Where have all the miracles gone?

Who would you regard as the more significant influence upon your Christian life and thinking: John Stott or Mark Driscoll?

In Sydney, where I live, nearly every­one over the age of 40 has only one answer to that question: through his books and articles, and his occasional visits over three decades, John Stott shaped a generation of Sydney evangelicals. If we add other names like JI Packer and Dick Lucas, it is uncontroversial to say that English evangelicalism has had a profound influence on the thinking, practice and ‘culture’ of Sydney evangelicalism over the past four decades—much more influence than, say, North American evangelicalism, even including the contributions of men like Billy Graham and Bill Hybels.

But it is also uncontroversial to say that this is rapidly changing.

One of the most striking features of our Christian scene here in Sydney over the last few years has been the increasingly powerful influence of voices from North America, amplified in their effect by sermons listened to over the internet. A previous generation might have read JI Packer and listened to Dick Lucas on tape (yes, tape!); the current generation listens (at great length, it seems) to sermons and conference addresses by John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, CJ Mahaney and others.

Now of course, this can be seen as simply the passing of time and the changes in the generations. There were strengths and weaknesses in the English influence, and there will doubtless be strengths and weaknesses in the American influence. I do not want to suggest that one is inherently superior to the other. My biases (which are difficult to hide) come from my greater familiarity with one than the other. If I have deep concerns about North American evangelical Christianity, then I am quite sure that I should have deep concerns about the English influence too—not to mention the deep concerns we should have about our expressions of the faith here in Sydney. Furthermore, while I am thankful to God for the example and influence of Stott, Packer and Lucas, I know that there is also much to thank God for in the American scene, and much for us to learn.

However, a seismic generational change does seem to be taking place. And as we come to terms with a different chorus of influential voices, I am very concerned that we understand the shifts that are occurring. The potential for misunderstanding, it seems to me, is very great. It is one of these potential misunderstandings that I want to explore in this essay.

When Mark Driscoll visited Sydney in 2008, he said a number of helpful and insightful things. However, some of his comments sounded strange to us. It became clear that he considered Sydney evangelicals to be ‘cessationists’, and some of his critical remarks about Sydney evangelicals were aimed at our assumed ‘Cessationism’. This is one of many subjects where we need to take the time to understand the categories of the North American Christian scene before we can really understand (and evaluate) some of the things that are being said by our American brothers.

Evangelical Christianity in the US has often been marked by sharply polarized debates peculiar to the American context. For example, in the UK, the doctrine of Scripture was fought out against liberalism, and it was Jim Packer’s writings—especially Fundamentalism and the Word of God—that set the terms of evangelical thinking about Scripture in much of the English-speaking world for a generation. In the US, however, there was a fierce fight within so-called evangelical circles over ‘inerrancy’ versus ‘infallibility’. Harold Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible represented one side of this sharply polarized conflict. I do not believe that Lindsell’s book would have been written in England (or Sydney for that matter). An American Christian of the time may well have viewed English evangelicals as lukewarm about the Bible because they were not fighting the same battle, whereas an English evangelical was likely to view the American battle as strange—as drawing distinctions foreign to the Bible itself.

Just as striking has been the polarization over eschatology. North American evangelicalism has, for many years, been quite sharply divided over pre-, post- and a-millennialism. Evangelical seminaries typically have an explicit position (usually pre-), and require their teaching staff to hold that position. This goes back to the impact of Dispensationalism in the US.

However, most English evangelicals—and most Sydney evangelicals, at least in the past—considered it acceptable to be a bit vague in your under­standing of the end times. This was not thought to be a cop-out, but an acknowledgement of the vagueness of the Bible on the details of this matter. If anyone were to ask me whether Moore College is pre-, post- or a-millennial, I am not sure what I would say. We have not defined ourselves along these lines.

Mark Driscoll’s viewing of Sydney evangelicals as cessationists needs to be understood in terms of a similar polarization in the US that is (I believe) strange to many of us outside the US. If you claim to be a Bible-believing Christian in North America today, it is very likely that you will feel the pressure to be either a cessationist or a continuationist. This is another polarization, it seems to me. As in other such battles, neither side seems to be able to see that there could be any other position besides the one that is facing them across the battlefield. If you are not with us, then you must be on the other side.

This is another debate in which the lines have been drawn in unfortunate places. The polarization tries to push me into one of two positions—neither of which I think is thoroughly biblical. I do not believe I am a cessationist, but neither am I a continuationist—and I think this is true of many evangelical Christians here in Sydney.

Let’s look briefly at each position, before examining what is right and wrong about each.

What is Cessationism?

