Cessationism and Strange Fire image

Cessationism and Strange Fire

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It's good to face robust challenges to what you believe, every now and then. The more deeply held a belief is, the harder it is to think it through afresh, and the more possibility there is that you will become hardened in a wrong position. To that extent, I'm grateful for John MacArthur and co for putting on "Strange Fire", an anti-charismatic conference which is nothing if not robust, even if I remain convinced that the tone in which MacArthur in particular has spoken of hundreds of millions of Christians has not been especially helpful. Wrestling with the content of the sessions has been sharpening and illuminating, although admittedly difficult and painful in places.

In this post I want to respond specifically to one of the more measured messages to emerge from the conference: Tom Pennington’s admirably clear case for cessationism. There are two reasons for this - firstly, it is easier to respond to a logically laid out case than a rhetorical appeal, and secondly, it is the foundation for all the other sessions, since (as I’m sure MacArthur and others would agree) if cessationism is not demonstrably biblical, then many of the criticisms of charismatics in the conference carry less weight. (There may be weight to some of them, of course, because one does not need to be a cessationist to be troubled by much of the contemporary charismatic movement. I am myself, for example, for reasons that will become clear if you read this). An extremely helpful and sympathetic summary of all the messages, including the one I’m quoting from here, can be found at Tim Challies’ excellent website.

Pennington begins by explaining what cessationism is: the belief that the miraculous gifts have ceased, including tongues, prophecy and healing. This is clarifying, because often the discussion involves all sorts of misunderstandings about exactly what different groups affirm and deny. The debate is not about “the gifts”: cessationists believe many of these (teaching, leadership, government, etc) continue. Nor is it about “miracles”: salvation is itself a miracle, for most if not all cessationist thinkers, and God also answers prayer. Rather, it is about “miraculous gifts”: tongues, prophecy and healing, and presumably also the gift of miracles, which Paul distinguishes from the gift of healing in 1 Corinthians 12. That’s what the debate is about.

Pennington then summarises what he believes are the four chief arguments for the continuation of the gifts, and comments on each:

(1) The New Testament doesn’t say they have ceased. But then again, it doesn’t say that they won’t either.

This sounds like a brilliant leveller: since the New Testament doesn’t make explicit statements either for or against the continuation of the gifts, its silence doesn’t suggest anything. This, however, is clearly fallacious. The burden of proof is firmly on the shoulders of the one who would place a break at the end of the New Testament period, for the simple reason that, throughout Scripture, substantial changes in the way God communicates with people - and cessationism posits a substantial change, from “eagerly desire to prophesy” to “none of that here, please” - are clearly communicated. God, we all agree, speaks clearly. If we imagine the Corinthian church in the late first century, still cherishing, copying and publicly reading Paul’s letters to them, it is easy to see that they would have no way of knowing his instructions to them (1 Cor 14:1 is a particularly clear example) no longer applied. Unless the covenant between God and man has since changed (which it hasn’t), and/or there are clear indications that certain instructions no longer apply (which there aren’t), we should assume that New Covenant imperatives apply to New Covenant believers.

(2) 1 Corinthians 13:10 - they say this means that only when Christ returns will the partial gifts of tongues and prophecies cease. This implies that the gifts continue. But this is an uncertain interpretation.

It really isn’t, though. We may not put things as bluntly as Mark Driscoll, who described the cessationist exegesis of this chapter as the second worst he had ever seen next to that of a Canadian nudist arsonist cult he once did some research on, but the charismatic case here is immensely strong (and the overwhelming scholarly consensus in the commentaries would confirm this). For Paul, the imperfect (prophecy, tongues, knowledge) will cease at the arrival of the perfect (the return of Christ, when we shall see him face to face). Not much uncertainty there.

(3) The New Testament speaks only of the church age, and so, they argue, the gifts that began the church age should continue throughout it. They say we artificially divide it between apostolic and post-apostolic eras. But they do this, too, by not believing that the apostolic office still continues.

Actually, a huge number of charismatics don’t believe this at all. Many believe, for reasons outlined in my recent article in JETS, that even in the New Testament period there were eyewitness apostles (the twelve, Paul, James) and people who never witnessed the resurrection but were referred to as apostles anyway (Apollos, very likely Barnabas, Silas, possibly Timothy, and so on), and that while the eyewitness category ceased with Paul, the other category didn’t. But even where that is what charismatics believe, the difference between this and the cessationist position makes the continuationist case brilliantly: the resurrection appearances of Christ are explicitly said to have ended with Paul (1 Cor 15:8), whereas there is no such statement concerning the miraculous gifts, despite the obvious relevance this would have for Christian communities within a few years of the epistles. There is a huge gulf between saying “eyewitnesses of Christ have ceased, because the NT says so” and “all miraculous gifts have ceased, despite the fact that the NT doesn’t say so”.

(4) 500 million professing Christians who claim charismatic experiences can’t all be wrong. But if we accept this, then logically we should accept the miracles attested to by one billion Catholics in the world. The truth is that 500 million + people can be wrong.

This is not really a fair representation of any responsible charismatic argument. Of course billions of people can be wrong: billions of people do not believe the gospel, and virtually no charismatic would contest that. A fairer representation would be to say that, in order to explain the enormous number of miraculous experiences testified to by charismatics (see Craig Keener’s recent book on Miracles for some well-documented examples), a cessationist has to resort to an awful lot of accusations of fraud, deliberate deceit and delusion amongst some extremely level-headed, critical and theologically informed individuals, many of whom used to be cessationists themselves.

Pennington’s list ends with those four, but he omits what is perhaps the most compelling argument for continuationism, which is eschatological. Joel 2, which clearly played a hugely important role in the pneumatology (and Christology, given Romans 10) of the early church, famously speaks of the “last days” as being an era when God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and they would prophesy, and see visions, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord would be saved. For Peter on the day of Pentecost, and for Paul in numerous places, the eschatological, miracle-working, prophecy-bringing Spirit had been poured out, as Joel 2 (alongside Ezekiel 36-37, and Isaiah 32-35, and so on) predicted he would be. So it places unbearable strain on the text of Joel, let alone biblical theology, to suggest, as Liam Thatcher neatly tweeted this morning, that it actually means, “In the last days, I will pour my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams - but in the days directly after that, I won’t, and they won’t.” The eschatological age of the Spirit is accompanied by prophecies, signs, wonders and visions; we still live in the eschatological age of the Spirit; so we should expect prophecies, signs, wonders and visions. Like New Testament churches apparently did (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12-14; Gal 3:3-5; 1 Thess 5:19-21; not to mention pretty much all of the book of Acts).

Pennington then moves on to make a positive case for cessationism:

(1) The unique role of miracles. There were only three primary periods in which God worked miracles through unique men. The first was with Moses; the second was during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha; the third was with Christ and his apostles. The primary purpose of miracles has always been to establish the credibility of one who speaks the word of God—not just any teacher, but those who had been given direct words by God.

Crumbs. The crucial word here, which appears twice and is somewhat mysterious on both occasions, is “primary”. Where in the Bible does it say that the miracles of Moses, Elijah or Elisha are more “primary” than those of Joshua (opening the Jordan and stopping the sun in its tracks isn’t bad), or Samuel (who had the odd prophecy), or David or Solomon, or Isaiah, or Daniel, or for that matter any of the canonical prophets (who, by Pennington’s definition, are exercising miraculous gifts)? And where does it say that the “primary” purpose of a miracle is always to establish the credibility of the one who speaks the word of God? One might have thought the primary purpose of the exodus was to lead Israel out of slavery, and the primary purpose of the fall of Jericho was to defeat God’s enemies, and the primary purpose of the destruction of the Assyrians was to preserve Jerusalem, and so on. And even if the “primary” purpose of all miracles was authenticating a preacher, which cannot be shown, it would by no means indicate that this was the only purpose, and therefore that miracles were unnecessary once that had ended. If an argument this weak was advanced in any other context, I suggest, it would be laughed off the stage.

(2) The end of the gift of apostleship. In two places in the New Testament Paul refers to the apostles as one of the gifts Christ gave his church (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4).

See my comments on #3, above. This argument takes us nowhere: all agree that the eyewitness apostles have ceased, and all agree that (say) pastors and teachers have not ceased. Only if we can show that all New Testament miracles, prophecies, tongues and healings came via apostles - which is patently not the case - would this hold any water at all.

(3) The foundational nature of the New Testament apostles and prophets. The New Testament identifies the apostles and prophets as the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20-22). In the context, it is clear that Paul is referring here not to Old Testament prophets but to New Testament prophets. Once the apostles and prophets finished their role in laying the foundation of the church, their gifts were completed.

