Gifts of the Holy Spirit

The whole issue of charismatic gifts is perhaps the most divisive issue of twentieth century Christianity. Earlier this century, when the gifts of the Spirit were demonstrated in different camp meetings and various congregations, angry, and even sometimes violent, church splits erupted over the question of the legitimacy of the charismatic gifts. It was several decades before the Pentecostal Movement was granted a degree of tolerance amongst evangelical circles, and even now, still hovers on the edges of acceptance among evangelicals and mainstream Christianity.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, a number of pastors and evangelists began preaching that the same anointing of power for service was available to believers today, if they only sought God and waited on Him for the "baptism in the Holy Spirit". The common understanding in mainstream Christianity at that time was that the gifts of the spirit were evident in the apostles' ministries, as a sign of God's favor with the apostles, but these gifts had long since disappeared with the death of the last disciple (John in the late first century). The Pentecostal/Charismatics claim that the contemporary manifestations of the Spirit are divinely given gifts that were originally lodged with the church (rather than just the apostles) on the day of Pentecost, when the disciples "spoke with tongues and prophesied". The debate goes back and forth. Many other non-Pentecostal evangelicals claim that the gifts disappeared when the New Testament was completed, citing Paul's reference to "when that which is perfect come, the imperfect shall cease" (1 Cor 13:10) . Some even claim that the use of the gifts disappeared when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. These viewpoints, regardless of exactly when in the early church the gifts ended, are all called "Cessationist" since they all agree that the gifts of I Corinthians chapter 12 are extinct. The one thing that no one ever brings up, however, is what actually happened to the gifts in the early church from a historical perspective. Did they cease in 90 A.D.? How about 70 A.D.? How about 200 A.D.? It is absurd that for so many years, preachers and whole denominations have made dogmatic statements about such a sensitive point of theology without any inquiry to the historical validity of their statements. Following are some of the evidences for the existence of the gifts of the Spirit in the patristic church, and the eventual decline of the manifestation of such supernatural works.

The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, ca. 100 A.D.)

This document was one of the earliest post-apostolic writings. Scholars are frequently at a loss as to how to classify it or date it since it demonstrates that the presence of itinerant prophets in the church as a normal and desirable phenomenon. Prophecy and "ecstatic speaking" (tongues) are likewise expected. The document shows that the church, immediately after the apostles, continued in these practices. This also dispels the idea that "prophecy" as described is the equivalent of "preaching", which is an idea that is sometimes suggested by Cessationists. In addressing the issue of identifying false prophets, the Didache offer some guidelines. Some such indicators for a false prophet are:

1) If the prophet, while "speaking in the spirit" asks for money or any other sustenance.

2) If the prophet teaches rightly, but does not do what he himself says.

In this entire writing, which purports to be verbal teaching handed down by the apostles, there is no indication that the gifts were expected to end during the church period.

Ignatius (107 A.D.)

This disciple of John's started all of his letters by referring to himself as "Theophorus" (meaning the "God-filled") which is generally accepted to as allusion to his repute as a prophet. He encourages Polycarp, another of John's disciples to likewise "seek heavenly visions."

Justin Martyr (d. 165 A.D.) clearly taught the perpetuity of the spiritual gifts. Very few have thought to try to characterize the apologist as a charismatic, yet he unabashedly tells Trypho, a Jew with whom he debated with in Dialogue with Trypho ( 150 A.D.) that the same prophetic anointing of the Hebrew prophets was now found in the church of God.

For the prophetic gifts remain with us, even unto the present time. And hence you ought to understand that the gifts formerly among your nation (Israel) have been transferred to us (LXXXII)

Irenaeus, the great apologist, gives a graphic picture of the charismatic gifts that were practiced in the orthodox churches. In the following two statements, he presents these phenomena as things which are present in the church of his day.

Irenaeus: (Against Heresies, 180 A.D.)

For some certainly and truly drive out devils...others have foreknowledge of things to come; they see visions, they speak prophetically. Others still heal the sick by laying hands on them, and are made whole. Yea, moreover as I have said, the dead are raised up and remain among us for many years. And what more shall I say? It is not possible to name the number of gifts which the church has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ...For as she has received freely from God, freely does she also minister to others.

(Against Heresies Book V:VI)

In like manner, we also have many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God. "

Just a few years later, Tertullian paints a picture of the church that would seem to offer a warm welcome to many contemporary Charismatics. This particular writing is understood by scholars to have been written before Tertullian left the mainstream church.

