A friend recently brought to my attention an article written by my former New Testament professor, Thomas Schreiner, whom I greatly respect, titled “Why I am a Cessationist.”[i] As I read the article it became clear that Schreiner wants to hold to a classic cessationist view, but recognizes that he does not have enough scriptural evidence to defend that position, so he wants to remain open to the “open but cautious” view as defined in the book, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: Four Views—Cessationist, Open But Cautious, Third Wave, Pentecostal/Charismatic.[ii]
There the editor states that “The cessationist position argues that there are no miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit today. Gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and healing were confined to the first century, and were used at the time the apostles were establishing the churches and the New Testament was not yet complete. This is a well defined and often defended position within evangelical scholarship” (p. 10, italics added). The editor then defines the “open but cautious” view (argued by Robert L. Saucy) as people who “are open to the possibility of miraculous gifts today, but they are concerned about the possibility of abuses that they have seen in groups that practice these gifts. They do not think speaking in tongues is ruled out by Scripture, but they see many modern examples as not conforming to scriptural guidelines” (pp. 12-13).
However, Schreiner titles his article “Why I am a Cessationist” and then proceeds to state in the first paragraph “I’ve become convinced that some of the so-called charismatic gifts are no longer given and that they aren’t a regular feature of life in the church.” Here is where he creates confusion. He states that the “charismatic gifts are no longer given.” That is a definitive statement. He then states in the second half of the sentence that “they aren’t a regular feature of life in the church.” Which is it? Are they “no longer given” or are they simply “not a regular feature in the life of the church”? The former implies that they have ceased. The latter implies that they have mostly ceased, but can sometimes show up from time to time.
Two paragraphs later he states, “Now that God has spoken in the last days through his son (Heb 1:2), we don’t need further word from him to explain what Jesus Christ has accomplished in his ministry, death, and resurrection.” That is a classic cessationist position. But then two paragraphs after that statement he says, “If the gift of apostleship has ended, then other gifts may have ceased as well,...”. “Other gifts may have ceased”? Is he a cessationist or not? He himself may not be sure he knows the answer to that question.
In the first paragraph regarding the gift of tongues he states, “If prophecy has passed away, then tongues have likely ended as well.” Has likely ended? Has the gift of tongues ended or not? This is what is so confusing about Schreiner’s article. O. Palmer Robertson (The Final Word[iii]) and John MacArthur (Charismatic Chaos[iv]) make emphatically clear that the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy have definitely ceased with the closing of the Canon. Anyone claiming to have or practice the gift of tongues or prophecy are either self-deceived or are being intentionally deceptive. Schreiner doesn’t seem willing to make that statement, though I think he would like to.
When talking about miracles and healings he admits that “scripture isn’t as clear on this matter, and thus these gifts could exist today” (para. 12, italics added). He then goes on to say in the next paragraph, “Now, could God in cutting-edge missionary situations grant miracles and signs and wonders to accredit the gospel as he did in apostolic times? Yes.” But then he immediately states “that’s not the same thing as having these gifts as a regular feature in the ongoing life of the church” (italics added). Schreiner does not appear to be arguing that the gifts have ceased as much as he is arguing that the miraculous gifts are simply “not a regular feature in the church today.” In other words, he’s not arguing the cessationist position as defined by O. Palmer Robertson, John MacArthur, and the majority of evangelical scholarship, but seems to be arguing the “open but cautious” position as defined by Robert L. Saucy.
Finally, in the second to the last paragraph, referring to all spiritual gifts, he concludes, “There’s no definitive teaching in the Bible that they’ve ceased.” This is by definition the “open but cautious” position. But then he states in the last two sentences, “For reasons like these the reformers and most of the protestant tradition until the 20th century believed the gifts had ceased. I conclude both scripture and experience verify their judgment on the matter” (italics added). In other words, in his estimation the reformers were right. The miraculous gifts have ceased. This despite the fact he just stated a few sentences earlier that “there’s no definitive teaching in the Bible that they’ve ceased.”
In the end, Schreiner is not a cessationist by definition. He wants to be a cessationist, but he recognizes that he does not have the scriptural evidence to adequately defend that position. Thus, he is trying to keep one foot in both camps. But that simply doesn’t work. He ends up sounding confused about what he believes or what he’s trying to argue. I find this surprising, considering he is usually very articulate and usually provides carefully worded and tightly logical arguments.
Schreiner appears to be arguing the point that he is a cessationist in the sense that the miraculous gifts have ceased to be a normative part of church life. In that sense he is a cessationist; however, in that sense so am I. The problem is that it muddies the water. If we redefine cessationism as the miraculous gifts having ceased to be a normative part of the church, then how do we define the position which believes the miraculous gifts have completely ceased and can never reappear in the life of the church? Those who hold to this view call themselves cessationists. It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a gentleman who called himself a Calvinist who held to all five points. As we continued our conversation he began to sound more like an Armenian as he began talking about free will and people's ability to choose for or against God. When I stopped him and asked him to clarify how he could call himself a Calvinist or say he held to total depravity, he said he believed total depravity meant that every part of our person was effected by sin, but not to the extent that we cannot choose for God. After a lengthy conversation, he walked away still calling himself a Calvinist who held to total depravity, but also believing people could choose for or against God. If Schreiner wants to redefine the term cessationist to mean that the “miraculous gifts have simply ceased to be a normative part of the Church,” he should come up with a new term. The books cited above were written well before Schreiner wrote his article. He is simply creating confusion.
[i] Thomas Schreiner. “Why I Am a Cessationist.” The Gospel Coalition. Posted January 22, 2014. Access August 8, 2019. <https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/cessationist/>
[ii] Wayne Grudem, ed. Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: Four Views—Cessationist, Open But Cautious, Third Wave, Pentecostal/Charismatic (Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI. 1996).
[iii] O. Palmer Robertson. The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Banner of Truth Trust Publishing, 1993).
[iv] John MacArthur, Jr. Charismatic Chaos (Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapid, MI. 1992).
*Photo by Sunyu on Unsplash
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