Was the Apostle Paul a Cessationist?

Was the Apostle Paul a Cessationist? April 27, 2015

[Much of the following is from my new book, Solving the Samaritan Riddle: Peter’s Kingdom Keys Explain Spirit Baptism, which is being published by Wipf and Stock Publishers to be released this fall.]

I was saved in a Nazareen Church when I was thirteen years old. But I began my theological education in a Bible church when I was an eighteen-year old freshman in college. At my new church, I soon learned about spiritual gifts in the New Testament (NT). They are listed as follows: Romans 12.6–8; 1 Corinthians 12.4–11, 28; Ephesians 4.11;  1 Peter 4.10–11. The easy way to partially remember them is that the first two are in chapter 12 of those letters, and the last two are in chapter 4 of those letters. The Apostle Paul wrote the first three of these four letters, and the Apostle Peter wrote the last one. The primary teaching on spiritual gifts in the NT is in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 12–14.

I was taught that there are two kinds of spiritual gifts: natural and supernatural. My pastor was a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), so that’s what they taught him there. He identified supernatural gifts as apostleship, miracles, healings, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. He also said these supernatural gifts ceased at the end of the first century when all of the books and letters of the NT had been written. About the only biblical text he cited to support this was what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:8–10. It reads in the NRSV, “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” My pastor taught, as he had learned at DTS, that Paul’s expression here, “when the complete comes,” refers to the completed Bible. Some say it is the completed apostolic era. Both occurred about the same time. So I was told that after the first century the Holy Spirit has no longer given the gifts of miracles, healings, tongues, etc. I also was told the reason for this discontinuance is that people then had the NT and thus no longer needed such gifts. This teaching is called “cessationism.”

After I had been in that Bible church for about six years, this “cessationism” was the first of my pastor’s teachings that I jettisoned. And I didn’t hear some other pastor and read some Bible commentary in order to come to this conclusion. Rather, it became obvious to me, solely through my own personal Bible reading, that in 1 Cor 13:8–10 Paul is not referring to a completed Bible or apostolic era but to Jesus’ future return with his “complete” (consummated) kingdom. For Paul here adds, “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12). Face-to-face refers to Jesus’ second coming with his kingdom, given to him in heaven and the simultaneous resurrection of the dead. My pastor also taught that the practice of speaking in tongues by Pentecostals and Charismatics was either psychosomatically induced or the work of the devil. A few years later I left that church.

The Pentecostal Movement began in the early twentieth century in the U.S. with the distinctive belief in a post-conversion experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, called “subsequence,” that must be accompanied by tongues-speaking as attestation of it. The Charismatic Movement began in the 1960s in mainline denominational churches as an extension of Pentecostalism. Most Charismatics accepted this “doctrine of subsequence” and they all spoke in tongues, but many of them said it was not necessary for peopel to speak in tongues to prove they had been baptized with the Holy Spirit.

Historians now divide the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement into three phases that most call “waves.” Its first wave or phase is classical Pentecostalism that began in 1906. The second phase is the Charismatic Movement that began in the late 1950s and the 1960s.[1] It emerged only in non-Pentecostal, mainline, denominational and independent churches. The third phase is The Third Wave, also called the Signs and Wonders Movement. It emerged among Evangelicals in the 1980s. Third Wavers reject both subsequence and evidential tongues.

All three of these divisions of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement have emphasized miraculous gifts such as healing, miracles, prophecy, and glossolalia. Adherents are called “continualists” since they believe these gifts have continued throughout the church age. In contrast, Protestants have relegated them to the apostolic age only. So, Protestants are called “cessationists” since they believe these gifts ceased when the apostolic era ended.

So, does Paul teach the cessation of the gift of tongues or any other so-called “supernatural” or “miraculous” gifts of the Holy Spirit? No and yes. That is, not in this age; but in the eschaton—yes.[2] The following are comments by two leading NT scholars about this subject in 1 Corinthians 13.8–12:

Pentecostal Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 645–46): “It is ‘partial’ because it belongs only to this age, . . . the term ‘the perfect’ has to do with the Eschaton itself, not some form of perfection in the present age. . . . It is not so much that the End itself is ‘the perfect,’ language that does not make tolerably good sense; rather, it is what happens at the End, when the goal has been reached . . . At the coming of Christ the final purpose of God’s saving work in Christ will have been reached; at that point those gifts now necessary for the building up of the church in the present age disappear, because ‘the complete’ will have come. To cite Barth’s marvelous imagery: ‘Because the sun rises all lights are extinguished.'”

Evangelical D.A. Carson (Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14, 70, 183): “It is difficult to believe that Paul could have expected the Corinthians to think that by ‘perfection’ he was alluding to the cessation of the writing of Scripture…. there is no biblical warrant for ruling out all manifestations of contemporary tongues on the ground that the gift was withdrawn in the subapostolic era.”

[1] The word “charismatic” derives from the Greek word charisma, meaning “gift.” The Greek word charis means “favor” or “grace.” The Charismatic and Third Wave movements are renewal efforts that emphasize initial conversion, the use of spiritual gifts, and the practice of miracles, signs, and wonders, all under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

[2] The word “eschaton” (Greek eschatos) means “last (things).” Bible scholars use it to refer to the endtimes and innauguration of the age-to-come. From eschatos they derive the discipline Eschatology–study of last things.

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