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Spiritual Gifts in Church History (4)


Although there is less evidence as we enter the period of the Middle Ages (the reasons for which I’ve already noted), 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, together with vivid accounts of dreams and visions.

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.), as well as his recent book, Christian Peoples of the Spirit: A Documentary History of Pentecostal Spirituality from the Early Church to the Present (New York: New York University Press, 2011, 309 pp.). Among those cited and described by Burgess as well as other authors (see 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; and Ronald Kydd, Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church [Peabody: Hendrickson, 1984]), include:

John of Egypt (d. 394) and Pachomius (287-346 a.d.); Leo the Great (400-461 a.d.; he served as bishop of Rome from 440 until 461); Genevieve of Paris (422-500 a.d.); 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); 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); 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); 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 Ferrer (1350-1419); and Theresa of Avila (1515-1582).

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.).

One should also not forget 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 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 (Zondervan, 1996, pp. 64-93), 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 you to obtain Deere’s book and read 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.

As noted earlier, I don't think it at all unlikely that numerous churches which advocated cessationism experienced these gifts but dismissed them as something less than the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

One illustration of this comes from the ministry of Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), who tells of an incident in the middle of his sermon where he paused and pointed at a man whom he accused of taking an unjust profit on Sunday, of all days! The culprit later described the event to a friend:

“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 through 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'" (The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon [Curts & Jennings, 1899], II:226-27).

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’” (ibid.).

On another occasion, Spurgeon broke off his sermon and pointed at a young man, declaring: “Young man, those gloves you are wearing have not been paid for: you have stolen them from your employer” (Autobiography: The Full Harvest, 2:60). After the service the man brought the gloves to Spurgeon and asked that he not tell his mother, who would be heartbroken to discover that her son was a thief!

My opinion is that this is a not uncommon example of what the Apostle Paul described in 1 Cor. 14:24-25. Spurgeon exercised the gift of prophecy (or some might say the word of knowledge, 1 Cor. 12:8). 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!

Finally, of course, one would have to point to the last 100 or more years of contemporary church history and the emergence of the Pentecostal / Charismatic / Third Wave movements, together with the more than 600,000,000 adherents worldwide, many (most?) of whom personally testify to having experienced or witnessed in others the miraculous charismata.

I can only hope and pray that many will now see that it is both unwarranted and unwise to argue for cessationism based on the testimony of God’s people in the last 2,000 years of church history.

1 Comment

It is very dangerous to try to use our experience to validate the word of God. It is very wise to use the word of God to validate our experience. How come so many true believers never experience any of these things?

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