Continuationist or Cessationist — Two Views

I have my views and you likely have yours.  What do you believe and how do you support your position?  Here you have a couple of very well considered position papers supporting firmly and honestly held beliefs about the way God is operating in His Kingdom today.  Both writers clearly love the Lord and wish to serve Him faithfully.  The views were expressed on The Gospel Coalition website and you can get to the original postings at: HERE (the Continuationist view by Sam Storms)  and HERE (the Cessationist view by Thomas Schreiner).  RMF

Why I Am a Continuationist by Sam Storms

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So, why am I a continuationist? My reasons follow. (Please note that I’ve written several articles that provide more extensive evidence for the points I make, but space limitations permit me only to mention them by name. All of them are found at my website.)

Let me begin with the consistent, indeed pervasive, and altogether positive presence throughout the New Testament (NT) of all spiritual gifts. The problems that emerged in the church at Corinth were not due to spiritual gifts, but to immature people. It wasn’t the gifts of God but the childish, ambitious, and prideful distortion of gifts on the part of some that accounts for Paul’s corrective comments.

Furthermore, beginning with Pentecost and continuing throughout the book of Acts, whenever the Spirit is poured out on new believers they experience his charismata. There is nothing to indicate these phenomena were restricted to them and then. Such appear to be both widespread and common in the NT church. Christians in Rome (Rom. 12), Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14), Samaria (Acts 8), Caesarea (Acts 10), Antioch (Acts 13), Ephesus (Acts 19), Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5), and Galatia (Gal. 3) experience the miraculous and revelatory gifts. It’s difficult to imagine how the NT authors could have spoken any more clearly about what new covenant Christianity is supposed to look like. In other words, the burden of proof rests with the cessationist. If certain gifts of a special class have ceased, the responsibility is his or hers to prove it.

Extensive Evidence

I’d also point to the extensive NT evidence of so-called miraculous gifts among Christians who are not apostles. In other words, numerous non-apostolic men and women, young and old, across the breadth of the Roman Empire consistently exercised these gifts of the Spirit (and Stephen and Philip ministered in the power of signs and wonders). Others aside from the apostles who exercised miraculous gifts include (1) the 70 who were commissioned in Luke 10:9, 19-20; (2) at least 108 people among the 120 who were gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost; (3) Stephen (Acts 6-7); (4) Philip (Acts 8); (5) Ananias (Acts 9); (6) church members in Antioch (Acts 13); (7) anonymous converts in Ephesus (Acts 19:6); (8) women at Caesarea (Acts 21:8-9); (9) the unnamed brethren of Galatians 3:5; (10) believers in Rome (Rom. 12:6-8); (11) believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14); and (12) Christians in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19-20).

We must also give room to the explicit and oft-repeated purpose of the charismata: namely, the edification of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:7; 14:3, 26). Nothing I read in the NT or see in the condition of the church in any age, past or present, leads me to believe we’ve progressed beyond the need for edification—and therefore beyond the need for the contribution of the charismata. I freely admit that spiritual gifts were essential for the birth of the church, but why would they be any less important or needful for its continued growth and maturation?

There is also the fundamental continuity or spiritually organic relationship between the church in Acts and the church in subsequent centuries. No one denies there was an era or period in the early church that we might call “apostolic.” We must acknowledge the significance of the personal, physical presence of the apostles and their unique role in laying the foundation for the early church. But nowhere does the NT ever suggest that certain spiritual gifts were uniquely and exclusively tied to them or that the gifts passed with their passing. The universal church or body of Christ that was established and gifted through the ministry of the apostles is the same universal church and body of Christ today. We are together with Paul and Peter and Silas and Lydia and Priscilla and Luke members of the same one body of Christ.

Very much related to the previous point is what Peter says in Acts 2 concerning so-called miraculous gifts as characteristic of the new covenant age of the church. As D. A. Carson has said, “The coming of the Spirit is not associated merely with the dawning of the new age but with its presence, not merely with Pentecost but with the entire period from Pentecost to the return of Jesus the Messiah” (Showing the Spirit, 155). Or again, the gifts of prophecy and tongues (Acts 2) are not portrayed as merely inaugurating the new covenant age but as characterizing it (and let us not forget that the present church age = the “last days”).

We must also take note of 1 Corinthians 13:8-12. Here Paul asserts that spiritual gifts will not “pass away” (vv. 8-10) until the coming of the “perfect.” If the “perfect” is indeed the consummation of God’s redemptive purposes as expressed in the new heaven and new earth following Christ’s return, we can confidently expect him to continue blessing and empowering his church with the gifts until that time.

