Tim Challies interviews Wayne Grudem on his perspective of Continuationism versus Cessationism.
This is the second of two interviews I have conducted with leading theologians discussing the issues of cessationism and continuationism. You can read the first interview with Dr. Sam Waldron here. It will help you define terms and understand a cessationist perspective. Today’s interview examines this issue from the continuationist perspective.
(Dr. Wayne Grudem is Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Phoenix Seminary. He holds a B.A. from
I began our discussion by describing the purpose of this interview and the audience who was most likely to read it. I then proceed to ask questions of Dr. Grudem.
How important is this issue in the grand scope of all that’s going on in the church today. How much attention do you feel this subject deserves?
That’s a hard first question because there is no one answer that fits every church. I am in a church,
The pastoral leadership of the church might or might not say that there are people with the gift of healing today but in fact I am on the elder board and quite often at the beginning of an elder meeting we’ll lay hands on someone and anoint someone with oil in prayer for healing according to James 5. God sometimes answers those prayers in wonderful, and I would say miraculous ways.
So what is very important is people’s day-by-day walk with God and whether that is a vital, personal, ongoing relationship in which people, ordinary Christians, are regularly praying about concerns and events in their lives and getting answers to prayers and knowing the reality of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and direction. What’s also important is people depending on the Lord in seeking His blessing and empowering in their ministries.
So how important is it? Some of the things that go on would be called by other names in more charismatic churches and they probably would be a bit more demonstrative. But the Holy Spirit can work in such a variety of ways.
Let me ask this. Do you feel that there is some inconsistency with cessationists in terms of what they believe and how they actually act out their faith? You gave the example of guidance. Many people I know claim to be cessationist yet still have no trouble claiming that “God told me” - they are using what Dr. Waldron called prophetic language.
I am thankful for that. However, Tim, I think we have to recognize that there is a segment of the cessationist community that is ready to pounce on anyone who speaks of subjective forms of guidance; ready to pounce on anyone who speaks of dealing with promptings of the Lord in one way or another; that is highly suspicious of any emotional component in worship or prayer. I don’t know that that is representative of all of cessationism but there is a segment of the cessationist community that is so suspicious of any emotional component, any subjective component in all of our relationship with God and with others that it tends to quench a vital aspect of the personal relationship with God in the lives of ordinary believers. And that can tend to a dry orthodoxy in the next generation that abandons that faith and the church spiritually becomes dry and static, and I’m concerned about that.
Now, are you aware of this new book that came out last month called “Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit?” Let me get that off the shelf.
I believe Justin Taylor sent me a link to it just a couple of days ago.
It’s called Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? and it’s by Dan Wallace who is a New Testament professor at Dallas Seminary.
And you wrote the foreword, right?
I did. I wrote the foreword and Josh McDowell wrote the foreword. It is an insider’s look at dispensational cessationism and saying, “While we’re still officially cessationist we can…become too rationalistic; give too high a priority on knowledge instead of relationship and this can produce in us a bibliolatry (believing in the Father, Son and the Holy Bible).” The net effect of this is the depersonalization of God and that part of the motivation for depersonalizing God is the increasing craving for control. We want to affirm that God is still a God of healing and miracles; Evangelical rationalism can lead to spiritual defection; many of the power brokers of Evangelicalism have been white, obsessive-compulsive males since the turn of the century; the Holy Spirit’s guidance is still needed in discerning the will of God; we must not avoid the sufferings of Christ in seeking out the power of the Spirit; and then they talk about the witness of the Holy Spirit. I thought it was a very healthy book and I eagerly commend it. I didn’t agree with everything in it but I thought that it was very good.
Back to “how important is it?” I would want to say to cessationists and to open but cautious people on the one hand that I agree that there are ways in which the Holy Spirit is still working that are similar to what was happening in the first century churches and described in the New Testament. I think that the first century church and the New Testament generally encourages us to seek miraculous workings of the Holy Spirit much more than we do in mainstream Evangelical churches. I think if we did, and if we taught about spiritual gifts that were consistent with Scripture and which put safeguards against abuses, that we would see a much greater explosion of the powerful working of the Holy Spirit in bringing more unbelievers to Christ and in bringing physical and emotional and relational healing to people within our churches and in bringing us to new levels of joy in worship beyond the very positive things that we see today. I would like to see much more, not just openness to, but encouragement of the miraculous works of the Holy Spirit. That’s what I’ve written some of the things that I have.
In general most Reformed people do not hold the position you do as a continuationist. Why do you feel that most Reformed believers are cessationists?
