As I have discussed my transition away from cessationism with various people, it has become clear that there are actually two related issues entangled together. In my life, they came as a set, but there’s no reason why everybody’s experience would be the same as mine.
The first issue is the question of whether certain miraculous spiritual gifts ceased operating as individually vested gifts after the initial launch of the Church. This is the issue around cessationism proper. Many charismatics don’t understand this, and thus are confused when a cessationist professes to believe that miraculous healings still happen today, that God answers prayer today, and perhaps even that God can still speak through visions and dreams today. The issue in cessationism is not healings, but a particular person having the gift of healing; not someone hearing from God in a general sense, but a particular person having the gift of prophecy. (Generally. This distinction does not hold for tongues — every cessationist I know says it’s over and done with, period.) So with cessationism vs. continuationism, we’re talking about whether the Spirit continues to dispense all the biblically attested spiritual gifts in the present day.
The second issue, although related, is distinct from cessationism: the expectation that God will intervene supernaturally. From the Red Sea to the present day, God’s people have struggled with the temptation to forget that God intervenes in the world. We tend to think of this as a peculiarly modern temptation, but a quick look at the Exodus generation shows us this is not the case.
Hold that thought a moment.
In eschatology, the wide dividing line has typically been between premillennialists on the one hand, and post- and amillennialists on the other. That’s where the bright political fault lines have been drawn. I want to suggest that this is a mistake.
The lines ought to have been drawn between those who look to the future with hope and expectation, and those who look to the future with gloom and the spirit of Chicken Little. This is the difference that makes a difference. I’m an optimistic premil (or if you like, a dominion dispensationalist), and I have much more in common with a patient postmil than I do with either my doom-and-dystopia premil brethren or most amil folk.
This is not to say that the theological question of when Christ returns relative to the millennium is unimportant. I believe it is an important question, and one which Scripture plainly answers. What I am saying is simply that optimism or pessimism about the future is vastly more important. We who can look at the nations raging, laugh at them with Yahweh, and seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness on earth as it is in heaven — we are one breed. The Chicken Littles are something else, and whatever their doctrinal statements might say, their spirit of fear and their little pronouncements about “polishing the brass on a sinking ship” are not from God, because He doesn’t give that spirit or talk that way.
In similar fashion, I believe that in the battles over the charismatic movement, evangelical Christians drew the bright political line in the wrong place. I know folks who are charismatic in their theology, but day in and day out, expect no divine intervention in their lives. I also know charismatics who go to church, belt out a couple of paragraphs in tongues, and go home — but don’t pray with authority, don’t seek to hear from God, and don’t seek to minister to others in any supernatural way. By the same token, I know rock-ribbed cessationists who believe God speaks in dreams, pray for miracles, and trust Him to supernaturally order their affairs and relationships.
We drew the political line between those who practice all the biblically attested spiritual gifts today, and those who do not. However, the far more important issue is whether, on either side of that line, a person will seek to resolve his problems through doctrine alone, or whether in his daily practice he will also expect God to intervene supernaturally.
I’m open to suggestions for naming these positions, but for our present purposes, I’d like to call them doctrinalism and supernaturalism, respectively.
Two points of clarification. First, I’m talking about habits of practice, not talking points. I know lots of people who on paper, and when pressed will admit that it’s possible God would intervene miraculously today, but in practice, from day to day, they rely on doctrine alone, and they teach their followers to rely on doctrine alone. These people are doctrinalists, no matter what they say.
Second, I am not setting up an either-or situation here. It’s not either doctrine or supernatural intervention. I am talking about people who rely on doctrine alone versus those who look to doctrine, but also seek for God to intervene supernaturally in the present.
Again, I am not saying the cessationism question is unimportant. Not at all. I think the stakes are very high in that conversation. In the interests of full disclosure, let me just go ahead and spill the beans: I believe that most cessationists and most charismatics have one critical thing in common: an allergy to biblical discernment. I believe that the Church will not grow into health and maturity unless she employs all the biblically attested gifts (cessationists, I’m lookin’ at you), and she employs them with testing and discernment, as Scripture requires (charismatics, I’m lookin’ at you too), and all of that in the context of loving God enough to take His Word seriously and be visibly united with His people. So yeah, I think it’s an incredibly important issue.
However, supernaturalism/doctrinalism is a much more important issue. The question of whether God will intervene through the gift of healing is important, but the question of whether God will intervene at all is obviously an even more important question.
I would contend that in most ministry venues, supernaturalists — charismatic or not — are natural allies. Doctrinal statements can create a barrier where no biblically founded barrier exists, of course, but those who look for and appreciate God’s intervention can work together, if they’re allowed to — or if they simply choose to move forward no matter what their more sectarian brethren might prefer.
And then later, over a bottle of wine, they can argue over whether the miraculous healing they just prayed for, and received, was the result of the gift of healing, or whether it was simply an answer to prayer.