Abstract: The three primary factors for the reservations are:
- “Understanding” of God’s sovereignty
- Intellectualism leading to respectability for the educated class in society
- Charismatic extremes
I. “Understanding” of God’s sovereignty
From his ivory tower at Princeton Seminary at the turn of the 20th Century, pre-eminent theologian Benjamin Warfield pronounced that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit at Pentecost “were given as signs of apostleship and limited to that foundational time period and then ceased”1. As such, following Acts God had ceased to perform miracles through disciples. If any miracles in fact took place, it was completely an act of God’s sovereign will and not at all through any human agency other than praying to God and then trusting Him. Not mentioned in the teaching of course is that cessationism provided a convenient explanation for the notable absence of miracles in the mainstream Church compared to what was recorded in the New Testament. The dearth of the miraculous was of course not attributable to any lack or shortcoming on the part of the Church, but to God’s sovereign will in decreeing its cessation.
It was considered a mark of spirituality for sick believers to cheerfully accept their infirmity (aka Paul’s thorn) as God’s sovereign will for them. God’s strength would be made perfect through their weakness. God’s grace would be sufficient for them.
II. Intellectualism & respectability for the educated class
It was not difficult for the educated class among Christians to accept the cessationist teaching of a highly-respected Ivy League professor like Benjamin Warfield whose argument in favor of the inspiration of the Scriptures and against theological liberalism had also been so welcomed and needed by the Church.1 Besides, the concept of the miraculous was not compatible with the scientific intellectualism prevailing at that time, especially among the educated classes. Miracles came to be viewed as ignorant superstitions clung to by needy, uneducated denizens of the lower class and therefore not respectable. Any reported “miracles” were assumed counterfeit. In such a way the Church at that time could lay claim to the respect of the prevailing mainstream culture.
Interestingly, in 1905-1906 while Warfield was at Princeton, the “Azusa Street Revival” exploded in Los Angeles. To make the contrast with Warfield’s ivory tower2, respectable doctrine on cessationism even more spectacular, the Revival, replete with miracles, was led by a one-eyed, tongue-speaking African-American Pentecostal named William Seymour. Wikipedia tells us:
“It began with a meeting on April 9, 1906, and continued until roughly 1915. The revival was characterized by spiritual experiences accompanied with testimonies of physical healing miracles, worship services and speaking in tongues. The participants were criticized by some secular media and Christian theologians for behaviors considered to be outrageous and unorthodox, especially at the time.”3
In retrospect—in light of the new sensitivity with regard to issues of race today in America—the relatively widespread acceptance of cessationism by the predominantly white educated class in the Church in the early 1900s might have taken on racial and class overtones with the emergence of the black, one-eyed preacher leading a Pentecostal Holiness movement in a mostly black congregation complete with miracles (God forbid) and speaking in unknown tongues (God forbid even more). Today of course such an attitude would be condemned in polite politically correct circles—at least outwardly.
But it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the attitude in the mainstream evangelical Church connecting the supernatural with “the poor and uneducated” dating back to the early 1900s continues to linger in some circles of the Church today, albeit unconsciously. The drive for respectability and approval in our human nature and culture is unquenchable.
III. Charismatic extremes (aka “charismania”)
The teaching of miraculous healings in charismatic circles today quite naturally focuses almost exclusively on healing for sick believers in the Church. Conservative evangelicals brought up in some form of cessationism likely view this basically as a selfish, me-first attitude of “what can God do for me?” Indeed, in line with this view, the miraculous healings as recorded in the gospels and Acts were predominantly not for the benefit of believers, but primarily to draw unbelievers to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The purpose of some charismatic “Healing Services” is not only to bring miraculous healing to infirm believers, but also to line the pockets of the Healing Evangelist to whom grateful healed believers will give generous offerings, perhaps also to “seal their healing” as well. This practice is in line with the prosperity and “give and it will be given unto you” teaching which most evangelicals find distasteful. Moreover, in such meetings supernatural manifestations like the appearance of gold dust and gold teeth might occur. Such manifestations are not found in Scripture and therefore understandably rejected by conservative evangelicals.
The price the Church pays for rejecting the miraculous
In view of the above considerations, it is not at all surprising that conservative evangelicals have “thrown out the baby with the bathwater.” They have rejected the supernatural altogether—sadly hindering the advance of the gospel being presented to resistant people groups in the Third World by the struggling missionaries they send. Generally speaking, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, idol-worshipers, and those who have faith in witchcraft all believe in the supernatural. Before they can believe in Jesus Christ, they often need to witness supernatural evidence in the form of compelling miracles which they have never before experienced. Such miracles are the proof that Jesus Christ is in fact the Messiah—and that our God, our Father in heaven, is greater than all their gods.
John 14:11-12 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing…
But there is still hope
May evangelicals and charismatics instead focus on what they have in common—world evangelization and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Let us forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead by employing the miraculous for the primary purpose for which it is given: as irrefutable and compelling evidence to the lost that Jesus is the Messiah and the only way to the Father in heaven. Cessationism makes no sense in the huge swaths of our planet blanketed by Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, idol-worship and witchcraft in regions where the gospel of Jesus Christ has never been heard. Such regions bear striking resemblance to the Mediterranean world of the First Century AD inhabited by Gentiles worshiping Greek and Roman gods and who had never heard the gospel. It was throughout that First Century world that powerful miracles at the hands of the early disciples helped the gospel to spread rapidly within a few generations. The Church can witness an even greater spread of the gospel now during these Last Days for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
- As one who was born and raised in the Princeton area, I can say that there is indeed lush ivy adorning many of the buildings on the University campus.