There has been some recent discussion around the blogosphere regarding the role of the charismatic gifts in the church today. It began when avowed cessationist C. Michael Patton put together a series of blog posts he has written critiquing the charismatic movement into a short PDF book available for download (here). As previously mentioned on this blog there was a quick response from T.C. Robinson criticizing some of Patton’s arguments (here). There was been a few more responses at the blog Continuationism (here and here). I assume that there are several other responses of which I am not aware.
It would seem that this is an opportune time to add my own voice to the discussion. On the other hand, I know people may be tired of it already. What I will do is write out some of my own thoughts on why I am not a cessationist here. If this is timely, read now. If not, you can always come back later (or never if you are not interested in my opinion on the matter, which is understandable).
I should rephrase the matter. This is more than why I am not a cessationist. This is about why I am a continuationist. As a credo-baptist I have respect for paedeo-baptist; as a Calvinist I have respect for Arminians; as an exclusivist I have respect for inclusivist. I cannot say I respect cessationist in this debate in the same way. I understand the position, but I do not understand how anyone maintains it. It seems to me that the work of the Spirit in the life of the church through the impartation of gifts to members of the body of Christ is one of the most obvious doctrines in Scripture.
First, let me begin with Christology. The Pauline concept of kenosis should be taken seriously. I am not one of those who understands the miracles of Jesus to be due to his divine nature. Rather, as fully human Jesus was dependent upon the Holy Spirit as any other human. Jesus healed, raised the dead, fed the five thousand, and walked on water because he was in close fellowship with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit led him in these acts. Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, or descended upon by the Spirit at his baptism, or being declared the “Messiah” (= annointed one) are all important Pneumatological acts. As a man, Jesus did these things by the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit.
The evangelist recognize this in their own language. Along with the aforementioned wilderness and baptism narratives we have the author of the Fourth Gospel (14.12-14) writing of Jesus telling his disciples that they would do greater things than he did. In the context of this gospel this is due to the fact that Jesus will be present with them via the Holy Spirit who will guide and empower them. I doubt anyone would challenge that the author of Luke-Acts understood his two volume history of the works of Jesus and his disciples to imply anything other than that the church would continue in “word and deed” what Jesus had already begun (Acts 1.1). In the Lukan narrative such continuation is depicted by powerful proclamation of the gospel accompanied by works of the Spirit in and through the church.
Jesus was the first human to become fully united with the Spirit in the sense that New Covenant members can expect today. Yes, there were those who has similar experiences with the Spirit in the Old Covenant but both the Lukan and Johannine perspective, along with the Pauline, indicate that something is essentially different. New Covenant believers experience now the very Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, that is renewing them now, and that will raised them from the dead (cf. Rom. 8.11; 1 Cor 15).
Second, let me address eschatology. The advent of Jesus brought the age to come into the current evil age. This is what we speak about when we speak of the “already, but not yet” aspect of eschatology. The resurrection of the dead was to occur at the end of time. In Christ it occurred in the middle of time and it has already occurred inside believer’s who are awaiting it to occur outside as well (see Rom, esp. Eph). Along with the resurrection the coming of the Spirit was an eschatological act. This has occurred as well. This is why Paul draws the Spirit and the resurrection so closely together in Rom. 8 and 1 Cor. 15.
The Spirit has resurrected Christ giving him a Spirit-animated body (again, see 1 Cor 15). According to Paul, we have already been renewed in the inner man and we await this consumation in the outer man (again, see Eph and 2 Cor). Therefore we are “already, but not yet” dead, resurrected, and ruling with Christ. This may seem secondary to discussions regarding the charismata, but it is not.
To assert that the Spirit has changed how he works through believer’s now seems to me to minimize these assertions bu Paul regarding the life of the church in this era. As we are to live now like we will live then (e.g. 1 Cor. 6) so we are to experience the Spirit. This is not to say that we will need to have the gifts of healing and so forth at the eschaton. It is to say we will be empowered and animated by Spirit forever on.
When the Spirit does his final work we will not longer experience sickness, or ignorance, or disunity. In the meantime, we are to live in the Spirit in such a way that we catch glimpses of our post-eschaton, resurrected existence. This is depicted by things like the unity of the church and the fruits of the Spirit. It is also seen in the charismatic gifts that give us a glimpse of what God is planning on doing at the end of history.
I am not denying the “not yet” part of this equation. I do not think this leads to the error of the “word of faith” movement. God is still sovereign. We still live in this sinful world (see Rom. 8.18-23). Nevertheless, we must remember that we should still expect the “already” side of the equation as well. This should include the continuation of the movement of the Spirit seen amongst the apostolic church.
Third, it seems to me that people misunderstand the gifts of the Spirit. These are not moments when the Spirit exchanges sovereign rule over the church for human empowerment. Someone can have a gift of healing, pray for someone, and watch them get progressively sick. God is not bound by the gift that the Spirit has given to us.
Likewise, the gifts are not always going to be used to perfection. The Corinthians seemed to be riddled with errors when they used the gifts. The gifts of tongues was being abused often. Did this disqualify the gift? Does this mean that the gift was not an actual gift given to believer’s who abused it? No! This means it could be misused.
Too many cessationist appeal to the worst examples of the charismatic movement to show that these people must be making things up because there are times when healing does not occur, when prophecy fails, and so forth. This occurred in the apostolic era as well. Paul had to tell the elders of the churches in Thessaloníki and Corinth to “test” prophetic utterances. This does not mean that some “wolf in sheep’s clothing” has come to deceive the church (though this can happen as well), but rather that sometimes the person thinks that the Spirit has led them to say something that the community together recognizes is not a work of the Spirit at all.
Fourth, there is no evidence that these experiences were to cease in the “already, but not yet” eschatological era. The aforementioned abuses are not reason to claim cessation. On the contrary, the aforementioned eschatological framework is sufficient reason to expect continuation. While I know I make exegetical mistakes, and I am usually comfortable with others doing the same, any attempt to read 1 Cor. 13.9 as “canonization” may very well be one of the most baffling exegetical assertions. The Parousia is a much, much better explanation, especially when read in the context of Pauline eschatology. There must be another argument for cessation!
What about theologians in church history who seem to be cessationist. I think it has been sufficiently shown that this was not a catholic perspective (e.g., see here and here). There were some who did not see the Spirit moving this way amongst their own fellow Christians; there were some who saw the Spirit move this way frequently. Even if the cessationist perspective was common in church history this is not rebuttal for Pentecostals and Charismatics who have claimed for sometime that their movements as restoration movements. While there are dangers to such a claim there is much truth to it as well.
Fifth, I am convinced that the cessationist perspective is essentially a deistic, post-Enlightenment, Westernized skepticism of anything “supernatural”. It is often the result of Christians trying to explain how God functions while adopting the presuppositions of naturalist. Christianity cannot function in a naturalistic worldview. Christianity, as well as Judaism, has always claimed that God is active in history amongst humanity and creation. Most of our brothers and sisters in Africa, Latin America, and Asia are under no such delusions.
Finally, I have experienced things like glossolalia, the interpretation of tongues, prophecies, healing, and so forth. I have seen people who seem to have these gifts. I have heard many stories of healing, exorcism, and so forth. I am not convinced by those who suggest I have found what I want to be there or that the naturalistic explanations are better.
In some situations there may be a natural cause. In some situations there may be some falsehood to the claims. There can be false prophets and so forth. I know this all too well. I have had people call some really stupid statements “prophecy”. I was going to be married to like three different people that I never even dated. The woman that I did married was told by an elder in my previous church that God had told her she should not marry me (he didn’t like me).
It is my contention that fakes only imitate the real. It would be hypocritical of me to recognize exegetically (esp. thanks to the work of Gordon Fee in God’s Empowering Presence) that the gifts will not be used perfectly then dismiss the gifts when I see this actually happen. I expect people to make mistakes when giving me prophecies. Likewise, I expect some prophecies to be correct.
One can be a fine Christian and a cessationist. I do not doubt this, but I wouldn’t want to be one of those Christians. “The Spirit moves in mysterious ways” and we Christians should be the first to affirm this!