Thanks for your careful approach to this question. I appreciate your desire to properly honor our common heroes of the faith throughout these past 2,000 years of church history. But I have to say that I remain utterly unmoved and altogether unconvinced by your appeal to this argument from the life of the church these past two millennia. I can’t address all your points, and on several occasions I will simply encourage the reader to go back and examine my article and the evidence I cited one more time. But I do have a few important points to make.
(1) First, I don’t think you honestly believe what I’m about to say (at least I hope you don’t), but much of what you wrote in your article, together with several comments in previous entries, suggests that it may be hiding just beneath the surface and I want our readers to reckon with it.
In all your talk of how experience or the lack thereof shapes your beliefs and practices, you’ve made several good points. But a danger lurks when one question is pressed: “What should I do when my experience does not line up with Scripture?” I put it this way because you have conceded on several occasions that the NT does not teach hard cessationism. You have even conceded that the exegetical case for continuationism is stronger than the one for cessationism. Your response has been to rely on the argument of what you call de facto cessation (“How do we know the gifts ceased? We know they have ceased because they in fact ceased”).
You do not argue that they have ceased because Scripture teaches they have. You concede that Scripture appears to teach otherwise. So, in my opinion, we have one of two available responses: either (1) marginalize Scripture on the subject of our responsibility with regard to spiritual gifts, or (2) do what we can, with God’s help, to alter our experience and repent of what we have believed or done that has led us to fall short of what Scripture truly says and commands. It strikes me that the only legitimate response to the alleged de facto cessation of gifts (which I’m only conceding for the sake of argument; as you can see from my article, I don’t believe they ever altogether ceased) is to admit that this must mean the problem is with us, the people of God, and not the Word of God.
I guess what I’m getting at is this: I struggle to understand how your view can be made consistent with a high view of biblical authority. If you concede that the NT makes a stronger case for continuationism than cessationism, then embrace the former and do everything within your power (as empowered by God) to pursue and facilitate and practice the gifts, regardless of what anyone else in any age of church history may believe or do. Otherwise, I don’t know how the Bible functions authoritatively in your life. Now, as I said above, I don’t believe you deny the functional authority of Scripture (I know you too well for that), but I fear that your arguments betray the subtle and perhaps unconscious influence of a tendency to invest more authority in your and others’ experience than in that of Paul and his precepts.
(2) Second, you write that “the cumulative experience of the historic body of Christ, at this point, is one of the things that keeps me from being charismatic.” In keeping with the previous point, I’m very sad to hear you say that. I would have hoped you had said, “the cumulative evidence from God’s inspired Word, at this point, is the primary thing that prompts me to be a charismatic, the experience or lack thereof in other believers notwithstanding.”
(3) Third, you insist that, subsequent to the first two centuries of church life, spiritual gifts were in decline and were at best infrequent and on the fringe for the next 1,800 years or so. I’m not going to continue to argue that point, but would ask only one question: “Why were they purportedly in decline and infrequent?” I would simply ask that you and our readers consider the several possible explanations for this found in my article. One explanation that you will not find, because Scripture won’t allow it, is that it was God’s design that the gifts only operate during the initial stages of the church’s existence. The Bible simply nowhere says that.
(4) Fourth, I will not respond to your quotations from church history but choose to stand by the evidence cited in my article. I would simply encourage the reader to go back and carefully read the statements from prominent figures and ask if what they believed and saw and experienced is consistent with de facto cessationism. In my opinion, it most certainly isn’t.
(5) Fifth, you argue that “the loss of the [truth] of the Gospel was a loss of an understanding of a doctrine (sola fide), not a loss of the effectiveness of this doctrine,” and thus can’t be compared with the decline or relative loss of the exercise of spiritual gifts in the church. You go on to say with regard to tongues that “you never have as a prerequisite a belief in the truthfulness of a doctrine of continuationism before Christians experience their effectiveness.”
