Learning from Cessationists

I have been a lifelong Pentecostal. I now prefer to think of myself as post-Charismatic because I am a staunch believer in the charismata i.e. spiritual gifts like tongues, acts of power, healing, prophecy etc. however, I am not a fan of contemporary Charismatic subculture. All that being said I have learned important things from our cessationist brothers and sisters. They believe that the spiritual gifts referred to in the Bible in some form have ceased today, hence they are called cessationists. People like me are correspondingly called continuationists because we believe the biblical charismata continue to this day.

While these definitions may seem to suggest a huge chasm between us, and there is a significant divide, most cessationists that are involved in the public discourse about these things will not deny that God still does miracles. They are “soft” cessationists as opposed to “hard” cessationists who deny all divine miraculous activity after the New Testament canon was closed in the 4th century. What soft cessationists question is whether these extraordinary happenings can be properly labelled as the spiritual gifts which the New Testament identifies. Growing up Pentecostal I had never come across this objection. I think it is valid a question especially because the New Testament is far more ambiguous about what the charismata precisely are than most Charismatics would admit.

While I still think there is continuity between modern charismata and the biblical charismata, the more nuanced and realistic position of the soft cessationists gave me good reason to reconsider their arguments since they were poking at serious weaknesses in contemporary charismatic theology which is the exegesis of New Testament passages traditionally thought to concern the charismata. By pushing back against the standard continuationist case for the charismata I do think they expose certain problems with our biblical interpretation.

For me a good example of this is tongues. Any honest exegete will recognise the tongues that happen in Acts 2 are not exactly the same as the ones Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14. Modern charismatics practitioners of tongues claim to be doing both at the same time when Acts and 1 Corinthians are clearly different situations. The common charismatic rebuttal is that there are diverse kinds of tongues so that accounts for both types. One of the of the problems is 1 Corinthians 14 indicates tongues always needs interpretation while Acts 2 needs no interpretation. Moreover the tongues in Acts 2 is identified as prophecy while in 1 Corinthians 14 tongues is different from prophecy. Modern incidents of tongues seems to more closely resemble 1 Corinthians 14 than Acts 2. This obvious hermeneutical hurdle calls into question how continuationists in general identify spiritual gifts since they have difficulties discerning what the gifts are and are not in the New Testament itself. This still does not constitute evidence against the occurrence of spiritual gifts today but it is a call for charismatic hermeneutics to be tighter.

Many other examples could be given which demonstrate the sloppiness of popular Charismatic exegesis. In fact how we reason about spiritual phenomena in general has to be re-examined. The common charge levelled against us is charismania. I can confidently say some Charismatics are even more worried about the excesses of our movement than our critics however these are decidedly minority voices. While opposition to the movement is wrong it does not necessarily mean there are no valid criticisms of it. I have said before, the only way for the movement to become better is if we become circumspect and self-critical. We should not wait for outsiders to point out our glaring problems. We should be self-aware enough to recognise that being human we do make mistakes but God is not limited by our shortcomings and he is able to help us through them if we rely on him.

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