With the rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements of the 20th century the question of spiritual gifts became an important topic in pastoral practice and ecclesiology. The rise and practice of various spiritual gifts was a cause for controversy in mainline denominations.[i] In response, various theologians from mainline denominations articulated a theology that attempted to undermine the expression of these gifts. This theology is termed cessationism and it is the doctrine that some or all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to be available to the Church at some point in Christian history.
Typically, those holding this doctrine believe that the cessation of spiritual gifts happened around the end of the first century (after the first Apostles died out) or at the time the Biblical canon was confirmed (fourth century). However, this doctrine is often held informally and with some ambiguity. For example, some proponents of cessationism believe that gifts of the Holy Spirit continue to exist in the Church, but only in places where the Christian gospel is being preached for the first time. Others may argue that some gifts continue to exist, while other gifts have ceased. What is common among cessationists is the belief that the gifts of the Holy Spirit cannot be expected to be available in the same way they were available to the early Church. This belief warrants closer examination.
My Experience with Cessationism
I grew up in a church that implicitly subscribed to cessationism. It was never wielded with militant enthusiasm from the pulpit, it lived quietly in the background of all other teaching. The prevailing attitude in my church at that time was that we had the Holy Scriptures, God’s inerrant words of truth, to guide our actions and inform our faith. There was no need for any other gifts of revelation, they would only muddy the waters of the pure Word of God found in the Holy Bible. We already believed in Jesus, so there was no need of miracles to point to Jesus being the Christ.
The cessationist view is based on the perspective that the gifts of the Spirit were seen as necessary when the New Testament documents were being written. Miracles were needed to confirm the truth of what the Apostles were preaching. Prophecy was needed to establish the words that would become the Bible we now hold. Special discernment was needed because the canon of Scripture was not yet available to consult in its entirety. In short the gifts of the Holy Spirit have played their role in ushering in the revealed Word of truth, the Bible.
This argument made perfect sense to me. At that point in my Christian life I had never experienced or seen evidence of gifts such as tongues, prophecy or healing. Of course, I believed in the Holy Spirit; he illuminated the Scriptures for me and was at work in me somehow to produce his fruits in my life.[ii] However, I did not want to find a place for the more supernatural gifts listed in passages like 1 Corinthians 12. In my mind, these gifts made me uncomfortable and made the experience of following Christ unpredictable. All this changed as I began to meet Christians from different traditions from myself.
During my time studying at university I joined a Christian group whose purpose was to introduce students to Jesus. I met Christians from many different denominational backgrounds. In prayer meetings with my Christian peers I experienced things I had never seen before. People were praying in tongues, having ‘words of prophecy’ for other individuals, and even prayers for the sick, occasionally resulting in someone being healed. Fuelled by a genuine desire to grow in Christ and a level of scepticism, these ‘new’ experiences generated many questions. Thankfully, I had met some generous Christians that were willing to answer these questions with love and patience.
During this same period, I was reading the Gospel of John in my personal devotions. I was struck by the crucial role the Holy Spirit played in Jesus’ ministry and the emphasis Jesus gave the Holy Spirit in his farewell discourse.[iii] Clearly Jesus intended his disciples to rely on the Holy Spirit just as he had done. As I traced the rise of the early Church through the book of Acts, I began to intensely desire the same relationship with the Holy Spirit that the Apostles of the first century clearly had. The testimony of Scripture and my experiences coalesced on a winter’s evening in 2005; for the first time I felt the love of God reverberate through my entire being. From that moment I have known that the power to bear witness to Christ has resided on the inside of me as the indwelling Spirit of God. Through faith in the gift of the Spirit to all who believe in Christ,[iv] I have exercised the various gifts of the Holy Spirit to powerful effect. So what then do I make of the cessationist argument that I had been taught?
1 Corinthians 13
Doctrines and beliefs concerning the gifts of the Holy Spirit are no doubt influenced strongly by experience. Should this be surprising? We are dealing with an element of Christianity that is intensely practical and pivotal to the mission of the church and building of the church community. One should rightly acknowledge that Christians on both sides of this debate take their experience, or in the case of cessationists, their lack of experience, to scripture when interpreting it – and proponents on both sides can find what they are looking for if they are not too careful with their biblical interpretation. For this reason it is worth discussing in detail a pivotal passage of Scripture that cessationists claim provides support for their position on spiritual gifts, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I will come to Paul’s discourse on love and the spiritual gifts momentarily. First, I would like to address the second half of this chapter. The Apostle Paul states very clearly that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit will cease. The gifts mentioned are prophesy, tongues and knowledge. These are all gifts that have a strong revelatory aspect. Some cessationists will argue that the ‘completeness’ or the ‘maturity’ to come is the Biblical canon, the inspired, inerrant and revealed Word of God.[v] The assumption here is that revelation is reduced to scripture alone, denying that the Spirit speaks and guides individuals personally and the Church corporately today. If the Canon alone constitutes the revelation of God then it makes sense that there would be an end to these spiritual gifts of revelation: they were a gift given to the Apostles for the creation of the Biblical Canon, they are withdrawn now that it is complete.
