Resignation FAQ part 2: Why I am no longer a Cessationist

I gave all the caveats for this post in my previous post, so I won’t repeat everything. Briefly, I am giving an account of why I am no longer a cessationist. I am not attacking anybody’s ministry and I am not setting out to criticize anyone. Some critique of cessationism and its proponents will come up inevitably along the way, but I can’t help that. I’m not trying to hurt anyone; I’m just telling about what God has done in my life.

I was raised in a cessationist tradition. The first thing you have to understand about cessationism is that it’s not monolithic. You have some guys that believe the modern-day phenomenon that Pentecostals call the gift of tongues is a demonic manifestation. You have some who view it as a natural expression of joy — but not the biblical gift of tongues. Every cessationist I know believes that God continues to answer prayer, and all of them believe that miraculous healings continue to occur today, but some will pray passionately and publicly for a healing, while others would feel that it’s sinful (or at least unwise) to “test God” in that way. Some cessationists have a deeply personal relationship with God, believing that they receive daily guidance from Him through impressions, inner leading, even dreams; others believe God only speaks through the Bible today (and sometimes, the same person will hold both points of view — about which more later). The common thread is the belief that certain miraculous gifts were given at the very beginning of the Church, for the purpose of establishing and validating the Church, and that shortly after the beginning, God ceased to dispense those gifts. Pretty much everybody includes apostleship, prophecy, healing, and tongues among the now-defunct gifts. Some would also include discernment, words of knowledge, words of wisdom. Some would say that these gifts absolutely ceased. Others don’t expect to find these gifts operating in the heart of Christendom, but expect to see them still in operation in situations analogous to the first century — like, for example, when a missionary makes first contact with a stone-age tribe deep in the jungle.

So in a sense, one can speak of “cessationisms” rather than “cessationism;” there’s enough variation to warrant it. The particular instance of cessationism that led to my resignation was RMBC&S’s teaching statement on the issue, which reads, “The miraculous gifts (apostles, prophets, healings, miracles including a word of wisdom or word of knowledge, and tongues) were temporary in nature as signs to unbelieving Jews and as a validation of the New Testament message and its messengers at the initial stage of the church.” I want to make clear that the RMBC&S statement is an instance of the sort of thing I’m rejecting, but this is not simply a matter of slightly different framing of the same basic sentiment. I am rejecting all cessationisms, root and branch.

I have always been an exegete at heart. If I am going to get up in front of people and say “Thus says the Lord…” I want to be very certain that the Lord has, in fact, said it. This goes back very early for me — I remember our family having knock-down-drag-out fights in the middle of family devotions over whether the passage at hand actually said this or that. This didn’t happen every week, but it wasn’t a particular rarity, either, and on those occasions my parents did not use their parental authority to end the debate — it was understood that the Word was the authority, we were all equally in submission to it, and it was vitally important that we manage to come to an understanding of what it said, so that we might obey it well. (These debates also formed in me the quality that several very frustrated folks have described as “not taking correction well.” It is in fact nothing of the kind — it is a gut-level understanding that you can’t win an exegetical argument with age or political authority any more than you can drive a nail with a kitchen sponge; just the wrong tool for the job. But for guys who are accustomed to doing that, it’s hard to take when a younger man refuses to play along. Oh well.)

Cessationism had always made theological and practical sense to me, and I had been taught that 1 Corinthians 13 was the go-to passage for an exegetical validation. This lasted until seminary. I was in my second or third year of seminary — I can’t remember which — and I had occasion to work through 1 Corinthians 13 in Greek. Ironically, the things I noticed are sitting right there on the surface of the English text, but I’d just never read the passage closely enough before to notice them. Certain gifts will cease — says so right there. But when? It certainly says nothing about the completion of the canon. What it does say is that these gifts will cease when knowledge is full rather than partial, when vision is accurate rather than dim, and when full maturity is reached. I didn’t think to pursue the implications of this at the time (that came later); I was so stunned at what the passage didn’t say that I barely noticed what it did say.

Surprised at what I found, I hunted down my Greek professor and asked if I had missed something. He grinned and said no — the passage does not, in fact, say what most cessationists think it says. He suggested to me that a case for cessationism would be better based on the historical evidence that the sign gifts did, indeed, pass out of existence in the first century, and that the modern manifestations that go by the name of tongues or prophecy fall woefully short of the biblical descriptions of tongues and prophecy. That made sense to me, and I went with it. I did, however, continue to want a genuinely exegetical case for the doctrine, and I continued to search for one.

