Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sinclair Ferguson's Case for Cessationism

Sinclair Ferguson, in his classic book The Holy Spirit speaks of a case for cessationism. Here I will attempt to simply summarize his arguments, though one could hardly do better than to read the book for themselves.

1) Noting the long stretch of time between the early church and the new modern manifestations associated with a historical renewal of the gifts, Ferguson says that "Restorationism provides no generally convincing theological explanation for the disappearance of certain gifts during the greater part of the church's existence" (italics original, 223). He says that considering the Spirit is sovereign in the administration of his gifts (Heb. 2:4), it is spiritual and theological hubris to simply say that the gifts disappeared because of a lack of faith in God's people.

[Aside: Warfield's lectures on this subject have long been pointed to as demonstrating that no Scriptural case for cessationism can be made, but Ferguson is adamant that those lectures were historical, not Biblical in their focus. Ferguson also points out, helpfully, in this section of his argument that "it is a logical fallacy to hold that the proof of the negative on its own ('no text in the New Testament teaches cessation') establishes an alternative positive ('the New Testament teaches continuationism')" (224). So even if someone demonstrates that there is no NT text teaching cessationism, it isn't enough on its own.]

2) Continuationists tend to assume that "the unusual and miraculous are biblically normal and normative and therefore naturally continue." He goes on to show that the unusual and the miraculous have always been just that - unusual. These manifestations tend to coalesce around periods of new revelation, the dawning of new epochs of God's redemptive-historical purpose. "Without this perspective, some biblical miracles would be trivial and almost on the level of magic tricks" (224). He points to the floating axe head in 2 Kings 6:1-5 and the coin in the mouth of a fish in Mt. 17:27.

Crucially, Ferguson also notes that "signs and wonders" are spoken of as "signs of a true apostle" (2 Cor. 12:12), and on the flip side, the activity of Satan is characterized by "false signs and wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9). "Signs and wonders" are consistently appealed to as a sign of Prophetic and Apostolic attestation (Acts 2:22, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12; Rom. 15:12, 19). There is an intimate connection between "signs and wonders" and the presence of the Apostles or their delegates (note in Acts 15:12 that the signs and wonders were done "through them [Paul and Barnabas]"). Or in Hebrews 2:4, "signs and wonders" are spoken as a means of demonstrating the authority of those who brought the Gospel. "Here," says Ferguson, "apostolic ministry and special confirmations of it are inextricably linked together...The primary function of these gifts itself suggests their impermanence" (225). And so we see what I think is the core of Ferguson's case for cessationism: the function of the spiritual gifts was to confirm, in an era of change and uncertainty, the authority of the Apostles and the truth of their message. This purpose is no longer necessary. Ergo, the purpose of these gifts has passed its time.

3) Ferguson spends some time discussing 1 Cor. 13:10. In his discussion, he points out that cessationists have classically understood the passage as saying that "when the perfection comes" or "completion comes" refers to the New Testament canon, which of course, will mean the end of prophecy and tongues. Ferguson recognizes that this is a view of the passage that the majority of scholars reject. Ferguson says that if this passage teaches what the cessationist says it teaches, then the issue is "settled." However, if the cessationist interpretation that this refers to the canon of Scripture is wrong (and the continuationist is right about this passage), it still does not mean that continuationism is true.

Even a moderate continuationist like D.A. Carson admits that these words don't "necessarily mean that a charismatic gift could not have been withdrawn earlier than the parousia [return of Christ]." Ferguson also says that many cessationists do not hold the above referenced classic interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:10 and that their cessationism does not hang on this passage. Richard Gaffin, for example, does not see the close of the canon as what is in view here, but rather, the return of Christ. Gaffin argues, on the contrary, that it is "gratuitous" to argue from this passage "that the gifts mentioned continue until the parousia." It's not that this passage teaches either cessationism or continuationism, but rather, says Gaffin, in this passage, Paul "has in view the entire period until Christ's return, without regard to whether or not discontinuities may intervene during the course of this period, in the interests of emphasizing the enduring quality of faith, hope, and especially love (vv. 8, 13)" (228). In the end, Ferguson suggests that if the NT does not give a definitive statement either towards continuationism or cessationism then, "the function of these gifts will determine their longevity" (229).

Ferguson also points out that in the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church began to demand miracles and signs to show that the message of the Reformers was true. Calvin's response, paraphrased by Ferguson: "The new covenant was attested by the outpourings of the miraculous. This is adequate testimony. We have no novel message; we need no novel outpouring of the miraculous" (229).

[Aside: Others also point to 1 Cor. 4:1-8 and Eph. 4:7-13 as proof texts to argue that the gifts ceased with the Apostles, though Ferguson does not give these passages more than a brief mention in his treatment.]

4) Ferguson then turns his attention to the difficulties presented by tongues-speaking in the post-Apostolic age. He argues that the most natural reading of the tongues phenomena is "speaking of foreign languages. But contemporary glossalalia is not normally identified with the speaking of foreign languages." Aside from 1 Corinthians, Ferguson notes a deafening silence (especially where one might expect much needed discussion of it in the Pastoral letters) regarding the tongues/prophecy phenomenon. An argument from silence isn't conclusive, but Ferguson also says that it does demonstrate an apparent "shift in orientation which had already taken place from the immediacy of tongues and their interpretation to the teaching of the apostolic tradition" (230).

