Tag Archives: history

Another Reason Why the Historical Absence of the Spiritual Gifts Does Not Mean They Have Ceased

This is a guest post by Jesse Wisnewski, blogger at Reformed and Reforming and MDiv student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Back in February of this year I wrote a piece on why the apparent “absence” or “disparity” of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (i.e. revelatory and miraculous) is not a valid reason to contend for their absence today. Today I’m not going to rehash what I already said, but rather I’m going point to another reason why this position is invalid.

While reading through Garrett DeWeese and J.P. Moreland’s Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult, I discovered that this particular historical argument for the cessation of the gifts of the Spirit is considered an argument from ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantium), which is an informal fallacy of reasoning.

What is an Argument from Ignorance?

As defined by the authors, an argument from ignorance is:

This fallacy involves citing the absence of evidence for a proposition as evidence against it.  But of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (pg. 20).

In other words, just because we don’t know something doesn’t mean there isn’t anything.

For instance, if I were to learn something new today that happened in world history, this doesn’t mean that this fact wasn’t true until I learned it.  It has always been true, I just didn’t know that it was until I first read about it.

How Does this Disprove the Cessationist Postion on History?

Even though many cessationists point to the supposed lack of historical evidence for disproving the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit today, the supposed lack of evidence is not evidence of their absence.

To claim that the supposed lack of historical evidence supports cessationism fails on two fronts:

First, it goes against history since there is a plethora of historical records (also see The Charismata in Church History).

Second, it goes against reason to say that the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence.

Although miraculous activity may have surrounded certain times in Biblical history (Moses, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and the Apostles) this doesn’t mean that the Spirit of God was not working at any other time in between or after those clustered periods.

In the End

When I first became exposed to the [reformed] Doctrines of Grace, I tried to force myself to believe in the cessation of the gifts of the Spirit.  It wasn’t because I thought it was Biblical, I had some bad experiences and didn’t like what I was seeing around town, on T.V., and hearing on the radio.

After considering the typical reasons given in support of the cessation of the gifts of the Spirit, I just couldn’t go there.  The case for the apparent “absence” or “disparity” in the quality of the gifts of the Spirit in history and today is one of them.

I believe that this position fails to take into account the relationship of the sovereignty of God in relationship to the gifts, the historical evidence for their continuation, and the logical fallacy of pointing to the absence of evidence for the evidence of absence.

This is another reason why I am open to the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit today.

Is That What History Really Teaches Us? (Response to CMP, part 5)

By Marv

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.

Michael,

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.

Semper reformanda.

The Charismata in Church History

by Scott

One argument that seems to arise from the side of cessationists is that church history records that signs, wonders, miracles and healings ceased soon after the first century and with the formation of the New Testament canon. We have noted in the past that such a view cannot be faithfully established from a biblical-theological perspective. But what does history attest to?

We see this in certain words of the early church father, John Chrysostom (AD 347-407):

‘This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?’ (Homilies on First Corinthians. Homily XXIX, 1)

More evidence to support the cessationist case is shown through such words of Augustine (AD 354-430):

‘In the earliest times, “the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues,” which they had not learned, “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away.’ (Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Homily VI, 10)

Finally, confessions of faith such as the Westminster Confession of Faith make this statement in its opening section on the Holy Scripture:

‘Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.’

And, no doubt, there are other church fathers and variable sources that could be quoted in support of cessationism.

Thus, the argument goes that signs and wonders, miracles and healings, as well as other such things as prophecy and tongues, were only given in the time of the first apostles to authenticate their message, since the gospel and apostolic writings of Scripture were not yet complete. But, with the completion of the canon of Scripture by John (the apostle), and with these writings later being compiled into the New Testament, there was no longer any need for such gifts. Not only that, but cessationists then go on to support their argument by showing that the church fathers testified that such gifts of the Spirit had ceased, proving they were only for a limited time of authenticating the gospel message.

Yet, the story cannot stop there. We cannot find ourselves quoting a few church fathers as solid evidence for the ceasing of such gifts. Most cessationists, if not all, would claim that the history argument is not 100% evidence against the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit, signs and wonders. But many will, no doubt, be ready to use such to support the cessationist view.

Therefore, let’s take a moment to consider the words of some other church fathers and their specific thoughts about the gifts of the Spirit, specifically miracles, healings, prophecy and tongues. Below are four church fathers in particular:

Justin Martyr (approx. AD 100-165)

‘Therefore, just as God did not inflict His anger on account of those seven thousand men, even so He has now neither yet inflicted judgment, nor does inflict it, knowing that daily some [of you] are becoming disciples in the name of Christ, and quitting the path of error; who are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God.’ (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39)

‘For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us. And just as there were false prophets contemporaneous with your holy prophets, so are there now many false teachers amongst us, of whom our Lord forewarned us to beware; so that in no respect are we deficient, since we know that He foreknew all that would happen to us after His resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven.’ (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39)

Irenaeus (approx. AD 120-202)

‘Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practising deception upon any, nor taking any reward from them [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely from God, freely also does she minister [to others]. (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 4)

‘Nor does she [the church] perform anything by means of angelic invocations, or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error.’ (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 5)

‘In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms “spiritual,” they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit…’ (Against Heresies, Book 5, ch.6, 1)

Novatian (approx. AD 210-280)

‘…they [the first disciples] were henceforth armed and strengthened by the same Spirit, having in themselves the gifts which this same Spirit distributes, and appropriates to the Church, the spouse of Christ, as her ornaments. This is He who places prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, offers discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggests counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts there are of charismata; and thus make the Lord’s Church everywhere, and in all, perfected and completed.’ (A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity, ch.29)

Gregory Neocaesarea (AD 213-270)

Consider these words from church historian, Justo Gonzalez, as he chronicles some of the things that took place in the life of Gregory Neocaesarea.

