Understanding Cessationism from a Continuationist Perspective
In Understanding Spiritual Gifts, Sam Storms addresses common questions and misunderstandings around the topic of spiritual gifts. One of the challenging elements of this discussion is whether or not the spiritual gifts present in the New Testament are still available today.
In his book, Dr. Storms explores both perspectives and addresses many common arguments. Adapted from Understanding Spiritual Gifts, this post will help you better understand cessationist arguments from a continuationists perspective.
What is a cessationist?
A cessationist is someone who believes that certain spiritual gifts, typically those of a more overtly supernatural nature, ceased to be given by God to the church sometime late in the first century AD (or more gradually through the course of the next few centuries). Cessationists do not deny that God can on occasion still perform miracles, such as physical healing. But they do not believe the spiritual gift of miracles or the gift of healing is given to believers today. Whereas “healing” still exists in the life of the church, “healers” do not. God’s people may still experience miracles, but God no longer empowers “miracle workers.”
A continuationist, by contrast, is a person who believes that all the gifts of the Spirit continue to be given by God and are therefore operative in the church today and should be prayed for and sought after.
Most cessationists and continuationists concede that at least some gifts continue and at least one gift has ceased. Cessationists believe that gifts such as teaching, evangelism, mercy, service, and giving are designed by God to continue until the end of the age. And many (perhaps most) continuationists believe that at least one spiritual gift, that of apostleship, has ceased or has been withdrawn from the life of God’s people. Needless to say, this latter point will depend entirely on how one defines apostleship and whether it is a spiritual gift or an office or perhaps an appointment to a particular kind of ministry.
Biblical and Theological Arguments for Cessationism
In his book Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter, New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner has a chapter titled “Unconvincing Arguments for Cessation of the Gifts.” The first argument Schreiner cites is this passage in 1 Corinthians 13. Tom points out how in the past, many cessationists identified the coming of “the perfect” with the final composition or perhaps the later canonization of the New Testament Scriptures. Once the inspired and altogether sufficient Scriptures were in the hands of the church, there was no longer any need for the revelatory gifts such as prophecy or other miraculous gifts such as speaking in tongues or healing. Other cessationists suggest that the “perfect” is not a reference to canonical Scripture but to the spiritual maturity of the church.¹
Schreiner, himself a committed cessationist, then proceeds to cite numerous exegetical and theological arguments for why this interpretation of the “perfect” is wrong, and why it is in all probability “another way of describing ‘face to face,’ and seeing ‘face to face’ most naturally refers to Christ’s second coming.”² Or perhaps a more accurate understanding is that the “perfect” is that glorious state of final consummation that is brought about by the second coming of Christ, that time when we will “know fully” even as we have “been fully known.” Thus, “if anything,” notes Schreiner, “Paul teaches that the spiritual gifts persist and last until the second coming. In fact, I think this is the best argument for the spiritual gifts continuing until today.”³
“Spiritual gifts confirmed the apostles’ ministry”
Yet another common argument for cessationism is the belief that signs and wonders as well as certain spiritual gifts served primarily, perhaps even only, to confirm or authenticate the original company of apostles. When the apostles passed away, so did the gifts. We are told that when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Iconium, “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3). Paul also testified that the Gentiles were brought to obedience “by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Rom. 15:18b–19a). God used the apostles’ signs and wonders to give their words and works a stamp of authority.
Some cessationists would also direct our attention to the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:39 and 16:4. In addressing the scribes and Pharisees who asked “to see a sign” from him, Jesus responded, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt. 12:39). The longing for the supernatural, they say, is a sign of spiritual immaturity and a weak faith. James Boice, in his contribution to the book Power Religion, quotes with approval this sentiment from John Woodhouse, that “a desire for further signs and wonders is sinful and unbelieving.”⁴
“Spiritual gifts ended with the canon”
Another point often made is that since we now have the completed canon of Scripture, we no longer need the operation of so-called miraculous gifts. If the Bible is itself truly sufficient to supply us with everything we need to live godly and Christ-honoring lives, what possible purpose would miraculous gifts continue to have? In other words, cessationists are arguing that acknowledging the validity of revelatory gifts such as prophecy and words of knowledge would likely, if not necessarily, undermine the finality and sufficiency of Holy Scripture.
