In Christianity, cessationism is the doctrine that spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy and healing ceased with the original twelve apostles. This is generally opposed to continuationism, which teaches that the Holy Spirit may bestow the spiritual gifts on persons other than the original twelve apostles at any time.
Cessationists teach that their primary purpose was to authenticate the Apostles' message as being of divine origin and, therefore, authoritative (Hebrews 2:3-4). However, since the completion of the canon, the Church can test the veracity (or lack thereof) of any message claiming to represent God, against his written revelation having now been completed, rendering any supernatural sign as unnecessary (2 Peter 1:19; see also 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Cessationists believe that, given that the authority of the early church has been established and the New Testament is complete, Christians do not require charismatic gifts to guide them. As a result, cessationists believe that the spiritual gifts ceased to operate with the passing of the last of the twelve apostles and are no longer in effect today.
Cessationism can be divided into two types. Cessationism asserts that the "sign gifts" such as prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues, ceased with the apostles and the finishing of the canon of Scripture. They only served as launching pads for the spreading of the Gospel; as affirmations of God's revelation. However, these cessationists do believe that God still occasionally does miracles today, such as healings or divine guidance, so long as these "miracles" do not accredit new doctrine or add to the New Testament canon. Some cessationists believe that the miraculous gifts can take place where the message of salvation is being propagated to a tribe or nation which is unfamiliar with the Gospel. Richard Gaffin and Daniel B. Wallace are perhaps the best-known classical cessationists.
Full cessationism additionally asserts that no apostolic miracles are performed by God today. Thus while some cessationists allow for God's miraculous guidance, the cessationist allowance differs from the continuationist in that a cessationist contends that God's miraculous guidance is not through the operation of the Charismatic gifts.
The majority of cessationists subscribe to the total cessation of spiritual gifts. Examples of such literature are from Christians belonging to various denominations such as Conservative Baptist, Reformed Churches, etc.
This theory of cessationists denies the possibility of a reemergence of the gifts on grounds of principle; that is, the denial is on a priori grounds: a strong cessationist would deny the possibility of the existence or a reemergence of genuine God's prophets and healers in the post-Apostolic age, i.e. after the 1st century, no matter what – even if we met prophets or healers who prophesied/healed in the name of Jesus. This is supported using the principle of Sola Scriptura, insisting on three propositions:
- The completion of the canon of the Bible
- The infallible and sufficient authority of the Bible
- The perfection of the Scriptures to guide the Church
According to traditional cessationists, a person with a gift of power is also a prophet, because healings and miracles were always signs associated with the divine confirmation of the genuineness of a prophet in the periods when God revealed new truths with respect to the doctrine. A strong cessationist might concede that prophecies might be useful in the guidance of the Church. Nevertheless, he will insist that the Church can be perfectly guided to reach the right decisions if it applies the principles, teachings and examples of the Bible.
There is not much literature on moderate cessationism, but the view is propounded by certain Brethren groups of Christians, such as Hopewell Mennonite Church of Reading, PA, Free Brethren House Churches of Christ.
This view denies the current existence of manifestations of genuine charismatic gifts in the Church. However, moderate cessationism allows for the possibility of a new charismatic period in the future, when God would powerfully guide His people. This openness to the possibility of a new charismatic period is motivated by premillennialist eschatological expectations, where it is assumed that Christ's Second Coming will occur before the establishment of Christ's millennial kingdom on Earth. Within this premillennialist conceptual framework, the Great Tribulation is seen as a future period immediately preceding Christ's Coming. This insists that the new charismatic period is possible only during the Great Tribulation, for otherwise the genuine gifts would be in operation before the Tribulation, thus, charismatic gifts could not be rejected on grounds of principle. This is also compatible with all premillennialist positions (pre-trib, post-trib, mid-trib and pre-wrath).
The understanding of the principle of Sola Scriptura is almost identical to the variation that denies all Apostolic gifts. A moderate cessationist would agree with all three propositions of strong cessationism, but with an important qualification: all three propositions are valid only in the post-Apostolic Age of the Church before the Great Tribulation, i.e. in the period after the 1st century until the days of the Great Tribulation. Thus, in practical terms, both strong and moderate cessationism are the same. They differ only in eschatological terms, whether the gifts will re-emerge in the last days immediately preceding the time of Christ's Second Coming. The strong cessationist eschatological view is not a premillennialist, therefore it does not share the premillennialist conceptual framework, such as the premillennialist view of the Great Tribulation as something belonging to the future.
Biblical grounds for moderate cessationism is the reference to two powerful prophets of God, Rev 11:3–11. According to a moderate cessationist, events described in Rev 11 are in the future, during the Great Tribulation. For this reason, a moderate cessationist has a ready answer to the question why the Bible is so vague about the cessation of the charismatic gifts: the Bible is obscure on this point precisely because the gifts will re-emerge during the Great Tribulation. A moderate cessationist concludes that they will absolutely end at the second coming of our Christ, at the end of the Great Tribulation.
Two types of cessationism can be distinguished with regard to their theoretical bases:
- Principled cessationism: founded a priori, on grounds of principle
- Empirical cessationism: founded on a posteriori grounds, i.e. on experience or empiria.
Both strong and moderate versions of cessationism are on principle because they appeal to the principle of sola scriptura or in Anglicanism and Methodism prima scriptura. Their denial of the possibility of gifts is on a priori grounds, on grounds of principle.
An empirical cessationist arrives at a ceasing of charismatic gifts on empirical evidence, not immediately discarding miracles, spiritual healings or prophecies as counterfeit, rather investigating their genuineness based on analysis of source, date, consistency with scripture and corroboratory or countervailing evidence. In this view no Christian group in modern times has genuine charismatic gifts because, if thoroughly investigated, later healings and other "miracles" would be shown to be false. In other words, an empirical cessationist denial is based on observation coupled with the probabilistic expectation that apparent miracles, healing or prophecies are mostly improbable.
An example of the empirical form of cessationism is the view propounded by biblestudying.net. They have published a series of articles about charismatic gifts, dealing with several issues concerning charismata. Their denial of the continuation of the gifts is based on their historical study of early Church practices: "the charismatic gifts did indeed decline and were eventually lost sometime between the second and fourth centuries AD". Their empirical analysis demands incontrovertible evidence of continuation which will explain its conditions. In their view the gifts could have continued until Christ's return, but instead ended "sometime between the second and fourth centuries AD". Their conclusionis: "Thus, we must discard the doctrine that the gifts were supposed to pass away before Christ's return. Instead, we must accept the fact that the gifts were supposed to continue as a confirmation of sound doctrine until Christ's return but were lost as the Church deviated from that sound doctrine given by Christ to the apostles and by the apostles to the early Church of the first few centuries".
Spiritual gifts may be explained as false other than those contained in the Holy Scriptures according to conservative Presbyterian theologian and researcher Benjamin B. Warfield (1851–1921) who found no solid objective scientific reference of the working of miracles manifested within the mainstream church after the lifetime of the apostles. Warfield identified many attested miracles and spiritual gifts throughout church history associated with cults and mystics. Opponent theologians and researchers have pointed to stronger citations than those denounced by Warfield. Cited or omitted by each side are the below chronological references:
- Irenaeus (d.202) was a pupil of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John. He wrote in his book Against Heresies, Book V, vi.: "In like manner do we also hear many brethren in the church who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light, for the general benefit, the hidden things of men and declare the mysteries of God, who also the apostles term spiritual".
- "Those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years…. The name of our Lord Jesus Christ even now confers benefits [upon men], and cures thoroughly and effectively all who anywhere believe on Him".
- Origen (253/4) never mentioned tongues and even argued that the "signs" of the Apostolic Age were temporary and that no contemporary Christian exercised any of these early "sign" gifts. (AD 185–253). He professes to have been an eye-witness to many instances of exorcism, healing, and prophecy, although he refuses to record the details lest he should rouse the laughter of the unbeliever.
- Chrysostom (d.407) – writing on 1 Corinthians and the gift of tongues said, "This whole place is very obscure; but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?". (AD 347–407)
- Augustine (d.430) – In a homily on the 1st Epistle of John, Augustine commented that speaking in tongues was a miracle suitable for the early church, but that it was no longer evident in his own time. In chapters 8 and 9 of Book XXII of his City of God, written circa AD 415, Augustine noted that miracles in his own day were not as spectacular or noteworthy as those at the dawn of Christianity, but that they continued to take place.
Some cessationist explanations about why gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased include:
- their original purpose has been fulfilled.
- the testimony they were assigned to provide has been accomplished, that the Jewish church is now open to foreign nations.
- the Holy Scriptures are now complete and wholly sufficient for all the needs of a Christian worker.
- they were neglected and faded from use.
