Against Cessationism

Against Cessationism December 12, 2022

Against Cessationism

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I do NOT hate Christian cessationists. (So far as I know all “cessationists” are Christians at least nominally.) I have known and been friends with many cessationists over the years. However, I would never join or regularly attend a cessationist church or one pastored by a cessationist.

So what, you ask, is “cessationism?” It is the belief that at least the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 ceased when the Bible was completed. For most cessationists, those include especially speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles and possibly, at least for some, words of knowledge and words of wisdom.

The alternative to cessationism is continuationism. As the word implies, continuationism is the beliefs that ALL the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the New Testament are still available, from the Holy Spirit, to Christians today and ought to be used, “manifested,” in churches “decently and in order” (as Paul commanded in 1 Corinthians 14).

I will go so far as to say that cessationism is at least heterodox and unbiblical. Nowhere does the Bible point to it. The only passage cessationists can point to is 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 which says that tongues will cease when “the perfect” is come. But it also says “knowledge” (gnosis) will cease. Did Paul mean the whole of scripture, the sixty-six books of the canon, when he prophecies (!) that “the perfect” will come and tongues will cease? That is sheer eisegesis, not exegesis. (Eisegesis is reading things into scripture that are not there.)

Although both Luther and Calvin were cessationists, most modern cessationists are fundamentalists. Except what I call “practical cessationists”—those Christians who do not adhere to the belief in cessationism but in practice neglect or suppress the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Modern conservative evangelical/fundamentalist cessationism’s classic is Benjamin B. Warfield’s classic book “Counterfeit Miracles.” It was written in the late 19th century against the rise of proto-Pentecostalism among the Holiness Christians, especially the “healing movement.” Then, when the Pentecostal movement began and took off in the first decades of the 20th century, many conservative evangelicals/fundamentalists made cessationism almost a dogma, certainly a doctrine to be taught and to govern churches’ worship and even individuals’ spiritual devotion and practice of the Christian life.

Perhaps the most outspoken and notable contemporary cessationist is fundamentalist pastor, evangelist, radio preacher, author John MacArthur. But he has many followers in his aggressive cessationism. (Note: I call him a fundamentalist which is my personal opinion based on listening to him speak, watching him on Youtube videos, and reading his books. I believe he is the contemporary embodiment of mid-20th century American fundamentalism.)

I think one reason cessationism became popular is fear, fear of the unpredictable happening. Cessationists fear losing control in worship and over congregants. Pentecostal-charismatic theologian David DuPlessis talked about the “sovereign unpredictability of the Holy Spirit.” The New Testament says that the Spirit, like wind, blows where it/he/she will. And in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul expressly forbids forbidding speaking in tongues!

I identify as post-Pentecostal because, like cessationist Baptist pastor Charles Stanley, I grew up Pentecostal but no longer identify as one. But he and I are very different post-Pentecostals. He is a cessationist now and I am not. I am a continuationist without any specific Pentecostal or charismatic identity. And I believe cessationism is profoundly mistaken and evangelical leaders ought to call it that.

This is not just a matter of differing opinions. Cessationism is wrong and ought to cease. I am a cessationist about cessationism. I believe a Christian church or denomination should take an “open” view toward the “sign gifts” today, neither opposing them nor promoting them as necessary. I believe the “sign gifts” should function in individuals’ lives and in small groups. I don’t oppose their manifestation in public worship services, but it seems to me that in Paul’s wrestling with this in 1 Corinthians 14 we can see that he was nervous about that and wanted to put limits to it.

When I was Pentecostal, including attending a Pentecostal Bible college and being assistant pastor of a Pentecostal-charismatic church, I saw and heard how difficult it is to keep “wildfire” (misuse of the supernatural, sign gifts of the Holy Spirit) from disrupting public worship. I decided it was extremely difficult if not impossible to worship “decently and in order” (and I’m not talking about high liturgy only) when people disrupt the worship with speaking in tongues, prophecies, etc. I witnessed a lot of abuse of these gifts in worship services but also experienced a lot of proper and helpful use of them in small groups—prayer meetings, Bible studies, “covenant groups,” etc.

I do not speak in tongues, but I know people who do and I respect them for it.

An obvious problem here is that in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul offers some confusing  advice or even commands about the governing of the sign gifts, especially tongues, interpretation of tongues, and prophecy, in the worship of the church—especially when there are unbelievers present.

So confusing is Paul’s advice (or instruction) about this in that chapter that one author of a Bible “translation” (more of a paraphrase) simply re-worded parts of the chapter to make it make sense! I don’t recall right now which one of the many that was but my possibly mistaken memory suggests it might have been J. B. Phillips.

So why am I attacking cessationists here? How much influence do they even have? A few years ago the Southern Baptist Convention put out a rule that missionaries supported by the SBC could not speak in tongues even in their private devotions and prayers. Several missionaries, I don’t know how many but I knew some, had to resign their ministries and either “come home” to do something else or look for financial support elsewhere than the SBC.

In my opinion, that rule violated Paul’s clear command not to forbid speaking in tongues. The irony here is that the SBC and most other conservative evangelical and fundamentalist cessationist groups claim to adhere to the doctrine of “biblical inerrancy” but absolutely violate it by forbidding speaking in tongues and other supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit such as prophecy and healing. And many of them have attacked open theists, for example, for allegedly violating the rule of biblical inerrancy just because they interpret the Bible’s witness to God’s foreknowledge differently.

When it comes especially to aggressive cessationists I withdraw, I stay away, I want nothing to do with them. Practical cessationism is different; I view practical cessationists as fellow Christians who simply need my help to rediscover and allow, if not encourage, speaking in tongues, especially in individuals’ prayer lives and possibly in small groups of Christians who meet for prayer, Bible study, and discipleship.

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