This runs aground on the sandbanks of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 in particular, in which it is assumed that local churches experience prophecy in their meetings, yet without such prophecy serving as foundational for the church for all time, or being written down in the canon. Clearly, there is a foundational role for the apostles and prophets of whom Paul speaks in Ephesians (2:20; 3:6), but this in no way implies either that all prophecy has now ceased, or (obviously) that tongues or healings have now ceased.

(4) The nature of the New Testament miraculous gifts. If the Spirit was still moving as he was in the first century, then you would expect that the gifts would be of the same type. Consider the speaking of tongues. At Pentecost, the languages spoken were already existing, understandable languages. The New Testament gift was speaking in a known language and dialect, not an ecstatic language like you see people speaking in today. Prophecies (which were then infallible) and healings are also different in character today from the NT period.

Again, this hits serious problems when it comes to 1 Corinthians 12-14, which scholars widely agree refers to ecstatic speech rather than known earthly languages, and to prophetic revelation which needs to be weighed or judged, rather than instantly being added to the infallible canon of scripture. To say, further, that healings are different in character is to beg the question: there are numerous testimonies out there (I have heard many personally) of blind eyes seeing, deaf ears opening, the lame walking and even the dead being raised, unless one prejudges the veracity of such testimonies by assuming cessationism (or, of course, naturalism).

(5) The testimony of church history. The practice of apostolic gifts declines even during the lifetimes of the apostles. Even in the written books of the New Testament, the miraculous gifts are mentioned less as the date of their writing gets later. After the New Testament era, we see the miraculous gifts cease. John Chrysostom and Augustine speak of their ceasing.

There are two errors here. The first is that miracles are mentioned less in New Testament books that are written later; the book of Acts is certainly written after the books of 1 Thessalonians and James, and very probably after the other Paulines and Petrines, yet contains far more miracles (and John, among the latest books, has one or two miracles in it as well!) The second is that we see the miraculous gifts cease after the New Testament; again, this begs the question by assuming that subsequent accounts of and responses to miraculous or prophetic activity, from the Didache and the Montanists onwards, are inaccurate or exaggerated (see David Bentley Hart’s scholarly and excellent The Story of Christianity for all sorts of examples). In any case, this sort of argument - that, since something gradually disappeared from the church over the course of the first two or three centuries, it must therefore be invalid - should strike any five sola Protestant as providing several hostages to fortune.

(6) The sufficiency of Scripture. The Spirit speaks only in and through the inspired Word. He doesn’t call and direct his people through subjective messages and modern day bestsellers. His word is external to us and objective.

This is not so much an argument for cessationism as a restatement of it. Suffice it to say that James and Paul, to mention just two apostles, envisage Christians being given wisdom by God, experiencing the Spirit crying out “Abba!” in their hearts, and being given spontaneous revelation during church meetings, none of which conflict with their high view of the scriptures.

(7) The New Testament governed the miraculous gifts. Whenever the New Testament gifts of tongues was to be practiced, there were specific rules that were to be followed. There was to be order and structure, as well as an interpreter. Paul also lays down rules for prophets and prophecy. Tragically most charismatic practice today clearly disregards these commands. The result is not a work of the spirit but of the flesh.

I’m not qualified to comment on whether this is true of “most” charismatics, rather than “some”, but to the extent that this is true, I wholeheartedly agree with Pennington that miraculous gifts need to be governed and practiced wisely, in line with the New Testament. Clearly, however, this is not an argument against using charismatic gifts - it is an argument against using charismatic gifts badly.

This has been a long post, and if you’ve stuck with it this far, well done. I am grateful to Tom Pennington, and Tim Challies, for laying the cessationist case out so clearly and without rancour; although finding the arguments unconvincing, I appreciate the spirit in which they have been communicated here, and the desire for biblical faithfulness that pervades what has been said. As will now be clear, I think that the cessationist position is biblically distorted, theologically confused and historically exaggerated, and that a number of the comments being made about charismatics at Strange Fire have been unrepresentative and unfair, and have failed to engage with the opposing position in its strongest form. Nonetheless, Pennington has done us a service by expressing his position with clarity and grace, and that can only be a good thing as we work towards unity in the global church. I sincerely hope that this response comes across in the same spirit.

(For further reading, I recommend Don Carson’s Showing the Spirit, Wayne Grudem’s The Gift of Prophecy, Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence, and the commentaries on 1 Corinthians by Fee, Anthony Thiselton, and Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner.)