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Power Ministry In The Epistles

Walter R. Bodine, “Power Ministry In The Epistles: A Reply to the Evangelical Cessationist Position.”*

The Power of the Cross: The Biblical Place of Healing and Gift-Based Ministry in Proclaiming the Gospel

In his review of four books favorable to the so-called “signs and wonders” movement Tim Stafford voices an objection that is frequently raised. It is the assertion that “… the New Testament epistles show such slight interest in miracles … .”1 The implication often drawn, though not explicitly by Stafford, is that this indicates the temporary nature of the “sign gifts” (i.e., healing, miracles, prophecy, tongues, interpretation of tongues), a view usually known as the “cessationist position.”2 Otherwise, as this line of reasoning goes, we would expect more attention to them in the epistles.

I wish to argue here that this is not the case at all. First of all, I doubt that it is fair to speak of a “slight interest” in miracles in the epistles. At least five epistles devote explicit attention to the gifts of the Spirit (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:1-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22; 1 Peter 4:10-11). Wherever the gifts are detailed, those that are regarded from the cessationist viewpoint as temporary are intertwined with those that are regarded as permanent. No distinction is drawn or implied in the New Testament,3 and the space devoted to the subject is hardly insignificant.

I recognize that the emphasis of the epistles is elsewhere. Their primary concern is with building faith and character. They were written to believers by people who had ministered to them and who deeply cared to see them spiritually established so as to be able to live productively within the Christian community and in society. In other words, the epistles had a primary focus; and it was other than that of supernatural gifting. It was on character development and godly living. This does not call into question the continuance of any of the gifts any more than it questions the ongoing reality of other functions of believers which are likewise not emphasized in the epistles. Such would include, for example, evangelism, relief to the poor, social action against oppression, etc.

The gospel is God’s power which is displayed among men.

Let me amplify, using evangelism as an example. In contrast to frequent exhortations to exercise spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1, 12-13, 26-39; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20;4 1 Peter 4:10-11), I have not yet found one express command to verbal witnessing in the epistles.5 Does this mean that the writers of the epistles viewed personal evangelism as an initiating activity which would cease once the Church was established, or once the New Testament was complete? The latter could as plausibly be argued as the cessation of certain spiritual gifts at the completion of the canon, and the evidence of the epistles, if it be interpreted thus, would be stronger for the cessation of evangelism. No evangelical I know would argue that way, nor would I. Neither should such evidence be claimed for a cessationist position regarding certain gifts.

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Category: Fall 2007, Spirit

About the Author: Walter R. Bodine (as of 1992) is currently engaged in independent scholarly work in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, focusing now on Sumerian and Assyriological studies. He received a Ph.D. (Northwest Semitics and Old Testament, 1973) from Harvard University. He chaired the Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew unit of the Society of Biblical Literature from 1982-1991. He has published several scholarly works, including Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew (Eisenbrauns, 1992), The Greek Text of Judges: Recensional Developments (Harvard Semitic Monographs, no. 23; Scholars Press, 1980), and Discourse Analysis and Biblical Literature (Society of Biblical Literature, 1995).

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