Does Cessationism Still Stand? A Response to Tom Pennington
On two points, I misrepresented Tom Pennington, and I apologise unreservedly. The first is that he referred to miracles being done in the age of “Moses and Joshua”, and I missed the reference to Joshua, before making that omission a basis for part of my response. This was clumsy. The second is that I carelessly missed the distinction he makes, in talking about the end of the apostolate, between eyewitness apostles (which no longer exist) and other apostles (which many Charismatics believe do). He says that this confusion was disappointing to him personally, and I agree; it is both unrepresentative of what he said, and embarrassing. My only defence is that I wrote the piece in the first 24 hours after the talk was given, in more of a rush than I should have, while the conference was still taking place – and since I had no idea that a transcript was available online at the time, if indeed it was, I used Tim Challies’ summary instead of his exact text. My sincere apologies to him for both errors.
Tom Pennington does, however, make some clear errors of his own. Firstly, Pennington accuses me of “overstatement and misdirection” in referring to an overwhelming scholarly consensus in the commentaries that the “perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 refers to the eschaton; his evidence for this is that there are “ten possible interpretations” of what the “perfect” means here. What Pennington does not mention, however, is that most of those ten – including the highly tendentious, and common cessationist, view that the “perfect” refers to the closure of the canon – are summarily debunked by those same commentaries, rather than presented as viable alternatives. Since my PhD studies are in 1 Corinthians, I have a fair line-up of commentaries to hand, and every single one of them agrees that Paul is referring to the eschaton: Robertson and Plummer, Lietzmann, Barrett, Morris, Conzelmann, Fee (Warfield’s classic cessationist view is “impossible”), Blomberg (“there can be only one possible interpretation”), Witherington, Schrage, Thiselton (“all that is clear is that the gifts cease at the eschaton”), Garland, Wright, Fitzmyer (“it has undoubtedly something to do with the eschaton”), and Ciampa and Rosner (“the context makes it abundantly clear”). Of course there is the occasional dissenting voice, but this “overwhelming scholarly consensus” is simply a fact, as I said. Not only that, but Pennington’s claim that “for most of church history this text was used primarily to argue against the continuation of the miraculous gifts” is also inaccurate (see the study of Jon Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata, and the summary statement of Thiselton: “few or none of the serious ‘cessationist’ arguments depends on a specific exegesis of 1 Cor 13:8-11”). Surely it is Pennington who is guilty of overstatement and misdirection here, at least when it comes to scholarship on 1 Corinthians.
Secondly, he argues that when Charismatics agree that the eyewitness apostles have died out, we “tacitly accept one of the key tenets of cessationism” and become “de facto cessationists, at least in part”. But neither do we believe this tacitly – I stated it explicitly in my article – nor is it a specifically cessationist tenet, since both charismatics and cessationists agree on it. The question is not whether eyewitness apostles have ceased, since we all agree that they have, but whether gifts like prophecy, languages, interpretation, healing and miracles have ceased. All Christians believe there was something unique about the apostolic period (eyewitnesses of the resurrection, and canonical scriptures being written); all Christians believe many of the gifts have continued (teaching, administrating, helping, leading, and so on). Tom Pennington introduces himself in his article as a “Pastor-Teacher”. Does this mean that he has become “a de facto charismatic, at least in part”, because he believes in the continuation of that gift? Of course not.
Thirdly, it is frankly absurd to say that accusing a billion Roman Catholics of fraud, deceit and delusion is what “the church has always done”, and to suggest that it is what I myself do. Much of the church hasn’t, and doesn’t (unless you limit “the church” to “cessationist Protestants”). I don’t. (I suspect that, as with any miraculous claims, some are true and some are false). Cessationist Protestants do, of course. But let’s not get carried away with historical exaggerations about what the church has always done.
Fourthly, Pennington claims that the following statement I make, in response to his claim that miracles have ceased because the eyewitness apostles have ceased, “isn’t clear”:
“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.”
I don’t see why this is unclear, but let me try and make it clearer. Pennington’s argument here is that the miraculous gifts have ceased because the unique gift of apostleship has ceased. And my argument is, simply, that this doesn’t follow, unless we can show that all NT miracles, prophecies, languages and healings came via apostles (which we can’t, because it isn’t true). We all agree that some gifts continue. We all agree that one gift doesn’t. But this in no way supports the claim that “miraculous” (?) gifts across the board have ceased. Is that clearer?