Ferguson points out that, regardless of the continuationist insistence that modern prophecies are not authoritative or binding, in the NT era, tongues that were interpreted were regarded as "revelation" (1 Cor. 14:6). "When interpreted, therefore, tongues-speaking is the functional equivalent of prophecy and is revelatory in nature." And this gets to what Ferguson calls the "storm center" of the current debate: new revelation, regardless of its form, "principally undermines the sufficiency of Scripture, and becomes de facto the dominant factor, at least at certain points, in the canon by which the individual lives." Ferguson introduces this category of another sort of canon - the canon of experience, or to use Ferguson's phrase, "The canon of life," saying "Is it not, therefore, special pleading on the part of evangelicals to claim that prophecies received by them function in an altogether different way?" It absolutely violates the reformation principle of the sufficiency of Scripture, which says that "no additional revelation is needed by the church or the individual."

It's at this point many modern continuationists are going to feel Ferguson is talking past them. "You keep identifying tongues speaking as prophecy, but you ignore the fact that we've defined the word 'prophecy' down to something the Hebrews would never have recognized! We define prophecy the way the Hellenists would have. Stop equating prophecy in the modern era with prophecy in the OT." Ferguson actually deals with this earlier in the book (pages 214-221). Needless to say he hardly finds Grudem's insistence that Agabus is a false prophet (in the OT sense) but a true prophet (in the Hellenist sense) appealing or coherent, especially within the context of a religious movement that was so concerned to show its OT bona fides.

Ferguson points out Grudem's own suggestion that "Thus says the Lord" could be dropped and replaced with "I think the Lord is suggesting something like..." instead (Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, p. 113). This would help the confusion between cessationists and continuationists in at least this one area, suggests Grudem. Certainly, says Ferguson, the language of "prophecy" is confusing. But Grudem doesn't go far enough. "No level of prophecy in Scripture is introduced by 'I think the Lord is suggesting something like this.' To speak thus is not to speak prophecy at all. The recognition that this is not prophecy in any biblical sense would solve the difficulty without any danger of the quenching of the Spirit which restorationists so fear" (italics original, p. 232).

Ferguson does give a pattern for understanding the biblical concept of illumination and argues that illumination of Scripture by the Spirit is not the same thing as revelation, nor should it be called "prophecy" (nor do cessationists insist on calling it prophecy), but that is beyond the reach of what I was originally trying to do when I began this précis.

Ferguson concludes his discussion with these excellent and well-balanced words:
No right-thinking Christian would deny that God continues to be active in the world, to do wonderful things for his people, and especially to answer their prayers in keeping with his promises. It is still appropriate for the sick not only to consult a doctor but to 'call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.' The promise remains that 'the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well;  the Lord will raise him up' (Jas. 5:14-15). People continue to be healed by God - through, above and even against means. Indeed, writes John Owen, 'It is not unlikely but that God might on some occasions, for a longer season, put forth his power in some miraculous operations.' It would, however, be a mistake to draw the conclusion from this that such events are normative or that in these events individuals are receiving again the coronation gifts of Penetecost. It is misguided to think that we ought to try to categorize every element of contemporary experience in this way. To attempt to do so would be tantamount to assuming that we are able systematically to analyze and categorize all the events and experience which constitute the providences of God (p. 235).


  1. Thanks Adam. Here's a great discussion between Ian Hamilton and Wayne Grudem:

  2. Thanks for writting this up-
    I however ask;
    as someone who has actively been apart of the gifts (i have interpreted tongues, given words of knowledge {that spoke to things i knew nothing about but were deeply intimate to the hearer} and know many people who have given first hand accounts of seeing people healed in front of them and also having words of knowledge or interpretation etc)
    how are you able to say that the gifts do not continue today? these wonders, signs, miracles, tongues are done in the name of Jesus by people who actively seek Jesus as Lord and Saviour
    I do not think I could ever say the gifts were only for then-

    maybe I misunderstand what you believe, if that is the case i am sorry - but from what i read it sounds like you dont believe the gifts of the NT are in use today
    I will pray that God would allow you a chance to see Him work today

  3. I want to be clear on what I'm saying. I don't deny that any of the NT gifts are for today. What I deny (and what Ferguson denies in his above argument) is that the miraculous sign gifts associated with the Apostles gradually passed out of use in the church because their purpose was finished.

    My statement that the gifts do not continue today is not based on experience. I have had experiences which cause me to believe very strongly that the gifts are faked and that people all the time are given leads and things to do with their tongues and mouths to make them start making the noises that are commonly (today) called "tongues." In either case it doesn't resemble the "other languages" that we see in Acts 2. But my point being, even though I could make an experience-based case against the Apostolic sign gifts as we see them practiced today, that is not my approach.

