A cessationist is a Christian who believes that the Holy Spirit gifts (e.g. speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, etc.) are not presently available to the church because they ceased soon after the death of the apostles. This is in contrast to a charismatic, which is the term for a Christian who believes that these Holy Spirit gifts are presently available to the church. The term charismatic is taken from the Greek word for gifts, charismata. The charismatic position is often associated with the Pentecostal movement whereas churches in the Reformed tradition tend to hold to cessationism.
Many Christadelphians hold to a position that might be called 'absolute cessationism.' Evangelical cessationists generally do believe in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. That is to say, they believe the Holy Spirit is presently at work in the church; it is only the visible manifestations of the Spirit gifts which are not available. By contrast, some Christadelphians teach that the Holy Spirit is totally inactive in the church at the present time. The term 'Spirit-Word' was coined to convey the idea that the only access we have to the Holy Spirit today is through the Bible, the Word of God which was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
I want to focus on a particular passage which has served as perhaps the cornerstone of the biblical argument for cessationism: 1 Corinthians 13:8-13:
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 NRSV)
Some have interpreted Paul to be saying here that the spiritual gifts of tongues, knowledge and prophecy would come to an end in the near future as part of the maturation process of the early church. Indeed, it appears that the term 'cessationism' takes its name from the word "cease" in v. 8.
One can first observe that even if this interpretation is correct, it provides no support for the Christadelphian position of 'absolute cessationism', since Paul only states that these outward manifestations of the Holy Spirit will cease and not the Holy Spirit per se. I have argued elsewhere that Paul's use of the Greek term for a 'down payment' for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers rules out the possibility that the Holy Spirit could be withdrawn, since (in terms of Paul's financial imagery) this would constitute a breach of contract on God's part.
However, most scholars agree that 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 provides no support for cessationism of any kind. Read in the context of Paul's eschatology, as well as the explanation provided in v. 12, it is apparent that what Paul meant here was not that the spiritual gifts would fade away gradually, but that the spiritual gifts would stop at the Second Coming of Christ which would render them obsolete because "now we see in a mirror, dimly; but then we will see face to face." Let's look at what some recent commentaries have to say about this passage.
Garland writes the following on 1 Corinthiand 13:8:
"On the day of the Lord their assignment will be finished and they will be scrapped as functionless. Paul’s choice of which gifts to contrast with love is directly relevant to the situation in Corinth. The Corinthians treasure tongues and knowledge. Paul adds what he considers to be the most beneficial for building up the church: prophecy. All three are transitory and suitable only for ‘between the times’ – between the inauguration of the end, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the consummation of all things, when God will be ‘all in all’"1
On v. 10, Fitzmyer comments:
"To what ‘the perfect’ refers is much debated. It is scarcely related to the completion of the NT canon, as some have tried to take it; such an extraneous meaning is foreign to this context. To teleion has been understood as Christian maturity, as in 2:6 (so in ancient Montanists, Mani; among modern interpreters, Salvoni, ‘Quando sara venuto’). It seems, however, to express rather some sort of goal; it has undoubtedly something to do with the eschaton or what Paul calls ‘the Day of the Lord’ (1:8; 3:13; 5:5) or with the telos, ‘end’ (of the present era), as in 15:24."2
Commenting specifically on v. 11, Ciampa and Rosner write:
"The point is not to insult the Corinthians and suggest that they are immature (although he does that elsewhere) or that the gifts themselves or their use in Corinth or elsewhere is immature. They are perfectly appropriate for this time in the church’s life. But when we go through the final transition at the end of this age, from this old creation to the fullness of the new heavens and the new earth, we will leave behind many of the things that were natural, good, and healthy in this world as being unsuitable for the world into which we are introduced at that point."3
Fee summarizes Paul's point regarding the spiritual gifts in the whole passage:
"These gifts have to do with the edification of the church as it ‘eagerly awaits our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed’ (1:7). The nature of the eschatological language in v. 12 further implies that the term ‘the perfect’ has to do with the Eschaton itself, not some form of ‘perfection’ in the present age…At the coming of Christ the final purpose of God’s saving work in Christ will have been reached; at that point those gifts now necessary for the building up of the church in the present age will disappear, because ‘the complete’ will have come. To cite Barth’s marvelous imagery: ‘Because the sun rises all lights are extinguished.’"4
Thiselton sums up the significance of this text (or lack thereof) for the cessationist debate:
"Similarly, ‘if it be tongues, these will cease’ hardly addresses the debate between Reformed and neo-Pentacostalist writers about ‘tongues will cease’ after the close of the canon or at a given stage of individual or historical maturity. Here Paul states that, like prophetic preaching and ‘knowledge,’ they will become redundant at the last day. As Carson observes, too much discussion of this issue directs us away from Paul’s main point. This issue must be determined on other grounds than exegetical discussions of this verse.”5
The problem in Corinth that Paul is addressing is an 'over-realized eschatology': the Corinthians seem to have thought that they had arrived at their ultimate spiritual destination through the manifestations of the charismata, and had lost sight of the fact that the present reality was just a shadow of what was to come - the very point Paul addresses at length in chapter 15. Furthermore, because of their preoccupation with the spiritual gifts they had lost sight of something much more important: love (which will not cease at the last day but will endure for eternity). For Paul, the spiritual gifts themselves were not the problem, or the cause of the Corinthians' spiritual immaturity; it was the Corinthians' attitude that needed correction.
In conclusion, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 does not state or imply that the spiritual gifts would come to an end prior to the day of the Lord. Indeed, the language of 1 Corinthians 1:7, "so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ", suggests that Paul thought the spiritual gifts would remain until the return of Christ. This is an event which Paul probably expected to occur in his lifetime (1 Corinthians 15:51, 16:22, Philippians 4:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). He had no way of knowing that 'this present world' would continue for another two millennia.
Anyone who claims that the Holy Spirit gifts have ceased, or that the Holy Spirit is currently inactive in the church, must do so on grounds other than what Paul wrote here.
1 Garland, D.E. (2003). 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 621.↩
2 Fitzmyer, J.A. (2008). First Corinthians: A New Translation and Commentary. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 498↩
3 Ciampa, R.E. and B.S. Rosner. (2010). The First Letter to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 657↩
4 Fee, G.D. (1987). The First Letter to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 646.↩
5 Thiselton, A.C. (2000). The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 1062.↩