A similar point is made in Ephesians 4:11-13. There Paul speaks of spiritual gifts (together with the office of apostle)—and in particular the gifts of prophecy, evangelism, pastor, and teacher—as building up of the church “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13; italics mine). Since the latter most assuredly has not yet been attained by the church, we can confidently anticipate the presence and power of such gifts until that day arrives.

I’d also point to the absence of any explicit or implicit notion that we should view spiritual gifts any differently than we do other NT practices and ministries portrayed as essential for the life and wellbeing of the church. When we read the NT, it seems evident that church discipline should be practiced in our assemblies today and that we should celebrate the Lord’s Table and water baptism, and that the requirements for the office of elder as set forth in the pastoral epistles still determine how life in the church should be pursued, just to mention a few. What good exegetical or theological reasons can be given for why we should treat the presence and operation of spiritual gifts any differently?

Consistent Testimony

Contrary to popular belief, there is consistent testimony throughout most of church history concerning the operation of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. It simply isn’t the case that the gifts ceased or disappeared from early church life following the death of the last apostle. Space doesn’t permit me to cite the massive evidence in this regard, so I refer you to four articles I wrote with extensive documentation (see “Spiritual Gifts in Church History“).

Cessationists often argue that signs and wonders as well as certain spiritual gifts served only to confirm or authenticate the original company of apostles and that when the apostles passed away so also did the gifts. The fact is no biblical text (not even Heb. 2:4 or 2 Cor. 12:12, two texts I explain in articles here) ever says signs and wonders or spiritual gifts of a particular sort authenticated the apostles. Signs and wonders authenticated Jesus and the apostolic message about him. If signs and wonders were designed exclusively to authenticate apostles, we have no explanation why non-apostolic believers (such as Philip and Stephen) were empowered to perform them (see especially 1 Cor. 12:8-10, where the “gift” of “miracles,” among others, was given to average, non-apostolic believers).

Therefore, this is a good reason for being a cessationist only if you can demonstrate that authentication or attestation of the apostolic message was the sole and exclusive purpose of such displays of divine power. However, nowhere in the NT is the purpose or function of the miraculous or the charismata reduced to attestation. The miraculous, in whatever form, served several other distinct purposes: doxological (to glorify God: John 2:11; 9:3; 11:4; 11:40; and Matt. 15:29-31); evangelistic (to prepare the way for the gospel to be made known: see Acts 9:32-43); pastoral (as an expression of compassion and love and care for the sheep: Matt. 14:14; Mark 1:40-41); and edifying (to build up and strengthen believers: 1 Cor. 12:7 and the “common good”; 1 Cor. 14:3-5, 26).

All the gifts of the Spirit, whether tongues or teaching, prophecy or mercy, healing or helping, were given (among other reasons) for the edification, building up, encouraging, instructing, consoling, and sanctifying of the body of Christ. Therefore, even if the ministry of the miraculous gifts to attest and authenticate has ceased, a point I concede only for the sake of argument, such gifts would continue to function in the church for the other reasons cited.

Still Final and Sufficient

Perhaps the most frequently heard objection from cessationists is that acknowledging the validity of revelatory gifts such as prophecy and word of knowledge would necessarily undermine the finality and sufficiency of Holy Scripture. But this argument is based on the false assumption that these gifts provide us with infallible truths equal in authority to the biblical text itself (see my article “Why NT Prophecy Does NOT Result in ‘Scripture-Quality’ Revelatory Words“).

One also hears the cessationist appeal to Ephesians 2:20, as if this text describes all possible prophetic ministry. The argument is that revelatory gifts such as prophecy were uniquely linked to the apostles and therefore designed to function only during the so-called foundational period in the early church. I address this fundamentally misguided view at length here. A close examination of the biblical evidence concerning both the nature of the prophetic gift as well as its widespread distribution among Christians indicates there was far more to this gift than simply the apostles laying the foundation of the church. Therefore, neither the passing of the apostles nor the movement of the church beyond its foundational years has any bearing whatsoever on the validity of prophecy today. One also hears often of the so-called cluster argument, according to which supernatural and miraculous phenomena were supposedly concentrated or clustered at unique periods in redemptive history. I’ve addressed this argument elsewhere and demonstrated that it’s altogether false.

Finally, although it’s technically not a reason or argument for being a continuationist, I cannot ignore experience. The fact is I’ve seen all spiritual gifts in operation, tested and confirmed them, and experienced them firsthand on countless occasions. As stated, this is less a reason to become a continuationist and more a confirmation (although not an infallible one) of the validity of that decision. Experience, in isolation from the biblical text, proves little. But experience must be noted, especially if it illustrates or embodies what we see in God’s Word.

