Since the issue of cessationism/continuationism has cropped up in the combox, I’m going to briefly revisit the issue.
We should begin with some definitions. I’d distinguish between strong cessationism and moderate cessationism. (These are my own definitions.) Strong cessationism is the view that divine miracles were tied to the era of public revelation. They ceased with the death of the apostles. God doesn’t perform miracles in the post-apostolic church age.
That might strike some readers as quite extreme. Indeed, that might strike some readers as a straw man.
However, this isn’t a purely hypothetical position. For instance, the late Francis Nigel Lee was a learned proponent of this position. And he classifies B. B. Warfield as a proponent of this position, but I find Warfield’s position ambivalent. A classic exponent of this position was Conyers Middleton.
Although this might strike modern readers as a fringe position, it’s my impression that strong cessationism was fairly typical among past Protestant writers. It’s related to the traditional polemic against Rome.
One of the stock arguments for Roman Catholicism is the argument from miracles. Rome claims to be the “church of miracles.”
A straightforward way for Protestant apologists to undercut that claim was to adopt strong cessationism. To simply deny any appeal to ecclesiastical miracles on the grounds that God doesn’t perform modern miracles.
BTW, it’s quite possible that Middleton was a closet Deist who cloaked his Deism in traditional rhetoric against ecclesiastical miracles. Deism was politically risky, so one way of arguing for Deism without tipping your hand would be to use the Church of Rome as your foil. That tactic had unimpeachable theological credentials. It would give you cover.
More common today is what I’ll call moderate cessationism. In the nature of the case, this isn’t quite as clear-cut as strong cessationism. One way of drawing the distinction is to evoke Warfield’s distinction between a miracle-working church and a miracle-working God. Cf. Counterfeit Miracles, 58.
As Warfield goes on to state:
All Christians believe in healing in answer to prayer. Those who assert that this healing is wrought in a specifically miraculous manner, need better evidence for their peculiar view than such as fits in equally well with the general Christian faith (ibid. 187).First of all, as regards the status quaestionis, let it be remembered that the question is not: (1) Whether God is an answerer of prayer; nor (2) whether, in answer to prayer, He heals the sick; nor (3) whether His action in healing the sick is a supernatural act; nor (4) whether the supernaturalness of the act may be so apparent as to demonstrate God’s activity in it to all right-thinking minds conversant with the facts. All this we all believe. The question at issue is distinctly whether God has pledged Himself to heal the sick miraculously, and does heal them miraculously, on the call of His children–that is to say without means–any means–apart from means, and above means; and this so ordinarily that Christian people may be encouraged, if not required, to discard all means as either unnecessary or even a mark of lack of faith and sinful distrust, and to depend on God alone for the healing of all their sicknesses (ibid. 192-93).
However, this still leaves his position somewhat obscure. He seems to distinguish between divine, supernatural healing, on the one hand, and miraculous healing (defined by healing apart from medical means), on the other hand.
I take it that he’s alluding to the traditional distinction between miracle and providence. If God heals someone in answer to prayer, but utilizes medical science, this is still divine, supernatural healing in these sense that providence is divine and supernatural. But that’s distinct from “miraculous” healing, in the sense of healing “apart from” or “above” medical intervention.
So it’s unclear whether Warfield is open to the possibility of miraculous healing in the modern age. Is he opposing the notion that miraculous healing should be our default setting? That we should count on God to heal us miraculously? That that’s the norm? Or is he opposing miraculous healing in toto?
Cessationists typically oppose the continuation of the “spiritual gifts” or “sign-gifts.” The charismata listed in 1 Cor 12, viz. tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles. On a related note, they typically oppose exorcism or “deliverance” ministries.
Warfield conveniently categorizes the spiritual gifts as miracles of healing, miracles of power, miracles of knowledge, and miracles of speech (ibid. 5).
Tied to both strong and moderate cessationism is the view that the overriding purpose of the charismata was to attest the apostolic kerygma.