I am not sure that we know what most “Reformed believers” hold. I know what a number of professors at Reformed seminaries hold but that may not be representative of what is actually going on. I just want to say that as a qualification.
The dominant literature coming out of Reformed presses and Reformed seminary professors has been more cessationist I think. I think that’s a fair characterization.
Would you be willing to suggest some reasons why that would be?
[Laughs] You want me to answer, really, don’t you?
The most basic reason, and one which I think everyone can agree on, is a desire to protect the unique authority of the Bible and to protect the closed canon and not to have anything compete with Scripture in authority in our lives. That’s a fundamental, deep concern among cessationists and I affirm that concern and I think it’s very important to maintain it in the church.
I think it is somewhat of a historical aberration that cessationism - that the leaders of the Reformed movement have been cessationist. This was certainly not true in the seventeenth century among Puritans in
Packer knows the Puritans well. You also have this article in the Westminster Confession of Faith saying that the Westminster Assembly recognized different views of prophecy. Byron Curtis, who had this article in the Westminster Journal saying that the phrase “private spirit” in the Westminster Confession (110) means “private revelations of the Holy Spirit - personal revelations of the Holy Spirit” and it puts it in the same category as decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers and doctrines of men. These are all to be examined and attested by Scripture. So Curtis argues (there’s been an answer to him in the Westminster Journal, but I don’t think it’s been an adequate one), and I think Curtis is right that the Westminster Confession itself allows for this and says it has to be subject to Scripture.
So I think we have in the twentieth century a historical aberration not essential to Reformed theology that cessationism has become the dominant view. It may be a legacy from B.B. Warfield and the respect with which people held Warfield. Warfield was responding to Roman Catholicism and their claims for the validity of their doctrines based on appeals to miracles and Warfield was trying to discredit that. I don’t know what Warfield would say about the modern charismatic movement but that isn’t what was in his view at the time.
To be honest, Tim, the early beginnings of Pentecostalism in the
And honestly, I think that people who tend to gravitate towards a position of leadership in denominations that are highly doctrinally self-conscious tend to be people for whom doctrinal precision and analysis is of very high value. And their ministries naturally gravitate towards being very clergy-oriented and very oriented towards the ordained clergy and the means of grace - the administration of the sacraments, the preaching of the Word, discipline - these are all clergy-run means of grace. And so we are coming out of a heritage of the neglect of the importance of ordinary lay people ministering to one another in small groups and home fellowship groups and things like that - in prayer and personal words of counsel and encouragement and exhortation - that just wasn’t a strong suit among many of our Reformed forbearers in the last century. And so when something comes along that has strong lay emphasis, an emphasis on lay ministry, and it wasn’t anything that was printed in the bulletin that was going to happen that week, it seems like things are not done decently and in good order. Then it begins to find reasons to criticize.
When you discuss these issues with cessationists, what do you feel is the single greatest misunderstanding of charismatics by cessationists? This is your opportunity to get that one thing off your chest.
I don’t know that anything comes to mind. I have lived and worked and fellowshipped in so many contexts and have been able to be thankful for so many different contexts. To give you two examples, my son Elliot, was just six weeks ago ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America in
I would say that it is too easy to have in mind a mental picture of a caricatured episode that has been on television. If cessationists would actually attend some worship services or prayer meetings in more responsible Vineyard churches or Foursquare Churches or Assemblies of God churches or independent charismatic churches, I think they would be surprised how strong people’s love for God is, and love for His Word, and desire to be subject to His Word, and not to teach or do anything that would be wrong, and how much real ministry and real healing in people’s lives (I don’t mean just physical healing, but emotional and relational and spiritual healing) is going on and how much zeal for the lost, how much evangelism, how much care for the poor, how much actual carrying out the work of the kingdom is being done in these charismatic, Pentecostal and Third Wave churches. It’s marvelous. It’s wonderful and I think we need to be aware of the good examples of it of which there are tens of thousands and then be thankful for them.
Let me turn to a couple of questions that I know are of concern to cessationists, that they routinely bring up as concerns about continuationist theology. The first of these is: if we grant the existence of non-authoritative prophecy, does not such a position weaken the argument for the sufficiency and authority of Scripture? In other words, does the existence of non-authoritative prophecy weaken our claims for the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture?
