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Enjoying God Blog


In this third installment of my response to the film, Cessationist, I want to address an argument to which virtually all cessationists appeal. It goes by different names, but I refer to it as the “cluster” argument. I can honestly say that of all the arguments made by cessationists, this is without question the weakest and least biblical of them. So, what is the “cluster” argument and why is it so weak?

According to the cluster argument, miraculous phenomena, be they spiritual gifts or signs and wonders, angelic visitations and God speaking to his people, occurred primarily (if not exclusively) in “intermittent” times in biblical history. The word “intermittent” is used by those in the film.

According to this idea, miracles and supernatural phenomena were concentrated or “clustered” at specific times in biblical history and therefore should not be expected to appear as a regular or normal phenomenon in other periods of history. John MacArthur explains:

“Most biblical miracles happened in three relatively brief periods of Bible history: in the days of Moses and Joshua, during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and in the time of Christ and the apostles. None of those periods lasted much more than a hundred years. Each of them saw a proliferation of miracles unheard of in other eras. . . . Aside from those three intervals, the only supernatural events recorded in Scripture were isolated incidents” (Charismatic Chaos, 112).

Tom Schreiner argues for a modified version of the cluster argument:

“I believe God gave gifts and miracles, signs and wonders, in remarkable ways at certain points in redemptive history to authenticate his revelation. . . . [However], miracles aren’t limited to such high points in redemptive history, as any careful reading of the Old Testament shows, but they are clustered at central eras in the Scriptures” (Spiritual Gifts, 167).

Forgive me if I come across as snide in my response, but I simply can’t help but wonder if those who employ this so-called “cluster” argument have actually read their Bibles. Before you dismiss my statement, let’s turn to the Scriptures and see if the “cluster” argument has any basis in the text. If you will take the time to read with me a number of verses spread throughout the OT, you will undoubtedly see how baseless and unbiblical this argument is.

As you read through these texts and the miraculous and supernatural events they record, ask yourself if the cessationist “cluster” argument is accurate.

The miraculous translation of Enoch into heaven (Gen. 5:24)
The sons of God (fallen angels) marry the daughters of men (Gen. 6:2ff.)
God speaks repeatedly to Noah (Gen. 6-9)
The confusion of languages and dispersal of nations at Babel (Gen. 11)
The supernatural call of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3)
God inflicts Pharaoh and his house with great plagues (Gen. 12:17)
God speaks again to Abraham (Gen. 13:14)
Abraham has a vision from God (Gen. 15:1)
God speaks again, repeatedly, to Abraham (Gen. 15)
Abraham experiences a trance (Gen. 15)
The smoking fire pot and flaming torch (Gen. 15)
The angel of the Lord appears and speaks (Gen., 16:7ff.)
The Lord appears to Abraham (Gen. 17:1ff.)
The Lord speaks repeatedly to Abraham (Gen. 17)
God declares that Sarah, though barren, will conceive (Gen. 17)
The Lord and angels appear to Abraham and eat a meal with him (Gen. 18)
The Lord speaks repeatedly Abraham (Gen. 18)
Angels appear to Lot (Gen. 19:1ff.)
Angel strike men with blindness (Gen. 19)
God miraculously destroys Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:23ff)
Lot’s wife is changed into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26)

[Pause: do the previous texts sound like God was not acting miraculously or not speaking to his people? The “cluster” argument is profoundly wrong and unbiblical!]

God speaks to Abimelech in a dream (Gen. 20:3)
God heals Abimelech and his wife and his slaves (Gen. 20:17)
Sarah miraculously conceives Isaac (Gen. 21:1ff.)
God speaks to Abraham (Gen. 21:12)
The angel of God speaks to Hagar (Gen. 21:17)
God speaks again to Abraham (Gen. 22:1ff.)
The angel of the Lord intervenes and prevents Abraham from killing Isaac (Gen. 22:11ff.)
The angel of the Lord speaks to Abraham (Gen. 22:15ff.)
Abraham’s servant is supernaturally led to Rebekah (Gen. 24:12ff.)
Rebekah miraculously conceives twins (Gen. 25:21)
God speaks to Rebekah (Gen. 25:23ff.)
God appears to Isaac and speaks to him (Gen. 26:2-5)
God again appears to Isaac and speaks to him (Gen. 26:23ff.)
God appears to Jacob in a dream and speaks to him (Gen. 28:12ff.)
God miraculously opens the womb of Leah (Gen. 29:31)
God miraculously opens the womb of Rachel (Gen. 30:22)
God speaks to Jacob (Gen. 31:3)
God appears to Laban and speaks to him in a dream (Gen. 31:24)
Angels appear to Jacob (Gen. 32:1)
Jacob wrestles with the angel of the Lord (Gen. 32:24ff.)
God appears to Jacob “face to face” and speaks (Gen. 32:30)
God speaks to Jacob (Gen. 35:1)
The Lord sends terror on the cities (Gen. 35:5)
God appears to Jacob and blesses him speaks to him (Gen. 35:9-15)
God speaks to Joseph in two dreams (Gen. 37)
God supernaturally kills Er and Onan (Gen. 38:7ff.)
God gives dreams to the cupbearer and baker (Gen. 40:5ff.)
Joseph interprets the dreams of the cupbearer and baker (Gen. 40:8-23)
God gives a dream to Pharaoh (Gen. 41:1ff.)
God reveals to Joseph the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream (Gen. 41:14-36)
God speaks repeatedly to Jacob (Gen. 46)

[Pause: Again, do these numerous instances of angelic visitations, dreams, visions, the voice of God and other miracles, all of which occurred hundreds of years before Moses and Joshua, sound as if such phenomena were “clustered” or concentrated in only three periods of redemptive history?]

Let’s move from Genesis to Judges, skipping the period of Moses and Joshua.

God speaks to the people regarding the allotment of the land (Judges 1:2)
The angel of the Lord appears to all Israel (Judges 2:1-5)
The Spirit of the Lord empowers Othniel to deliver Israel (Judges 3:9ff.)
Deborah prophesies (Judges 4:4)
The Lord commands Barak (Judges 4:6)
The angel of the Lord speaks, instructing them to curse Meroz (Judges 5:23)
A prophet speaks the word of the Lord (Judges 6:8)
The angel of the Lord appears to Gideon (Judges 6:11ff.)
The Lord speaks to Gideon (Judges 6:14ff.)
The angel of the Lord speaks to Gideon again (Judges 6:20)
The angel of the Lord causes fire to come from a rock and consumed the meat (Judges 6:21)
The Lord speaks again to Gideon (Judges 6:23, 25-26)
The miracle of Gideon’s fleece (Judges 6:34-40)
Five times the Lord speaks to Gideon (Judges 7)
A man has a dream from the Lord (Judges 7:13-14)
God sends a demon (Judges 9:28)
God speaks to the people of Israel (Judges 10:11)
The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Jephthah to deliver Israel (Judges 11:29ff.)
The angel of God appears and speaks to the mother of Samson (Judges 13:9)
The angel of the Lord again speaks to Manoah (Judges 13:16)
The angel of the Lord goes up in the flame of the altar (Judges 13:20)
All of Samson’s supernatural feats (Judges 14-16)
God again speaks to the people of Israel (Judges 20:18, 23)

Have I made my point? If not, I could continue citing three dozen or more miraculous and supernatural events that are described in 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel. Then there are 35-40 instances of miraculous instances in 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles (either before or after Elijah and Elisha), and that does not include the many other occasions when God spoke either to individuals or the nation as a whole.

And what about all the prophetic books of the OT that record countless prophetic words, instances where the Lord speaks, miracles and visions and dreams, such as we find Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

What should we make of Daniel? According to Jack Deere, “Daniel ministered from 605-539 b.c., well beyond the time of Elijah and Elisha. Yet proportionately Daniel’s book contains more supernatural events than the books of Exodus through Joshua (the books dealing with the ministries of Moses and Joshua) and 1 Kings through 2 Kings 13 (the books dealing with the ministries of Elijah and Elisha). Every chapter in the book of Daniel has supernatural occurrences!” (Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, 263).

The simple but undeniable fact is that “you cannot find any period in Israel’s history where supernatural events were not common among the people of God” (Deere, 263).

With all due respect, and I trust in a spirit of humility and love for my cessationist friends, I appeal to you to cease this lie concerning the so-called “cluster” argument. It is patently and repeatedly false and unbiblical. I urge you never again to make use of it either in print or in public.

At most the cluster arugment might suggest that in three periods of redemptive history miraculous phenomena were more prevalent than in other times. It does not prove that miraculous phenomena in other times were non-existent. Nor does it prove that an increase in the frequency of miraculous phenomena could not appear in subsequent phases of redemptive history.

Also, for this to be a substantive argument one must explain not only why miraculous phenomena were allegedly prevalent in these three periods but also why they were, allegedly, infrequent or, to use MacArthur’s term, “isolated,” in all other periods. If miraculous phenomena were infrequent in other periods, a point I concede here only for the sake of argument, one would need to ascertain why. Could it be that the relative infrequency of the miraculous was due to the rebellion, unbelief, and apostasy rampant in Israel throughout much of her history (cf. Pss. 74:9-11; 77:7-14)? Even Jesus “could do no mighty work there [in Nazareth] except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:5), all because of their unbelief (at which, we are told, Jesus “wondered”, v. 6). The point is that the comparative isolation of the miraculous in certain periods of OT history could be due more to the recalcitrance of God’s people than to any supposed theological principle that dictates as normative a paucity of supernatural manifestations.

One can appeal to the cluster argument only by defining the miraculous so narrowly as to eliminate a vast number of recorded supernatural phenomena that otherwise might qualify. MacArthur insists that to qualify as a miracle, the extraordinary event must occur “through human agency” and must serve to “authenticate” the messenger through whom God is revealing some truth. Why does he do this? Because in this way he is able to exclude as miraculous any supernatural phenomenon that occurs apart from human agency and any supernatural phenomenon unrelated to the revelatory activity of God. Thus, if no revelation is occurring in that period of redemptive history under consideration, no supernatural phenomena recorded in that era can possibly meet the criteria for what constitutes a miracle. On such a narrow definition of a miracle it thus becomes easy to say they were isolated or infrequent.

But if “human agency” or a “gifted” individual is required before an event can be called miraculous, what becomes of the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus? What about the resurrection of the saints mentioned in Matthew 27:52-53 or Peter’s deliverance from jail in Acts 12? Was the instantaneous death of Herod in Acts 12:23 not a miracle because the agency was angelic? Was the earthquake that opened the prison in which Paul and Silas were housed not a miracle because God did it himself, directly? Was Paul’s deliverance from the venom of a viper (Acts 28) not a miracle simply because no human agency was utilized in his preservation? To define as a miracle only those supernatural phenomena involving human agency is arbitrary. It is a case of special pleading, conceived principally because it provides a way of reducing the frequency of the miraculous in the biblical record.

I must also ask, is it the case that miracles always accompany divine revelation as a means of attestation? That miracles confirm and authenticate the divine message is certainly true. But to reduce the purpose of miracles to this one function is to ignore other reasons for which God ordained them. The association of the miraculous with divine revelation becomes an argument for cessationism only if the Bible restricts the function of a miracle to attestation. And such the Bible does not do.

Two other factors indicate that miraculous phenomena were not as isolated and infrequent as some allege.

First, there is the assertion of Jeremiah 32:20 in which the prophet speaks of God who has “shown signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all mankind, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day.” This text alerts us to the danger of arguing from silence. The fact that from the time of the Exodus to the Captivity fewer instances of signs and wonders are recorded does not mean they did not occur. Jeremiah insists they did. One might compare this with the danger of asserting that Jesus did not perform a particular miracle or do so with any degree of frequency simply because the gospels fail to record it. John tells us explicitly that Jesus performed “many other signs in the presence of the disciples” which he did not include in his gospel account (John 20:30) as well as “many other things that Jesus did” that were impossible to record in detail (John 21:25).

Second, most (if not all) cessationists insist that NT and OT prophecy are the same. They also readily acknowledge that NT prophecy was a “miracle” gift. If OT prophecy was of the same nature, then we have an example of a miraculous phenomenon recurring throughout the course of Israel’s history. In every age of Israel’s existence in which there was prophetic activity there was miraculous activity. What then becomes of the assertion that miracles, even on the narrow definition, were infrequent and isolated?

I can’t help but wonder if what has happened is that once John MacArthur articulated the cluster theory in his book, his fellow cessationists just assumed he couldn’t possibly be wrong and then repeated his claim without actually opening their Bibles to see if it is true.

Related to this argument is the statement by one person in the film that the voice of God is heard in only in three specific eras. He argues that between these three periods of time there are long stretches of biblical history in which God did not directly speak to his people as a normal experience. Is that true? As we have just seen in numerous texts, absolutely not!

I believe my cessationist friends are men of honor and integrity and thus would not intentionally lie about why they believe the cluster argument. I am confident that if they were actually to read the biblical text, they would recognize its fallacies and no longer appeal to it in defense of their cessationist view. That being the case, why then do they continue to repeat it? As I said, my theory is that they are simply parroting what MacArthur has written on the assumption that if anyone has actually read the narrative of the OT, it is he.

All that being said, is the “cluster” argument in the Bible? No. And I humbly call on the cessationists in this film to cease appealing to it, or show me where my argumentation above is misguided.

To be continued . . . (like the gifts!)

1 Comment

"I can’t help but wonder if what has happened is that once John MacArthur articulated the cluster theory in his book, his fellow cessationists just...repeated his claim..."

I was thinking exactly the same thing as I read this post. It really sounds as if much of the cessationist community simply read (or listened to) MacArthur and then blindly, unquestioningly repeat whatever he said.

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