One of the most controversial topics in modern evangelical Christianity is the issue of cessationism. That is, the theological position that the spiritual gifts have ceased in the church.
The Reformed Standards (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Cannons of Dort, and Belhar) do not approach this topic, and this makes even harder studying it in the reformed tradition. Although Calvin’s theology discusses the Holy Spirit, the discussion of the spiritual gifts is limited in scope and was not developed as frequently as the sacraments, for instance. It is worth noting that cessationism does not deny the work of the Holy Spirit within the church, but rejects the idea that the spiritual gifts continue today. Because of this, in some way, some people claim that Calvin holds a cessationist position regarding most spiritual gifts, claiming that those gifts have vanished away.
One might observed Calvin’s discussion is sort of ambiguous. But it is worth noting that claiming that Calvin was a ‘cessationist’ would be almost an anachronism, despite the fact that some of Calvin’s positions on spiritual gifts seem to agree with what cessationist modern theologians hold.
Beautiful Gifts Yet Temporary
In his Commentary about 1 Corinthians 12, Calvin affirms the believers were adorned with spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church and that God was the creator of those gifts. Calvin here recognizes the origin and importance of spiritual gifts in the life of the Early church. His position is also reflected in his comment regarding the ministry of the laying of hands. Calvin states,
It pleased the Lord that those visible and admirable gifts of the Holy Spirit, which he then poured out upon his people, should be administered and distributed by his apostles by the laying on of hands. I think that there was no deeper mystery under this laying on of hands, but I interpret that this kind of ceremony was used by them to intimate, by the outward acts that they commended to God, and, as it were, offered him on whom they laid hands. (Inst. 4.19.6)
Interesting is Calvin’s belief that the ministry of laying of hands has ceased in the church, and that it was active only during certain time, for he says,
Did this ministry which the apostles then performed, still remain in the Church, it would also behave us to observe the laying on of hands; but since that gift has ceased to be conferred, to what end is the laying on of hands? Assuredly the Holy Spirit is still present with the people of God (…) But those miraculous powers and manifest operations, which were distributed by the laying on of hands, have ceased. They were only for a time. (Inst. 4.19.6)
Calvin seems to associate spiritual gifts with the apostolic era during the Early church. Similarly to the ministry of laying of hands, Calvin claims that the gift of healing has also ceased: “To designate the Holy Spirit and his gifts by oil is trite and common, (Psa 45: 8). But the gift of healing disappeared with the other miraculous powers which the Lord was pleased to give for a time, that it might render the new preaching of the gospel for ever wonderful.” (Inst. 4.19.18) Again, Calvin gives the same reason for the cessation of the gifts he shortly analyzes.
Calvin holds that the main reason of which spiritual gifts have ceased is that “the new preaching of the gospel, the new kingdom of Christ, should be signalized and magnified by unwonted and unheard-of miracles.” (Inst. 4.19.6)
Gifts and People’s Ingratitude
There is also another reason for Calvin for the disappearing of the spiritual gifts:
The Lord, doubtless, is present with his people in all ages, and cures their sicknesses as often as there is need, not less than formerly; and yet he does not exert those manifest powers, nor dispense miracles by the hands of apostles, because that gift was temporary, and owing, in some measure, to the ingratitude of men, immediately ceased. (Inst. 4.19.19)
Commenting on 1 Corinthians 13:9-10 where Paul affirms that even the gift of prophecy is partial, Calvin highlights that Paul “proves that prophecy, and other gifts of that nature, are done away, because they are conferred upon us to help our infirmity (…) Now our imperfection will one day have an end. Hence the use, even of those gifts, will, at the same time, be discontinued, for it were absurd that they should remain and be of no use. They will, therefore, perish.” (Calvin’s Commentaries on I Cor. 13:9-10)
Temporary Ministry Offices
An interesting example in Calvin’s thought regarding his alleged cessationism is about the office of Prophet, Evangelist, and Apostle in the life of the Church: He says, “those who preside over the government of the Church, according to the institution of Christ, are named by Paul, first, Apostles; secondly, Prophets; thirdly, Evangelists; fourthly, Pastors; and, lastly, Teachers (Eph. 4:11). Of these, only the two last have an ordinary office in the church. The Lord raised up the other three at the beginning of his kingdom, and still occasionally raises them up when the necessity of the times requires.” (Inst. 3:4) Calvin here believes that the office of Prophet, Evangelist, and Apostle continued today but only when those offices are needed.
What’s the Issue?
The problem that arises with Calvin’s thought is that speaking in general, the reasons given by Calvin seem to be problematic.
First of all, the fact that spiritual gifts are temporal, it does not say anything about the specific duration of the validity of those gifts. How can we show in the Scriptures that all spiritual gifts stopped at a particular time? Pentecostal theologian Max Turner, for example, argues the spiritual gifts were not given for the benefit of a particular congregation, for a particular time, or the Early church only, but the whole Body of Christ. In his work The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: In the New Testament Church and Today, Turner studies 1 Corinthians 12 regarding spiritual gifts, and states:
Paul reinterprets the Corinthians’ spiritual terminology, and redirects their interest in the overtly manifest activities of the Spirit, by setting the whole debate within the broader framework of God’s gracious gifts and ministrations intended for the benefit of Christ’s body. (Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, 268)
For Turner, Paul is clear stating that the spiritual gifts are for the benefit of the community of faith and the body of Christ.
