The early church and spiritual gifts: A layman reads The Ante Nicene Fathers

 RenewAmerica.com, Dan Popp, December 12, 2009

And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover. — Jesus (Mark 16:17,18 NASB)

This article continues a series of my observations on the writings of the early Christian church leaders — the so-called Ante Nicene Fathers. In order to understand the purpose, scope and context of this series, please read its introduction.

 

Maybe you’ve heard the statement, “The spiritual gifts passed away with the apostles.” More than once I’ve even heard it coming from the pulpit. But is it true? For the purposes of this article, that’s a different question than “Are the spiritual gifts for today?” Whether the gifts died out later, or are bestowed in waves of revival on the church, are not questions The Ante Nicene Fathers can answer for us.

 

There are different lists of gifts in the New Testament, and I’m aware that some people divide the charismata into several categories. This article isn’t concerned with things like that. I’d like to know simply whether the Christian church continued to experience supernatural power after the apostles fell asleep.

 

Here are the testimonies of some eyewitnesses.

 

For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those who used incantations and drugs. — Justin Martyr, Second Apology Chapter 6, sometime before AD 165

 

Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho contains this:

 

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. (Chapter 39)

 

Irenaeus gives a similar report between AD 182 and 188: “This they have done, as being well aware that the gift of prophecy is not conferred on men by Marcus, the magician, but that only those to whom God sends His grace from above possess the divinely-bestowed power of prophesying; and then they speak where and when God pleases….” (Against Heresies Book 1, Chapter 13.4)

 

In Book 2 Irenaeus presses much further this distinction between the gifted church, and the ungifted heretics:

 

For they can neither confer sight on the blind, nor hearing on the deaf, nor chase away all sorts of demons — none, indeed, except those that are sent into others by themselves, if they can even do so much as this. Nor can they cure the weak, or the lame, or the paralytic, or those who are distressed in any other part of the body, as has often been done in regard to bodily infirmity. Nor can they furnish effective remedies for those external accidents which may occur. And so far are they from being able to raise the dead, as the Lord raised them, and the apostles did by means of prayer, and as has been frequently done in the brotherhood on account of some necessity — the entire Church in that particular locality entreating the boon with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man has returned, and he has been bestowed in answer to the prayers of the saints — that they do not even believe this can possibly be done…. (Chapter 31.2)

 

The author of The Shepherd of Hermas records a scene that recalls 1 Corinthians 14, written a hundred years earlier:

 

When, then a man having the Divine Spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in the Divine Spirit, and this assembly of men offers up prayer to God, then the angel of the prophetic Spirit, who is destined for him, fills the man; and the man being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks to the multitude as the Lord wishes. Thus, then, will the Spirit of Divinity become manifest. Whatever power therefore comes from the Spirit of Divinity belongs to the Lord. (Book 2, Commandment Eleventh)

 

But Clement of Alexandria seems to disagree. Around AD 200 in his Exhortation to the Heathen, he writes, “He spake by the burning bush, for the men of that day needed signs and wonders.” It’s possible that he didn’t class “spiritual gifts” with “signs and wonders,” in which case his words wouldn’t apply to our question. But it’s remarkable that Clement is unknowingly plagiarized by Christians today who say that miracles were given only to the apostles because the people of “that day” needed supernatural proof of the gospel, while the people of our more scientific age do not. When Clement originated this line of reasoning, his time was the philosophical, advanced age that didn’t need signs; from our perspective his time is the primitive, superstitious age. Maybe we aren’t as sophisticated as we’d like to think.

 

Tertullian wrote in The Shows (De Spectaculis) around the same period, “What nobler than to tread under foot the gods of the nations — to exorcise evil spirits — to perform cures — to seek divine revealings — to live for God?” (Chapter 29)

 

And yet he makes a distinction between the Prophets who wrote the Old Testament, and prophecy happening in his day: “For, since His advent and personal passion, there is no longer ‘vision’ or ‘prophet;’ whence most emphatically he says that His advent ‘seals vision and prophecy.'” (An Answer to the Jews Chapter 11)

 

Origen contributes this: “For on some is bestowed by the Spirit the word of wisdom, on others the word of knowledge, on others faith….” (De Principiis Book 2, Chapter 7.3, perhaps around AD 230)

 

Interestingly Origen reports a decline in signs and wonders. “Traces of them are still preserved among those who regulate their lives by the precepts of the gospel,” he writes in Book 1 of Against Celsus (Chapter 2). In Book 2 of that same work: “For [the Jews] have no longer prophets nor miracles, traces of which to a considerable extent are still found among Christians, and some of them more remarkable than any that existed among the Jews; and these we ourselves have witnessed.” (Chapter 8) And in Book 7 he pens: “Moreover the Holy Spirit gave signs of His presence at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, and after His ascension He gave still more; but since that time these signs have diminished, although there are still traces of His presence in a few who have had their souls purified by the Gospel….” (Chapter 8)

 

Finally from Origen comes the detail that casting out demons is something done by ordinary laymen. He speaks of

 

…demons which many Christians cast out of persons possessed with them [.] And this, we may observe, they do without the use of any curious arts of magic, or incantations, but merely by prayer and simple adjurations which the plainest person can use. Because for the most part it is unlettered persons who perform this work; thus making manifest the grace which is in the word of Christ, and the despicable weakness of demons, which, in order to be overcome and driven out of the bodies and souls of men, do not require the power and wisdom of those who are mighty in argument, and most learned in matters of faith. (Against Celsus Book 7, Chapter 4)

 

But in the turbulent days of Cyprian (about AD 250) some martyrs-to-be left a different clue: “Lucianus wrote this, there being present of the clergy both an exorcist and a reader.” (Epistle 16)

 

Cyprian often mentions having visions, and reports on other revelations given to his church as well.

 

Even though counterfeits are a concern in any age, an honest reading of The Ante Nicene Fathers reveals that the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in many expressions, operated in the church for centuries. To say, “The spiritual gifts passed away with the apostles,” seems tantamount to calling many trustworthy witnesses, liars.

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