Tertullian ( The Shows, 197 A.D.):

For what more delightful than to have God the Father and our Lord at peace with us...and the pardon of our innumerable sins?...What nobler than to tread under foot the gods of the nations-to exorcise evil spirits-to perform healings, to seek divine revealings, to live to God?

In his apologetic work Against Marcion, (written 207 A.D.) Tertullian offers as one proof to the legitimacy of his church and the illegitimacy of Marcion's the fact that all of the gifts of the spirit: (tongues, prophecy, word of knowledge, etc.), were manifest in his church services, whereas they were not in Marcion's church. Later in life, Tertullian was known to have fully devoted himself to the Montanist movement, which was acknowledged by all to be charismatic. The extreme asceticism, and harsh moral code, as well as some more flamboyant excesses with regard to the gifts earned Montanism the distinction of being a schismatic sect, in opposition to the orthodox church. One fragment from a 3rd century apologist refuting Montanism cited their error as being the introduction of novel doctrines, mostly concerning the Second Coming of Christ.

Origen, the brilliant Alexandrian scholar, offers yet another vivid image of the gifts within the church. Notice the similarities to the account by Philo, the Alexandrian Jew from 150 years earlier (see page 12). Philo’s description of the Therapeuts and Origen’s account speak volumes about the continuity of the Christian community in that city.

Origen (Against Celsus, 230 A.D.)

For we assert that the whole habitable world contains evidence of the works of Jesus, in the existence of the churches he founded...and the name of Jesus can still remove distractions from the minds of men, expel demons, and also take away diseases; and produce a marvelous meekness of spirit and complete change of character, and a humanity, and a goodness, and a gentleness in those individuals.

Origen here presents one of the most balanced observations of the spiritual gifts available. He accurately speaks of the existence of the miraculous gifts, and clearly couples them with the primary purpose of God's Holy Spirit: bringing a radical change in individuals to bring their character into conformity with Christ's. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not with the church for merely their entertainment value. Their legitimate function is fully encompassed by the parameters of their usefulness in bringing individuals to a higher degree of sanctification and integrity of character.

About the same time, Urbanus wrote an apology against the Montanists. If there was ever a time that the orthodox Christians could have put forth the belief that the gifts had ceased, this would have been the opportune time. Rather, we see the exact opposite.

Urbanus (Against the Montanists, 232 A.D.):

For the Apostle (Paul) deems that the gift of prophecy should abide in the church up to the time of the final advent.

Keep in mind with this text, that the Early Church Fathers do not use "prophecy" as a term for "preaching". They are affirming the "charismatic" gift. Had the gifts ceased by this point, it would have been easy enough to state that fact and have an iron-clad rebuttal. Instead, he states that such charismatic gifts would be with the church until the very end of the church age. His rebuke of the Montanists, therefore, was based on the fact that the whole church had prophetic gifts, not just Montanists, and that the Montanists were presumptuous for declaring that only they had "prophecy". The actual condemnation of the movement centered on the fact that they were entertaining novel doctrine, not that they were charismatic. .

Later, in the early 4th Century, approximately 100 years later, we find Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History recount these various examples of the miraculous in the church. After reciting the aforementioned texts from Irenaeus and numerous other instances, he comments that:

So much in regard to the fact that various gifts remained among those who were worthy even until that time.

This sobering statement carries with it the clear connotation that the gifts had largely disappeared, surviving longest with those whose hearts were right before God. Although it is clear that the post-apostolic church was familiar with and acknowledged spiritual gifts, over the course of time, the presence of such manifestations of the Holy Spirit began to wane. By the Fifth century, we have a startling quote from one of the greatest preachers, and last memorable men of integrity before the church slid into apostasy. John Chrysostom says:

But now we retain only the symbols of those gifts...But the present Church is like a woman who hath fallen from her former prosperous days, and in many respects retains the symbols only of that ancient prosperity...but now she is made desolate and void, and the tokens only remain.

It is apparent that the disappearance of the gifts is most properly understood as being a result of the backsliding and apostasy of the church, rather than God removing a blessing which he had promised the church. The Bible implies that this gift is always to be with the church for this entire dispensation (see Romans 11:29, Acts 2:39).

The reduction in the presence of the gifts corresponds proportionally to the rise of the tradition-based sacramental church. The Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement, therefore, finds legitimacy inasmuch as it is a restoration of that which was present with the apostles. This does not mean, however, that we need to give blanket approval of all Pentecostal or Charismatic elements just because a preacher or "prophet" will preface his actions or doctrine with "God revealed to me...". The early church was very discerning and carefully examined every teaching and practice that arose in the post-apostolic church. That which couldn't be found in antiquity, in the very earliest churches, was rejected as "novel". How I wish that we today were so discerning with regard to the so-called "revelations" that many of our churches have elevated to dogma.

What may be even more disturbing is the possibility that there may be contemporary evidences of "spiritual gifts" that are satanic counterfeits, purposed to deceive even the elect from the truth of the apostolic gospel. Origen, who gives a balanced defense of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in Against Celsus (cited above), in the same book, warns that in his day, there were disciples of heretical movements that were demonically empowered to do supernatural acts. He gives an even more solemn warning where he says that the

Proceedings of the antichrists, and those who feign that they can work miracles as being the disciples of Christ, are said to be lying signs and wonders, prevailing with all deceivableness of unrighteousness among them that perish.

Origen states that the man of sin (the antichrist) would be able to perform such works, and there would be a rash of such demonstrations as the age draws to a close. We may be quick to point to the ever-growing acceptance in the Western culture of the paranormal, psychic, and "spiritual" experiences as indicative of this fact, but would we dare indict any of our own number on these grounds? Are there any Christian churches who have unwittingly given heed to doctrines of demons because they have been swayed by a supernatural demonstration that was supposedly orchestrated by the Holy Spirit? I would not delve into the possibilities here, but I will say that it is imperative that we do not veer from what is explicitly biblical in our thinking or practice just because there is a movement, event, or "big name" Christian celebrity who is allegedly ushering in a "new wave" of God's Spirit. If it is not ancient and apostolic, if it is not explicitly scriptural, be cautious.

I can clearly remember being at a large charismatic gathering one evening. The worship was great. The music flawless. Hundreds of us were blessing the Lord. Just then a well-known conference speaker got up to share a "prophetic word". Suddenly I got sick feeling to my stomach. He proceeded:

Thus says the Lord; My children, you are tapping into My abundant riches of mercy, you are being blessed tonight because you come here to exalt My chosen vessel, the one who is the source of My mercy for you, the one who intercedes for you daily; I am amongst you because you honor and are devoted to the one whose obedience brought salvation to mankind....Mary.

This declaration was greeted by loud shouts of "Amen" from the most of the attendees, who were students at the Roman Catholic university where this meeting was held. As the prophecy went on, the "Lord" continued to bestow titles upon Mary such as "Co-Redemptrix", "Mediatrix" among other titles of honor. I did not stay for the rest of that "word" since it was so grievous to listen to. Later that night, I met with some of the students who had attended. All of them felt "in their spirit" that God spoke to them that night. None of them saw anything askew with the focus of the evening. Some were uplifted by the music, others by the eloquence of the speakers, even some claimed they received a healing. It did not seem right to them that I should be speaking disparagingly of the content of what was said. The homage given to Mary that evening far exceeded even that which the Vatican would grant. Those attending, however, were won over by the way things were presented, and the apparent "manifestation of the S(s)pirit".

Consequently, it goes without saying that no matter what one's spiritual tradition may be, regardless of what "miracle" or "sign" may appear, all things must be judged according to it's congruity with the apostolic gospel. John warns us not to "believe every spirit, but test the spirits, to see if they are from God (I John 4:1)." We would do well to remember that the Montanist Movement, which may have begun in earnest as a conservative, Bible-centered movement with legitimate expression of the gift of prophecy, became just another schismatic and divisive sect because of their acceptance of non-apostolic doctrine, and frequent indulgence in speculative theology.

To recapitulate the historical perspective on the gifts of the Spirit, it must be stressed that there are no grounds for insisting on the Divine removal or cessation of charisms during the church age. They were imparted to the church, and remained in the church among the faithful. The gifts were largely latent during the years of apostasy, but the power of the Holy Spirit was intended by God to be present in the church, for the purpose of edification and evangelism, until the Second Advent. With the empowerment of these divine charisms, however, comes the awesome responsibility of guarding the apostolic faith from novel "revelations" and "words". Regardless of one’s spiritual "heritage", any "word" allegedly from God that eclipses or adds to what was received by the apostles is error, and must be refuted and discarded. This principle of critically examining allegedly "divine" utterances could be typified in I Corinthians 14:29, where we see that every time "prophets’ spoke, the rest of the "prophets" and congregation were enjoined to "judge" the content of what was said. If the church as a whole were diligent in this matter, we could have avoided ourselves a lot of division, false doctrine and sectarianism.


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