I honestly can’t believe you believe this. Are you actually saying that one’s theological convictions about the validity or cessation of tongues and other gifts has no effect on whether or not a person eventually experiences them? I would insist that our beliefs control and shape our zeal, our expectations, our prayer life, and especially how we respond to and interpret claims people make regarding their experience of supernatural phenomena. Let me develop this point at greater length, because I think it is of crucial importance.
I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but your understanding of when and why spiritual gifts either are or are not present in the life of the church appears to be influenced by what strikes me as hyper-Calvinism, or at least a somewhat fatalistic approach to the Christian life that undermines both prayer and human responsibility. Can you believe that a committed 5-point Calvinist just wrote that? Well, yes, he (I) did.
You point to the gift of tongues in Acts and argue that in all three instances where it appears it came “sovereignly,” so to speak, without regard to the prayer or spiritual posture of those who received it. I think this is misleading for a couple of reasons.
For one, those present on the Day of Pentecost were there in obedience to the command of Jesus: “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49: cf. Acts 1:5,8). The reason all received the gift of tongues on that Day is due to at least two factors. First, they were obedient in responding to Jesus’ command. There is no reason to believe, at least in my opinion, that if some had disbelieved Jesus’ promise, disobeyed his command, and had refused to wait with the others in Jerusalem for the outpouring of the Spirit that they would have received tongues anyway, irrespective of their response to him.
Whether or not they were praying for this to occur we can’t know, for the simple fact that the text says nothing to this effect. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. It’s difficult for me to believe, however, that given John’s and Jesus’ prophecies of the impending Spirit baptism and the coming on them of divine power that they sat silently and passively and refused or at least failed to pray for the coming of what Christ had promised. In any case, no one knows what they were doing in preparation for the coming of the Spirit. For you to say that God gave tongues to all of them irrespective of their obedience or belief or prayer is simply not substantiated by the text. The text is silent.
My second reason for finding your argument misleading is that Acts 10 concerns the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles. I think most everyone acknowledges that we are dealing here with an unusual geo-ethnic expansion of the gospel that called for the same phenomenon that occurred at Pentecost in order to attest to the reality of their acceptance by faith. Peter and the others are clear that the experience of Cornelius and the other Gentiles in receiving the Spirit and speaking in tongues served uniquely in this case to corroborate the fact that “the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out EVEN on the Gentiles” (10:45). This leads Peter to conclude that they were fit subjects for water baptism, just as were those among the Jews who believed and received the Spirit. I hardly think this example from Acts 10 is sufficient warrant for drawing the conclusion you do that if God wants his people to speak in tongues they will do so irrespective of their own beliefs, prayers, desires, or state of mind and heart.
As for Acts 19, they spoke in tongues only “when Paul laid his hands on them” (19:6). In the course of Paul’s explanation of the gospel and the reality of Pentecost, did these “disciples” of John express their desire to experience what those did in Acts 2? We don’t know. The text is silent. What we do know is that Paul was dealing with a situation that is altogether unrepeatable today. These “disciples” were men who had embraced the baptism of John but had lived in the overlap of the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. They evidently lived at a distance from Jerusalem and had no access to the news of what had happened on Pentecost (no TV, no Internet, no Twitter, etc.). This is hardly a situation that we can use as paradigmatic for us today, as no one today lives in what might be called a “redemptive-historical time warp”.
My point is simply that I believe you are building far too much on these incidents in Acts. The only other place where the gift of tongues is explicitly mentioned (outside the dubious long ending of Mark) is in 1 Corinthians. And it is important to remember that not everyone in Corinth spoke in tongues (indicating that in a time when the gift of tongues was clearly God’s will for his church some [most] Christians did not receive the gift). If they did, Paul would not have had to say in 14:5, “I wish that all of you spoke in tongues.” Clearly not everyone did.
Your argument seems to be as follows: If spiritual gifts are designed and intended by God to function in the church throughout its existence, into the present day, then such gifts will consistently appear by divine fiat irrespective of how people live, what they believe (especially regarding the continuation or cessation of said gifts), and whether or not they pray for and pursue such gifts and are committed to practicing them in accordance with Scripture.
Don’t take offense, but I find this approach to the Christian life to be presumptuous, irresponsible, and negligent of God’s ordained means to achieve his ordained ends. If your view were true, it would empty prayer of its value. Why pray (as our Arminian friends would say) if God is going to do what God is going to do regardless? Is it not the case that God suspends the bestowal of countless blessings on our asking for them? If the principle you are defending is correct, why would Jesus have rebuked his disciples for their failure to pray (Mark 9:28-29) in attempting to cast the demon out of a young boy? On your belief, why wouldn’t we conclude that if God wanted the boy to be delivered he would sovereignly do it without calling for or waiting upon the prayers of others on the boy’s behalf? And why should we obey Jesus who commanded us to persevere in prayer (keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking; Luke 11) to receive the gifts and blessings of the Spirit that we so desperately need (Luke 11:13)? And why would James tell us that “we have not because we ask not” (Js. 4:2) if God typically grants gifts and blessings as sovereignly and irrespectively of our desires and prayers as you suggest?
Neither you or I have any idea what the Corinthians did or did not do when it came to the reception of spiritual gifts. You seem to suggest that these Christians received their gifts by divine fiat apart from their desire or prayer. I would like for you to give me a text that says this. The text is again silent, well, almost silent. You still have not answered the question I asked quite some time ago about the prayer of 1 Cor. 14:13. There a Christian man/woman who already has the gift of tongues is commanded to “pray for the power to interpret.” But why, if what you say is correct? Why bother, if God’s will is to grant the gift of interpretation? Clearly, at least it is clear to me, Paul believed that the reception of a spiritual gift is often based on one’s prayer for it. Ask and you shall receive. Don’t ask, and you shouldn’t expect to receive.
It appears to me that perhaps your position on this point is again related to your denial that a Christian, after his/her conversion, can still receive additional spiritual gifts. Your attempt to evade this point as it is stated in 1 Corinthians 14:1 and 14:39 simply doesn’t ring true to me. And I don’t know how you can get around 1 Timothy 4:14 where Paul speaks of a “gift” (charismatos) that was given by God to Timothy through the exercise of another’s spiritual gift of prophecy when hands were laid upon him. Timothy was a Christian, yet here the Elders lay hands on him and God imparts to him a spiritual gift. It seems to me the only reason you might have to doubt this is the recognition that if you concede the point your position is undermined. If Timothy could receive a spiritual gift in response to the prayers of others and through the instrumentality of prophecy, and all this subsequent to his conversion, why can’t we?
My point here is that you appear to say, contrary to these texts, that a Christian receives from God as a sovereign impartation, irrespective of their own beliefs, prayers, and desires, all the gifts that he/she will ever receive at conversion. These texts clearly say otherwise.
Now, how does all this relate to the issue of gifts in history? Isn’t it obvious? One of the reasons I cited why gifts are less frequent in certain seasons of church history than in others is simply due to the fact that based on their hard cessationism (together with other factors, such as fear) they don’t seek and pursue and above all else fail (refuse?) to pray for these gifts.
They have not because they asked not, and they asked not because they believed not! Not believing in the validity of those gifts, not believing that God would grant them, they didn’t ask for them. Not asking for them, they didn’t receive them. You seem to think that their asking is irrelevant. If God wants them to have the gift, then, by golly, they’ll get it one way or the other. This strikes me as an illegitimate extension of our commonly held Calvinist convictions. God works through means, prayer being one of the more important of them.
I’m not suggesting that this accounts sufficiently for why certain spiritual gifts were not present in certain seasons of church life, but I am saying that it simply isn’t biblical or God’s way (at least as I read the Scriptures, even as a “good Calvinist”) to impart gifts and blessings irrespective of our obedience to pray and ask for them. The hungry are those who are filled. The thirsty are those who are given drink. Those who ask and seek and knock are those to whom the door is opened.
Can God set aside this principle and grant gifts anyway, irrespective of our theological beliefs about their validity and irrespective of our disobedience to pray for them? Yes, of course he can. I think that is precisely what happened in the case of Spurgeon. And I would venture to say (while acknowledging that I can’t prove it) that this happened countless times throughout the course of church history. But that doesn’t cancel out the basic principle that we cannot expect God to do things for us if we ignore the command to fulfill those conditions on which he suspends their impartation.
