Dluxe's World

Tuesday, September 12

Discontinuing cessationism: The Argument

From John MacArthur in Pulpit Magazine:
When Martin Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms in 1521 and asked to recant his teaching, he replied, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience would be neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Luther’s well-known formulation, “Scripture and plain reason,” is the only basis on which we can properly ground true spiritual discernment.

At the heart of the Protestant Reformation was the cry, "Sola Scriptura!" - drawn from Luther's defense at Worms. Sola Scriptura provides the foundation upon which the Reformers drew the other four Reformation soli. Scripture tells us of God's grace, made available to us through faith in Christ... Galvanized by a commitment to God's Word as the only guide and authority for faith, the early Reformers turned the world on its ear by putting off the authority of human tradition and human potentates.

While this issue (among others) still divides Catholicism and Protestantism, it also seems to serve as the flashpoint for the schism between those claiming the cessation of the charismata and those who believe the gifts continue today in the church.

A little background and some definitions might be helpful up-front: First, there are many spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament (hither, thither, fore, and yon) and most scholars would agree that this list is not intended to be comprehensive. Typically, the gifts are divided into two groups:
  • The so-called miraculous (sign) gifts such as apostleship, tongues (speaking and interpretation), prophecy, miracles, healing, and the like.
  • The non-miraculous gifts such as teaching, administration, mercy, faith, etc.
For the purpose of this set of posts, a 'Cessationist' is someone who believes that the miraculous gifts have ceased operation. 'Continuationists' believe that both sets of gifts are still available to believers today. (Note: It's hard to find someone willing, much less able, to make a case that all the spiritual gifts have ceased to function in the church. That's something we'll come back to...)

It's also worth noting that I attend a functionally cessationist church. While I hope that these posts might spur some discussion, I want to emphasize my submission to the Pastors and Elders of our church. I do not see this as an issue that requires division, nor do I desire to create improper conflict within the church.


The prime case made against the continuation of the sign gifts seems to go like this:
The miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit served to authenticate the ministry of the Apostles and provide revelation (communication from God) prior to the completion of the Canon of Scripture. Once the full Canon of Scripture was available and the Apostolic age past, the charismata ceased to be active.

Three primary passages are used as Biblical confirmation of this position: 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, 2 Timothy 3:14-16, and 2 Peter 1:16-21. The references in 2 Peter and 2 Timothy are also classic passages used in the defense of the authority of Scripture - which should not be surprising.

Think about it... Why do we need the miraculous gifts today? It's obvious that those who thirsted after signs and wonders in the Bible were often seeking the thrill and not the giver. We certainly don't want to be like that. Moreover, we have a faithful testament to the miraculous in the Canon of Scripture. Unlike the early church (where what was happening in Ephesus could take a long-time to reach the ears of those in Corinth), we can read of the entire scope of God's work in a few sittings. We hold the miraculous confirmation of Christ and the Apostles in our hands every time we pick up the Bible.

And having revelatory gifts in operation today causes a problem by compromising the authority of Scripture. In today's world, the access to revelation isn't a problem.

What is a problem is people claiming to have competing revelation from God. By leaving the door open for revelation, we invite people to malign God's Word through their sin and selfish, prideful motivations ("Listen to me, I'm God's anointed and He wants me to tell you that we should all homeschool!"). Our experience, which is highly subjective at best, becomes authoritative and little can be done to check it.

So, while God graciously gave the miraculous gifts of the Spirit to the Early Church, they are no longer operative today because:
  • Scripture has declared they will cease. The cessation coincided with the close of the NT canon at which time [special] revelation was complete.
  • Besides that, copies of the authoritative Scriptures are widely available today. This makes the operation of the revelatory gifts superfluous.
  • Continued operation of such revelatory gifts compromises the authority of Scripture. There is the possibility that some will be deceived by people claiming to speak from God apart from, or with higher authority than, the Bible.


For future posts, I mainly want to concern ourselves with the argument above. However, a cessationist can also support their case with history. And that's worth mentioning and giving at least a little time...

If one accepts that the charismata were intended to operate only until the Canon of Scripture or the ministry of the Apostles was complete, you would expect history to see the gifts fading away in the 100 - 200AD range. And, indeed, this seems to be exactly what history shows us.

