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