Cessationsm vs Biblicism

Cessationism under the biblical spotlight

Part 1 in a series by
in which he asks the question:

Can the Cessationist and the moderate Pentecostal reach agreement over spiritual gifts?

(An article with the above title was first published as an addendum in the book entitled Gathering the Faithful Remnant © 2002 CWM pages 355-397.)

Introduction - A Universal Issue

Believing that this might prove to be the major issue confronting part of the church in our time. the author sent an earlier draft of this series by email to a number of prominent Christian leaders from both the cessationist and non-cessationist camps, with an invitation for their comments. Some of their responses or ideas have been incorporated. However, the author accepts full responsibility for what is published in the entire series recognizing that his will not be the final word on the topic. The intent is to open the subject and give a reasonably comprehensive overview. Your comments are very welcome.

Part One - Definitions and Perspectives

Bible believing Christians find themselves in a tension between the extremes of charismania and Pentecostalism on the one hand and their commitment to a God who never changes, as presented in scripture and throughout history, on the other.

What confronts us here is the old "baby and bath water" analogy, which has been much overused and at times can be dismissed as being too simplistic. In some cases there may be more than one bathtub or there's no baby, just dirty water, which needs to be thrown out! But the analogy does apply in this case as we are dealing with an honest dilemma that has produced a pendulum swing. Good people, who won't endorse the false, do, at times, end up rejecting the real.

To examine the issue dispassionately and fairly we must start with a right premise and proceed with clear logic, humbly looking to the Lord that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. So let's begin with definitions and then establish a foundation for our rationale:

CESSATION: "a stopping, permanent or temporary; discontinuance" — The World Book Dictionary by Thorndike Barnhart.

From a theological perspective,

Cessationist refers to someone who thinks that certain miraculous gifts ceased long ago, when the apostles died and scripture was complete.1

When the word CESSATIONISM is applied in a biblical or theological setting it signifies a body of belief which asserts a permanent or temporary discontinuance of the supernatural displays of God and/or of the manifestations or gifts of the Holy Spirit as listed in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 and/or of some of the ministry gifts of Christ referred to in Ephesians 4:11. Just as there are degrees of charismatic and Pentecostal teaching and emphases so there are degrees of CESSATIONISM.

The extreme position of the latter asserts that everything supernatural ended with the establishment of the canon of scripture and the passing of the twelve Apostles.

Dr Jack Deere2 shows how serious the cessationist position can become. He writes:

I was once arguing with a well-known theologian over the subject of the gifts of the Spirit. I made the comment that there was not a shred of evidence in the Bible that the gifts of the Spirit had passed away. He said, 'I wouldn't go that far, but I know that you cannot prove the cessation of the gifts by scripture. However, we do not clearly see them in the later history of the church, and they are not part of our own theological tradition.

This man taught at a seminary that was dogmatically cessationist in its approach to miraculous gifts, but in private conversation he freely admitted that this doctrine could not be proved by scripture.3

Dr Peter Masters of Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, is a cessationist. He wrote:

In these days of charismatic confusion we need constantly to draw attention [to] the texts which prove that signs and wonders were peculiar to the apostolic band, and were not bestowed generally.4

Very few Christians, let alone denominations and local churches, accept this extreme teaching today. Most will acknowledge that at the very least supernatural divine healings do sometimes (occasionally) occur; that inexplicable miracles do take place; that God does still answer prayer, otherwise why pray?

The following view seems to be widespread:

The more spectacular gifts (tongues, healings, miracles) necessitated some degree of order that would prevent their indiscriminate use (1 Corinthians 14:40). The spirits of the prophets must be subjected to the prophets (vs 32). Paul clearly insists that spectacular gifts were inferior to those that instructed believers in faith and morals and evangelised non- Christians. Tongues speaking was not forbidden (vs 39), but intelligent exposition of the word, instruction in faith and morals, and preaching the gospel were infinitely superior. The criteria used to judge the relative values of spiritual gifts were doctrinal (1 Corinthians 12:3), moral (1 Corinthians 13), and practical (1 Corinthians 14)5.

The more moderate and reasonable cessationist teaching focuses upon some, if not all, of the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 and upon two of the ascension ministry gifts of Christ viz that of apostle and prophet — c/f Ephesians 4:11. In short, moderate cessationism believes and teaches that the ministries of apostle and prophet are not valid since the completion of the canon of scripture and that those gifts of the Holy Spirit, which were essential to their function, have ceased. How many of the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit are thus affected is not always clear. There are varieties of opinions among those who take the cessationist position on this point.

