Can the Chasm Between Charismatics and Cessationists Be Bridged? Scholars, Pastors Weigh In

Of all the theological squabbles that have plagued evangelical Christianity over the years, especially in the West, a particularly profound division centers on the power of the Holy Spirit and the ways in which He is at work today.

Charismatics and noncharismatics who spoke with The Christian Post all concurred that steps can be taken toward mending this division, even as differences remain.

Those who believe that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit — such as prophecy, tongues, interpretation of tongues, the working of miracles, and the others listed in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 — have continued to this day, called continuationism, are often associated with Pentecostalism or the "charismatic movement," as it is often called.

Some say that at long last, Pentecostals and charismatics are finally maturing theologically, after many years of being regarded as Bible-lite emotionalists, and that the growing presence of the supernatural in Christian churches is part of a great, worldwide move of God's Spirit that is in keeping with the witness of Scripture.

Other believers are just beginning to explore the supernatural more deliberately, admitting that while they believe in the continuation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit they don't actively use them. Yet others continue to think such gifts were only intended for a specific time in biblical history and are no longer operational, a view known as cessationism.

Grappling With the 'Sufficiency of Scripture'

For the perspective of one such cessationist, CP reached out to Eric Bargerhuff, a professor of theology at Trinity College in Florida and author of the book, The Most Misused Stories in The Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories Are Misunderstood.

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(Photo: Courtesy of Baker Publishing)Eric J. Bargerhuff, author of The Most Misused Stories in The Bible.

Despite the deep divide in the Body of Christ over this topic, Bargerhuff said he believes some progress can be made when asked how continuationists and cessationists might get over their differences, particularly when their beliefs have significant implications for what ministry looks like.

Finding a mutually understood language is critical, he says.

"Often times the debate is fueled by people who are talking past each other by using common terminology with differing definitions," explains Bargerhuff, a Reformed Baptist who studied under Reformed theologian Wayne Grudem, a continuationist.

"Similarly, others may be saying the same thing but are using different phrases. For example, one may say 'supernatural gifts of knowledge,' whereas someone else may use the idea of 'the gift of discernment,' though they are intending to say the same thing."

Bargerhuff further stressed that the conversation can be assisted by each side discussing what they mean by "sufficiency of Scripture," and the role that experience has in the entire debate. He said he's often heard people say they used to believe something about God's Word until they had a particular experience and then read that experience back into the Scriptures to justify its validity.

"The role of experience must be clearly defined and put in its proper place. Scripture interprets experience, not the other way around," he said. 

Bargerhuff added that extremes on either side are unhealthy, such as when continuationists present themselves as "more spiritual" or at the very least "a higher class of Christian" than those who have not experienced the same things they claim to have experienced; or by contrast, when cessationists minimize the "affectionate side of Christianity" and make it "into an academic, cold, intellectual exercise."

"Therefore, mutual humility, an agreed upon vocabulary, a commitment to the centrality of the Gospel and first order doctrines, a willingness to test our convictions and experiences through the sound exegetical practices, and a deep commitment to unity are key components of working together," he said.

"It is very possible that our differences may continue to keep some Christians from working intimately together on some ministry projects, but the overall ability to agree together on the essentials of the faith must be a stronger chord that keeps us together on mission."

When Pentecostals, Charismatics Fail

Michael Brown, a messianic Jewish scholar, charismatic theologian and host of the Line of Fire radio program, told CP that "the charismatic movement has done a poor job of policing itself. There's really no question about that."

"And so our critics have had a field day."

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Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University and has served as a professor at a number of seminaries. He is the author of 25 books and hosts the nationally syndicated, daily talk radio show, the Line of Fire.

But those critics have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, he insists, noting that whenever God restores something important to the Church, such as the doctrine of justification in Martin Luther's day — which was not a new revelation but a truth that had been buried and lost under many layers of tradition — such recoveries are never smooth transitions.

Brown is also the author of the upcoming book, Playing with Holy Fire: A Wake-Up Call to the Pentecostal-Charismatic ChurchIn it he chastises Pentecostal and charismatic churches for their spiritual gullibility, sexual sin in leadership, misuse of finances, doctrinal error, personal flakiness, and misuse of "prophetic" utterances, even as he maintains that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for today.

"If you look through Church history in the centuries before that there was still prophecy, there were still healings, there were people being delivered from demons. So this whole idea that it all stopped at a certain point, be it the death of the Apostles or the completion of the canon [of Scripture], is a complete historical fiction," Brown said, referencing Asbury scholar Craig Keener's two-volume work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, in which Keener highlights how rationalist philosophy influenced subsequent generations of Christians regarding the supernatural.

He explained that Augustine once believed that the death of the last Apostle meant the end of miracles but ultimately came to reject that view.

"It is true that with Augustine that the gifts of the Spirit were normative in New Testament times and then in less than a two-year period they recorded more than 70 miraculous healings and he said there were miracles just like they saw in the New Testament. So in City of God, his definitive work, he absolutely reiterates those things," Brown said.

"As God continues to do what He has always done but in greater intensity and in measure in these days then we're recognizing that, OK, the Spirit continues to do these things based on Scripture. And to me, that's always the test: 1) look at the Word, 2) go from the Word to the experience and then look at history, but always first and foremost look at the Word," Brown said.

He went on to stress that what is key is that followers of Jesus believe in "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not Father, Son, and Holy Bible."

