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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are All Spiritual Gifts Active Today?

Don Stewart :: What Are the Arguments from Church History That the Sign Gifts Have Not Ceased?

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What Are the Arguments from Church History That the Sign Gifts Have Not Ceased?

Are All Spiritual Gifts Active Today? – Question 11

While many argue that church history demonstrates that the sign gifts have ceased there are others that take issue with this position. They contend that while the information we have is incomplete with regard to early Christianity there is plenty of evidence that the sign gifts did not die out with the apostles. The following observations need to be made.

What the Record Does Say

The testimony of church history, with respect to the sign gifts, shows that they did not cease with the death of the apostles. For example, Irenaeus (A.D. 130–200) described these spiritual gifts functioning in his day. He wrote.

Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands of them, and they are made whole (Philip Schaff, Irenaeus Against Heresies Ante-Nicene: 100–325, Vol. 2 of The History of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973, p. 531).

Here, in the second and third century, we have evidence of people who have the gift of knowledge as well as the gift of healing.

Later in the third century, in A.D. 257, Novation wrote.

This is he who places the prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, offers discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggest counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts, there are of charismata; and thus makes the Lord’s church everywhere, and in all, perfected, and completed (Philip Schaff, “Treatise Concerning the Trinity, XXIX,” Ante-Nicene: 100–325, vol. 2 of The History of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973, p. 641).

In this reference, there is clearly the assumption that all of the gifts of the Spirit are still operating. Note that he mentions tongues, wonderful works or miracles and healings among the gifts which were being exercised.

There are other early references to the existence and exercise of the sign gifts by Tertullian (A.D. 160–200) and Bishop Hillary who died in A.D. 367.

Thus, the idea that certain spiritual gifts immediately ceased with the apostles is untrue. The sign gifts remained and were exercised to varying degrees in the early church.

Some Church Leaders Changed Their Mind

It is true that some church leaders spoke out against the exercise of the sign gifts. But one of them, St. Augustine, changed his mind later in life. He wrote.

But what I said is not to be interpreted that no miracles are believed to be performed in the name of Christ at the present time. For when I wrote that book, I myself had recently learned that a blind man had been restored to sight... and I known about some others, so numerous even in these times, that we cannot know about all of them or enumerate those who know.

Augustine testified that miracles were still taking place at his time.

Thus, those who practiced the supernatural gifts during this period are unfairly singled out as extremists and heretics. Irenaeus, Justin, and Augustine, who cite their continued use in the early centuries, are respected church leaders, not cultists.

There Are Other Points That Need to Be Considered

As far as the lack of testimony with respect to sign gifts functioning after the time of the apostles there are a number of things that need to be considered.

The Records That We Now Have Are Very Limited

To begin with, we have only a fraction of the writings from believers who lived during the early years of the church. Many valuable records have been lost or destroyed. In addition, the expectation of the imminent coming of Jesus Christ did not encourage the keeping of records. Therefore, there is not that much material to work with.

There Were Other Issues in the Church That Were More Pressing

In addition, those in the early church had matters that were more pressing than developing a theology of spiritual gifts. Indeed, in the early years they were fighting for their very survival. As has been clearly documented, an untold number of Christians lost their lives during those early years.

In the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity, the need became apparent to develop belief statements. However, the issues that faced the church were the extent of Scripture, and the relationship of Jesus Christ to God; the doctrine of the Trinity. Spiritual gifts were not at the top of any list of doctrines which needed to be more fully examined.

Furthermore, we find that doctrinal statements were usually written to combat abuses and false doctrine. If there was no abuse or false doctrine concerning spiritual gifts, then we would not expect to find the issue addressed.

There Was No Systematic Theologies Written in the Early Church

Another point concerns the writing of systematic theologies. We find that there was no systematic theology written in the early years of the church. None! This being the case we cannot know what the beliefs were with respect to the subject of spiritual gifts.

No Major Commentaries on the New Testament Were Written

In addition, we do not find any major commentaries written on the New Testament in the early years of the church. This too keeps us from knowing how the mainline church felt about the sign gifts. Consequently, we are not certain, either way, on how they were viewed.

No Theology of Spiritual Gifts Was Developed until Recently

No theology of spiritual gifts developed in the church until recently. For many reasons, there was not need to construct a detailed assessment of the gifts. Therefore, the lack of their mention should not cause us to draw any premature conclusions.

The Decline of Spiritual Gifts Does Not Mean They Have Ceased

The fact that spiritual gifts may have declined in use during certain periods of the church does not mean that God has withdrawn them. There may have been other factors as to why these gifts were not practiced. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, believed the gifts fell out of use because of the spiritual state of the people. He wrote the following.

The cause of their decline was not as has been vulgarly supposed because there was no need for them, because all the world were becoming Christians... the real cause was: the love of many, almost all Christians so called was waxed cold... this was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit were no longer to be found in the Christian church; because the Christians were turned heathen again and had only a dead form left.

This is one possible reason for the lack of interest.

Unbelief May Have Slowed down the Exercise of All of the Gifts

The lack of exercise of certain gifts could have been because of the unbelief of the people. The Bible says that Jesus could not work miracles in His hometown of Nazareth because of unbelief. Matthew records Jesus saying.

And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:58 RSV).

The same may be true for the lack of exercising the more miraculous spiritual gifts.

The Church Became More Secular

In the fourth century, the church and the state merged. This caused the church to be more secular with less reliance on the Holy Spirit. This could have been a further reason for the lack of use of spiritual gifts.

Knowledge Was Divided between the Sacred and the Secular

The continuous growth of knowledge seemingly decreased the need for faith. The more people learned the less they felt the need to rely upon God.

Furthermore, knowledge was split into the spiritual and the secular. The Bible met spiritual needs while science met intellectual needs. Therefore, the idea of present-day miraculous events was downplayed if not downright rejected.

The Human Body Was Viewed as Evil

Certain beliefs, which came into the church, were at odds with Scripture. The body began to be view as something evil or unimportant. Sickness was then seen as God’s discipline as well as His will. Physical healing was re-interpreted to mean spiritual healing (James 5). Again, we find the supernatural being downplayed.

The Reformers Provide an Example of Rediscovering Lost Truth

We learn a lesson about rediscovering lost truth through the Protestant reformers. In the sixteenth century, the reformers rediscovered lost doctrines of the Christian faith. This included such things as the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone, justification by faith, as well as the use of Scripture alone as the final authority on all matters. These truths were rediscovered after years of absence from the mainline church.

Therefore, why is it impossible that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit cannot be brought back after centuries of neglect? Indeed, if other doctrines were restored then why not this one?

These are some of the responses given for the seeming lack of use of the miraculous sign gifts throughout the history of the church.

Summary – Question 11
What Are the Arguments from Church History That the Sign Gifts Have Not Ceased?

While some argue that church history shows that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit ceased with the apostles, others say this is not the case. There are a number of points which they make.

To begin with, we do have ancient church authorities telling us that these gifts were in use. This testimony comes from respected leaders, not heretics or cultists. Thus, the gifts were being exercised to some degree.

We must also remember that the records we have of church history are limited. This is especially true for the early years. There is so much that we do not know.

Also we must recognize that there were more important issues the church was dealing with in those early years. As a new movement, their responsibility was to convince the world of the truth of the message of Jesus Christ. The issue of spiritual gifts was not that important compared to other things which were taking place. It also must be appreciated that systematic theology or major commentaries were written during the early years. Thus, we do not really know what they believed about these matters.

Until recently, there has been no theology of spiritual gifts developed. Even if the gifts declined, it does not mean they ceased to exist.

Factors such as the merging of the church and the state need to be taken into consideration. Indeed, the church became more secular once it merged with the Roman Empire. This could have caused a decline in the usage of supernatural gifts.

The development of scientific knowledge could have caused their decline. The more knowledge people had the less they had to rely on faith.

In addition, it became popular to divide knowledge into two realms; the secular and the sacred. This caused people to downplay the possibility of the supernatural in their daily lives. Indeed, they believed that existence must be in the “real world.” This real world seemingly ignored the supernatural. This factor could have cause believers to drift away from the truth.

Also, the false idea that the body was evil spread throughout the church. This led to the downplaying of physical healing. Sickness was seen as a judgment of God. Consequently there was no need for any spiritual gift which would bring about supernatural healing.

One last thing must be noted. Since the Protestant reformers rediscovered neglected doctrines in the sixteenth century, it is not impossible for us in the twenty-first century to rediscover the work of the Spirit. Indeed, if such crucial doctrines as justification by faith and the importance of the Scripture alone were not emphasized in the church until a few centuries ago, it is understandable why the subject of spiritual gifts would not have been neglected.

In sum, church history cannot really tell us, one way or another, as to whether the sign gifts are still to be used. This answer can only come from the Scripture itself.

What Are the Arguments from Church History That the Sign Gifts Have Ceased? ← Prior Section
What Are the Arguments from Personal Experience That the Sign Gifts No Longer Operate? Next Section →
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