Spirit wars: “Cessationists” vs. Pentecostalists

BEV ASKS:

I’ve been running into people who are cessationist [aligned with conservatives like] John MacArthur, who calls those who believe in the supernatural gifts chaotic, heretics, apostates, and not part of the true church. So, what are your thoughts?

THE GUY SAYS:

The cessationist movement opposes practices in Pentecostal and “Charismatic” churches that have prospered during the past century. Even celebrities Katy Perry and Megan Fox have provoked buzz by recalling Pentecostal experiences and there’s vigorous online debate among Protestants. As usual, The Guy won’t share personal opinions but explain matters journalistically.

Cessationists (mentioned in a July 19 “Religion Q and A” posting) say the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament were special phenomena that God gave to help establish the Christian church but appropriately died away. It’s wise to subject any expressions and claims of spiritual “gifts” to careful scrutiny, but cessationism goes further, saying in principle they shouldn’t occur in the first place.

The Apostle Paul’s New Testament list in I Corinthians 12:8-11 includes non-controversial wisdom and faith along with items in dispute: “gifts of healing,” “the working of miracles,” “prophecy,” “various kinds of tongues,” and “the interpretation of tongues.”

All Christians believe in and pray for miracles, especially healings, but Pentecostalism makes this a distinct ministry, often through specially gifted workers of miracles. “Prophecy” is understood as oracles spoken at church meetings that are direct revelations from God. Critics say this improperly adds to the Bible, God’s final revelation, and MacArthur contends the New Testament word means ordinary teaching and preaching. “Tongues” refers to glossolalia, prayer language consisting of spoken syllables unrelated to known languages. MacArthur, however, thinks New Testament “tongues” refers to miraculous ability to use actual foreign languages unknown to the speaker, which was clearly the case on the Day of Pentecost depicted in Acts 2:1-12.

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French lawyer-turned-theologian and founder of Presbyterian and Reformed Protestanism, wrote this cessationist dictum: “The gift of healing disappeared with the other miraculous powers which the Lord was pleased to give for a time that it might render the new preaching of the Gospel forever wonderful” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV 19:18).  Likewise, the statement of faith at The Master’s Seminary in California, led by MacArthur: “Speaking in tongues and the working of sign miracles in the beginning days of the church were for the purpose of pointing to and authenticating the apostles as revealers of divine truth, and were never intended to be characteristic of the lives of believers.”

MacArthur is indeed an outspoken cessationist, with books like Charismatic Chaos (1992) and the forthcoming Strange Fire. That second title is a hostile reference to Leviticus 10:1-2, where false worshippers were consumed by the flames.  Promotional material for the new book depicts the Charismatic movement as “a breeding ground for scandal, greed, bad doctrine, and all kinds of spiritual chicanery” that exchanges “true worship for chaotic fits of mindless ecstasy.” MacArthur will host an October conference, already sold out, to rouse fellow evangelicals to more fervent cessationism.

Among other things, cessationists cite I Corinthians 13:8, which says prophecies and tongues shall cease whereas “love never ends.” They also note that Paul cites gifts of miraculous tongues and healings only in I Corinthians, an early epistle, and not when he treats Holy Spirit gifts in later writings, nor do Peter or James mention tongues. Another argument is that tongues-speaking mostly disappeared throughout the rest of church history and its occasional appearances involved unorthodox groups.

The Pentecostal “continuationists” reply that Paul never suggested any distinction between temporary and permanent spiritual gifts, and taught that all the cited gifts are part of the proper functioning of Christian fellowships. For a full continuationist case, see:

www.renewaltheology.net/A_Theological_Pilgrimmage/tp13.htm

For a summary of MacArthur’s thinking, see:

www.gty.org/resources/distinctives/dd06/the-gift-of-tongues

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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