Is Cessationism Biblical?
Posted by Job on September 20, 2008
Many suggest that the sign gifts (tongues, prophecies, interpretations, gifts of healings and miracles) were for the apostolic era for the purposes of founding the church, and that after the time of the apostles past, the church was on solid ground, and particularly when the canon was completed, there was no longer such a need for these gifts. This is a rough, simplistic statement of the doctrine of cessationism. (You can read more details about this doctrine here.)
The Bible verses used to support this view are Ephesians 2:20, Hebrews 2:3-4, and 1 Corinthians 13:8-10. I suppose that I am going to have to shelve my beloved King James Version and use a more modern translation, the NASB, on this issue.
1 Corinthians 13:8-10
9For we (C)know in part and we prophesy in part;
10but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
1For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that (A)we do not drift away from it. 2For if the word (B)spoken through (C)angels proved unalterable, and (D)every transgression and disobedience received a just (E)penalty,
I find the case for cessationism based on these scriptures to be inconclusive at best to spurious at worst. The weakest is Hebrews 2:1-4. First, the context, the intended meaning of the passage, has nothing to do with the duration of sign gifts. Instead, it was one of the famous warning passages to Hebrew Christians not to use persecution as an excuse to abandon the faith and return to Judaism under the false belief that as Jews the law of Moses offered them a path to heaven. That was the point of mentioning the signs and wonders showed by Jesus Christ to the apostles. The writer of Hebrews is stating that the law of Moses was mediated to mankind by angels, but the new covenant was given by God the Son Himself, with the signs and wonders to the apostles showing evidence that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and God in the flesh. If the signs and wonders had the purpose of demonstrating to the apostles the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, then what was the purpose of those gifts being present in people who never saw the long resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ in places where the church had long been established?
Ephesians 2:19-22 does make a decent case for the idea that apostles and prophets no longer exist … they were the foundation that the church was built upon with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. The cornerstone main stone of the foundation, or rather the stone that supports the other foundation stones. Roman Catholics who claim that the church was built on Peter ignore that Peter’s stone lies on Jesus Christ’s stone, the one that Daniel prophesied would fill the whole earth, and that also scripture does not record Peter’s stone being any more important than any of the other apostles … as a matter of fact when Revelation speaks of the pearled gates of heaven having the names of the apostles on them, no special mention is given to Peter’s gate, so their doctrine of Peter admitting people into heaven that you see represented in popular culture so often actually opposes scripture. In any case, my opinion is that the prophets referred to in that passage actually refers to the Old Testament prophets (of which John the Baptist was the last and greatest) not the New Testament prophets. At the very least, the Old Testament prophets and the apostolic prophets are both included. Now, there were of course other apostles than the 12 (with Matthias replacing Judas) such as Paul – who called himself the least – and Barnabas at minimum. We should note that Paul, Barnabas, and the other unnamed individuals were not among the ones that Revelation counted has having a pearled gate. (For that matter, neither were any prophets.) In any case, I have no issue with the Old Testament prophets being called part of the foundation of the church because of the role that they played in Israel, progressive revelation and salvation history. I have no issue with the apostles past the original 12 (again with Matthias replacing Judas Iscariot) being called part of the foundation of the church because these men did in fact start and sustain the early church with their efforts under the guide of the Holy Spirit. But how can a prophet or apostle thereafter be considered a foundation stone? You cannot keep adding to a foundation after it has been laid, can you? Actually, the answer to that question is yes. When you enlarge a building, say add a wing to it, a new foundation has to be poured to support it, and it can be joined to the original foundation. (Any input from people with backgrounds in architecture, construction, or civil engineering would be welcome!) A person who establishes a church where there was none prior can be considered, especially if that person is obviously gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit as was the father of modern missions, William Carey. However, it is curious that the very people that can likely qualify for the office of apostle and prophet do not seek the titles for themselves. Meanwhile, the people who DO call themselves apostles and prophets in these times have never taken the gospel of Jesus Christ anywhere new. So, it is probably expedient to interpret this passage strictly and state that those two offices ceased in apostolic times, and to challenge anyone who claims this title for himself or herself (as there were female prophets at least) as to whether they are part of the foundation of the church, and if so prove it. In any case, this passage only applies to prophets and apostles, not the sign gifts.