Long story short, I didn’t find one, and I looked at a lot of cessationist arguments. Hebrews 1:1-2 certainly does say that God spoke through prophets in the past, but it doesn’t preclude prophets after Christ — and in fact, there were a number of them, as the book of Acts attests. Hebrews 2:3-4 tells us what purpose the signs and wonders serve, but never says they stopped. Likewise, Ephesians 2:20 says that the apostles and prophets are foundational, but it doesn’t say they have no continuing role (it also says that Christ is the chief cornerstone, and I’m pretty sure we all agree that He has a continuing role.) Even if 2 Corinthians 12:12 says that signs and wonders and mighty works were the signs of an apostle (questionable, but let it pass for the moment), it never says that nobody else did signs, wonders, and mighty works — and in fact, many others did, starting with the 70 that Jesus sent out, and continuing into Stephen, Philip, Ananias, and others. There were certainly people who were not healed miraculously — Paul had his thorn in the flesh (if that was a physical ailment), Timothy had his weak stomach, Trophimus was sick enough that he couldn’t leave Miletus with Paul, Epaphroditus almost died, and so on — but that didn’t mean that healing wasn’t happening; it just meant that not everybody was healed.

Now, the theology of cessationism made sense to me, but increasingly it looked like the theology of Calvinism: internally self-consistent and well worked out as a system, but utterly lacking in exegetical support for the key assumptions. In other words, something that could be true, but seemed to lack the necessary biblical evidence to establish for sure that it really was true. That made it an interesting speculation, but clearly not in “thus saith the Lord” territory. Knowing that the exegetical evidence was woefully insufficient and the theological formulations were speculative at best, I fell back on what, to me, was an obvious point of historical fact: the miraculous gifts seemed to have died out at the end of the first century, and some explanation for the (lack of) phenomena was required. If the explanation turned out to be a bit shaky and incomplete, there was still the brute fact that signs and wonders of the biblical type didn’t continue happening, which made cessationism (in some form) seem pretty likely.

At the same time all this was going on, I became friends with a Pentecostal pastor serving in Orange County, CA. You have to understand, I’d known some charismatic folks back in high school, and those guys pretty much confirmed every stereotype I’d ever been taught — they were flaky, emotional, undependable, unwilling to plan because they wanted to “let the Spirit lead,” which in practice meant doing whatever stupid thing came into their heads at the moment, unreflective, and uninterested in serious study of the Scriptures (again, they would rather “let the Spirit lead” than read the Bible — apparently it never occurred to them that He might be leading them to do just that.) So I’d steered clear of charismatic folks ever since, but this guy was wise, a serious student of the Bible, loving, down to earth — in fact, he was a godly man to whom I could turn for advice in ministry matters, with good results. It was news to me that you could be charismatic and not be a nutcase.

Sidebar: Many of the people who were responsible for my prejudice in the first place will admit, when pressed, that they know a few sane charismatics. However, they were only too happy to have me think that all charismatics were nuts, and never took the time to nuance that generalization by making the appropriate qualifications. This is a violation of the Golden Rule and the Ninth Commandment, which is to say, a major ethical problem. Just sayin’.

I remember that about this time, I found myself in a debate with a Calvary Chapel pastor over the gifts of the Spirit. I articulated my historical/practical defense, and he was underwhelmed. I remember his response like it was yesterday: “So what you’re really saying is just that you’ve never seen the gifts in operation?” he asked.

“No, no,” I said, “I’m saying that they just don’t happen after the first century.” Shortly thereafter, he disengaged from the conversation. At the time I felt like it was because we’d reached a stalemate. Looking back, I see that he realized I wasn’t ready to hear the counter-argument that he would have made. Being ready to hear that would take more than just a shift in my thinking: I needed God to do some work in my life as well.

