Protestants today find themselves polarized over the issue of the spiritual gifts. The charismatic movement has made inroads within the Protestant church, affirming that God pours out a full range of spiritual gifts that include speaking in tongues (a heavenly language), healing, and the offices of apostle and prophet.
Other Protestants have declined to believe that all spiritual gifts continue today, arguing that the spirit gave certain gifts during the early church to establish it (namely, apostles, prophets, tongues, and healing). Still others believe in the continuation of all gifts but in less potent forms.
So what should we think about these matters? Well, it’s impossible to provide a thorough discussion here. But I would like to highlight the argument of John Calvin, the sixteenth century genevan Reformer.
In his study of Ephesians 4:11, Calvin calls evangelists and pastors part of the “ordinary office in the church” (1056, §4.3.4). In contrast, apostles and prophets are extraordinary offices. Calvin explains further, “the Lord raised up the first three [apostles, prophets, and evangelists] at the beginning of his Kingdom, and now and again revives them as the need of the times demands” (1056, §4.3.4).
For Calvin, God specially gifted the church with apostles, prophets, and evangelists at its foundation. And from time to time, God revives these offices when the need arises. In his day, Calvin perceives God as reviving the role of apostle (or perhaps evangelist). We know this because he indirectly calls Martin Luther an apostle: “Still, I do not deny that the Lord has sometimes at a later period raised up apostles, or at least evangelists in their place, as has happened in our own day” (1057, §4.3.4)
Yet these extraordinary offices are not the norm. They are exceptional and for special occasions (e.g., like the Reformation or at the foundation of the church). The regular offices, pastors and teachers, are offices that “the church can never go without” (1057, §4.3.4).
Someone once told me about the idea of centrifugal cessationism (CC),* and I think this idea captures what Calvin is saying. The idea behind CC is that God provides all the gifts and offices when he is doing a formative work (founding the church, some missionary activity, etc.). After the church(es) get set up in a region, then the need for the extraordinary gifts cease; and then the need for the ordinary offices becomes real for the “church can never go without” pastors and teachers. I think Calvin is saying something like this.
Calvin strikes the right balance of biblical fidelity and historical reality. In other words, the Bible does not conclusively say that God can never revive the extraordinary offices of the church for a short time. And yet: we know that many of the extraordinary offices (apostle, prophet) and gifts (e.g., healing) no longer exist.
If the gift of healing did exist as described in Scripture, then why not enter a children’s hospital and cure all and sundry? Why does this never happen? Why are healings either obviously accomplished by prayer and God’s mighty hand or not miraculous healings at all (e.g., someone’s back pain decreased)? If they are accomplished by prayer, then God heals (and not our gifted touch, for example). If you decrease someone’s back pain but haven’t made a paraplegic walk, then how do you have the biblical gift of healing?
It seems clear that when someone claims the gift of healing, it never is as miraculous as the Bible describes the gift. And if anyone did have the gift of healing, then it would be obvious to all. They could walk into a cancer ward and discharge every patient.
In short, Calvin gives us a guide to understanding this complex and heated issue. And I think we should at least consider what he has to say to help us understand the world that we live in today. After all, that’s one reason why history is so important: it teaches us to live virtuously in the present.
*I think it was called centrifugal cessationism. If I am wrong, the idea that I am explaining still represents the idea.
Seth Stiles says
I live and minister down here in the deep south of Louisiana where this issue is huge! I think this CC might just be the best position out there considering all the data and arguments.
Seth Stiles says
This needs to be re-published on the Gospel Coalition website. A great position – CC.
Thanks! Maybe I can expand the article and release at TGC.
Hi! I am writing an undergraduate essay on cessationism. While staying open to the idea of cessationism I have been quite amazed by the amounts of cessationists making claims based on emotions and experience without feeling the need for backing these claims up:
‘And yet: we know that many of the extraordinary offices (apostle, prophet) and gifts (e.g., healing) no longer exist.’
