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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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    Warfield's concept of miracle required an essentially deistic view of nature invaded by a supernatural force so utterly transcendent that, to an impartial observer acquainted with the facts, no possible natural "means" could produce such an effect. A miracle must be instantaneous, absolute and total to qualify. A startling, dramatic healing may occur today so that "the supernaturalness of the act may be apparent as to demonstrate God's activity in it to all right-thinking minds conversant with the facts." But to call such an event a miracle is to obscure the division between miracles and the "general supernatural" (CM, 163). Similarly, Warfield divides NT spiritual gifts into those which are "distinctively gracious" ("ordinary gifts") and those which are "distinctly miraculous" ("extraordinary") gifts.

    On the one hand, Warfield insists that making such distinctions is "simply a question of evidence," (The Selected Shorter Writings of Warfield [Philppsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 19731, 175) and on the other a matter of one's a priori. It is no surprise, then, that when Warfield spends perhaps 97% of CM "sifting" the evidence on post biblical miracles throughout Church history, he arrives at "an incomparable inventory of objections to the supernatural." (Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984], 199). Warfield at the outset has already decided their fate when he insists that miracles may only occur as "the credentials of the Apostles" and "necessarily passed away with them" (CM, 6). Warfield's cessationism involves a double standard: in CM he applies the same rationalistic critical methods as Hume and Harnack to postbiblical miracles that he attacks in liberal critics who apply them to the biblical accounts.

    Biblically, discernment of a miracle is neither "simply a question of evidence," nor is it simply based on one's a priori position. A miracle is an event perceived, in varying degrees of accuracy (e.g., John 12:29), by divine revelation. "The natural man cannot accept the matters [gifts] of the Spirit" for they are "discerned by the Spirit" (1 Cor 2:14).

    Not only is Warfield's understanding of miracle-discernment unbiblical, but his understanding of their function as well. By demanding a strict evidentialist function for miracles, Warfield confuses the sufficiency of revelation, i.e., in the unique historical manifestation of Christ and essential Christian doctrine, with the ongoing means of communicating, applying and actualizing that revelation, i.e., via such charismata as prophecy and miracles. We see below that the charismata do not so much accredit the Gospel as they express and concretize the Gospel. Just as sound and inspired preaching applies, but does not change, the all-sufficient Scripture, so true gifts of prophecy, knowledge or wisdom reveal human needs, directing them to God's truth within the eternally-sealed limits of the biblical canon. Just as gifts of administration or hospitality tangibly express the gospel and advance the kingdom of God, but do not alter its doctrinal content, so likewise, gifts of healing and miracles.

    For Warfield, the inerrant authority of Scripture was the bedrock of his theology. So it is ironic that in only a few scattered pages of CM does he seek scriptural support for his cessationist polemic.

II. The Eschatological, Charismatic Spirit Manifests the Advance of the Kingdom of God until the Parousia.

    Warfield's polemic failed to comprehend the broad sweep of biblical theology when it addressed the crucial eschatological dimension of the charismata in pneumatology and in the presentation of the kingdom of God. These doctrines, as they appear in classical Protestant systematic theologies, have been grotesquely misshapen by a long evolution of tangential dogmatic conflicts. Even after competent biblical studies have been published on these areas, not only Warfield, but most other systematicians have been reluctant to utilize the results. Warfield's evidentialist function for miracles, the foundation for cessationism, is reductionistic and superficial in view of the dominating role for miracles in the biblically formulated, eschatologically conditioned doctrines of pneumatology and the kingdom of God.

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