What Is Cessationism?
cessationism: the belief that certain spectacular works, gifts, signs, and happenings from God ceased with the apostles, or at the very latest, ceased with those they directly taught.
These gifts and signs include such things as :
- spontaneous speaking in strange languages ('tongues')
- (otherwise-) impossible strings of 'coincidences',
- special insight into a person's motives and purposes,
- any other 'power' activities in which God exercises power over the order of nature and mind, through people.
As the cessationist sees it, the Church and its members today can't get these miraculous gifts, because God has stopped giving them. Most mainline Protestants, and nearly all Fundamentalists, are 'cessationists', whether they are fully aware of it or not.
There had been cessationists since the days of the Church Councils. But as a well-defined viewpoint, modern cessationism starts with John Calvin. Back in the days of the Reformation, the Vatican had sent Robert Bellarmine to win back the people who had joined the Reformed churches. One of Bellarmine's main methods was to point to wondrous signs done by loyal Catholics, and then ask, 'Where's your miracles? How is God working through you?' For a while, at least, Bellarmine was quite effective. Calvin knew he had to respond to that specific challenge. Calvin replied :
"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
(*Institutes*, Battle translation, 1960, p.1467).
He drew this from Augustine of Hippo, who wrote when commenting on one particular sign in Acts 2:4 :
"In the earliest times, 'the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues,' which they had not learned, 'as the Spirit gave them utterance.' These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away."
Cessationism has several theological/philosophical forms:
- God created the church in ways that included unusual or miraculous acts. Then when the church had taken some hold, God allowed it to manage itself using its own abilities. In this view, God no longer has an active role in its doings. Thus, any outward signs of spirit activity are presumed to be false, or can be explained as merely a natural event. The ancients claimed these as powerful acts of God because they didn't know any better, and we do. Such happenings would then have no spiritual or supernatural meaning, and God did not have a hand in them. This is most often held by those who speak of humankind's 'coming of age' (that we as a species have become grown-ups).
- The fundamentalist-dispensationalist holds that God hasn't left us, but rather gets involved by guiding the human conscience and mind through the Scriptures, not by giving special gifts that stand out or go beyond normal human ability. We no longer need the flashy signs or the mighty acts to help us develop a well-rounded faith. Since it's so easy to use and abuse spectacle and miracle, God no longer uses them. The Biblical examples were a 'starter course' to get the church going, and after that there was no need for them. This view is also held by many ex-Pentecostals.
It would be easy for me to caricature cessationism. But it wouldn't be fair or truthful.
Many of them took up the cessationist view as a way of opposing something well worth their concern:
- claims are made by those with a flighty and unchecked version of the 'gift of prophecy', a version that has often been used as a tool to grab peoples' money, to boost a preacher's ego, manipulate or control other people, or to teach a bizarre notion;
- spectacular and supernatural claims are used, especially by ordinary folks, as something to hide their fragile faith behind so they can avoid asking themselves hard questions.
- important decisions are made because of those who are superstitious, or who believe everything they're told, or are not entirely sane, or are just naïve.
- it's easy to lose track of the good news of Christ because of all the hullabaloo around the spectacular happenings. (Calvin expressed his cessationism in terms of this.)
They also look at the history of the church, and notice that such things generally died down after the first few generations of the church, as if God had decided not to give what we would call 'dramatic' acts. They then see divine reasoning in that pattern.
- thoroughly believe that the Spirit is afoot in today's world and especially among followers of Christ;
- do not make rationalism, science, or the Bible into their god;
- are not devotionally sterile;
- believe that God has the power to heal people, teach people, give insight, etc.
- believe that God actually does heal people, teach people, give insight, etc.., but chooses to do it only through the ordinary, mundane, day-to-day things and through normal natural means.
That said, the largest group of those who are cessationist by belief are Reformed, Fundamentalist, or Rationalist.
Also, a lot of people say they are open to belief in the unusual or supernatural. If you asked them, most of them would admit the "possibility" of it, but, in effect, not the living reality of it. Truth be told, most people are practical or 'closet' cessationists. (Even many who attend Pentecostalist churches.) It hasn't happened to them or their loved ones, and (with some cause) they distrust people they know who say that it happened to them. This has little to do with a 'scientific worldview' -- most folks aren't that logical.
Another reason they're cessationists is that they've been personally 'burned'. At some point in their lives, they found themselves hoping and/or praying for some act of power to come sweeping into their lives -- sometimes, they hoped in real desperation and need. But it didn't happen. Some of them are still paying a price they would not have had to pay if it did happen. Since they can't get themselves to dare shake their fist at God about it, they adapt their outlook and their thinking to the idea that God doesn't do that sort of thing anymore. Theirs is a cessationism born in travail.