Sam Storms is lead pastor for preaching and vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Why I Am a Cessationist by Thomas Schreiner

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I am not writing on this topic because I have the final answer on spiritual gifts, for the matter is difficult and Christians who love God and the Bible disagree. Readers should know that Sam Storms and I are friends. We love one another, even though we differ on a secondary or tertiary issue, while at the same time upholding the importance of truth. Over the years I’ve become convinced that some of the so-called charismatic gifts are no longer given and that they aren’t a regular feature of life in the church. I am thinking particularly of the the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, tongues, healing, and miracles (and perhaps discernment of spirits).

Why would anyone think that some of the gifts have been withdrawn? I will argue that such a reading fits best with Scripture and experience. Scripture takes priority over experience, for it is the final authority, but Scripture must also correlate with life, and our experiences should provoke us to re-examine afresh whether we’ve read the Bible rightly. None of us reads the Bible in a vacuum, and hence we must return to the Scriptures repeatedly to ensure we’ve read them faithfully.

Foundation of the Apostles and Prophets

Paul says the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph. 2:20). I conclude that all we need to know for salvation and sanctification has been given to us through the teaching of the apostles and prophets, and that this teaching is now found in the Scriptures. Now that God has spoken in the last days through his Son (Heb. 1:2), we don’t need further words from him to explain what Jesus Christ has accomplished in his ministry, death, and resurrection. Instead, we are “to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” through the apostles and prophets (Jude 3).

To put it another way, we don’t have apostles like Paul and Peter and John anymore. They gave us the authoritative teaching by which the church continues to live to this day, and that is the only teaching we will need until Jesus returns. We know that new apostles won’t appear since Paul specifically says he was the last apostle (1 Cor. 15:8). And when James the brother of John died (Acts 12:2), he wasn’t replaced. Apostles, in the technical sense, are restricted to those who have seen the risen Lord and have been commissioned by him, and no one since apostolic times fits such criteria. The apostles were uniquely appointed for the early days of the church to establish orthodox doctrine. There is no warrant, then, for saying there are still apostles today. Indeed, if anyone claims to be an apostle today we should be concerned, for such a claim opens the door to false teaching and to abuse of authority.

If the gift of apostleship has ended, then other gifts may have ceased as well, since the foundation has been laid by the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). I conclude from this point that the gift of prophecy has ended also, for the prophets identified here are the same sort mentioned elsewhere (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 3:5; 4:11). The early churches didn’t have the complete canon of Scripture for some time, and hence an authoritative and infallible prophetic ministry was needed to lay the foundation for the church in those early days.

The most significant biblical argument against what I’m saying is the claim that New Testament (NT) prophecy differs from Old Testament (OT) prophecy, for some say OT prophecy is flawless but NT prophecy is mixed with error. But the idea that NT prophets could make mistakes isn’t persuasive for several reasons. 1.) The burden of proof is on those who say prophecy in the NT is of a different nature than prophecy in the OT. Prophets in the OT were only considered prophets of God if they were infallible (Deut. 18:15-22), and the same is almost certainly true in the NT. 2.) The admonition to judge prophecies instead of prophets (1 Cor. 14:29-32; 1 Thess. 5:19-20) is often adduced to show that the gift is different in the NT. But this argument is not convincing, for the only way to judge prophets in both Testaments is by their prophecies. We only know prophets aren’t from God if their prophecies are false or if their words contradict scriptural teaching. 3.) We have no example of a NT prophet who erred. Agabus didn’t make a mistake in prophesying that Paul would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Romans (Acts 21:10-11). To say he erred demands more precision than prophecies warrant. Furthermore, after Paul was arrested he appealed to the words of Agabus, saying he was handed over to the Romans by the Jews (Acts 28:17), so it’s clear he didn’t think Agabus made a mistake. Agabus spoke the words of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:28; 21:11), so we have no example in the NT of prophets whose prophecies were mixed with error.

Some object that my view of prophecy is off target since there were hundreds and thousands of prophecies in NT times that never made it into the canon. That objection doesn’t convince, however, for the same was true in the OT. Most of the prophecies of Elijah and Elisha were never written down or inscripturated. Or we can think of the 100 prophets spared by Obadiah (1 Kings 18:4). Apparently none of their prophecies was inscripurated. Nevertheless, the prophecies were all completely true and unmixed with error, for otherwise they wouldn’t have been prophets (Deut. 18:15-22). The same principle applies to the prophecies of NT prophets. Their words aren’t recorded for us, but if they were truly prophets then their words were infallible.

