Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Logical Quandary of Cessationism

There's been a recent skirmish between Adrian Warnock and Dan Phillips of Pyromaniacs on the issue of cessationism (whether or not miraculous spiritual gifts ceased after the Apostolic age), with a little friendly piling-on by David Wayne of Jollyblogger. (The links I've attached to each of the three names will lead the interested reader to all of the relevant posts.) As these things go, it's all been relatively cordial and goodhearted, for which we can all be thankful. I wish I had the time to get into the thick of the debate, but since I don't, I'll offer a little aside that will probably be more helpful in the long run anyway.

The basic premise of cessationism is that the miraculous gifts described in the New Testament were "temporary sign gifts" that ceased at the end of the Apostolic Age - i.e., either with the death of the last Apostle (probably John) or with the completion of the last book of the New Testament Canon (probably Revelation, and probably written near the end of John's life). They didn't continue on in the church because they were never meant to continue. Their purpose was to help establish the credibility of the early church and to assist with early evangelism (e.g., tongues used as a missionary tool to reach people when there hadn't been time to learn the languages). Once the church was established, these "temporary sign gifts" were no longer necessary; moreover, once the canon of Scripture (identified by many cessationists as "that which is perfect" in 1 Corinthians 13:10) was complete, any type of supernaturally given knowledge or communication by God (such as in prophecy, as well as words of knowledge and wisdom) became superfluous and therefore ended. We have, says the cessationist, the final and complete revelation of God through His written Word. We therefore have no need, and should not desire, any direct communication by God outside of the Scriptures.

Why was it that people back then could hear directly from God, but not now?The above is, of course, a very brief sketch of a theological position that has been developed in different ways by different people; I don't pretend that it is a complete and detailed picture, or that all cessationists view their position in precisely these terms, or agree with everything I've written above. However, I think it fairly represents the general position of those who hold to a cessationist viewpoint. If I understand their position correctly, then it seems to me that there is a logical contradiction at its core. Cessationists are forced to hold to a self-contradictory epistemology. The very Scriptures that cessationists appeal to as the foundation of their faith are both a product of, and witness to, exactly the type of "subjective" divine revelation that they have supposedly made obsolete.

The problem with God personally communicating with and through His people, says the cessationist, is that it is subjective: you may have had an experience that you believe came from God, but how can you really know? People from other religions claim to have had spiritual experiences with their deities; by what standard do Christians establish that their experiences are genuine but others are spurious? Even within the faith, many Christians claim to have had revelations from God, and many of these revelations are contradictory with one another; how can we know which revelations are correct? A lot of people have spouted a lot of wierd stuff, claiming it was from the Holy Spirit; how are we to know what, if any, of it is genuine? Doesn't the person claiming to prophesy set himself up as a rival authority to the Scriptures? Does the existence of present-day communication from God imply that the Canon isn't really closed? If so, then what are we supposed to add to it? And of course, this whole line of thinking undermines the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, which is one reason why the Reformed branch of the church tends so heavily toward cessationism.

By contrast, says the cessationist, we have the Bible, the infallable authoritative complete and final written Word of God. Prophets? Prophets? We don't need no stinkin' prophets! (Sorry. I couldn't resist.) Our task now is not the reception of revelation, but rather the interpretation and application of the revelation we've already received. The confusion, the charismania, are gone. Doesn't this make more sense?

The problem with this scenario is that it (correctly) leaves the Bible itself as the authoritative document--but within the Bible itself, personal and, yes, subjective divine revelation happens all over the place. From God walking with Adam in the cool of the day to Jesus presenting Apocalyptic visions to John, God speaks personally to Abraham, to Moses, to Joshua, to Samuel, to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest of the Old Testament prophets. Mary is met by an angel; both Josephs hear from God in dreams; the risen Christ appears to the apostles, blinds and speaks to Saul, directs Ananias to anoint Saul to receive his sight again and to tell him how much he is to suffer for His sake. Paul is directed away from Asia and Bythinia and given a vision of a man from Macedonia. Later, Agabus, in the house of Philip the Evangelist (whose daughters were prophetesses) graphically demonstrates how Paul will be taken prisoner by the Romans. And, as has already been said, John receives visions from Jesus that become the book of Revelation.