Briefly stated, Cessationism is the view that the miraculous elements of the New Testament belong strictly to the apostolic era, and ceased with the passing of the apostles.1 With the closing of the canon of Scripture, God no longer acts in that way. To quote one cessationist:

There are demonic miracles in the modern world; there are unscrupulous impostors; there are weak minded and gullible churchgoers; there is the power of suggestion; but there are no divine miracles. Divine miracles had a specific purpose, and when that purpose was accomplished, divine miracles ceased. The present fascination with miracles, no longer restricted to the superstitions of the Roman Catholic Church-State, but now spread throughout the world by the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, is not a sign of resurgent Christianity, as so many have said, but a sign of resurgent paganism. The sort of religion that pervaded ancient Rome and medieval Rome has returned, just as, and because, Christianity is fading from the modern mind.2

A variation of this view is that divine miracles were given

for the purpose of founding the church, continued so long as they were needed for that purpose, growing gradually fewer as they were less needed, and ceasing altogether when the church having, so to speak, been firmly put upon its feet, was able to stand on its own legs.3

Opinions vary as to how long this was, but generally those of this view see the miraculous activity continuing for three or four centuries.4

Cessationism tends to be not just sceptical towards claims concerning modern miracles, but hostile. The belief that “divine miracles have never ceased, and they continue to occur in the twenty-first century” is regarded as “another Antichristian belief”, akin to the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation.5 Far from being a sign of God’s blessing and the reality of his work among us, “such beliefs and practices are indistinguishable from ritual magic, and such miracles and magic were characteristic of ancient pagan societies”.6

Cessationists typically consider that Christian faith demands scepticism towards modern claims of miraculous happenings: “Churchgoers [today], being ignorant of the Bible, confuse that religious gullibility with faith. But Christian faith is not gullibility; it is, in fact, a shield against gullibility.”7

While there are various expressions of Cessationism, I think that this outline fairly represents what we might call ‘mainstream’ Cessationism in the North American context.

What is Continuationism?

In the North American context, if you are not a cessationist, then you have little alternative but to be a continuationist.

Continuationism is the view that God continues to act now as he acted in New Testament times, and that we should expect him to do so. What he did then, he does now. Emphases vary: it may be the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12-14 that are highlighted, or it may be the miracles of the Gospels and Acts. But the common element is the belief that the miracles and miraculous gifts of Jesus and the early church are meant to ‘continue’ as God’s provision for the church in every age. If the church is to be all that God wants her to be, and by faith, to grasp all his promises, then we should not only allow the possibility of miracles and miraculous gifts, but positively expect and pursue them, and be troubled at their absence.

There are two main types of Continu­ationism today. Pentecostalism maintains that miraculous spiritual gifts—particularly speaking in tongues—are a necessary part of normal Christian living because they are evidence of a Spirit-filled life. For pentecostals, the miraculous gifts follow from being ‘baptized in the Spirit’, which is a second and subsequent experience to conversion. Thus, not to experience and practise these gifts is to remain at a limited and unfulfilled level of Christian existence, unbaptized in the Spirit.

A second and increasingly common form of Continuationism is often referred to as the ‘Third Wave’ of the charismatic movement—a description dating from John Wimber and the Vineyard Move­ment of the 1980s and 90s. ‘Third Wavers’ accept the biblical argument that the ‘baptism in the Spirit’ is really another way of talking about conversion. They therefore don’t insist that all Christians speak in tongues as evidence of Spirit-baptism, or that a ‘second blessing’ is necessary. However, ‘Third Wavers’ do believe that the miraculous spiritual gifts of the New Testament not only continue today, but are an important part of daily Christian life and ministry.

Jack Deere is a well-known ‘Third Waver’ and vigorous proponent of Continuat­ionism:

If you were to lock a brand new Christian in a room with a Bible and tell him to study what the Scriptures have to say about healing and miracles, he would never come out of the room a cessationist.8

No one ever just picked up the Bible, and then came to the conclusion that God was not doing signs and wonders anymore and that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had passed away. The doctrine of cessationism did not originate from a careful study of the Scriptures. The doctrine of cessationism originated in experience.9

The cessationist-continuationist debate is particularly important if we want to understand the new breed of so-called ‘Reformed charismatics’. As I understand it, the label ‘Reformed charismatic’ refers to an embracing of both Reformed theology (particularly the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and of grace) and some level of charismatic experience. Reformed charismatics are firmly on the continuationist side of this debate, although they have rejected the Arminianism of much Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity.

The Sovereign Grace Ministries network of CJ Mahaney would be an example of ‘Reformed Pentecostalism’—that is, they still formally believe in the filling or baptism of the Spirit as a second experience to conversion, although they are prepared to work with ‘Third Wavers’.10 Mark Driscoll, on the other hand, is a ‘Reformed Third Waver’, who characterizes his view as “charismatic with a seatbelt”—that is, he explicitly rejects the pentecostal view (regarding the baptism in the Spirit and tongues), but accepts the validity and value of all the spiritual gifts for today (including tongues).11

Since much of the cessationist camp is emphatically Reformed (with a capital ‘R’), the ‘Reformed charismatics’ represent an interesting combination. Some say it is the best of both worlds—right on the key biblical doctrines of God and salvation, but without being dull and boring! Others say that a Reformed theology of God and salvation is in serious tension with a charismatic theology of experience. Is ‘Reformed charismatic’ an oxymoron? That is a discussion for another day.

