Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
August 14th, 2015 by Joel Watts

ceasing cessationism

The Protestantism of the Reformation gave us the same devil as Catholicism, but took away the tools to fight him.

The belief that miracles (I will quibble over this term, but will use it briefly as a way to identify unexpected and unexplained events) and the charismata of the early church has ceased is called cessationism.

The belief that the charismata—the supernatural gifts of the apostolic church—ceased with or very soon after the days of the apostles.

Cessationism was the common belief of the churches of the Reformation, but in time a new theory arose. This theory postulated that the charismata continued in the church into the third century, until about the time of Constantine, after which they gradually dwindled. The fullest exposition of the classic Protestant position, and the most trenchant criticism of the idea of the retention of the charismata by the church, or of their restoration to it, was produced by the Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield in a series of lectures that he delivered at Columbia Theological Seminary, South Carolina in 1917. These were later published as Counterfeit Miracles.1

While I remain skeptical (and more than skeptical, actually) in all such professions of power of the unseen realm, the disbelief in the power to tame the unseen realm derives not from Scripture, but from the propensity of the Protestant Reformers to read into Scripture strong anti-Catholic biases. This is why we get the Catholic Church as the Great Babylon, among other various pointedly anti-Catholic doctrines, almost immediately after the Reformation begins.

Church Fathers, a miniature from Svyatoslav's ...

Church Fathers, a miniature from Svyatoslav’s Miscellany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the things I have found among Pentecostals is the belief that somehow the 20th century gave rise to something that the early church had forgotten. Yet, those who study Catholic and Orthodox history understand and know full-well that what the Pentecostals thought to rediscover (either through so latter-rain motif or some idea of an eschatological capstone) through the renewed “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” was already occurring in the oldest communions via the mystics and other stories of miracles.

I find it rather ironic that when we read that one of the reasons cessationism is considered valid is that the Church (today) simply does not witness miracles. Yet, we have witnesses plenty throughout both the East and the West, well before the Azusa revival and the various American “prophetic” movements. One might say that the American Church no longer sees miracles rather than the Church universal. Whether this are true or simply cultural tales, who am I to judge? I can only say that the Church universal claims to witness the same miracles in the New Testament and has in every age and place since the Apostles. Cessationism, on the other hand, has confined the “church” to a specific group of Protestants who would refuse, I believe, to validate the Resurrection if they thought it was a “Catholic” idea.

I could give you a listing of the various Church Fathers and their views on the charismata, but I guess for me, while I pray the rosary, acknowledge a deep and abiding presence that transcends myself, pray to the saints, and experience a communal presence at various times like none other, I can no longer — as a Christian — remain a cessationist. I will be skeptical always, but I believe we need to move beyond this isolating cessationism that suggests there is no witness of God in the Body of Christ and, if nothing else, embrace the mystery, myth, and moment as believers, skeptical or fully committed believers.

  1.  Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms (Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002), 79–80.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

13 Responses to “ceasing cessationism”
  1. He raises relevant point about the way Protestants view miracles and the Charismata in general.
    I do, however, know at least a couple of reputable Reformed, or Protestant theologians that will say in an emphatic voice inflection that the arguments used to proclaim cessassionism by some Reformed teachers is foolish. Example: the completion of the canon and the death of the last apostle. This is not to say that the canon is not complete, but that the argument itself is foolish; not that the last apostle didn’t die, or there are apostles today, but the argument is still foolish. My opinion is that Paul says in the famously misquoted 1 Cor 13 that this will finish when “that which is perfect is come” and “when I shall know even as I am known” that would be the end of the Charismata. So, unless I was skipped on receiving the memo, if I know as I am known, and that “which is perfect” has come, is not here yet, especially when, using basic biblical interpretation, if I seek to know what Paul means by “that which is perfect shall come” I have to ask Paul himself. Well, I did and he answers me in Phil 3:11-12 Paul seems to tell me “that that which is perfect” as something to be attained futuristically is vs. 11, “the resurrection of the dead”.
    So, I may be a cessassionist but I leave it open to the genuine manifestation of the Spirit of God believing that it will neither add or contradict His recorded Word.I have, not surprisingly, a no-conformist, or “hybrid” position on the issue and there is no room for me to explain it here even if anyone was asking for it…

    Now, having said that, this “Cessationism, on the other hand, has confined the “church” to a specific group of Protestants who would refuse, I believe, to validate the Resurrection if they thought it was a “catholic” idea.” is a sad exaggeration, and uncalled for. Any good scholar in the Protestant camp will extol the virtue of many doctrines normally called “catholic”, meaning from the Catholic Church, the Roman kind, such as the Hypostatic Union, the Trinity and other good doctrines. So, again, there you go: an author inserting a fiery disputable idea to explain a good one but losing credibility on the latter by using the former…

    • Milton, come on. You know that there is a lot of anti-Catholic biases that gave birth to not only eschatological views but so too the cessationism. Not to say that this is the root for many today, only that this is historical: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/01/of-ghosts-and-gifts

      I capitalized the “c” btw, but regardless, the point stands. Oneness pentecostals reject everything C/catholic. Many fundamentalists bristle if they think something is C/catholic. This is why the creeds are dispensed with, etc…

      I tried to narrow down the sect and feel comfortable with my language.