What's wrong with this picture?
That all sounds good -- practical, wise, buttoned-down, religious. Except that in detail, it isn't quite true, at least not in the way it seems to be. (Not all of the points that follow apply to all cessationists, but each part applies to a different set of cessationist arguments, and thus are intended to add up.)
The Intimate Infinite
For one thing, the testimony of Scripture and the experience of Christians over two millenia is that God is intimately involved with the world, with the Church, and with each follower, withdrawing only from a person or society that shuts God out, or as a short-term strategy to remind us of that intimate presence by having us feel its absence. Indeed, the whole point of Christ's coming as the Christmas baby ('immanu 'el, God-with-us) was precisely that kind of closeness. This is the Christ who told us of God's care for the sparrow, and even greater care for us, the Christ who said he will be with us to the end, for whom the Spirit was sent among us all to keep us until his physical return. God has not ceased working in the world we're in.
According to Acts chapter 2, what was given to the few (leaders, prophets, and such) is now breaking out all over the place, tongues to all the upper-room witnesses as both a sign and a characteristic of the beginning of the end of what was. The new era's mark is that the sons, the daughters (including the deacon Philip's), and even bondservants are doing strange and powerful things due to the poured-out Spirit. God will do whatever it takes to build up the Body and further the Kingdom, and that includes the spectacular, the unusual, and the powerful. God's there among us, unseen, to help preserve our freedom not just our survival, but on occasion does something visible as a reminder, something that acts like a glimpse of God's backside for us. Of course, there was the special role of the apostles, who were given authority by God to do many powerful things at any moment they deemed right, including healing. But they weren't the only miracle-workers. Indeed, Paul's discussion of gifts in 1 Corinthians presupposes that the letter's readers have gifts, some of which are unusual, and that they can be given even greater gifts. The Corinth congregation was not made up of apostles. So Paul's not speaking of gifts owned by apostles, but gifts given to and used by the whole Body and each part within it. The apostles' testimony had to remain after they were gone. That was the purpose of writing the Gospels and Acts. The Epistles were written as these apostle/witnesses did their apostolic duty. They and their role were about to pass from the scene, but new roles would arise in their place, some already foreshadowed in the Epistles. And those in the new roles were still being given the power to live in the Spirit.
Cessationism and Ephesians 2:19-21
Where did the idea that wonders ceased with the apostles come from? Part of it came when it was noticed that wonders were noticeably reduced within a generation after the last living apostle. (It may be that they just simply took place more quietly -- but that's for another argument.) Yet that by itself is not enough; we must ask, "What does Scripture say about it?" So the other part of it came from an interpretation of Ephesians 2:19b-20 (NRSV) : "you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone." The problem with that is that the subject matter in this Ephesians passage is not wonders or gifts or exorcisms or signs. It is about the gathered believers as the Body of Christ -- that is, the church itself. And while it gives a special role to "apostles and prophets", what is it that makes them stand out most? It is that they are the most direct witness to God: the apostles, who were trained by Jesus, and the prophets, to whom God spoke. They are witnesses to the One who is special, the One in whom, according to v. 21, "the whole structure is joined together". Thus, if there are wonders, they are for and from Christ, who is with His followers today no less than He was then. The church didn't cease after the apostles, so why would this passage infer that wonders ceased with them? The important question then is, if Christ is still with us, are we still with Christ?
The More Things Change...
Most Christians think of the apostolic era as being so different from ours. They were living 2000 years ago, in their culture, in their lifetime, and so did Jesus. Technology was simple. Travel and communications were slow. But their worries, concerns, enjoyments, desires, questions and cynicisms were actually much like what we have today, just in a different mix. They needed the power of Christ's victory, and the comforts and gifts of the Spirit, to face up to the challenge. And God gave it to them.
Today, in the Western world, the (grand-) sons and daughters of strong believers make up a majority that says it is 'spiritual but not religious'. A vague belief or interest in Jesus still exists among them, but He is not the Savior to them. They certainly don't believe in 'church', or 'doctrine', and they don't treat the primary sources we have about Jesus, the four gospels, as being accurate or helpful. In a sense, they're immunized against the very things their grandparents held dear and built their lives upon. Acts of power may prove to be important for breaking through, especially when done at the level today's people understand best -- to only one or a few, away from view of others, without the hype they so rightly distrust. We need the power, the comfort, the direction, and the signs from the Spirit today no less (and possibly more) than they did 2000 years ago. God gives them now too, occasionally in a mind-blowing way. But will we bother to read the signs?