The issue before us is whether Cessationism or Continuationism are the only—or, indeed, the best—options. I will try to tease out my own thinking about this by asking five key questions that seem to me to be defining issues for this debate. In each case, we will consider what is right and what is wrong about the cessationist position on the one hand, and Continuationism on the other.

Question 1: What continuity and discontinuity is there between biblical times and now?

Every reader of the Bible who is concerned to hear, believe and obey God’s word comes to an understanding (often without directly thinking about it) of the differences and the similarities between the world of the Bible and our world. I am not speaking here of superficial cultural differences; on the whole, these are relatively trivial and straightforward. What I am referring to is how a particular Bible passage fits into the great history of God’s dealings with this world, and how this relates to the times in which we live.

All of us recognize that some aspects of the Bible are unique to the particular time and place in the story of God’s dealings with his world, while there are also important things that are the same today as in the world of any Bible passage. We understand, for example, that the sacrifices once required of the Israelites in the book of Leviticus are no longer required of God’s people. But we also understand that the holiness of God, which the sacrificial system taught Israel, is as relevant to today’s Christian as it was to the ancient Israelites.12 This is not just an issue for our reading of the Old Testament; to what extent and in what ways were the days of Jesus’ earthly life unique and different from our day? Are there differences between the experience of the disciples travelling with Jesus and the experience of disciples today, living this side of the cross, the resurrection and the pouring out of the Spirit? And how, if at all, was the period in which the apostles of Christ were proclaiming the gospel different from today?

This is one of the key differences between the two positions we are exam­ining. Cessationism emphasizes the difference or discontinuity between the days of the New Testament and today; Continuationism emphasizes the similarity or continuity. I think the proponents of each position tend to overstate their case.

Cessationists are right to recognize the discontinuity

One of the strengths of Cessationism is the recognition of the important discontinuity between the days of the New Testament and today. This has its roots in the Reformation response to Roman Catholic­ism. As the Reformers began to teach the gospel of grace and justification by faith, one of the responses of the Roman Church was, “Where are the miracles that confirm your faith?”13 The Reformers’ response was, “In the New Testament!”

We do not need contemporary miracles to verify the gospel God sealed by raising Jesus from the dead and authenticated by signs and wonders through the apostles (see Rom 15:18, 19). Here is John Calvin on the subject:

They ask what miracles have confirmed [our doctrine]. …

In demanding miracles of us, they act dishonestly. For we are not forging some new gospel, but are retaining that very gospel whose truth all the miracles that Jesus Christ and his disciples ever wrought serve to confirm. But, compared to us, they have a strange power: even to this day they can confirm their faith by continuous miracles! Instead they allege miracles which can disturb a mind otherwise at rest—they are so foolish and ridiculous, so vain and false! And yet, even if these were marvelous prodigies, they ought not to be of any moment against God’s truth, for God’s name ought to be always and everywhere hallowed, whether by miracles or by the natural order of things. …

And we may also fitly remember that Satan has his miracles, which, though they are deceitful tricks rather than true powers, are of such a sort as to mislead the simple-minded and untutored … Magicians and enchanters have always been noted for miracles … yet these are not sufficient to sanction for us the superstition either of magicians or of idolaters.14

In other words, Cessationism is right to see the sufficiency of the biblical miracles to confirm the apostolic gospel. They do not need to be repeated to accomplish this purpose. The Reformers rejected what they saw as the superstitions of the Roman Catholic Church. Cessationism is right to affirm this basic Protestant principle of distinguishing the foundation from the building that is now being erected on the foundation. The building does not repeat all that is in the foundation.

This is why at least some expressions of Cessationism see the current controversy as a particularly Reformation or Protestant battle. The Roman Church claims the ongoing sacrifice of the Mass, refusing to see the once and for all death of Jesus as the foundation on which all is built. The Roman Church claims apostolic authority for the papal office, refusing to see the sufficiency of the foundation laid in the New Testament by the apostles and prophets. Likewise Roman Catholicism, if it demands miracles today, does not recognize the sufficiency of the mighty works recorded in the New Testament.

Certain aspects of Cessationism are at the heart of Protestantism, and the cessationist insistence that the building be distinguished from the foundation is quite correct. Because they recognize and accept the discontinuity between the New Testament and our experience, Cessationism takes seriously (more seriously, I believe, than most continuationists) the momentous scale of the miraculous activity that accompanied Jesus’ earthly ministry and, to a lesser extent, the apostolic preaching. As a matter of observation, it seems reasonable (and beyond serious contradiction) to say that the astonishing miraculous activity that accompanied the earthly ministry of Jesus has never been seen again on that scale.

The much (and in my view, unfairly) maligned textbook of Cessationism is BB Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles (first published in 1918). Like much of Warfield’s writing, it has more wisdom than it is often credited with, and deserves a wide readership. While some of the editorial comments added in recent editions of Warfield’s work go too far and even though some of his argument is unpersuasive, the work itself, considered in its own context, is highly instructive. Here are Warfield’s opening words:

When our Lord came down to Earth he drew Heaven with him. The signs which accompanied his ministry were but the trailing clouds of glory which he brought from Heaven, which is his home. The number of the miracles which he wrought may easily be underrated. It has been said that he banished disease and death from Palestine for the three years of his ministry. If this is an exaggeration, it is pardonable exaggeration.15

The instantaneous healing of serious illness or even death at a simple word of command (see for example Mark 3:1-6; Acts 3:1-10) is not what we see in most claims to the miraculous today. If divine miracles are occurring today, they are not of the same magnitude and wonder as the mighty works recorded in the New Testament. To suggest that they are is to diminish the testimony of the New Testament. Here I agree with the cessationists.

Cessationists are wrong to overstate the discontinuity

However, I would argue that Cessation­ism is wrong to insist that divine miracles have ceased. They are right to see that many of the biblical miracles had a particular purpose associated with the great events of redemption and revelation. But the New Testament itself is not as tight as the cessationist position. It is far from clear that the only purpose of God’s miraculous acts was redemptive and revelatory.

“There are no divine miracles today” is a dogma of Cessationism. That is why Cessationism is necessarily hostile to Continuationism. To claim a divine miracle is to attribute to God something that the cessationist knows is either a fraud or demonic. Continuationism is therefore evil! This accounts for some of the heat in the North American debate.

John Calvin, while denouncing the demand for miracles and rejecting many claims to the miraculous, nonetheless did not go as far as some do today. He could say, “God’s name ought to be always and everywhere hallowed, whether by miracles or by the natural order of things”.16 He goes on to say, rather enigmatically, “Well, we are not entirely lacking in miracles, and those very certain and not subject to mockery”.17 It is not certain, but the context suggests he is not here referring to the miracles of the Bible.

However, cessationists claim that as a matter of principle, because divine miracles had a redemptive and revelatory purpose that is now completely accomplished, divine miracles must have ceased at the end of the apostolic era, just as surely as the canon of Scripture is now closed.

Warfield included the so-called supernatural ‘gifts’ discussed in 1 Corinthians 12-14 here. He argued that the charismata referred to in those chapters were typical of “any of the numerous congregations planted by the apostles in the length and breadth of the world visited and preached to by them”, but that these ‘gifts’ belonged exclusively to the apostolic age.18 Both points are uncertain, and in my opinion unlikely. The Corinthian church was unusual in a number of respects, and this appears to include the value placed on experiences they called pneumatika (‘spiritual things’). Paul seems to have insisted on calling these things by another name, charismata (‘gifts’), pressing the point that gifts should not be the basis for boasting (see 1 Cor 4:7), but should be used for the purpose of the giver (“for the common good”: 1 Cor 12:7). His treatment, however, does not (in my opinion) indicate that the ‘gifts’ experienced in Corinth were necessarily experienced in all apostolic churches. On the other hand, there does not seem to be any solid basis for claiming that the ‘gifts’ were somehow linked to the apostolic founding of the Corinthian church.19

The assumption of the cessationist position here is that God’s purpose in the miracles of the New Testament was exclusively tied to the historic once-and-for-all period of redemption and revelation. While this may well be true of particular events, it is by no means clear that this was God’s only purpose in his mighty works. While we may expect that the scale and magnitude of miraculous events will not today match that of the New Testament, because of the redemptive and revelatory significance of those days, this does not mean that we know in advance whether or not God will act with remarkable power in any particular situation today.

Continuationists are right to recognize the continuity

One of the strengths of Continuationism is the recognition of the important continuity between the days of the New Testament and today. Continuationists are right to see that what God could do in Bible times, he is perfectly able to do today. There is no theological reason—no biblical teaching—that tells us that God will not do today what he did then. The power of God is no less today than then.

Continuationists are right in their openness to the possibility of God acting in extraordinary and powerful ways today.

Continuationists are wrong to deny the discontinuity

However, my problem with Continua­tionism is the idea that we should expect divine miracles of one kind or another today, just because this is what happened in the days of the New Testament. The discontinuity between the foundation and the building allows for the possibility that some things that happened in New Testament times do not happen today (or do not happen in the same way). Some continuationist writers effectively deny the discontinuity by their assumption that what happened then should happen now. The unintended consequence is the suggestion that the miracles of the New Testament were no greater than what is happening today. This, I believe, is not only to exaggerate what is happening today, but to denigrate the New Testament record.

Question 2: How should we understand and apply particular Bible texts?

Cessationists and continuationists disagree, not just in their general approach to the Bible, but in their understanding of particular texts. These understandings are influenced significantly by the respective views of continuity and discontinuity between Bible times and today.

