Tuesday, January 17, 2006

An Argument For Cessationism

Inasmuch as we do not want to derive our theology from experience, we need to ask what direct evidence there is from Scripture to support our beliefs. With this in mind we now turn to one of the main passages which is purported to support the Cessationist position.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for languages, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things. For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known. Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Co. 13:8-13 HCSB)
This is one of the most important passages in the discussion regarding cessationism since it addresses a time when gifts will "come to an end," or "cease". No one, to my knowledge, denies that there will come a time when the gifts are to cease operating within the believing community. The real question is just when this is supposed to happen, according to Scripture.

This passage tells us that the gifts of tongues (languages), prophecy, and knowledge will cease when the perfect comes. It is important to note that it is only these three which are mentioned. One of the criticisms of the cessationist position is that it is inconsistent; it allows that a gift of administration or teaching might still be operative, but not tongues or prophecy. In the above passage we see a warrant for this position; if the time of the perfect's arrival is already come, then, according to this passage, we should expect that those gifts specifically mentioned should have indeed ceased. Church history then would seem to support that conclusion. However using church history in that fashion is arguably logically fallacious, using post hoc reasoning.

Crucial at this point is the identification of "the perfect." If we are to say that certain Gifts of the Spirit have ceased, then we must be able to determine what the perfect is that has supplanted them. To attempt to argue that the gifts have ceased without such an identification is to beg the question. To the best of my knowledge the only identification that is put forward is that "the perfect" refers to the canon of Scripture.

Let me clear here: by "the canon of Scripture" I am not referring to the list of books that we recognize today, but rather the books themselves. Canonicity is a function of inspiration; only those writings God inspired can be called canonical. This means the extent of the canon is determined by the number of writings that God inspired. The moment the last document was completed, the canon was closed; it remained only for the Body of Christ to recognize the Voice of God in them.

This is all well and good. The problem is that there is nothing in the context of 1Co. 13 that leads one to expect or suspect that a canon, open or closed is in view. More common is the idea that "the perfect" is the completed Kingdom of God, or even Christ Himself. In either case, it is not possible to say that it has come already, relative to the present day. The conclusion that we are forced to then is that Scripture does not teach, in this passage at least, that we should expect any Gifts of the Spirit to have already ceased.

Some might want to argue that this conclusion should mean that we be able to see the Gifts at work, all of them, uniformly throughout history. But this denies a basic teaching of the New Testament about the Gifts, namely that they are given according to the sovereign will of God the Holy Spirit (1 Co. 12:11). To say that the Gifts have not ceased does not obligate God to provide them in a particular way.

At least, we ought not think in such a way; we want to avoid presumption either way.

No comments: