This post is part of a series responding to C. Michael Patton’s eight-part series at Parchment and Pen “Why I am Not Charismatic,” which is also conveniently available for download as a single e-book here. This is in response to part five.
The unspoken premise behind your historical argument is that over the centuries the church has looked pretty much the way Jesus intended. Really? Anything that goes missing, then, is like the dog that didn’t bark, prima facie evidence that the thing has dried up at the source. It is something that God just isn’t doing any more. Once we start playing that game, however, it is difficult to know when to stop.
There are a number of ways to respond to your part five, “An Argument from History.” As for your specific citations of Chrysostom and Augustine, Scott has countered these quite handily in an earlier post here. Jesse Wisnewski makes a similar argument at Reformed and Reforming here, and also makes the observation here that it illustrates the fallacy of an argument from ignorance. Then there’s the point that you take us on a snipe hunt for the elusive “supernatural sign gifts”, showing that if you set your definitions and expectations just right, you can be assured of coming up empty handed. This is your own “glaring weakness” in commenting on about Jack Deere’s argument, where you say:
He equates evidence that the historic church believed in the miraculous with evidence that they were continuationists. You can’t equate the two without misrepresenting what is at stake. The historic Christian church has believed in the miraculous, they have not believed in the continuation of the supernatural sign gifts, by and large.
On the contrary, Michael, I’m afraid it is you who have misrepresented the situation by insisting on your own minimalist definition. Continuationism in the first place is not about “gifts” but that Jesus Christ:
…continues His work of glorifying His Father, building His Church, and advancing His Kingdom through the ongoing, vital and dynamic interconnection He maintains with those who are in Him, accomplished through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit…
From my earlier post “What Continues?”
This empowering presence is referenced in a number of forms such as prayer in Jesus’ name (John 14:13-14), the prayer of faith for healing (Jas. 5:15), and signs and wonders (Acts 4:30). The phenomenon that this empowerment is parceled out through the different members of the body gives rise to the concept of “gifts” (1 Cor. 12:4). Parallel terms here include “service,” (v. 5), “activities” (v. 6), “manifestations” (v. 7). Elsewhere they are called “distributions” (Heb. 2:4, though typically translated “gifts”).
Isolating the term “gifts” only serves to distort the issue, particularly when pared down to the scripturally dubious category “sign gifts.” This category serves as a nice sharp container where the used, hazardous and unwanted bits may be safely disposed of, but it is not only absent from church history, it doesn’t even appear in the Bible (more here.) And I’ll have more to say as I respond to your part seven.
I want to take a somewhat different tack, however, in responding to your argument from history. As I suggest in my first paragraph, the same kind of disappearing act occurs with other aspects of apostolic teaching, and I don’t think you, at least, would see these as evidence God is no longer doing that sort of thing.
1. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone. It is amazing how the sharp edge of this central apostolic truth goes blunt shortly after the death of the apostles. The Shepherd of Hermas, for example (ca. AD 150), which is listed among the “Apostolic Fathers” proclaims that once you are baptized, you can sin and repent only one time (Mandate 4, chapter 3). If this were true, we’d all be toast, of course. Thank God for the butter of His grace!
We again pick up a clear understanding of grace with the Protestant Reformation, but what are we to say about the intervening centuries? The truth wasn’t completely absent, but unmixed expressions of it are scarce for several centuries. We now have some five centuries since the doctrine’s recovery, but do we conclude that in the interval God had withdrawn sola gratia?
2. Believer’s baptism. Speaking of baptism, I understand your ministry statement of faith is deliberately short and broad, but I think you personally hold to believer’s baptism by immersion, if I am not mistaken. At any rate, I think this was the “normative” apostolic practice, but it did not fare so well in the history of the church. Even the Protestant Reformation largely did not restore this, except in what some would designate as “fringe groups and cults.” Some really do argue for de facto paedobaptism from the course of history. Would you?
3. Premillennialism. Understand that I am directing this specifically to you, Michael. A number of people will not agree with this point, including Scott, but it is given as an example. I believe you hold that the apostolic hope was premillennial, but that this understanding disappeared for the most part early in church history. It had a resurgence around the nineteenth century. So in the sweep of history, it is not that different from the time frame you attribute to continuationism, which you say was not “in any way normative before the twentieth century.”
This historical premise is definitely used by some as an argument against premillennialism. What about you? Are you a de facto amillennialist?
So what do we really learn from history? Don’t we end up proving a little too much if we take your approach?
These are just a few of examples. You could probably suggest any number of reasons why particular doctrines or practices ceased to be “normative” over the years, without suggesting that God was “no longer doing that.” Indeed, we ought to exhaust every other possibility before going with that option. Ignorance? Tradition? Clerical status? Biblical illiteracy? Misunderstanding? Distortion over time? Fear? Disbelief? Poor leadership? Politics?
The church is often likened to a ship. Over the years wooden sailing vessels require periodic maintenance. Their bottoms becomes fouled and their wood suffers from rot. The barnacles need to be scraped off and the original woodwork restored. Unfortunately, some of our ecclesiastical institutions of long standing over time became in many ways more barnacle than timber.
From time to time more extensive refits have been necessary. The best known is probably the Protestant Reformation, which largely focused on soteriology. Today, I humbly suggest, it is time for recovering apostolic pneumatology.