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Is cessationism the reformed view?

Cessationism refers to the the theological view that certain spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament, specifically the more “miraculous” or “spectacular” gifts such as prophecy, healings, tongues, discerning of spirits, et. al., have ceased or passed away at some point in antiquity (usually at the closure of the canon or the death of the last apostle). This view is often presented as the reformed view on the subject of spiritual gifts and charismatic theology and practice. For example, In Christian Spirituality: Five Views On Sanctification (ed. by Alexander, Intervarsity, 1988), Sinclair Ferguson, representing the reformed view and responding to the Pentecostal view, presents some fairly common arguments for cessationism as if these arguments themselves represent the reformed view. Although I do disagree with the arguments he presents, my primary area of disagreement (although its difficult to disagree with someone I respect and appreciate as much as I respect and appreciate Sinclair Ferguson!) is with the way that presents these arguments, as if they constitute the reformed view on the subject. I want to examine this relationship between reformed theology and cessationism because too often the two are conflated and the complexity of the relationship between them is not appreciated.

In reality, there is no one single reformed view on the issue of cessationism. Cessationism is not endorsed, or, to my knowledge, even addressed by the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter or Larger Catechisms, the Belgic confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, or any other significant Reformed statement of faith. When one examines the great reformed thinkers over the centuries, one finds a great diversity of opinion. Three broad categories emerge:

1) Some, such Edwards and Warfield, are strict cessationists, allowing no genuine manifestations of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit after a certain point in history. However, they differ greatly in:
a) which gifts have ceased – was it just revelatory gifts like tongues and prophecy, or was it other such as healing, discerning of spirits, etc.
b) when they ceased – was it at the closure of the canon, the death of the last apostle, etc.
c) and most importantly, why certain spiritual gifts ceased. Warfield’s argument operates very differently than Edward’s, for instance. Warfield focuses on the confirmatory role these gifts allegedly played in the apostles’ ministry, Edwards focuses on the superiority of love to miracles.

2) Others, such as Calvin and Owen, are mild cessationists. They hold miraculous gifts to have ceased in the sense that they are no longer normative for the church, but they do allow for them at various times and in various contexts. For example, in The Institutes, Calvin allows for prophecy and apostleship as the need of the times demands, especially when the gospel is penetrating new cultures (see quote below). Once again, these cessationists differ on which gifts ceased, when they did, and why they did.

3) Others, such as Luther, John Knox (leader of the reformation in Scotland), and Samuel Rutherford (a framer of the Westminster Confession), are continuationists, in that they affirmed the continuing function of miraculous spiritual gifts for the church in their doctrine and practice. For some juicy quotes, see Oss’s response to the “open but cautious” view in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (ed. by Grudem, Zondervan, 1996). Its pretty amazing how “charismatic” they are in their views.

This same diversity among reformed folk regarding the question of cessationism remains today. There many reformed charismatics, many reformed cessationists, and many reformed people who are unsure what they think about the gifts. For example, in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace (ed. by Schreiner and Ware, Baker, 2000), a recent defense of classical Calvinism, many of those defending Calvinism were charismatics, such as C. Samuel Storms and Wayne Grudem, or at least open to the gifts being legitimately operated today, if not “charismatic” per se, such as John Piper and D. A. Carson. There is also a growing church planting network that is intentionally reformed in theology and charismatic in practice called Sovereign Grace Ministries.

All this to say, we should be very careful about identifying cessationism as the reformed view without careful attention to the underlying complexity here. Ferguson’s comment about the contemplative tradition is also true of his own: “the contemplative tradition is not theologically monolithic” (Christian Spirituality, p. 193).

Calvin’s Institutes, III, 4:

Those who preside over the government of the Church, according to the institution of Christ, are named by Paul, first, Apostles; secondly, Prophets; thirdly, Evangelists; fourthly, Pastors; and, lastly, Teachers (Eph. 4:11). Of these, only the two last have an ordinary office in the Church. The Lord raised up the other three at the beginning of his kingdom, and still occasionally raises them up when the necessity of the times requires.

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16 Responses

  1. I wanted to let you know I had previously though that most Calvinist were also cessationist and now I see there really is no corrolation between to two. Thanks for this insight, keep up the good work.