- they were withdrawn with the death of the apostles, in their distinct function as witnesses of new revelation.
- they were taken away as a form of discipline from God on unbelief or disobedience.
- they were misinterpretations or exaggeration and could instead be attributed to natural and psychological phenomena.
- they were signs attesting to the truth and authority of the apostolic preaching of the gospel and are now preserved for the church in the New Testament witness.
Seeing therefore miracles now cease, we have no sign left whereby to acknowledge the pretended revelations or inspirations of any private man; nor obligation to give ear to any doctrine, farther than it is conformable to the Holy Scriptures, which since the time of our Saviour supply the place and sufficiently recompense the want of all other prophecy; and from which, by wise and learned interpretation, and careful ratiocination, all rules and precepts necessary to the knowledge of our duty both to God and man, without enthusiasm, or supernatural inspiration, may easily be deduced. And this Scripture is it out of which I am to take the principles of my discourse concerning the rights of those that are the supreme governors on earth of Christian Commonwealths, and of the duty of Christian subjects towards their sovereigns. —Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (III, xxxii)
- Masters, Peter; Whitcomb, John (Jun 1988). Charismatic Phenomenon(ISBN ). London: Wakeman. p. 113. ISBN 978-1-870855-01-3.
- Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 243.
- See, for instance, Richard B. Gaffin, "A Cessationist View", in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today – Four Views, pp. 41–42 (Zondervan, Michigan, 1996).
- Examples of strong cessationists: John F. MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Zondervan Publishing House, 1992); Robert L. Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1999); Walter J. Chandry, Signs of the Apostles (The Banner of Truth Trust Edinburgh, 1978).
- Examples of cessationists employing such argumentation are John F. MacArthur and Walter J. Chantry. John F. MacArthur's second chapter of his Charismatic Chaos is an appeal to the principle of Sola Scriptura and that the canon is closed as an argument for cessationism. Walter J. Chandry's fourth section of Signs of the Apostles similarly devotes his attention to the cessationist implication of the fact that the canon is closed.
- Several cessationists make these observations, such as John F. MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, pp. 134–141; Walter J. Chandry, Signs of the Apostles, section three makes similar observations. Robert L. Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts, pp. 31–33 (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1999), etc.
- The view is introduced by Aleksandar Katanovic in the article "The End of Charismatic Gifts," published first on the site http://www.early-church.com/, a site owned by Free Brethren House Churches of Christ.
- Aleksandar Katanovic, "Moderate Cessationism," in: "The End of Charismatic Gifts"
- Cessationism is defended by Reformed Churches. Christian Reformed Church is generally amillennialist in its eschatology. See for instance "Eschatology" at the site of Christian Reformed Church in North America.
- An example of an empirical cessationist denial, see the seventh statement of the list of Statement of Beliefs of biblestudying.net, a group of empirical cessationist Christians
- biblestudying.net, Preliminary Proof: When the Gifts Would Cease
- biblestudying.net, Preliminary Proof: Conclusions
- Foubister, Frost, Greer, Kelsey, Kydd, Ruthven, and Shogren[who?]
- "Ante Nicene Fathers", vol 1, Irenaeus Against Heresies, bk 2, ch. 32, sec. 4, p. 847.
- Contra Celsum, I, ii; III, xxiv; VII, iv, lxvii.
- "FathChrysHomXXIX". Piney.com. Retrieved 2014-02-01.
- "CHURCH FATHERS: Homily 6 on First John (Augustine)". Newadvent.org. Retrieved 2014-02-01.
- "CHURCH FATHERS: City of God, Book XXII (St. Augustine)". Newadvent.org. Retrieved 2014-02-01.
- Why I Am Not Charismatic, written by C Michael Patton at Parchment and Pen
- The Ultimate Cessationism Resource, compiled by Nathan W. Bingham
- The End of Charismatic Gifts, published by the Free Brethren House Churches of Christ. The article conveys the perspective of moderate Cessationism.
- Pentecostalism, the Charismatic and Faith Movements, a series of articles about charismata, seen from the perspective of empirical Cessationism
- Gaffin's Cessationist exegesis of Eph 2:20, R. Fowler White's article dealing with Gaffin's Cessationist exegesis of Eph. 20:20 as a reply to Grudem's book The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today
- Can Cessationism be proven from Scriptures, Published in the Sword and Trowel Magazine, London Metropolitan Tabernacle
- A (Modest) Case for Cessationism
- Articles related to Cessationism