An inconvenient history for cessationism

???????????????In light of the controversy generated over John MacArthur’s recent polemic crusade against Charismatics and Pentecostals with His book and conference titled, “Strange Fire“, I think it might be instructive for us to look at whether this view is compatible with church history. I gave my take on the “Strange Fire” ordeal here and here so I won’t belabor that in this post.

But all these attacks and rebuttals find their impetus from whether you hold a Cessationist or a Continuationist view of Scripture.

If you’re not familiar with these terms, here’s a brief description. Cessationists believe that miracles, gifts, apostles, prophets ended with the first apostles and completion of Scripture.  On the other hand, Continuationists believe that the use of spiritual gifts, miracles, signs and wonders written about in the New Testament are still relevant and even needed today (with the exception of the writing of or having equal authority with Scripture).

But the point of this article is not to debate, or worse, demonize my Cessationist brethren. I believe that they love Jesus just as much as I ever will. I simply want to give a little history on how we got to believe such things. For the nature of faith is that what you believe becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (Matt.8:13). As J.B. Phillips observes in his introduction to New Testament translations (bold-text added)…

“The greatest difference between present-day Christianity, and that of which we read in these letters (of the New Testament), is that to us it is primarily a performance; to them it was real experience. We are apt to reduce Christian religion to a code or, at best a rule of heart and life. Perhaps if we believed what they believed, we could achieve what they achieved.”

Frankly, I’ve always been puzzled by the logic of cessationism and have never had a problem with the continuation of the gifts. I agree with Jack Deere (former Cessationist) when He said in his book “Surprised by the Power of the Spirit“…

“If you were to lock a brand-new Christian in a room with a Bible and tell him to study what the Scriptures have to say about healing and miracles, he would never come out of the room a Cessationist.”

One more thing. This is a brief historical look not a theological defense of the Continuationist position. If you’re interested in a more detailed theological treatment, you can read the articles at blogs like “To Be Continued…”

An inconvenient history

The first reason the Reformers promoted cessationism was to refute the authority of the Roman church–specifically, the Pope being a source of infallibility. Thus, they contended that continuation of the apostles, prophets, miracles and spiritual gifts ended with the twelve apostles.

The next reason can be seen from an article by Evan Wiggs titled, “Cessationism: an Arid Theology“…

Cessationism’s champions is Benjamin Warfield (1821 – 1921).  He held a position as editor of the Princeton Theological Review and taught thousands of ministerial students at Princeton.  During a time that liberal theology was sweeping the nation with the higher textual criticism of theologians in Europe, Warfield held the line in conservative and fundamentalist circles in the United States and for that is to be commended.  His book “Counterfeit Miracles” became the definitive statement of cessationism to the conservative fundamental segment of Christianity.  In this book Warfield makes the case that all miracles ceased after the last Apostle died and that any claims after that time of the miraculous is false. “

But a brief look at Church history tells another story. The following comes from Christian Chat (bold-text added)….

“Augustine was probably the first to theorize cessation — that until an outbreak of the miraculous in his church led him to a change his thinking. These miracles included healings of blindness, cancer, and raising the dead. Not bad for a skeptic.

Justin Martyr, in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ wrote, For the prophetic gifts remain with us even to the present time…it is possible to see among us women and men who possess gifts of the Spirit of God.”

Tertullian likewise challenges Marcion on the merits of the gifts.

Irenaeus, in ‘Against Heresies’ writes, “Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions and utter prophetic expressions. Others heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years.”

Origen testifies, “For by these means we too have seen many persons freed from grievous calamities, and from other distractions of mind, and from madness, and countless other ills, which could not be cured neither by men nor devils.”

Cyprian writes, “For beside the visions of the night, even in the daytime, innocent children among us are filled with the Holy Spirit, seeing in an ecstasy with their eyes, and hearing and speaking those things whereby the Lord consents to warn and instruct us.”

Gregory the Great wrote of raising the dead, healings and a person saving a drowning youth by walking on water!

You will also find the charismatic gifts functioning in the monks, Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, the Waldenses, Martin Luther (who healed the sick and cast out devils), the Anabaptists, Wesley and countless others.”

