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Spiritual Gifts in Church History (3)

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Just as a reminder, we are looking closely at the claim of some cessationists that so-called miraculous spiritual gifts ceased to operate in the church following the close of the apostolic age. In the previous article we saw extensive evidence to the contrary.

We now return to other important figures in the life of the early church.

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).

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.

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. 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). 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.”

1 Comment

Thank you for taking the time to expound and explore the gifts of the Spirit throughout the early church (the Ante-Nicene & Post-Nicene Ages), these three blog posts have been encouraging and illuminating. I want to encourage you to continue writing on the controversial subject of spiritual gifts, especially those categorized as the sign gifts.

My own personal background began with the doctrine of cessationsm; although, I must admit ignorance to knowing that name at the time. When I experienced my conversion at 12 years of age, I absorbed as much as I could in those early days of faith. I attended a Southern Baptist church in those early days, and I am forever grateful for the biblical foundation wrought in me through those faithful men and women.

When I moved out to Los Angeles at 22 for grad school, I began to wonder about the spiritual gifts. Within 4-5 years, I joined a Vineyard church to pursue Christ through His Spirit and the Word in the arenas of male discipleship and inner healing. Needless to say, the Lord has shown me the necessity of His Word and the Spirit in all areas of my life. Regardless of my theology, the Spirit moves, speaks, and bears witness to His truth rather than my limited understanding.

Finally, the other thing that encourages me about your blog is that you're Baptist and Charismatic. Those two tend to mix together like oil and water, When you add the Calvinist piece, you get something that flies in the face of tradition in all three areas. I'm new to studying up on Reformed theology. Each time I read and study the bible on my own, I come away with the centrality of God's sovereignty.

In sum, I embrace the terms Baptist, Charismatic, & Reformed-Calvinist baby. I'd go so far as to call myself Pentecostal. That might scare people, but I'm really a Baptist at heart. I don't know that I'll ever be able to cut myself loose from those Baptist roots. My faith in Christ begins and ends with His Holy Word and the Spirit.

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