Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cessationism and selective standards

Dan Phillips and Fred Butler like to use Acts 4:16 as their paradigm-case of what a modern miracle has to be like to qualify as a genuine miracle. But there are obvious problems with their criterion.

i) The Bible contains many types of miracles. It's arbitrary to single out this particular miracle as the paradigm. 

ii) Apropos (i), not only is that arbitrary as a standard of comparison for modern miracles, it's arbitrary in reference to Biblical miracles, given the variety of Biblical miracles.

iii) Apropos (ii), Biblical miracles are not all of a kind. Even Warfield, a classic cessationist, distinguishes between miracles of healing, miracles of speech, miracles of knowledge, and miracles of power. For instance, Acts contains revelatory dreams and visions. But those aren't directly comparable to a miracle of healing–are they? 

iv) Apropos (i-iii), in their effort to screen out modern miracles, Fred and Dan have a criterion that screens out many Biblical miracles. For there are Biblical miracles which don't "measure up" (as it were) to their chosen yardstick. For instance:

a) Philip was an exorcist (Acts 8:6-13). But is that an "Acts 4:16-level miracle"? 

b) What about the burning bush (Exod 3)? Surely that's a paradigmatic miracle. It involves both a nature miracle and an angelic apparition. Yet it's an essentially private miracle, for Moses is the only witness to this event. Likewise, the fate of Lot's wife was only witnessed by Lot and his daughters. And we don't have their testimony. We only have the testimony of the narrator. 

What about the talking donkey (Num 22)? Surely that's a remarkable miracle. That involves both a nature miracle and an angelic apparition. Yet it's an essentially private miracle, for Balaam is the only witness to this event. And we don't even have his own testimony. We only have the testimony of the narrator. 

Other examples include the rod of Moses changing into a snake (Exod 4), Elijah fed by ravens (1 Kgs 17), the widow's food replenished (1 Kgs 17), her son revived (1 Kgs 17), and the Translation of Elijah (2 Kgs 2). We could add the bears that attack Elijah's hecklers (2 Kgs 2), Naaman's cure (2 Kgs 5), and the blinding of Elymas (Acts 13). There are very few eyewitnesses to these events. In many cases we're dependent on the secondhand report of the omniscient narrator.  

c) Keep in mind, too, that many of these are miracles of power. But how is a miracle of power directly analogous to a miracle of knowledge? Take Joseph's premonitory dream (Gen 37), or Pharaoh's premonitory dreams (Gen 41). Are those "Acts 4:16-level" miracles? How do you measure a miracle of knowledge by a miracle of healing? What's the common denominator? 

d) Or take glossolalia. Fred and Dan construe all cases of glossolalia in Acts and 1 Corinthians as xenoglossy. But even if we accept their disputatious identification, is xenoglossy an "Acts 4:16-level miracle"? In what respect is xenoglossy analogous to healing? 

e) Or take the apparitions of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration. Is that an "Acts 4:16-level miracle"? If so, in what respect? 

Fred and Dan aren't really using a Scriptural standard, for their singular example from Acts filters out many other Biblical examples. If they were really using the Bible as their template, they'd say that modern supernatural claims must generally correspond to Biblical supernatural examples. Their sample would include all types of Biblical miracles as a reference class. 


  1. Steve, thanks for this very clear overview of biblical miracles.

  2. But Fred B. and Dan Philips (and I would assume Ed) agree with all of those miracles that you lists as miracles in the Scriptures - they believe they all really happened as miracles because the Word of God says they happened.

    And as far as I have read, they, and other Cessationists, don't deny that God sometimes heals or does a miracle today - they are saying that no one person as the special gift of healing or miracles, or tongues, etc. (sign gifts and revelation gifts) today, as explained in 1 Cor. 12, that that gift can be used at will as the apostles and others in the apostolic era (Philip, Steven, Philip's daughters, etc.) and it will be a true healing and/or miracle that believers could not deny.

    But even unbelievers scoffed at some miracles that they saw with their own eyes - like how the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of God.

