WHAT IS CESSATIONISM?
By Mark Anderson
People who don’t believe that the nine manifestations of the Spirit outlined in 1 Cor.12 are for today are called cessationists. They don’t believe that believers in Christ can be used as instruments by God to bring healing and work miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit; nor do they believe that the gifts of speaking in tongues and prophecy are for today. Such people are sincere, but I would suggest, sincerely wrong. The doctrine they espouse is called ‘cessationism.’ Its tenets state that gifts such as healing, miracles, prophecy and tongues ceased with the death of the last apostle and the completion of the canon of scripture; the purpose of such gifts, was to help launch the New Testament church and spread the gospel whilst providing authenticity and credibility to the apostles.
Modern cessationism has its roots in the Reformation period. During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was losing numbers and so naturally sought to win them back. The Vatican despatched a Cardinal – Robert Bellarmine to persuade former Roman Catholics to have a rethink and return. Employing the supernatural as an influential tactic, he pointed to the ‘supernatural happenings’ within the Roman Catholic Church and challenged the Reformers to produce their miracles? The gauntlet was thrown down and the Reformers knew they had to respond. John Calvin argued that ‘The gift of healing, like the rest of the miracles, which the Lord willed to be brought forth for a time, has vanished away in order to make the new preaching of the Gospel marvellous forever.’ With this remark, modern cessationsim began to take root and spread. It was propagated by Benjamin Breckon Warfield – a distinguished theological professor at Princeton Seminary. Warfield documented his views in his book ‘Counterfeit Miracles,’ and his influence is still evident today in many seminaries.
I would suggest that no-one reading scripture logically concludes that the miraculous power of God is not available to His people today. A plain reading of scripture would not lead one to arrive at this conclusion. To believe in cessationism is not a natural response to the plain reading of the Bible, but ironically requires one to be taught it.
It has often been said that Pentecostals place too much emphasis on experience and I would agree to a certain extent, but I would also respectfully say that cessationists also appeal to experience. In their experience, healings and miracles are not common and so their lack may have influenced and contributed to the formation of their beliefs. I say this because the scriptures clearly demonstrate that the manifestation of the Spirit through gifts of healings, miracles, tongues and prophecy etc, will remain until the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I want to stress from the outset that the gifts of the Spirit are subservient to the word of God and must not take priority or precedence over scripture.
However, how can we disregard and ignore such vital tools, used in conjunction with preaching the gospel and teaching the scriptures so that the lost may be saved and the believer edified?
In the Greek, the word for ‘gift’ as in spiritual gifts is ‘charisma.’ Simply translated it means ‘grace-gift.’ Though the word charisma is used in passages such as Romans 12, for the purpose of this study, I shall be only considering its use in 1 Cor.12 & 14. In 1 Cor.12, Paul speaks of the manifestation of the Spirit being given to each one. In essence the manifestation is a gift where God reveals Himself in and through His people. It’s important to note that the word ‘manifestation’ is in the singular and not plural, so that the focus is placed upon God the Holy Spirit and not His activity. Cessationism essentially does not allow God to reveal Himself through the Holy Spirit in gathered communities of believers even though they desire Him to do just that.
‘Now concerning spiritual [gifts], brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and [that] no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another [divers] kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.’ (1 Cor.12: 1-11)
The above puts the cessationist on the offensive. He argues that the perfect that comes is the completed New Testament – the total canon of scripture. ‘Now that we have all scripture’ he reasons, ‘tongues along with prophecy and miracles have ceased – there is no further need for their use. They helped an infant church get launched; but now we have the Bible, we no longer require the Spirit’s manifestation.’ A sweeping statement to say the least, but is this argument credible?
One needs to bear in mind that the whole of 1 Cor.13 is not primarily addressing spiritual gifts. Paul’s focus is on love – God’s love. Throughout the chapter, he contrasts love with the gifts of the Spirit. “Love never fails; God’s love is perfect” – he argues. Whilst love will never end, the manifestation of the Spirit will. Speaking in tongues will cease, but love won’t; the gift of prophecy will be no more, but love will be forever. The obvious question is when will these gifts cease? Paul supplies the answer – when ‘the perfect’ comes. Herein lies the crux of the problem. To what or whom does ‘the perfect’ refer to?
Cessationists state that the perfect is the complete canon of scripture. Believing this, they logically conclude that the Spirit’s gifts are no longer for today. Such reasoning I would suggest is fundamentally flawed.