Where are your Scriptural arguments? And why do you rely more on evidence than on the word of God? If the church stopped practising morality, would you then conclude that the gift of self-control had ceased? Anyways, I know this article is about Calvin and not meant to be a defence of cessationism, but I would really recommend reading: ‘On the cessation of the Charismata’ by Jon Ruthven.
All this being said, I really respect Calvin for taking up the fight against people who claimed spiritual authority on the basis of the miraculous.
I think that for the cessationist (at least for this one) “normative” is a key term. Sign gifts, or miracles, which serve a much more critical purpose than the sake of the beneficiary, are not normative. In fact, on the scale of all God’s people, OT or new, they’ve never been, which is a direct corollary to their purpose as sign gifts. The same God Who parted the Red Sea is the same God Who raised Lazarus from the dead, and He performed neither miracle for the purpose of doing something nice; instead He did so for a larger plan, namely His own glory. I take this argument to be reasoning from Scripture and not emotionally based, as I take Calvin’s.
I have traveled the world for many years in ministry. I have seen hundreds healed and probably over 2000 deliverances. I think American theology is based on text books instead of an open reality of the continuation of the Holy Spirits power for today. China alone attributes up to half of its family conversions due to someone in the family receiving healing or deliverance. Also, when someone sites evidence to this, they are mocked and ridiculed by many modern day theologians.
1 Cor 1:7 says it best in Greek. “You will lack no charisma gift until the return of Christ!”
Christian Chidester says
The way you translated the greek is close but it is off. It should be “So that none of you will be lacking any gift as you are awaiting for the revelation (apocalypse) of Christ. The word charismati is used for more than just spiritual gifts.
John Calvin is totally wrong on his views on healing,signs and.wonders. these have not ceases. In the book of Revelation it is mentioned that the 2 witness will perform signs and wonders . So gifts has not ceased.it will cease when Jesus returns.
Alex Kearney says
Where does the Bible say that certain spiritual gifts are only active when there is missional activity? This CC approach seems to undermine the sufficiency of Scripture.
Cessationism, with all its various strains, is simply a refusal to take the Bible for what it blatantly says about the continuation of the gifts.
paul kinney says
I have studied the spiritual gifts quite a bit. I like this thought process, we do not know God’s plan for this world, or at least I do not know. I have notice in Joel and Revelation the reoccurrence of signs and wonders in the future. Seems logical we should not put limits on God’s authority. However unity should be focus.
I am a Continualist, I believe in the gifts of the spirit because I have experienced the Lord in powerful life changing ways. My salvation experience was this way. I so appreciate this article and the discussions in the comment section. I think this article is emotions based though when it comes to the arguments against the gifts. I don’t mean Calvin but Wyatt, if someone had the gifts of healing he couldn’t go clear out the Hospitals. Doesn’t work that way. Healing is of God and God decides who gets healed. The objective of the gift of healing wouldn’t be rid the world of sicknesses but to bring glory to God and as a sign to show God’s love and bring people to salvation. Jesus didn’t heal unbelievers, so it wouldn’t make sense to walk into a hospital and clear it out at will.
Also Man does not decide who gets saved or healed. It’s all of God and for His glory alone.
I greatly appreciated this article.
It helps the first couple of statements and esp the quotes by Calvin.
However one huge issue I would draw an arrow to is: healing gift was discussed and the common rebuttal was issued, “why then not enter a cancer ward and heal everyone?”
I’ll answer that simply by pointing to scripture and asking, Show where the apostles healed everyone person? Yes there were many healings as the gift reveals that God is with the one whom God heals through their faith and service. Yes, many times people in droves were brought to a couple of people and we see several being healed …..yet, why didn’t they simply go into leper colonies and simply heal every single person? That question asked as rebuttal ought to be applied to even the biblical evidences of God healing through those whom He gives (gave) that gift.
And Lastly, Paul the apostle in 1 Corinthians 1:7 clearly says that “ Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly await the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
That says a lot folks. And thank you for this helpful approach to Calvin’s more probable position. I have found Calvin to be a wonderful godly man who God poured out wisdom and gifts upon in his ministry. May God bless you indeed and move us all in great perfect unity in Christ as He does come soon!