How can we affirm that the Holy Spirit is still speaking to us by means of revelatory gifts without threatening the authoritative written Word of God? On this point, Schreiner speaks for many cessationists when he writes, “Now that the church has the authoritative guidance for faith and practice in the Scriptures, the gifts and miracles which were needed to build up the early church are no longer needed, and they are not common. This is not to say, however, that God never does miracles today.”⁵ Gifts and miracles may happen, but they are no longer needed or common, says Schreiner.
Appeal is also made to Ephesians 2:20, where Paul said that the church of Jesus Christ is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” This, says Schreiner, is “the basis for cessationism.”⁶ Prophets, along with apostles, “played a key role in the founding and establishing of the church.”⁷ Schreiner concludes that “the sole and final authority of Scripture is threatened if so-called prophets today give revelations which have the same authority as Scripture.”⁸ Of course, he is entirely correct. But this argument is persuasive only if it can be demonstrated that the sort of prophecies that continuationists affirm do, in fact, “have the same authority as Scripture.”
“We don’t experience the same intensity of spiritual gifts”
Another objection sometimes heard from evangelical cessationists is that we typically don’t see miracles or gifts today that are equal in quality or intensity to those in the ministries of Jesus and the apostles, and God doesn’t intend for any miraculous gifts of a lesser quality or intensity to operate in the church among ordinary Christians. Surely, if God intended for the sort of miraculous ministry that we see in the New Testament to continue into the present day, we would regularly witness instantaneous and irreversible healings, the complete cleansing of lepers, and even resurrections from the dead. In sum, contemporary claims to supernatural phenomena simply don’t measure up to the standards that are consistently portrayed in the New Testament.
I was a cessationist for the first fifteen years of my public ministry. I read virtually all of their literature and participated in countless one-on-one conversations with many of the chief representatives of this view. And I am convinced that this argument exerts a greater influence on their theological conclusions than any other. I realize that a number of cessationists take issue with this suggestion. They insist that the other arguments cited in this chapter, those grounded in biblical texts together with their belief in the Bible’s sufficiency, are the principal reason why they do not believe miraculous gifts are valid today. But they will still admit that a belief in the perceived comparative infrequency of present-day miracles and spiritual gifts is a compelling, if not determinative, force behind their cessationist convictions.
I find this ironic, because one of the most oft-heard criticisms of the contemporary charismatic movement is that we who identify with it base our theology on our experience and not on Scripture. But as I examine Schreiner’s argument (and the one mentioned below made by Steve Timmis), I find him questioning the validity of miraculous gifts today because we don’t see them in our experience. In this case, it is the cessationists’ lack of experience in witnessing New Testament miraculous gifts that drives their opposition.
I’ll cite one more example of what I have in mind. In his review of my book Practicing the Power, my good friend Steve Timmis⁹ denies being a cessationist but then acknowledges that my book wasn’t written for him. Storms, he says, is “writing for those persuaded by the reality of and need for the so-called miraculous gifts of the Spirit.” Timmis clearly identifies himself as one who isn’t persuaded by the reality of these gifts or our need for them. To my mind, this sounds like cessationism.
Later in his review, Timmis speaks about what he perceives as a “discrepancy between” what we experience today and what is described in the New Testament. He suggests that I seem to be “happy to accept a lower standard of ‘success’ ” when it comes to divine healing. “If the gifts are operative for today,” says Timmis, “then it seems reasonable to expect them to reflect what we see in the New Testament.” He adds that my book “sets out to challenge its readers to faith and expectancy, yet it inadvertently encourages them to be satisfied with something less than the New Testament Christianity it claims to espouse.” In other words, “when experience falls short of what happened in the New Testament,” says Timmis, “the cracks are papered over and the discrepancies dismissed.” Timmis concludes that “the anecdotal evidence cited by good friends is underwhelming.”
To be fair, there isn’t anything wrong in raising this objection to the validity of miraculous gifts today, but I find it entirely misguided. What is missing in Timmis’s review, as well as from far more detailed and technical defenses of cessationism, is any concrete textual declaration that the gifts in question were only intended for the first fifty or sixty years of the church’s existence. We should not miss this point: it is in the absence of such biblical argumentation that “functional” cessationists revert to an appeal to the absence of “anecdotal evidence” in our day of New Testament–level displays of supernatural ministry.
Considering the “cluster” argument
Another defense put forth is sometimes called the “cluster” argument. According to this argument, miracles and supernatural phenomena were concentrated or “clustered” at specific times in biblical history and therefore should not be expected to appear as a regular or normal phenomenon in other periods of history. Three eras in particular are often cited. John MacArthur explains,
Most biblical miracles happened in three relatively brief periods of Bible history: in the days of Moses and Joshua, during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and in the time of Christ and the apostles. None of those periods lasted much more than a hundred years. Each of them saw a proliferation of miracles unheard of in other eras. . . . Aside from those three intervals, the only supernatural events recorded in Scripture were isolated incidents.¹⁰
Schreiner also argues for a modified version of the cluster argument:
I believe God gave gifts and miracles, signs and wonders, in remarkable ways at certain points in redemptive history to authenticate his revelation. . . . [However], miracles aren’t limited to such high points in redemptive history, as any careful reading of the Old Testament shows, but they are clustered at central eras in the Scriptures.¹¹
Richard Gaffin and Additional Arguments for Cessationism
Perhaps the most articulate spokesman for cessationism is Richard Gaffin. His case can be found in his contribution to Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views.¹²
Gaffin makes his case for cessationism based on the idea that “the whole of Acts is unique.”¹³ In other words, “Acts intends to document a completed history, a unique epoch in the history of redemption—the once-for-all apostolic spread of the gospel ‘to the ends of the earth.’ ”¹⁴ Gaffin believes that “it is in terms of this controlling perspective that the miraculous experiences of those at Pentecost and elsewhere in Acts have their meaning. These miracles attest the realization of the expanding apostolic program announced in Acts 1:8.”¹⁵ Thus “Acts 2 and the subsequent miraculous events that Luke narrates are not intended to establish a pattern of ‘repetitions’ of Pentecost to continue on indefinitely in church history. Rather, together they constitute . . . an event-complex complete with the finished apostolic program they accompany.”¹⁶
In light of this understanding of the nature and purpose of Acts, “to observe that in Acts others than apostles exercise miraculous gifts (e.g., 6:8) is beside the point. To offer as evidence that such gifts continue beyond the time of the apostles pulls apart what for Luke belongs together. Others exercise such gifts by virtue of the presence and activity of the apostles; they do so under an ‘apostolic umbrella,’ so to speak.”¹⁷
Gaffin speaks for most cessationists when he affirms that miracles, as well as physical healing, still occur. “I do question [however] . . . whether the gifts of healing and of working miracles, as listed in 1 Corinthians 12:9–10, are given today.”¹⁸ Whatever such miracles occur in Acts “accompany the unique and finished apostolic spread of the gospel that concerns Luke.”19
As with other cessationists, Gaffin believes that “the apostles and prophets belong to the period of the foundation,”²⁰ during which time the inspired revelatory will of God was given. “With this foundational revelation completed, and so, too, their foundational role as witnesses, the apostles and, along with them, the prophets and other associated revelatory word gifts, pass from the life of the church.”²
In sum, although this is not a biblical or theological argument, cessationists argue that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit gradually disappeared from the life of the church following the death of John, the last apostle. At this point, I will simply say that this is a questionable hypothesis. It is undeniable that the leaders of the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century embraced the cessation of the gifts. And for the next three hundred years following the Reformation, miraculous manifestations of the Spirit were at best sporadic, until such time as the emergence of the Pentecostal revival in the early 1900s.
Dive deeper into the cessationism/continuationism discussion
Dr. Sam Storms elaborates on cessationism arguments in Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Comprehensive Guide. He also offers biblical and theological arguments for continuationism and follows it up with evidence from church history. Watch the entire series on MasterLectures.
- For a thoroughgoing refutation of the arguments for these views, see D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (1987; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 87–92.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H, 2018), 151.
- 3 Schreiner, 153.
- James Montgomery Boice, “A Better Way: The Power of Word and Spirit,” in Power Religion, ed. Michael Scott Horton (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 126.
- Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, 167.
- Schreiner, 157.
- Schreiner, 159.
- Schreiner, 160.
- Steve Timmis, “A Friendly Critic on the Best New Resource for Charismatics,” TGC, March 29, 2017, www.thegospelcoalition.org/rev... John F. MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 112.
- Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, 167.
- Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “A Cessationist View,” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, ed. Wayne Grudem (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995). Gaffin also builds his case for cessationism in Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 89–116.
- Gaffin, “A Cessationist View,” 37.
- Gaffin, 38.
- Gaffin, 38.
- Gaffin, 38.
- Gaffin, 39.
- Gaffin, 42.
- Gaffin, 42.
- Gaffin, 43.
- Gaffin, 44.
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