Friday, February 26, 2016

Are there miracles today?

‘The cessationist position has no basis within the New Testament and is unhelpful in the contemporary context.’
/essay/

1.    Introduction.
 2.    The cessationist position.
3.    Critical assessment of Warfield’s arguments in the light of Scripture.
4.    The cessationist position and its impact in the contemporary context.
5.    Conclusion.


‘The cessationist position has no basis within the New Testament and is unhelpful in the contemporary context.’


1.   Introduction
Miracles are an important theme for Christians. It is so not just because the Christian history abounds of miracles but mainly because the whole Christian faith rests on ‘two supreme miracles’ – the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ.[1] Take these two miracles away from Christianity and you will have nothing left. As the apostle Paul puts it, if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’ (1 Cor. 15:14).
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Although ‘belief in miracles  lies at the heart of authentic Christian faith’,[2] throughout the Church history there have been sceptics even within the Church. The  Enlightenment, with its focus on reason and science, deepened the gulf between the natural and supernatural, and thus raised scepticism about the possibility of miracles. This led to the birth of the cessationist doctrine which views miracles as ‘foundational and revelatory’[3] and believes that ‘the church has no legitimate expectation to see such manifestations of the Holy Spirit’[4] after the apostolic age.

In the present essay I will examine the cessationist position by discussing and evaluating the views of its main proponents, Aquinas, Calvin and more recently, Warfield and Gaffin. Then, I will try to show that the cessationist position has no basis within the New Testament and is unhelpful in the contemporary context.

2.   The cessationist position.
The cessationist position has a long history within the church. As Turner points out, Augustine, Chrysostom and other Church Fathers believed that the miraculous gifts were mostly needed at the founding of the Church and were given in order to ‘accredit the Christian message’.[5] Aquinas believed that miracles were ‘divine “proofs” of the truth of the Christian doctrines’ and that they ‘had done their job and that no more were necessary’.[6] Calvin embraced this position in order to debunk some of the wrong teachings of the Catholic Church which were justified by its ‘counterfeit miracles’.[7]

The  contemporary protestant cessationist position was developed by B. B. Warfield, who was influenced mainly by Aquinas and the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy.[8] His views may be summed up in the following way: 1) miracles are ‘the mark and credential’ of revelation,[9] 2) Christ and the apostles performed miracles ‘as signs of God’s revealing power’,[10] given to ‘fully accredit … Scripture’[11], so ‘with the last revelations … miracles … ceased’[12], 3) ‘further miracles would only distract from the uniqueness of those worked by Christ and the apostles’,[13] 4) all miracles in the post-apostolic age are as false as the Biblical miracles are true,[14] and 5) the divine miracles are an ‘objective evidence’ for ‘common sense’.[15] Warfield’s position is labelled ‘hard cessationism’ as it doesn’t allow for any miracles in the sub-apostolic age.

A more recent or ‘milder’ form of cessationism has been advocated that is ‘more typically encountered today’. Its main proponent is Richard Gaffin, who believes that even though miracles still can be seen today, what has ceased is the ‘gift of healing’ because it was given only ‘to attest the divinely appointed bearers of infallible revelation’.[16] He also states that ‘the revelatory gifts of 1 Cor. 12 have ceased’ as ‘the continuation of … revelatory gifts would put a question mark over the authority and sufficiency of Scripture’, and that healings ‘cannot be truly eschatological in nature, because they have nothing to do with the resurrection body’.[17]

According to Turner, Warfield’s major weakness is that ‘the ‘common sense’ in question is not so common’ because ‘if the divine nature of miracles were … transparent… then there should be no unbelievers in the world”.[18] Besides, he rejects the idea that ‘miracles were tied to periods of special revelation’ as we find many other cases of miracles.[19] Furthermore, he points out that the function of miracles was not only to authenticate ‘God’s messengers’, but also to point to the future salvation[20] and to facilitate the church life and individual discipleship. So, ‘they were not … rendered significantly less ‘needed’ … by the completion of the canon’.[21] And, if we agree with Warfield, that ‘further miracles would only distract from the uniqueness of those worked by Christ and the apostles’,[22] then, in the same line of argument, we could also say that there is no further need for Christians to show love and compassion to their neighbor, as this, instead of serving as a proof of God’s love and existence, would only distract non-Christians from the fact that God of the Bible is love. In fact, when combined with an oral proclamation and testimony, practical love expressed by Christians today is the greatest proof that the God of the Bible is alive and is love.

As for Gaffin’s statement that healing has ceased, and Warfield’s desire to limit their appearance to the apostolic age, Turner points out that ‘healings were not externally attesting signs, but part of the scope of the salvation announced, which reached beyond the merely spiritual to the psychological and physical’.[23]

Another prominent commentator, John Stott, states rightly that ‘two extreme positions are often taken … to assert that miracles either do not or cannot happen today’ or ‘to assert that they take place with the same frequency as in the ministry of Christ and his apostles’. According to Stott, the first position ‘denies freedom and sovereignty to God’. The second ‘ignores the major purpose of miracles according to Scripture, namely to authenticate a fresh stage of revelation.’[24] This seems to me a more balanced position which shows that there is no contradiction between the purpose of miracles in Scripture and the belief that God still operates through miracles.

