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An Affirmative Pentecostal Theology of the Miraculous

Miraculous Signs and Wonders

At the paradigmatic Pentecost event, Apostle Peter offers the idea that miracles have special sign value (Acts 2:22-24). At the first, New Testament miracles attested to the identity of Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah. But an authenticating theme arises in Paul’s miraculous ministry too, both in his defense and in his refutation of false apostles (Romans 15:19; 2 Corinthians 12:9; cp. chapters 10-12). Thus Hart asserts that “sign” “is perhaps the most helpful term for describing the nature of miracle because a “miracle is a sign of the kingdom of God” that “points beyond itself to a transcendent reality, purpose, and person (God).”[37] In paradoxical fashion Jesus refuses to cater to sign seekers even while performing miraculous signs (Mark 8:11-13). Jesus warned the faithful against false prophets and phony messiahs who deceive the simple through misleading signs (Matthew 24:24). Yet John’s Gospel insists that Jesus’ numerous miraculous signs are an incentive for and aid to saving, life-giving faith in God’s Son (20:30-31).

Of course miraculous signs and wonders did not originate with the contemporary Pentecostal movement. Stan Burgess and Gary McGee carefully chart an impressive, if sporadic, record of signs and wonders throughout the long ages of Church history.[38] They further affirm that the emergence of Pentecostalism has led to renewed interest in and emphasis on miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit which are often associated with effective evangelism mission. Frank Macchia assures that ample evidence suggests “Pentecostals were convinced from the beginning that they were involved in a latter rain of the Spirit that included a proliferation of miraculous gifts needed to restore the church to apostolic power.”[39] In this light, Pentecostals do not see signs and wonders as ends in themselves but as tangible assurances of the restoration of pristine power to the Church.

Miraculous signs and wonders occur in the Church for purposes of ministry or divine service. Thus Macchia can say, “A ‘charismania’ that sees spectacular gifts as an end in themselves will not do.” Rather, God graces believers with “manifestations and ministries that transcend the ordinary and the mundane in order to free them from structures and routines and to expose them to more liberating alternatives.”[40] In a word, signs and wonders are inseparable from ecclesial mission and point to Spirit-empowered service in the world for Christ’s sake. One of the most prevalent and persistent problems in Pentecostalism today has been a tendency to see the presence of signs and wonders as authenticating a particular minister or ministry. That is not the case. In fact, spiritual gifts often seem to be manifested in those least likely to be impressive otherwise (cp. 1 Corinthians 1:25-27). At best, miraculous signs only point to a minister or his/her ministry indirectly. Miraculous signs are God’s testimony to our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:1-4). Note Mark 16:19-20.

So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. (NASB)[41]

Quite clearly, “signs” (semeion) is here used in the sense of “attesting miracles”. The idea of miraculous attestation is consistent with the overall message of the Gospels but Mark’s Gospel has a distinctive emphasis. I H. Marshall observed that in the Gospel of Mark “the mighty works” are quite distinctively concerned with the authority and identity of Jesus specifically—rather than general signs of the Kingdom of God.[42] Verse 20 certainly seems well aligned with that interpretation. In any case, the attestation by signs is not actually of, that is, to, the Apostles themselves. It is of or to the Word. The signs are specific miraculous attestations, or divine testimonies, to the truth and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The notion that God’s powerful works were being performed to lead people to repent and understand his intentions is found frequently in the NT.

Such attestation was not a new idea, and often reveals an evangelistic motif. Martin lists numerous scripture passages from the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles to support his observation that “The notion that God’s powerful works were being performed to lead people to repent and understand his intentions is found frequently in the NT”.[43] Miraculous manifestations were prevalent in the New Testament as witness to the nature of the gospel (e.g. Galatians 3:5). Pentecostal Christological and soteriological foci are apparent in Martin’s description of the gift of miracles as “a particular spiritual endowment by which a person is able to demonstrate God’s justifying and saving power, and to manifest the lordship of Jesus Christ over the whole universe by bringing about physical and moral effects that clearly transcend the power of merely human resources.”[44] However, Duffield and Van Cleave are doubtless on target to remind that miracles in themselves do not produce repentance.[45] Nonetheless essential to sound theology is an affirmation that miracles manifest the lordship of Jesus Christ over all creation. Miracles testify to the deity of Christ and to the verity of his gospel.

A House Divided

The major difference between Enlightenment anti-supernaturalism and Protestant cessationism is minor.

In short, sound Pentecostal theology understands miraculous signs and wonders as attestations to the Lord Jesus Christ and the good news of the gospel without which the witness and worship of the Church is deprived of much of its power and impoverished in its performance of its divinely ordained purpose in mission. However, Ruthven offers a significant additional emphasis. Before looking at it directly, let’s note some contextual background. The totality of the confusion over the validity of the miraculous cannot be correctly laid at the door of the Enlightenment. Christianity’s own “in fighting” is also partly to blame. Historically, Roman Catholicism affirmed the miraculous but relegated it to rarity. Thus miracles became mostly perceptible signs pointing out true doctrine or identifying great saints. In other words, miracles were sometimes used to affirm the superiority of Catholicism. Accordingly, many Protestants rejected the miraculous, either in whole or in part, as a reactionary defensive measure. In this manner, the doctrine of “cessationism,” or the teaching that miracles and spiritual gifts were limited to the New Testament era, arose and became widespread.[46] The unbiblical doctrine of cessationism is completely counter to everything Pentecostals are about.

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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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