Posted tagged ‘Acts of the Apostles’

Why I’m Mostly a Cessationist

May 16, 2009

The recent debate with Coramdeo gave me an opportunity to reflect, study, and reason through the issue of Spiritual gifts.  Most importantly, I was able to see the arguments and Scripture used to support cessationism.

The title of this post may seem in contradiction to my previous one.  However, as I will show, I still have the same problems with cessationism yet consider myself to be one.

Definitions

Most of the difficulty in studying and discussing the issue of spiritual gifts lies in what the heck we mean when we say things.  To some, cessationism means a belief that God never does any miracles, nor imparts His power onto His people in the form of “gifts”, anymore. 

To some, continuationism means those who believe that the gifts have continued in the exact same way they occured in the New Testament.

In fact, even the term “gifts” is hard to nail down.  If God has given me the gift of prophecy, does that mean I hold the office of prophet?  Or merely that God has gifted me with the ability to teach His Word?  Is not speaking God’s Word directly in the lives, hearts and minds of fellow Christians a gift?  If I participated in a healing through prayer, does that mean I have the gift of healing?  Or is it that God just did a singular work of healing?  Is not a singular healing still a gift?  How many healings do I have to be involved in before I “have the gift”?

Do you see how hard to define these words become?  Alot of explanation is needed before we are on the same page when I say the word “gifts”.  In order to clarify, I will attempt to parse out a difference here:  I consider that a “gift of the Spirit” has been bestowed upon someone even if they only do it once.  Does that person “have the gift of healing”?  I don’t know, but at that moment they did.  You can think of this as a single incidence of God working through a believer, it’s the same thing, I’m just using the word “gift” to describe it. 

On the other hand, the office of healer or prophet is someone that can do it all the time.  Just as the man who holds the office of president is president all the time, if you went to someone who held the office of healer, you would be healed.  Some may think of this as someone “having the gift of healing” but I’m using the phrase office of ____ to describe it because it provides the separation we need when discussing this issue.

I’m interested in discussing these definitions and seeing if there is a better fit out there that allows us a better way to think about this issue.

It doesn’t matter what definition to the these words you subscribe to, it matters how people use them.  The cessationism I have a problem with is the one that says “God just doesn’t do these things anymore”.  The cessationism I have become to subscribe to is the kind that says the gifts are wholly different than they were in the 1st century, and the offices have ceased.  I will explain what I mean.

 Historical Cessationism

Ok, the above term is nothing I’ve heard of before.  Perhaps there is a term out there that already represents what I’m about to describe, but I just thought of this one. 

My cessationism comes from the annals of history.  If you read the history of the church and especially the writings of the early church fathers, not only do you not hear of any prophets but you see them lamenting the fact that there aren’t any!  Think about it from their point of view:  There has been a long standing tradition of prophets existing in the world as recorded in the Old Testament, which continued with a flurry as recorded by the Book of Acts.  In fact, you could consider every writer of the New Testament as prophets as they were inspired to write the Word of God.

The early church fathers would naturally assume that this tradition would continue.  However, it did not.  They all looked around them and all they could see was false prophets who went against the Word of God  (There is a good reference here for that).  The office of prophet seemed to be…gone.

Another exercise could be to look around today.  Are there any prophets?  Maybe, but I haven’t seen any.  He’d have to prove himself and, sorry, Benny Hin is not it.  Same with the office of healer.  Sure, God has and does perform miraculous healing using prayer and the actions of His Church.  However, the office of healer is someone that heals all the time.   Think about a guy like Peter.  If you went to him, you were healed.  In studying early church history, and looking at the world around us, there doesn’t seem to be someone like that.

So, history seems to attest to the cessation of the offices of prophet and healer.  My cessationism is historically informed. 

Why the “Mostly”

I can call myself a historical cessationist but not a Biblical cessationist because Biblical cessationism doesn’t presently exist.  That is, the Bible says the gifts will cease but in describing whenthe gifts will cease, it is clear that it is not now.  Let’s look at the verses used to support cessationism and why I can say that Biblical cessationism doesn’t exist.

1 Cor 13 is one of the more popular ones used: 

…but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part;  10but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.11When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.  12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

There are many problems with translating “the perfect” as the “the canon” and that is explained in one of my previous posts.  The bottom line is that at the very least, it is just as likely that Paul is referring to “the perfect” to be the coming of our glorified bodies in heaven as it is the canon.  In fact, the NIV translates “the perfect” as “perfection”.  The only way that this passage is solid evidence that the gifts ceased with the canon is if you want it to be.

Eph 4:11-13 is also used quite frequently.  The argument made here is that the offices of prophets and apostles have ceased because the church has been established:

11And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

This point is more well explained in my previous post, so I’ll be brief here.  Basically, it is bad Biblical hermeneutics to pick two offices out of the five Paul mentions in the same breath and say, “those have ceased!”.  If those two have ceased because of the establishment of the church, then all five have ceased because Paul lists all five together.  The only reason a cessationist will say that the offices of pastor, teacher and evangelist hasn’t ceased is because it’s obvious they haven’t!  They use the passage when it supports their position (apostle and prophet) but ignore it when it doesn’t (pastor, teacher and evangelist). 

Also, Paul tells us when these office will ceased and, I’m sorry, but looking around at the church today we have not attained the unity of the faith and are not mature men “to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ”.  That is not the Church today.  So just by a plain reading of the text, it’s clear that Paul is not talking about the current church as to when the gifts will cease. 

Remember, I agree that the office of prophet and apostle have ceased, but that’s just not what this passage says.

Another argument used to support cessationism is that if you read the New Testament, the only people who perform the gifts of tongues, prophecy and healing are either Jesus, the Apostles, or those the Apostles laid hands upon to give the gifts. 

The ironic part is that if really doread the New Testament, Scripture doesn’t support this position.  There are a few instances (Acts 8, Acts 19…to name the ones I remember off the top) where those who receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands immediately begin speaking in tongues and prophesying.  However, Scripture never says that the laying on of hands imparted Spiritual gifts.  This is an non-Biblical idea.  In fact, there are two cases in the Book of Acts that render this position irrational. 

Stephen and Philip weren’t apostles, they were deacons, and didn’t receive the Holy Spirit through the laying of hands (as far as we can tell) and yet could perform “signs and wonders” (Acts 6 for Stephen and Acts 8 for Philip).  In Acts 10, Cornelius becomes the first purely Gentile convert to Christianity.  Peter isn’t even done speaking, doesn’t lay hands on them or baptize them and Cornelius and his family and friends receive the Holy Spirit and begin speaking in tongues and prophesying. 

Conclusion

I look in the history of the church, and the current state of the church, and I see that the office of prophet and healer has ceased to exist.  I look in the Scriptures and I find that I can’t say the gifts have ceased.  I see clear guidelines in how to use them and discern what is actually from the Spirit and what isn’t. 

I also see that Paul emphasizes one gift over all others:  Love.  We should not focus on, pray for or consider important any other gift besides love.