‘The most famous of these workers of miracles was Gregory Thaumaturgus – a name that means “wonderworker.” He was from the region of Pontus, and had been converted through the learned witness of Origen. But upon returning to Pontus and becoming bishop of Neocaesarea, his great evangelistic success was due, not to his theological arguments, but to the miracles that he was said to perform. These were mostly miracles of healing, but we are also told that he could control the course of a river in flood, and that the apostles and the Virgin appeared to him and guided his work.’ (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, p99)

In his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green quotes an early church source, The Apostolic Constitutions, making note of the charismata gifts:

‘A passage in the Apostolic Constitutions crystallizes the point well: ‘These gifts were first bestowed upon us, the apostles, when we were about to preach the gospel to every creature, and afterwards were necessarily provided to those who had come to faith through our agency, not for the advantage of those who perform them, but for the conviction of the unbelievers, that those whom the word did not persuade the power of signs might put to shame.’ The charismata given in the apostolic age [first century] had not been revoked: they continued in the Church in the third century.’ (Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p270)

Finally, it would be interesting to read some of Augustine’s words near the end of his life. Though many cessationists might look to quote him as a pointer towards a more cessationist view in the early church, as was shown in the beginning of this article, what we don’t realise is that Augustine actually had a change of theology near the end of his life.

Michael Green specifically points to his own study of the early church fathers as a reason why he shifted away from a more hard cessationist view, and he quotes these words of Augustine in his own reflections.

‘I am encouraged, in my recantation [from his hard cessationist thoughts in his earlier edition of this book], to be in the good company of Augustine who, in his earlier writings, believed that the charismatic gifts had died out in the Church and were no longer needed. But by the time he wrote The City of God, however, he had realized his scepticism was unwarranted. In Book 22 he tells how he changed his mind “once I realized how many miracles were occurring in our day…It is only two years ago that the keeping of records was begun here in Hippo, and already, at this writing, we have nearly seventy attested miracles.”‘ (Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p271)

To read more about the changes in Augustine’s theology, one should read City of God, Book 22, Ch. 8, which is specifically subtitled, Of Miracles Which Were Wrought that the World Might Believe in Christ, and Which Have Not Ceased Since the World Believed. Now, what one will notice is that Augustine specifically refers to healings and miracles that happened through relics, which evangelicals have tended to not agree with such a practise.

So the words of Augustine will be challenging to many evangelicals. I am personally not closed to such, not so much to utilise Augustine’s comments to bolster my own theology, but for knowing how things in biblical times were not always done within our prescribed framework: Jesus had a spitting ministry at times with healing (see Mark’s Gospel), Isaiah walked around naked for quite a while (see Isaiah 20:1-3), Elisha’s bones raised a man (see 2 Kings 13:14-21), handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul were used for healing (see Acts 19:11-12). And, if we will pay attention, we will see God has been doing things ‘outside the box’ from creation until now.

Interesting and challenging, not always fitting in OUR boxes to say the least.

Therefore, church history does not unequivocally support cessationism. No doubt there were some cessationists, but there were also quite a few continuationists.

In the end, the Scripture stands as the starting point for forming our theology. Still, it is interesting to study history, since our faith has been walked out over thousands of years. We are not alone in this. And, with such a consideration of history, we have seen that, in all probability, God never ceased in displaying His glory and power through signs, wonders, miracles, healings, prophecy and other various spiritual gifts.

To end, I point out one other resource that might be of great interest to those who would like to study about the charismata of 1 Corinthians 12 throughout church history. It is Ronald Kidd’s Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church. I have not yet had the opportunity to read it, but it was suggested in another book on the charismatic gifts, which was written by a friend of mine.

Fifty Years of Charismatic Renewal

by Scott

David Neff of Christianity Today has recently authored an article entitled Ardor and Order, which gives some brief thoughts on remembering 50 years of charismatic renewal. Check out the article itself, but below are some words to highlight from it.

Neff shares these thoughts on how the work of the Spirit opened the door to greater participation across varying church circles:

I had been raised in a sectarian atmosphere, trained to distrust Christianity of any stripe but my own. For me, what made the charismatic renewal remarkable was the ecumenical fellowship it created. American Baptists and Roman Catholics in our community were sharing Communion—even serving Communion at each other’s churches—until the Catholic bishop put a stop to it. Episcopalians were worshiping with an intensity that undercut all my prejudices against written prayers and prescribed liturgies. Formerly competing religious communities were suddenly open to common ministry and shared worship. This was not the classic liberal ecumenism with its “Doctrine Divides, Service Unites” motto. This ecumenism flowed from recognizing that the Holy Spirit was animating and transforming others.

He specifically gives these insightful words on the more lasting effect of the charismatic renewal:

Some analysts say the mainline charismatic renewal fizzled. It is more accurate to describe it the way Jesus pictured the kingdom of God: like yeast that spreads through bread dough. You can hardly identify it as a movement anymore, but it has changed the way most churches worship. Repetitive choruses and raised hands are now common. Except in pockets of hardcore resistance, the fact that a fellow Christian may praise God in a private prayer language hardly elevates an eyebrow.

Pentecostalism and the charismatic renewal have jointly given believers what historian Chris Armstrong calls Pentecostalism’s chief contribution to Christianity: an awareness of “a deep well of living water from which everything else flow[s] … the personal, relational presence of the living God.”

Even with some of its faults and holes, the charismatic renewal, or better yet, the Spirit of God, has brought a lasting effect upon the church. Not just in America, but in the whole world. Pentecostal and charismatic church numbers are soaring right across Africa, Asia, China and Central-South America. And I have personally been affected by such a movement. For this, I am in great debt.