A Rather Odd Cessationist Argument image

A Rather Odd Cessationist Argument

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One of the odder arguments offered by cessationists, it seems to me, is the claim that miracles gradually fade from view as the New Testament progresses. In Paul's early letters, the argument runs, we have references to people in the Corinthian church with gifts of healing, miracles, prophecy and the like; by the time he writes his last ones, Timothy has to take wine for his sickness instead of praying for healing, and Trophimus is left ill at Miletus, apparently beyond healing. Therefore, we can conclude, the gift of healing diminishes with the onward march of time—and we should not be surprised that it does not continue today.

Several things strike me as odd about this. The first is the idea that unhealed believers only emerge in the later New Testament letters. Galatians, in many people’s reckoning, is either the first or second letter Paul wrote, yet Paul describes himself as having preached the gospel to the Galatians “because of a bodily ailment” which was “a trial to you” (Gal 4:13-14). 1 Thessalonians, the other candidate for Paul’s earliest letter, focuses in an extended way on the problem of believers who have died. 2 Corinthians describes Paul’s threefold prayer for his “thorn” to be removed (whatever it was), yet was written within two years of 1 Corinthians. In other words, both the early letters and the late letters contain examples of individuals who are not healed. There is no trajectory there at all.

The second is its inconsistency with the central cessationist claim that the miraculous gifts ceased with the death of the apostles and the completion of the canon. If we take a fairly standard evangelical approach to New Testament dating, we have 1 Corinthians dated in the mid-fifties, 2 Timothy in the mid-sixties, and the death of John and the completion of the last canonical book in the mid-nineties. It seems strange to argue, then, that the miraculous gifts ceased with the death of the apostles and the completion of the canon, yet argue that Paul’s itinerant team were no longer able to work miracles a full three decades before the last apostle died; and it seems equally strange to argue that this “trajectory” took place across only ten years (notwithstanding the fact that, as we have just seen, there was no trajectory anyway).

The third is the evidence of the book of Acts, the only canonical history of the early church we have. If we leave Acts 1 out of the picture, since it precedes Pentecost, the story begins with miracles in Acts 2 (AD 30ish): tongues of fire, a mighty rushing wind, other languages, and mass conversion. And it also ends with miracles, in Acts 28 (AD 60ish): Paul survives a snake-bite, leading the Maltese locals to conclude he is divine (28:6), heals a man of dysentery (28:8), and then heals an entire island (28:9). If Luke was trying to communicate a downward trend in the frequency, immediacy or scope of miracles in the early church, he did a remarkably poor job of it.

So it is not just that the claim (miracles diminish as the New Testament progresses) is not supported by the evidence; it is that the claim is specifically refuted by the evidence. Much better, I think, to conclude that miraculous gifts like languages and prophecy will cease when Paul says they do: “when the perfect comes,” and we “see face to face” (1 Cor 13:8-12).

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