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

Historical antecedents supporting the miraculous in church history

Historically, miraculous experiences in Christianity have their advocates. At the close of Jesus’ ministry, he declares in John 14:11-14,

Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

For twenty-one centuries the church has observed and recorded miraculous experiences. Jesus proclaims that his followers would do “greater things” than he accomplished. The extraordinary miracles of God in the lives of Roman Catholics include visions, prophecy, physical healings, and speaking in tongues. Francis MacNutt writes that “Catholics seem to be more open to healing prayer and the other charismatic gifts—even prayer in tongues—than are many evangelicals.”[13] This section of the paper will deal with the topic of miraculous experiences in the early church, the reason for their disappearance, and their renewal in the twentieth century.

Are the biblical accounts of miracles nothing more than dead stories gathered up like ashes in urns?
Showcase of an urn shop in Nice, France. Image: Ikar.us / Wikimedia Commons.

Jesus teaches his disciples that demons are subject to his Name (Luke 10:17-19). The primitive church is filled with stories of triumphs over Satan. “The early church kept a lively practice of the baptism in the Spirit…[and] carried on Jesus’ healing and deliverance ministries.”[14] Noted church fathers testify to this knowledge. “Tertullian claimed that the noblest Christian life is to exorcise evil spirits—to perform cures.”[15] Also, “Justin Martyr, who wrote around A. D. 150, stated that Christians were able to drive out those demons that the pagans were helpless in casting out.”[16] Others such as “church father Origen (martyred ca. 253), noted that Christians cast out demons merely by prayer and simple adjurations which the plainest person can use.”[17] However, Jack Hayford aptly observes that “the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion and the emergence of ‘Christendom’ in the fourth century brought an even more dramatic loss of charismatic activity.”[18] Not only was the church weak in influence, but she lost the mission of Jesus to save and heal. “The Catholic mystical tradition continued to allow for a few saints possessed of ‘heroic holiness’ to exercise some of the gifts, but such holiness was reserved, in the minds of most, for the clergy and religious (bishops, priests, monks, and nuns), not for the masses of ordinary Christians.”[19] Eventually, “by the year 800—more or less—a desire for baptism with the Holy Spirit had disappeared.”[20] Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, an intellectual darkness and economic regression occurred in Europe. The dark ages and crusades caused the Church to neglect the miraculous ministry that Jesus promised. For centuries, the miracles of Christ are limited to relics, apparitions and veneration of the saints.

Through the Pentecostal movement, God has been rekindling the charismatic gifts for a new generation.

In the nineteenth century, an awareness of supernatural incidents increase in the church. In 1801, “Cane Ridge had a profound effect upon religion that has lasted to this day. It was one of those influences that enabled the United States to remain a largely Christian nation.”[21] Other movements such as the Higher Life, Keswick and Holiness churches prepare the way for a new revival. As Pentecostals reawakened the concept of the miraculous in Christianity, Donald Dayton notes “by the turn of the century most of the currents that had adopted the doctrine of baptism in the Spirit had also begun to teach a variation on the theme of divine healing.”[22] Vinson Synan wrote about the observations of missionary bishop Leslie Newbigin’s surveillance of the world scene of Christendom,

According to Newbigin, the first was the Catholic tradition which emphasized continuity, orthodoxy, and the importance of the sacraments to the life of the church. The Protestant tradition, on the other hand, emphasized the centrality of the scriptures and the importance of the proclaimed word of God. The Pentecostals added to these two historic expressions of the faith an emphasis on the present action of the Spirit in the church through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. According to Newbigin, the church needed all three emphases in order to be a powerful force in the modern world.[23]

Jack Hayford recognizes that God through Pentecostalism is “at work renewing and moving His church along in His purposes just as He has done for the last two thousand years.”[24] Thus, though the church began with powerful miracles, the formalized structure of the church and cessationism caused a decline in miraculous experiences. Still, through the Pentecostal movement, God has been rekindling the charismatic gifts for a new generation.

A theological and biblical critique of cessationism

Cessationists believe in Scripture but have no expectation that God supernaturally intervenes in humankind. R. T. Kendall states that “cessationists have chosen to believe that God does not reveal Himself directly and immediately.”[25] For the cessationist, God has sovereignly decided not to demonstrate his power. Jon Ruthven maintains, “during the Enlightenment, the basis of religious authority underwent a profound shift: from the Protestant basis of biblical authority to the human authority of perception and reason. The Enlightenment era is generally regarded as the watershed in thought about miracles.”[26] Hence, God withholds miracles because the Bible is all that is necessary for Christian faith and practice.

New Testament passages supporting miraculous experiences

The ministry of Jesus is to preach, teach, and heal. Matthew 9:35 says “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” This verse contains the threefold aspect of Jesus’ vocation. Everywhere he walks he preaches the Gospel, heals the sick, and teaches the way of the Father. Nearly every ministry day includes the three mainstays of what Jesus Christ considers the Gospel: preaching, teaching, and healing hurting humanity from the bonds of Satan. Those in the liberal camp of the historical Jesus seminar believe Jesus performs no miraculous works; perhaps a few psychosomatic healings; consequently, the apostles and church invented the healing pericopes. Cessationists insist that miracles occur in biblical days, and expect a wondrous return of Christ in the clouds, but no supernatural ministry should be legitimized at present. Miraculous healing ceased after the first century, and modern claims from preachers in Pentecostal Christianity are suspect at best. These elaborate theories of cessationism lose not only the power that Jesus’ ministry commissioned, but his compassion as well.

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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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