God did that work by moving me to Englewood, CO. In Englewood, I encountered something I’d never seen — or even heard about — before. The evangelical pastors of the city would gather and pray for one another. I don’t mean one of those “prayer luncheons” where you eat a big meal and then spend 2 minutes praying at the end. I mean they’d get together for an hour, check in to see who needed prayer for what, and then wade in and spend 45 minutes of the hour in prayer for each other, for each other’s churches (as well as those churches not represented in the gathering) and for the city. These men were godly, wise pastors who genuinely cared for each other. They talked about how there’s really One Church in Englewood (even if it happens to meet in 24 different locations most weeks) — and they really meant it, and lived it. In order to show that to their congregations, they rented out the high school football stadium once a year and had a joint church service. The first year, there were 8 churches participating. This past year, 14 churches canceled their Sunday morning services to go to the stadium and meet together. In Englewood, I saw John 17 incarnated in ways I’d never seen before. These were the men I wanted to be when I grew up. As I got to know them better, I slowly realized that almost to a man, they were charismatic. Even the Dutch Reformed guy and the Anglican priest.

I had settled in my mind years ago that if you were going to practice something that you would call the charismatic gifts today, then obviously you had to follow the biblical guidelines for them — tongues must be interpreted, prophecies must be judged, and so on. I had never seen a charismatic church even try to implement those guidelines. Among these guys, it was a no-brainer: of course you had to follow the biblical guidelines. So my stereotypes of what it meant to be charismatic were shattering left and right. I recognized that I was seeing a practice of charismatic Christianity that had heard the cessationist criticisms of the various excesses practiced in the name of the Holy Spirit, taken the biblical content of the criticism to heart, and responded to it. In short, I was seeing maturity. Of course I was still a cessationist at this point, but I found myself forced to admit that these guys took the Bible seriously, and didn’t use charismatic phenomena as an excuse to dodge faithfulness to Scripture.

Speaking of faithfulness to Scripture, I was beginning to develop some biblical problems of my own. As I continued to investigate, the lack of exegetical evidence for cessationism became the least of my concerns: I was increasingly finding a great weight of biblical evidence against cessationism. About this time, a friend who headed a Bible study for a group of pastors and elders one day called me with news: “We’re not cessationists anymore.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because the final fulfillment of Joel 2 is still future. If, in the future, our sons and daughters will prophesy, then how can we believe that prophecy has already ceased?”

Good question. And that was just the beginning of the contradictions. I maintained that the New Testament was the authority for church doctrine and practice, but at the same time I also said that the practices that characterized the New Testament church should no longer characterize us today. I held the Great Commission as a charter for modern-day disciple-making, but surely “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” would include repeating Jesus’ commands to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” – and I neither obeyed these commands myself nor passed them on to my disciples. To the contrary, I taught my disciples not to do these things, nor trust anyone who (reportedly) did. I even disregarded passages like James 5:14-15 which spoke to supernatural expectations, but said nothing whatever about the putatively ceased miraculous gifts. Biblical commands began to leap off the page at me: “Do not despise prophecies.” “Do not forbid to speak in tongues.” “Desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.”

I began to wonder: if these things are supposed to continue, then why didn’t they? Why don’t they still happen? Upon investigation, I found that they do. Missionary friends return from the field with story after story — things they personally witnessed, things very much like the events of the Bible, things they don’t much talk about in the Western church because it freaks people out. And it wasn’t just the mission field. A close personal friend had his broken kneecap miraculously healed right here in the United States. Another friend was routinely seeing healing from a wide variety of ailments in direct response to his prayers. I had occasion to hear that guy speak on church history, and I was shocked at what I heard. To hear him tell it, the entire history of the church was just riddled with signs and wonders and healings. This was a history I had never heard about, despite being a church history teacher’s son and a close student of church history myself. I had to know more.

I began to investigate, and what I found surprised me. You’d never know it from the history books I read in the course of my theological education, but it’s really true: signs and wonders have characterized the history of the Church from end to end, witnessed (and at times, performed) by such sober-minded saints as Augustin, John Knox, and Charles Spurgeon. The more I looked, the more I found, both in history and in the present day. Only by dismissing accounts of supernatural events out of hand as myths — or simply by refusing to pay attention to them — can we effectively maintain the illusion that these things stopped happening at the end of the first century. The fact that so many Christian historians were willing to do just that was incredibly disturbing to me. If these guys applied the same criteria to the biblical miracle accounts that they applied to accounts of anything that happened since, they would be 19th-century liberals. (Ahem.) Where did they learn to look at stories of God’s supernatural doings with such a priori skepticism? Certainly not from the pages of Scripture!

But while the theory of cessationism was falling apart before my very eyes, the biggest blow wasn’t theoretical at all.

I hope to have the rest of the story up next week, but this is as much as I have been able to write so far. Thank you for your attention, and I sincerely hope I am meeting my goal of being gracious to all concerned and truthful at the same time.

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