"And when we speak of the sufficiency of Scripture we don't mean that we have a relationship with the Bible. We mean that God's Word is His one and only Word — that there is only one Bible and that nothing else can be called Scripture or claim to be the Word of God for all people."

Yet that Word does not tell us every experience we will or will not have, or how you meet with God in personal prayer, Brown said.

"What if you feel your heart burning?" he asked, referencing Cleopas and the words said on the road of Emmaus in Luke 24.

The questions that should be asked when engaging spiritual experiences, Brown insists, are, 'Is it God or not?' Is it contrary to Scripture? Is it in harmony with the larger testimony of Scripture? What kind of fruit does it bear?"

"So we use the creedal test and the moral test — what does it teach and what kind of fruit does it produce — and based on that we come to our respective conclusions," he explained.


Addressing Excesses, Serving the Whole Church

Author Jennifer Eivaz, whom CP interviewed in November about her book, Seeing the Supernatural: How to Sense, Discern and Battle in the Spiritual Realm, concurs that it's incumbent on believers who do believe in the continuation of the gifts and operate in them to recognize the places where theological messes have been made, and have the self-awareness and humility to repent.

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(Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Eivaz)Jennifer Eivaz, author of Seeing the Supernatural: How to Sense, Discern and Battle in the Spiritual Realm.

"There have always been excesses with every movement [of the Spirit]," Eivaz said, mentioning the Azusa Street revival in 1906, long considered the birth of Pentecostalism in United States, where the gift of prophecy was notoriously abused.

"But we have to have a lot of humility; we have to be willing to say we're sorry," when people have been wounded by those excesses, she added.

When it comes to the gifts of the Spirit, remaining teachable and child-like is key, and maturity comes when you think about people, knowing their hearts and how they feel when we do mess up, "because we will mess up," she said.

Eivaz is based in Turlock, California, and her city is packed with churches, many of which in the past few decades were hostile to all things charismatic, she noted. But as her church, Harvest Christian Center — a "charismatic renewal" congregation she calls it — has sown into the city and served faithfully, relationships have been built and trust has been gained where fear once reigned. Today, she and her husband teach and equip spritually hungry Christians who hail from a variety of denominations how to move in the gifts of the Spirit with integrity. 

She emphasizes that ministering in the supernatural is fundamentally about pointing people to Jesus, not the gifts themselves.

"And we do not ask them to come to our church, we're not trying to offload anybody or tell them 'If you don't have the 'fire' of God in your church you should not be there.' We don't say that. I don't agree with that at all."

She made a point to mention that lately she has been studying the impact of stoicism on how Christians interact with God. When encumbered with a stoic mindset, spiritual experiences where people feel things tangibly, even feeling something as good and pure as God's love, are immediately viewed as suspect and unreasonable, and therefore should not be trusted. Such an approach shuts down the pathway to how the Holy Spirit might be communicating with people, she said.

"Acts Chapter 2 says that we are going to prophesy and going to have dreams. In other words, you get a set of eyes from the Holy Spirit that are distinctly spiritual. But too often people want to limit what you are and are not allowed to see according to their own comfort level."

Churches will often shut down supernatural-oriented themes because they have a very narrow view of how they think God can and should speak, she went on to say; the flip side is that some charismatics regrettably lack the discernment necessary to know when something is indeed outside of biblical boundaries.

'Functional Cessationists' Start Exploring the Supernatural

Meanwhile, the Reformed and other camps are somewhat divided on the issue. While some are admitting that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are indeed for today, they do not really know what to do about it practically and want to learn more.

Writing on the popular website Desiring God in October, Jason Meyer, pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church and associate professor of Preaching at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, outlined his "Confessions of Functional Cessationist." While he believes theoretically that the Holy Spirit's gifts have continued to the present, a "gap between theory and practice pricks my conscience."

Meyer argued that the passage most often employed by cessationists in defense of their stance, 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which speaks of tongues, prophecies, and knowledge passing away "when the perfect comes" is a reference to the return of Christ, not the closing of the biblical canon.

"I have said things like 'I am open, but cautious' when it comes to sign gifts like prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. That statement about caution rightly stresses the need to "test everything" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Every experience must be examined by the searchlight of Scripture," he wrote.

But instead of "open, but cautious," Meyer noted that all too often he is "open, but overly suspicious," and has discovered that Scripture also tests our attitudes in addition to experiences.

"It was a little shocking to see how much my attitude is actually rebuked by Scripture. Paul commands Christians, 'Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts' (1 Corinthians 14:1). He characterizes the Corinthians as 'eager for manifestations of the Spirit.'"

Meyer tells his cessationist friends that a day is coming when he, too, will be a cessationist: "the second coming."

Yet something else might be driving greater cooperation and conversation between continuationists and cessationists.

Brown told CP that the increasing visibility and overt presence of the demonic in popular culture will precipitate an even greater awareness of the reality of the spiritual realm. He has personally met people who were not even Christians who, after encountering the overwhelming darkness of the occult, said it was so intense and devastating they knew there had to be a God.

"But I also find it interesting that when [Christian] people begin experiencing these powerful demonic strongholds, and people have to deal with it in real life, they come to the charismatics for help."

Such people often soon reconsider their cessationist views, he said, maintaining that Pentecostals have matured significantly in recent decades.

"And if you go back 50 years, we didn't have the wealth of fine biblical scholars, theologians, apologists, and philosophers, who today, are charismatic."

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