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

If you are just now joining us, these articles are a response to the Ligonier panel on spiritual gifts. Today I post the sixth in this series. Here I continue to take note of the presence and operation of spiritual gifts in the early church fathers.

The influential and highly regarded Cappadocian Fathers (mid to late 4th century) must also be considered. Basil of Caesarea (born 330 a.d.) spoke often of the operation in his day of prophecy and healing. He appeals to Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 12 of “word of wisdom” and “gifts of healing” as representative of those gifts that are necessary for the common good of the church (The Longer Rules, vii).

“Is it not plain and incontestable that the ordering of the Church is effected through the Spirit? For He gave, it is said, ‘in the church, first Apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diversities of tongues,’ for this order is ordained in accordance with the division of the gifts that are of the Spirit” (On the Holy Spirit, xvi.39, NPF 2nd Series 8:25).

Spiritual leaders in the church, such as bishops or presbyters, says Basil, possess the gift of discernment of spirits, healing, and foreseeing the future (one expression of prophecy) (The Longer Rule, xxiv, xxxv, xlii, lv).

Gregory of Nyssa (born 336; Basil’s younger brother) speaks on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:

“Even if someone receives the other gifts which the Spirit furnishes (I mean the tongues of angels and prophecy and knowledge and the grace of healing), but has never been entirely cleansed of the troubling passions within him through the charity of the Spirit,” [he is in danger of failing] (The Life of St. Macrina, FC 58:175).

The final Cappadocian, Gregory of Nazianzen (born 330 ad.), provides extensive descriptions of the physical healing that both his father and mother experienced as well as several visions that accompanied them (On the Death of His Father, xxviii-xxix, NPF 2nd Series 7:263-64; xxxi, NPF 2nd Series 7:264).

Hilary of Poitiers (356 a.d.) speaks of “the gift of healings” and “the working of miracles” that “what we do may be understood to be the power of God” as well as “prophecy” and the “discerning of spirits.” He also refers to the importance of “speaking in tongues” as a “sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit” together with “the interpretation of tongues”, so “that the faith of those that hear may not be imperiled through ignorance, since the interpreter of a tongue explains the tongue to those who are ignorant of it” (On the Trinity, viii.30, NPF 2nd Series 9:146).

By the late fourth century the gifts of the Spirit were increasingly found among ascetics and those involved in the monastic movements. The various compromises and accommodations to the wider culture that infiltrated the church subsequent to the formal legalization of Christianity under Constantine drove many of the more spiritually-minded leaders into the desert.

Something must be said about Augustine (354-430 a.d.), who early in his ministry espoused cessationism, especially with regard to the gift of tongues. [Ambrose, who highly influenced Augustine, also believed in the operation of tongues in his day (The Holy Spirit, 2.150)]. However, in Augustine’s 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). After describing numerous miracles of healing and even resurrections from the dead, Augustine writes:

“What am I to do? I am so pressed by the promise of finishing this work, that I cannot record all the miracles I know; and doubtless several of our adherents, when they read what I have narrated, will regret that I have omitted so many which they, as well as I, certainly know. Even now I beg, these persons to excuse me, and to consider how long it would take me to relate all those miracles, which the necessity of finishing the work I have undertaken forces me to omit” (City of God, Book XXII, chapter 8, p. 489).

Again, writing his Retractions at the close of life and ministry (@426-27 a.d.), he concedes that tongues and the more spectacular miracles such as people being healed “by the mere shadow of Christ’s preachers as they pass by” have ceased. He then says, “But what I said should not be understood as though no miracles should be believed to be performed nowadays in Christ’s name. For I myself, when I was writing this very book, knew a blind man who had been given his sight in the same city near the bodies of the martyrs of Milan. I knew of some other miracles as well; so many of them occur even in these times that we would be unable either to be aware of all of them or to number those of which we are aware.”

