Strange Fire?: Responding to Tom Pennington's Case for Cessationism

I know some people have already written responses to Tom Pennington's 7 arguments for cessationism, but I'm going to go ahead and write my response as well. Why? Well, 1) because, in the immortal words of Magnus Magnusson, 'I've started, so I'll finish' - I said in the last post that I would and it's been going round in my head, so I'm going to write it; and 2) I think every Pentecostal or charismatic pastor should be able to put forward the case for continuationism and defend it against the claims of cessationism, so putting such an argument into words myself will be good for me myself.

So let's just dive in and look at Pennington's 7 arguments for the cessation of the gifts of the Spirit one by one. (By the way, you can find the summaries of Pennington's message on Tim Challies blog and at the Cripplegate. My quotes of Pennington are from the Cripplegate.)

1) The Unique Role of Miracles

Pennington argues that there were only 3 primary periods of miracles in history: the ministries of Moses and Joshua, the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and the ministry of Jesus and His apostles. Each of these periods lasted only 65-70 years, so throughout the thousands of years of biblical history, there were only about 200 years where God was actively performing miracles with any degree of frequency. This, says Pennington, is because the purpose of miracles was to authenticate those who performed them as those who spoke God's very words.

Now this just opens up a lot of questions. Why only three periods? To get these three you have to rather limit what you mean by miraculous. What about Daniel? Or Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? The lifetime of Samuel? Not to mention all that prophesying that went on throughout the whole of Old Testament history?

And even if Pennington were right about his three periods of miracles, why did miracles stop outside those periods? By implication, his argument would end up suggesting that it was because people in between times weren't speaking God's very words. Yet those in between times are when vast swathes of the Old Testament were written and when the majority of the prophets ministered. What's more, we don't have books of the prophecies of Elijah and Elisha, who did perform miracles, as part of the Bible, yet we do have books of the prophecies of prophets who didn't perform miracles. That's the wrong way round if Pennington's argument is to hold any water.

Also, even if we discount all the miracles mentioned in the Bible outside of Pennington's three periods (and to be fair, it's not only Pennington who speaks of these same three periods of miracles), that would still only leave an argument from silence. And that silence is shattered by the prophet Jeremiah, who declares, "You have shown signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all mankind" (Jer. 32:20). According to Jeremiah, God had performed signs and wonders right from the exodus up until his own day.

Now, I do agree with Pennington that miracles have a very definite purpose - they're not just given for their own sakes. Hebrews 2:3-4 tells us that signs, wonders and miracles bear witness to the great salvation we have in Christ. So yes, Pennington's right, miracles (and other gifts) authenticate, but he's wrong about what they authenticate. They don't authenticate the speakers, but rather the message. Miracles don't point to the person through whom God performs them, they point to Christ and His gospel.

2) The End of the Gift of Apostleship

Pennington thinks that the gift of apostleship has obviously ceased, which would mean two things. First, there would be a significant difference between the age of the early church and all of subsequent church history. Secondly, he notes that "it is interesting that it ceased without a crystal clear New Testament statement that it would." So that would imply that all the other gifts could equally cease without an explicit statement in the New Testament to tell us that they would.

Now, I'm an Apostolic; I'm confessionally bound to believe that apostleship didn't end, but continues in Christ's Church today. What's more, I wrote my MTh dissertation on what the Bible says about apostleship - and I agree with Pennington, the Bible never says apostleship would cease. Only, unlike Pennington, I don't then jump to the conclusion that, despite that, it has ceased anyway.

Why don't I believe that apostleship has ceased? Well briefly, because Eph. 4:13 says that apostles are given "till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ". It's quite clear that that time has not yet come. (I deal with the counter arguments here, starting at p.29.)

So, unlike what Pennington expects, I don't make an arbitrary distinction between the gifts, saying some (i.e. apostles) have stopped and others (i.e. pastors) continue.

3) The Foundational Nature of New Testament Apostles and Prophets

The foundation, argues Pennington, is finished, so therefore no need for apostles and prophets.

But it's not actually the apostles and prophets who are the foundation of the Church - it's Christ. Christ is the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets. And no one would dare say that now that we've moved on from the foundational stage to building up the walls Christ's role must be over and done with! Of course not!

And anyway, as the church continues to expand, the foundation keeps on needing to be laid. The church is not a skyscraper, ever expanding on a confined set of foundations. No, the church is a sprawling mansion, with new wings and extensions being added all the time all over the world. And so the work of foundation laying is never done.

4) The Nature of the Miraculous Gifts 

According to Pennington, "the Charismatic gifts claimed today bear almost no resemblance to their New Testament counterparts." He says that while New Testament tongues meant speaking in a known language, charismatic tongues are simply "ecstatic speach"; that while biblical prophecy is the Word of the Lord, charismatic prophecy is just "I think this is what the Spirit might be saying" (quoting Wayne Grudem); and that while the result of New Testament healing was "complete, permanent, undeniable, every kind of sickness, and every kind of illness", today's are only "incomplete, temporary, and unverifiable."

