terms matter

While words are elastic and meaning changes over time, terms do matter. For example, would you say you “pro-life” or “anti-abortion”? (For the other side, it would be “pro-choice” or “pro-abortion”, eh?) While either one of the first pair is not all that offensive to me, the second term “anti-abortion” is primarily used by the “pro-choice” side as a pejorative against their opponents.

Many of the terms used in the debate are seen as political framing: terms used to validate one’s own stance while invalidating the opposition’s. For example, the labels “pro-choice” and “pro-life” imply endorsement of widely held values such as liberty and freedom, while suggesting that the opposition must be “anti-choice” or “anti-life” (alternatively “pro-coercion” or “pro-death”). Such terms gloss over the underlying issue of which choice or life is being considered and whose choice or what kind of life is deemed most important.[1]

But my topic tonight isn’t what you might suspect. What I want to talk about are these terms: “cessationist” and “non-cessationist”. Here is my question: who is ‘framing’ whom with these terms? Where did they come from and what is the purpose of this terminology?

I don’t have the resources to study the history of the term, but in doing a little searching on the question, I came across this comment on a blog:

The term “cessationist” is, admittedly, loaded. … The term, on its own, is negative. Concerning the much vexed debates about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, “cessationist” gives the impression of what one is against.

I suspect that the terminology is rooted in the increasing acceptability of the charismatic position within evangelicalism. The terms seem to raise the level of discussion from controversy to scholarly debate.

As I understand the history, there was really little controversy until the Asuza Street revival in the early 1900s and the subsequent explosion of Pentecostal doctrines. Pentecostalists were on the ‘outside fringes’ of the evangelical world because their practices were considered a little … weird. [At least, this is my memory of things as I was growing up in the 60s and 70s.]

The Charismatic renewal was a phenomenon of the 1970s, something that made national newscasts as Pentecostal practices began to spread to many non-Pentecostal denominations.

Now we hear the terms, ‘cessationist’ and ‘non-cessationist’. My question: how is this better than calling them ‘charismatics’? If we accept the term ‘cessationist’ for ourselves, are we accepting their framing of the debate?

I am currently studying the writing and teaching of some charismatics. I am hoping to write a lengthy article on the subject sometime in the future. My thoughts for this post are a sort of ‘by the way’ observation. It does seem to me that it is a mistake to grant any ground in this debate, including the use of the terms ‘cessationist’ and ‘non-cessationist’.


[1] Abortion_debate. Reference.com. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Abortion_debate (accessed: May 13, 2008).