Cessationism and the So-Called "Cluster" Argument: A Response4
At the recent Strange Fire conference, Tom Pennington presented a case for the cessation of certain spiritual gifts. Among the points he cited (some of which I’ll address in subsequent posts) was the so-called “cluster” argument. I never cease to be amazed (see, I’m not even a “cessationist” when it comes to being amazed by cessationists!) at how consistently this argument is brought out and rehashed, in spite of the fact that it has been repeatedly shown as false to the core. It makes one wonder if cessationists are actually taking the time to read the books and articles published by continuationists. My guess is that they are not.
The “cluster” argument is that signs, wonders and miracles were not customary phenomena even in biblical times. Rather, they were clustered or concentrated at critical moments of revelatory activity in redemptive history. John MacArthur is today an outspoken advocate of this argument. The following citation is from Charismatic Chaos. I will be interested to see if he again uses it in his more recent book, Strange Fire. Here it is:
“Most biblical miracles happened in three relatively brief periods of Bible history: in the days of Moses and Joshua, during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and in the time of Christ and the apostles. None of those periods lasted much more than a hundred years. Each of them saw a proliferation of miracles unheard of in other eras. . . . Aside from those three intervals, the only supernatural events recorded in Scripture were isolated incidents” (Charismatic Chaos, 112).
Several things may be said in response to this argument.
First, at most this might suggest that in three periods of redemptive history miraculous phenomena were more prevalent than in other times. It does not prove that miraculous phenomena in other times were non-existent. Nor does it prove that an increase in the frequency of miraculous phenomena could not appear in subsequent phases of redemptive history.
Second, for this to be a substantive argument one must explain not only why miraculous phenomena were prevalent in these three periods but also why they were, allegedly, infrequent or, to use MacArthur’s term, “isolated,” in all other periods. If miraculous phenomena were infrequent in other periods, a point I concede here only for the sake of argument, one would need to ascertain why. Could it be that the relative infrequency of the miraculous was due to the rebellion, unbelief, and apostasy rampant in Israel throughout much of her history (cf. Pss. 74:9-11; 77:7-14)? Let us not forget that even Jesus “could do no miracle there [in Nazareth] except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:5), all because of their unbelief (at which, we are told, Jesus “wondered”, v. 6). The point is that the comparative isolation of the miraculous in certain periods of OT history could be due more to the recalcitrance of God’s people than to any supposed theological principle that dictates as normative a paucity of supernatural manifestations.
Third, there were no cessationists in the Old Testament. No one is ever found to argue that since miraculous phenomena were allegedly “clustered” at selected points in redemptive history we should not expect God to display his power in some other day. In other words, at no point in OT history did miracles cease. That they may have subsided is possible. But this proves only that in some periods God is pleased to work miraculously with greater frequency than he is in others.
The fact that miracles and other “supernatural events” (to use MacArthur’s wording) do appear throughout the course of redemptive history, whether sporadically or otherwise, proves that they never ceased. How, then, can the prevalence of miracles and supernatural phenomena in three periods of history be an argument for cessationism? In other words, how does the existence of miracles in every age of redemptive history serve to argue against the existence of miracles in our age? The occurrence of miraculous phenomena throughout biblical history, however infrequent and isolated, cannot prove the non-occurrence of miraculous phenomena in post-biblical times. The continuation of miraculous phenomena then is not an argument for the cessation of miraculous phenomena now. The fact that in certain periods of redemptive history few miracles are recorded proves only two things: first, that miracles did occur and, second, that few of them were recorded. It does not prove that only a few actually occurred.
Fourth, the assertion that miraculous phenomena outside these three special periods were isolated is simply false. One can make this argument only by defining the miraculous so narrowly as to eliminate a vast number of recorded supernatural phenomena that otherwise might qualify. MacArthur insists that to qualify as a miracle the extraordinary event must occur “through human agency” and must serve to “authenticate” the messenger through whom God is revealing some truth. In this way one is able to exclude as miraculous any supernatural phenomenon that occurs apart from human agency and any supernatural phenomenon unrelated to the revelatory activity of God. Thus, if no revelation is occurring in that period of redemptive history under consideration, no supernatural phenomena recorded in that era can possibly meet the criteria for what constitutes a miracle. On such a narrow definition of a miracle it thus becomes easy to say they were isolated or infrequent.
