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Recent Cessationist Arguments: Has the Storm Center Moved?

 

John C. Poirier looks at recent trends regarding those Christians who say the supernatural gifts of the Spirit have ceased, and what their arguments are today.

 

Hurricane Isabel (2003) as seen from the International Space Station. Image: Wikimedia Commons

As I write this, cessationism is in the news for an apparent slippage in its subscription base: on June 1, 2007, the Research Division of LifeWay (the former Baptist Sunday School Board) released a study indicating that 50% of Southern Baptist pastors believe that God has given a “private prayer language” to some people. Wanting to mitigate the damage of this news, cessationists immediately questioned the way LifeWay worded the corresponding question in its poll (see Yarnell 2007b), but the question as it was actually asked seems to be well written: “Do you believe that the Holy Spirit gives some people the gift of a special language to pray to God privately? Some people refer to this as a Private Prayer Language or the ‘private use of tongues.’” Certainly, most fair-minded reviewers will have a hard time believing that anyone misunderstood the question in any way. The poll, I take it, is probably right in what it suggests: that the traditional cessationist arguments are losing their hold. But that, I submit, is something that the cessationists themselves had already noticed, even if they (like everyone else) were genuinely surprised by the poll.

“Do you believe that the Holy Spirit gives some people the gift of a special language to pray to God privately?”

One does not need a poll to see that a change has taken place. If recent arguments for a cessationist understanding of the gifts of the Spirit are any indication, there has been a remarkable shift in the strategies and concerns of cessationists, a shift that would seem to indicate that Pentecostals and other continualists have finally (!) won the battle over the correct interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13. The issue with the obsolescence of tongues has always been one of timing: What is meant by “when that which is perfect has come”? In the past, cessationists have claimed that this refers to the Bible, but the problems with this view are perhaps too obvious for a new generation of readers. If Paul was referring to the arrival of a “New Testament,” then he was speaking utter bathos both from his own perspective (seeing that he had no idea that there would ever be a New Testament) and from the Corinthians’ perspective (as it is even more problematic to assume that the Corinthians would have understood “that which is perfect” to refer to some future closing of a further canon of Scripture). In other words, the cessationist reading of 1 Corinthians 13 requires that Paul was writing about something that he knew nothing about (prophetically, of course), and that he was writing to people who also did not know (but for whom their not knowing was trivial enough to warrant Paul not giving them any illumination on the matter, almost as if Paul was not even writing to them). The only way to get around that conundrum is to assume that somehow Paul did know that there would be a New Testament, and that he had explained that to the Corinthians at some earlier time. My own guess is that a new generation of readers has recognized that that was a pretty tall order, and that the continualist reading of 1 Corinthians 13 makes a lot more sense: the more natural way of interpreting “that which is perfect” is to see it as a reference to the parousia. That is more consistent with Pauline theology in general, and has been the way (B. B. Warfield and his followers notwithstanding) that 1 Corinthians has been read throughout history. And certainly the parousia makes for a better referent of “then we shall see face to face” (v. 12). It is asking a bit much to suggest that, with the arrival of the completed New Testament, Christians were made able to see “face to face.”

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Category: Spirit, Winter 2008

About the Author: John C. Poirier, Th.M. (Duke Divinity), D.H.L. (Jewish Theological Seminary), has published numerous articles on a wide range of topics and has been named the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Middletown (Cincinnati), Ohio.

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