It’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? We can’t all be right and we can’t both be right. Sooner or later we have to have a discussion about charismatic (continuationist) theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit remain in operation in the church today (or, if you prefer, about cessationist theology and whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased in the church today). We have wanted to make sure New Calvinism is large enough for both, that it will not fracture along this particular line, and this has delayed the conversation. But at some point we just have to talk about it.
John MacArthur is forcing the issue with a book and a conference titled Strange Fire. The conference is still several weeks away and the book will not be widely available until a few weeks after that. However, I recently received an advance copy of the book and have read it a couple of times now. I want to begin a conversation today, and my purpose is really to get an idea of how people feel about the whole issue.
I am going to make just a few observations about the book and what I think MacArthur is attempting to accomplish. First though, some terminology.
- Continuationism is “the teaching that (at least some of) the miraculous gifts assumed and described in the Bible ought to continue in the church and, in fact, do continue to be given to the church.” When we think of miraculous gifts, we typically refer to prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miracles.
- Cessationism is the opposite and “teaches that all the miraculous gifts have ceased to be given to the church today.” (Both definitions are taken from Sam Waldron’s To Be Continued?)
- Continuationism is a subset of charismatic theology, and generally refers to more moderate and theologically-minded charismatics who are attempting to distance themselves from a wider and more distressing movement that includes all of your least-favorite prosperity preachers, miracle crusaders, and anointed prayer cloth hawkers.
By way of context, John MacArthur is a cessationist while leading continuationists include men like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and D.A. Carson.
And now, here are a few observations to get us started.
Self Examination. I want to begin with this: We will learn a lot about ourselves in this conversation, about the maturity of whatever this theological movement is. This is going to be a difficult conversation because for each of us to explain what we believe is to state that others are wrong, to explain how they are wrong, and to suggest why it matters. Here’s the thing: If the continuationists are right, cessationists are calling good evil, ascribing to Satan what is of God if the cessationists are right, the continuationists are calling evil good, ascribing to God what is of Satan. We all love to be outraged, to react indignantly, and a conversation like this one may push our buttons and cause us to lash out with anger or self-pity. We are about to learn if we can have a conversation like this with maturity.