The Cessation of Spiritual Gifts
Dan's post from yesterday reminded me of a post I wrote way back nearly 4 years ago when I first started blogging in which I addressed spiritual gifts and the debate between those who are called continuationists and cessationists. I present it for a newer reading audience, slightly modified from its original publication.
Continuationist Christians maintain that spiritual gifts like prophecy and speaking in tongues, and signs and wonders like miraculous healing, have continued to be active with God's people uninterrupted since the day of Pentecost and are present today in Christ's Church. There are a small handful of theological "big guns" recognized as "sound" believers - totally outside extreme charismatic denominations where abuse of these spiritual gifts are rampant - like John Piper and Wayne Grudem who hold to continuationalism.
On the other side of the aisle are cessationist Christians who believe spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy, and miraculous signs and wonders, were simply foundational for the New Testament Church as God's redemptive purposes transitioned from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. They had a unique and special function for the era immediately following the day of Pentecost. Once that transition was completed (during the close of the apostolic age near the end of the 1st century) the gifts ceased to function. I personally fall into the cessationist camp.
I don't claim to be an expert in the whole continuationist-cessationist disagreement, nor do I believe I can add anything particularly new to the discussion. I thought, however, that I would offer my proverbial two cents.
I especially wish to answer the one major assertion by those in the continuationist camp I have heard oft repeated. That being, "Show me one Bible verse that teaches cessationism."
I have heard this question a lot, but I would merely point out the similarity of this rebuttal with that of the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Oneness Pentecostals who argue the Bible does not teach the Trinity. One of their key lines of argumentation is to say, "There isn't one Bible verse that mentions the word Trinity." Yet, the biblical revelation of the Triune Godhead doesn't stand or fall on the absence of the elusive one Bible verse, but is testified to a proper exegetical understanding of the whole of scripture.
I would say the same thing about cessationism. What does the whole of scripture reveal about the purpose and work of spiritual gifts? Does the Bible genuinely say these fantastic signs and wonders type gifts will be normative for the entire age of the New Testament? When one considers the biblical data on gifts within the whole of God's revelation a person can easily conclude gifts like tongues and prophecy had a unique place in the Church and once they served their purpose, they were no longer needed and ceased operations.
Before moving on, it may be helpful to clear up the biggest misunderstanding about cessationism. I believe it is wrongly assumed by cessationist opponents that cessationism is saying God will not work supernaturally. That God can't or won't do miracles. This is not what the cessationist is saying. As a cessationist, of course I believe God can still do miracles today. That is not the issue. Rather it is the question of does He regularly use gifted men and women with a special anointing from the Holy Spirit to perform such signs? I believe God does not, because such individuals are no longer necessary. Why are they no longer necessary? In my opinion, because we have the complete revelation of God contained in the Scriptures of the OT and NT. Those gifted people only served to provide the New Covenant revelation that would be our NT document and confirm the message of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Once all the revelation was complete and the message confirmed those gifts had served their purpose and ceased.
Now, not only will the whole of scripture correctly interpreted conclude these revelatory-confirmatory gifts ceased, I also believe there is one specific passage that teaches us these gifts will cease: 1 Cor. 13:8-10. I have corresponded with many pro-gift, continuationist Christians over the years, so let me share an edited summary of my accumulated correspondence on this subject as to why I believe 1 Cor. 13:8-10 teaches cessationism.
The main point hinges on how we are to understand the word perfect in 1 Corinthians 13:10. I understand the perfect as the completed canon, and I do so for a couple of reason. First, teleion is better rendered the completed, rather than the perfect. During the time of the apostles, the divine revelation of prophecy and knowledge would still be in transmission. God was still in the process of giving revelation to the Church through the apostles and the prophets. However, I believe Paul had in mind that a new covenant document, just like the OT, would be provided by the Lord. Thus, the completed revelation of God's New Covenant revelation would eventually come to the Christians. Furthermore, the illustrations Paul uses in 1 Cor. 13:11-13 are analogous to this idea of partial revelation in comparison to completed revelation. Paul uses three major illustration:
(1) A child replaced by an adult (13:11) This is a rather simple, yet clear illustration all people can understand. All children will grow into adulthood. In fact, if one does not grow into adulthood, either because of physical disability, or perhaps practical maturity, we understand that to be a grievous situation. Becoming an adult mentally, emotionally, as well as physically, completes the process of human development.
(2) the hazy replaced by the clear (13:12) I understand the phrase "face to face" not to refer to seeing Jesus in his full glory, as many in the continuationist camp, as well as the cessastionist camp believe, but I see it as an analogy of a person being able to see a clear reflection, as opposed to a hazy reflection.
Rarely, if ever, is the word teleion used to speak of flawless perfection. John, James, and Paul use the word consistently to speak of complete maturity. When Paul writes that the Corinthians see, at the moment, in a glass darkly, what does he mean? I think it is simple. In fact, the NASB does a much better job of translating the phrase: Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Paul is picturing a mirror that does not give a clear image. The point Paul is making is that revelatory knowledge at that time was like seeing in a dirty mirror, or perhaps a warped mirror. It only produces a distorted, barely recognizable image. In like manner the revelatory knowledge at that time was not complete, or we can say it was unclear, or only partial.
However, there will come a time, Paul explains, when we all will be able to see face to face. In other words, the image in the mirror will be as clear as seeing someone face to face. Though I understand the eschatological interpretation of this phrase is the most popular, i.e., the idea of seeing Jesus face to face in the eternal state, the immediate context of 1 Cor. 13 does not validate that interpretation.
(3) Imprecise knowing replaced by precise knowing (13:12). Expanding on the picture of a hazy reflection, the idea of seeing is often used in scripture as mental perception. A hindrance to vision would mean a hindrance to knowledge. An interesting cross reference to this notion of vision equating knowledge is found in 2 Cor. 3:14-4:6. There, Paul speaks of knowledge being the illumination the Holy Spirit brings in the hearts of men. Where do we have contained for us the complete and full knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its ability to transform lives? Where we can truly see, as it were, face to face now? I believe in the completed NT canon.
The whole point of Paul's words in 13:8-12 is to inform us that these gifts had a specific purpose for a stated period of time. Eventually, they will come to an end because something would replace them. I think tongues ended at the destruction of Jerusalem, and prophecy and knowledge at the finishing of the NT canon.
For those interested in further study on cessationism, I addressed spiritual gifts in a series of lectures I once gave on Genuine Christian Spirituality. They are available for the downloading or the podcasting.
Labels: Biblical Studies