However, all good interpretation should take serious heed to the intention of the author. The claim that Paul had the completion of the Biblical canon in mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians is highly dubious at best. The majority of academic authorities on 1 Corinthians agree that the end of this chapter refers to the end of this age, the resurrection, and the return of Christ to consummate his Kingdom.[vi] It would appear a strong commitment to accurate biblical exegesis is not driving the cessationist argument. Instead of the Spirit ceasing to speak, we should be expecting the Spirit to continue to speak and work in our lives. Is this the end of the story though, that cessationism is wrong?
The Supremacy of Love
In his book “Keep in Step with the Spirit” renowned evangelical biblical scholar J.I. Packer expresses his concerns with spiritual gifts. He says, “Charismatic theology by comparison looks loose, erratic, and naive, and the movement’s tolerance of variations, particularly when they are backed by ‘prophecies’ received through prayer, suggests a commitment to given truth of Scripture that is altogether too fragile”.[vii] Often cessationists can be reactionary, based on fears of disorder and dangerous or untrue practices. The truth is that sometimes these fears develop through negative experiences. We should acknowledge that while some of these fears can be due to the personal tastes of the particular Christian, others may very well be representative of a genuine recognition of the misuse of the gifts. That said, just because gifts can be abused does not mean they must be thrown out altogether; that which can be perverted can also be redeemed to its proper place and functioning in the body of Christ.
Here in lies the importance of 1 Corinthians, particularly chapters 12-14, for those who believe in and exercise the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s point is to respond to the misuse of spiritual experiences and to bring correction and guidance. In chapter 12 he affirms everyone’s gifts, even though they may look different, and encourages everyone to use their gifts for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7). In Chapter 14 he responds to the misuse of tongues within the congregation. In the centre of these two chapters is Paul’s emphasis on the greatest gift and the moral framework that should guide the exercise of all gifts, the supremacy of love. To exercise spiritual gifts without love is meaningless and of no profit whatsoever. We should at this time remember that it is the same spirit who gives the ecstatic gifts that also gives the fruits of character (Galatians 5:22-23). To exercise spiritual gifts without love, patience or other fruits of the Spirit is to undermine the testimony of Jesus; it is to emphasise the extraordinary at the expense of the important. Furthermore, a focus on spiritual gifts in the place of genuine devotion and love of God and neighbour may even put one at risk of these chilling words of Jesus,
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’[viii]
1 Corinthians 12 emphasises the way the gifts unite the body of Christ. Paul gave lists of gifts not so we could create spiritual gift tests but so we could see our interdependency as we minister in the Church and testify to Christ. Nobody is an island, and we need the members of the church to work together. Any time we cause division through comparing the use of spiritual gifts by one another, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. Therefore we find that scripture has something to say to those on both sides of this debate.
There will remain those who hold onto cessationism because of many reasons, one of which might be the desire to be in control. To allow for all the gifts of the Spirit is to allow the Holy Spirit to have control, to let God have free reign. Charismatics and Pentecostals must respond to this with the continued exercising of spiritual gifts, with the fruit of the Spirit accompanying such works in an abundance. Miracles without love, patience, and gentleness can actually drive people away from the gifts of the Spirit.
We have been baptised in the Spirit by the one who stooped to wash feet.[ix] Let us exercise all the gifts the Spirit has given us with the same humility.
For further reading:
- Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999)
- Craig S. Keener, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001)
- Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Hendrickson Pub, 1995)
- Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International, and Contextual Perspective (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2002).
- Jack S. Deere, Surprised by the Voice of God, Revised ed. edition. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998).
[i] Evidence of spiritual gifts can be found throughout Church history. It was outside of the scope of this paper to outline this history, but even a conservative and reformed scholar such as D.A. Carson can state: “there is enough evidence that some form of ‘charismatic’ gifts continued sporadically across the centuries of church history that it is futile to insist on doctrinaire grounds that every report is spurious or the fruit of demonic activity or psychological aberration” (Showing the Spirit, p. 166).
[ii] Galatians 5:22-23
[iii] John 14-17
[iv] Acts 2:38-39
[v] Donald G McDougall, “Cessationism in 1 Cor 13:8-12,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 14, no. 2 (September 2003): 177–213.
[vi] F. F. Bruce, Corinthians I and II, New edition edition. (Grand Rapids; London: Harpercollins/STL, 1981); Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1st edition. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987); Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013); Karl Barth, The Resurrection of the Dead (Hodder and Stoughton, 1933).
[vii] J. I. Packer, Keep in Step With the Spirit (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 173.
[viii] Matthew 7:22-23
[ix] John 13:12-17
About the Author: Andrew Mellor is an associate lecturer of theology at Alphacrucis College.