And speaking of raising the dead. This comes from “Miracles of the Saints” (bold-text added)…

“After the Apostles, the Saints continued to follow Jesus’ command to “heal the sick and raise the dead.” (Matt.10:7-8). The excellent book “Saints Who Raised The Dead” (Tan Books, Father Alfred J. Hebert S.M., 2004) documents over 400 true stories of resurrection miracles in the lives of the Saints. Some of the many Saints listed in this book are: St. Francis of Paola, Venerable John Baptist Tholomei, St. Bernardine of Siena, St. John Capistrano, St. Francis of Paola, St. Joseph of Cupertino, St. Peter of Alcantara, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Philip Neri, St. Paul of the Cross, St. John Bosco, Blessed James Salomoni, St. Agnes of Montepulciano, Blessed Constantius of Fabrino, Blessed Sadoc and Companions, Blessed Mark of Modena, Blessed Ceslas, Blessed Augustine of Bugela, Colomb a of Rieti, St. Rose of Lima, St. Martin de Porres, St. Francis Solanus, Marianne de Jesus of Quito, Blessed Sebastian of Apparizio, St. Bernard of Abbeville, St. Stanislaus of Cracow, St. James of Tarentaise, St. Cyril of Constantinople, St. Peregrine, St. Philip Benizi, Bl. Peter Armengol, Blessed Eustachio, St. Gerard Majella, St. Charbel Makhlouf, St. Padre Pio, St. Margaret of Cortona, St. Felix of Cantalice, St. Rose of Viterbo, St. Pacific of San Severino, St. Hyacinth, St. Louis Bertrand, St. Francis Xavier, St. John Francis Regis, St. Andrew Bobola; St. Francis Jerome, Brother Antony Pereyra, and St. Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, to name just a few.”

I should mention one more major motivator for the Cessationist view–the Reformer’s defense of Sola Scriptura. They felt that continuing spiritual gifts, apostles, prophets weaken the authority of Scripture. But this is an unnecessary concern when you understand that the purpose of the gifts in the New Testament are not to write Scripture (or contradict it) but to build up the Church in love (1 Cor.12:7; 14:3-5, 26; Eph.4:7-16).

And I pray this short journey through Church history has edified you. For me, I will continue to take Jesus at His word. It’s quite simple, actually…

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.”  John 14:12


About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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19 Responses to An inconvenient history for cessationism

  1. mtsweat says:

    Sshhh… these thoughts are not for western ears any longer friend.

    Having just returned from a brief visit to Africa however, hmmm.

    If what you post holds any credibility, then I must concur what a tool for the enemy to use. Eliminate the miraculous. Get rid of anything we can’t accomplish (and explain) with our own power (and wisdom). What is left might just be another world religion? Sorry Mr. MacArthur.

    Your words add to much that has been on my heart and mind since returning back to US soil. Gee… thanks.

    • Mel Wild says:

      LOL! Yeah, let’s not let this “miracles, signs and wonders” cat out of the bag. We might lose control of things. 🙂

      Seriously, the rather ironic problem we have in the rational West is that we’ve made the devil very big (false prophets, lying signs and wonders all over the place) and God very small (silent, powerless, except for Scripture). But I don’t think either Jesus or the devil are Cessationists. So let’s go with Jesus.

      Thanks for your comments. We need more of your faith here in the U.S. If anyone needs the supernatural power of God to break through hardened unbelief, it’s us! Blessings.

  2. Michael says:

    Really good, Mel. I was thinking of something a few days ago that you referenced and will put it to you: What if, say, Paul’s other letters, like the earliest and lost one to the Corinthians and another to the church at Laodicea, were found–do you think they could be accepted as the Word of God, authoritative for Christian life and practice? Not just Paul’s, of course–what do you think? Or should they be relegated to a status sort of like “The Didache” or “The Shepherd of Hermas”, etc.? Further, is there even the remote possibility of convening anything as authoritative as the earliest Christian councils? Certainly the Catholic Church could far more easily make its decision. What would discovering something like that mean to the faith and its unity? I’d like to hear your opinions on this. Again, nice post.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Uhhh….I don’t know. 🙂

      Probably would not be accepted since we’ve opened the Protestant Pandora’s box. We’re more divisive than ever now. Like you said, I don’t think you’ll get a consensus across the board. Much like politics.

      Having said that, the “unity of the Spirit” is possible if we lose our combative orphan-hearted mindset about Christianity and learned to rest in the Father’s embrace as sons. This was the point of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21-26. Unity comes from union. And this is also another casualty of cessationism. One of the goals of the equipping gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers and pastors) is to bring about the unity of the faith (Eph.4:13). Obviously, we can’t do this if we don’t belief in two-fifths of the equipping resources that God gave us!

