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No issue has been more controversial among Protestants in the past 40 years than the charismatic gifts and the role of miracles in the post-apostolic age. The issue was controversial in previous eras of Protestant history, too, although theological lines were not usually drawn as hard and fast as they are between “cessationists” and “continuationists” today.

In the 1700s and 1800s, suspicion of claimed miracles was connected to anti-Catholicism. Protestant critics saw the Catholic tradition as riddled with fake claims of miracles. Ridiculing the fake miracle claims of Catholics (such as icons bleeding a liquid that turned out to be cherry juice) became a staple of Reformed polemics against the Catholic Church. So when seemingly miraculous events happened in Protestant churches, even sympathetic observers warned against the threat of bogus miracles.

I wrote about this problem in a 2006 article [JSTOR subscription] concerning the healing of a woman named Mercy Wheeler during the Great Awakening of the 1740s. Wheeler had been unable to walk for years because of a childhood ailment, but during a revival meeting she came to believe that Jesus intended to heal her. Suddenly she was able to walk, and she apparently retained this ability for many decades afterward. Wheeler’s evangelical defenders

wanted to make room for what they viewed as dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, yet cessationism was so deeply rooted that evangelicals struggled with how not to call such astonishing experiences miracles. To eighteenth-century Protestants, miracles were too closely associated with Catholicism, and anti-Catholicism served as an essential component of British Protestant identity. Opponents of the revivals attempted to associate the revivals with Catholic superstition whenever extraordinary claims surfaced. For New Englanders no worse aspersion could be cast on the revivals than to associate them with Catholic supernaturalism and gullibility. Some moderate defenders of the revivals, such as Jonathan Edwards, struggled to avoid mentioning the miraculous though they conceded that dramatic bodily effects such as trances, fits, and even instant healings might represent the work of the Spirit.

George Whitefield and his defenders emphasized that, despite his great spiritual gifts, he claimed no apostolic or miraculous powers. In a 1740 letter to the bishop of London, for instance, Whitefield insisted that he claimed no access to “extraordinary operations” of the Holy Spirit such as “working Miracles or speaking with Tongues.” He stated baldly, “I am no Enthusiast.” Josiah Smith, pastor in Charleston and Whitefield’s chief defender in South Carolina, picked up on this disavowal in his frequently printed The Character, Preaching, &c., of the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, assuring readers that Whitefield “renounc’d all Pretensions to the extraordinary Powers & Signs of Apostleship, Gifts of Healing, Speaking with Tongues, the Faith of Miracles; Things peculiar to the Ages of Inspiration, and extinct with them.”

More than a century later, Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology (1872-1873) expressed an openness to post-apostolic miracles, but he still was concerned about the “pious frauds” that he saw as the enduring shame of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Hodge saw no reason to adopt hard-and-fast cessationism.

There is nothing in the New Testament inconsistent with the occurrence of miracles in the post-apostolic age of the Church. The Apostles were indeed chosen to be the witnesses of Christ, to bear testimony to the facts of his history and to the doctrines which He taught. And among the signs of an Apostle, or necessary credentials of his commission, was the power to work miracles. (Rom. 15:18-19; II Cor. 12: 12)

When the Apostles had finished their work, the necessity of miracles, so far as the great end they were intended to accomplish was concerned, ceased. This, however, does not preclude the possibility of their occurrence, on suitable occasions, in after ages. It is a mere question of fact to be decided on historical evidence. In some few cases the nature of the event, its consequences, and the testimony in its support, have constrained many Protestants to admit the probability, if not the certainty of these miraculous interventions.

Although many Reformed Protestants want to maintain clarity about the theological distinctions between Catholics and Protestants, we live in an era of much less intense anti-Catholic sentiment among most conservative Protestants. Our suspicion of claimed miracles now focuses on TV preachers like Benny Hinn and the peddlers of the prosperity “gospel.” But the point remains that we should shape our theology not primarily with reference to fears over the abuses and excesses of others, but fundamentally by reference to Scripture.

The mere experience or observation of charismatic gifts or healings cannot be the arbiter of biblical truth, either. But it is one thing to concede (with Hodge) that miracles or the exercise of the charismatic gifts might happen in the post-apostolic age, and another to practice such gifts in full accord with the spirit and letter of biblical guidelines. One might concede the possibility of the continuing operation of the gifts and still be a “functional cessationist,” as Jason Meyer recently put it at Desiring God. As Meyer notes, such a cautious approach does not really comport with being “eager for manifestations of the Spirit" (1 Cor. 14:12).

