Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sacerdotal cessationism

Cessationism takes the position that the charismata were sign-gifts designed to validate the divine mission and message of the apostles. As such, they had a built-in expiration date.
One obvious problem with that argument is that NT miracles aren't confined to apostles. However, cessationists have a fallback argument. They say the charismata were transmitted by the apostles through the imposition of hands. Therefore, even if the charismata weren't the unique possession of the apostles, they were uniquely linked to the apostles.
If sound, this argument has an additional advantage of giving an approximate cutoff date for the charismata. The charismata passed away when the apostles or their immediate disciples passed away. 
Cessationists like to cite Acts 8 as a prooftext for transmission of the charismata through the apostolic imposition of hands. But there are several problems with appeal. I've dealt with some of them before, now I'll mention a few more:
i) If the case of the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17) demonstrates that possession of the charismata was contingent on the apostolic imposition of hands, then the case of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-47) demonstrates that possession of the charismata was not contigent on the apostolic imposition of hands. There is no standardized pattern in Acts.
ii) But there's a deeper problem. Acts is concerned, not with the reception of the spiritual gifts, but reception of the Spirit himself. Not gifts of the Spirit, but the gift of the Spirit. Not the gifts, but the Giver. For the gifts are contained in the Giver. 
If, however, reception of the Spirit is contingent on the apostolic imposition of hands, then no Christian in the last 1900 years has the Holy Spirit. 
Cessationists try to split the difference by saying the spiritual gifts are contingent on the apostolic imposition of hands. But in Luke, the spiritual gifts are conferred indirectly by the gift of the Spirit. In Lukan theology, you can't say reception of the Spirit is independent of the apostles while reception of the spiritual gifts is dependent on the apostles. 
iii) The only alternative would be for cessationists to adopt sacerdotalism, where reception of the Spirit is mediated through the priesthood, who, as lineal successors to the apostles, transmit the gift. And, of course, you have variations on that model in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The apostles laid hands on their disciples, who, in turn, laid hands on their disciples, all down the line (or so goes the argument).
iv) There's yet another problem. As one arch cessationist contends:
Using narrative literature as a basis for doctrine is precarious for a variety of reasons.  
If, however, the genre if Acts is unsuitable to prooftext continationism, then by the same token, that's equally unsuitable to prooftext cessationism. It's a double-edged sword, slicing away Acts 8 as well as Acts 2.
v) His argument is worth considering in its own right. In fairness to Thomas, it's true that you must be careful about deriving doctrine from historical narratives. You can't simply convert descriptions into prescriptions or proscriptions. 
However, his argument is overstated. There's such a thing as narrative theology. Most Biblical teaching is narratival. It teaches more by way of showing rather than saying. The teaching method is oblique. But I hope Thomas doesn't take the position that the Gospels are a poor source of Christology. We can learn a lot about the person and work of Christ from the Gospels. Indeed, they were written with that express purpose. Scholars like Leland Ryken and Meir Sternberg present sophisticated guidelines for interpreting narrative theology. 
Moreover, Acts isn't simply a description of events. It includes speeches, prophecies, commands, &c. 
vi) Finally, as long as we're on the subject of contradictory arguments, here are two more:
On the one hand, Sam Waldron (in his debate with Michael Brown) defines a spiritual gift as "the ongoing possession of a miraculous ability with repeated manifestations." 
This is a convenient weapon in the cessationist arsenal. It enables the cessationist to summarily discredit a healer unless the healer cures everyone who comes to him. Doesn't matter how often he succeeds. One failure nixes his credentials as a bona fide healer. 
On the other hand, a fellow cessationist has said:
For instance, Paul healed multitudes (Acts 19:11-12), but couldn’t heal himself (Gal 4:13), Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25-30), or Trophimus (2 Tim 4:20). That would also explain why Paul did not direct Timothy (1 Tim 5:23) to a person with this gift. Someone who had exercised it on one occasion would have no reason to suspect that it would be manifested again. 
But these two positions can't both be true. You can't simultaneously say a true healer has the ability to heal everyone at will and then cite Paul's inability to heal everyone, even though Paul was certainly a healer, as evidence that the gift of healing was fading away. 
This is a problem when people begin with their conclusion, then cast about for supporting arguments. They use opposing arguments to support the same conclusion. As long as both arguments support a common conclusion, even though they contradict each other, the proponent ignores the incoherence.  


  1. Protestants essentially make a cessationist argument as to when the canon closed, despite not having any Biblical evidence when or if this was going to take place.

    1. Rome didn't officially define the canon until the 16C, and even then the definition is still open-ended.

    2. Your response is a textbook case of the fallacy of changing the subject. Protestantism has long operated on the system "the best defense is a good offense," but that's not the honest way of doing business. Disproving Rome doesn't make Protestantism correct by default.

    3. Since I've made a detailed case for the Protestant canon, I don't need to repeat myself here. But thanks for ducking your own burden of proof.

    4. You're conflating cessationism with canonics, as if noncessationism is equivalent to an open canon. Those are logically distinct issues. If you think otherwise, you need to present an argument for why they are either interchangeable or interconnected.

  2. My own burden of proof? Am I supposed to prove your assertion that Rome didn't define the canon until 16C and kept the issue open-ended?

    You didn't make a detailed case for the Protestant canon either in the main post nor in the combox. As I noted, merely proving Catholicism wrong doesn't make Protestantism correct by default. What your post has admitted is that deciding the issue of cessationism is largely based on traditions of men, because no Biblical texts speak sufficiently on it.

    1. Let's clarify a few things for that fuzzy brain of yours:

      i) Your original comment didn't presenting anything resembling an argument. Therefore, it's hardly incumbent on me to refute your nonexistent argument.

      ii) I didn't make a case for the Protestant canon in this post because that wasn't the topic of the post.

      iii) My post didn't admit that "deciding the issue of cessationism is largely based on traditions of men, because no Biblical texts speak sufficiently on it." And in fact I've presented my exegetical evidence on other threads.

    2. Your burden of proof would be explaining and defending the principle under which the canon was closed on Catholic grounds. Now that I've reminded you of your job, feel free to give it your best shot.

    3. Your inference is fallacious. Even if (ex hypothesi) the Bible was silent on the continuance or discontinuance of the charismata, deciding the question based on traditions of men is hardly the logical alternative. Rather, we could decide on the basis of church history. Whether or not the charisma in fact continue.

    4. Using "church history" as a guiding criteria on Protestant doctrines is wholly insufficient for two reasons: (1) Only Scripture is inspired of God and only it has the power to bind the conscience; (2) Protestantism has consistently and explicitly maintained that Church councils have erred and thus any appeals are purely ad-hoc and cherry-picking.

      The status of the Catholic canon doesn't cause any significant problems because the Catholic Church isn't so tied to a closed canon that it cannot function without it. In Protestantism, without a closed canon, Sola Scriptura is functionally impossible, and without SS the Church cannot function.

    5. Another example of your multiple confusions. I didn't appeal to church councils. Rather, I appealed to what happens (or not) in the course of church history. This is no different than a standard promise/fulfillment relation where a prophecy will have a historical referent. Do miracles continue? That's an empirical question as well as an exegetical question.

      Reformed theology includes a strong doctrine of providence.

  3. Nick here's a link to Steve's collated posts on the Canon:

    God's Canon by Steve Hays

    On a related topic:

    Sola Ecclesia: A Rejoinder to Philip Blosser by Steve Hays

    1. Steve has actually posted more on both topics than is actually in those ebooks, but they're a good place to start.

    2. I don't have time to read a 76 page document, but doing a search for key terms such "closed" and "cessation" turned up nothing. Same thing with the 207 page response to Blosser. If those things are covered, I'd be interested in seeing the specific quotes, but otherwise I don't have time reading stuff that doesn't address the important questions I'm asking.

      The fact is, the Bible gives little information on the issue of cessation, and yet key doctrines are tied to the answer to this question. One famous example is the instructions James 5 gives for Anointing of the Sick, which John Calvin dodged by simply claiming cessation, despite the fact the Scripture never actually said such a thing.

    3. Nick

"The fact is, the Bible gives little information on the issue of cessation."

      That's your tendentious assertion. I've argued to the contrary. Arguments beat assertions.

      "One famous example is the instructions James 5 gives for Anointing of the Sick, which John Calvin dodged by simply claiming cessation, despite the fact the Scripture never actually said such a thing."

      I've exegeted that passage. Try again.

  4. Isn't there a third possibility that Paul had the gift of healing for limited time? That early on in his ministry he had the gift and could heal anyone, but later on he no longer had the gift. As far as I'm aware we have examples of healings in Acts and 1 and 2 Corinthians, but not in Paul's later books.

    1. Even near the end of his life, Paul still had the ability to heal:

      "8 It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. 9 And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured" (Acts 28:8-9).

    2. That's an argument from silence. The epistles aren't historical narratives. They don't contain systematic biographical information.

    3. Sure, you can tweak the definition of a gift. One question is whether that's ad hoc. Simply redefining the concept to make it consistent with cessationism.

      And, by the same token, charismatics can always define a gift consistent with the outcome. They can make their claims true by definition. So that leads to a stalemate.

    4. If the rationale for miracles is to authenticate the messenger, then that's not a one-time event. The miraculous authentication process would need to be repeated every time Paul opened up a new front on the mission field. Even if he was a known quantity in preexisting churches, he'd be starting from scratch elsewhere.