challenging an insufficient cessationism?


The Cripplegate are criticising charismatics (again). However this time they have set forth a positive case for cessationism. Eric Davis has written an article about what cessationists do believe about the Holy Spirit.

Firstly, before I go any further, it’s important that I mention what I appreciated about the article. I appreciated the fact that Davis challenges the notion that cessationists “don’t believe in the Holy Spirit.” Davis begins his article by saying,

The claim is heard often these days. It usually goes something like this: “How could you cessationists believe that the miraculous spiritual gifts have ceased? You must not believe in the Holy Spirit.

I have encountered this accusation many times from misled continuationists. It is as grievous as it is ill-informed.

That’s an important point that needs to be emphasised in the cessationist/continuationist debate. Continuationists often make that “ill-informed” claim.

However, whilst it was encouraging to see a list of 20 things that Davis claims that cessationists do believe – I was a bit disappointed at what was missing. As I read the article last night, there seemed to be some glaring omissions (as well as some repetition!)

Davis’ insufficient cessationism was reinforced today as I listened to a lecture on Pentecost at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, where I am studying as a Free Church Ministry Candidate. The lecture was, as you would expect at a reformed seminary, delivered by a cessationist – and it was tremendous. It was rich. It was full. And, in many ways it was not unlike the teaching concerning the Spirit I was exposed to in Pentecostal circles. What do I mean? I mean it stressed the presence of God.

Our Professor instructed us today that there are three essential ways to understand Pentecost:

1)     The Holy Spirt now indwells God’s people – they are the new temple of God

2)     The People of God are now empowered for mission

3)     The Holy Spirt binds Christians together in community/fellowship

This unpacking of Pentecost was quite simply, glorious. It was “cessationist” yet not unspiritual. Davis’ list, whilst not wrong in what it affirms, is really lacking in what it omits.

Another problem (perhaps the main problem) I have with Davis’ article is the fact that it is needlessly polemical. Davis states/asks,

So, if cessationists reject a charismatic pneumatology, is there anything remaining to believe about the Holy Spirit?

That statement jars.

Do cessationists reject charismatic pneumatology? And is that a helpful way to state the issue? Of course, aspects of charismatic pneumatology are rejected, but not all of it.

The Cripplegate article overlooks an important issue in this whole debate – every biblical Christian is charismatic and every Christian is cessationist.

All believers have an experience of the Spirit – to a greater or lesser measure, all believers have a gift/s of the Spirt. All believers are called to Spirit-empowered living and mission. All believers are called to worship in Spirit and truth.

Further, every biblical believer is a cessationist – that is, no bible-believing Christian believes that God is still revealing scripture. All believers (cessationist or continuationist) believe in a closed canon. Like-wise, not all cessationists are agreed on what exactly has ceased. Some of the Westminster Divines believed that God spoke through dreams and angels. Some testified to prophetic-type predictions (special providences). Abraham Kuyper in his classic work on the Holy Spirit believed the gift of healing continued in some kind of form. Even today many reformed Christians have a diversity of views on spiritual experience and gifts.

What should we take from this? Quite simply, continuationism and cessationism are unhelpful categories. The reality is we are not talking about different boxes, we are talking about a sliding scale. Within that scale, at one end are those who leave very little room for the ongoing supernatural activity of God. At the other end of the scale are those who want miracles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And in-between there are a plethora of nuanced positions on the ongoing work of the Spirit.

For myself, having witnessed first-hand the pitfalls of Pentecostalism (and also its strengths) and having come to love the reformed faith for its robust gospel-centred biblical faithfulness – I’m attempting to walk the ‘radical middle.’ In other words, I dare not put God in a box and tell him what he can and cannot do and at the same time I want to keep hyper-spirituality and mysticism at a good distance. The way I see it, a healthy reformed expression of the Christian faith is not only rooted in doctrine and practice – it’s also rooted in experience.


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