What is a Cessationist?…or Why I think We Need Another Term

When you think of the word ‘cessationist’ what comes to mind? Typically, I’ve seen these characterizations;

  • Opposite of a continuationism
  • One who no longer agrees the gifts of the Spirit are in operation
  • No miracles
  • Prophets and apostles no longer exist
  • Not all gifts are in operation; some have ceased
  • God no longer speaks beyond scripture

person holding bibleIt’s a mixed bag that unfortunately brings some baggage in discussions involving continuationism vs. cessationism OR discussions regarding if God still speaks today. Given the above descriptions, what is that exactly? It’s a problem because when you say the word it means different things to different people. Even under the rubric of continuation of all gifts, some cessationists avow this happens but not in the manner.

Wayne Grudem is amongst the continuationists but one who adheres to the sufficiency of scripture as God’s word. In his Systematic Theology he says this about prophecy;

So prophecies in the church today should be considered merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority. But does this conclusion conflict with current charismatic teaching or practice? I think it conflicts with much charismatic practice, but not with most charismatic teaching.

Most charismatic teachers today would agree that contemporary prophecy is not equal to Scripture in authority. Though some will speak of prophecy as being the ‘word of God’ for today, there is almost uniform testimony from all sections of the charismatic movement that prophecy is imperfect and impure, and will contain elements that are not to be obeyed or trusted…

But it must be said that in actual practice much confusion results from the habit of prefacing prophecies with the common Old Testament phrase, ‘Thus says the Lord’ (a phrase nowhere spoken in the New Testament by any prophets in the New Testament churches). This is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that the words that follow are God’s very words, whereas the New Testament does not justify that position and, when pressed, most responsible charismatic spokesmen would not want to claim it for every part of their prophecies anyway. So there would be much gain and no loss if that introductory phrase were dropped. (1055-1056)

Aside from the fact that I think Grudem underestimates the “reasonable” handling of prophecy in contemporary Christianity, what strikes me with Grudem’s statement is that in some respects he could be classified as a cessationist: he doesn’t believe that prophecies are equal to God’s words as spoken in Scripture. Yet because of the way he has defined prophecy, he maintains a “continuationist” position. Now granted I don’t agree with the way he has defined prophecy but my point is that when we say the word “cessationist” it conjures up a mixed bag of what that means.

Does it mean apostles or prophets no longer exist? Miracles? Is there still a prophetic and apostolic function with regard to scripture and ministry though the offices no longer exist? Does God still speak today and what does that mean? Beyond scripture? Are prophecies less authoritative? Does God’s word exist beyond Scripture?

Aside from those who live in the extreme, “reasonable” will result in varying positions regarding these questions.But what typically happens is broad brush strokes that may not be honest to specific topics that are being addressed. (I scream whenever I hear someone say that cessationists don’t believe in miracles…ugh!). So these general categories generally result in unproductive discussions when these topics arise.

Needless to say, I wish we could either come up with other terms OR sub-categories that serve as adjectives for a continuationist vs cessationist. I think even soft or hard don’t really cut it.

What do you think?

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About Lisa Robinson

Servant of Christ, DTS Grad, member of Town North Presbyterian Church (PCA), non-profit professional, anti-poverty advocate, writer, thinker, explorer of ethnic food, lover of good coffee and a good laugh.
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10 Responses to What is a Cessationist?…or Why I think We Need Another Term

  1. Craig Benno says:

    I think need to rethink this this within a “Interventionist” or “None Interventionist” framework. Classical Calvinism says in regards to prayer (aka Calvin himself) that prayer changes the prayer and not so much those or that we pray for.

    Within this context, if we truly believe that God still is a interventionist God, then there is room to unpack this more. It’s been my experience in talking with hard core cessationists, that the reality is they no longer believe God directly intervenes in the affairs of the world, nor does he really answer our prayers.

    • ljrobinson says:

      Craig, I don’t think that’s really honest to most Calvinist’s cessationists that God does not intervene. In fact, I know of no one that I’ve read that does equate prayer with intervention. Sorry but I think that is a mischaracterization.

      • Craig Benno says:

        Lisa, Calvin himself said in his institutes that prayer changes the prayer more so then it does cause God to grant what the prayer is asking for.

  2. Not sure what the new term could be, but I think you captured the various ideas and questions that shape the terms continuationist and cesssationist.

    I never understood Grudem (and others) who redefine prophecy in the church age. If “prophecy” is something that “should be considered merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority” then why call it prophecy. Isn’t it just people saying something – either what they think God would want them to do or what they think a passage means. I think there would be much more to gain if we stopped calling “contemporary prophecy” prophecy. There does not seem to be any good reason to re-define “prophet” in the NT as something different and less authoritative than the OT usage.

    This seems to be part of the “fuzzy guidance” movement that I don’t see supported in Scripture either. Does God speak and give clear instructions or not? Does God expect people to base decisions on vague impressions that don’t carry any authority? Or does God expect people to wisely use what He has given them (reason, gifts, Scriptures, grace)?

    That said I do trust that the Spirit still convicts, illuminates, and enables us to do good not to mention the fact that He regenerates, gives spiritual gifts, and indwells so maybe that makes me a continuationist after all. 🙂

  3. ljrobinson says:

    Craig, I would love to know the reference in context. I just don’t think it is fair to say that cessationism means non-intervention. If anything, the Reformed position on providence dictates otherwise.

    • Craig Benno says:

      This is why I say the subject is best framed around interventionist or non interventionist. Does God still answer our prayer today? If he does, then he will give us the Spiritual gifts that we are told by Scripture to eagerly seek, especially that of prophecy.

      If he no longer intervenes and answers our prayers, then we are to no longer eagerly seek spiritual gifts, especially that of prophecy.

  4. ljrobinson says:

    Craig, I’m sorry to say that presents some false dichotomies. God intervening in response to prayer does not mean that all spiritual gifts need to be in operation. It’s comparing apples and oranges. But this just shows why further definition is needed since the cessationist position continues to be mis-characterized.

    • Craig Benno says:

      Lisa, Im not saying every Calvinist believes God no longer intervenes. But, I am offering another alternative to the paradox of soft continuist / cessationist or hard cessationist… and in both of those examples you were framing it within a Calvinist / Reformed framework.

      Within the reformed tradition, one doesn’t have to look far to find high calvinism in which it was taught that we shouldn’t pray for the lost, indeed the minister of the missionary to India (his name escapes me at the moment) was told.. “Young man, if God wants to save India, he will do it without your or mine help!”

      So I think its a fair call to make, to frame the cessationist and continuist position in how we understand the Holy Spirit to continue to intervene in answering our prayers today.

  5. Pingback: It’s Time to Get the Gospel Right | ReformingChristianity.com

  6. Alexander M. Jordan says:

    Hi Lisa, I think you started a good conversation here regarding terminology. I do agree with you that more careful and nuanced distinctions can be made as we discuss cessationism vs charismaticism, to find more common ground. Nevertheless I am much more sympathetic towards the aim of the Strange Fire conference than you and Michael Patton because I think the critique of the movement as a whole was needed and justified. Here’s my take: http://reformingchristianity.com/2013/10/19/its-time-to-get-the-gospel-right

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