Cessationists are right to distinguish the descriptive and the prescriptive aspects of the Bible

A very important principle for understanding the Bible rightly is to distinguish between the Bible’s descriptions of what happened and the Bible’s prescriptions about what should happen. There are numerous accounts, for example, that describe the morally questionable behaviour of a Bible character, but where the writer passes no moral judgement on the act. We cannot conclude from the description alone that the act was morally right or wrong.20 Such texts are very different from commands, exhortations and encouragements to behave or not behave in particular ways.

When the Bible writers describe events that did occur, they are not necessarily prescribing what ought to occur at other times and places. Very often the biblical narratives tell us of particular events—not because they are to be the norm, but precisely because they were out of the ordinary. Careful Bible readers will distinguish between the Bible’s descriptions and its prescriptions.

Cessationists are therefore right to draw attention to the fact that the apostles themselves, in the teaching of the epistles, seem to place little importance on contemporary miracles. Within the New Testament itself, the miracles of the Gospels and Acts do stand in some contrast to the generally non-miraculous (if I can use that most inadequate expression) teaching of the epistles. It is reasonable to ask whether the records of the Gospels and Acts are intended to display the norm for subsequent Christian experience, or simply to tell of the remarkable (and at least in some ways unrepeatable) beginning of the Christian movement.

Cessationists are wrong in reading too much into some texts

However, the cessationist understanding of the discontinuity between today and the New Testament is accompanied, in my opinion, by reading too much into certain New Testament texts.

For example, 2 Corinthians 12:12 (“The signs of a true apostle were performed among you …”) is sometimes taken as evidence that miracle working was the evidence of true apostleship. If miracle working were not restricted to the apostles, then miracles would not prove that Paul was an apostle. However, there are good grounds for disputing this understanding of the verse. In context, Paul is more likely to mean that the signs of a true apostle (namely, such things as “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities”—v. 10) were performed among them “with utmost patience” (note those words in verse 12b)—and that there were also “signs and wonders and mighty works” (verse 12c), the kind of things the Corinthians were more impressed by. This understanding has no implications for the restriction of miraculous events to the apostles.

Ephesians 2:20 (“the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone”) is a text for distinguishing the foundational from what is subsequently built on the foundation. While the verse features in the debate, it is sufficient for us here to note that the verse does not establish that miracles belong only to the foundation. To state the obvious, there is much that the foundation and the building have in common (like faith in Christ, for example!). The cessationist position depends on showing that the miracles of the New Testament were specifically and exclusively ‘foundational’. Ephesians 2:20 does not show that.

Hebrews 2:1-4 refers to God bearing witness “by signs and wonders and various miracles”, with those who heard the word from the Lord Jesus. This sounds like a reference to divine miracles accompanying the preaching of the apostles. The problem (for the cessationist) is that the text is simply silent about whether God did or did not continue to bear witness to the word in that way beyond the apostles.

1 Corinthians 13:10 tells us that “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away”. In context, the “partial” are prophecies, tongues and knowledge (vv. 8, 9). At least some cessationists believe that this is a reference to miraculous gifts (as discussed in 1 Corinthians 12-14), and that “the perfect” is the closing of the New Testament canon. 1 Corinthians 13:10 is then understood to be saying that when the canon is complete, the miracles will stop. “The perfect”, however, is almost certainly a reference to the final consummation of all things at the return of Christ.

These four examples illustrate what I consider to be an unpersuasive approach to the teaching of the New Testament on this matter. I am not convinced that the New Testament teaches that any mighty act of God recorded in its pages must be limited to the apostolic age.

Continuationists are right in their better understanding of some Bible texts

Therefore the continuationists are right, in my opinion, to challenge what I see as forced exegesis of such passages as I have noted above. They are right (of course they are right!) to insist that God’s power is no less today than it was then.

Continuationists are wrong to read descriptions as prescriptions

My main problem with a continuationist understanding of particular parts of the Bible is when descriptions are read as prescriptions. Of course, there are descriptions of things that happened in New Testament times that are meant to be the norm of Christian experience—and this is made clear by the context, or by explicit teaching elsewhere about the normal Christian life.

However, some continuationists (like Jack Deere, for example) insist that if contemporary Christian experience does not match the experience of people in the Bible, then the Bible is “unreal”.21 Does that mean that if our conversion does not match, for example, the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus (complete with flashing lights, a voice from heaven, and temporary blindness), then it is ‘unreal’? I’m sure that even Jack Deere would say, “Of course not”.

A certain arbitrary selectivity creeps in here, it seems to me. Some extraordinary events are chosen to be exemplary and descriptive of the normal Christian experience; others are not. But as soon as you admit that some events in the New Testament are exemplary and others (like Paul’s conversion, for example) are not, you must then account for why you are making this distinction.

The other real difficulty with reading descriptions as prescriptions is that often the descriptions don’t give us enough information. The descriptions of the ‘gifts’ in 1 Corinthians 12 are a case in point. What is an “utterance of knowledge”, and how is it different from an “utterance of wisdom” (1 Cor 12:8)? What, indeed, are the “various kinds of tongues” spoken of in verse 10? Are they known human languages, supernaturally known human languages, or the ecstatic language of heaven?
It is virtually impossible for us to know, given the information provided in these verses.