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10 thoughts on “A Brief History of Cessationism”

  1. Drew Waller says:

    Dr. Kidd,
    Thanks for this article and also for your Whitefield biography– it was essential reading in the writing of my master’s thesis on Whitefield. I focused on Whitefield’s apostolic ambitions and I think it is interesting how he often straddled the fence– publicly decrying enthusiast and those who criticized him for playing the apostle, and yet still stoking apostolic expectations by drawing parallels between his own ministry and that of the Apostles of the early church. Thanks again for all you are doing for evangelical scholarship!

  2. Robert Webster says:

    Very nicely done Thomas but let us not forget that when Bishop Butler dealt with this issue in regard to the Methodists and John Wesley and declared the pretending to spiritual gifts = read enthusiasm, JW’s response was that he encouraged not an elite form of spirituality but asserted what the Methodists had experienced all Christians could experience.

  3. Jeff Rickel says:

    Super article. I feel wierd telling God what he can and cannot do barring strong Biblical evidence, and teachers need to be cautious when doing the same. We need to teach the Bible, and be cautious if what we teach contradicts any scripture, even if it is addressing excesses or seems to fit a particular passage. We shouldn’t tell God He can’t, and we should be careful when we tell people God won’t ever. Again great article.

    1 Corinthians 12: 11
    All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

  4. Jeff Rickel says:

    1 Corinthians 12:11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
    Great article and good points. We shouldn’t be telling God he can’t do something, and should be very careful telling people God won’t ever without strong Biblical support, even to try to put a particular verse or passage in context.

  5. What you’ve written reminds of this (long) quote from A.W. Tozer concerning the Holy Spirit and His gifts:
    “This is a crude illustration, but let me tell you what we did after planting a field of corn when I was a young fellow in Pennsylvania. To save the field of corn from the crows, we would shoot an old crow and hang him by his heels in the middle of the field. This was supposed to scare off all of the crows for miles around. The crows would hold a conference and say, ‘Look, there is a field of corn but don’t go near it. I saw a dead crow over there!'”

    “That’s the kind of conference that Satan calls, and that is exactly what he has done. He has taken some fanatical, weird, wild-eyed Christians who do things that they shouldn’t, and he has stationed them in the middle of God’s cornfield, and warns, ‘Now, don’t you go near that doctrine about the Holy Spirit because if you do, you will act just like these wild-eyed fanatics.'”

  6. Robert Webster says:

    This is a helpful and good post. I would add that we need to take a closer look into John Wesley and his Methodist followers in the eighteenth century. It is true that Wesley stood with some distance from enthusiastic groups like the French Prophets and other disputations with his followers in the Perfectionist Controversies in the 1760s. On the other side of coin, however, I would point out that when Bishop Butler summoned John Wesley to give account of the enthusiastic demonstrations of the Spirit in the open fields, like Whitefield and himself and himself had experienced and that the pretending to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was a “horrid thing, a very horrid thing” Wesley simply responded that this was not a form of elitism but that it was possible for anyone to achieve the said experiences that the Methodists were experiencing.

  7. earlmaier says:

    Partial cessationism is not cessationism. This is a fact.

  8. Peter Herz says:

    In Calvin’s dedicatory epistle to King Francis I of France, which prefaces the _Institutes of the Christian Religion_, he answers the Roman Catholic charge that the Evangelicals have no miracles by noting that the Evangelical offer no new Gospel; that the New Testament miracles were to confirm the message of Christ and his apostles; and if the Evangelicals are to be refuted, a better exposition of the New Testament needs to be given. The Westminster Confession, in speaking of the authority of Scripture, notes that God’s former ways of revealing His will to His people are now ceased (perhaps this was an answer to Ranter and Quaker claims to direct communications from the Holy Spirit). These have been standard arguments of cessationists ever since. I do not believe they owe much to 18th century anti-Roman Catholic sentiment.

  9. Nick Addington says:

    This is a rather disappointing article in as far as it rightly advocates biblical authority over personal experience and church history but does not take the argument to its logical conclusion and make a biblical case for the use of gifts. It seems to me that the biblical support for a cessationist position is very weak.

  10. Jim Johnson says:

    I am not a Cessationist and have been witness to many verified unexplainable healings over the past 40 years. I am curious as to the Scriptural basis for teaching Cessationism. As I read and study Scripture, I do not see any basis to say that the work of the Holy Spirit changed after the writing of the time of the Apostles. The only Scripture I can possibly see connected to this teaching is 1 Corin. 13:7-10 8 “Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.” Taken in context, I don’t see how this says what Cessationists teach since knowledge has not vanished away. To me, “that which is perfect” is Christ, not the New Testament.
    I am sincerely interested how Cessationism is taught from Scripture. Can someone show more more from Scripture about it?

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Thomas S. Kidd, PhD

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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