In Praise of Old Books, Like Ebenezer Henderson’s Work on Divine Inspiration and the Spiritual Gifts

boooksI love old books. Even more, I love old books that I find by serendipity—a real research method (see Thomas Mann, The Oxford Guide to Library Researchpp. 23, 61). That is to say, I love when I go looking in one book (or one bookstore) for one thing, and find something else even more helpful.

That took place last week as I read Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:8–11. There in Calvin’s translated work, the Scottish editor inserted a footnote which reads: “One of the most satisfactory views of this subject is that of Dr. Henderson in his Lecture on “Divine Inspiration . . . ”

This comment sent me searching and what I found was 500-page work by Ebenezer Henderson, a nineteenth century, Scottish Reformed Congregationalist or Baptist (if his training under Robert Haldane means anything). As the Dictionary of Scottish History and Theology puts it, Henderson was an “agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society . . ., linguist, and exegete” (398). In his lifetime, he spread the gospel and gospel tracts to the nations of Denmark, Russia, and Iceland. He founded in the first congregational church in Sweden in 1811. In this countries, he also “distributed vernacular Scriptures and encouraging formation of local Bible societies” (ibid.). Thereafter, he participated in Bible translation in Russia and Turkey, and after political turmoil in those places led him to resign his post wit the Bible Society, he received an appointment to the Congregational Theological College in Highbury, Scotland.

From that location, “he edited and revised a number of translations and exegetical works and published his own Old Testament commentaries” (ibid.). In this period, he also wrote the work cited by Calvin’s editor, a series of lectures whose title would make any Puritan proud. In 1847, he published, Divine Inspiration; or, The supernatural influence exerted in the communication of divine truth and is special bearing on the composition of the sacred Scriptures : with notes and illustrationsToday, this book can be found online, as well as through various reprints. (Incidentally, the online copy was owned by William Henry Green, an eminent Old Testament scholar from Princeton).

Ebenezer’s Long Book

Now why bring attention to ole’ Ebenezer and his long book?

The answer is that his lecture on 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 has much to commend to it. Writing before the modern charismatic movement, but not without knowledge of other groups seeking to practice the miraculous gifts, he make a pronounced case for understanding these gifts as having ceased after the age of the apostles. More than most commentaries today, he gives pages on each gift described in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 and shows why they are best understood as gifts confirming the ministry of the apostles. With technical precision for the original language and careful attention to the way Scripture speaks of “wisdom” and “knowledge,” for instance—the first two gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8—Henderson gives the modern reader ample to consider.

To wrap my hands around some his argument, I took notes, which you can find here. (It would be shorter than reading his whole work). I will also list a number of his most important points below, as they help us situate Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 12–14, and why it is best to see these miraculous gifts as having played a part in the founding of the Church. But for that reason, they are no longer active (or needed) as they were before.

The Word of Wisdom

Making appeal to 1 Corinthians 2:6–7 and 3:10, we find the wisdom of the gospel at root in this first gift. Henderson concludes, “By sophia, therefore, in this passage, we understand the sublime truths of the gospel, directly revealed to the apostles, of which the logos was the supernatural ability rightly to communicate them to others” (165).

The Word of Knowledge

Whereas the gift of wisdom was given to the apostles, the word of knowledge was equally diffused among the prophets and evangelists who preached the same gospel. Henderson comments, “With respect to the nature of the gift itself, it appears to have consisted in the immediate communication of an exact and competent knowledge of the truths, which God had already revealed through the instrumentality of the inspired prophets and apostles, in consequence of which, those who possessed it became qualified, independently of the use of all ordinary means, forthwith to teach them to the church” (166, emphasis mine).

(Miracle-Working) Faith

To Henderson faith is a category gift under which healing, workings of power, prophecy, and discerning the spirits are examples. Henderson explains, “This pistis is to be contemplated, not as a separate and distinct gift, but as the immediate source to which these endowments are to be traced, or the fundamental principle by which they were called into operation” (169).

Faith here is not saving faith but miraculous faith. Following almost all commentators from the time of Chrysostom, Henderson explains that the faith in question here “is in fact what the schoolmen called fides miraculorum, or a firm and undoubting confidence in God, produced by an immediate impulse of his Spirit on the minds of those who exercised it, that, in certain given circumstances, he would, through their instrumentality, perform acts surpassing the power of natural agency” (170).


While not giving as an extensive treatment, he points the reader back to the Gospels where the first ‘apostles’ sent out by Jesus were given authority to cast out demons and heal. See Mark 3:13–14; Matthew 10:1, 8; Luke 9:6; 10:8–9. These gifts, he suggests, inform our understanding of the gifts of healing that we see in Acts: they were meant to display the working of God’s power, as the gospel went forward (Hebrews 2:3–4), thus confirming the messengers and their message (2 Corinthians 12:12).

