Cessationism refers to the the theological view that certain spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament, specifically the more “miraculous” or “spectacular” gifts such as prophecy, healings, tongues, discerning of spirits, et. al., have ceased or passed away at some point in antiquity (usually at the closure of the canon or the death of the last apostle). This view is often presented as the reformed view on the subject of spiritual gifts and charismatic theology and practice. For example, In Christian Spirituality: Five Views On Sanctification (ed. by Alexander, Intervarsity, 1988), Sinclair Ferguson, representing the reformed view and responding to the Pentecostal view, presents some fairly common arguments for cessationism as if these arguments themselves represent the reformed view. Although I do disagree with the arguments he presents, my primary area of disagreement (although its difficult to disagree with someone I respect and appreciate as much as I respect and appreciate Sinclair Ferguson!) is with the way that presents these arguments, as if they constitute the reformed view on the subject. I want to examine this relationship between reformed theology and cessationism because too often the two are conflated and the complexity of the relationship between them is not appreciated.
In reality, there is no one single reformed view on the issue of cessationism. Cessationism is not endorsed, or, to my knowledge, even addressed by the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter or Larger Catechisms, the Belgic confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, or any other significant Reformed statement of faith. When one examines the great reformed thinkers over the centuries, one finds a great diversity of opinion. Three broad categories emerge:
1) Some, such Edwards and Warfield, are strict cessationists, allowing no genuine manifestations of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit after a certain point in history. However, they differ greatly in:
a) which gifts have ceased – was it just revelatory gifts like tongues and prophecy, or was it other such as healing, discerning of spirits, etc.
b) when they ceased – was it at the closure of the canon, the death of the last apostle, etc.
c) and most importantly, why certain spiritual gifts ceased. Warfield’s argument operates very differently than Edward’s, for instance. Warfield focuses on the confirmatory role these gifts allegedly played in the apostles’ ministry, Edwards focuses on the superiority of love to miracles.
2) Others, such as Calvin and Owen, are mild cessationists. They hold miraculous gifts to have ceased in the sense that they are no longer normative for the church, but they do allow for them at various times and in various contexts. For example, in The Institutes, Calvin allows for prophecy and apostleship as the need of the times demands, especially when the gospel is penetrating new cultures (see quote below). Once again, these cessationists differ on which gifts ceased, when they did, and why they did.
3) Others, such as Luther, John Knox (leader of the reformation in Scotland), and Samuel Rutherford (a framer of the Westminster Confession), are continuationists, in that they affirmed the continuing function of miraculous spiritual gifts for the church in their doctrine and practice. For some juicy quotes, see Oss’s response to the “open but cautious” view in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (ed. by Grudem, Zondervan, 1996). Its pretty amazing how “charismatic” they are in their views.
This same diversity among reformed folk regarding the question of cessationism remains today. There many reformed charismatics, many reformed cessationists, and many reformed people who are unsure what they think about the gifts. For example, in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace (ed. by Schreiner and Ware, Baker, 2000), a recent defense of classical Calvinism, many of those defending Calvinism were charismatics, such as C. Samuel Storms and Wayne Grudem, or at least open to the gifts being legitimately operated today, if not “charismatic” per se, such as John Piper and D. A. Carson. There is also a growing church planting network that is intentionally reformed in theology and charismatic in practice called Sovereign Grace Ministries.
All this to say, we should be very careful about identifying cessationism as the reformed view without careful attention to the underlying complexity here. Ferguson’s comment about the contemplative tradition is also true of his own: “the contemplative tradition is not theologically monolithic” (Christian Spirituality, p. 193).
Calvin’s Institutes, III, 4:
Those who preside over the government of the Church, according to the institution of Christ, are named by Paul, first, Apostles; secondly, Prophets; thirdly, Evangelists; fourthly, Pastors; and, lastly, Teachers (Eph. 4:11). Of these, only the two last have an ordinary office in the Church. The Lord raised up the other three at the beginning of his kingdom, and still occasionally raises them up when the necessity of the times requires.