Even the most generous of continuationists must grant that the exercise of any miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were essentially nonexistent or largely kept secret until the early part of the 20th Century. What few anecdotes exist came largely from pagan-esque contexts and were obviously scorned by the 'established' church.

The same holds true today, to some extent. The more colorful manifestations of the Holy Spirit's work seem to be in fringe churches well outside the mainstream. More damning is that the exercise of these spiritual gifts is often accompanied by behavior that is quite frankly unbiblical and more than a little wacky. That the mainstream church is largely untouched by the miraculous gifts serves to validate the cessationist perspective.


"Thus saith the Cessationist." And if any of them are reading: Yes, I know that summary is perhaps an oversimplification of the viewpoint. But, sheesh! People can only read so much in a sitting, you know?

So, we have two arguments: One based in Scripture that primarily revolves around affirming the Bible as the final, authoritative revelation of God until Christ returns. The other, a supporting proof based on the observation of history which shows the charismata 'fizzled out' within a short time of the close of Scripture's canon and the death of the Apostles.

What do we do with this? Well, we examine both arguments closely, test them against a thorough and unbiased examination of Scripture, and look for the truth in the midst of it all.

And that's just what we'll do. The longest treatise on the operation of the gifts is obviously found in 1 Corinthians 12 through 14. In the next (probably uber-long) post in this series, we'll go through this section in its entirety. We'll pause to dissect verses that are particularly important to the discussion.

I should note before diving into the Bible that you're going to be getting a lot of my own, unfiltered musings in the next couple posts. So, read with discernment, caution, and a lot of prayer.

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  • I was looking for "cessna"...

    I appreciate your humble comments, especially the "submissive" to pastors and elders part. Since I've used the expression "functional cessationist" too, why don't you also define what you think it means?

    Also, concerning a point you made in the previous post, I do think this issue, like others, may not be simply binary. I find myself, even as a spiritual leader, often holding the "excluded middle" in many matters.

    If my uncertainty on this matter were a matter of sloth or weakness of leadership, shame on me. But can I hold a prinicpled middle-ground? perhaps...

    for what it's worth...when I call myself a "functional cessationist" I mean that I do not see an adequate Biblical argument that any of the Spirit's gifts must have, of neccesity or a clearly stated intent, ceased being given.
    I also feel that I have ordered my spiritual life, albeit feebly, under the full authority of the Triune God. The Sovereign Spirit's activity, as seen in the scriptures and in history (the church at large and mine in particular) always points us/me to the glorious Son and life with the Father. The "functional" modifier simply affirms the "poverty of experience" in my life of certain of the Spirit's gifts.

    By Blogger coramdeo, at 9:59 AM, September 13, 2006  

  • CD,

    Since I've used the expression "functional cessationist" too, why don't you also define what you think it means?

    Fair point... Why don't I do that to kick off the next post, rather than here in the comments. While there are only 5 people who read this blog, only 2 of them every dig into the comments. And I see a lot of you and him in person.

    Also, concerning a point you made in the previous post, I do think this issue, like others, may not be simply binary. I find myself, even as a spiritual leader, often holding the "excluded middle" in many matters.

    If my uncertainty on this matter were a matter of sloth or weakness of leadership, shame on me. But can I hold a prinicpled middle-ground? perhaps...

    I guess I wasn't clear. I don't mean to imply that everything is black or white. However, I think that a person who stands up and teaches from God's Word needs to have wrestled with the text.

    Not to overuse the illustration, but I greatly respect the way VBC handled the women in ministry issue. Here is a topic (What roles should women hold in a biblically governed church?) that has polarized views both because of our cultural baggage and what some would contend is less-than-perfectly-clear Biblical guidelines.

    As a church, we must stand somewhere. The middle is fine if that position can be validated. But as shepherds of the flock, we must wrestle with the text and come to a conclusion about what we believe and why.

    Many people exhibit a tendency with issues like this to just say, "Yeah that's a toughie" and avoid the topic altogether. Choosing to land nowhere rather than left, right, or center.

    So, the "principled middle ground" is perfectly fine. It's the principles that make it so. Holding the middle ground because I don't wanna face the fire is something altogether different.

    for what it's worth...when I call myself a "functional cessationist"...

    Like I said, we'll come back to that next post! Thanks, Brother!

    By Blogger HeavyDluxe, at 10:57 AM, September 13, 2006  

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