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Jon Ruthven

This paper was written by 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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I. The Historical Evolution of Cessationism and Its View of Miracle

    Benjamin Warfield's "Protestant polemic" against continuing miracles is "Protestant" in that it seeks to protect the core principle of religious authority on which his tradition vas based: the final, normative revelation of Christ in Scripture. From before the turn of the century until Warfield responded with his work, Counterfeit Miracles in 1918, Protestant religious authority had come under increasing attack, in Warfield's view, from a variety of competing religious movements. Warfield perceived that these religious bodies e.g., Roman Catholics, proto-pentecostals like the Irvingites, faith healers, as well as Christian Scientists and the theological liberals, were, to some degree heterodox, because they all shared an ominous flaw in faith or practice: openness to contemporary miraculous gifts.

    Cessationism did not originate within orthodox Christianity, but within normative Judaism in the first three centuries of the common era. An early form of cessationism was directed at Jesus. One of the accusations which led to Jesus' execution was that he had violated the commands of Deuteronomy 13 and 18, which forbid performing a sign or a wonder to lead the people astray after false gods. The Mishnah and Talmud developed a sophisticated cessationist polemic, used not only against early charismatic Christians, but intramurally within Judaism by competing rabbis. (See Fredrick E. Greenspahn, "Why Prophecy Ceased." JBL 108/1 (Spring, 1989): 37-49).

    Christian theologians at first attacked Jews with their own cessationism, but not until the fourth century did they employ the polemic against other Christians. These apologists, e.g, Justin and Origen, argued that God had withdrawn the Spirit of prophecy and miracles from the Jews and transferred it to the Church as proof of her continued divine favor. Thus they-came to share with Jews an aberrant view of miracle: evidentialism. That is, the primary, if not exclusive, function of miracles is to accredit and vindicate the bearer of a doctrinal system.

    Against some Christian sects who claimed unique access to the Spirit, or that the charismata would cease with them, the orthodox repeatedly cited 1 Corinthians 13:10 as proof for the continuation of spiritual gifts in all the Church until the parousia. By the time of Chrysostom (d. 407), however, cessationism provided the ecclesiastical hierarchy with a ready rationale against complaints of diminished charismatic activity in mainline churches. Their cessationist arguments ran in two contradictory directions. Miracles appeared unconditionally: required as scaffolding for the Church, which, once established no longer required such support; or conditionally: that if the Church became more righteous, the charismata would reappear.

    John Calvin turned the cessationist polemic against Roman Catholicism and the radical reformation, undercutting their claims to religious authority they based on miracles and revelations. Calvin popularized the restriction of miracles to the accreditation of the apostles and specifically to their gospel, though he was less rigid about cessationism than most of his followers. Nevertheless from Aquinas through the Enlightenment, the concept of miracle assumed an increasingly rationalistic cast, until it became a cornerstone of the Enlightenment apologetic of Locke, Newton, Glanville and Boyle, but a millstone in Hume.

    Hume's skepticism about the possibility of miracles, the ultimate cessationist polemic (which exemplified Warfield's historical critical method in his examination of post-biblical miracle claims), precipitated the response of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (SCSP), a somewhat rationalistic apologetic made widely popular by William Paley's Christian Evidences. Paley argued from the divine design of nature, predictive (Messianic) prophecy and from (biblical) miracles. SCSP epistemology was short-lived in Europe but came to dominate American thought so thoroughly that for about a century, the Romantic reaction, so widespread in Europe, scarcely gained a foothold.

    Nowhere had the Enlightenment era Scottish philosophy been more warmly nurtured than at Princeton seminary, where Warfield was its last major expression. Warfield seems unconscious of the impact of SCSP on his thought. but his CM rests solidly on its epistemology, and from it, his concept of miracle, discernible as such to anyone of "common sense."

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