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Don Stewart :: Does History Give Evidence of Sign Gifts Having Ceased?

Don Stewart
One of the most-often voiced objections to the modern-day usage of the sign gifts is an argument from history. The cessationists argue that once the apostles died those sign gifts died with them. The following historical arguments are given against the sign gifts continuing in the church:

1. There is no evidence that the sign gifts survived the apostles. The testimony of church history is that the sign gifts ceased with the death of the apostles. The second generation of Christians did not practice these gifts.

2. Some early church leaders plainly asserted that the gifts were no longer practiced in their time. Early church leaders such as John Chrysostom, Theodore, and Augustine said the sign gifts were not being exercised in the church.

3. Those who did practice the gifts were from heretical or cultic groups. Any exercise of the sign gifts was by fringe groups. The mainline church did not exercise the sign gifts.

4. The church has never officially emphasized and substantiated the use of the gifts. They have been absent from the church throughout its history.

Response

The information we have is incomplete with regard to early Christianity, but there is plenty of evidence that the sign gifts did not die out with the apostles.

Iranaeus (A.D. 130-200) described spiritual gifts in his day:

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, Iranaeus Against Heresies Ante-Nicene: 100-325, Vol. 2 of The History of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973, p. 531).

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 Lords 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).

There are other early references to the existence and exercise of the gifts by Tertullian (A.D. 160-200) and Bishop Hillary who died in A.D. 367. Thus the idea that spiritual gifts immediately ceased with the apostles is untrue. The sign gifts remained and were exercised to varying degrees in the early church.

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.

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

No theology of spiritual gifts developed in the church until recently. 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 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 (cited by Michael Harper, As at the Beginning: The Twentieth Century Pentecostal Revival, Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International, 1971, pp. 17,18).

Spiritual gifts were not given much attention in the church until recently. Therefore the lack of their mention should not cause us to draw any premature conclusions.

We may conclude, therefore, by saying that the testimony of church history shows that the gifts did not cease immediately with the apostles but were used by others after them.

CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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