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The Bible’s Undertaker: Cessationism in Contrast to a Living, Miraculous Christianity

Living in the late fourth century, John Chrysostom is the Archbishop of Constantinople. He is known as an eloquent preacher and respected by the church. In one of his surviving sermons on 1 Corinthians, he reveals his views on the cessation of the miraculous gifts. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians (Homilies on 1 Corinthians), Chrysostom interprets 1 Cor. 12 and writes concerning the gift of tongues,

This whole place is very obscure; but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?[2]

Chrysostom’s noted comments are just the beginning of historic cessationism.

One of the famous theologians and Christian philosophers is the Bishop of Hippo in the Roman province of Africa named Augustine. In his previous writings, Augustine composed observations expressing a belief that miracles discontinued in his generation. He asserts,

We have heard that our predecessors, at a stage of faith on the way from temporal things up to eternal things, followed visible miracles. They could do nothing else. And they did so in such a way that it should not be necessary for those who came after them. When the Catholic Church had been founded and diffused throughout the whole world, on the one hand miracles were not allowed to continue till our time, lest the mind should always seek visible things, and the human race should grow cold by becoming accustomed to things which when they were novelties kindled its faith. On the other hand we must not doubt that those are to be believed who proclaimed miracles which only a few had actually seen, and yet were able to persuade whole peoples to follow them. At that time the problem was to get people to believe before anyone was fit to reason about divine and invisible things.[3]

In addition, his homily on First John explains that speaking in tongues was a miracle suitable for the early church, but that it was no longer evident in his time.[4] Chapters eight and nine of Book XXII of The City of God, written circa A. D. 425, Augustine notes that miracles in his day are not as spectacular or noteworthy as those at the dawn of Christianity, but they continue to take place.[5] However, Augustine’s belief in the supernatural wanes throughout his lifetime. He eventually records, “in the earliest times, the Holy Spirit fell upon them that believe and they spoke with tongues, which they had not learned, as the Spirit gave them utterance. These were signs adapted to the time. For there was this betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues [languages] to show that the gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a sign, and it passed away.”[6] Augustine’s impact on cessationism has swayed many people in the church to oppose the miraculous in Christianity.

The biblical support for the miraculous in Christianity is firmly rooted in Scripture and church history.

In the Reformation era, John Calvin records “though Christ does not expressly state whether he intends this gift [of miracles] to be temporary, or to remain perpetually in the Church, yet it is more probable that miracles were promised only for a time, in order to give lustre to the gospel while it was new or in a state of obscurity.”[7]Additionally, he details that “the gift of healing, like the rest of the miracles, which the Lord willed to be brought forth for a time, has vanished away in order to make the preaching of the Gospel marvelous forever.”[8] It appears from his teachings that he believes the miraculous gifts faded from church history, making their claims rare and indeterminate.

During the birth of the Wesleyan revivals, Higher Life and Azusa Street era, Calvinist minister B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) became a major cessationist promoting that miracles exist only for past history. In his book Counterfeit Miracles he combats the growing enthusiasm with his cessationist arguments. “Warfield taught that miracles ceased with the death of the last apostle and that, once the Church had been established, demons had been banished and could no longer harm Christians.”[9] J. E. Meeter notes the foundation supporting the famed cessationist’s belief:

It is the distinction of Christianity that is has come into the world clothed with the mission to reason its way to its dominion. Other religions may appeal to the sword, or seek some other way to propagate themselves. Christianity makes its appeal to right reason, and stands out among all religions, therefore, as distinctively “the Apologetical religion.” It is solely by reasoning that it has come thus far on its way to its kingship, and it is soley by reasoning that it will put all its enemies under its feet.[10]

Warfield’s appeal to reason in the Princeton Seminary environment grounds his thought process to reject miraculous experiences based on natural theology.

Radio Bible teacher John MacArthur describes the conviction of those who believe in miraculous experiences as continuationism.[11] Desiring not to employ charismatic theology’s terms, he opposes the miraculous work of the Spirit with fundamentalist vocabulary. In MacArthur’s rigid worldview, those seeking prayer for healing, tongues, prophesy, and a sense God’s presence in an emotional manner have stepped beyond the pale of orthodoxy. He teaches that “the apostolic gift of healing has ceased.”[12] In addition, his popular radio program Grace to You and ministry institute The Masters College have spread the cessationist view to a large segment of conservative evangelical Christianity.

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Category: Spirit, Summer 2015

About the Author: Cletus L. Hull, III, M.Div. (Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry), D.Min. (Fuller Theological Seminary), Ph.D. (Regent University), has served as a pastor with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for 32 years and psychiatric chaplain for 30 years. He teaches courses in New Testament at Biblical Life Institute in Freeport, Pennsylvania. He has researched the growing Disciples of Christ churches in Puerto Rico and has an interest in the significance of the Stone-Campbell churches in American Christianity. His article, "My Church is a Mental Hospital" appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Healing Line. He is the author of The Wisdom of the Cross and the Power of the Spirit in the Corinthian Church: Grounding Pneumatic Experiences and Renewal Studies in the Cross of Christ (Pickwick, 2018). Twitter: @cletus_hull, Facebook, www.CletusHull.com

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