Much ado has been made (both on this blog and elsewhere) about the recent “anti-cessationist” comments of a popular Seattle-based pastor. I don’t desire to enter a war of words, or become embroiled in an online controversy. But I do hope to make a helpful contribution to the conversation.
Over the last few years, I’ve enjoyed investigating the historical record regarding the charismatic gifts, especially the gift of tongues. And I can only hope that the above pastor, and his co-author, will treat the material responsibly in their upcoming work on the subject. (Who knows, maybe they’d be open to a two-views book?)
I would also hope that, in the process of critiquing the cessationist position, the authors do not create a straw man version of cessationism. (I’ll admit that, based on what I’ve read so far, I’m afraid the straw man is already under construction.)
Nonetheless, in an effort to dismantle a fallacious misrepresentation before it is built, I offer the following four clarifications about what cessationism is not:
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1. Cessationism is not anti-supernatural, nor does it deny the possibility of miracles.
When it comes to understanding the cessationist position, the question is not: Can God still do miracles in the world today? Cessationists would be quick to acknowledge that God can act at any time in any way He chooses. Along these lines, John MacArthur explains:
Miracles in the Bible [primarily] occurred in three major periods of time. The time of Moses and Joshua, the time of Elijah and Elisha, and the time of Christ and the apostles. . . . And it is during those three brief periods of time and those alone that miracles proliferated; that miracles were the norm; that miracles were in abundance. Now God can interject Himself into the human stream supernaturally anytime He wants. We’re not limiting Him. We’re simply saying that He has chosen to limit Himself to a great degree to those three periods of time. (Source)
Cessationism then does not deny the reality that God can do whatever He wants whenever He wants (Psalm 115:3). It does not put God into a box or limit His sovereign prerogative.
But it does acknowledge that there was something unique and special about the age of miracles and miracle-workers that defined the ministries of Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and Christ and His apostles. Moreover, it recognizes the seemingly obvious fact that those kinds of miracles (like parting the sea, stopping the rain, raising the dead, walking on water, or instantly healing the lame and the blind) are not occurring today.
Thus, cessationists conclude that:
The apostolic age was marvelously unique and it ended. And what happened then is not the normal thing for every Christian. The normal thing for every Christian is to study the Word of God, which is able to make us wise and perfect. [It] is to live by faith and not by sight. (Ibid.)
But can God still do extraordinary things in the world today? Certainly He can, if He chooses to do so. In fact, every time a sinner’s eyes are opened to the gospel, and a new life in Christ is created, it is nothing short of a miracle.
In his helpful book, To Be Continued?, Samuel Waldron aptly expresses the cessationist position this way (on p. 102):
I am not denying by all this that there are miracles in the world today in the broader sense of supernatural occurrences and extraordinary providences. I am only saying that there are no miracles in the stricter sense [of] miracle-workers performing miraculous signs to attest the redemptive revelation they bring from God. Though God has never locked Himself out of His world and is still at liberty to do as He pleases, when He pleases, how He pleases, and where He pleases, He has made it clear that the progress of redemptive revelation attested by miraculous signs done by miracle-workers has been brought to conclusion in the revelation embodied in our New Testaments.
So, the question is not: Can God still do miracles?
Rather, the definitive question is this: Are the miraculous gifts of the New Testament still in operation in the church today–such that what was the norm in the days of Christ and the apostles ought to be expected today?
To that, all cessationists would answer “no.”
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2. Cessationism is not founded on one’s interpretation of “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10.
For that matter, it seems there are almost as many views of “the perfect” among cessationist scholars as there are commentators who write about 1 Corinthians 13:8–13. Space in this article does not permit a full investigation into each of these, but rather a cursory explanation of the major positions.
The Different Views
(1) Some (such as F.F. Bruce) argue that love itself is the perfect. Thus when the fullness of love comes, the Corinthians will put away their childish desires.
(2) Some (such as B.B. Warfield) contend that the completed canon of Scripture is the perfect. Scripture is described as “perfect” in James 1:25, a text in which the same word for “mirror” (as in v. 12) is found (in James 1:23). Thus partial revelation is done away when the full revelation of Scripture comes.
(3) Some (such as Robert Thomas) contend that the mature church is the perfect. This view is primarily based on the illustration of verse 11 and on the close connection between this passage and Eph. 4:11–13. The exact timing of the church’s “maturity” is unknown, though it is closely associated with the completion of the canon, and the end of the apostolic era (cf. Eph. 2:20).
(4) Some (such as Thomas Edgar) see the believer’s entrance into the presence of Christ (at the moment of death) as the perfect. This view accounts for the personal aspect of Paul’s statement in verse 12. Paul personally experienced full knowledge when he entered Christ’s presence at his death (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8).
(5) Some (such as Richard Gaffin) see the return of Christ (and the end of this age) as the perfect. This is also the view of most continuationists. Thus, when Christ comes back (as delineated in chapter 15), the partial revelation we know now will be made complete.
(6) Some (such as John MacArthur) view the eternal state (in a general sense) as the perfect. This explanation interprets the neuter of to teleion as a reference to a general state of events and not a personal return of Christ. This view overlaps with both numbers 4 and 5 above in that, according to this view: “For Christians the eternal state begins either at death, when they go to be with the Lord, or at the rapture, when the Lord takes His own to be with Himself” (John MacArthur, First Corinthians, p. 366).
Of these views, I personally find the last three more convincing than the first three. This is primarily due (I will confess) to the testimony of church history. Dr. Gary Shogren, after doing an in-depth study of some 169 patristic references to this passage, concludes that the church fathers overwhelmingly saw the perfect in terms of something beyond this life (most normally associating it with the return of Christ, or with seeing Christ in heaven). Even John Chrysostom (who was clearly a cessationist) saw it this way. While not authoritative, such historical evidence is difficult to dismiss.
In any case, my point here is simply this: The interpreter can take any of the above positions, and still remain a cessationist. In fact, there are cessationists who hold to each of the positions listed above (as the names I’ve listed indicate).
Thus, Anthony Thiselton notes in his commentary on this passage: “The one important point to make here is that few or none of the serious ‘cessationist’ arguments depends on a specific exegesis of 1 Cor 13:8–11. . . . These verses should not be used as a polemic for either side in this debate” (NIGTC, pp. 1063–64).
3. Cessationism is not an attack on the Person or work of the Holy Spirit.
In fact, just the opposite is true. Cessationists are motivated by a desire to see the Holy Spirit glorified. They are concerned that, by redefining the gifts, the continuationist position cheapens the remarkable nature of those gifts, lessening the truly miraculous working of the Spirit in the earliest stages of the church.
Cessationists are convinced that, by redefining healing, the charismatic position presents a bad testimony to the watching world when the sick are not healed. By redefining tongues, the charismatic position promotes a type of nonsensical gibberish that runs contrary to anything we know about the biblical gift. By redefining prophecy, the charismatic position lends credence to those who would claim to speak the very words of God and yet speak error.
This, then, is the primary concern of cessationists: that the honor of the Triune God and His Word be exalted—and that it not be cheapened by watered-down substitutes.
And how do we know if something is authentic or not? By comparing it to the written testimony of Scripture. Does going to the Bible to define the gifts mean that we are bypassing the Holy Spirit? Quite the contrary. When we search the Scriptures, we are going to the testimony of the Holy Spirit Himself to discover what He has revealed about the gifts that He bestowed.
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