Hmmm. Who says the modern gifts are so different from the biblical ones (other than Pennington of course). The longerstanding members of my old assembly in Brussels would tell me of the Sunday morning when an Arab man came into church. There was a message in tongues and interpretation, but the Arab didn't need to wait for the interpretation to understand what was said, as he was astonished that a Belgian lady could speak perfect Arabic!

Throughout its history the Apostolic Church has had a lot of Welsh pastors sent to other parts of the UK and the rest of the world. And some of these Welsh-speaking pastors have told how English men in England have spoken perfect Welsh in the meeting when speaking in tongues. There's even the story from the very beginning of our history of a monoglot Welsh-speaker (for such still existed in those days) giving a message in tongues in English. And I've heard reliable reports from missionaries of how they thought there was an English speaker in a church they were visiting, only to try to talk to him afterwards and discover he couldn't speak a word of English, because it was a tongue. Arabic, Welsh and English are real languages.

As for healings, while there are disreputable "preachers" who claim all sorts of unverifiable healings (have a look at yesterday's post for what I have to say about that sort of person), that does not mean there are no complete and undeniable healings today. I have experienced such healing and know others who have too.

As for prophecy, I agree with Pennington that Wayne Grudem's definition of prophecy today doesn't match up to the biblical gift of prophecy. But that just means I reject Wayne Grudem's definition of prophecy and accept the biblical version. (I'll write a post on prophecy next week, as I think that's a big, and easily misunderstood, area in itself.)

5) The Testimony of Church History

First Pennington argues that the gifts petered out during the period in which the New Testament was being written.

Then he argues that the testimony of post-New Testament church history that the gifts ceased with the completion of the New Testament, backing up his contention with quotes from John Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and B.B. Warfield.

But that just isn't what we see in either the Bible or church history.

Firstly, the Bible. Pennington seems to attempt a bit of exegetical gymnastics in a bid to show that the gifts had petered out by the latter half of the New Testament. First he claims that the Pastoral Epistles make "no mention of the miraculous Apostolic gifts", and then he jumps through hoops to claim that Hebrews 2:1-4 really means that "that was then and this is now" - that the gifts were already something of the past.

Now, would these be the same pastoral epistles in which Timothy is charged "according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare" (1 Tim. 1:18)? Or where Timothy is told "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership." (1 Tim. 4:14)? What about the gift given by the laying on of hands which Timothy is to fan into flame in 2 Tim. 1:6-7?

As for his Hebrews argument, to try to get a point about the cessation of the gifts out of Hebrews 2:1-4 would be to completely misread (and miss the point) of the text.

Secondly, church history. The testimony of church history isn't that the gifts ceased with the death of John and the completion of the canon. Recently I was reading Irenaeus' Against Heresies, and was struck by how he described the gifts as still in operation in his day (c. AD 180, about 90 years after the completion of the New Testament), without any notion of the them stopping (see Against Heresies, 2.32.4 - I've had that excerpt from Irenaeus as a draft blog post for months, so I think it's probably time to post it next week.)

And Irenaeus wasn't the only person after the close of the canon to describe such a thing. Novatian, for example, wrote about the gifts still being around in the third century (De Trinitate, Ch. 29), and didn't give any suggestion that they were particularly unusual novelties.

In fact, although Pennington uses Augustine to argue for the cessation of the the gifts with the close of the New Testament, he can only do so by a selective reading of Augustine. Yes, at one time Augustine did think what Pennington claims of him. Yet Augustine later realised he was wrong and changed his position. He even entitled Book 22 Chapter 8 of The City of God, "Of Miracles Which Were Wrought that the World Might Believe in Christ, and Which Have Not Ceased Since the World Believed".

Augustine wrote the City of God in the early 5th Century. So here in my few brief examples we have evidence from the 2nd, 3rd and 5th centuries that the gifts were still in operation and had not ceased with the close of the canon. Pennington's historical argument is simply revisionist history!

6) The Sufficiency of Scripture

Pennington argues that the Sufficiency of Scripture rules out the gifts. I argued against this yesterday.

7) The New Testament Rules Laid Down for the Miraculous Gifts

Pennington alleges that "most Charismatic practice today clearly disregards those clearly given biblical commands" (i.e. the guidelines laid down in 1 Corinthians 14 for the use of prophecy, tongues and interpretation). "Clear rebellion, even if it were the New Testament gifts."

Now, two things here. Firstly, how is this in any way an argument for cessation? Just because people misuse something doesn't mean the thing doesn't exist in the first place! This is no more than an ad hominem attack.

And secondly, I'm a Pentecostal and in my church we don't disregard the biblical guidelines for the use of the gifts. Quite the contrary, those guidelines are something we place a lot of emphasis upon. And the case is the same in every other Pentecostal or charismatic church that I know well. Pennington's seventh argument just doesn't stack up.

Anyway, hopefully that shows, at the very least, that Pennington's 7 arguments aren't a knock-out blow to the Pentecostal and charismatic position on the gifts of the Spirit. Coming out of all this "Strange Fire" stuff, there are still a few more things I'd like to write. So hopefully sometime soonish (I mean within the next week or two), I'll post something on the nature of prophecy (as that's quite a key issue in the whole discussion), and also a positive case for the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit.