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Progressive Cessationism

Who's Afraid of the Holy Spirit?

Posted Friday, July 13, 2007 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: TheologyCulture and Theology  

Some in the cessationist camp have felt that we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. That is, we believe that the sign gifts have ceased, but then we act like the Holy Spirit has ceased as well! Can one be a cessationist and still believe that the Holy Spirit does anything today? Maybe even something miraculous? Maybe even something subjective? What does the Holy Spirit do today? I had the privilege to get together with a group of pastors (all cessationists) recently to discuss this issue and it was fascinating to see the variety of opinions among them. Cessationism is certainly not a monolithic entity. Another group of cessationists (this group consisting of academics) asked the same questions and the result of their inquiry was a fairly recent book entitled Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? Here are some of the highlights of the book.

The book begins and ends with chapters from the editors (Dan Wallace and James Sawyer) giving a general overview of the problems with the cessationist position as far as how it is practically lived out. The basic thought: the Holy Spirit has been thrown out with the bathwater. Wallace’s chapter (The uneasy conscience of a non-charismatic evangelical) discusses the health problems of his son and how he responded to those. Sawyer’s chapter (The Father, the Son and the Holy Scriptures) is more historical and looks at Scottish Common Sense realism and the effect is has had on our doctrine of the Spirit and the Bible.

The central chapters between the bookends examine various areas in detail. Wallace has an chapter in which he defends the translation of Romans 8:16 as the Holy Spirit testifying to our spirit (not with our spirit) by means of typical Wallacian exegesis (pages and pages of footnotes complete with a list of all the major places where the phrase is used elsewhere in Greek literature). His conclusion: part of the assurance of our salvation is a very subjective witnessing by the Holy Spirit to our spirit. At one point in my theological journey I rejected such a belief, viewing it as too subjective, but in the past few years I have gone back to it, even though I do not know exactly what it consists. I am glad to read that others have the same struggle with the issue.

A common theme throughout the book is that the authors still believe in miracles, just not the gift of miracles or miracle workers. Donald Smith argues passionately against the idea that miracles happen in the mission field because this is the boundary region of the gospel: he says the center of Christianity is actually found in these areas and they are not the boundary of Christianity. The reason we do not see them in the Western world is because we are too rationally focused.
Richard Averbeck pens a fascinating article on illumination and the Spirit which is worthy of reading. It is not only a detailed look at illumination, but is also a call to teachers to remember what the point of teaching it: a greater love of God.

“The Spirit in the Black Church” is an article by Willie Peterson which examines why the black church has more cooperation between charismatic and cessationist groups.  His conclusion: they have often experienced persecution and difficulties as black people, and so they have tended to be more unified against a greater problem. The chapter gives a mesmerizing window into the author’s life growing up with godly parents, the difficulties they faced and the godly way they responded to them.

The book concludes with an evaluation and response by Wayne Grudem (for those of you who do not know, Grudem is most certainly not a cessationist). He writes that he enjoyed the book (except for a few chapters) and gave a new name to the movement: progressive cessationism.

If you are a cessationist, go read this book and be challenged! You will most likely not agree with everything in it, but we need books like this to stretch our thinking.

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