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An Affirmative Pentecostal Theology of the Miraculous

Christians should use prudence and temperance regarding their belief in and approach to miracles. Christians should avoid being either presumptuous or pessimistic about the miraculous.

Thorsen notes that miracles played an important, and sometimes clearly affirming, role in the ministry of Jesus; but, Jesus was nevertheless reluctant to focus the faith of his followers too much on miraculous signs. However, this qualification did not signal a minimization of their importance since he still strongly emphasized the sign of his resurrection, arguably the ultimate miracle (Matthew 12:39, 41; cp. 16:1; 24:3; Mark 8:1).[27] At least part of the cautionary tone derives from the candid admission that some miraculous powers may be spurious in one way or another. Spurious miracles which are not of divine origin may arise from some secret magical art or demonic activity (Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7; Matthew 7:22; 24:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:9).[28] Thorsen suggests that Christians should use prudence and temperance regarding their belief in and approach to miracles. Christians should avoid being either presumptuous or pessimistic about the miraculous.[29]

Arrington likewise warns against naiveté toward pseudo-miracles and counterfeit miracles. These have their origin in the occult, Satanism, witchcraft, and spiritualism.[30] The Man of Sin (Antichrist) will be noted for such miracles (2 Thessalonians 2:9). However, genuine miracles are signs pointing to the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in our midst (Matthew 12:28), participating in the “powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). Accordingly, rather than a decrease of miracles we might reasonably expect an increase as we approach the coming again of Jesus Christ.[31] Amazingly, belief in the miraculous appears to have survived pre-modern superstition and modern rejection to flourish in postmodern times.

Biblical Balance

Again, much needed balance is prominent on the topic of the miraculous. Yet while there is a clear need for caution there is no need to discredit in toto the miraculous as of no value or viability in authentic Christian belief and practice. Believers need sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit in distinguishing the identity of the source of specific miraculous activity (1 Corinthians 12:10). Interestingly enough, we can discern from where a miracle is coming by noting where it is going. If it points to God’s Kingdom it is from God. If it points to the kingdom of darkness it is from Satan. Perhaps another way of putting this principle is that both good and evil can be known by the fruits they bear (Matthew 7:15-20). The “fruit of the light”, which “consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth” (Ephesians 5:9), stands in stark contrast to “the unfruitful deeds of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11 NASB). It is vital for Pentecostals to distinguish correctly between the true and the false in their encounters with the miraculous.

A Pentecostal tendency, as I have perceived it, to react reflexively and affirmatively to almost any and all so-called manifestations of the miraculous, out of an ardent and understandable but indefensible desire to defend the category of miracles as a viable reality against all comers, has not helped the perception of others regarding our credibility and reliability. This prejudicial tendency existed in the New Testament too—and not only among Christians—and with questionable results. I find the candor of the New Testament account of Paul’s trial before the Jewish High Priest most admirable. It freely admits that when Paul found himself in trouble he flagrantly appealed to the prejudice of the Pharisees toward the miraculous and the spiritual over against the negative bias of the Sadducees regarding the same (Acts 23:6, 8). This act resulted in a near riot!

An ancient Christian commentator, Bede, readily admits that “the apostle attempted to cause dissension among his persecutors, so that they might in their division release the man whom in their agreement they had bound”—namely Paul himself.[32] In Paul’s defense, this act likely saved his life in an unfair and illegal court scene when all the odds were stacked against him in a ridiculous case based on a trumped up charge. However, Paul apparently nonetheless regretted his actions, driven though they were by desperation, and later admitted it openly (24:21). Interestingly, another ancient commentator, Chrysostom sees Paul’s candid admission as evidence of his integrity and accountability.[33] Might not willingness to confess frankly a bias toward the supernatural that has sometimes led to questionable results be seen by many others as assurance of Pentecostals’ integrity and reliability? If so, might not our subsequent testimonies to authentic miraculous manifestations be deemed more credible?

One of the hardest hurdles for Pentecostals to overcome is the persistent stereotype of gullibility and larceny. Images of Pentecostal congregations willing to believe almost anything and of traveling evangelists willing to supply it for a price are damaging beyond description. Apostle Peter’s rebuke of Simon the Magician for efforts to commercialize the gospel through manipulation of the miraculous comes to mind (Acts 8:4-24). This text is a model for Pentecostals due to its demonstration of a distinct experience of immersion in the Holy Spirit chronologically subsequent to conversion accompanied by outward manifestations of spiritual gifts—a point to which many commentators, ancient and modern, quite agree.[34] They also agree that personal greed and lust for power to manipulate the miraculous are not appropriate or ethical in the practice of ministry.[35] We would all do well to listen.

However, in spite of the New Testament admonition, an ancient manual for church ministry, The Didache, indicates that discerning true from false prophets continued to be a problem in post-apostolic times. There was not a denial of the continuing validity of spiritual gifts in the communities of faith but rather discipline designed to guard against the faithful being manipulated or misled.[36] The problem continues even to this day and is prevalent among some Pentecostals. Accordingly, the ancient advice requiring prophets to teach the truth and follow what they teach in their practice is still valid today. If Pentecostals have an Achilles heel, it is probably a disturbing tendency to allow those who seem unusually gifted to get away with not keeping the usual guidelines for conducting ministry with integrity. That must stop. The true gospel links proclamation and practice in “the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness” (Titus 1:1 NASB). Anything else is false.

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Category: Spirit, Spring 2015

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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