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A Response to Stephen Nichols, Steve Lawson, and Burk Parsons on the Continuation of Spiritual Gifts (Part Five)


(8) Stephen N, you said that these gifts “faded” from church history. I have often heard this argument, but then wonder if those who make it have actually read the original sources. I know that I’m asking a lot when I ask you to consider the following evidence. But if you are going to represent truth and accuracy on this matter on a stage where thousands of Christians are listening and following your counsel, it seems only responsible that you carefully check your comments. Consider the following.

The representative examples cited will demonstrate that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were, and are, still very much in operation. Indeed, before Chrysostom in the east (347-407 a.d.) and Augustine in the west (354-430 a.d.) no church father ever suggested that any or all of the charismata had ceased in the first century. And even Augustine later retracted his earlier cessationism (see below). So let’s conduct a quick overview.

[For helpful documentation, see Stanley M. Burgess, The Spirit & the Church: Antiquity (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984); Ronald A. N. Kydd, Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church (Peabody: Hendriksen Publishers, 1984); Jeff Oliver, Pentecost to the Present: The Holy Spirit’s Enduring Work in the Church, 3 volumes (Newberry, FL: Bridge Logos, 2017); Eddie L. Hyatt, 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2002); Kilian McDonnell and George T. Montague, Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence from the First Eight Centuries (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991); and J. D. King, Regeneration: A Complete History of Healing in the Christian Church, Volume One: Post-Apostolic through Later Holiness (Lee’s Summit: MO, Christos Publishing, 2017). Then, of course, one must reckon with the massive documentation of miraculous gifts throughout the course of church history as compiled by Craig S. Keener in his two-volume work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).]

The Epistle of Barnabas (written sometime between 70 and 132 a.d.), says this of the Holy Spirit: “He personally prophesies in us and personally dwells in us” (xvi, 9, Ancient Christian Writers, 6:61).

The author of The Shepherd of Hermas claims to have received numerous revelatory insights through visions and dreams. This document has been dated as early as 90 a.d. and as late as 140-155 a.d.

Justin Martyr (approx. AD 100-165), perhaps the most important 2nd century apologist, is especially clear about the operation of gifs in his day:

“Therefore, just as God did not inflict His anger on account of those seven thousand men, even so He has now neither yet inflicted judgment, nor does inflict it, knowing that daily some [of you] are becoming disciples in the name of Christ, and quitting the path of error; who are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God” (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39).

“For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us. And just as there were false prophets contemporaneous with your holy prophets, so are there now many false teachers amongst us, of whom our Lord forewarned us to beware; so that in no respect are we deficient, since we know that He foreknew all that would happen to us after His resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven” (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39).

“For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world and in your city, many of our Christian men, exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those used incantations and drugs” (Second Apology, vi; Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:190).

Irenaeus (approx. AD 120-202), certainly the most important and influential theologian of the late second century writes:

“Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practicing deception upon any, nor taking any reward from them [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely from God, freely also does she minister [to others]” (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 4).

“Nor does she [the church] perform anything by means of angelic invocations, or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error” (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 5).

“In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages [i.e., tongues], and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms ‘spiritual,’ they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit” (Against Heresies, Book 5, ch.6, 1; Euseb. H.E. 5.7.6).

Tertullian (d. 225; he first coined the term Trinity) spoke and wrote on countless occasions of the operation of the gifts of the Spirit, particularly those of a revelatory nature such as prophecy and word of knowledge.

“But from God – who has promised, indeed, ‘to pour out the grace of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh, and has ordained that His servants and His handmaids should see visions as well as utter prophecies’ – must all those visions be regarded as emanating . . .” (A Treatise on the Soul, xlvii, ANF, 3:225-26).

He described the ministry of one particular lady as follows:

“For, seeing that we acknowledge spiritual charismata, or gifts, we too have merited the attainment of the prophetic gift, although coming after John (the Baptist).” [This lady has been] “favoured with sundry gifts of revelation” [and] “both sees and hears mysterious communications; some men’s hearts she understands, and to them who are in need she distributes remedies. . . . After the people are dismissed at the conclusion of the sacred services, she is in the regular habit of reporting to us whatever things she may have seen in vision (for her communications are examined with the most scrupulous care, in order that their truth may be probed). . . . Now can you refuse to believe this, even if indubitable evidence on every point is forthcoming for your conviction?” (A Treatise on the Soul, ix, ANF, 3:188).