Augustine also made reference to a phenomenon in his day called jubilation. Some believe he is describing singing in tongues. He writes:

“Words cannot express the things that are sung by the heart. Take the case of people singing while harvesting in the fields or in the vineyards or when any other strenuous work is in progress. Although they begin by giving expression to their happiness in sung words, yet shortly there is a change. As if so happy that words can no longer express what they feel, they discard the restricting syllables. They burst into a simple sound of joy; of jubilation. Such a cry of joy is a sound signifying that the heart is bringing to birth what it cannot utter in words. Now who is more worthy of such a cry of jubilation than God himself, whom all words fail to describe? If words will not serve, and yet you must not remain silent, what else can you do but cry out for joy? Your heart must rejoice beyond words, that your unbounded joy may be unrestrained by syllabic bonds.” (Cited by Oliver, 1:142-43).

Although there is less evidence as we enter the period of the Middle Ages, at no time did the gifts disappear altogether. Due to limitations of space, I will only be able to list the names of those in whose ministries are numerous documented instances of the revelatory gifts of prophecy, healing, discerning of spirits, miracles, tongues, together with vivid accounts of dreams and visions. They include:

[For extensive documentation, see Stanley M. Burgess, The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions (Sixth-Sixteenth Centuries) (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997, 252 pp.). See also Paul Thigpen, “Did the Power of the Spirit ever leave the Church?” in Charisma, September, 1992, 20-29; and Richard M. Riss, “Tongues and Other Miraculous Gifts in the Second through Nineteenth Centuries,” Basileia, 1985.]

John of Egypt (d. 394); Leo the Great (400-461 a.d.; he served as bishop of Rome from 440 until 461); Genevieve of Paris (422-500 a.d.); Benedict of Nursia (480-547); Gregory the Great (540-604); Gregory of Tours (538-594); the Venerable Bede (673-735; his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731, contains numerous accounts of miraculous gifts in operation); Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne (d. 651) and his successor Cuthbert (d. 687; both of whom served as missionaries in Britain); Ansgar (800-865), one of the first missionaries to Scandinavia; Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153); Bernard’s treatise on the Life and Death of Saint Malachy the Irishman (1094-1148); Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173); Dominic, founder of the Dominicans (1170-1221); Anthony of Padua (1195-1231); Bonaventure (1217-1274); Francis of Assisi (1182-1226; documented in Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis); Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274); Peter Waldo, founder of the Waldenses (d. 1217); together with virtually all of the medieval mystics, among whom are several women: Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Gertrude of Helfta (1256-1301), Bergitta of Sweden (1302-1373), St. Clare of Montefalco (d. 1308), Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Margery Kempe (1373-1433); Dominican preacher Vincent of Ferrier (1350-1419); Theresa of Avila (1515-1582); and John of the Cross (1542-1591).

If one should object that these are exclusively Roman Catholics, we must not forget that during this period in history there was hardly anyone else. Aside from a few splinter sects, there was little to no expression of Christianity outside the Church of Rome (the formal split with what became known as Eastern Orthodoxy did not occur until 1054 a.d.).

Although beyond the Middle Ages and more in the era of the Reformation, we should also remember Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits and author of the Spiritual Exercises. Spiritual gifts, especially tongues, are reported to have been common among the Mennonites, the Moravians, especially under the leadership of Count von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), as well among the French Huguenots in the late 17th century and the Jansenists of the first half of the eighteenth century. John Wesley (1703-1791) defended the on-going operation of tongues beyond the time of the apostles. One could also cite George Fox (1624-1691) who founded the Quaker church.

Those who insist that revelatory spiritual gifts such as prophecy, discerning of spirits, and word of knowledge ceased to function beyond the first century also have a difficult time accounting for the operation of these gifts in the lives of many who were involved in the Scottish Reformation, as well several who ministered in its aftermath. Jack Deere, in his book Surprised by the Voice of God, has provided extensive documentation of the gift of prophecy at work in and through such men as George Wishart (1513-1546; mentor of John Knox), John Knox himself (1514-1572), John Welsh (1570-1622), Robert Bruce (1554-1631), and Alexander Peden (1626-1686).

I strongly encourage the reader to obtain Deere’s book and closely examine the account of their supernatural ministries, not only in prophecy but often in gifts of healings. Deere also draws our attention to one of the historians of the seventeenth century, Robert Fleming (1630-1694), as well as one of the major architects of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), both of whom acknowledged the operation of the gifts in their day.


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