Fifthly, Pennington is simply wrong to say that there are “rarely firsthand accounts” of miracles (see, recently, Keener’s Miracles). I would be happy to introduce him to many firsthand witnesses of my acquaintance, but I suspect I will not be taken up on that ...
Sixthly, his claim that “the consistent testimony of the church’s key leaders is that the miraculous and revelatory spiritual gifts ended with the Apostolic Age” is overstated. Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Novatian and, famously, even Augustine himself (City of God 22:8) spoke of miracles taking place in their own days. (Pennington might well respond that examples of miracles are not the same as examples of miraculous gifts, but such a sharp distinction is nowhere found in the New Testament). Wesley’s attitude to prophecy was far from cessationist. Of course there are others, like Chrysostom and the earlier Augustine (before he apparently changed his mind), who say the opposite. But it is not a “consistent testimony”.
Seventhly, he reiterates John MacArthur’s point that Charismatics who are either Roman Catholic, or adhering to a prosperity gospel, form such a large part of the whole that “the movement as a whole can claim neither the Scripture nor the Spirit.” This is the saddest sentence of the review to read, from my perspective; it seems like a blanket write-off of millions and millions of charismatic Christians today who are preaching the gospel, defending the truth, standing firm in the face of suffering, and glorifying God in their marriages and lives and deaths, because a speculative statistical appraisal tells Pennington (or MacArthur) that they have been swamped by the loony fringe. But the best response to it is not emotional but logical: surely, if we applied that logic to cessationists, we could say the same, since most professing Christians who deny miraculous gifts today are either nominal believers or liberals. Come to that, we could say it of the global church: since many people in the Church are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, flaky, loopy or weird, we would have to say that “the Church as a whole can claim neither the Scripture nor the Spirit.” Assuming Pennington would not say that – and I sincerely hope he wouldn’t! – he probably shouldn’t say it of Charismatics either.
It’s always edifying to point out the areas where you agree with an interlocutor, as well as the areas where you disagree. To that end, I am encouraged by the many points of common ground between us. We agree on the final authority, inspiration, sufficiency, clarity and infallibility of the scriptures. We agree that the biblical canon is closed. We agree that Paul was the last eyewitness of the resurrection, and that there was a type of apostle in the New Testament period who does not continue. As such, we agree that one type of spiritual gift has ceased (the unique eyewitness apostles), but also that many spiritual gifts continue (teaching, leading, helping, administrating, giving, encouraging). We agree that a lot of what goes on in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements is deplorable. We agree that all spiritual gifts should be practiced in submission to the authority of God in Scripture. We agree that God can heal today. We agree that differing from one another on miraculous gifts does not mean we are saying those who disagree with us are not Christians. That is not an insignificant list!
Yet the disagreement is still important, and it ultimately comes down to questions of exegesis. Is “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13 the eschaton, or the closure of the New Testament canon, or something else? Is any distinction between miraculous gifts (languages, prophecy, healing, miracles) and non-miraculous gifts (teaching, helping, administrating, encouraging, leading) evident in Paul’s letters? Were the prophets and prophecies spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14 regarded by Paul as infallible divine revelation? Does Ephesians 2:20 indicate that no further prophecies of any kind will happen in the life of the church? Did Agabus get the details of his Acts 21 prophecy wrong, even as he got the thrust of it right? Are miraculous gifts, in Scripture, exclusively for the purpose of authenticating a messenger, or do they have other purposes as well?
On many of these points, I would argue, the case for cessationism is extremely weak, and rightly regarded as an obscure (and, in one case, risible) minority view in scholarly works on the relevant texts. This does not prove that Pennington, MacArthur and their fellow cessationists are wrong, of course; scholars form mistaken consensuses (consensi?) all the time. It does, however, indicate that Charismatics are on somewhat stronger ground than either Pennington or MacArthur are prepared to admit, and that some of the sweeping statements they have made about Charismatic theology are unjustified. Nevertheless, as long as conversations like this are happening, we can hope that God will bring us closer together in Christ until he returns. We know in part, and we prophesy in part, but then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.