Cessationism: Why does anyone go out to bat for this madness?

As per usual: This is a blog post, in rant format, rather than an academic paper. Seems unnecessary I know, but sometimes that just needs pointing that out.

I’m doing a lot of study on Restorationism, apostolic movements, and the like, and occasionally coming across cessationist views. Cessationism is a rather hilarious theology which states that, essentially, when Jesus said he’d give us another Comforter who would be with us forever, he was actually taking about a book. The idea is that he gave the Holy Spirit to the church for a bit, and we used to have supernatural power and resources for an unspecified (but obviously very short) duration, and then God decided that was a bad idea. But that’s OK, because we’ve got a book!

No really, it is actually that bad. I used to think that these people just didn’t understand the implications of what they were arguing, and now, after diving into their arguments a bit more, I realise… I was right!

What they indulge in is great (so far as it goes) “pure” theology, pulling together a bit of the Bible here and another bit there and coming out with a doctrine, but unfortunately, there’s no such thing as pure theology - in fact, the cessationist claim can’t be, because it is not just a claim based on the Bible: it is a claim that says there were no Holy Spirit gifts after the Early Church, (and so it makes an argument about church history) and that there are no Holy Spirit gifts today (and so it makes a - verifiable - argument about Christian experience). I don’t think that cessationists actually realise this, because they conduct their arguments purely on exegetical grounds. But you can’t do that!

James Mcgrath has been doing a blog post series on mythicism recently, comparing it to creationism, and I think some of his comparisations apply to cessationism too: particularly, that to make your case, you can’t just focus on one area in which you think you’re strong; to make the case for young-earth creationism, you have to make a compelling case in the areas of biology and geology and astrophysics, because if you’re wrong in one of them, you’re wrong in all three. Cessationism is the same: a brilliant exegetical case for healing not being possible is worth nothing if there’s a church down the road which does healings.

Warfield, bless his cotton socks, did try to make a church-history argument, but his cotton socks are so full of holes that contemporary cessationists stay well clear of him.

And as for actually bothering to try verifying the experiential dynamic, I’ve got to quote Gaffin here:

Obviously I cannot comment on the contemporary exercise of gifts that I
do not believe are present in the church today.

Yeah, and if I close my eyes for long enough, the universe goes away. (Intellectual curiosity? We’ve heard of it.)

No, let’s be fair, I don’t want to misrepresent him. He does have another stab at the experiential dynamic, but this time even funnier:

The eschatological reality of the Spirit’s activity is usually seen by
noncessationists to be decisive for their view. But as I will try to
show below, this perception has to be challenged; in fact that reality
is fully compatible with, perhaps even essential to the cessationist
view.

Oh yes, the reality of the Spirit’s activity today just about proves the unreality of the Spirit’s activity today!

And the church history case has a massive hole in it, too. Because I’ve read Eusebius. I’ve read Socrates and Sozomenus. And nowhere do they or any other church histories say “and on such-and-such a date, the gifts of the Holy Spirit departed from the church, and then we couldn’t do miracles any more.” That’s the sort of thing you’d need if you were going to, you know, make a historical claim that it actually happened. Unfortunately, cessationists don’t get the kind of historical data they need to support their position - of course they don’t, because their position is motivated by dogma rather than data. In fact, they get quite the opposite; you see in early church histories a continuity of the supernatural that totally undermines the cessationist position.

What I still don’t understand, though, is why on earth anyone would want to make this claim in the first place: that this Church thing we’re all part of isn’t actually a supernatural entity after all, it’s just an ethical club for literary critics. Why the hell would anyone want to turn Christianity into that? To appeal to rationalists? Hello, I think we lost that one when we said that a man came back from the dead. Once you’ve swallowed that camel, “another man came back from the dead” isn’t really much to add. Seriously, why not double down and say we got miracles and healings too? It’d be consistent, after all.

So you see, I can’t see anything else but to conclude that they’re theologizing their own failure. “It doesn’t happen in my church, therefore it can’t happen in yours either. Look, here’s some verses which prove it.”

Well, I say prove it. But of course, to support this kind of madness, you’d have to have some pretty spectacular exegetical gymnastics. For instance, Gaffin accepts that apostles and prophets are foundational for the church, then to prove that apostles don’t exist today, says:

In any construction project (ancient and modern), the foundation comes
at the beginning and does not have to be relaid repeatedly (at least if
the builder knows what he’s doing!) In terms of this dynamic model for
the church, the apostles and prophets belong to the period of the
foundation. In other words, by the divine architect’s design, the
presence of apostles and prophets in the history of the church is
temporary.

Yep, they’re foundational, and don’t have to be relaid, which means that they’re temporary. Of course you remove the foundations once you’ve built on top of something. That’s what happens in any construction project!

Oh, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

Here’s another, I’ll put it in syllogism form:

  1. If God spoke today through prophecy, prophecy would have the same authority as the Scriptures.
  2. (Axiom) Nothing has the same authority as the Scriptures.
  3. Therefore God does not speak today through prophecy.

The thing is, if the conclusion does happen to be true, then your axiom wouldn’t be all that axiomatic. But you wouldn’t change your axioms, would you?

You see, for people who claim to have a high understanding of the Bible, though, they seem to have missed some key bits in it. See, they still think they can test reality on the basis of theological axioms. (It’s like science, only the opposite.)

This is, of course, totally backwards. Acts 11 is an amazing passage of Scripture because it shows us how the Early Church did theology: they tested their theological positions against reality. “We’re the chosen people. Gentiles can’t get the Holy Spirit!” “Uh, they just did.” Now, watch what happens next: “Oh, well, guess we were wrong about that.” What they had was good, accepted Jewish theology. It just happened to be wrong. And when they got data that suggested that they were wrong, they didn’t dismiss the data, stick their fingers in their ears and shout louder about why it can’t happen, but they accepted that it did happen and this caused them to change their position. They prioritized data over dogma.

Ah, I hope we can all have this approach to dogma. So many things would change.