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Gifts in Church History

The question is often raised: “If the so-called miracle or sign gifts of the Holy Spirit are valid for Christians beyond the death of the apostles, why were they absent from church history until their alleged reappearance in the twentieth century?” My answer follows:


1)         They were not absent. They were possibly less prevalent, but to argue that all such gifts were utterly non-existent is to ignore a significant body of evidence. After studying the documentation for claims to the presence of these gifts, D. A. Carson’s conclusion is that “there is enough evidence that some form of ‘charismatic’ gifts continued sporadically across the centuries of church history that it is futile to insist on doctrinaire grounds that every report is spurious or the fruit of demonic activity or psychological aberration” (Showing the Spirit, p. 166).


Here are just a few examples (for more evidence, see Ronald Kydd’s book, Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church [Hendriksen Publishers]).


Justin Martyr (a.d. 100-165) boasted to the Jewish Trypho "that the prophetic gifts remain with us" (Dialogue with Trypho, 82).


Irenaeus (a.d. 120-200) also bears witness to the presence of the gifts of the Spirit. He writes:


·      "We have heard of many of the brethren who have foreknowledge of the future, visions, and prophetic utterances; others, by laying-on of hands, heal the sick and restore them to health" (Against Heresies, 2:32,4).


·      "We hear of many members of the church who have prophetic gifts, and, by the Spirit speak with all kinds of tongues, and bring men's secret thoughts to light for their own good, and expound the mysteries of God" (Against Heresies, 5:6,1).


·      "It is impossible to enumerate the charisms which throughout the world the church has received from God" (Against Heresies, 2:32,4).


Eusebius himself concludes that the charismata were all still in operation down to the time in which Irenaeus lived (Ecclesiastical History, 5:7,6).


Apollinarius is quoted by Eusebius as saying that "the prophetic gifts must continue in the church until the final coming, as the apostle insists" (EH, 5:16,7).


Epiphanius, perhaps the most vocal opponent of the Montanists, did not attack them because they practiced the gifts of the Spirit. Indeed, he declared that "the charism [of prophecy] is not inoperative in the church. Quite the opposite. . . . The holy church of God welcomes the same [charisms] as the Montanists, but ours are real charisms, authenticated for the church by the Holy Spirit" (Panarion, 48).


One other example of some note is Augustine (354-430), who early on espoused cessationism. However, in his later writings he retracted his denial of the ongoing reality of the miraculous and carefully documented no fewer than 70 instances of divine healing in his own diocese during a two-year span (see his City of God, Book XXII, chps. 8-10).


See especially the articles by Richard Riss, "Tongues and Other Miraculous Gifts in the Second Through Nineteenth Centuries," in Basileia, 1985.


2)         It may surprise some to discover that we have extensive knowledge of but a small fraction of what happened in the history of the church. It is terribly presumptuous to conclude that the gifts of the Spirit were absent from the lives of people about whom we know virtually nothing.


We simply don’t know what was happening in the thousands upon thousands of churches and home meetings of Christians in centuries past. I cannot say with confidence that believers regularly prayed for the sick and saw them healed any more than you can say they didn’t. You cannot say they never prophesied to the comfort, exhortation, and consolation (1 Cor. 14:3) of the church any more than I can say they did. Neither of us can say with any confidence whether countless thousands of Christians throughout the inhabited earth prayed in tongues in their private devotions. That is hardly the sort of things for which we could expect extensive documentation. We must remember that this was long before the printing press or the advantages of mass media. The absence of documented evidence for spiritual gifts in a time when documented evidence for most of church life was, at best, sparse is hardly good grounds for concluding that such gifts did not exist.


3)         If the gifts were sporadic, there may be an explanation other than the theory that they were restricted to the first century. We must remember that prior to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century the average Christian did not have access to the Bible in his own language. Biblical ignorance was rampant. That is hardly the sort of atmosphere in which people would be aware of spiritual gifts (their name, nature, and function) and thus hardly the sort of atmosphere in which we would expect them to seek and pray for such phenomena or to recognize them were they to be manifest. If the gifts were sparse, and this again we cannot know, it could have been due as much to ignorance and the spiritual lethargy it breeds as to any theological principle that limits the gifts to the lifetime of the apostles.


4)         Related to this previous point is the fact that God mercifully blesses us both with what we don’t deserve and what we refuse or are unable to recognize. I am persuaded that numerous churches today who advocate cessationism experience these gifts but dismiss them as something less than the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit.


For example, someone with the gift of discerning spirits may be described as “possessing remarkable sensitivity and insight.” Someone with the gift of word of knowledge is rather said to have “deep understanding of spiritual truths.” Someone who prophesies is said to have “spoken with timely encouragement to the needs of the congregation.” Someone who lays hands on the sick and prays successfully for healing is told that God still answers prayer but that “gifts of healing” are no longer operative. These churches wouldn’t be caught dead labeling such phenomena by the names given them in 1 Cor. 12:7-10 because they are committed to the theory that such phenomena don’t exist.