So that leaves us with the final and strongest passage for cessationism, 1 Corinthians 13:8-10. And even this one is fraught with problems. We cannot dislocate this passage from is larger context, which is Paul’s love discourse. So, when Paul stated that the sign gifts will cease but love will never cease or fail, the primary point of emphasis here is not that sign gifts will cease. The primary point is that love will never cease, and in general that possessing and exhibiting love is more important than the sign gifts. Now the Corinthian church was making sign gifts the center of their practice and worship; Paul was telling them to make love the center of their practice and worship instead. Does the cessationist state that a reason why Paul was telling them this was that the second generation of this church was not going to have the sign gifts to center their worship on in the first place? Or is a more balanced view is the notion that love should be the focus whether one has sign gifts or not? The latter is the one that better fits the context of the entire chapter and indeed the entire section of 1 Corinthians. So, the doctrine of cessationism would be based on what was at best the second and possibly even the third or fourth idea of importance in that very short passage. It would be fine had the idea been directly stated, or were there some other passages that picked up this idea, fleshed it out, or that we could use to interpret it with. Now it is common to use Hebrews 2:1-4 and Ephesians 2:19-22 to interpret or add to 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, but to me that seems to be something thesis – driven, verses selected to prove a previously existing idea, rather than developing the doctrine from the Biblical evidence. In other words, people who already believed that the sign gifts had passed – or had to explain why those gifts were no longer present in their churches – picked 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 as the best that they could do, and used definitely Hebrews 2:1-4 and possibly also Ephesians 2:19-22 out of their intended meaning to the people that those epistles were written AND to the church that came after them. In other words, engaging in some of the very same creative and tactical uses of scripture that Pentecostals and charismatics are oft accused of doing, although I acknowledge not nearly so bad as what is often done with “Ye are gods children of the Most High” or “speaking things that are not as though they were.”
Now the contextual problems is not the biggest problem. One can still assert cessationism based on 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 alone despite them; my only argument at this point is that the case is very weak. (Much stronger cases can actually be made for requiring Christians to tithe and to abstain from alcohol, doctrinal positions that I disagree with even though I myself do choose to tithe and not drink alcohol.) The biggest problem is internal. Paul stated that the sign gifts were meant only until the time that things were made perfect, then they would cease. “For we have knowledge in part and we prophesy in part but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” Verses prior and following speak of the other gifts reveal only a portion of the truth also, but in a time to come, everything would be revealed. So, once all is revealed, there will be no need for the gifts that are designed to reveal the truth to us.
But when will the church be made perfect, and all things revealed? I am sorry, but the answer is not with the death of the last apostle or the completion of the canon, but the return of Jesus Christ. Not only is that self – evident and presupposed from the rest of Christian doctrine (who or what else “perfect” that we should wait on save the Holy Spirit, which came when Jesus Christ went away for a time, and if the coming of the Holy Spirit made things fulfilled that passage would the gifts have been needed?) scripture explicitly states it. Hebrews 9:28, for instance, refers to Jesus Christ’s second return completing the salvation process for the church. Currently He is interceding, but when He returns the intercessory ministry will be done. Why is Jesus Christ interceding now, despite His death justifying the elect? Because though the church has been justified, all is not perfect. Why will the need for His intercessory ministry be done with when He returns? Because perfection will have been accomplished, so no more intercession is required. (By the way, this means real problems for the “dual return” doctrines i.e. the rapture, because one Jesus Christ leaves the right hand of the Father, it means that the church will have been perfected, and there will be no need for Jesus Christ to return again on the last day.)
And that is the reference “when the trump sounds, we shall all be changed incorruptible”, meaning we shall be PERFECTED. Into that context, please consider this: Revelation 10:7 – “But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets.” That verse refers to the trump that Paul is speaking of when he made references to “we shall all not sleep, but when the trump sounds we shall be changed and caught up.” At that point will be the mystery of God finished, when the process of making the church perfect done, and Jesus Christ will leave His intercessory ministry to do the work of reward for the church and punishment for everyone else.
According to the internal evidence of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, the reference to “but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away”, that is when the sign gifts will be taken away. That is my position, and I welcome all thoughtful comments supporting or opposing this position. Also, please note that my position fully corresponds to Reformed doctrine, including but not limited to the solas: Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Through Christ Alone, To God alone be the Glory. All legitimate sign gift activity should be governed by those, particularly sola scriptura. If it is not, then it is not of God. Yes, that is aimed at you, followers of Benny Hinn, Todd Bentley, Kenneth Copeland, and all similar.