An oddity of Warfield’s position is that it seems to make allowance for miracles outside the church, yet it removes miracles from the community of faith. But isn’t the praying, believing community the natural environment in which God does wonders for his people?
This is perhaps understandable as a hangover from the polemic against Rome, but it’s peculiar to think God might miraculously heal a Christian in a hospital, but exclude healing in a more religious setting, like Jas 5:15-16.
In defense of Warfield, Roman Catholicism lies in the background. For instance, exorcism is traditionally a church office. Minor orders. Spiritual gifts are channeled through the clergy. Warfield was right to oppose that ecclesiastical paradigm.
BTW, some people also think Warfield’s antipathy to “faith-healers” was influenced by personal experience. When they were hiking in the mountains on their honeymoon, Warfield’s newlywed wife was struck by lightning. This did permanent damage to her nervous system, leaving her an invalid or semi-invalid for the rest of her life. From what I’ve read, her condition went from bad to worse.
In addition, they had a childless marriage. I assume this meant they abstained from conjugal relations because they didn’t think she was up to the physical demands of maternity.
This was a great hardship on both of them. And it’s possible that Warfield personally resented slick faith-healers, given his wife’s pitiful condition, and his own deprivations.
Cessationist opposition to the charismata tends to focus on just a few of the gifts. Moreover, it’s my impression that the emphasis has shifted somewhat over the years. Cessationist literature used to target glossolalia, but nowadays cessationist literature is more likely to target prophecy.
I think there are historical reasons for the shift. On the one hand, Pentecostalism fixates on glossolalia. Every Christian is supposed to speak in tongues. That’s the gateway gift to other gifts. Spirit-baptism is a post-conversion experience, signified by glossolalia. Speaking in tongues is also prevalent in Pentecostal circles because it’s far easier to fake glossolalia than it is to fake the gift of prophecy, healing, or other miracles.
So it was natural for early critics of Pentecostalism to focus on tongues. However, the charismatic movement has broadened over the years.
Nowadays, I think the emphasis has shifted from tongues to prophecy because prophecy is more theologically significant than tongues. Cessationists view modern prophecy as a threat to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
Charismatic writers are often sensitive to this charge. One way they deflect the charge is to distinguish between canonical prophecy, which is infallible–and the NT “gift of prophecy,” which is fallible. There are some Jewish precedents for that distinction. Cf. D. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Wipf & Stock 2003); C. Keener, “5. The Nature of Prophecy,” Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1–2:47 (Baker 2012), 902-908. They also cite examples of what they take to be fallible Christian prophets in Acts 21:4,11.
Cessationists counter on various grounds. What’s the point of fallible prophecy? Isn’t that innately unreliable?
There’s some merit to that objection. However, prophecy doesn’t have to be prospectively edifying to be retrospectively edifying. Even if you don’t act on it, if it comes true, that’s something you can appreciate after the fact.
O. P. Robertson raises another objection:
So what impact will this ambiguity have on the Christian’s peace of mind? Can a person’s conscience remain guilt-free when he deliberately chooses to disobey a prophetic declaration addressed specifically to him, knowing that the prophet’s directions very likely are based on a revelation from God about his concrete situation? The Final Word (Banner of Truth 2004), 123.
This objection is ironic, for we have a NT illustration of that very thing: Paul blithely disregards a “prophetic” warning (Acts 20:22).
There’s also a tendentious assumption built into Robertson’s objection. We don’t know that the “prophet’s directions very likely are based on a revelation from God.”
There’s a basic difference between the level of confidence I might place in a premonition I had, and the (alleged) premonition of a second party, precisely because his experience isn’t my experience. I’m not directly privy to what he saw, thought he saw, or said he saw.
