A Strange and Unpersuasive Argument for Cessationism2
Last week, together with some 2,700 others, I attended the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Denver, Colorado. The theme of this year’s gathering was the Holy Spirit.
On the first day of our meeting I participated in a three-hour panel conversation (debate?) with three good friends: Andrew Wilson, Tom Schreiner, and Ligon Duncan. Andrew and I defended the position known as Continuationism (all spiritual gifts continue to be given by God and are operative in the church today) while Tom and Ligon argued for Cessationism (the view that the more overtly miraculous gifts such as tongues and prophecy ceased to exist at the close of the first century or soon thereafter).
Among the many things said, one brief exchange was especially fascinating. Andrew presented what I believe is an incontrovertible case that all spiritual gifts continued to operate well into the patristic age, some 400-500 years following the death of the apostles. I’ve documented on this blog and in my books the numerous prominent theologians and church leaders during that period who testify clearly that all such gifts were present in their lifetime. I won’t burden you with listing them yet again.
An argument was then put forth that although these pastors, church leaders, and theologians of the patristic period speak often of the presence and operation of all spiritual gifts, none of them claim to have such gifts themselves. In other words, the argument, evidently, is that since these prominent church fathers didn’t explicitly claim personally to have the gifts that they say were present among others that such gifts, in fact, were not operative.
I find that a rather strange and altogether unpersuasive argument that ultimately has no bearing on the debate between continuationists and cessationists. Here is why.
First, the fact that these individuals did not claim to have such gifts by no means proves that others didn’t. In point of fact, they repeatedly testify that others do have such gifts and they provide eye-witness testimony to their presence in the patristic age. One need only read the words of Augustine, perhaps the most prominent theologian of this period, who goes to great lengths to bear witness to the miraculous operation of such gifts in his own church and city.
Second, if one denies that such gifts were present and operative during the patristic age, notwithstanding the repeated and consistent testimony of respected church fathers and theologians that they were, the question of motivation must be asked. That is to say, why would people lie about these manifestations of the Spirit? Or were they simply deceived into thinking the gifts were present when they actually were not? Were they so naïve and uninformed that they simply didn’t know any better? If that is the case, why then would cessationists believe them about anything else they might have said? If they can’t be trusted or believed when it comes to spiritual gifts, why should anyone trust them when they speak on other spiritual or theological or historical matters?
Third, the alleged silence of such individuals about the presence of these gifts in their own experience may well simply be confirmation of what we read in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31. There the apostle Paul says that not all prophesy, not all speak in tongues, not all possess gifts of healings, etc. Might it then be the case that the reason these people did not claim such gifts for themselves is because, as Paul said, the Spirit had chosen not to grant them any particular miraculous gift. Their silence regarding such gifts in their own lives would simply be an example of the truth of 1 Corinthians 12:27-31, namely, that not everyone possesses every gift. It is an unreasonable stretch to conclude that their silence about their own gifting is in any way a proof of the absence of such gifting among others.
Fourth, and finally, consider the panel last week. At no time during the course of reading two papers in defense of continuationism did Andrew Wilson ever say that he regularly speaks in tongues. By the way, you can read both of Andrew’s papers at his blog.
Now, what might someone conclude who, two hundred years later, gains access to Andrew’s papers while himself engaged in a debate over the continuation or cessation of spiritual gifts? Might the cessationist, two centuries hence, argue that there is no evidence that such gifts were operative in 2018 because Andrew Wilson, who was alive at that time, nowhere claimed in his written lectures that he himself operated in the power of such miraculous charismata?
Perhaps he would. But I hope you can see how baseless such an argument would be. The fact that Andrew didn’t explicitly mention those gifts he possesses in no way suggests, much less requires, that they weren’t present in his life or in the lives of others who lived at the same time. The reality is that Andrew and I both are blessed with the gift of tongues. And we both speak often of others we know and have seen who operate in miraculous gifts. Our failure or reluctance to describe our own experience in this regard hardly suggests that no one else operated in these charismata of the Spirit.
So, let it simply be said that the silence of certain church fathers regarding their own personal experience of the miraculous charismata is a pathetically weak argument for their cessation.