While the strange Strange Fire conference mostly was dedicated to accuse the majority of charismatics for being weird, heretic non-Christians (yes, John MacArthur did say that most of us are non-Christians), at least one session was about the root cause of these people’s uncomfortability with the charismatic movement: their cessationist belief. I gave a short summary of why I think cessationism is unbiblical in my previous post, but I felt that the cessationist arguments given at Strange Fire were so bad that I cannot let them pass unanswered. The session was held by Tom Pennington and here are a short summary and a longer transcription of his lecture.
Before Pennington even starts to give his seven “biblical” arguments for cessationism, he admits that “the New Testament nowhere directly states that the miraculous gifts will cease during the church age.” Amen to that. But then he simply states that this is irrelevant “because the New Testament doesn’t directly say they’ll continue either.”
Wow, now I feel tempted to produce my own gospel. I don’t like to pray very much, so I’ll just preach that we don’t have to pray in the post-apostolic age. And if someone would say to me “The Bible actually never says that we should cease to pray” I will simply answer “it doesn’t directly say we should continue praying either.”
For a Bible-believing Christian who thinks that we should base our lives on the life and teaching of Christ, the burden of proof lies on the cessationist, not on the continuationist. Jesus commanded his disciples to heal the sick and cast out demons (Mt 10:6-8), and then he ordered them after His miraculous resurrection to teach their disciples everything He had commanded them (Mt 28:20). It’s Tom Pennington’s job to prove that we should not do the stuff that Jesus and His disciples did, the burden of proof does not lie on the charismatics.
All right, here are Pennington’s arguments:
1) “There were only 3 primary periods in which God worked miracles through unique men. The first was with Moses; the second was during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha; the third was with Christ and his apostles. The primary purpose of miracles were to establish the credibility of one who speaks the word of God—not just any teacher, but those who had been given direct words by God.”
I thought people didn’t believe in the “three miraculous periods” stuff anymore. The book of Judges is filled with miracles and prophecies. The book of Daniel as well. Genesis, Isaiah, Jonah – they all account for amazing miracles. And the whole Bible is per definition filled with the gift of prophecy!
But more importantly, whether you believe in three or five or ten periods of “miraculous concentration”, it’s not at all an argument for the cessation of the gifts. Actually, most charismatics believe that there are periods of greater concentration of miracles – we call them revivals.
Miracles confirm the Word, yes, but they also do a lot of other stuff – healing the sick, feeding the hungry, casting out demons. And people are still sick, hungry and demonized today. Furthermore, miracles confirm the Word today when people come to Christ because they have seen Him do something supernatural. Here is one example:
2) “One of the gifts Christ gave his church was the apostles, but they were a temporary gift. Most agree that there are no more like the original apostles. No one meets the qualifications anymore, which included being an eye-witness of the life of Christ and his resurrection. You also had to be personally appointed by Christ and be able to work miracles (Matthew 10:1-2).”
Pennington is smart, he is not stating that only apostles could do miracles (which other cessationists have mistakingly argued) and then tries to prove that the apostolic ministry has ceased, he simply says that if the gift of apostleship has ceased it is reasonable to believe that other gifts have as well. But doing this, he wrongly argues that you had to be an eye-witness to Jesus’ life to be an apostle, which embarrassingly enough excludes a guy named Paul.
Apostolos means “being sent out” and simply describes a translocal church planting leader who did miracles. Surely those people hang around today. We’ve got rid of the title, not the ministry. Modern apostolic leaders, like Surprise Sithole, are indeed doing amazing miracles and have been called and appointed by Jesus in supernatural ways, similar to how Paul was called. Of course, I’m not arguing that their writings should be canonical, since that is not the biblical definition of an apostle.
3) “The New Testament identifies the apostles and prophets as the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20-22). In the context, it is clear that Paul is referring here not to Old Testament prophets but to New Testament prophets. Once the apostles and prophets finished their role in laying the foundation of the church, their gifts were completed.”
This argument is really easy to disprove. If apostles and prophets cease to exist, the foundation of the church is lost (which is why I think large parts of the church look so crazy today). According to Eph 2:20, Jesus is the cornerstone, and He surely hasn’t ceased, nor have apostles and prophets. Eph 2:20 does not say that the gifts of apostleship and prophecy were “completed” after the church was founded, just as the ministry of Jesus isn’t “completed”. Pennington has already decided that apostles is something that only existed in the past, and thus he is unable to see that Paul talked in a contemporary sense about the church’s foundation, a foundation that was expanding and thus needed more and more apostles, why the early church appointed quite a lot of them apart from the original twelve.
4) “If the Spirit was still moving as he was in the first century, then you would expect that the gifts would be of the same type.”
Pennington is applying this to three gifts: tongues, prophecy and healing:
“Consider the speaking of tongues. At Pentecost, the languages spoken were already existing, understandable languages. The New Testament gift was speaking in a known language and dialect, not an ecstatic language like you see people speaking in today.”
At Azusa Street, many people were speaking existing languages. Interpreters, immigrants and missionaries went there and identified countless languages: French, Greek, Hindi, Zulu. My pastor has seen this twice – a Swedish Christian sister who spoke Farsi when she spoke in tongues and a man in Nepal who started to speak a language he didn’t know. When I met Surprise Sithole in South Africa I did a long interview with him in English – a language he has never studied but has received from the Holy Spirit. More examples of this can be found in Spoken by the Spirit by Ralph W. Harris.
