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Jon Ruthven

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Jon Ruthven is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach, Virginia.


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Articles > Charismatic Theology > On the Cessation of Charismata

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On the Cessation of the Charismata
The Protestant Polemic on Post-Biblical Miracles

Jon Ruthven

    Many Evangelicals today would affirm Bishop Butler's stern rebuke to John Wesley: "Sir the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing." (Cited by Ronald A. Knox, Enthusiasm [Oxford: The University Press, 1950], 450). What is the reason for such a revulsion to contemporary charismatic experience? Simply because, in the long evolution of Christian theology, miracles have come to signify the additional revelation of qualitatively new Christian doctrine, principally, in Scripture. To claim a revelation or a miracle represents an attempt, essentially, to add new content to the Bible.

    The modern conflict over the cessation of miraculous gifts has antecedents as old as the fairly sophisticated arguments of early rabbinic Judaism. But the cessationist doctrine found its classic expression in post-reformation era Calvinism: 1) The essential role of miraculous charismata was to accredit normative Christian doctrine and its bearers. 2) While God may providentially act in unusual, even striking ways, true miracles are limited to epochs of special divine revelation, i.e., those within the biblical period. 3) Miracles are judged by the doctrines they purport to accredit: if the doctrines are false, or alter orthodox doctrines, their accompanying miracles are necessarily counterfeit.

    Since it is widely believed that Scripture alone is the basis for Protestant doctrine, it is no wonder, then, that the traditional post-Reformation arguments against contemporary miracles (cessationism) have been widely disseminated. But the case for the continuation of the whole range of God's gifts and graces has only recently been articulated in terms beyond its usual appeals to personal experience to those based more on serious historical and biblical study. Even within the latter area, the case for continuing spiritual gifts generally rests on a very few biblical texts, usually centering on 1 Cor 13:8-10. Theologically, the case is advanced on the simple assertion that because miracles are not limited to evidential functions in the Bible, and because prophecy is given mainly for "edification, exhortation and encouragement" and not construed as addition to a sufficient Scripture, the basic cessationist premise (that miraculous charismata necessarily accredit new doctrine) is bypassed. If the function of the charismata determines their duration, then their edificatory, rather than simply evidential functions determine their continuation.

    The doctrine of cessationism, however, deserves a more thorough examination of its foundational premises, and a broader investigation of the relevant biblical witness, than it has heretofore received. It is to this need that this paper is presently addressed, in which are summarized the results of my Marquette University Ph.D. dissertation and adapted book, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Post-Biblical Miracles(Sheffield Univ. Acad. Press, 1993). Because of the space restrictions, this summary is necessarily bereft of many scriptural references, supporting documentation and scholarly opinion. For these I would refer you to my dissertation. The purpose of this survey is ultimately irenic, undertaken with the hope that a biblical understanding of charismatic function in its eschatological setting may defuse the conflict over cessationism.

    The doctrine that revelatory and miraculous spiritual gifts passed away with the apostolic age may best be approached by examining the central premises of the most prominent and representative modem expression of cessationism, Benjamin B. Warfield's Counterfeit Miracles (CM). The thesis of this paper is that Warfield's polemic--the culmination of a historically evolving argument--fails because of internal inconsistencies with respect to its concept of miracle and its biblical hermeneutics.

    This paper holds that contemporary cessationism stands upon certain post-Reformation and Enlightenment era conceptions of miracle-as-evidence, upon highly evolved, post-biblical emphases about the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God and their normative expressions in the world. The central fault of Warfield's cessationism is that it is far more dogmatically than scripturally based. His cessationism represents a failure to grasp the biblical portrayal of the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy, expressed characteristically in the charismata, which are bestowed until the end of this age by the exalted Christ as manifestations of the advancing Kingdom of God.

    The approach of this paper is to review: 1) the historical evolution of cessationism and the concept of miracle on which it depends; 2) to survey the theological setting in Scripture against which the cessationist polemic must be examined; 3) to scan a few representative passages of Scripture which summarize the recurring theme in the NT that Spiritual gifts are granted for the advance of God's kingdom and the maturity of the church until the end of this present age. This will be followed by a review of some biblical principles applicable to cessationism.

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