      But it wouldn’t matter to me, ether way. I think we have enough consensus on what is Scripture now to change the world and do what Jesus did.

      Your comments much appreciated, as always, Mike. Blessings.

      • bullroarin says:

        “Having said that, the “unity of the Spirit” is possible if we lose our combative orphan-hearted mindset about Christianity and learned to rest in the Father’s embrace as sons. This was the point of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21-26. Unity comes from union. And this is also another casualty of cessationism. One of the goals of the equipping gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers and pastors) is to bring about the unity of the faith (Eph.4:13). Obviously, we can’t do this if we don’t belief in two-fifths of the equipping resources that God gave us!”

        Wow…let me tell you, this is possible, although walking in it is a challenge at times. Ten years ago I was an elder (and still am in an advisory roll) on our church board. We embraced (somewhat loosely) the idea of five-fold ministry. We wrote a constitution at the time (took two years), and two weeks after the constitution was accepted by our congregation we threw it out! A funny thing happened…all the legal minded people left.
        For those who were left, we went into a period of “Dry Dock” and our only fellowship was to meet and have a dinner together twice a month (no church). This lasted two years. We had people (no members, and still don’t) from many different denominations, but the difference was, instead of division, we had union, or “fellowship” as we call it. We have no leader (who gives overall direction) as in the sense that a normal church would, but, we have people who exercise their gifts…prophets, teachers, pastors, etc.) Our pastor is not the leader of our church, (Jesus is) but looks after everything that has to do with pastoral care. Our teachers are not the leaders…they only teach. And so on and so forth. Our structure is not hierarchical but is something we call, plurality of leadership. We feel that we as the body of Christ are members of the head, who is Christ, and we are servants of the head and the Holy Spirit gives us giftings as he sees fit. And so in a sense, we are many with giftings, but we are one in Spirit. Consequently, we are a church of leaders…because everybody has giftings to offer and we all support one another in our ministries. Seventy percent of our youth are in missions all over the world, and everybody is active with the things God has called them to do. But not only young people, one of our oldest members just got back from a missions trip to Nepal last week leading a group of seniors to help out in an orphanage.
        Every four months we change our leading team to four new and fresh people from our congregation so that nobody burns out. We’ve been doing this over the last two years and for the most part it has been a God-sent. We only meet twice a month, but we practise a house church model and so meetings are going on all the time in homes. There’s lots more I could say but I don’t want you to think I’m a fanatic, ha!

        Sorry if I got a little excited Mel, but you can see that your statement on “unity of the Spirit” would start a fire in me. I’m not saying we have it all together, but I love what God is doing and I’m excited to see the prospect that it might happen (and will happen) somewhere else.

        God bless my friend. ~ dave

        • Mel Wild says:

          That sounds a lot like the New Testament Church to me! Awesome, Dave. I think more and more people who want authentic Christianity are finding it in what Frank Viola calls the “organic church.” It’s definitely more biblical and transformational than the traditional model. Again, no matter how we configure ourselves, the key is in our union in what Paul called the “fellowship of the mystery which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God…” (Eph.3:9), and that is the same fellowship that Jesus paid for so we could enter into it with Him. The same fellowship He has had with the Father since before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). This is the place of rest where we will function like Jesus functioned when He walked the earth. Then the world will see His glory in us (John 17:22-23). Then we will finally be following Jesus’ agenda instead of our own.

        • Susan Throop says:

          That is such a great testimony. I left traditional church over 20 years ago and now focus on making disciples. Your testimony really proves that true disciples can dwell in unity. Thanks again, Susan

  3. bullroarin says:

    Hi Mel….really enjoying your article.

    “If you were to lock a brand-new Christian in a room with a Bible and tell him to study what the Scriptures have to say about healing and miracles, he would never come out of the room a Cessationist.”

    Some years ago (35 or so), I was saved and began reading the Bible without the benefit of biblical scholars to advise me in the ways of religion. (note: please realize that this was my experience and I’m not negating the need for people with the gift of teaching to teach and instruct in God’s word) I prayed for revelation, and the Holy Spirit gave me revelation. I prayed for healing, and God healed me. My life was one of wonders…would pray for people and see them healed. Prayed for deliverance and received deliverance from habits going back over ten years of my life. I couldn’t read the name of Jesus without tearing up when I realized all that God had done for me.

