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).