Why I am not a cessationist or a charismatic

Nathan Busenitz over at Faith & Practice recently posted Why I’m Not a Charismatic. Nathan’s post is a helpful, gracious defense of his theological position. It’s moderate but firm, and thoughtful without being ponderous. It’s well worth a read. It’s a summary of his position, so he promises detailed exegesis will come later. He rightly emphasises that experience is not the authority, only the Bible is, to which of course I agree.

I suppose I ought to start by following his excellent example and confession that many of my favourite preachers are cessationists. If you don’t believe me, I’ll show you my sermon tape collection – you’ll find over 150 McArthur tapes there. So why am I not a cessationist?

This post is more by way of a response to him rather than a point-by-point defence of continuationism. In other words, I intend to respond to Nathan’s points rather than develop my own. However, before I do that, there is one vital text that is rarely addressed by cessationists, and wasn’t mentioned by Nathan. That text is the key reason I’m not a cessationist.

…this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days, God says,
  I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
  your young men will see visions,
  your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
  I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
  and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heaven above
  and signs on the earth below,
  blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
  and the moon to blood
  before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
  on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

(Acts 2:16-21)

Any honest reading of Acts 2 must come to the conclusion that the obvious way to interpret the text is that in the last days not only will we see prophecy, but the last days will be characterised by prophecy. The last days will be marked with a pouring out of the Spirit on male and female, young and old.

Now I obviously understand that scripture must be interpreted by scripture, and it is possible that other scriptures could shed light on this passage which means my superficial reading of it is proved wrong. But whatever arguments cessationists may bring, they must address Acts 2. Are the last days to be characterised by the prophethood of all believers, or not?

So Richard Gaffin (perhaps the best defender of cessationism) says:

Pentecost means two things: (a) The Spirit is now present, at last and permanently, on the basis of the finished work of Christ… (b) the Spirit is now poured out “on all people” (Are miraculous gifts for today, pg 37).

Later, he even acknowledges that Acts 2 does confirm the prophethood of all believers:

Am I then denying the prophethood of all believers…? Not at all, but it has to be properly defined.… “and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:18) cannot find its fulfillment in the restrictively distributed gift of 1 Corinthians 12-14. (ibid., pg 291)

In other words, even cessationist theology is bound to explain and define the prophethood of all believers if it is to do justice to the New Testament text. Gaffin at least does that, though I disagree with his conclusion. I’ll maybe post about this in more detail at a future date, but for now simply notice that Gaffin argues that the prophethood of all believers cannot be the gift described in 1 Corinthians because the gift is not for all believers. In response I would argue that Paul encourages all to seek the gift of prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:39), which he could not unless it was available to all.

Nathan, how do you explain Acts 2:16-21?

The Definitional argument

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s turn to Nathan’s three arguments. His first is the definitional argument: “In other words, what charismatics are calling the gifts of tongues, healing, and prophecy are not, in fact, what the New Testament is talking about when it uses those same terms.” Now actually, I agree with that sentence (I’m a continuationist remember, not a charismatic). But I don’t agree with what follows. I don’t agree that Nathan’s definitions are any better.

He asserts that the gift of tongues is really a gift of languages (by which he means “the ability to speak a previously unlearned foreign language for the purpose of evangelism”). Clearly that was happening in Acts 2. But that cannot be what was happening in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Can you seriously imagine the apostle Paul putting such a gift at the bottom of the pile of gifts to desire? Nathan’s mostly right when he writes, “the charismatic practice of tongues more or less consists of a private prayer language consisting of spiritual speech (or really gibberish in terms of linguistic verifiability) for the purpose of self-edification. But this clearly does not match the New Testament description of the gift; thus it cannot be the same thing.” Modern day charismatic tongue-speaking is not gift described in the New Testament. So what is the NT gift? Paul is clear that interpreted tongues is equivalent to prophecy, so the closest we can come to a definition is to say the tounges is “prophecy in another language”. There is no demand that the gift of language be miraculous. (Nathan’s subsequent post does not address this either.) We all admit that some of what happened at Pentecost was unique, and it may be the the miraculous ‘learning’ of a language was part of that uniqueness. (A likely indicator of this is that the redemptive-historical event of which Pentecost is a part was a rolling back of the curse of sin, of which Babel is part.)

I’ve written elsewhere that the gift of healing is not “the ability of a gifted healer to miraculously heal a sick person in Jesus’ name” as Nathan argues. There’s nowhere in the New Testament to suggest that the gift of healing requires a healer. The indications are that if you receive a gift of healing then you are healed. The NIV’s “God has appointed… those having gifts of healing” in 1 Corinthians 12:28 is just wrong translation. the ESVs’ “God has appointed… gifts of healing” is correct.

He continues: “The gift of prophecy was the ability to predict the future and proclaim the revelation of God.” I agree with the second part of the sentence, but not the first. Nowhere in the New Testament do we have any indication that the gift of prophecy is the ability to predict the future. I’ve been meaning to post giving a definition of prophecy for some time, and one day I will, but predicting the future it ain’t.