Cessationism, Paul and Corinth
Cessationists sometimes refer to 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 as saying that the gifts have ended. But look closer at the context. Paul was telling us that the gifts will eventually end because "when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away with" (v.10). Paul was not just speaking of the end of gifts, but of the end of all earthly matters, gifts included, keying on what will last, "faith, hope, and love" (v.13). All gifts and signs are "temporal" - earthly things made for life on earth in human society - even if their source is not. Like anything else found in life, the Spirit's gifts are made to work in a world where nothing lasts, where all is broken and partial in some way. Gifts, like all that is earthly, will be done away with when the perfect (or 'completed') comes, namely, the Kingdom of God in all its glory. Paul is also not saying they were given just for his time. He's talking about the character and nature of gifts. It's in the character and nature of faith, hope, and love to stay with us even beyond time itself; the character and nature of earthly life, no matter how great and wonderful, is that it does not. To argue that Paul is saying that the gifts are ending, one would have to say that time has already finished up, the Kingdom is in full force, we're in the new completed world, and we can now see God and God's truth 'face to face' instead of just 'in part' (v. 12). Yeah, riiiight. That's not how it is now -- but Paul insists it will be someday. And when that someday comes, the gifts of all kinds will no longer be needed, just as an adult doesn't need childish thinking, just as those looking into God's face have no need to look through a looking-glass. The signs will not be needed, because you're where the signs were leading you to. Jesus himself says the same thing about something as sacred to Him as marriage.
For the Masters or the Masses?
Then, there are those who think that the spectacular gifts are only for the true spiritual masters, that they come through a special relationship with God that is beyond the realm of ordinary Christians. But in his letters to the Corinthians, Paul was writing to a divided, muttering body of people who still had a long way to go with their belief. Yet they had tongues and prophecy, and other extraordinary and ordinary signs and gifts. Also, the acknowledged spiritual masters in church history, such as Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila, would have recoiled at the idea of such spiritual elitism. They worked wonders, but did not think it strange that others would too, if God wanted them to. And, modern history has ample examples of the disaster that happens when people start following someone who seems to be closer to God than they could ever themselves be. God does not play the 'better than' game; all sorts of things are given to all sorts of people.
New Jots and Tittles?
Most cessationists also claim that any new miraculous sign, and in particular the gift of prophecy, is by its very nature a way of adding something to Scripture. But that would only be true if an authoritative or normative claim were being made for the miracle. (That is, the sign is what their teaching is to be authorized by or measured by.) There are well-known pentecostalist preachers who base some of their teaching on what is "revealed" to them, and such use is indeed this sort of serious error. But most other pentecostalists and charismatics refuse to make that claim. They use what they call the 'gift of prophecy' for guidance, not unlike what a scholar does by using scholarly books in studying the Bible, or when a student asks his/her mentor about it. All kinds of guidance are sifted by Scripture through the prayerful use of means of discernment. This is not because God may have gotten it wrong, but because it is so easy for us to get it wrong.
But, many ask, what about the fakery, the egotism, the abuse and warpage of real gifts? Isn't that reason enough to shun it? We must remember what kind of a creature we are dealing with here. To use an old-fashioned word, "sinful". God puts up a sign of the Kingdom, but we're the ones who turn the sign another way and point it to a circus of humbug. God knows we're sinful. But the Lord also refuses to give in to it. Our fell deeds do not stop God from working with us and through us. (If it were otherwise, there would not have been a Christ, and then where would we be?) Instead of not giving, our generous God gives, then holds responsible those to whom it is given, and also those who claim about its being given. A gift is there to help other people be better. A sign is there to give a glimpse of the power and the right-ness of living as citizens of the Kingdom. That sort of living is the responsibility. The body of believers, the church universal, has responsibility too, for discerning what is happening, and speaking truth to it. If we want to really grow up in our faith, we have to take hold of our responsibility rather than walk away from it.
What of Those Who Need It?
The biblical, theological, and sociological arguments for cessationism are not all that hard to counter. The difficult challenge is that there are some people -- not many, but some -- who really needed a miracle healing, or whose life could possibly change direction by a powerful sign, or who could be rescued from treachery by divinely-given insight into what other people are doing, and would be condemned to suffer without it. Many of them got such help, but many more others did not. You don't need to have cessationist beliefs to find yourself asking questions : Why wouldn't a loving God do something powerful for all of them? Is this a God of caprice, hoarding up scraps of divine rescue power and then just flinging them around randomly?
