OK, first a refresher course: I am an a posteriori cessationist. Basically, I do not believe that an airtight case can be made from the New Testament to demonstrate any promise either that the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit would cease at the end of the apostolic age or that they would not. Either the continuation of the gifts or the cessation of them would be a possible outcome from the New Testament data. In other words, if the gifts have ceased, this would not impugn the reliability of the New Testament at all, since the New Testament makes no definitive claim about the duration of these spiritual gifts. Free to conclude either way, I conclude by a posteriori observation on a gift-by-gift basis that at least some of these gifts have either been seriously abated or have utterly ceased.
I should also note that my ongoing, elongated series about the nature of the gift of tongues involves a question separate from this one. This post is not a part of that series. The series considers only the gift of tongues and looks not at whether tongues have ceased but at what they actually are (although the latter certainly has implications for the former); this post concerns all of the so-called “sign gifts” regarding whether they have ceased.
Having made clear my own position and the focus of the post, let me say that I think one of the strongest cases for a priori cessationism comes out of the words of Hebrews 2:1-4
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
Three things about this passage interest me:
First, this passage asserts a purpose for spiritual gifts that is not identified clearly for us in I Corinthians. Spiritual gifts functioned to validate the eyewitness testimony of those who received the gospel directly from the Lord Jesus. The signs, wonders, and gifts of the Holy Spirit that marked the New Testament age can be understood as a testimony from God rather than exclusively as a mundane congregational function. That spiritual gifts are placed here in the same category with signs and wonders is remarkable and important. Cessationism makes more sense the more closely the spiritual gifts are tied to the peculiar concerns and attributes of the apostolic age.
Second, this passage explicitly links these phenomena (signs, wonders, and spiritual gifts) with the eyewitness generation of Christianity. Jesus spoke. Those who heard Him told the story. God bore witness with them, the eye(ear?)witnesses, by means of these signs, wonders, and spiritual gifts.
Third, the main verb in the sentence describing these phenomena is in the aorist tense, which is a past tense in Greek. It describes it as an action that took place in the past—this confirmation of the gospel by the eyewitnesses and by the miraculous signs, wonders, and spiritual gifts given by God. It is true that the participle in the sentence (“bearing testimony together with them”) is a present participle, but the tense of the main verb, not the tense of the participle, governs the tense of the sentence.
If we have within the canon of scripture an inerrant testimony from a first-century observer that the epoch of signs, wonders, and spiritual gifts accompanying and validating the apostolic testimony were already a part of Church History rather than a contemporary phenomenon, then we have a significant argument in favor of a priori cessationism. Here’s a small portion of David Allen’s take on the question:
In addition, the use of the past tense (aorist in Greek) “confirmed” implies that the miraculous gifts did not continue. Wallace made the point well:
If such gifts continued, the author missed a great opportunity to seal his argument against defection. He could have simply said: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was … confirmed to us by those who heard and is still confirmed among us while God bears witness with signs.”
Wallace was careful not to overstate the case when he said that Heb 2:3–4 “involve[s] some solid inferences that the sign gifts had for the most part ceased.” Koester likewise took a judicious approach to this question:
The author did not seek to replicate the earlier ecstatic experience, since the basis of faith was not the miracles, but the message that was confirmed by the miracles. It is not clear whether the author assumed that miracles were still being done in his own time or whether the time of miracles had ceased. The author emphasizes perseverance rather than hope for miracles.
Thus, Heb 2:3–4 has some bearing on the debate about spiritual gifts today between cessationists and non-cessationists. If all the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were active at the time of the writing of this epistle, one would expect vv. 3–4 to be written differently. If all the miraculous gifts were active at the time of the writing of Hebrews because some of the eyewitnesses (apostles and others) were still alive, the text seems to imply that once the eyewitnesses died the miraculous gifts ceased.
-David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2010), 198–199.
Allen, Wallace, and Koester are right to beware overstatement. Neither here nor elsewhere does the New Testament make any definitive statement about precisely when the gifts will cease. Both cessationists and continuationists would do well to remember this. One is tempted to remind anyone who feels triumphalistic about the lack of conclusive evidence for a priori cessationism in the New Testament that there is more evidence in the Bible to justify your taking a concubine than there are promises that the spiritual gifts will endure beyond the apostolic age. Scripture remains coy on the question in both directions, and there is circumstantial evidence from which we can infer in either direction. Some could point to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit among believers and try to argue that the Holy Spirit, if He will work at all, will likely work in the same way as He did in the apostolic age. Others could point to the pattern throughout the canon in which there are episodic bursts of signs and wonders and similarly argue that the ongoing work of God in history, if it will persist at all, will likely transpire in the same episodic way. Both are inferences with a biblical foundation, but that does not negate the fact that both are inferences. Where you choose to place the burden of proof will have a profound impact upon your conclusions.
Because even this passage does not speak definitively on this question, I remain an a posteriori cessationist rather than an a priori cessationist. But the testimony of Hebrews 2:4, when considered alongside the testimony of the early church fathers (whom I will consult in my next post in the aforementioned series), depicts a certain trajectory that makes me more confident, not less, in my a posteriori cessationism.