Another objection against Calvin’s reasoning is that if spiritual gifts are given by God’s grace to the church, one can question how people make them cease.
The theological rationale of Calvin is that spiritual gifts were ceased because it is absurd that they should remain and be of no use. Calvin seems to understand spiritual gifts as signs, as one may note from what he says in the Institutes 4.19.6. But spiritual gifts were not given mainly for serving as signs, but also to glorify God in the church as demonstrations of unity. For Turner, “The New Testament itself does not encourage the view that these gifts were merely signs” (Turner, 201) and that “the witness of the New Testament is that God will indeed grant miraculous gifts of healing, and that these are joyful experiences of, and pointers to, the holistic nature of God’s eschatological Salvation, the first fruits of the consummation to come.” (Turner, 260) The fact that we do not see spiritual gifts manifested so often in the church does not mean that they are not useful. From what we read from the following passage, gifts are multifaceted and they are not limited to a certain quantity. In Romans 12:4-8 (NIV), Paul writes:
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Paul’s understanding of the spiritual gifts is holistic since the purpose of those gifts is beyond of seeing them as only signs or temporal tools for the purpose of proclaiming the Word, but the edification of the Body of Christ. That is, God has given us the spiritual gifts so that all members of the Church could remain united. The purpose of these gifts is to strengthen the church. It is in that sense Wayne Grudem, states, “Jesus is at work perfecting his church (…) and He has given gifts to equip the church until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:13). Though the history of the church may discourage us, these Scriptures remain true, and we should not abandon hope of greater agreement.” (Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 14)
Regarding the office of Apostle, for example, Calvin thinks this office is available when it is needed. Paul calls the apostleship a gift in 1 Cor. 11:28 that says, “And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.” However, it is good to note that if we follow the definition of what an apostle is according to Matt.10:1-2, where an apostle should be appointed by Christ Himself, no one could be an apostle, so it is not very clear why Calvin holds that apostleship is an available office if needed. Calvin’s position seems contradictory. Calvin also thinks the office of the Prophet is available if needed. It is important to note that Calvin did distinguish between the gift of prophecy and the office of Prophecy. Commenting on 1 Thessalonians 5:20, John Calvin states: “By the term prophesying, I do not mean the gift of foretelling the future (…) But the science of the interpretation of Scripture.” Calvin thinks the office of the Prophet is available if needed; however, he does not claim that because it is not in use; it has to disappear, as he did regarding the spiritual gifts. Something similar he said about the office of Evangelist.
This alleged contradiction makes that Calvin’s thought regarding the continuity of spiritual gifts or the unused and temporal offices seem to be a kind of ambiguous. This makes that Calvin’s position may be misunderstood regarding the cessation of the spiritual gifts or temporal offices because the lack of analysis on these topics could wrongly lead someone to believe that Calvin is openly against the work of the Holy Spirit in the church when it is totally the opposite. Calvin’s position should be understood in his socio-cultural and religious context.
When one studies Calvin’s historical position about the spiritual gifts, one might wrongly conclude that he is openly opposed to all spiritual gifts in the same terms and conditions that cessationist theologians do. This is a mistake one should avoid, since the historical framework of Calvin was different. The topic of the spiritual gifts was not so debatable in his times, and Calvin’s interest was more focused on debating against Anabaptists, Libertines, and the Catholicism of his times. The reason why it is important studying what Calvin argued is that spiritual gifts is a hot topic among many Christian groups which see Calvin as the promoter of cessationism in the church.
Calvin’s rationale on spiritual gifts is short, even perhaps ambiguous. What he openly states it is that miraculous spiritual gifts have passed away, as he states in Institutes 4.19.6, “Assuredly the Holy Spirit is still present with the people of God (…) But those miraculous powers and manifest operations, which were distributed by the laying on of hands, have ceased. They were only for a time.” Calvin here clearly states that the miraculous manifestations have ceased. For Calvin, those manifestations were signs for the early church with the purpose of confirming the revelation process of Christ as the true messiah of Israel, as seen in Hebrew 1:1-2,
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.
If those miraculous manifestations that Calvin discussed refer to the revelation process of the Word, Calvin is then right. He states:
And, for this reason, this age of ours is designated in Scripture by the last hour, the last days, the last times, that no one may deceive himself with the vain expectation of some new doctrine or revelations. Our heavenly Father, who at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken unto us by his beloved Son, who alone can manifest, and, in fact, has fully manifested, the Father, in so far as is of importance to us, while we now see him through a mirror. (Inst. 4.18.20)
The problem complicates if we understand a given spiritual gift as disclosing a particular revelation. Because of that, the problem discussing the spiritual gifts should be focused on establishing what gifts have the purpose of disclosing revelation (i.e. prophecy, tongues, etc) and which ones are not. Taking into account what is here discussed, it is not advisable claiming that Calvin is openly a cessationist theologian in the modern sense.
Notes & References
Beeke, J. & Thomas, D. The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality: A Tribute to Geoffrey Thomas. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013.
Grudem, Wayne A. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999.
Turner, Max. The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: In the New Testament Church and Today. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publisher, 1996.