If this occurs today (and it does, as it did in a church in which I ministered for several years), there is every reason to think it has occurred repeatedly throughout the course of history subsequent to the first century.


Consider this hypothetical example. Let us suppose that a man had been assigned to write a descriptive history of church life in what is now southern France in, say, 845 a.d. How might he label what he saw and heard? If he were ignorant of spiritual gifts, being untaught, or perhaps a well-educated cessationist, his record would make no reference to prophecy, healing, miracles, word of knowledge, etc. Such phenomena might well exist, perhaps even flourish, but would be identified and explained in other terms by our hypothetical historian.


Centuries later we discover his manuscript. Would it be fair to conclude from his observations that certain spiritual gifts had ceased subsequent to the apostolic age? Of course not! My point in this is simply that in both the distant past and present the Holy Spirit can empower God’s people with gifts for ministry which they either do not recognize or, for whatever reason, explain in terms other than those of 1 Corinthians 12:7-10. The absence of explicit reference to certain charismata is therefore a weak basis on which to argue for their permanent withdrawal from church life.


The ministry of Charles Spurgeon is a case in point. Read carefully the following account taken from his autobiography:


“While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, ‘There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!’ A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, ‘Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the man, ‘I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul though him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul.’”


Spurgeon then adds this comment:


“I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, ‘The preacher told us just what we said to one another when we went in at the door’” (The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, [Curts & Jennings, 1899], Vol. II, pp. 226-227).


What are we to make of this? My opinion is that this is a perfect and not uncommon example of what the Apostle Paul described in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25. Spurgeon exercised the gift of prophecy. He did not label it as such, but that does not alter the reality of what the Holy Spirit accomplished through him. If one were to examine Spurgeon’s theology and ministry, as well as recorded accounts of it by his contemporaries as well as subsequent biographers, most would conclude from the absence of explicit reference to miraculous charismata such as prophecy and the word of knowledge that such gifts had been withdrawn from church life. But Spurgeon’s own testimony inadvertently says otherwise!


5)         If we concede that certain spiritual gifts were less prevalent than others in the history of the church, their absence may well be due to unbelief, apostasy, and other sins that serve only to quench and grieve the Holy Spirit. If Israel experienced the loss of power because of repeated rebellion, if Jesus himself “could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:5), all because of their “unbelief” (Mark 6:6), we should hardly be surprised at the infrequency of the miraculous in periods of church history marked by theological ignorance and personal immorality.


It is not without reason that historians refer to approximately 500 years of church life, during which these gifts were allegedly absent, as the “Dark Ages”!


6)         The argument we are considering is this: if the Holy Spirit wanted the church to experience the miraculous gifts, they would not be so conspicuously absent from church history. Let’s take the principle underlying that argument and apply it to several other issues.


We all believe that the Holy Spirit is the teacher of the church. We all believe that the NT describes His ministry of enlightening our hearts and illuminating our minds to understand the truths of Scripture (see 1 John 2:20,27).


Yet within the first generation after the death of the apostles the doctrine of justification by faith was under attack. Salvation by faith plus works soon became standard doctrine and was not successfully challenged until Martin Luther’s courageous stand in the sixteenth century. My question, then, is this: if God intended for the Holy Spirit to continue to teach and enlighten Christians concerning vital biblical truths beyond the death of the apostles, why did the church languish in ignorance of this most fundamental truth for almost 1,000 years?


If God intended for the Holy Spirit to illumine the minds of His people concerning biblical truths after the death of the apostles, why did the church languish in ignorance of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers for almost 1,000 years? Why did Christians suffer from the absence of those experiential blessings this vital truth might otherwise have brought to their church life?


Those of you who believe in a pretribulational rapture of the church must also explain the absence of this truth from the collective knowledge of the church for almost 1,900 years!


Undoubtedly your response will be that none of this proves the Holy Spirit ceased His ministry of teaching and illumination. None of this proves that God ceased to want His people to understand such vital doctrinal principles. Precisely! And the relative infrequency or absence of certain spiritual gifts during the same period of church history does not prove that God was opposed to their use or had negated their validity for the remainder of the present age.


Both theological ignorance of certain biblical truths and a loss of experiential blessings provided by spiritual gifts can be, and should be, attributed to factors other than the suggestion that God intended such knowledge and power only for believers in the early church.


7)         Finally, and most important of all, is the fact that what has or has not occurred in church history is ultimately irrelevant to what we should pursue, pray for, and expect in the life of our churches today. The final criterion for deciding whether God wants to bestow certain spiritual gifts on his people today is the Word of God. I am continually shocked and grieved to hear people cite the alleged absence of a particular experience in the life of an admired saint from the church’s past as reason for doubting its present validity. As much as I respect the giants of the Reformation and of other periods in church history, I intend to emulate the giants of the NT who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I admire John Calvin, but I obey the apostle Paul.


In sum, neither the failure nor success of Christians in days past is the ultimate standard by which we determine what God wants for us today. We can learn from their mistakes as well as their achievements. But the only question of ultimate relevance for us and for this issue is: “What saith the Scripture?”