Cessationism does not deny any of this. But does it recognize what it has done? It has allowed for an epistemology that it denies in the post-Apostolic age. At one time, evidently, people could hear from the Lord and know it was from the Lord; now, such revelation would be regarded as "subjective" and unreliable. The scriptures themselves are a product of this now-defunct epistemology: people heard from God and put it into writing. It may be argued that this was not always conscious - Paul may well not have known that he was writing authoritative and infallable scripture when he penned Philemon - but in many cases it was undeniably conscious. "The word of the LORD came to" is the formula that often prefaces the Old Testament prophetic writings. We now regard Joseph's dreams and Daniel's interpretations and old Simeon's prophecy over the baby Jesus as genuinely inspired and authoritative; but at the time, they were just subjective perceptions and pronouncements. Why was it that people back then could hear directly from God, but not now?

But that's just the point, says the cessationist. God was doing something special with the Apostles and the writers of Scripture, something we can't emulate if we believe in a closed canon. Yes, the production of authoritative scripture is indeed unique. But I've purposely included people in this list that were neither Apostles nor writers of scripture: both Josephs, Mary, Simeon, Ananias, Agabus, Philip's daughters. No, everybody didn't hear from God all the time, not everybody did at all. But hearing from God was something that did happen. And this is part and parcel of scriptural narrative - and we need to take narratives seriously as a part of the "all scripture" that is "inspired by God" and "profitable for instruction" (2 Timothy 3:16). At the risk of sounding like a postmodernist, Scripture isn't just composed of propositions to be mined and used to form logical arguments and systematic theologies; it's meant to paint a picture of what life among the people of God should be like. I do understand that an event in a narrative does not establish a practice or an experience as normative; but neither should it be written off as irrelevant just because it isn't a part of the "didactic" portions. After all, Paul told Timothy that it was all didactic - didn't he?

So at bottom, the cessationist position amounts to a dispensational point of view. (Reformed readers may want to take a quick breather to lower their blood pressure at this point.) God used to deal with us one way, and now he deals with us another way. And this is asserted, I hate to say it, mainly because it's convenient. Because we don't want to have to deal with all the vagueries of discerning which experiences are true and which ones are false, of distinguishing between the authoritative prophetic word of Scripture and the subordinate prophetic words of other believers. But Scripture doesn't present us with the cut-and-dried world we'd like to be in; it presents us with the messy world in which we actually have to deal with true and false prophets, misuse and abuse - but also Godly and proper use - of spiritual gifts, and other sorts of vagueries. That is the final and authoritative revelation we have. If God were about to switch to a completely different means of dealing with His people, wouldn't this have been a major theme of the New Testament? I would have expected a lot of "metascripture" in Scripture. "A time is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will learn of Me through the words of a book, and never by any other means."

I read something slightly different: "I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live" (John 5:25).


  1. Dear Schooley,

    I posted over at Jolly's on this and thought I might as well jump in here, too. I've had thoughts similar to yours, especially with respect to teaching, the sine qua non of reformed thinking. We reformed folk tend to place extreme value on teaching, but teaching is almost by definition extra-canonical, though it relies on the canon for its fodder. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Why should subjective intellectual understanding carry so much weight, over and aqainst experience? Weren't experientially observed phenomena such as love, joy, peace and patience the validation of godliness for the canon's authors?

  2. Keith,

    I think you make a very good point of incoherence in the cessationist position. Have you read Reformed theologian Vern S. Poythress's paper on Miraculous Gifts? You can find it here:

    In it, he attempts to walk a middle path between gifts ceasing and continuing. He ends, in my view, pretty much giving the store away to non-cessationists which I find incredible.

    Have a great day. With that, I am...


    p.s. I was having huge problems with my blog. I now am experimenting with another venue.

  3. Thanks for this perspective, which I think is very helpful. I am currently debating this issue on a couple of blogs. Would you mind if I quote you? (with attribution of course).

    I have also written some posts on my view here:

    I think cessationism fails on scriptural grounds, but I am not convinced that what we are seeing in the modern Charismatic movement is the true gifts.

    Any chance of a cross link in your blogroll?


  4. You're more than welcome to quote. I'll check out your site with a view toward adding you to my blogroll and rss feeds. Welcome to my little corner of cyberspace!

  5. Thanks for the post. It's certainly one of the more thoughtful out there. But I don't agree! I've explained why here. I'd be interested in your views.