A hard truth here is that true divine acts of wonder and power are intentionally rare, not common. If it were otherwise, we wouldn't see them as 'wonders'; we'd think of them the way we think of driving a car or clicking a mouse. God likes being hidden. It gives the creatures God loves more freedom to be a part of shaping the divinely-created world. God prefers to work "incarnationally" (that is, through materials and material beings like us). God doesn't have to work that way (as a Reformed believer would put it, "God is sovereign"), but chooses to do it that way, and that includes working wonders through us. In the Kingdom to come, God's power will be constantly in visible action. Some signs of that Kingdom will show such power in action, right here, just because that's the way the Kingdom is. Since such moments are rare, not everyone will get it, because this world is not the Kingdom. And because God works through us, we have responsibility to take action as God leads us. Too many wonders block that responsibility; too few lets us doubt that we have anyone to be ultimately responsible to. Our responsibility is to act with the more ordinary gifts God has given us to personally build up those who could really use a sign of God's love.
But that's just a partial answer. It still doesn't say why this one who needs it gets a wonder and not another. Another part of the answer is that God understands better than we do what is really needed. But there's still something missing, almost as if God's being let entirely off the hook, a feeling born of empathy for those who would be helped in a major way if something would happen. In a sense, this is tied into the question of God's role in human suffering. Suffering is widely recognized as one of the most impenetrable mysteries of life. Which means that, while I can puzzle out much of the picture, a full understanding of suffering is frustratingly beyond my grasp, or yours, or anyone else's. At least some part of it I just don't know, and there is good reason to doubt that I ever will in this lifetime. I can live with that mystery. There's no other way to live but to live with that mystery; as far as I can tell, that's true of all of us, including cessationists.
Where does this take us?
Let's look again at what Calvin said in response to Bellarmine. Calvin found his answer in one of the threads of Augustine's theology, in the idea that some signs needed to be done under the authority of an apostle. Calvin took that strand of Augustine's thinking, and expanded it beyond what Augustine was talking about, for the sake of the practical task of protecting the Reformation against its foes. In doing so, Calvin was standing against most of the Church's thinkers of the first three centuries, most of Eastern Orthodoxy, all Anabaptists, and some of the key sources for renewal of the Catholic church such as St. Bernard and St. Francis. (Even Augustine himself noted that some believers around his own city were indeed doing miraculous things.) Cessationism was just one part of Calvin's vast legacy to the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions, but it's one part which many churchgoers, including many Calvinists, have since come to question.
Putting the Gospel front and center
Cessationism seems so logical, so sensible. Yet, nothing in Scripture says that any kind of gift has ended, and the thrust of Scripture says it hasn't. Cessationists defend the idea that the wonders had to cease for the Gospel to take center stage, but in point of fact that didn't happen. What makes the Gospel take center stage is lives lived in its light, and this is itself a wonder and a miracle of the highest order in a world such as ours. And a goodly many of those wondrous lives took off from an unusual sign or experience or blessing. The Spirit who did this is still at work. According to the Scriptures, at the very start of the Church, at the time when the Gospel most had to be at center stage, signs and wonders and miracles and gifts were happening, in a way that clearly furthered the Gospel. It was both/and, not either/or. The same can just as well be true today. And I am convinced it is.
Cessationism and Our Expectations
Many Christians (the ones who are charismatics) go a step further. Since God gives the Spirit to all believers, we can trust that God will give us some sort of gift, whatever gift God wants us to have at the moment or in our life situation. And we can also trust that God will put it to use, with whatever level of force or drama or effectiveness is needed. In this view, one should expect (not demand or command) that powerful things are going to happen as people spread the gospel and live it out. These may even be dramatic and miraculous. It is foolish to underestimate God, for whom nothing is impossible. In a way, this teaching on 'expectancy' is right -- so long as you don't expect a specific thing done a specific way at a specific time. God works on God's agenda, not ours. Expectancy must be rooted in hope and trust, not certainty or command. Expect God to act -- in God's own way, for God's own purposes. There will be many times when our reach exceeds our grasp, but trying and failing is itself part of the way we learn what God is up to.
The Bride and the Groom
The relationship between God and the Church is that of betrothed lovers, Bride and Groom, not passing acquaintances or CEO-to-line-employee. The gifts are not at steady levels. Lovers are not always in the mood to accept each others' gifts. But the doors of love open wider again with time. Theologically, I can't limit God by saying that God mustn't be giving gifts today. I must watch, live through it, and learn. When I do I cannot come to any other conclusion that indeed God is lavishing all of the gifts upon our era. Some amazing and spectacular, many downright ordinary, some that we still haven't come to recognize as God's gifts, some I can't even imagine. But they are here. And we are to use these gifts to build each other up in faith, to uncover evil and falsehood, and to carry out the church's mission.
The key thing isn't whether someone believes in power gifts or miracles. The most important matter is whether they put their trust in the God who gives such gifts. This God is far bigger than even the the most incredible of signs and wonders. Signs can only have real value when, because of them, you may go toward the God who makes them happen.