Having said that, I think it is pretty clear that what Paul describes in 1 Cor 12-14 are mostly languages that are not understandable for others than angels. But either way, xenolalia does exist today.
“Consider also the gift of prophecy. Nowhere does the New Testament distinguish Old Testament prophecy from New Testament prophecy. Just as the Old Testament prophets spoke direct, infallible revelation from God, so did the New Testament prophets. And once it was checked against previous revelation and approved, it was added to the church’s revelation.”
Here, Pennington seems to mix up prophecy and canonicity. Surely, Old and New Testament prophets spoke things that didn’t end up in Scripture. And when the New Testament canon was defined, it’s only criteria wasn’t that a book was prophetic but that it was written close to Jesus’ time. Most of the bishops and priests who defined the canon (which I guess are the only catholics that evangelicals would call infallible) surely believed that God was still speaking (we’ll come back to that below) but all prophetic words were not put into the canon.
To “check against previous revelation” before approving a prophetic word is exactly what sound charismatics are doing in accordance with 1 Thess 5:19-22. But it doesn’t mean that we put every knew genuine prophetic word into canon, just as the Christians in Corinth and Thessalonia didn’t put everything they received into a canon.
“Consider the gift of healing. In the New Testament when someone with the New Testament gift of healing used his gifts, the results were complete, immediate, permanent, undeniable, every kind of sickness, and every kind of illness. The purported healings of today’s faith healers are the antithesis: incomplete, temporary, and unverifiable.”
Jack Deere, a former cessationist who is now a passionate charismatic, writes in his excellent book Surprised by the Power of the Spirit that he had two favourite cessationist arguments – the first one being that the apostles unlike contemporary charismatics could heal anyone anytime at will, the second one being that the gifts clearly ceased even when the Bible was written since Paul in his later, pastoral letters mentions sick people that clearly hadn’t been healed yet. When Deere realized that these arguments are contradictory he opened himself up to charismatic theology. Everyone aren’t healed. Jesus couldn’t heal in Nazareth. Once even He had to pray twice.
5) “Even in the written books of the New Testament, the miraculous gifts are mentioned less as the date of their writing gets later. After the New Testament era, we see the miraculous gifts cease. John Chrysostom and Augustine speak of their ceasing. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and B. B. Warfield all agree that the gifts ended after the 1st century and had been given only to confirm the message when it first appeared.”
When claiming that the gifts ceased even in Biblical times Pennington is primarily referring to Hebrews 2:3-4 which he claims says that “God also testifying with them [the apostles]” not us, “by signs, wonders, and gifts of the spirit.” Thus, he argues that the authour of Hebrews is making a distinction between his generation and the earlier apostles, claiming that miracles only belonged to the latter. Problem is, this is not what the text says! The Greek does not say that God testified with “them”, that’s an interpretation that some (but definitely not all) translations put in there, so Pennington’s argument is invalid. Instead this is a powerful declaration of the beauty and utility of miracles.
Anyways, Pennington quickly jumps on to church history. And of course he skips the majority of church fathers and goes directly to John Chrysostom. Because as John Wimber clearly showed in his awesome book Power Evangelism and as you can see here, almost all church fathers believed in the miraculous gifts and had seen them in action. John Chrysostom was probably the first cessationist in world history. Augustine seemed to believe in the cessation of tongues but surely not other gifts, in City of God he is giving a detailed account of numerous healings and miracles he have witnessed or heard about, including the raising of the dead. He clearly says that miracles have not ceased!
After mentioning these two church father Pennington jumps 1200 years or so to the classical cessationists. And he seems to imply that this means that between Augustine and Luther everyone were cessationist, which of course is ridiculous. Catholics and Orthodoxs are not cessationists, they have strong faith in miracles. Perhaps that is why Pennington doesn’t like Catholics very much.
6) “The sufficiency of Scripture. The Spirit speaks only in and through the inspired Word. He doesn’t call and direct his people through subjective messages and modern day bestsellers. His word is external to us and objective.”
Scripture is awesome, but to say that this is the only way God speaks is unscriptural. Pennington vainly tries to prove that 2 Tim 3:16 says that the prophetic inspiration of Scripture means that prophecy is unnecessary, which would be very strange since Paul some years before argued that people who wasn’t writing Scripture should eagerly desire the gifts, especially prophecy (1 Cor 14:1).
Argument 7: “In 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul lays out specific guidelines for how two of the miraculous gifts were to be practiced.”
This is not an argument for cessationism at all, just an exhortation to charismatics to take it easy and forbid women to speak.
To sum up, I think Tom Pennington should have stopped in the beginning when he realized that there is no direct support for cessationism in the Bible and then questioned why on earth he as a Bible believing Christian still believes in cessationism. Most of the arguments above are in my opinion really bad – both exegetically and dogmatically – and have already been dealt with in books like Jack Deere’s Surprised by the Power of the Spirit. If you are a cessationist, please just bow down your head, thank God for His Spirit in you, and go out and do the stuff that Jesus did.
Also read Andrew Wilson’s response to Pennington’s arguments.
- Strange Fire is God’s Fire (joshuaziefle.net)
- Adding fuel to Strange Fire (paulwilkinson.wordpress.com)
- Strange Fire Conference: John MacArthur’s Insufferable Hypocrisy (paulspassingthoughts.com)
- MacArthur vs Strange Fire (internetmonk.com)
- Cessationism and Strange Fire (pjcockrell.wordpress.com)