I would restate that question by saying, if we say that God works through means other than Scripture, doesn’t that weaken our authority for Scripture? I would answer, no, these are things other than Scripture. If, for instance, we say that God works through the advice of friends or the wise counsel of a pastor or elder, doesn’t that weaken the authority of Scripture? It doesn’t, because it is a different category of thing. It is something we think is used by God and through which God can work, and our strong belief in the Sovereignty of God would encourage us to think that, but it comes with human authority but not with absolute divine authority. Whatever people would say about prophecy I would say, what about advice from friends and counsel from friends? How do you understand that? Same thing. Can’t God work through that? Sure. Well, can’t God work through prophecy? What’s the difference? I don’t see that it is a qualitatively different thing. In fact I think the Westminster Confession of faith, chapter 1, paragraph 10, hints at the fact that we should put these in a similar category. So no, I don’t think so.
Can there be mistakes that lay people make? Sure, but those aren’t the responsible leaders that we should quote. I can quote from any movement mistakes of irresponsible lay persons.
Probably the most common critique of continuationist theology by cessationists is that it relies too heavily on experience. Cessationists often claim that continuationists allow experience to drive their hermeneutic. How do you answer that?
Doctrinal disputes should be settled by appeal to Scripture. Experience is not our final authority - Scripture is. But the Scripture talks about these spiritual gifts quite openly and honestly and frequently and talks about them in the context of the New Testament church and I think they’re part of the church age.
Is it possible to believe in a continuationist position without having experienced any of the gifts?
I encounter students and pastors all the time who say “I’m not persuaded by the cessationist arguments from Scripture but I’ve never seen any of these miraculous things in my life.” That is the most common comment that I hear about these things from people who are in mainstream Evangelical positions. And over the years as I’ve taught not only here at Phoenix Seminary but at other seminaries - adjunct at other seminaries - by far the most common view expressed among seminary graduates is open but cautious. They say “I’m not convinced by the cessationist arguments but I really don’t know how to put these things into practice in my own church and I’ve never seen them happen.” Tim, the cessationist argument is not winning the day in terms of exegetical arguments or persuasiveness in the books published. I think it’s appealing to a smaller and smaller group of people.
Are you aware of this book, Miraculous Gifts for Today: Four Views that I published from Zondervan?
Yes, though I just received it a couple of days ago.
A mature, widely-respected Evangelical leader in
So you feel that it is a caricature that the cessationists have Scripture and the continuationists rely on experience.
Yes. You know, Jack Deere in his book Surprised by the Power of the Spirit - do you know this book, published by Zondervan?
I know of it, though I haven’t read it.
His argument is that the primary reason why cessationists hold their view is experience. That is, he says, they haven’t experienced any of these miraculous gifts and so they construct a theology to justify it. He was a highly-respected Hebrew and Old Testament professor at Dallas Seminary promoting a cessationist view.
So he would say that the lack of experience is as much an argument from experience as actually having had the experience?
Yes. I think that’s an excellent book, actually. I agree with ninety-eight percent of it. He has some little thing about apostles that I don’t agree with but otherwise I think it’s an excellent book.
One more question that a cessationist might have has to do with prophecy, as you might expect, and the fallibility of prophecy. If God grants prophecy today, why is it so frequently misunderstood? Continuationists will often explain that the details of prophecy do not work out perfectly perhaps due to human weakness or sin. Since God can make Himself clear, and usually did so in the Bible, why doesn’t He do so today?
He chose to work thought imperfect means.
And you’d say in Scripture He did not?
Scripture is unique. He worked in a way that is inerrant and absolutely authoritative. But, throughout the whole history of the canon, from Adam and Eve to the book of Revelation you have a story of God interacting personally with individual people. The cessationist view wants to tell us that this doesn’t happen anymore today, and I don’t feel that’s right. I should say, interacting personally with individual people in ways that are distinct from the canonical words of Scripture which they had at the time. It is God speaking to individual people. In spite of the fact that the Bible is full of those hundreds and hundreds of examples, now cessationists come along and say, “Sorry, God doesn’t do that today. He did that throughout the whole history of the Bible but He doesn’t do that today.” That is relating directly to specific people other than through the written words of the canon that they had at that time.
Do you believe that the way God spoke to people in Old Testament times, say, for example, the way God spoke to Abraham, is that consistent with the way God speaks to us today? How would God have spoken to Abraham?
The way God speaks to people can vary widely in biblical times and it can today as well. Going back to “why does God speak to us in ways that are fallible,” I would say the same question can be asked of many other things. Why does God work through evangelists who are imperfect? Why does God work through pastors who work through imperfect sermons? Why does God work through Sunday school teachers who say things imperfectly? Why does God work through the advice of friends, some of whom make mistakes? God works in this age through imperfect people. That’s his normal manner of working. And to object to something by saying, “How can God work through this if it’s imperfect?” is just denying the entire way God works through people…
I think the argument would be not that God works but that He speaks. The trouble people have is in an imperfect word of God.
