More recently, John MacArthur has been a leading advocate for cessationism. MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos attempts a Biblical response to the charismatic movement, and succeeds more than most. Like Chafer, MacArthur begins his defense of a closed canon by appealing to a synthetic view of Scripture:

“When the canon closed on the Old Testament after the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, there followed four hundred “silent years” when no prophet spoke God’s revelation in any form. That silence was broken by John the Baptist as God spoke once more prior to the New Testament age. God then moved various men to record the books of the New Testament, and the last of these was Revelation….Just as the close of the Old Testament canon was followed by silence, so the close of the New Testament has been followed by the utter absence of new revelation in any form.”[1]

doveInitially, MacArthur correctly appeals to a synthetic perspective, however, unlike Chafer, he then immediately turns to the TR method of appealing to historical authority when he adds, “Since the book of Revelation was completed, no new written or verbal prophecy has ever been universally recognized by Christians as divine truth from God.”[2] The first part of his argument is textual (and objectively verifiable), but the evidence of his argument is historical and subjective. This is a specific example of how mixed methods can weaken a case. MacArthur demonstrates further admixture of the objective and subjective in order to justify his cessationism.

Introducing the topic of the cessation of tongues, MacArthur proclaims, “I am convinced by history, theology, and the Bible that tongues ceased in the apostolic age.”[3] Note the order of the evidence: history and theology (two subjective disciplines) come before the Bible (objective truth). Why? This order of priority seems a common characteristic of TR methodology. He adds, “Tongues were therefore a sign of transition between the Old and New Covenants. With the establishment of the church, a new day had dawned for the people of God…once the period of transition was past, the sign was no longer necessary.”[4] Notice the vague appeal to at least some degree of supersessionism (if tongues is no longer in play, then according to MacArthur’s assertion, the New Covenant is presently being fulfilled). To that end, MacArthur quotes reformed scholar O. Palmer Robertson to confirm that, “the transition [between Old and New Covenants] has been made.”[5] MacArthur not only finds himself on slippery methodological footing, but by this maneuver he has connected his cessationism with the full blown supersessionism that Robertson advocates!

Further, MacArthur asks the question, “What evidence is there that tongues have ceased?”[6] His answer is first theological, and then historical: “History records that tongues did cease.”[7] He adds based on the historical and theological evidence, “Thus we conclude that from the end of the apostolic era to the beginning of the twentieth century there were no genuine occurrences of the New Testament gift of tongues.”[8] In all this, he has not offered an exegetical basis for the cessation of tongues. Once again, the issue is not whether the conclusions are correct, but whether the manner in which the conclusions are derived are legitimate. Consequently, he has left the door open for historical and theological reinterpretations that would call into question his cessationist conclusion.

John Piper provides just such a reinterpretation. In a sermon on spiritual gifts, Piper notes, “I think it would be fair to say also from this text that you shouldn’t bend your mind too much trying to label your spiritual gift before you use it. That is, don’t worry about whether you can point to prophecy, or teaching, or wisdom, or knowledge, or healing, or miracles, or mercy, or administration, etc…”[9] His open-but-casual approach comes across as relevant and non-dogmatic (I think this approach is a major factor in his broad appeal). On March 5 [1984], Piper discussed a survey to determine Bethlehem’s “Charismatic Quotient,” and expressed that “Truth is not determined by counting noses…Let’s study the word together and see if our ‘Charismatic Quotient’ is too high or too low.”[10] Notice how he has apparently shifted from historic TR methodology to take a more exegetical posture. In the discussion, Piper proposes four theses on the NT gift of prophecy:

 

  1. It is still valid and useful for the church today. He asserts that this is the clear implication of 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 and Acts 2:17-18.
  2. It is a Spirit-prompted, Spirit-sustained, utterance that is rooted in a true revelation (1 Corinthians 14:30), but is fallible because the prophet’s perception of the revelation, and thinking about the revelation, and report of the revelation are all fallible. It is thus similar to the gift of teaching which is Spirit-prompted, Spirit sustained, rooted in an infallible revelation (the Bible), and yet is fallible but very useful to the church.
  3. It does not have an authority that is on a par with Scripture, for Scripture is verbally inspired, not just Spirit-prompted and Spirit-sustained. The very words of the biblical writers are the words of God (1 Corinthians 2:13; 2 Timothy 3:16). This is not true of the words that come from the “gift of prophecy.”
  4. The New Testament gift of prophecy is a “third category” of prophetic utterance between the categories of 1) verbally inspired, intrinsically authoritative, infallible speech spoken by the likes of Moses, Jesus and the apostles; and 2) the speech of false prophets spoken presumptuously, without inspiration and liable to condemnation (Deuteronomy 18:20). Those two categories (absolutely infallible vs. false) do not exhaust all the biblical teaching on prophecy.[11]

The study of the word that Piper offered turned out to be almost entirely theological rather than exegetical – none of the theses Piper proposed are exegetically defensible from the passages he cites, and he doesn’t even attempt such a defense. Granted, the context is sermonic, but much of what Piper writes is equally homiletic. Evidently, Piper does not depart from TR methodology. Instead, he re-labels it with an attractive and casual study the word tag.

As Piper discusses signs and wonders, he declares, “I am one of those Baptist General Conference people who believes that ‘signs and wonders’ and all the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are valid for today and should be ‘earnestly desired’ (1 Corinthians 14:1) for the edification of the church and the spread of the gospel… if signs and wonders were not limited in function to validating the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, but rather had a role in the edifying and evangelistic work of the church in general, then there is good reason to trust God for their proper use today.”[12] Good reason, based on what?  Piper’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 is the definitive factor in his advocating of signs and wonders for the present day church. Piper’s entire argument is worthy of reproducing here:

“So the answer to the question of when the perfect comes and when the imperfect gifts pass away is the “then” of verse 12, namely, the time of seeing “face to face” and “understanding as we are understood.” When will this happen? Both of these phrases (“seeing face to face” and “understanding as we have been understood”) are stretched beyond the breaking point if we say that they refer to the closing of the New Testament canon or the close of the apostolic age. Rather, they refer to our experience at the second coming of Jesus. Then “we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2) The phrase “face to face” in the Greek Old Testament refers to seeing God personally (Genesis 32:30; Judges 6:22). Thomas Edwards’ hundred-year-old commentary is right to say, “When the perfect is come at the advent of Christ, then the Christian will know God intuitively and directly, even as he was before known of God” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 353, italics added).

This means that verse 10 can be paraphrased, “When Christ returns, the imperfect will pass away.” And since “the imperfect” refers to spiritual gifts like prophecy and knowledge and tongues, we may paraphrase further, “When Christ returns, then prophecy and knowledge and tongues will pass away.”

Here is a definite statement about the time of the cessation of spiritual gifts, and that time is the second coming of Christ. Richard Gaffin does not do justice to the actual wording of verse 10 when he says, “The time of the cessation of prophecy and tongues is an open question so far as this passage is concerned” (Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 111). It is not an open question. Paul says, “When the perfect comes [at that time, not before or after], the imperfect [gifts like prophecy and tongues, etc.] will pass away.”

Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 teaches that such spiritual gifts will continue until the second coming of Jesus. There is no reason to exclude from this conclusion the other “imperfect” gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Since these include miracles, faith, healings, etc., with which we associate “signs and wonders”, there is clear New Testament warrant for expecting that “signs and wonders” will continue until Jesus comes.”[13]

Notice Piper’s two-pronged appeal to historical authorities (Thomas Edwards’ “hundred year old commentary”), and to English context-connecting without anything but anecdotal exegetical attention to the original languages (1 Jn 3:2 [ὅτι ὀψόμεθα αὐτὸν καθώς ἐστιν] and 1 Cor 13:12 [τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον] are not at all similar in the Greek).

By formalizing Piper’s argument, we can see that his method for handling 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 is an attempt at logic-based rather than exegetical articulation. Further, his argument is neither sound nor are the premises accurate. His argument demonstrates a core interpretive problem in the spiritual gifts debate:

P1: Both phrases (“seeing face to face” and “understanding as we have been understood”) are stretched beyond the breaking point if we say that they refer to the closing of the New Testament canon or the close of the apostolic age. [Based on what textual authority?]

P2: Then “we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2) The phrase “face to face” in the Greek Old Testament refers to seeing God personally (Genesis 32:30; Judges 6:22). [Invoking a dissimilar distant context contributes nothing to the exegesis of 1 Cor 13:12]

P3: Thomas Edwards’ hundred-year-old commentary is right to say, “When the perfect is come at the advent of Christ, then the Christian will know God intuitively and directly, even as he was before known of God” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 353, italics added). [This offers nothing objective for understanding the definition of τὸ τέλειον then. The age of Edwards or his commentary is irrelevant.]

Conclusion: Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 teaches that such spiritual gifts will continue until the second coming of Jesus.

The argument includes a series of subjective assertions and a conclusion unsupported by the premises, and hence is nothing more than a non sequitur. Yet this is the argument offered to answer the central question of when the revelatory gifts of 1 Corinthians 13 will conclude. Piper’s open-but-casual conclusion represents a dominant strand in evangelical theology. It is clear we have lost our methodological way.

Mark Driscoll, representing an emergent/reformed version of TR methodology, characterizes cessationism as “a clever way of saying we don’t need [the Holy Spirit] like we used to…that’s not true.”[14] While Driscoll is guilty here of false dichotomy, he criticizes cessationists for employing that very logical fallacy:

“And so their argument even comes down to 1st Corinthians 13 which gets turned into origami, right? When the perfect comes the imperfect disappears, we’ll see him face to face, the perfect is Jesus. The perfect is Jesus. But then what happens is, to defend this sort of modernistic rationalistic, cessationistic position, we throw up the craziest kooks in the charismatic camp and say well you don’t want that do ya? uh no, no we don’t. If it’s nothing or that it’s a real coin flip, cause neither is the real win.”[15]

Driscoll’s false dichotomy, though not as elegant as Piper’s suggestive non sequitur, is not dissimilar to Piper’s brand of non-cessationism, and is probably equally as influential.

Piper and Driscoll are only two among a host of contemporary examples illustrating the compatibility of TR methodology and open views on non-cessation. Piper and Driscoll also exemplify how present-day applications of TR methodology seem, in fact, to prefer non-cessationism, as these applications offer no means for objective grounding of cessationism.

Conclusion: As long as dispensationalism appeals to TR methodology for any of its doctrines, inconsistencies identifiable in TR eschatology and soterology will be present within dispensational thought. With respect to the cessationism debate, this means dispensationalism will have increasing difficulty in arguing against non-cessationism unless it abandons TR methodology altogether.

The example afforded by MacArthur’s soteriological and ecclesiological compatibility with TR thinking and incompatibility with Chaferian thinking underscores three key points. First, Chafer defends his views on the atonement with heavy reliance on TR thought, so when MacArthur defends his lordship, limited atonement, and cessationist views with appeals to the same authority as does Chafer, there appears little methodological difference between the two camps. Chafer builds large portions of his soteriology with TR materials, but where Chafer departs from TR thinking, MacArthur reproves Chafer with nothing more than TR ideas. The point here is that Chafer illustrates dispensationalism’s reticence to apply the same method to soteriology and ecclesiology as to eschatology, and the result is theological inconsistency.

Second, these divergences in soteriology and ecclesiology betray a splintering in dispensational thinking. MacArthur’s brand of TR soteriology and ecclesiology is a dominant strand in dispensational thought, in large part due to its historic appeal to widely appreciated TR thinking. MacArthur illustrates well the division, as he coolly rejects dispensational ideas that disagree with TR thinking, but only up to the point where there remains a distinction between Israel and the church. For some reason (indiscernible to me, since MacArthur is not grounded in a consistently literal hermeneutic), that is where MacArthur and his many followers draw the line. As lordship salvation becomes increasingly popular among younger evangelicals in general (see, New Calvinism, and the Young, Restless, Reformed), dispensationalists seem both increasingly sympathetic to lordship salvation and limited atonement, and increasingly unwilling to challenge the TR methodology that fosters these trends. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the open-but-cautious and open-but-casual views on non-cessationism are gaining traction within dispensationalism, because they are derivatives of the same methodology employed in the grounding of lordship salvation and limited atonement.

Finally, the disagreements in soteriology and ecclesiology accentuate the point that if dispensationalism is to arrive at consistency, it cannot ignore the methodological problems embedded in our theology. These soteriological and ecclesiological discussions need to be addressed and resolved with the same vigor dispensationalists have exerted in the eschatological debate. And we mustn’t stop there. Dispensationalism needs a theological enema, to rid ourselves of the methodological σκύβαλον that so heavily influences us to place dispositive emphasis on extra-biblical authorities, and proportionally derive unsound conclusions.

We must realize that Dispensationalism is not a hermeneutic, nor can it be our final loyalty; it is merely an explanatory device of Scripture rightly interpreted. As such, dispensationalism should be comprehensively distinctive, and not merely an alternate perspective in narrow strands of eschatology and ecclesiology. As dispensationalists, we argue that the Bible determines our hermeneutic – that it decisively favors the literal-grammatical-historical model. With that understanding must come a great appreciation for history and theology – and any other context that informs our understanding regarding the lives and times of the writers God used to place His words in our hands. But when those disciplines become our dominant influences over and against the text itself – as they have in the aforementioned areas of soteriology and ecclesiology – then we have lost our way.

Lordship salvation, limited atonement, and the cessationism debate serve as important case studies to illustrate that until we address these issues with at least some degree of exegetical finality, we will continue to be encumbered by an amalgamation theology that will continually seek to resolve to the dominant strand. Continued dispensational acceptance of TR methodology means continued acceptance of TR error.

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[1] John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 71-72.

[2] MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 72.

[3] MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 281.

[4] MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 282-283.

[5] MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 283.

[6] MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 282.

[7] MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 283.

[8] MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 286.

[9] John Piper, Spiritual Gifts (sermon), March 15, 1981, at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/spiritual-gifts, viewed 7/31/2013.

[10] John Piper, Testing Bethlehem’s Charismatic Quotient (sermon), March 4, 1984, at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/testing-bethlehems-charismatic-quotient, viewed 7/31/2013.

[11] John Piper, The New Testament Gift of Prophecy (sermon), March 26, 1990, at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/the-new-testament-gift-of-prophecy, viewed 7/31/2013.

[12] John Piper, Signs and Wonders: Then and Now (sermon), February 1, 1991, at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/signs-and-wonders-then-and-now, viewed 7/31/2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mark Driscoll “Don’t Elevate Doctrine above the Holy Spirit” (YouTube video) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUXfHaHUkvo, viewed 8/19/2013.

[15] Frank Turk “Open Letter to Mark Driscoll” at http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2011/08/open-letter-to-mark-driscoll.html, viewed 8/19/2013.

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