  2. Westminster Confession of Faith is explicitly cessationist:I:1 “Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; <>those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.<>“I:6 The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: <>unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.<>My thesis on this subject is that there is a connection between the present “signs and wonders” or the “tongues” movement and Deut. 28:49. Read more here:

  3. I think the Westminster Confession speaks of God’s physical manifestations, whether through angels or men, and of Jesus Christ’s first coming. And since salvation has become for all nations, the Jewish tradition has been broken. God is our sole king. There is no more a man labeled as the prophet. And that all Christians are priests (universal priesthood). With the Word of God available in the Bible, and with the Holy Spirit sent to abide in us all, the older ways of God’s self-revelation is no longer necessary (God speaking to only certain persons, such as Moses, David, the prophets, etc.).And that after the Bible has been canonized, the Word of God is complete and that there’s nothing more that should be added or removed out of it. But this does not necessarily speak against prophetic gifts and the such, which are based on the proportions of one’s faith, may reveal God’s divine illumination from the Word of God to speak of the future.

  4. Kindly remember that the Apostle and High Priest of our confession is still very much alive. Our Head is still building the Church. We will give an account to Him: not to a document or creed. The fear of man is a terrible snare and the control of the flesh is a worse master. Do we see what the Father is doing today? May we do the same.

  5. The phrase “… whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” itself shows that the Confession does assume and allow new revelations of the Spirit to be happening. The point of this statement is that they should not be added to Scripture. But it does not mean that such new revelations may not happen from the HS.

  6. I understand this was written 6 years ago, but I did some back research from my end with this blog as a launching pad. Found some great stuff especially among the Scottish Presbyters — more wild, that Gillespie, who was crucial for the I. article of the Westminster Confession wrote that “he dare not say” the gifts have ceased, with addition to Rutherford, and Flavel, and others.

    Here is the article. Thought you might be interested.

    In Christ,


  7. I would also, as a previous comment stated, affirm that the Westminster Confession is cessationist in its language. In addition, I’ve attended two well known Reformed congregations over the years who are cessationist. The arguments in favor of the cessationist view are indeed seen as “air-tight” amongst the Reformed folk I know. Before these discussions go at great length however, “Reformed” needs to be clearly defined. More often than not people use the term “Reformed” in different senses, making all subsequent discussion silly.

  8. That section of the Institutes should be required reading for every Reformed elder so that, regardless of whatever personal convictions they might come to, their discourse on such matters might at least be tempered by a introductory awareness that the extreme pole of “strict” cessationism was NOT the norm among the Reformers or the Puritans who expressed thoughts on such issues!
    My question: what do you have in mind when you class Owen with Calvin? I’ve read his Discourse on Spiritual Gifts in which can be found this sort of passing admission, “It is not unlikely but that God might on some occasions, for a longer season, put forth his power in some miraculous operations; and so he yet may do, and perhaps doth sometimes.” But do you have any other Owen references on this matter?

    1. Hey Zach, that is the exact quote I had in mind. I think in the context the “operations” he is referring to would include spiritual gifts. I cannot remember if there were other statements to this effect in his writings or not. Sorry to have no new information for you!

  9. Interesting to read this. I regard myself as reformed, free church of Scotland would be nearest to me, yet have never been or brought up to be cessationist. While fully accepting that divine revelation for salvation is complete in scripture it is only fair to acknowledge that many believers do not have the complete Bible at their fingertips at all times, in all cultures or at all stages of learning. Has God banned himself from filling the gaps in their knowledge? Furthermore, my experience of charismatic or pentacostal believers is that spiritual gifts such as prophecy or words of knowledge do not add to divine revelation but to ordinary knowledge. They provide simile/metaphor/illustration for present reality, or knowledge of events past/distant/future. This feeds into decision making but has no relevance to salvation or God’s nature beyond ordinary observation. I am always puzzled by the assertion that spiritual gifts are a ‘new’ thing. St Columba (600?) AD apparently had words of knowledge/future prophecy. As mentioned neither Calvin nor Knox were closed to these ideas. Ordinary, but theologically literate, reformed believers such as James Hogg (in 1820s) described ‘prophetic dreams’ in which future events were revealed to believers. An example described in The Shepherd’s Calendar may be literal or a fictional example of a ‘type’. Either way the sequence of events is accurate compared to similar experiences I have had. Admittedly these could be attributed to an unknown innate human capacity, an evil influence preying on lowered immunity, exceedingly unlikely coincidence, or even demonic attack, but I see no evidence of this. The waking version, visions/audible voices, takes place almost exclusively during prayer. I must read up on Knox’s view, thanks.

  10. I am not a theologian but I read the Bible. My faith is not according to theologians. Thank God. Did Jesus fail to exist after32 .AD.
    He is the same God yesterday today and forever. God continues to do miracles today. The only stumbling block is the lack of .FaithSela.

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