Christians are very divided on the subject of spiritual gifts, especially over the question whether some of the gifts have ceased. Here are the two basic positions Christians take on the subject:
Continuationism: All the spiritual gifts continue.
Cessationism: Gifts like Evangelism, Teaching, Pastoring-Teaching, Exhorting, and Administering are still in operation. Several gifts, however, have ceased: Apostleship, Miracles/Healing, Speaking in Tongues, Interpretation of Tongues, Prophecy, and Discerning of Spirits.
(No one I have ever heard of believes that all of the gifts have ceased.)
Naturally, there are some compromise positions available. For example, one might say that one or more of those gifts have ceased (perhaps Apostleship), but that others remain.
|Despite what you may have heard, the ability to play video games is not a spiritual gift.
(Picture attribution: Rob Boudon)
I’ve learned some great stuff about Cessationism from listening to my old theology teacher, William E. Bell. (All of Bell’s lectures are available online. Bell makes his case for Cessationism here, beginning just after 18 minutes.)
Evidently in early church history the gifts in question ceased to operate in the church, and church fathers noted it. So they did cease at this time. The questions are why they ceased, and whether they have recently started up again.
Cessationism says they ceased because they were no longer needed, and have not started up again.
Continuationism says they ceased because the church was growing cold and carnal, and God removed the gifts as some sort of punishment; and, of course, Continuationism also says that the gifts have started up again.
An important part of Cessationism is its understanding of the purpose of these particular gifts.
Generalizing a bit, there are two purposes. The first is to give the gospel, the good news; the second is to confirm the gospel, to confirm that the good news is true news and not just news that would be good if it were true.
The first purpose is a big deal here, and a major part of Bell’s understanding of Cessationism. The gifts of apostleship and prophecy give the words of God directly to His people; the gifts of healing and discerning of spirits, as Bell understands them, confirm the legitimacy of apostleship and prophecy, respectively. When accompanied by the gift of interpretation, tongues can also be a way for the very words of God to be given to His people.
As you can see, another important part of Cessationism is the idea of a transitional period. These gifts had the function of giving the church the revelation it needed until such time as the revelation was written down in the New Testament.
One reason I’m telling you this is to give you a little information about Bell’s Cessationism, because it is worth knowing about (but it’s best to listen to his lectures if you can find the time).
Not to be confused with William Bell from Fringe.
(Picture attribution: Gage Skidmore, from here.)
Another reason is to set the stage for introducing a different view of spiritual gifts. This new view deserves more attention than it gets. Several of my friends and family members have hinted at this view, but I don’t know if anyone has properly articulated it anywhere.
This new view is more of a hybrid of Cessationism and Continuationism than a compromise between them.
Here it is: These gifts do cease. These gifts also continue, but they do not continue everywhere. They continue only in times and places where the New Testament’s complete expression of the Gospel is not yet available. There is a transitional period, but the transitional period is still going on in places the Gospel is only just now reaching.
I’m not sure if I think this view is correct, but it definitely has some advantages. As a hybrid view rather than a compromise, it can absorb some of the best arguments for Cessationism, but also accommodate at least some of the evidence for Continuationism, in particular those reports you may have heard of about these gifts apparently continuing on the mission field.
Unless someone else has a better name, I suggest we call this view Ceasingism.
PS: If you ever run across a book or article on Ceasingism, or happen to write a book or article, please let me know!
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)