I already wrote a long post on Strange Fire, so this will be a little shorter. Tim Challies has posted Tom Pennington’s case for Cessationism. It probably has the most substance for Continuationists to consider out of all that has been shared thus far at MacArthur’s anti-charismatic rally. Pennington suggests there are four chief arguments for the charismatic position and then offers seven arguments for the cessationist position. Let’s “briefly” analyze these…
Alleged “chief” arguments for the Charismatic position:
- The New Testament doesn’t say they have ceased. But then again, it doesn’t say that they won’t either.
- 1 Corinthians 13:10 – they say this means that only when Christ returns will the partial gifts of tongues and prophecies cease. This implies that the gifts continue. But this is an uncertain interpretation.
- The New Testament speaks only of the church age, and so, they argue, the gifts that began the church age should continue throughout it. They say we artificially divide it between apostolic and post-apostolic eras. But they do this, too, by not believing that the apostolic office still continues.
- 500 million professing Christians who claim charismatic experiences can’t all be wrong. But if we accept this, then logically we should accept the miracles attested to by one billion Catholics in the world. The truth is that 500 million + people can be wrong.
Regarding #1, I’m surprised. I thought both Cessationists and Continuationists agreed that the Bible does say that the charismata will cease. Paul explicitly stated that “as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease” (1 Cor. 13:8). And in reality, I think a serious exegesis of 1 Cor. 1:4-7 leads me to conclude that the Bible teaches that the spiritual gifts will continue until the “revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (v.7). This seems similar to what Paul writes in 1 Cor. 13, which we’ll address next.
Regarding #2, I’ll let that slide. I find it questionable that what is most likely in the text is reduced to being “uncertain,” but I’ll grant that the text has some ambiguity with in. 1 Cor. 1:4-7, of course, doesn’t but we’ll let that slide. Interestingly, I’ve never heard a Charismatic use 1 Cor. 13:10 as a “chief” argument for their position which leads me to conclude that those who are participating in this Strange Fire conference probably haven’t interacted with any serious Charismatics.
Regarding #3, it’s even more clear that these folks don’t know much about Charismatics because you’ll find quite a bit of difference on the issue of apostolic ministry. Wayne Grudem makes a case against the office of Apostle in his widely used Systematic Theology and yet both New Frontiers and Sovereign Grace believe in modern day apostles. In fact, one of these alleged apostles spoke at at conference put on by MacArthur!
Regarding #4, I am unaware of Wayne Grudem, Sam Storms, John Piper, John Wimber, Craig Keener, Gordon Fee, or any of the other number of scholars who hold to Continuationist theology that would argue that since there are a lot of charismatics they must be correct.
Therefore, I conclude that these alleged “chief” arguments have an agenda behind them and that agenda is simply to make a case against Charismatic theology. Or, to be forthright, Pennington is simply building a case against a straw man.
Pennington’s 7 arguments for Cessationism
Finally we have something that we can interact with that is from a Cessationist. Thus far we’ve heard a lot about what Charismatics allegedly believe but we haven’t heard a lot about what Cessationists believe. So I’m thankful for Pennington’s attempt to make an actual argument for something!
Let’s consider his arguments:
(1) The unique role of miracles. Pennington takes this right out of MacArthur’s playbook (cf. Charismatic Chaos, pp. 112-14). Jack Deere dismantled this argument so thoroughly in his Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Appendix C, “Were There Only Three Periods of Miracles?”). Pennington’s case is:
“There were only 3 primary periods in which God worked miracles through unique men. The first was with Moses; the second was during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha; the third was with Christ and his apostles.”
Well, we’ll just consider the miracles connected with the prophet Daniel and we undermine the entire argument. No one would ever read the Old Testament, without having a theological agenda, and come to the conclusion that there were only three periods of time where God worked miracles through men. That’s absurd and I’m actually surprised that this is number one.
(2) The end of the gift of apostleship. I fail to see how either the end or the continuation of the office of Apostle demands that that the gifts of healings, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues has ceased. Pennington previously argued that “the primary purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to confirm his credentials as God’s final and ultimate messenger” and that “Jesus gave this same power to the apostles, and their miracles served exactly the same purpose.” These purposes do not demand anything of apostles. Furthermore, I think Eph. 4:11 provides a serious challenge to our systematic categories regarding the office of apostle, as well as the fact that the NT provides clear evidence that there were different types of apostles (cf. the difference of the apostle Paul or Peter with the apostle Epaphroditus of Phil. 2:25).