What some people today call “prophecies” are actually impressions from God. He can use impressions to guide and lead us, but they aren’t infallible and must always be tested by Scripture. We should also consult with wise counselors before acting on such impressions. I love my charismatic brothers and sisters, but what they call “prophecy” today isn’t actually the biblical gift of prophecy. God-given impressions aren’t the same thing as prophecies.

What About Tongues?

The gift of tongues is a more difficult issue. In Acts (2:1-4; 10:44-48; 19:1-7) this gift signifies that the age of fulfillment has arrived where God’s covenant promises are being realized. First Corinthians 14:1-5 and Acts 2:17-18 also suggest that interpreted (or understood) tongues are equivalent to prophecy. It seems, then, that prophecy and tongues are closely related. If prophecy has passed away, then tongues have likely ended as well. Further, it’s clear from Acts that the gift involves speaking in foreign languages (Acts 2), and Peter emphasizes in the case of Cornelius and his friends that the Gentiles received the same gift as the Jews (Acts 11:16-17).

Nor is it persuasive to say the gift in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is of a different nature (i.e., ecstatic utterances). The word tongues (glōssa) denotes a linguistic code, a structured language, not random and free vocalization. When Paul says no one understands those speaking in tongues because they utter mysteries (1 Cor. 14:2), he isn’t suggesting that the gift is different from what we find in Acts. Those hearing the tongues in Acts understood what was being said because they knew the languages the apostles were speaking. If no one knows the language, then the tongue speaker utters mysteries. Nor does 1 Corinthians 13:1 (tongues of angels) support the notion that the gift of tongues consists of ecstatic utterances. Paul engages in hyperbole in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. He’s clearly exaggerating when referring to the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 13:2), for no one who prophesies knows “all mysteries and all knowledge.”

I believe what’s happening in charismatic circles today regarding tongues is similar to what we saw with prophecy. The gift is redefined to include free vocalization, and then people claim to have the gift described in Scripture. In doing so they redefine the gift to accommodate contemporary experience. So are contemporary tongues demonic, then? I don’t think so. I agree with J. I. Packer that the experience is more a form of psychological relaxation.

Miracles and Healings

What about miracles and healings? First, I believe God still heals and does miraculous things today, and we should pray for such. Scripture isn’t as clear on this matter, and thus these gifts could exist today. Still, the primary function of these gifts was to accredit the gospel message, confirming that Jesus was both Lord and Christ. I doubt the gift of miracles and healings exists today, for it isn’t evident that men and women in our churches have such gifts. Certainly God can and does heal at times, but where are the people with these gifts? Claims for miracles and healings must be verified, just as the people verified the blind man’s healing in John 9. There is a kind of biblically warranted skepticism.

Now, could God in cutting-edge missionary situations grant miracles and signs and wonders to accredit the gospel as he did in apostolic times? Yes. But that’s not the same thing as having these gifts as a regular feature in the ongoing life of the church. If the signs and wonders of the apostles have returned, we should see the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, and the dead being raised. God heals today (sometimes dramatically), but the healing of colds, the flu, TMJ, stomach, and back problems, and so forth aren’t in the same category as the healings found in the Scriptures. If people truly have the gift of healing and miracles today, they need to demonstrate such by performing the kinds of healings and miracles found in the Bible.

Doesn’t 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 Contradict Your View?

Let’s consider an objection to the notion that some of the gifts have ceased. Doesn’t 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 teach that the gifts last until Jesus comes again? Certainly this text teaches that the gifts could last until Jesus returns. There’s no definitive teaching in the Bible that they’ve ceased. We might even expect them to last until the second coming. But we see hints from Ephesians 2:20 and other texts that the gifts played a foundational role. I conclude, then, that 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 permits but doesn’t require the gifts to continue until the second coming. And the gifts as they are practiced today don’t fit with the biblical description of these gifts.

For reasons like these the Reformers and most of the Protestant tradition until the 20th century believed the gifts had ceased. I conclude that both Scripture and experience verify their judgment on the matter.

Thomas Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation and associate dean for Scripture and interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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About ronfurg

Former naval officer, federal investigator, forensic scientist, senior executive service member and pastor. In retirement serves as volunteer and life group leader at New Life Christian Church (www.newlife4me.com). Devoted to beautiful wife, kids and grandkids. Looking forward to the time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all and that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
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