The Best Case for Cessationism image

The Best Case for Cessationism

Next week I will be in Denver for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The theme of the conference is the Holy Spirit, and on the first morning I have the huge (if very intimidating) privilege of being in a panel discussion with Tom Schreiner, Sam Storms and Ligon Duncan on whether the miraculous gifts continue. (You may be able to guess which side I take.) Patrick Schreiner, who is chairing the session, suggested it as a way of engaging with the arguments of two books: his father's Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter, which came out in the summer, and my Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship, which comes out in January. Tom and I will present our arguments, then have them critiqued by the two people who disagree with us, and then there will be an open discussion. If you're heading to ETS, come and join us; it promises to be an interesting debate.

I’ll post my papers (and perhaps others’) here over the next few days, but first I want to commend Tom’s book as the best case for cessationism you will find anywhere. (In fact, I am already lamenting the fact that I did not say so in Spirit and Sacrament; I gave that honour (?) to Richard Gaffin, but have since become persuaded that Tom’s is better.) It is a masterclass in disagreeing well. In a debate which is frequently characterised by misrepresentations, accusations and inflammatory distortions on both sides, Tom has written something completely different: fair and balanced, generous and wise. The book is clear, but not partisan; it builds its case in such a way as to embrace the strengths of some Charismatic arguments, and recognise the weaknesses of some Cessationist ones. Obviously I still disagree on a number of key points, and on the conclusion of the book, but we share far more common ground than you would know from hearing many people on both sides of the aisle, and this is the book I would recommend to any Charismatic who wants to wrestle with a “nuanced” Cessationism. Bravo.

Chapter 1 draws on J. I. Packer to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the Charismatic movement. At our best, Charismatics emphasise Spirit-empowered living, emotion finding expression, prayerfulness, every-heart involvement in worship, missionary zeal, small group ministry, communal living, joyfulness, a real belief in angels and demons, and a real belief in the miraculous. At our worst, we are characterised by elitism, sectarianism, anti-intellectualism, illuminism, charismania, super-supernaturalism, eudaemonism, demon obsession, conformism and an excessive focus on experience. I agree.

Chapter 2 defines the spiritual gifts we find in Paul (except languages and prophecy). I agree with all of it.

Chapters 3 and 4 affirm ten truths about spiritual gifts. Jesus is Lord. We must not overestimate our godliness or effectiveness. The diversity of gifts comes from God. Our gifts don’t make us superior or inferior to others. The gifts are sovereignly given, not on the basis of our spirituality. They are given to edify the church. Baptism in the Spirit occurs at conversion. Edification comes through understanding. We should concentrate on our gifts. Gifts are worthless without love. I agree.

Chapter 5 asks and answers six questions about the gifts. I agree with all of them.

Chapter 6 defines the gift of prophecy. It should not be reduced to charismatic exegesis, or preaching (I agree). Rather, it is “the reception of spontaneous revelations that are communicated to God’s people.” Personally I find Tom’s use of the word “spontaneous” here a bit confusing; it sounds like it means “given and communicated on the spur of the moment,” but he clarifies that he does not mean this (he says “the prophet may not communicate immediately what God has revealed”), and rather means that “it isn’t derived through studying the biblical text or any traditional material.” That quibble aside, Tom’s point is that Paul identifies prophecy with revelation, rather than exposition, and I agree.

Chapter 7 argues that all New Testament prophecy is authoritative, infallible and foundational revelation, and as such should be clearly distinguished from impressions, whereby “someone senses that God is leading them to speak to someone or to make some kind of statement about a situation.” I disagree, and we will come back to this next week—but it is interesting that it takes about 100 pages of a 172 page book before Tom says anything I don’t like!

Chapters 8 and 9 address the gift of tongues, and argue that Paul (like Luke) is referring to the speaking of human languages, rather than that which is usually practised by Charismatics today. I disagree, and again, we will come back to this soon.

Chapter 10 shows that there are some very unconvincing arguments for the cessation of the gifts, and that they should be debunked. I agree.

Finally, chapter 11 makes the case for “nuanced Cessationism.” The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and in particular on the authoritative and infallible revelation they communicated. Both of these have ceased, whether with the death of the last apostle or, in an intriguing aside, with the agreement on the final canon of Scripture after a few hundred years. Tom then explains his position on the other gifts—tongues, interpretation, miracles and healings—which is essentially that they might exist today, but he is doubtful, and if they do, they are very rare. I disagree, unsurprisingly, but we seem to agree that there is no biblical reason for claiming that the gifts of healing and miracles have ceased. In that sense, Tom’s Cessationism is nuanced indeed!

I will explain my disagreements over the next few days, but for now, I wanted to commend this as a book worth wrestling with and thinking through. With foes like this, who needs friends?

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