Doesn’t God speak through Sunday school teachers that are imperfect? Does He speak through personal counsel and advice that is imperfect? What’s the difference?
I really enjoy getting into this discussion when I get into it.
I’m sure you do!
I’ve been away from it. I’ve been into Bible translation and manhood and womanhood and I’m on rich and poor nations and I’ve forgotten about all this.
Let me turn to the future to cessationist/continuationist relations. In the last few months I think we’ve seen some interesting developments between continuationists and cessationists. John MacArthur invited C.J. Mahaney to preach from his pulpit and there’s also the Together for the Gospel conference that is coming up. Do you feel that these developments might just herald a new day for cessationist/continuationist relations?
I hope so. I see these as outworking of the pastoral and church level the kinds of interaction and mutual appreciation that I’ve seen for the last twenty years in the academic world.
Is it feasible or even desirable for cessationists and continuationists to come together to worship as members of the same church or denomination or is this too big an issue?
No trouble with that?
No. I pose an interesting hypothetical question at the end of this book, Are Miraculous Gifts For Today: Four Views. The very last segment of the book is my reflection on spending two days of conversations with the other four authors, Richard Gaffin, the cessationist, Robert Saucy, from Talbot, the open but cautious, Sam Storms being a Vineyard or Third Wave person, and Doug Oss from the Assemblies of God, and me. After everyone wrote their essays we met in a hotel conference room in
I’ve been in a Vineyard church, I was about five years in a Vineyard church; I did a pastoral internship while I was at Westminster Seminary in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church - loved the people there and am thankful for the church; have been an elder of a Southern Baptist Church; now I’m at a Bible church. Wherever you go you find people, ordinary Christians, who love the Lord and they love His Word and if you can show things to them in the Bible they believe it and they try to follow it. I think that’s a wonderful thing.
On the subject of Southern Baptists, I wondered if you had any thoughts about the new policy adopted by their mission board. I don’t know if you heard about that, but it forbids missionary candidates from speaking in tongues (update, this policy has been rescinded since the interview)
I haven’t read it so don’t want to comment. If it’s true I’d be very disappointed.
Fair enough. Let’s head towards wrapping this up. Why does God allow issues like this to exist in the church? You have to believe that He could easily clear up such issues as continuationism and cessationism. Why does He allow disputes like this to carry on?
Well, for one He wants to test our hearts and see what our attitude is towards those with which we disagree. And two, He purifies the church through controversy because our positions are then deepened and strengthened. And so through the whole history of the church the controversies over the deity of Christ, over the Trinity, the great Reformation controversies over justification, the controversy in the church in our generation over inerrancy, controversy over men and women in the church, controversy over spiritual gifts - everybody changes. In recent controversy everyone has changed somewhat. But they come to a more nuanced, more refined, more accurate position and then they hold firm. That is happening in the controversy over manhood and womanhood issues and we have more openness to and appreciation of the valuable ministries of women in the church, yet the church is not going to go in an egalitarian position. Ultimately, the vast majority of God’s people are going to have churches where only men are elders.
So you feel this is a valuable discussion and one that will end in a consensus of the church…
What happens is over time the vast majority of God’s people come to the right decision. Then, like the Arians in the fourth century, or like the anti-inerrantist people in our lifetime, the people on the other side eventually are marginalized and continue but with very little impact on the church as a whole. I think that is going to happen with egalitarians in the manhood/womanhood controversy, but it is going to take some time to get worked out because the culture has such strong pressure in the other direction. I think with regards to cessationists and non-cessationists the controversy has been very healthy in a number of ways: there has been a greater appreciation of the importance of spiritual gifts and ministry by every Christian to one another; there’s been remarkable change in worship styles that I think has been very valuable and we have, in large measure, the charismatic movement to thank for that; there has been a great appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the empowering of the Holy Spirit and the validity of prayer and prayer for miracles today. On the other hand some of the abuses and mistakes of the charismatic/Pentecostal movement have been highlighted and people are trying to restrain those and refrain from making some mistakes like that. And there has been a new emphasis on the unique authority of the Bible and I’m thankful for that. So I think there’s good on both sides.
So you feel this controversy is going to end with others in the history of the church? That it will strengthen the church?
Oh yes, definitely! It already has.