Robertson raises an additional objection:
It is now appropriate to consider a central OT passage that has significance for understanding the phenomenon of prophecy as it appears in the NT. The classic “prophecy about prophecy” in Joel 2 links the OT experience with the NT phenomenon.Joel uses the identical term for “prophecy” found throughout the rest of the OT. Does this word suddenly have a new meaning? Is Joel expecting a different kind of prophecy from that described in the foundational passages already considered?...No. Joel draws on the passage in Num 12 which so clearly describes the origin of prophetism in the days of Moses.So what did Joel expect? What would be the experience of God’s people with respect to prophecy in the future? Joel predicted a widespread manifestation of prophetic revelation in the future. The consummation of the ages would be accompanied by extensive revelatory experiences (ibid. 11-12).
i) It seems to be that Robertson’s appeal to Joel vis-à-vis Acts backfires. Surely the scope of this prophetic promise, which deliberately cuts across demographic boundaries (age, gender social class), in implicit contrast to the more restrictive scope of OT prophetism, directly undercuts his attempt to confine prophecy to canonical prophecy. The referents are hardly limited to apostles or NT writers.
ii) Robertson also fails to draw two crucial, interrelated distinctions:
a) This isn’t talking about propositional revelation, but visionary revelation. Nonverbal rather than verbal revelation.
b) Visionary revelation also subdivides into theorematic revelation, which is representational–and allegorical revelation, which is symbolic. Allegorical visions are inherently ambiguous. That’s why, in Scripture, visionary revelation (especially allegorical dreams and visions) are frequently accompanied by propositional revelation. Inspired interpretation to explain the inspired dream or vision.
The meaning of an allegorical dream may also be clarified by its realization. Suddenly you see how it all falls into place. But, of course, that’s hindsight rather than foresight.
Absent that, it’s easy to see how a Christian prophet or his listeners could misconstrue the dream or vision. And that, of itself, furnishes a principled distinction between infallible canonical revelation and a fallible gift of prophecy.
A lot also depends on content. For instance, a mark of false prophecy is if it contradicts prior revelation.
My own position on modern miracles, healing, and prophecy is that God is unpredictable. We need to take a wait-and-see attitude. We shouldn’t expect God to act miraculously in any given situation, and we shouldn’t expect him not to act miraculously in any given situation. To that degree, I disagree with charismatics and cessationists alike. I don’t think there’s a presumption one way or the other. I don’t think we can anticipate God’s next move in that respect. God takes the initiative.
Up to a point I think it’s good for both sides to make their best exegetical case. That said, I don’t think this is one of those issues we need to debate to death. Every issue can’t be resolved by trading arguments and counterarguments.
It’s like weather forecasting. Will it rain tomorrow? There are probabilistic methods of predicting the weather, with varying decrees of success. Or you can just wait until tomorrow and find out for yourself.
On some issues, our only real source of knowledge is divine revelation. Take the eternal fate of the lost. Even if there are veridical NDEs, even if there are real ghosts, that doesn’t give us any long-term information about the afterlife.
But the situation is different with the charismatic/cessationist debate. If charismatics are right, that should have real-world consequences. If charismatics are wrong, that should have real-world consequences. If cessationists are right, that should have real-world consequences. If cessationists are wrong, that should have real-world consequences.
Both positions, as well as their negations, should be evidentially distinguishable. Have observable implications.
If God’s intentions are what charismatics claim, that should be manifest. Same thing in reverse for cessationists.
And each position has potential downsides in case you’re wrong. If you’re a cessationist, and that’s wrong, you run the risk of living like an atheist. Acting as if God ceased to exist 2000 years ago. In practice, it makes no difference if God does or doesn’t exist. You live your life the same way. The uniformity of nature. A closed causal continuum.
If you’re a charismatic, and you’re wrong, you run the risk of being easily duped and easily disillusioned. Nursing false expectations. Trusting charlatans. Making important decisions based on dumb luck or imaginary leadings. Straining to hear God’s faint voice or squinting to see a divine sign. Blowing real opportunities in a futile quest for manna from heaven.
Admittedly, I’m just scratching the surface in this post. I’ve discussed related issues on other occasions. Here’s my general position on Christian prophecy:
Here’s my general position on the occult and the paranormal:
And here’s my general position on Catholic miracles: