Acts 2:6 makes the point very clearly: ‘Each one heard them speaking in his own language.’ The testimony throughout the rest of the book of Acts gives no indicator that a different kind of tongue was manifested in the experiences of the church after Pentecost.” (p. 33-34)
As for his third point Robertson notes “All gifts of the Spirit were for the benefit of Christ’s church. A ‘gift’ in the New Testament was bestowed on an individual so that he might provide a blessing for the people of God.” (p. 37) He shows the absurdity of the contrary view in a short story:
“Endorsement of the idea of a ‘private’ gift of tongues may lead to a peculiar situation. Suppose a man affirms his sense of call to the ministry. The church responds by indicating its desire to test his gifts. he affirms that in his judgment he has the gift of preaching, so the church tests that gift. He says that he sense in himself the gift of administration. So the church tests that gift. But what if this candidate for the gospel ministry declares that he also has the gift of tongues. Shall the church also test that gift? Or shall it be concluded that tongues are a ‘private’ gift that cannot be tested? Strange indeed would be such a circumstance.” (p. 39-40)
And on Robertson’s fourth point perhaps it is best to note 1 Corinthians 14:22 as he did: “Tongues are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.” Robertson then argues “Tongues clearly indicate God’s judgment on unbelief.” He relates this to situations in the Old Testament were foreign languages, particularly Babylonian, are predicted to be heard in Jerusalem, a situation which came to fruition in God’s judgment on Israel with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and captivity of the people.
In chapter 3 Robertson transitions from the topic of tongues to that of prophecy. Here he argues for cessationism, the cessation of prophetic revelations following the close of the canon of the New Testament. One of his main arguments is that revelation has ceased now that Christ has come. That is, “The goal [of revelation] has been manifested in its fullest glory.” “Any claims to add further revelation beyond the end of God’s word as it is found in the completed Scriptures would be not only superfluous but blasphemous.” (p. 66) Those looking for a single “proof” text for cessationism will be disappointed because Robertson’s argument incorporates a number of passages and looks at a more holistic view of the entire Scriptures. Robertson well notes, “Since the ‘goal’ of revelation has been realized in the coming of Christ, God’s people must not continue looking for gifts that would communicate new revelation.” (p 69)
Robertson also looks at the contrast between Paul’s earlier and later writings. In doing so he makes the case that “the level of interest in the gifts of tongues and prophecy declines dramatically in the last writings of Paul.” (p. 75) Instead Titus is charged to teach ‘what is in accord with sound doctrine’ and Timothy told to ‘guard the good deposit’ that has been entrusted to him.  Robertson notes, “These many references to an established body of doctrine in 2 Timothy and Titus point to a different circumstance that that which was addressed in Paul’s earlier writings. The complete absence of the reference to the gifts of prophecy and tongues in these later letters contrasts radically with the circumstance prevailing in the earlier correspondence with the Thessalonian, Corinthian, and Roman churches. … Paul locates God’s provision for the future not in an ongoing experience of the special tongues and prophecy, but in the established revelation that has been provided during the years of the apostolic age.” (p. 76)
For those who do demand a proof text, they might be asked to show where the Bible explicitly says that the office of apostle with end as well. Robertson notes, “Nothing in scripture explicitly indicates that the apostolate ever would come to an end. Yet it generally is recognized that no one in the church today functions with the authority of the original apostles.” (p. 80)
Robertson goes on to critique the “dubious” approach to prophecy of Wayne Grudem (p. 86 – 126), and concludes with a practical or pragmatic comparison of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of the two competing view on prophecy. (p. 127-135). Not surprisingly, Roberson argues for the superiority of the Scriptures as the final revelation.
I’ve been greatly benefitted by each of O. Palmer Robertson’s books I’ve read; The Christ of the Covenants and The Current Justification Controversy. I believe he is one of the best living scholars of the Reformed faith, and his The Final Word also attests to that.