But if “human agency” or a “gifted” individual is required before an event can be called miraculous, what becomes of the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus? What about the resurrection of the saints mentioned in Matthew 27:52-53 or Peter’s deliverance from jail in Acts 12? Was the instantaneous death of Herod in Acts 12:23 not a miracle because the agency was angelic? Was the earthquake that opened the prison in which Paul and Silas were housed not a miracle because God did it himself, directly? Was Paul’s deliverance from the venom of a viper (Acts 28) not a miracle simply because no human agency was utilized in his preservation? To define as a miracle only those supernatural phenomena involving human agency is arbitrary. It is a case of special pleading, conceived principally because it provides a way of reducing the frequency of the miraculous in the biblical record. In other words, MacArthur utilizes this arbitrary definition not because it’s biblical but because it serves his purpose.
Is it the case that miracles always accompany divine revelation as a means of attestation? That miracles confirm and authenticate the divine message is certainly true. But to reduce the purpose of miracles to this one function is to ignore other reasons for which God ordained them. The association of the miraculous with divine revelation becomes an argument for cessationism only if the Bible restricts the function of a miracle to attestation. And such the Bible does not do. I’ll have more to say on this in a later post.
My reading of the OT reveals a consistent pattern of supernatural manifestations in the affairs of humanity. In addition to the multitude of miracles during the lifetime of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha, we see numerous instances of angelic activity, supernatural visitations and revelatory activity, healings, dreams, visions and the like. Once the arbitrary restrictions on the definition of a miracle are removed, a different picture of OT religious life emerges.
In his book, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Zondervan), Jack Deere provides an extensive list of such supernatural and miraculous phenomena (see pp. 255-61). One thinks especially of Daniel, who ministered in the first half of the sixth century b.c., well beyond the time of Elijah and Elisha. Yet, as Deere points out, “proportionately Daniel’s book contains more supernatural events than the books of Exodus through Joshua (the books dealing with the ministries of Moses and Joshua) and 1 Kings through 2 Kings 13 (the books dealing with the ministries of Elijah and Elisha” (263). My request of all cessationists, then, is simply to cease (!) pulling this argument out of the theological moth balls until such time as you have adequately responded to Deere’s analysis of the biblical data.
Two other factors indicate that miraculous phenomena were not as isolated and infrequent as some allege.
First, there is the assertion of Jeremiah 32:20. With reference to God, the prophet declares: “You have shown signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all mankind, and have made a name for yourself as at this day” (emphasis mine). This text alerts us to the danger of arguing from silence. The fact that from the time of the Exodus to the Captivity fewer instances of signs and wonders are recorded does not mean they did not occur. Jeremiah insists they did. One might compare this with the danger of asserting that Jesus did not perform a particular miracle or do so with any degree of frequency simply because the gospels fail to record it. John tells us explicitly that Jesus performed “many other signs . . . in the presence of the disciples” which he did not include in his gospel account” (John 20:30) as well as “many other things which Jesus did” that were impossible to record in detail (John 21:25).
Second, most cessationists insist that NT and OT prophecy are the same (MacArthur certainly does). They also readily acknowledge that NT prophecy was a “miracle” gift. If OT prophecy was of the same nature, then we have an example of a miraculous phenomenon recurring throughout the course of Israel’s history. In every age of Israel’s existence in which there was prophetic activity there was miraculous activity. What then becomes of the assertion that miracles, even on the narrow definition, were infrequent and isolated?
It would appear, then, that the argument for cesssationism which appeals to the notion of miraculous phenomena as clustered, and therefore isolated, in redemptive history, is neither biblically defensible nor logically persuasive. May the appeal to this argument finally and forever “cease”!
[Much of this article has been adapted from my contribution to the book, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (Zondervan), pp. 186-190.]