To make these very scanty descriptions into prescriptions for church life and ministry is illegitimate, in my view.

Question 3: Should ‘faith’ be sceptical?

Cessationists (hardly surprisingly!) tend to be more sceptical about claims of contemporary miracles. Continuationists (equally unsurprisingly) are more credulous. Should Christian faith be credulous or sceptical?

Cessationists are right to allow faith to be sceptical

BB Warfield’s defence of scepticism is particularly important. Indeed, that is what his book Counterfeit Miracles essentially represents. It is not wrong, unspiritual, unbelieving, or lacking in faith to be deeply sceptical about any particular claim to the miraculous. Such scepticism is healthy, and should be welcomed. It is quite wrong to insist that Christian faith must be inclined to believe testimonies to the miraculous. After all, it was Jesus himself who predicted that false prophets would perform signs so convincing that they would deceive even the elect, if that were possible (Mark 13:22).

Cessationists sometimes point out that stories of miracles tend to increase in both number and impressiveness in inverse proportion to the possibility of scrutiny. Far away in remote places, we may hear of dead people being raised and broken limbs being healed. Closer to home, we hear of rather less spectacular experiences. Is it right to be sceptical? Yes.

Cessationists are wrong to restrict what a believer may pray for

To be sceptical, however, does not mean that we must exclude the possibility of these things being true. It just means not being convinced (yet) that the accounts are true. Cessationists, however, tend to take their scepticism further: they know these things are not true. This means, of course, that the cessationist (if he or she is consistent) will not be prepared to pray for a miracle.

My understanding of the Bible’s teaching makes me glad to bring to God any request that is on my heart. If it would take a miracle, that does not stop me praying. I do not know in advance that any claim to a divine miracle is either demonic or a lie. I may be sceptical, but my scepticism is not dogmatic.

Continuationists are right to allow believers to pray for miracles

The continuationist is therefore right to claim the liberty to pray for a miracle—on any definition of ‘miracle’. While I do not agree with the expectations that a continuationist may attach to such prayers, it is quite right to bring these requests “to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20).

Coninuationism is wrong to reject believing scepticism

However, Continuationism believes not only that miracles may occur, but that they should and will occur as a normal part of the Christian life. And thus, continuationists are often uncomfortable with prayers that include such words as “if it is your will”. This is very wrong. The perfect prayer of faith was Jesus’ petition in the Garden of Gethsemane, which included the great words of trust in his Father: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39). Faith accepts and welcomes the will of God, even when we do not know specifically what that is. It is possible to pray for a miracle, and yet to acknowledge that this particular thing may not be the will of God.

Faith (which means trusting God) and scepticism (when we do not know whether particular things are God’s will) belong together. Both in prayer and in the evaluation of experience, it is a mistake to reject believing scepticism.

Question 4: What is the place of experience?

One of the charges levelled against cessationists by some continuationists (such as Jack Deere in passages quoted earlier) is that the cessationist doctrine is based not on the Bible, but on experience: cessationists do not experience miracles, and so they interpret the Bible in the light of this non-experience. This, of course, is a turning around of the accusation often levelled at charismatic Christians—that it is their experience, rather than Scripture, that shapes their understanding. Having experienced, say, speaking in tongues as a ‘blessing’ some time after coming to faith in Christ, they read this experience into the Bible.

In both cases, the accusation needs unpacking. Scripture is not the only source of our knowledge; it is the supreme authority and sufficient for the purpose for which God has given it (2 Tim 3:16-17). However, Scripture itself encourages us to learn from observation and experience (see Prov 6:6; Matt 6:28).

The criticism of charismatic Christians (whether valid or not) is that they allow their understanding of their experience to distort the teaching of Scripture. However, it is not wrong to allow experience to illuminate our understanding of God’s word. For example, few people today think that the Bible teaches that God literally set the world on pillars (see 1 Sam 2:8). We understand this to be non-literal language, and we do so, at least, partly from our experience—that is, from our observational knowledge that the world is not set on literal pillars.

It is perfectly appropriate, therefore, to answer the question, “Is God doing the same mighty works today as recorded in the New Testament?” by listening to the Bible and by experience or observation. We should ask, “Does the Bible teach that these things will/should be normal in Christian experience?” But we may also ask, “Is there evidence that God is, in fact, doing today what he did then?”

Cessationists are right to insist on evidence

Cessationists are right to insist that evidence be taken seriously. Warfield’s book is a sustained investigation into the claim that miraculous events continued through the centuries. His conclusion is that the evidence for this claim is not convincing. While it is appropriate to challenge Warfield’s treatment of the evidence, he was right to look at the evidence!

