A Brief History of Cessationism

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No issue has been more controversial among Protestants in the past 40 years than the charismatic gifts and the role of miracles in the post-apostolic age. The issue was controversial in previous eras of Protestant history, too, although theological lines were not usually drawn as hard and fast as they are between “cessationists” and “continuationists” today.
In the 1700s and 1800s, suspicion of claimed miracles was connected to anti-Catholicism. Protestant critics saw the Catholic tradition as riddled with fake claims of miracles. Ridiculing the fake miracle claims of Catholics (such as icons bleeding a liquid that turned out to be cherry juice) became a staple of Reformed polemics against the Catholic Church. So when seemingly miraculous events happened in Protestant churches, even sympathetic observers warned against the threat of bogus miracles.
I wrote about this problem in a 2006 article [JSTOR subscription] concerning the healing of a woman named Mercy Wheeler during the Great Awakening of the 1740s. Wheeler had been unable to walk for years because of a childhood ailment, but during a revival meeting she came to believe that Jesus intended to heal her. Suddenly she was able to walk, and she apparently retained this ability for many decades afterward. Wheeler’s evangelical defenders

wanted to make room for what they viewed as dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, yet cessationism was so deeply rooted that evangelicals struggled with how not to call such astonishing experiences miracles. To eighteenth-century Protestants, miracles were too closely associated with Catholicism, and anti-Catholicism served as an essential component of British Protestant identity. Opponents of the revivals attempted to associate the revivals with Catholic superstition whenever extraordinary claims surfaced. For New Englanders no worse aspersion could be cast on the revivals than to associate them with Catholic supernaturalism and gullibility. Some moderate defenders of the revivals, such as Jonathan Edwards, struggled to avoid mentioning the miraculous though they conceded that dramatic bodily effects such as trances, fits, and even instant healings might represent the work of the Spirit.
George Whitefield and his defenders emphasized that, despite his great spiritual gifts, he claimed no apostolic or miraculous powers. In a 1740 letter to the bishop of London, for instance, Whitefield insisted that he claimed no access to “extraordinary operations” of the Holy Spirit such as “working Miracles or speaking with Tongues.” He stated baldly, “I am no Enthusiast.” Josiah Smith, pastor in Charleston and Whitefield’s chief defender in South Carolina, picked up on this disavowal in his frequently printed The Character, Preaching, &c., of the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, assuring readers that Whitefield “renounc’d all Pretensions to the extraordinary Powers & Signs of Apostleship, Gifts of Healing, Speaking with Tongues, the Faith of Miracles; Things peculiar to the Ages of Inspiration, and extinct with them.”

More than a century later, Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology (1872-1873) expressed an openness to post-apostolic miracles, but he still was concerned about the “pious frauds” that he saw as the enduring shame of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Hodge saw no reason to adopt hard-and-fast cessationism.

There is nothing in the New Testament inconsistent with the occurrence of miracles in the post-apostolic age of the Church. The Apostles were indeed chosen to be the witnesses of Christ, to bear testimony to the facts of his history and to the doctrines which He taught. And among the signs of an Apostle, or necessary credentials of his commission, was the power to work miracles. (Rom. 15:18-19; II Cor. 12: 12)
When the Apostles had finished their work, the necessity of miracles, so far as the great end they were intended to accomplish was concerned, ceased. This, however, does not preclude the possibility of their occurrence, on suitable occasions, in after ages. It is a mere question of fact to be decided on historical evidence. In some few cases the nature of the event, its consequences, and the testimony in its support, have constrained many Protestants to admit the probability, if not the certainty of these miraculous interventions.

Although many Reformed Protestants want to maintain clarity about the theological distinctions between Catholics and Protestants, we live in an era of much less intense anti-Catholic sentiment among most conservative Protestants. Our suspicion of claimed miracles now focuses on TV preachers like Benny Hinn and the peddlers of the prosperity “gospel.” But the point remains that we should shape our theology not primarily with reference to fears over the abuses and excesses of others, but fundamentally by reference to Scripture.
The mere experience or observation of charismatic gifts or healings cannot be the arbiter of biblical truth, either. But it is one thing to concede (with Hodge) that miracles or the exercise of the charismatic gifts might happen in the post-apostolic age, and another to practice such gifts in full accord with the spirit and letter of biblical guidelines. One might concede the possibility of the continuing operation of the gifts and still be a “functional cessationist,” as Jason Meyer recently put it at Desiring God. As Meyer notes, such a cautious approach does not really comport with being “eager for manifestations of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 14:12).

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