      • I don’t dispute your “come on” answer. I do dispute what I think and stand by for being an exaggeration. A fiery, not so correct, red meat-throwing point” to make a good one. It is like Roman Catholics when I was a boy in Brazil saying that anything that resulted from centuries of Roman Catholic theology that has been embraced by Protestantism indicates that Protestants do not have a basic set of doctrines but that which is borrowed from the Roman Catholics, as if Roman Catholics wrote the Bible (oooops, I guess even you say such…).
        You speak as if I consider Oneness Pentecostals. Assemblies of God, Methodists, Free-Will Baptists, Dispensasionalist Presbyterians, New Perspective in Christ, and other groups part of the original idea behind the Reformation. Yes, these groups may have originated in the Reformation… but they cannot be considered of the Reformation as the Reformed or Protestant group of churches that hold to the same catechisms and creeds as the RCC.
        If you filter off the “hate speech” from both sides, speaking of the Reformation, other than what Luther and Calvin used to say about the papacy (and I hope you will admit “justifiably so” in their days, and differences in Church Authority, Salvation by Grace alone, the place of tradition, the worship of Mary, or veneration that “prays to her”, I no longer see the animosity represented by the author’s statements between Protestants and Roman Catholics.
        I have to say though, that in America, the United States of America, Roman Catholicism is practiced in a very mild manner… In Latin America they’re still in the middle ages…
        Town priests (vicars…) disrupt non-Roman Catholics church services by sending a marching band to play during services, burn fireworks, and, believe it if you wish, spread that “crentes” or “believers” the derogatory term they use for non-Roman Catholics have goat feet! I’ll show you mind when and if we meet personally. We don’t!

  2. Know More Than I Should says

    The holy war on abortion was intended to bridge the chasm between Catholics and evangelical/fundamentalists. The intent was to turn them into a mindlessly predictable, programmable, and reliable voting bloc for the Republican Party.

    Beyond the question of cessationism, it is probably worth pointing out that — although the Reformation preceded the Enlightenment by a century — maturation of Protestant theology coincided with evolution of Enlightenment philosophy. As a result — especially given their geographic propinquity — the twain became intertwined.

  3. John Meunier says

    How do your read Wesley in all this. He strikes me as your kind of skeptical non-cessasionist. He reports on miraculous events in his journals and letters. He also extends the notion of miracle to new birth itself. It is just as much a miracle for a dead soul to be reborn as it is for a dead body.

  4. Stanley Burgess, a Pentecostal scholar and former professor at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and at Missouri State University, writes about appearances and outbreakings of the charismata throughout church history in Christian Peoples of the Spirit
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0814799981/thechuofjesch-20/

  5. Milton Almeida says

    #Joel Watts, I began to read the article linked but I had to stop… Again I see people throwing every single sect that spawned from The Protestant Reformation is called Protestant. That is the ace in the sleeve of those who want to place the Reformation under the same ridiculous doctrinal stance as Oneness Pentecostals, fundamentalists and others…
    Well, then, I will begin to prove that historically the Roman Catholic Church gave room to so much superstition and will include all the superstitious people, who, even today believe such superstition, under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Faith! Selling your house? Bury a statue of St. Joseph in the front yard because it is Roman Catholic teaching and Roman Catholics in Latin America practice this. Are you left-handed? You are children of the devil! How do I know it? Roman Catholic nuns told me that when I was a boy… because of this portion of the Roman Catholic faith today my fine motor skills have been destroyed because not wanting to be a child of the devil, I attempted to be right-handed thus ruining what I really am… This is historic. Check why some “heretics” were murdered with their left hands showing on the foreground.
    There are sects in both camps: Roman Catholics and Protestants. But the sects are not either… they are a single mutually exclusive group today.
    To make this short, the adage is true: “two can play this game”.
    Why don’t we, you and me, begin to put an end to it?

    • Now I understand why I am the way I am. Being left-handed, and writing on those darn right-handed school desks, I realized I am actually ambidextrous. However, it was a secular school, so I never developed a guilty, moral aversion to going both ways.

      • Know More Than I Should says

        Does this mean you’re swinging from both sides of the plate? 🙂

        • Actually, write left-handed, bat and throw right-handed, soccer kick left or right foot equally. Being old, I don’t swing anything anymore. 🙁

          • Know More Than I Should says

            This suggests perhaps having some difficulties with formal education while potentially being an absolute terror on the ball field or court. It may mean keeping your mental facilities intact longer than some of your peers.

  6. Augustine, and the authors of the apostolic constitutions apparently thought miracles were a continuing reality as signs of the kingdom…

    Apostolic constitutions 8 chapter 1

    these gifts were first bestowed on us the apostles when we were about to preach the Gospel to every creature, and afterwards were of necessity afforded to those who had by our means believed; not for the advantage of those who perform them, but for the conviction of the unbelievers, that those whom the word did not persuade, the power of signs might put to shame: for signs are not for us who believe, but for the unbelievers, both for the Jews and Gentiles. For neither is it any profit to us to cast out demons, but to those who are so cleansed by the power of the Lord;

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