    Rather, I am "able to say that the gifts do not continue today" because 1) Sometimes in Scripture God gives special giftings for a season and then removes them. He has a right to do this, and it shouldn't be assumed that God will not do this. 2) As presented above by Ferguson, the Apostolic sign gifts had a purpose: namely to testify that the message of the Apostles and their fellow partners was true. 3) The Apostles are gone, along with the purpose of the Apostolic miraculous sign gifts. 4) If we don't believe that the Apostolic office still exists then we are all cessationists to some degree.

    So I can say that the gifts don't continue today, not because of experience, but because the testimony of the Apostles is complete, because the purpose of the signs was to testify to the Apostles, and because the Apostles are now dead and gone on to their reward, though their message remains. The purpose of the miraculous sign gifts is finished. That doesn't mean that there aren't miracles today, or that God cannot work with, against, or above means, however. Even hardcore Puritans like John Owen confessed that God can do these things even today.

    I also want you to know that I see God work all the time, but His work isn't flashy and attention-drawing. God's work is to change hearts, convert sinners, to take enemies and make them friends, to take dead hearts and breathe new life in them, to take a heart of stone and turn it into a tender heart of flesh, to take sinners who once hated God and create love within them instead. So God works all the time, and he does it in ways that are 1000 times more miraculous than a room full of people making noises they don't understand and losing their self-control.

    I know you have had experiences that you believe are from God, and I can't speak to that because I haven't had the experience, but if experience is our barometer of truth, then you have experience vs. experience. I've had experiences of faking and being told to fake spiritual gifts. I've written a post about that already here at Bring the Books ( If I took that and put it up against your experience, I think we'd be at an impasse. Scripture, on the other hand, is true and sure, and it interprets itself. Nobody can ever top that, and so that is the basis upon which I say that the Apostolic miraculous sign gifts don't continue any longer.

  4. "God's work is to change hearts, convert sinners, to take enemies and make them friends, to take dead hearts and breathe new life in them, to take a heart of stone and turn it into a tender heart of flesh, to take sinners who once hated God and create love within them instead." NOW THAT I CAN SOUNDLY AGREE WITH.

    also i agree that we can not live simply by experiences.
    Maybe I have a wrong understanding of "Apostolic miraculous sign gifts" as i see all gifts as the same (from one Spirit) Are you meaning like Mark 16:17? getting bit and demons? -

    I too have had times where i felt there was some faking and others being pushed to "fake". Those times make me squirm and feel uncomfortable.

    i really do appreciate the continued conversation despite my misunderstanding of some of what you talk about. i will read that other article that you linked and see if i can not grasp your view better. again thanks for taking the time to explain further - i did go to a Christian College for 4 yr and have a youth min degree but some of this stuff i feel is a bit over my head


    The Vineyard Movement i think best describes my understanding of how the Holy Spirit works

    does this brief description of Cessationist portray your thoughts as well? i think this page is helpful for me understanding each view

  6. The miracles that occur today are healing miracles brought about by laying on of hands and prayer, or someone’s life being saved because a dog walked in front of a car and kept the car from going into the intersection just as an armored truck sped through the intersection. Certainly, God caused that dog to be there. Certainly, God healed the person of the cancer overnight. But do these qualify as gifts of miracles. Couldn’t the healing also be attributed to what James talks about when he says, “If anyone is sick, call the elders and have them pray…”

    this is a quote from the link i gave in my last post - since you seem to have a steady handle on the cessationist i want to know if these healings of today are NOT miracles, what are they? what do you call them?

  7. Yes. I have a book on the different views called "Are the Miraculous Gifts For Today?" The post actually refers to an article in there by Richard Gaffin, and I wholeheartedly agree with Gaffin's view. I'd actually recommend that book. It does a nice job of offering a substantive discussion with some nice back-and-forth.

  8. I would call this healing. God uses means to heal, and sometimes he heals in the face of science, and sometimes he uses the doctor and science to accomplish healing. Sometimes he just does it when all hope is lost. But nobody exercised the gift of healing in that instance. I would just call it providential healing. However, I'd probably call it a miracle if the science just doesn't add up. Either way, I would thank God for bringing the healing. Does that make sense?

    The difference here is, no single individual is being vested with this gift, because nobody's credentials as an Apostle or Apostolic envoy (whatever you want to call the men the Apostles sent out) are being confirmed any longer.

  9. your top paragraph does make sense

    i am chewing on the 2nd paragraph - i am going to do some reading into what the "office of Apostle" is/means/does etc...

    and i will take a look into Richard Gaffin, thanks again for the discussion

  10. Gaffin also has a book called "Perspectives on Pentecost." It's a short but more challenging read that deals with his overall approach to the book of Acts. But the Four Views: Are The Miraculous Gifts For Today? book is the one where he speaks most directly to the issues. He also did a debate a few years ago with Wayne Grudem, who probably defends more of the view that you're used to hearing.

    You can find the audio of their discussion here:

    You can find the Four Views book here (only $5.98 on the Kindle):

  11. cool thanks - listening to the audio right now

  12. is this book still available and free? Kindle Book: The Infallibility of the Church by George Salmon


Before posting please read our Comment Policy here.

Think hard about this: the world is watching!