The principle is simply this: We should never expect God to do for us apart from prayer what he has promised in his Word to do for us only through prayer.
(6) Now for my sixth and concluding point. I want to take a minute or two and address this distinction that you continually (see, you are a “continuationist” of sorts!) make between “miraculous” gifts of the Spirit, which you contend have ceased (so much for your “continuationism”!), and “miracles”. This is typical among cessationists of all stripes. They deny that the “gifts” are valid but are “open” to the possibility that God “can” perform miracles if he so chooses throughout the course of church history. Let me say two things by way of response to this.
First, this distinction carries weight with people only (or at least to a large degree) because of an entirely fallacious understanding of how miraculous gifts of the Spirit operate. I made this point at some length in an earlier post, but it bears repeating. My sense is that cessationists want to deny the validity of “miraculous” gifts but affirm “miracles” because they don’t like (or believe in) the idea of any one person today claiming to operate in healing or prophecy or word of knowledge. They don’t like it because they don’t see it. That is to say, no one always heals at will or prophecies at will or is the recipient of revelatory words at will. Cessationists have a notion of spiritual gifts that if one ever, on any occasion, might heal or prophesy, they should be able always on every occasion to do so. And since everyone (me included) acknowledges that no one ministers in any miraculous gifting at this level of consistency and accuracy, cessationists can only conclude that such gifts ceased.
This, I insist, is an entirely wrong-headed and misleading understanding of these gifts. Not even Paul operated in his gifting in this manner. The more overtly supernatural or miraculous gifts, and especially the ones dependent on divine revelation (word of knowledge, word of wisdom, prophecy, discerning of spirits) are not permanent and residential, as if they are always present in a person and can be used at the will of the believer. They are, as I earlier argued, occasional and circumstantial. They are given by the sovereign good will of God according to his timing and purpose. They can only be exercised when he wills, not when we will.
So, the fact that no one who ever healed can always heal, or the fact that no one who ever prophesied can always prophesy, or the fact that no one who ever worked a miracle can always work a miracle, proves absolutely nothing about the cessation or perpetuity of such gifts. There is no need for a cessationist to deny the validity of miraculous gifts while affirming the validity of the miraculous since all instances of miracles, whether healing or revelatory words or the like, are subject to the sovereign will and providential oversight of God.
My first point, then, is this. Cessationists are drawing the wrong conclusion from the relative absence or alleged infrequency today (or in church history at large) of miraculous gifts. They were never under the control of the individual and were never designed by God to operate whenever we will or whenever we pray. Their relative absence or alleged infrequency is due to the intrinsic nature of the miraculous itself, not to any supposed purpose of God concerning the on-going validity or, conversely, cessation of the gifts Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. If cessationists would only acknowledge the distinction between gifts that are residential and permanent (such as teaching or mercy or evangelism or leadership or exhortation) and those that are occasional and circumstantial (such as healing, word of knowledge, wisdom, miracles, faith, discerning of spirits), much of this debate would, I believe, simply go away.
Second, cessationists must be able to differentiate between what Paul calls the gift of “miracles” (literally, the “working of powers”) in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and the occurrence of a “miracle” which they seem happy to acknowledge can still occur in our day (and throughout church history). But what is the difference? You can’t respond or answer by saying, “The difference is between a gifted ‘person’ who always operates at will in this sort of supernatural power and the isolated occurrence of a ‘miracle’ that comes merely by the sovereign hand of God.” Why doesn’t this response work? There are two reasons.
The first reason is what I said above: there never was and never will be, as far as I can tell from Scripture, any person (aside from Jesus) who “always operates at will in this sort of supernatural power.”
The second reason concerns how the miracles that even cessationists admit do occur, actually occur. Here’s what I mean. Most cessationists would acknowledge that on occasion God heals the sick or perhaps performs a so-called “nature” miracle. But how does God do it? Or better still, through what means or instrumentality does he do it? Is it not in most instances through or in response to the prayers of God’s people? Is it not after and because the Elders have anointed a person with oil and prayed the prayer of faith (James 5)? Is it not typically, by some manner or other, through a human being who is seeking God, looking to God, and praying to God for precisely such a supernatural intervention?