Workings of Power

The manners of these gifts is diverse, but they have the singular purpose: to display God’s power. They works of God confirm his word (see John 5:36). As Henderson lists, “The restoration of the limbs or of the senses; the resuscitation of the dead; the innocuous use of empoisoned liquor; the dispossession of demons; the infliction of blindness, and even of death itself, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira — were such stupendous effects of omnipotent intervention as could not but claim for those, in connection with whose ministry they were produced, all the deference which was due to teachers sent from God” (176).


Henderson distinguishes prophecy as that kind of predictive speech evidenced in Agabus (Acts 11:27–28; 21:1–11), the prophesy made about Timothy (1 Timothy 1:18; 4:14), or those inspired words in 2 Thessalonians 2 and Revelation which speak of future events. Of these texts, he writes, “In all these passages, he intended it to be taken in a superior sense to that in which he employs it, when describing the more usual mode of communicating public instruction. But there is no other, except that of predicting future events, which is not included in one or other of the terms, which he here employs. That there existed, in the apostolic age, an order of men who possessed the gift of predicting future events, is beyond dispute” (178–79).

** At present, I think there is more to the notion of “prophesy” in the New Testament, as Apostles and Prophets form the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). But we should note a difference between the gift of prophecy and the office of prophet. As to the former, Henderson is compelling to show why prophecy must include a notion of prediction.

Discerning Spirits

Due to the number of gifts and signs at work in the early church, imposters abounded. For this reason, discernment was needed. Henderson, observing this from the New Testament, writes,

It cannot be doubted that the excitement which was produced by the exhibition of the gifts in the Corinthian and other churches provoked many to imitate the spirit and actions of such as possessed them. Nor is it at all improbable, that numbers became the dupes of enthusiasm, and actually believed that they were the subjects of a divine impulse, while they spake from their own spirit. Against the influence of both descriptions of persons, it was highly important the first disciples should be put on their guard; but in the circumstances in which the church then was, this could only be effectually done by a positive determination on the part of the Omniscient Searcher of hearts, through such instruments as he should select for the purpose. Where the apostles were present, being possessed of this and all the other gifts, they could at once detect impostors and persons who were deceiving both themselves and others; but in their absence, and in the non-possession of their writings, by proper attention to which the church has since been able to judge of those who have pretended to inspiration, as well as of the truth of doctrine, a special order of divinely-accredited men was required. (180–81)


Paying careful attention to Paul’s description of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, Henderson makes an argument for ‘tongues’ as a gift of a real language, learned by divine enablement, not study. He concludes,

On the whole, we consider the gift of tongues to have been an endowment, by which those who received it were miraculously furnished with such a knowledge of languages, which they had never learned, as enabled them to communicate to those, by whom these languages were spoken, the glorious truths of the gospel of Christ. Its impartation, which had been predicted by the prophet Isaiah, (28:11, 12 ; 1 Cor. 14:21,) took place on the day of Pentecost, and during the continuance of the first age of the church: and, while it lasted, not only presented a standing miracle to the view of unbelievers, but paved the way for the more rapid spread of Christianity in the world. (198–99)

Interpretation of Tongues

Complementing his view of tongues, Henderson finishes by arguing that tongues need no interpretation for the foreigners who understood the language. Thus, in evangelistic settings they were perfectly normal. And Paul used them, as 1 Corinthians 14 testifies.  But in the congregation, like in Corinth, a foreign tongue needed an interpreter. Like in missionary report today, the church must supply an interpreter so that the can understand what testimony is being reported. This is the natural corollary of the gift of tongues, and it makes sense that the God who granted the ability to speak the gospel in another tongue, also empowered some to interpret.

Read Old Books, Like ‘Divine Inspiration’ By Ebenezer Henderson

All in all, I believe Ebenezer’s Henderson’s work on Divine Inspiration is filled with faithful exegesis and wise application. He is committed to proving his point from the Scripture and like so many in nineteenth century Scotland he shows skill in the way he handles the word of God. Ultimately, he argues for the cessation of the gifts, but more importantly, he makes his case from a faithful reading of Scripture and helps us see why our first inclination about these gifts may be mistaken. We need to see how Paul was using these terms in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, and Henderson does that very well.

In this way, Henderson’s work is worthy of recovery and consideration today. Next week, we’ll consider another worthy nineteenth century book on the church and the Spirit’s gifts: The Church of Christ by James Bannerman. Until then, let us continue to read the Scripture with care and learn from other eras and ages how to best consider the Word of God.

As C.S. Lewis once warned, we ought not be chronological snobs. Instead we should learn from other generations, generations who had different questions and different “wisdom” and “knowledge” to better answer our questions. With that in mind, I commend Ebenezer Henderson’s book to you, and encourage you to consider the Spiritual gifts in conversation with other generations in church history. (For a shorter entry point into his work on spiritual gifts, see my synthesis with notes).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds