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Proclaiming the Gospel with Miraculous Gifts in the Postbiblical Early Church

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

 

Many stories in Christian history are filled with accounts of charismatic gifts, miracles, signs and wonders.

 

The emergence of the Pentecostal, the neoPentecostal or charismatic, and third wave movements in our century has raised a variety of vital questions that demand answers. Among these is the issue of whether the spiritual gifts enumerated by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 remained active in the Church after the first century. Equally crucial is the question of whether these gifts, if still active, were vitally related to the proclamation of the gospel in the Church during the formative centuries.

 

Protestant Cessationism

From the Reformation era onwards, leading Protestant theologians have popularized the view that the work of the Holy Spirit in evangelism after the apostolic age was limited to dynamic proclamation of the Word of God, rather than the exercise of spiritual gifts. This was the position of Martin Luther, who openly rejected the schwärmer or enthusiasts of his day—who claimed gifts of prophecy and gave higher credence to the “inner voice” of the Spirit than to the “external word” or Scriptures.1

Did spiritual gifts remain active in the church after the First Century?

The dominant strand of Protestant biblicism which Luther inaugurated has continued into our own century. It combines an emphasis on proclamation of the Word with the cessationist argument that the power gifts evidenced in the first century Church were neither necessary nor functional after the New Testament had been completed. Representative of this position is Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921), professor of theology at Princeton. Warfield was especially antagonistic towards defenders of revelational religious experience and those who insisted on special spiritual gifts. He felt that these substituted subjective religiosity for the completeness of Scripture.

Voices of cessationism still are with us, and presently are aimed at the healing and gift-based ministries of Pentecostals, charismatics, and third wave churches. Cessationists argue that miracles had little to do with the gospel or were incidental to the proclamation of the gospel in the New Testament. Further, they insist that gifts of healing as well as the other charismata ceased at or near the end of the first century A.D. For example, the claim has been made that “the Church Fathers, who came almost entirely from the East, believed that the apostolic gifts had ceased.”2 Such a claim is simply not true, as the evidence presented below shows.

Any honest inquiry into the history of spirituality in both Roman and Eastern traditions leads the scholar to conclude that the Holy Spirit invested the post-Apostolic Church with the same gifts and charismatic vitality experienced during the first century.

To make these claims, the cessationists have had to ignore or deprecate what was going on among Protestant fringe groups since the time of the Reformation. It is well known that a strand of enthusiasm has remained active in Protestantism, although most of the enthusiasts had been purged from the mainstream, and had been forced to function from the Protestant fringe. These include the Melchiorites, Sebastian Franck, Kasper von Schwenckfeld, the Society of Friends (or Quakers), the Prophets of the Cevennes (or Camisards), the Moravians, certain early Methodists, the Shakers, the Irvingites, and most recently, the contemporary Pentecostal movement (twentieth century charismatics and third wave evangelicals are in part mainstream).

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Category: Church History, Summer 2008

About the Author: Stanley M. Burgess received a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has taught history for 57 years and was Distinguished Professor of Christian History, Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia (2004–2011). He has written numerous scholarly articles on church history and the history of Christianity as well as several books, including The Spirit and the Church: Antiquity (Hendrickson), The Holy Spirit: Eastern Christian Traditions (Hendrickson), and The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions (Hendrickson), a documentary history of the Christian Peoples of the Spirit: A Documentary History of Pentecostal Spirituality from the Early Church to the Present (New York University Press, 2011), and was co-editor of the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Religion and Social Justice (Oxford, 2012).

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