I’m not suggesting that God never performs a miracle by fiat or in some unmediated way. Of course he does. But when it comes to healing or revelatory experiences in particular, it is most often through the impartation to a particular person or persons of a “gift” for a healing or a word of revelatory insight or some other expression of power.
I would simply ask you and other cessationists who say you believe in miracles (or that God can surely perform them beyond the time of the NT) to describe for me one that you’ve seen or heard of that occurred independently of Christians who were praying and seeking God for his supernatural power or were in some other way directly involved in the facilitation of that miracle. For every example you might cite, I’ve got ten where God did it through a human instrumentality. That, I believe, is what the “gift of miracles” (1 Cor. 12:10) is all about. It is about God, at his time and according to his purpose, imparting a gift or enablement to a particular person on a particular occasion to accomplish a particular purpose.
Perhaps the best illustration of what I’m getting at is found in Galatians 3:5. There Paul asks, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” Note two things in this text that apply to our discussion. First, it appears that God sovereignly, according to his will and timing, was performing miracles among the Galatians. Some might think that this is what even cessationists concede can and on occasion happens throughout the course of church history. No special spiritual “gift” is required for God to do this.
But I’m persuaded that this is, in fact, yet another reference to the “gift” of miracles. Observe what Paul says concerning how or by what means such miracles are performed: “by hearing with faith”! The Galatians (and we, too, I believe) hear the Word of God, the Spirit whom God gives to us awakens belief in its truths and deepens faith in who God is and what he can do, to which God then responds by imparting or bestowing a “gift” to work a miracle or display his supernatural presence.
Second, that Paul has in view here precisely the same phenomenon (the “gift of miracles”) that he describes in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and again in 12:28-29 is evident from the language he employs. In Galatians 3:5, the phrase “works miracles” is a translation of the Greek energon dunameis, which is virtually the same terminology Paul uses in 1 Cor. 12:10 to describe the spiritual “gift” of miracles (energemata dunameon; in 12:28-29, where his description of the gifts is abbreviated, he uses dunameis alone). Does God “work miracles” among us, or do gifted individuals “work miracles” among us? Yes! God “works miracles” among us by awakening faith in his Word, in conjunction with or as a result of which he imparts a gracious divine enabling (i.e., a charisma, a gift) so that the believer can “work miracles” among us.
So, if you are willing to recognize that this is the nature of the “gift of miracles” as well as the nature of gifts of healings and revelatory experiences, etc., then what’s the point or value in denying that such “gifts” continue in the life of the church all the while you concede that miracles still occur? I also believe this is why it is indeed legitimate for continuationists to appeal to examples such as we find in the ministry of Augustine to support their view.
The bottom line is that I think you and other cessationists continue to draw this distinction because you don’t want to be forced into a theological corner where you are found doubting or, worse still, denying that the omnipotent God of the universe “can” do something. You want to be able to justify praying for a miracle when someone is sick, and to be able to account for what happened to Spurgeon, for example, and other similar instances without conceding this debate to the continuationist.
Thus, I simply don’t see this as a helpful or biblical distinction. I believe that God continues to bestow the “gift of miracles” much in the same way he most likely did in the early church: rarely, occasionally, and most often (but not always) through a particular Christian person who was seeking God, believing God, and praying for a particular supernatural breakthrough. I believe God continues to bestow “gifts of healings” much in the same way he most likely did in the early church: rarely, occasionally, etc., etc.
And so, this oft-heard insistence by cessationists that miracles can certainly occur but not through the “gift of miracles” or that healings can occur but not through the “gifts of healings,” is a distinction without a difference that serves only to cloud and confuse people in this debate. May it forever cease (see, I too am a “cessationist” of sorts!).
Well, that’s enough. I’ve enjoyed the dialogue. I hope our readers have been encouraged and edified by this series of blog posts. Blessings to all,