The Theological Argument

Nathan doesn’t go into as much detail here, but he’s basically correct in what he says. But continuationists do not disagree. We affirm that “the purpose of the miraculous sign gifts is to authenticate the authority of the message being proclaimed.” But his closing sentence is telling “Thus, both the authority and sufficiency of the completed canon make the miraculous sign gifts no longer necessary” (emphasis added). Could it be that the spiritual gifts Paul speaks of in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 are not the same as the signs that authenticated the apostles message? I acknowledge that there are few charismatics arguing the case for this, but some continuationists are. To say they are the same thing is an assumption not permitted by scripture.

The exegetical argument

Here Nathan is at his weakest, relying on 1 Corinthians 13:10, with a modicum of support of Ephesians 4, Hebrews 2 and Revelation 22. As he promises to come back with more exegesis later I won’t respond in detail. Let me just quote the cessationst Gaffin again:

The coming of the perfect… no doubt refer[s] to the time of Christ’s return. The view that they describe the point at which the New Testament canon is completed cannot be made credible exegetically… it strains Paul’s statements by reading into them considerations that are outside his scope here… The time of the cessation of prophecy and tongues is an open question so far as this passage is concerned and will have to be decided on the basis of other passages and considerations. (Perspectives on Pentecost, 109-111)

The historical argument

Nathan rightly acknowledges that whilst history is not authoritative, it is a useful second line of defence. He has three points:

  • First, the church today is different than the church of the apostolic period in at least one important way: they had apostles, we don’t. I agree. And could it just be true that Paul and Peter in the book of Acts are different from the Christians of 1 Corinthians 12-14 in at least one important way: they were apostles, the Corinthians weren’t. Which perhaps would mean that the Corinthians were to seek gifts that were wholly different from the signs displayed in the book of Acts.
  • Second, the gifts as described in the book of Acts fit well with the cessationist understanding that such signs were not to be considered normative for all of church history, but rather were special (supernatural) indicators that God was no longer working with national Israel, but was now working with the church (which included Gentiles). I agree (except I thing the sentence should read ‘Second, the signs as described…. See above.
  • Third, since the time of the apostles (and the early church fathers), the miraculous gifts are generally absent from the normal experience of the orthodox church. I agree again. But we have to demonstrate that the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and Romans 12 and elsewhere are miraculous in the way that you mean.

Thanks Nathan for your post. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Comments

  1. Mark,

    Wow! Thanks for all the time and energy you put into that post. It’s obviously given me a lot to think about.

    It seems to me your “concerns” with my post boil down to three main factors…

    1) I did not deal with Joel 2/Acts 2

    2) I am assuming that the activity (of tongues, prophecy, and healing) described in Acts is the same as the activity described in 1 Corinthians. (I believe you noted the difference as being “signs” versus “gifts.”)

    3) Because of number 2, I have misdefined the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12-14

    Would you agree that those are your basic areas of disagreement? I just want to make sure I understand you correctly before I respond in detail.

    Thanks again for your post,

    – Nathan

  2. Thanks Nathan! That just about sums it up, though you could add an over-reliance on 1 Corinthians 13:10 in there if you like! I appreciate the time you took to write your original posts and to read my response.

  3. Mark,

    I finally got around to posting more on cessationism at Faith and Practice. Since I was, in part, responding to your earlier post, I’d love to get your feedback.

    Thanks,

    Nathan

  4. Hey! Another non-cessationist/non-charismatic!! It’s nice to know there are a few of us around!

  5. William Cuthbertson says:

    Thanks, Mark for your thoughtful observations and comments. I was educated in a Bible college and a seminary which both have cessationist roots; so I have struggled w/ this issue for years. Having learned under the theological commitment that Scripture is our ultimate authority, I have always been frustrated w/ the typical cessationist responses that seemed more grounded in experience than clear directives from Scripture. Regardless of which position is right, both sides must do a better job of handling the Word. Please keep this discussion going.

  6. Amanda Nelson says:

    I’m enjoying the dialogue. I’ve struggled with this for years. Something didn’t seem to be adding up to me concerning what I saw in Christianity concerning these views. Then as a believer I’ve been mostly in “non’charismatic” circles other than my “interdenominational college christian fellowship” experience – which leaned toward charismatic. And I’ve found that those who I most respect for their teaching of scripture are either cessationalists or at least conservatives in the area of “signs and wonders.”

    I’ve pondered and studied and pondered and studied – and still can’t land. And as a woman that would want to submit to the spiritual leadership of her husband it has also be a difficult issue when considering the brothers who come pursuing me.

    Furthermore, I work in China where there are frequent reports of “signs and miracles.” I’m not opposed to miracles at all, but being the “questioner” of these reports is never very popular – its like I’m the signs and miracles party pooper!

    So all that to say! Keep it up guys. If anyone can give me a GOOD solid biblical explanation on where to land on these things – I’d welcome it!

  7. Do you think that Ephesians 4 teaches the end of charismatics gifts…

  8. I think the passageActs 2 : 16 – 21 is prophetically referring to the day of Pentecost and then later the Day of theLord. God lives outside time and lots of prophecies are fulfilled at a couple of levels. I don’t think it is necessarily sequential. The Last Days started with pentecost and a couple of
    thousand years later maybe, will end with the Day of the Lord. We will know it is the day of the Lord when the sun starts to go dark. These two events – the prophesying and then the Day of the Lord, would be like Book Ends of the period.

    Acts 2

  9. Have you read Ray Stedman’s sermon about this passage.Acts 2 16 – 21