Tertullian contrasts what he has witnessed with the claims of the heretic Marcion:

“Let Marcion then exhibit, as gifts of his god, some prophets, such as have not spoken by human sense, but with the Spirit of God, such as have both predicted things to come, and have made manifest the secrets of the heart; . . . Now all these signs (of spiritual gifts) are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty, and they agree, too, with the rules, and the dispensations, and the instructions of the Creator” (Against Marcion, v.8, ANF, 3:446-47).

We also have extensive evidence of revelatory visions in operation in the life of the martyrs Perpetua and her handmaiden Felicitas (202 a.d.).

The work of Theodotus (late 2nd century) is preserved for us in Clement of Alexandria’s Excerpta ex Theodoto. In 24:1 we read: “The Valentinians say that the excellent Spirit which each of the prophets had for his ministry was poured out upon all those of the church. Therefore the signs of the Spirit, healings and prophecies, are being performed by the church.”

Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 a.d.; The Instructor, iv.21, ANF, 2:434) spoke explicitly of the operation in his day of those spiritual gifts listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10. Origen (d. 254 a.d.) acknowledges that the operation of the gifts in his day is not as extensive as was true in the NT, but they are still present and powerful: “And there are still preserved among Christians traces of that Holy Spirit which appeared in the form of a dove. They expel evil spirits, and perform many cures, and foresee certain events, according to the will of the Logos” (Against Celsus, i.46, ANF, 4:415).

The pagan Celsus sought to discredit the gifts of the Spirit exercised in churches in Origen’s day, yet the latter pointed to the “demonstration” of the validity of the Gospel, “more divine than any established by Grecian dialectics,” namely that which is called by the apostle the “manifestations of the Spirit and of power.” Not only were signs and wonders performed in the days of Jesus, but “traces of them are still preserved among those who regulate their lives by the precepts of the Gospel” (Against Celsus, i.2, ANF 4:397-98). Many believe Celsus is referring to prophecy and tongues in the Christian community when he derisively describes certain believers “who pretend to be moved as if giving some oracular utterances” and who add to these oracles “incomprehensible, incoherent, and utterly obscure utterances the meaning of which no intelligible person could discover” (Against Celsus, 7.9). This, of course, is precisely what one would expect a pagan skeptic to say about prophecy and tongues.

Hippolytus (d. 236 a.d.) sets forth guidelines for the exercise of healing gifts, insisting that “if anyone says, ‘I have received the gift of healing,’ hands shall not be laid upon him: the deed shall make manifest if he speaks the truth” (Apostolic Tradition, xv, Easton, 41).

Novatian writes in Treatise Concerning the Trinity (@245 a.d.):

“Indeed this is he who appoints prophets in the church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, brings into being powers and conditions of health, carries on extraordinary works, furnishes discernment of spirits, incorporates administrations in the church, establishes plans, brings together and arranges all other gifts there are of the charismata and by reason of this makes the Church of God everywhere perfect in everything and complete” (29, 10).

I earlier mentioned Cyprian (bishop of Carthage, 248-258 a.d.), who spoke and wrote often of the gift or prophecy and the receiving of visions from the Spirit (The Epistles of Cyprian, vii.3-6, ANF, 5:286-87; vii.7, ANF, 5:287; lxviii.9-10, ANF, 5:375; iv.4, ANF, 5:290).

Gregory Thaumaturgus (213-270 a.d.) is reported by many to have ministered in the power of numerous miraculous gifts and to have performed signs and wonders.

Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 a.d.), theologian and church historian in the court of Constantine, opposed the Montanists’ abuse of the gift of prophecy, but not its reality. He affirmed repeatedly the legitimacy of spiritual gifts but resisted the Montanists who operated outside the mainstream church and thus contributed, said Eusebius, to its disunity.

Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) wrote often of the gifts in his day: “For He [the Holy Spirit] employs the tongue of one man for wisdom; the soul of another He enlightens by Prophecy, to another He gives power to drive away devils, to another he gives to interpret the divine Scriptures” (Catechetical Lectures, xvi.12, NPF 2nd Series, 7:118).

Although Athanasius nowhere explicitly addressed the issue of charismatic gifts, many believe he is the anonymous author of Vita S. Antoni or “The Life of St. Anthony.” Anthony was a monk who embraced an ascetic lifestyle in 285 a.d. and remained in the desert for some 20 years. The author (Athanasius?) of his life describes numerous supernatural healings, visions, prophetic utterances, and other signs and wonders. Even if one rejects Athanasius as its author, the document does portray an approach to the charismatic gifts that many, evidently, embraced in the church of the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Another famous and influential monk, Pachomius (292-346), was known to perform miracles and empowered to converse “in languages he did not know.”


1 Comment

Thank you for writing and sharing this. It is very helpful and encouraging.

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