Most will deny three of the vocal gifts — speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues and prophecy, unless prophecy is interpreted as preaching, as it is by many cessationists. John MacArthur is such an example.6

Some will deny the sign gifts viz working of miracles and some aspects of the gifts of healings and of the gift of faith. Often cessationists adopt a view about the three revelatory gifts — the word of wisdom, word of knowledge and discerning of spirits — so as to diminish or destroy the supernatural nature of their displays.

Thomson & Elwell provide an example of this kind of interpretation:

Speaking the word of knowledge suggests a word spoken only after long and careful consideration. This would be a word that the Christian teacher would ordinarily speak.7

The greatest problem with my former point of view [as a cessationist] is that it is not even remotely close to the experience of the people of the Bible. God did speak to them apart from the scripture. He warned, encouraged, and gave specific geographical leading to His people. In order to support my old view, I had to find a way to explain away all the biblical examples of God's regular special revelation and guidance for His children.8

BIBLICISM: "strict or literal adherence to the Bible" — The World Book Dictionary by Thorndike Barnhart.

Theologically, biblicism

refers primarily to an excessively literal method of interpretation. It emphasizes individual words, rejects any form of the historical-critical method, and frequently employs some form of free association or taking verses out of their context to prove a point (hence, proof texts). Some evangelicals may use biblicism to indicate their commitment to the absolute authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and practice.9

In every theological discussion we must start with scripture, so let's do it and return to the basic argument and an examination of the presuppositions and "modus operandi" of both sides later.

Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. And I will wait upon the LORD, who hides His face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for Him. Behold, I and the children, whom the LORD has given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells in mount Zion. And when they shall say to you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that whisper, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead? To the law and to the testimony: if they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them — Isaiah 8:16-20

When Isaiah penned those words the expression "to the law and to the testimony" was an appeal to the Word of the Lord as it then stood as Alec Motyer in his Tyndale OT Commentary10 on Isaiah and H.C. Leupold in his Exposition of Isaiah: Volume 1, Chapters 1- 39 (one vol. edition) prove — see footnote 10, below. We must of course remember that the Israelites had a strong and accurate oral culture at this time.11

The Law and the Testimony included everything and precluded nothing of the whole counsel of God at that time. Interestingly Isaiah in this passage condemns all those who go outside of the Word of God for their instruction or teaching as being in total darkness even though v19 makes it clear that he is opposing those who are into spiritism. Sola Scriptura is a doctrine that stretches right back to the Garden of Eden and is supported by the balance of the Old Testament e.g. Micah 3:5-7, Jeremiah 27:12-22 and 29:4-9.

The New Testament affirms the same thing,

For I testify to every man who hears the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add to these things, God shall add to him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book — Revelation 22:18-19

While the words "this book" may indeed be primarily a reference only to the Book of the Revelation as some assert12 there are many other New Testament scriptures, which affirm the unique authority of the Bible in matters of spiritual life and doctrine as the following bear testimony by way of example.

And that from a child you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness — 2 Timothy 3:15-16

Search the scriptures; for in them you think you have eternal life: and they are they, which testify of me. And you will not come to me, that you might have life — John 5:39- 40

At this point we can reasonably conclude, with some reservation that in theory, at least, both sides think they are standing on common ground, but in practice each tends to stray and sometimes for a very noble reason on the part of both viz a commitment to the Sola Scriptura principle. On the one hand some who belong to the Pentecostal or charismatic camps, in their honest attempt to support the biblicism that includes the present day reality of the Holy Spirit, end up trying to defend the indefensible in justifying some or all of the aberrations of their history and/or current bizarre practices. On the other hand some of those who adopt the cessationist position, by starting from the premise of these obvious unscriptural and non biblical occurrences sometimes end up undermining their most cherished doctrine — Sola Scriptura, by actually appealing to extra biblical sources in an attempt to establish their point.