    It wasn’t until I darkened the door of a church, and religion et-al, that I began to learn of the letter of the law…and the grace I has been living under, along with the wonders and everything else, began to drift away. I found that the letter of law brought only death, and so death (lack of spirit) superseded my once vibrant Christian experience.

    It wasn’t until I refocused on the grace of God and the Spirit life that I began to reconnect with the reality of who I am in Christ. I think that when God is truly present in a persons life God cannot help but demonstrate His whole character, essence, and glory in that life. Perhaps that is why we see God’s power evident whenever God is present. When I see miracles and the gifts of the Spirit in operation, it can only mean that God is present, and if he is present life (and all the giftings) will follow.

    As for cessation-ism, I can only think that a living God would have nothing to do with it…and so it seems. ~ Dave

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for sharing your testimony on this, Dave. It is sad that local churches that are meant to build us up can dry us up…or drive us out. And you’re right, the freedom of walking in pure grace, not mixed with the Law, and simple faith like a child produces something very wonderful. A little bit of heaven on earth, which is what the Church is supposed to be. Blessings to you, brother.

    • ellagamberi says:

      I am two years late to this conversation, but the subject is ever in need of discussion. I have been trolling the internet looking for an answer to cessationism, it has never sat well with me, I have never really understood it apart from the loony behaviour of many of my pentecostal brethren.

      I just wanted to thank you for this post, it has helped me enormously.

      I wonder also if ‘bullroarin’s experience is the experience of the early church in microcosm and why cessationism took hold as quickly as it did.I believe wholeheartedly that God still moves today as He has ever done. He has never changed, yet we lose our faith, our simple-heartedness and rationalise everything.

      I am currently facing a malady in my own life which requires healing, it has been with me for a few years and I have prayed, my husband has prayed, not much has changed, but I have within my heart a deep and abiding knowing that God will heal me, I even had a dream to confirm it. A small but significant night vision if you will that I was healed. I believe God speaks to us via the Holy Spirit but that we need to test the spirits via scripture to make sure we are not being led astray as I have at times.

      So many times my mind has said to me that I am foolish for believing in a supernatural move of God in my life, because God doesn’t always anwer prayers for healing. But then I realise Jesus never once refused to heal somebody and many of his healings were done in tandem with forgiveness of sin, they both go together as it is stated in Psalm 103, he has forgiven all our iniquities and healed all our diseases. Jesus also quoted Isaiah 61 in his first ever sermon when he said he came to ‘heal the brokenhearted’ and set the captives free. What a mighty saviour! Does Jesus still save? Of course! NOW is the day of salvation. Therefore, He still heals!

      Sometimes I think the cessationists need to answer the question, which is harder to do? To heal the sick or to forgive sin?

      • Mel Wild says:

        Thanks for your comments. Keep believing for healing. I’ve known people who’ve been prayed for over 2 years who were miraculously healed. I have personally witnessed hundreds of people who were healed, including those with “incurable” diseases. Yes, He still heals! I will be praying for you.

        Btw, I also wrote an article titled, “2,000 years of miracles, signs, and wonders” that goes more into the history of miracles and healing that you might find edifying.
        2,000 years of miracles, signs, and wonders
        Blessings to you.

  4. “The rather ironic problem we have in the rational West is that we’ve made the devil very big and God very small.” Wow, did you just hit a large nail on it’s REALLY large head! Oh. Did I say that out loud? We do have a tendency (me, included) to take our point of view as the gospel (pun intended), don’t we? And there are just so many darn points of view besides Jesus. Frankly, I’ve just gone back to reading those red-letter words. They seem to make everything so much clearer.

    • Mel Wild says:

      LOL! Yeah, I think you did say that out loud, Susan. And to that, I say, amen! As far as educated opinions go, it’s been said, “God spoke…and the rest is commentary.” As long as we keep the two separated, we’ll be fine. And I agree, what if we just start agreeing with Jesus? That’s pretty straight-forward and simple. Blessings,

  5. Pingback: 2,000 years of miracles, signs and wonders | In My Father's House

  6. What book is that Cyprian quote from?

    • Mel Wild says:

      I quoted it from a chat mentioned in the post, but the original quote is from “Epistles of Cyprian, Vol.5 of the Ante-Nicene Christian Library,” p.290. You can also get the quote from Eddie L. Hyatt’s book, “2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity” (Kindle loc. 206), which is a great resource.

  7. Kenny Sacht says:

    So good brother. I love your heart and attitude.

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