(3) The foundational nature of the New Testament apostles and prophets. If Pennington expects us to grant that there is some ambiguity in 1 Cor. 13:10, surely he’ll acknowledge that there are differences in how exegetes understand Eph. 2:20-21. Grudem and Wallace have both taken different perspectives on this and there is diversity within the scholarly literature.
Interestingly, appeal was made during Steve Lawson’s talk at Strange Fire to John Calvin (which probably caused the Reformer who strongly held to Sola Scriptura to roll over in his grave). In Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians, he clearly believed that the “prophets” mentioned in Ephesians 2:20 were the Old Testament prophets, so if we’re going to allow Calvin to guide us, maybe we should consider his exegesis and not selectively choose sources that only support our theological agenda.
At any rate, I’ll grant that apostles and prophets served a foundational nature in the early church while also believing that the charismata in question still continue.
(4) The nature of the New Testament miraculous gifts. Pennington attempts to discredit the work of Grudem on NT prophecy. He states that there is no difference between OT and NT prophecy. He also says that “New Testament prophecy is direct, infallible revelation.” I’m curious as to why the early church didn’t write down all of these infallible revelations and include them in our Bibles! Philip the evangelist had four unmarried daughters who prophesied and yet we don’t have any of their prophecies in our Bibles? Weren’t they infallible revelations? What about the curious case of Agabus in Acts 21? Or how are we to then understand the church in Corinth? Was Paul really telling them all to give direct, infallible revelation? If so, why don’t we have any of these prophet words that are infallible?
The fact of the matter is that Grudem (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today) and Carson (Showing the Spirit) offer a better understanding of the nature of the NT prophecy. It was not infallible words but needed to be tested (1 Thess. 5:20-21).
Furthermore, I have seen examples of tongues and their interpretation fitting exactly what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14. I’ve also seen healings that were exactly like that of the 1st century. Are we to understand Pennington as saying that he has investigated every modern claim of a “sign and wonder” and determined they are nothing like the biblical examples? Hmmmm. I think not.
(5) The testimony of church history. Pennington asks, “How do they explain the ceasing of miraculous gifts throughout such long periods of church history?” He cites John Chrysostom, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and B. B. Warfield as evidence for this concern.
D.A. Carson wisely states that,
“there is enough evidence that some form of ‘charismatic’ gifts continued sporadically across the centuries of church history that it is futile to insist on doctrinaire grounds that every report is spurious or the fruit of demonic activity or psychological aberration” (Showing the Spirit, 166).
These examples are documented in Kydd’s Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church and Kelsey’s Healing and Christianity. By the way, Augustine retracted his cessationist views and actually provided evidence that the gift of healings was still in operation (cf. City of God, Book XXII, chps. 8-10). Oh, and Grudem provides evidence that Spurgeon actually operated in the gift of prophecy in his The Gift of Prophecy. By the way, did I mention that there’s evidence that suggests that John Calvin might have spoken in tongues? Uh oh…
At any rate, this argument for Cessationism should be abandoned because it is simply not true.
(6) The sufficiency of Scripture. Pennington suggests that “the Spirit speaks only in and through the inspired Word.” What’s fascinating about this statement is that it actually undermines the very Scripture that it’s attempting to protect. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that God only speaks to us through the Bible. This is a presupposition that controls Cessationist epistemology.
Furthermore, I think Grudem has amply demonstrated in his The Gift of Prophecy that the sufficiency of Scripture and continuing charismata are not mutually exclusive. Oh, and did I mention that I don’t think most Cessationists, especially of the MacArthur kind, even have a good understanding of what the gift of tongues was? No? Okay, I’ll save that for later. I just reject the entire scope of MacArthur’s understanding of the nature of tongues.
(7) The New Testament governed the miraculous gifts. Okay, you are about to witness a modern day miracle. I, as a practicing charismatic, totally agree with Pennington here. Maybe it’s because I’m a Third Wave charismatic, but I agree that charismatics have been known to abuse spiritual gifts, especially the gift of tongues. What passes for the expression of tongues in some churches would leave the apostle Paul shaking his head.
So I totally agree that the NT governed the miraculous gifts. Paul lays out guidelines in 1 Corinthians 12-14. I agree with Pennington’s reasoning here. However, I wonder if Pennington would agree with Paul’s governance of the spiritual gifts when he wrote, “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1) and “do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39).
If we’re going to express concern that charismatics do not follow the NT pattern for the expression of tongues, let’s express concern that Cessationists reject an apostolic command.
That is all for now… maybe we’ll have some constructive dialogue in the comments!
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.