John MacArthur has done this by his examples from experience. See chapter 7 of Charismatic Chaos, "How do spiritual gifts operate?" and the experiential examples he gives. One example is that of parents who wrote to his church about their daughter who,

had become involved in a large, well-known Third Wave church. Her mother wrote about the daughter's experience with speaking in tongues, angels and demons. One demon 'sat on her husband's head one night and hissed at her. She sees others riding on top of cars or standing on rooftops and some in battle with the angels. She sometimes sees darkness around people. She believes seeing this is a God-given gift'.13

In fairness to MacArthur, we must remember that Paul appealed to the experience of the Judaizers when he confronted Peter in Galatians 2. I'm sure we could find other examples from experience in scripture. We cannot confront error without appealing to current examples.

Jack Deere observes,

There is one basic reason why Bible- believing Christians do not believe in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit today. It is simply this: they have not seen them. Their tradition, of course, supports their lack of belief, but their tradition would have no chance of success if it were not coupled with their lack of experience of the miraculous. . . No cessationist writer that I am aware of tries to make his case on scripture alone. All of these writers appeal both to scripture and to either present or past history to support their case. It often goes unnoticed that this appeal to history, either past or present, is actually an argument from experience, or better, an argument from lack of experience.14

Jack Deere pointedly says, “Even the greatest of the cessationist scholars, Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield,” could not make his case on scripture alone. He appealed both to the scriptures and to "the testimony of later ages."15

In effect each arrives at the one point — a denial of the sufficiency and adequacy of scripture — why? I suggest that it is because their premise is wrong. I am not saying that we must not appeal to church history or to experience — far from it. All valid as well as false doctrines find their outworking in real life. What I am saying is that if we start with history instead of with our doctrine of God from the Bible we will go astray and come to wrong conclusions. We must build our argument upon the basis of scripture alone. Having done that, then we should examine history and current happenings in the light of the doctrine that we have established from the Bible. This is the only safe way to proceed.

NEXT - Is Cessationism Biblical?


1) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, p1031.
2) In quoting Jack Deere, here and elsewhere in this article, we do not intend to give the impression that we endorse his extreme charismatic position. We consider he is correct in what we have quoted
3) Jack Deere, Surprised by the Spirit. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993, pp55-56
4) Peter Masters, The Healing Epidemic. London: The Wakeman Trust, 1988, p69-70.
5) J.G.S.S. Thomson and W. A. Elwell, "Spiritual Gifts," in Walter A. Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, pp1045- 1046).
6) "The New Testament prophetic gift (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10) primarily has to do with declaration, not revelation. The New Testament prophet 'speaks to men for edification and exhortation and comfort' (1 Cor 14:3). He is a preacher, not a source of ongoing revelation. His task is one of forth-telling, not foretelling. That is, he proclaims already revealed truth; he is not generally a conduit for new revelation" (John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992, p81).
7) Thomson & Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p1045.
8) Jack Deere, Surprised by the Voice of God, p274.
9) H.C. Waetjen, "Biblicism, Bibliolatry," in Walter A. Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984, p152).
10) Alec Motyer, Isaiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999, pp86-87).
11) "Verse 20. Slogans abound in this portion of the prophet's message. Verse 16 is a slogan which describes the course necessary for the present: 'bind up the testimony...' Verse 19 describes a slogan against the following of which men are to be warned: 'Consult the mediums...' Verse 20 again gives the best slogan of all, in the very concise form: 'To the law and to the testimony'. It is true that 'law' means 'instruction'. It is also true that from an early date the Mosaic law was regarded as a primary instance of such instruction. 'Testimony' again was another synonym for the 'law'. Apparently then the two terms together imply that men should turn back to all instruction oral or written (emphasis added), that may have been brought to their attention at any time. Such instruction may have been largely ignored. It was important then. It is important now. In fact, the giving heed to it is the most important issue of the day. It could therefore be aptly paraphrased: Let the nation turn back to that basic instruction which has come to it from God in the past; to do so is their only hope" [H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Isaiah: Volume 1, Chapters 1-39 (one vol. edition). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1971, p177].
12) In commenting on vv. 18-19, Robert H. Mounce writes: "The book [of Revelation] draws to a close with a severe warning against adding to or taking away from its prophetic message... It is best to take the passage in a straightforward manner as a severe warning to the hearers not to distort the basic message revealed through John" [Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977, pp395-96].
13) MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, pp192-193.
14) Jack Deere, Surprised by the Spirit, p55.
15) Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles.Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1918, reprint 1983, p6, in Deere, Surprised by the Spirit, n9, p 268.

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