Spiritual Gifts in Church History (1)3
The question I want to answer in this and several subsequent articles is this: “If the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 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 most decidedly not absent. They were at times less prevalent, but the same could be said about the presence of signs, wonders, and miracles in biblical history as well. In any case, 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).
For a listing of those who either wrote about, described, or personally operated in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit beyond the time of the first century, see below.
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. In other words, the absence of evidence is not necessarily the evidence of absence!
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 printing with movable type did not exist until the work of Johann Gutenberg (1390-1468). 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, function, and the believer’s responsibility to pursue them) 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 is highly debatable, it was as likely 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.
Especially important in this regard is the concentration of spiritual authority and ministry in the office of bishop and priest in the emerging Church of Rome. By the early 4th century a.d. (much earlier, according to some), there was already a move to limit the opportunity to speak, serve, and minister in the life of the church to the ordained clergy. Lay folk were silenced and marginalized and left almost entirely dependent on the contribution of the local priest or monarchical bishop.
Although Cyprian (bishop of Carthage, 248-258 a.d.), spoke and wrote often of the gift of 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), he was also responsible for the gradual disappearance of such charismata from the life of the church. He, among others, insisted that only the bishop and priest of the church should be permitted to exercise these revelatory gifts. In the words of James Ash, “The charisma of prophecy was captured by the monarchical episcopate, used in its defense, and left to die an unnoticed death when true episcopate stability rendered it a superfluous tool” (“The Decline of Ecstatic Prophecy in the Early Church,” Theological Studies 36 [June 1976]:252).
If we concede, for the sake of argument, that certain spiritual gifts were less prevalent than others in certain seasons 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 both personal and clerical immorality.
4) We must also remember 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 Corinthians 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.
5) The question we are considering is this: If the Holy Spirit wanted the church to experience the miraculous charismata, would they not have been more visible and prevalent in church history (and I’m only conceding, for the sake of argument, that they were not)? 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; 2 Tim. 2:7; etc.).
Yet within the first generation after the death of the apostles the doctrine of justification by faith was compromised. Salvation by faith plus works soon became standard doctrine and was not successfully challenged (with a few notable exceptions) 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 more than 1,300 years? Why did Christians suffer from the absence of those experiential blessings this vital truth might otherwise have brought to their church life?
Undoubtedly the 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.
6) 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’m disappointed to often 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?”