I am under the impression that the earliest Christians didn’t expend a lot of effort debating the cessation or continuation of the miraculous spiritual gifts. Their discussions did not revolve around wrongly denying the existence of active gifts or wrongly affirming the continuation of ceased gifts. After all, they clearly and undeniably saw the gifts of prophecy, healing, and tongues in operation. Trusted Apostles heard words of prophecy and affirmed their truthfulness, lame legs were healed and blind eyes were opened, people who had no knowledge of a language were suddenly speaking it. For this reason, the concern of the New Testament is not defending the existence of the gifts, but teaching their purpose and proper use.
Today, though, Christians are pulled in two directions so that some are convinced the miraculous gifts have ceased (cessationists) while others believe they continue (continuationists or charismatics). We do not seem to be drawing much closer to a resolution.
Both groups believe the Bible is God’s inerrant and authoritative instruction on what we are to believe and how we are to live, so, at their best, both make careful use of it. Both make use of it to explain what they see and experience in their lives and churches. Continuationists, seeing evidence that the miraculous gifts continue to our day, go to the Bible to understand why they remain operative and how to properly exercise them. Cessationists, seeing no evidence that the miraculous gifts continue to our day, go to the Bible to understand why they do not remain operative and why it’s futile to attempt to exercise them. The odd thing is that both are looking at the same information and experiences, but interpreting them entirely differently.
What is clear to both groups is that what we see today is not entirely the same as what is described in the Bible. In the New Testament we read descriptions of people suddenly being gifted with fluency in a foreign language so they could preach the gospel in it. We read of dramatic, instantaneous, visible, and undeniable miracles like eyes being opened that had been blind from birth and legs being strengthened that had been crippled for years. We are told of people hearing and affirming words of prophecy—even predictive prophecy—that were spoken clearly and taken as authoritative.
Today, though, those who speak in tongues make few claims that their languages are human or understandable by anyone other than God and a person with the gift of interpretation. Healings are generally of minor ailments, gradual, often invisible, and go unaffirmed by the medical community. Prophecy is fallible and usually vague enough to be open to varying interpretations.
Continuationists focus on the similarities and say, “These are the same thing.” Cessationists focus on the differences and say, “These are not the same thing.” Continuationists look at the evidence, see the similarities with the New Testament, and conclude these things are tongues, healing, and prophecy. Cessationists look at the evidence, see the differences with the New Testament, and conclude these things are not tongues, not healing, and not prophecy. Continuationists see the difference between the New Testament and today as a challenge to keep attempting to practice the gifts. Cessationists see the difference between the New Testament and today as a reason to stop attempting to practice the gifts.
These varied ways of interpreting the same data stands at the heart of the distinction between continuationists and cessationists. I believe that to some degree, both groups have a tendency to read Scripture through their experiences. Based on the evidence cessationists find, they say these supernatural events were meant to last only a while so they could stand as a kind of affirmation of the Apostles and early church leaders until the completion of the biblical canon. Based on the evidence continuationists find, they say these supernatural events were meant to be normative in the church.
Here is my challenge to both both groups: We need to tighten up our biblical reasoning. As people of the Word, we need the Bible to be our starting point when it comes to understanding and explaining any phenomenon or any lack of phenomenon. We cannot allow the apparent lack of gifts to make us turn to Scripture already determined to prove their cessation; we cannot allow the apparent existence of gifts to make us turn to Scripture already determined to validate their continuation.
Cessationists would do well to ensure they are grounding their position in Scripture rather than depending so heavily on a lack of evidence in accounting for the similarities between the New Testament and today. After all, God may be waiting for us to display an openness toward the gifts before he grants them. Doesn’t he often grant gifts to those who have begun to act in faith? Continuationists would do well to ensure they are grounding their position in Scripture rather than depending so heavily on what they consider a preponderance of similarities between the New Testament and today. After all, there really is a significant variance between the gifts as they were and the gifts as they are, and couldn’t this be evidence they are not the same thing?
Together, we must be people who interpret our experience through Scripture instead of people who interpret Scripture through our experience.