Is the Book of Acts a "Closed and Completed" History?2
In the book, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (Zondervan), I engaged with cessationist Richard Gaffin on the significance of the book of Acts for the debate over the perpetuity of spiritual gifts. Here is the substance of that exchange.
Gaffin argues that "Acts intends to document a completed history, a unique epoch in the history of redemption -- the once-for-all, apostolic spread of the gospel 'to the ends of the earth'" (37-38). But Luke nowhere says this. Even if it were true, where does Luke assert that what the Holy Spirit did in that "history" is not to be done in subsequent "histories"? Again, Luke nowhere asserts that Acts was "unique". Were we to concede that in certain respects it was, why conclude that the uniqueness and therefore unrepeatable characteristics of Acts is principally in its portrayal of the charismatic work of the Spirit? Luke never suggests, far less asserts, that the way God related to and was active among his people in that particular "history" is finished. Gaffin has articulated a premise that may have a measure of truth, but lacks textual evidence on which to support the theological conclusion he draws from it.
One searches in vain for a text in which the charismatic and supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that attended the expansion of the gospel, and subsequently characterized the life and ministry of the churches that were planted, is not meant by God to attend the expansion of the gospel into the rest of the world in subsequent centuries or is not meant to characterize the life of such churches.
Gaffin also argues that "it is in terms of this controlling perspective that the miraculous experience of those at Pentecost and elsewhere in Acts have their meaning” (38). He then points to the signs, wonders, and miracles as attesting to the realization of this apostolic missionary program. But is that their only meaning and function? None of this has any negative bearing on the perpetuity of the gifts unless Gaffin can locate some text, any text, where the exclusive purpose of miracles and charismata is attestation of apostolic mission. Gaffin's argument is reductionism gone to seed. He isolates one function of miraculous phenomena, ties it in with the period in which it occurs, and then concludes that it can have no other functions in any other period of church history. And he does this without one biblical text that explicitly asserts it.
He places emphasis on the inaugural breakthrough of the gospel into Samaria and to the Gentiles and insists that the miraculous phenomena which occurred on those occasions played an essential role of attesting to this expansion. I agree. But we must also focus on the churches that were planted and emerged and endured in the aftermath of these so-called "epochal stages" in redemptive history? What I read in Acts, 1 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, 1 Thessalonians, and Galatians, indicates that the miraculous phenomena which accompanied the beginning and founding of these churches are to characterize their up-building and growth as well. It appears as if Gaffin is asking us to believe that because signs, wonders, and miraculous gifts helped launch the church by serving to attest the original proclamation of the gospel, those phenomena have no additional or ongoing function to sustain and nurture the church itself. But this is a non-sequitur lacking in biblical evidence.
Gaffin says that "Acts 2 and the subsequent miraculous events Luke narrates are not intended to establish a pattern of 'repetitions' of Pentecost to continue on indefinitely in church history. Rather, together they constitute, as already intimated, an event-complex, complete with the finished apostolic program they accompany" (38). But why can't the miraculous events and charismata continue without thinking that this means a "repetition" of Pentecost? Again, the once-for-allness of Pentecost as a redemptive historical event does not require, or even suggest, the restriction of miraculous charismata to that period. What Gaffin persists in "concluding" by "theological inference" the Bible itself nowhere asserts.
Gaffin concludes that "it would certainly be wrong to argue that Luke is intending to show that miraculous gifts and power experiences cease with the history he documented" (38-39). I find this confusing in view of his affirmation that the miraculous events in Acts subsequent to Pentecost are not intended by Luke to tell us what the rest of church history is to be like. Such events (presumably, prophecy, tongues, and healing), according to Gaffin, were “complete with the finished [emphasis mine] apostolic program they accompany" (38).
He then asserts that "in this respect, to observe that in Acts others than apostles exercise miraculous gifts (e.g., 6:8), is beside the point. To offer that as evidence that such gifts will continue beyond the time of the apostles pulls apart what for Luke belongs together” (39). I disagree. I believe it is precisely the point. The point being that the miraculous ministry of the Holy Spirit is designed not solely for the apostles nor solely for the foundational work they performed. If, as Gaffin contends, miraculous phenomena and apostolic ministry belong together in Luke's mind, why then do others than the apostles perform miracles? It will not suffice for Gaffin simply to assert that non-apostolic miracles are beside the point. It is a vitally important point that cessationism cannot explain. Let us remember that it is, in fact, Luke himself who pulls apart the two. Perhaps he does so because that was his point!
Gaffin says that "others exercise such gifts by virtue of the presence and activity of the apostles; they do so under an 'apostolic umbrella,' so to speak" (39). Where does Luke ever say this? What biblical text ever asserts it? And even if it should be granted, why would we conclude that God doesn't want the church to experience such gifts after the apostles are gone? Again, universally applicable conclusions have been deduced without textual warrant.
In reflecting on the book of Acts, I find nothing in the perpetuity of signs, wonders and miraculous gifts that threatens the integrity or uniqueness of the apostolic era. The uniqueness of the apostolic era is that it was first and foundational, not that it was miraculous.