Whether John MacArthur wanted it or not, his Strange Fire conference has re-ignited the long-standing debate about the miraculous within Protestantism. With its penchant to classify everything, contemporary Evangelicalism has labeled this debate as being between cessationists and continuationists. There is a tendency to treat the issue as though it were simply a matter of how one reads Scripture, but to do so is to fail to see the ghosts of the past that continue to haunt such discussions.
I have recently read claims that the Protestant tradition has held in the main that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians have ceased. Despite the fact that such a historical claim over steps the numerous debates about the nature of miracles and the miraculous in Britain during the Early Modern era, it also fails to grapple with the ghosts of anti-Catholicism that fueled this claim for centuries. One of the primary reasons why many Protestant writers rejected the continuation of the miraculous was because acceptance suggested that God was still at work in the church during the Middle Ages.
One need go back no further than B. B. Warfied’s 1918 work Counterfeit Miracles to find an example. Warfield happily noted that the claims to a multitude of miracles in every age of the church is distinctly Catholic. In response, he takes what he considers to be a standard Protestant defense, which is to claim that all miracle stories after the first 150 or so years of Christianity are the result of an infusion of “Heathenism” into the church. These miracle stories are really the result of a new kind of literature that emerged within Christian circles, which Warfield calls Christian romances and finds their archetype in the apocryphal Acts of the apostles from the late second and third centuries. Most of the book is then taken up with the task of explaining miracle stories either on the basis of natural phenomena when he feels such stories have some purchase on actual history or on the basis of literary inventions when they do not.
As Warfield’s work makes clear, claims about “most Protestants” holding the view that the gifts of the Spirit are no longer available feeds into a long-standing polemic against Catholicism, which, in turn, cuts out a central thread running through the history of Christianity. This also relates to how one understands the nature of Christian tradition and whether tradition is primarily a confessional or doctrinal entity or encompasses Christian life and culture as a whole. If miracles have ceased, then what does that say about the miracle of the Eucharist? The Protestant polemic against miracles sought to splice tradition in ways that did not always sit well.
Of course, most Protestants who are cessationists will quickly assert that God can still heal the infirm through the normal course of divine providence. I tend to think of this response as akin to what John Cotton reportedly said when Anne Hutchinson was queried as to whether she expected to be delivered from her trial: “If she doth expect a deliverance in the way of Providence, I cannot deny it. . . . If it be by way of miracle, then I would suspect it.”
Evangelicals will no doubt continue to debate in good conscience the continuation of the charismatic gifts in the history of Christianity. Such debates are healthy to Evangelicalism. As part of this debate, however, they should exorcise once and for all the ghost of anti-Catholicism that lurks behind certain interpretations of the history of Christianity. It is hard not to find this ghost still haunting statements that seem to dismiss so many claims to the miraculous in the Patristic and Medieval periods. I might also add that these polemics did little to support an enchanted view of the world and most likely facilitated a movement in the opposite direction.