Can cessationism and continuationism be reconciled?

For the past year or so of my Christian life during which I have become more intensely interested in church history and Reformed theology, I have been very sceptical of charismatic Christianity (which maintains that the spiritual gifts of the Apostolic era did not cease). And who can blame me? In many places, Protestantism is in a mess: confessionalism has largely disappeared, congregations are uninformed and there is a move away from sound theology to a more emotional experience of God. Sola scriptura, instead of being a firm foundation, has become a licence to allow every personal interpretation of scripture and pay no attention to orthodoxy. The perversions of Pentecostalism have therefore been enabled to contaminate the whole Church with few objecting.

If we look to the Reformers, we see that consistently, cessationism was the solidly orthodox position. The supernatural spiritual gifts were interpreted in the historical context of confirming apostolicity, witnessing that their doctrines were in fact the word of God. Through this, the inspired text of the New Testament was set down and received by the Church as canonical, inerrant and infallible. With the death of the Apostles and the close of the canon, the Apostolic era ended, as did special revelation, according to cessationists and even a number of continuationists.  The Westminster Confession of Faith says the following:

…It pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased. (WCF 1:1)

To the sceptical charismatics who may think that Calvinists deny the work of the Holy Spirit, I can reassure you that this is certainly not the case. The Holy Spirit is instrumental in Reformed theology, the agent of our conversion, the preserver of our faith, and our helper in understanding and applying the scriptures.

But to fellow sceptical cessationists, are we sure that the doctrine as we understand it to be is exactly that of the Reformation? There are certainly heresies of Pentecostalism which we can eliminate: the disregard for the Trinity, and various manmade doctrines such as that one is only born again if he has spiritual gifts, as well as the disorderly behaviour manifested in animal noises and writhing on the floor. On the other hand, has the so-called Enlightenment, which turned God into a mere philosophical concept, influenced cessationist understanding to the extent that we undermine the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty and take no heed of providence?

While we acknowledge that there was a specific function for Apostolic gifts which no longer exists and we must not allow private spirits to usurp the supreme and exclusive authority of the Holy Bible, it is also not the role of our theology to bind a sovereign God who, at his pleasure, is free to act in extraordinary ways. And we learn from several bastions of Reformed theology that God has indeed acted in such ways at certain times.

Reformers principally relate the gift of prophecy, since the close of the canon, to preaching, the speaking forth, exposition and application of God’s word which is set down in the Bible. Bullinger said in his Second Helvetic Confession, ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful.’ Certainly, the Word of God and the Lord Jesus Christ must be at the very centre of our religious experience. Any new doctrines which come from a purported special revelation, but which are not established in the Bible, are the product of Satan and the sinful heart of man. Similarly, any ridiculous prediction, such as those of Harold Camping giving an exact date for the end of the world, should be tossed out. Scripture warns us of false prophets; prophecy is not something to be trifled with and we cannot claim to speak for God unless we speak God’s Word.

Yet, aside from matters of doctrine and eschatology, there were still examples of supernatural qualities among cessationists. The first of these is a spiritual insight or foresight which I hesitate somewhat to call prophecy, but which is often referred to in charismatic circles as a ‘word of knowledge’ (borrowing the words of Paul). There are numerous examples of such apparent gifting in the writings of the Scottish Covenanters (many recounted in a blog article which quotes the Westminster Theological Journal). John Knox, for example, a man who could hardly be charged with heterodoxy, made very confident assertions of future events, which came to pass, to some very illustrious figures, even Queen Mary! Later on, Charles Spurgeon, who was grounded in a cessationist Reformed theology, exhibited a discernment of individual characters and extraordinary knowledge of their sins. It should be noted, however, that these revelations were limited in context and are not at all binding on Christian doctrine, and neither did these men claim inspiration from God or prophethood, though they did speak to the hearts of individual Christians for their edification.