3.   Critical assessment of Warfield’s arguments in the light of Scripture.
The best way to critically assess all the arguments and views stated above is to do a topic study on miracles, and more specifically, on what the Bible has to say about the possibilities of miracles in the life of the Church after the apostolic age.

The cessationist position suggests that miracles were foundational and revelatory, and so were bound to the apostolic period.[25] It says that the New Testament anticipates the cessation of miraculous gifts and that they have disappeared in church history.

Yet, the NT does not allow for such an interpretation. The four Greek words denoting ‘miracles’[26] describe ‘events which unmistakeably involve an immediate and powerful action of God designed to reveal His character or purposes’. [27] They are translated as ‘signs, wonders, works, mighty works, portents and powers’. [28] Altogether, the words ‘miracle’, ‘sign’, miraculous’, wonder’ and ‘power’ are met 102 times in the Gospels, 47 times in Acts and 133 times in the rest of the New Testament.[29] Besides, when Paul speaks of the gifts of the Spirit he also refers to supernatural manifestations given to believers to minister to the Church. Though many of the references are to the miracles wrought by Christ and the apostles, there are other which point to their continuity in the life of the church in future.

For example, in Paul’s thanksgiving in 1 Cor. 4-8 he states that the Corinthians ‘do not lack any spiritual gift’ as they ‘eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ’. The present participle and present infinitive of the sentence are progressive presents and indicate Paul’s conviction that the possessing of all spiritual gifts of the Corinthians would continue ‘to the end’ (v.8), i.e., until the parousia.[30] In other words, Paul expects that Corinthians will experience miracles due to the continuing work of the Holy Spirit among them.

Also, 1 Cor. 12:10 shows miraculous powers to be among the gifts of the Spirit, listed here by Paul and there is no hint they are going to cease to exist. Furthermore, Paul says they are given by the Spirit to ‘each one’. i.e., believers in future will also practice and benefit from this gift. The future availability of the miracles is also seen in 1 Cor. 12:28, where Paul says that ‘workers of miracles’ are appointed by God to serve the Church, and they are distinguished from the apostles.[31] On the other hand, Matt 24:24, Mark 13:22, 2 Thes. 2:9, Rev. 16:14 and Rev. 19:20 demonstrate that miracles will continue to be practiced in future by warning that demons and false prophets, similarly to pharaoh’s magicians, can also perform miraculous signs.

Sometimes, 1 Cor. 13:8-12 is used by the advocates of cessationism to prove that  – prophecies, knowledge and tongues will cease ‘when the church should have attained its mature state’, in other words, in the sub-apostolic age. This ‘meagre, jejune, and frigid interpretation’[32] is rather a deductive approach to the text which has nothing to do with the true meaning of the text, which is eschatological. The other interpretation, saying that ‘the perfect’ is ‘the completed canon of Scripture’[33] also sounds unrealistic, because Paul uses here ‘the language of theophany’, and could hardly have expected ‘the formation of a canon after the death of the apostles’.[34] So, it turns out that this passage, rather than proving the cessationist position, debunks it.

Obviously, the Bible affirms that miracles have not disappeared since the post-apostolic age and would continue till the parousia. Passages like 1 Cor. 1:4-8 and 1 Cor. 13:8-12 are paradigmatic in that they apply to the Church in ‘universal sense, although not always in a local sense’.[35] That’s why I believe similar to John Stott that we should not take polarized positions, saying that miracles are either impossible or normal today.[36] At the same time, I believe like Turner that miracles had much wider scope than just authenticating the revelation of the Bible.

4.    The cessationist position and its impact in the contemporary context.
I think that in general the cessationist position is unhealthy in the contemporary context. First, it is unhealthy because it discourages belief in God’s abilities to work miracles today, thus shaking the foundations of the Christian’s conviction that “God is the same yesterday, today and forever”. Another result of embracing cessationism would be that it would demotivate prayer life of believers. If I know that God has used miracles just to accredit his revelation, now that the ‘job has been done’, why pray at all since whatever could be done in a natural way should be sufficient for us? Thus, cessationism might develop a very extreme form of Calvinism.

5.    Conclusion.
So, when we consider all the above cessationists’ opinions and interpret them in the light of the passages discussed above, we can state the following. First, the cessacionist position to charismata has no New Testament grounding. We have seen that the New Testament authors preceived the role of miracles in their writings not as mere acreditation of their message but also as pointers to the eschatological salvation and as means for facilitating the life of the church and the individual disciple. As Storms put it,

‘the sufficiency of the Bible is not meant to suggest that we need no longer hear from our heavenly Father or receive particular guidance in areas on which the Bible is silent… the potential for God speaking beyond Scripture, whether for guidance, exhortation, encouragement, or conviction of sin, poses no threat to the sufficiency that Scripture claims for itself.’[37]

So, although God has ceased to give ‘revelations which are doctrinal or universally moral and associated with the canon’, ‘revelation involving applicatory or cirmumstantial content that relates to individual or local church experience may still be possible’.[38]

Second, the cessationist position has been historically and at present mainly a reaction against the other extreme of misusing charismata with the goal of justifying all kinds of religious teachings which have no Biblical basis. Calvin’s attacks against the Catholic obsession with miracles and Warfield’s “Counterfeit Miracles”, used to combat extreme Pentecostal and other charismatic churches’ teaching on the subject are two prominent examples of the fact. Another factor for its popularity has been the experience of the respective theologian. As Powell puts it, ‘experience is the confirming factor in the case of either continuation or cessationism’. Still, experience is subjective so it cannot govern our understanding of the Bible.

Still, and that’s my third point, rather than embracing one or the other extreme, Scripture provides a third road. As Stott says, there is no contradiction to believe that miracles speak of God’s character, glory and purposes in the world, and at the same time hold that He still works out his purposes through miracles. I will conclude with Powell’s words: ‘God can reveal Himself as He chooses. Revelations from God should neither be demanded nor refused, although they should undergo validation.’[39]


BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Books:

Dudley-Smith, T., ed., Authentic Christianity, From the Writings of John Stott (Leicester: IVP, 1995)

Grudem, W., (ed.), Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (Leicester: IVP, 1996)

Turner, M., and A. Long, OTC304 The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (Cheltenham: OTC, 2008)

Turner, M., The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005)

The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996)


Internet Resources:
AllFreeEssays.Com, Miracles in Christianity, [online]. Available from <http://www.allfreeessays.net/student/Miracle_in_Christianity.html>

Barnes, Commentary to the Bible, E-sword, [online]. Available from

Bible Concordance, IBS-STL Global, [online]. Available from

Cessationism, Bible.org, [online].  Available from ChristianAnswers.net, [online].
Available from <http://www.christiananswers.net/dictionary/miracle.html>

Churchill, D., Firming Your Foundation, Modern-Day Miracles Seen Through the Bible (1): “What is a miracle?”, [online]. Available from

Holman Bible Dictionary, [online]. Available from <http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T4336>

Powell, C., Questions Cessationists Should Ask: A Biblical Examination of
Mates, N., Magic, Miracles, and Christianity, [online]. Available from

The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996)





[1] Miracles in Christianity, in AllFreeEssays.Com, [online]. Available from <http://www.allfreeessays.net/student/Miracle_in_Christianity.html>, [Accessed 27 May 2008]
[2] Ibid.
[3] M. Turner, and A. Long, OTC304 The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, p. 114
[4] Ibid.
[5] M. Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, p. 278.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] A form of realism that developed in the eighteenth century, maintaining that ‘God had set in the intellectual constitution of humankind a set of self-evident principles and logical abilities that enabled objective knowledge and true understanding of the real world.’ – ibid., p. 279.
[9] He accepts that there are 4 main periods of revelation – the Exodus, the time of Elijah-Elisha, the Exile, and the dawning of Christianity – ibid., p. 280.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., p. 281.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Turner and Long, p. 119, quoting from W. Grudem, (ed.), Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (Leicester: IVP, 1996).
[17] Ibid., p. 121.
[18] Turner, , p. 282.
[19] Namely, prophecy and ‘many other sorts of miracles scattered throughout Genesis, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, etc.’, ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., p. 280.
[23] Ibid., p. 285.
[24] Dudley-Smith, ed., Authentic Christianity, From the Writings of John Stott, p. 388-9.
[25] Turner and Long, p. 114.
[26] Semeion, meaning "sign"; the seal of a higher power, terata, "wonders," portents, dunameis, "might works;" works of superhuman power and erga, "works" – see ChristianAnswers.net, [online]. Available from , [Accessed 21 May 2008].
[27] See Holman Bible Dictionary, [online]. Available from <http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T4336>, [Accessed 21 May 2008]
[28] Ibid.
[29] Bible Concordance, IBS-STL Global, [online]. Available from <http://www.ibs.org/bible/word/index.php>, [Accessed 26 May 2008]
[30] C. Powell, Questions Cessationists Should Ask: A Biblical Examination of Cessationism, Bible.org, [online]. Available from <http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=394>, [Accessed 27 May 2008].
[31] So in v. 29.
[32] Barnes, Commentary to the Bible, E-sword, [online]. Available from <http://www.e-sword.net/downloads.html>, [Accessed 27 May 2008]
[33] Turner, p. 286
[34] Ibid.
[35] Powell, [Accessed 27 May 2008]
[36] Only, instead of ‘normal’ I would use the word ‘as frequent’.
[37] C.S. Storms, ‘A Third Wave Response to Richard B. Gaffin’, in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, ed. By W. Grudem (Leicester: IVP, 1996), p. 83, quoted in Turner and Long, p 120.
[38] Powell, [Accessed 27 May 2008].
[39] Ibid.