We observe, for example, that few people are being raised from the dead today. And indeed, it is rare these days to find even unsubstantiated reports of miracles of the same order as the mighty works of the New Testament. This must be taken seriously. If we investigate claims about contemporary miracles and, on the basis of evidence, conclude that they are not accurate, this is important. If we then turn to the Bible and find that God does not promise that the extraordinary miracles reported from the time of Jesus and the apostles will necessarily continue, this is not basing our doctrine on our experience. It is allowing our experience to raise legitimate questions, which must then be honestly answered from the Bible. I am persuaded that cessationists are right to take experience (that is, evidence) seriously in this way.

Actual evidence should be taken seriously. Cessationists are right to insist that the claim to miracles should not be made if the evidence is lacking or poor.

Cessationists are wrong if they reject evidence a priori

Some years ago during a visit to Sydney by John Wimber, a group of Christian doctors offered to investigate any miraculous healing that took place in any of Mr Wimber’s meetings. The doctors were not cessationists. At least one of them was eager to write up the medical evidence for a miracle in a medical journal. As it turned out, for the first time in Mr Wimber’s visits to Australia, those meetings in Sydney produced no claims to miraculous healing.

My point here, however, is that at least some cessationists would not have been interested in looking at the evidence. They would have known in advance that any claim to a miracle was false or demonic. In this, I consider Cessationism to be mistaken.

Continuationists are right to be open to experience

Let God be God: if I have understood the Bible correctly, the question of miracles today is an open one. God has neither promised to so act today, nor has he taught us that he will not do such things in our day. Continuationists are therefore right to be open to the possibility that God may act today in remarkable ways. How God, in fact, acts is, of course, up to him. We know he will always be faithful and good. But continuationists are right not to exclude the possibility of the miraculous from our expectations of what God may do.

Continuationists are wrong if they distort experience to fit their beliefs

However, continuationists go further than this. From their understanding of the Bible (as we have seen), they are persuaded that divine miracles are to be expected. At least some continuationists then understand their experiences in the light of their expectations. Closer scrutiny has shown that there is often a degree of ‘spin’ in the accounts given of the experiences.

What I am suggesting is that the distortion can happen both ways. It is certainly possible to distort our understanding of Scripture by filtering the Bible through our experiences—or an erroneous understanding of our experiences. However, it is also very possible for our perceptions of experiences to be distorted by wrong expectations based on misunderstandings of Scripture. We are led to expect that our lives must contain miracles in order to be ‘real’ Christian lives, and thus we interpret things that happen to us as ‘miraculous’. This, in my judgement, has often happened among continuationists.

Question 5: What do miracles prove?

Cessationists and continuationists differ in the significance attributed to contemporary miracles. Suppose it could be demonstrated that a miracle had occurred—a healing that defied all medical knowledge and experience, or some other supernatural event that was beyond any natural explanation. What would this prove? How important would it be?

Cessationists are right to recognize that heathens and heretics have miracles

Cessationists are quite right to insist that miracles do not validate a message. False prophets may perform utterly impressive miracles (Deut 13:1-2; Mark 13:22). To quote Calvin again,

The Donatists22 of old overwhelmed the simplicity of the multitude with this battering-ram: that they were mighty in miracles. We, therefore, now answer our adversaries as Augustine then answered the Donatists: the Lord made us wary of these miracle workers when he predicted that false prophets with lying signs and prodigies would come to draw even the elect (if possible) into error. … But these miracles, they say, are done neither by idols, nor by magicians, nor by false prophets, but by the saints. As if we did not understand that to “disguise himself as an angel of light” … is the craft of Satan!23

Even a genuinely miraculous occurrence does not mean that the one with whom the miracle is associated necessarily stands for the truth. Cessationists are right to refuse to accept miracles (or claims to such) as vindication of teaching.

It follows that we ought not to be attracted to a movement or a preacher because of claims of miracles of one kind or another. The truth of the message according to the written word of God (the Bible) and the fruit of the Spirit in lives pleasing to the Lord (Col 1:10) are far more reliable evidence of God at work than any miracle.

Cessationists are wrong to generalize that miracles today must all be fraudulent or demonic

However, cessationists go a step further and insist (because of their conviction that genuinely divine miracles have ceased) that any and every claim to a miracle today is either fraudulent or demonic. This, as I have argued, goes too far. While Jesus certainly promised that there would be false prophets who would do wonders, he did not say that only false prophets would do wonders. While claims (even convincing claims) that miracles have occurred do not validate a movement or a message, nor do they invalidate it (unless, of course, the claims turn out to be lies—as has sometimes been the case).

Continuationists are right that miracles are not necessarily to be dismissed as fraudulent or demonic

It follows that continuationists are right to reject the cessationist generalizations about all modern miracles. I have prayed, and will continue to do so, for people with ‘incurable’ illnesses. Among other things, I pray that the Lord would heal. If the Lord grants that prayer, I do not need to know whether or not it was a ‘miracle’. I give thanks to our heavenly Father. It may have been a ‘miracle’ (on whatever definition you choose). My understanding of God and his ways with us today does not exclude that as a possibility. In this, the continuationists are right.