This type of revelation is not inspiration, which has ceased, but rather has in common with illumination and infallible assurance, both of which continue. It is established in prayerful observation of God’s providence and faith in God’s promises in the scriptures. Though often referred to as prophecy in our language, it is not strictly prophecy in the sense of the prophets, ecclesiastical office bearers encountered in both the Old and New Testaments. For this reason, I do not believe infallible prophecy versus “fallible prophecy”, as per some modern writers, to be a helpful or biblical distinction. The gifting of prophecy is demarcated by the close of the canon with the Book of Revelation as it was once by the close of the Old Testament canon: the Jews in the intertestamental period, during which there was no prophet, could still write prophetically about the Messiah, as did some of the authors of apocryphal books, based on the testimony of the Old Testament and the inward illumination of the prophecies contained therein by the Spirit. But these authors did not claim to be prophets and did not claim that their books were canonical, instead acknowledging their human composition.

The second of the supernatural gifts seemingly recorded among the Scottish Covenanters is healing; certainly, few would doubt that the sovereign God will sometimes physically heal without the use of ordinary means. And though this has been linked to particular individuals such as Robert Bruce, it was in former centuries connected with a response to prayer and fasting (which should come as no surprise) and was not advertised as an individual endeavour. It is not a normative miraculous gifting as when it occurred infallibly through the hands of the Apostles and through objects associated with them. This bore witness to the infinitely greater truth of the gospel, the teaching we now have perfectly bound up in our Bibles. We must therefore be careful, as concerns healing, not to become wrapped up in the hype to the extent that we overshadow the assured spiritual healing available to all in Christ or that we exalt celebrity pastors above the omnipotent sovereign God. Physical healing, wherever it truly occurs, is always a secondary ministry to the Word, yet nevertheless something to be hopefully prayed for.

I conclude with my belief that cessationism and continuationism can be reconciled and perhaps already were. The cessationism of the Reformers and their followers was primarily concerned with preserving God’s word from additions and keeping the gospel of Christ at the centre of our worship, acknowledging the special function – now ceased – of gifts in the Apostolic era, but not precluding the continuation of extraordinary works of the Spirit. It is the excesses of post-Enlightenment rationalism, rendering us ignorant of providence and assurances, and neo-Montanist Pentecostal emotionalism which have driven the two viewpoints far apart.

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One Response to Can cessationism and continuationism be reconciled?

  1. Hey Sean,

    Nicely handled and nuanced. Found your article via the link to my blog in it. Earlier this year I read “The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Cessation of Special Revelation.” (by Milne). It really helped me get a glimpse of the actual cessationism of the Westminster divines – which interestingly was not as similar to the cessationism I grew up under as a Baptist in the ’70’s and ’80’s. Their cessationism was not primarily a fear of the Holy Spirit or even of the Spirit’s gifts, but a concern about the errors of false prophets who were trying to add new revelation – beyond the canon of Scripture.

    Their cessationism appears to me to be grounded in several assumptions that its seems they all did agree upon:

    1. There is no further special revelation from God outside of the canon of Scripture.
    2. Miracles in the NT were given to confirm the roles and words of those given authority by God to speak His special revelation (primarily Christ, and the Apostles after Him).
    3. Since #1 has ceased, the need for #2 has also ceased.

    To these three points I simply say, “Amen.” But by most people’s definition today I am a continuationist/charismatic. Though I don’t disagree with the statements above, I do believe they unnecessarily limit the role of Spiritual gifts in the contemporary church. (Btw, I abhor the excesses, abuses, and errors of much of the charismatic realm today.)

    I do believe there are ongoing instances of prophecy and healing, for instance, that are not given in anyway to either communicate or substantiate ongoing special revelation. Rather, they are given by God as part of His gracious work of election in opening the sin-blinded eyes of unbelievers. The Book of Acts is full of these sorts of miracles. In my opinion, they were not miracles primarily given to prove “special” revelation, but to open the understanding of idolatrous heathen people, so they could turn from darkness to light. The gospel itself is the power of God unto salvation to them that believe, but God is still pleased to manifest peculiar gifts of the Spirit in the process of people coming to faith in Christ.

    I have personally experienced these sort of uses of spiritual gifts in our day as well. As did many of the Westminster divines…and Luther before them…and Edwards and Spurgeon after them…

    Please keep on contributing to the subject. You are a very good writer.

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