One important rule in interpreting scripiture – especially the epistles – is what scripture meant to its original writers and recipients, is what it means to us today. It cannot mean something different to us than it did when it was first written. In the case of 1Cor 13:4-8, what these verses meant to Paul and the Corinthians is what they must mean to us. As Paul was writing to the Corinthians, he simply had no idea that he was writing what we call – ‘The New Testament.’ Such a notion was totally foreign to him, and that being the case, it violates a principle of hermeneutics to state that the phrase ‘the perfect’ means the completed New Testament. So what or whom exactly does ‘the perfect’ refer to?
Notice that Paul switches tenses on two occcasions as he writes about ‘the perfect.’ By using the pronoun ‘we’ he is writing of himself and the Corinthians, and is contrasting their present existence with a time that is yet future. It is in this future time period that ‘the perfect’ will come. During Paul’s present time of writing, he speaks of seeing in a ‘mirror dimly’ and contrasts it with the future when he and the Corinthians will see ‘face to face’ – like looking at a reflection and looking at reality; like looking at a photograph and looking at a real person. The phrase ‘face to face’ occurs on several occasions throughout the Old Testament – each time referring to seeing the Lord. An example is found at a defining moment in Jacob’s life.
So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” (Gen 32:30)
‘Face to face’ in scripture clearly refers to one seeing the Lord. Until we see Him face to face, we ‘walk by faith, not by sight.’ Cessationism states that ‘the perfect’ has already come, whereas the non-cessationist (continuationist) waits for its arrival at Christ’s appearing. Let’s suppose that the cessationist is right in suggesting that ‘the perfect’ refers to the New Testament. Time for some probing questions. Are we to believe that when the ink dried when the last word in the book of Revelation was written – the gifts of the Spirit ceased? Or maybe it was when the last apostle’s heart stopped beating, that God withdrew all supernatural gifts. Let’s probe a little further. Paul states that when ‘the perfect has come, we shall know fully, even as I am fully known.’ If Paul had the complete New Testament in mind why would he speak of himself as ‘knowing fully’ when he wouldn’t have been alive when the canon of scripture would be recognized? Unlike Paul, we do have the complete canon of scripture, but can we say that we know God fully as He knows us fully?
The believer is not immune from deception. According to the cessationist, “I have the New Testament and should know God fully just as He fully knows me.”
I can’t even know myself fully, let alone God. If ‘the perfect’ has now come, then logically the believer should never be deceived by his or her emotions. Can a Pastor by studying the Bible be made aware if a member of his congregation is embezzling funds or committing adultery? I don’t think so. Maybe that’s why God has given prophetic ministry to His church. Can reading the Bible enable one to offer prayer and praise to God directly from his or her spirit bypassing understanding. Again I would say no – hence God giving the gift of tongues.
Does reading the Bible alone bring physical healing? Again the answer is no – so God gives gifts of healings to His church. Even the most ardent skeptic should recognize the need for the gift of discerning of spirits! In the age we live in which is rife with deception and false teaching, there is a vital need for the child of God to operate in a level of discernment. Many believers can testify of ‘feeling’ disturbed within themselves when engaged in conversation or walking into a certain situation. On the surface all appeared normal and as it should be, but there was an uneasiness within one’s heart. That’s the Holy Spirit in us alerting and warning us to tread carefully. The Corinthians prided themselves in having ‘knowledge.’ Paul groups knowledge together with prophecy and tongues, so if prophecy and tongues are no longer for today, then good hermeneutics would dictate that knowledge isn’t either.
‘…whether [there be] knowledge, it shall vanish away.’ (1Cor 13:8)
The term pass away is the Greek word ‘katargeō’ and its meaning is comprehensive. It means to render idle, unemployed, inactivate, inoperative, to cause a person or thing to have no further efficiency, to deprive of force, influence, power.
Has knowledge passed away? Of course not! So what authority does one have, to isolate knowledge from tongues and prophecy in the text?
There can only be one answer and that is that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are in existence and to be exercised until Christ’s appearing.
It’s significant to note that if ‘the perfect’ refers to the New Testament which results in gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy ceasing, that Paul reopens the whole issue again in 1 Corinthians 14. Why didn’t the content of 1 Corinthians 14 come before 1 Corinthians 13 if he was referring to the supernatural gifts ceasing? The reason is because from Paul’s perspective the gifts were not about to cease. Paul was merely instructing the Corinthian church in their use of the gifts. The Spirit’s manifestation was to be facilitated, pursued and desired in a climate of love – hence the opening words of 1 Corinthians 14:
‘Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.’
In conclusion, I would respectfully submit that ‘the perfect’ as Paul states has not yet come. ‘The perfect’ is Christ’s appearing and not the complete canon of scripture. I will give the last word to Dr Martin Lloyd Jones:
‘It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions . . . Was it only meant to be true of the early church? . . . The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary—never! There is no such statement anywhere.’