    The speaking in tongues in Acts 2 definitely are real languages; and even I Cor. 14 does seem to be real languages - xenoglossy - except I Cor. 14:2, and 4 is the only place that would seem to credence to some kind of private prayer language, but I admit I am skeptical of modern tongues, just like Dan and Phil and Ed are. Even John Stott wrote that I Cor. 14:4 does seem to have some irony in it - that "edifies himself" means "being selfish" because it is contrasted with the purpose of spiritual gifts - "for the edification of the body". (Baptism and Fullness, p. 148-149)

    Is your position that arguments like Wayne Grudem's for prophesy (a Spirit communication to the mind, that is not always communicated accurately to the congregation or believers) - is your position that Grudem’s argument is valid?

    After I read Jack Deere's book, Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit" and Sam Storms and Wayne Grudem, I was convinced of that position for a while, but practically, in ministry, with a strong believe in God's Sovereignty and never doing anything goofy, nothing happened, but the problem is that goofy people would come in and do something really crazy and nutty and confuse all the other young believers - in a pioneer church planting situation among former Muslims. So eventually, even though I was "open but cautious"; I went back to the cessationist position.

    end of part one

    1. Ken, you're asking questions I've already answered in other posts.

    2. ok, I confess you write so many and they are so scattered (IMO) that it is hard to keep up with and read them all.
      It just happened that I was able to read this one today all the way through.
      I was only only able to read a couple of the other ones and even those not all the way through.

      D. A. Carson's Showing the Spirit is the best exegetical and theological treatise of 1 Cor. 12-14; but practically, as I wrote about above and below; very subjective and murky and dangerous when one takes it to the next step, as Sam Storms and Jack Deere do, by saying that when it says "earnestly desire the greater gifts" (1 Cor. 12:31) and "earnestly desire to prophesy" (1 Cor. 14:1) - they say it is not enough to just say, "Ok, I am open and God can do stuff", but not actually take risks in providing a spiritual environment of waiting and "doing ministry" where there is expectations of a word of knowledge, wisdom, revelation (but not equal to Scripture), guidance, warning, a healing, prophesy, tongues, etc.

      Is it possible for you to organize all the posts in order with links to Fred and Dan and Ed Dingess' responses?

      I hope to have time to work through what you are saying; as I am still unclear on what exactly you are trying to say.
      Of course, the fact that I haven't read every word speaks to why I am unclear - yeah; I get that. But from what I have read, I don't completely understand where you are coming from.

    3. Is it possible for you to organize all the posts in order with links to Fred and Dan and Ed Dingess' responses?

      I did my best in doing that here: Steve Hays on Cessationism

  3. Part 2

    I am pretty much at the Cessationist position also, because of the combination of the sound theological arguments that good cessationists make, like B. B. Warfield, McArthur, etc. , and because of the subjective nature of what happens in ministry situations with people trying to see miracles take place or be open to them today, when they actually seek to put them into practice in church settings - it becomes a mess - Like some of the things that happened when Jack Deere did some "being open" sessions ("lets wait and see what God says to our mind" kind of thing (and then after of period of waiting and silent prayer, people start sharing things that come to their minds) Bob Jones, Mike Bickle, Kansas City Prophets, John Wimber, Toronto Blessing, Brownsville Revival, IHOP, and Mark Driscoll's stuff ( I see things", etc. ) there are just too many nutty things that happen in those contexts.

    The best point you made early on was that we need to be careful not to be so skeptical that we come across as modern anti-supernaturalists who don’t believe in any miracles or healings at all by God through prayer, etc.

    Granted that we who are cessationists should maybe communicate more clearly that God can heal and do miracles today (but a strong belief in God's Sovereignty cuts down on 99% of the goofy stuff anyway).

    For example, there are dreams and visions reported from missionary contexts that seem to be similar to Acts 10-11 - they do not bring the gospel itself to the person, but they are preparations for the person in an unreached area to get to the gospel later through the word or later meeting a person who then preaches the gospel to them or gives them a tract or Bible in their language, etc. (The Film, More than Dreams – about 5 Muslims who had dreams and visions; but those dreams and visions led them to the Bible or missionary or believer or church to get teaching. – that seems to be valid and an example of an Acts 10-11 kind of dream that Cornelius had – “a man is coming to you and will speak words to you by which you will be saved.” (see Acts 10:22 and 11:13-14)