Continuationists are wrong to overvalue the miraculous

However, for the continuationist, there seems to be an overvaluing of the miraculous. That is to say, in the example I have just described, it makes very little difference to me whether the doctors are completely puzzled and insist that it could only have been a ‘miracle’, or whether the doctors tell me that the patient was ‘very lucky’ because this only happens in ten per cent of such cases. It makes no difference whatsoever to my thankfulness to God, because my joy is in his kindness and blessing, regardless of how that blessing was mediated. The things we call miracles are just unusual acts of God. God is sovereign and works all things according to the counsel of his will. A sparrow falls to the ground only by his will (Matt 10:29). The only reason we do not call a falling sparrow a ‘miracle’ is that our heavenly Father does this one rather often!

It follows that if my friend, for whom I have been praying, does not recover and even dies, then this too is to be received by us from God’s hand. It is not as though some events in this world are more an ‘act of God’ than others. Much that God does is what he usually does. We (misleadingly) call these things ‘natural’. Sometimes God acts contrary to his usual ways. These things, of course, surprise us and amaze us. But we really should be amazed constantly at the one who is at every moment hold­ing the whole of creation together (Col 1:17).

Overvaluing the so-called miraculous very often means undervaluing far more important things. Forgiveness of sins by the death of Jesus, reconciliation to God through him, the gift of eternal life in Jesus—nothing is more exciting than these things!

Cessationism versus Continuationism is a battle that will, no doubt, rage in the United States for some time yet. My hope is that we will resist being pushed into one or the other of these options. Cessationism insists that miracles cannot happen; Continuationism insists just as strongly that they should happen. Each of these positions, in my view, takes us “beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6).

1. The meaning of the important words ‘miracle’ and ‘miraculous’ is difficult. Since God is in sovereign control of all events in his creation, everything that happens is an ‘act of God’. Why would we call some of these acts ‘miracles’? In this article, I will not attempt to define ‘miracle’, but simply use the term to refer to events that have no ‘natural’ explanation (begging the question by not defining ‘natural’!).

2. John W Robbins in the ‘Foreword’ to a 2007 edition of Benjamin B Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles: A Defense of Divine Miracles Against Pagan, Medieval, and Modern Marvels (The Trinity Foundation, Unicoi, Tennessee, 2007 [1918], pp. 18, 19).

3. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, p. 32. One of Warfield’s aims is to demonstrate that both evidence and probability are against the view that the miracles of the New Testament continued beyond the apostolic age.

4. Warfield argues that, in fact, the evidence is the opposite: during the first century or so after the New Testament era, there is hardly any evidence to speak of for miraculous activity. There is more in the next (the third century AD), but much greater evidence exists (such as it is) only in the fourth and succeeding centuries AD.

5. John Robbins in Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, p. 11.

6. ibid., p. 11.

7. ibid., pp. 14, 15.

8. Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1993, p. 54.

9. ibid., p. 99.

10. Interestingly, the Sovereign Grace statement of faith no longer uses the term ‘baptism in the Spirit’. This may indicate a degree of compromise with the ‘Third Wave’ position—perhaps as a means of accommodating ‘Third Wave’ members of Sovereign Grace churches. See http://www.sovereigngraceministries.org/About/StatementOfFaith/Overview.aspx.

11. See Mark Driscoll’s sermon on the gifts of the Spirit where he outlines the position of Mars Hill Church. Apart from Cessationism, Driscoll identifies three forms of Continuationism, which he labels ‘charismatic’, ‘charismaniac’ and ‘pentecostal’. His own position is charismatic, but “with a seatbelt”—that is, constrained by the regulation of Scripture. See http://rss.marshillchurch.org/~r/mhcsermonaudio/~3/9852537/060806_1Cor_27.mp3.

12. See how 1 Peter 1:16 applies Leviticus 11:44 to Christian believers.

13. See Bruce Gordon, Calvin, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2009, p. 59.

14. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 20, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1960, pp. 15, 16, 17.

15. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, p. 23.

16. Calvin, Institutes, p. 16 (emphasis added).

17. ibid., p. 17.

18. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, pp. 26, 27.

19. On this issue, see the insightful essay by DWB Robinson, ‘Charismata versus Pneumatika: Paul’s Method of Discussion’, chapter 16 in Donald Robinson: Selected Works, Vol. 2: Preaching God’s Word, edited by Peter G Bolt and Mark D Thompson, Australian Church Record and Moore College, Camperdown and Newtown, 2008, pp. 163-171.

20. Consider, for example, Rahab’s lie in Joshua 2:4-5.

21.In chapter 2 (‘The Problem of an Unreal Bible’) of Surprised by the Voice of God (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1996), Deere finds Acts 20:7-12 relevant to the church of our day only when someone listening to one of his talks at a conference apparently died and was brought back to life through the people’s prayer for him.

22.The Donatists were a schismatic group in the fourth and fifth centuries AD.

23.Calvin, Institutes, p. 17.

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