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Signs and Wonders in the Early Post-Apostolic Era

 

History teaches that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit did not cease with the first apostles—the early church demonstrated signs and wonders of God’s work in the world.

 

Cessationism teaches that the types of signs and wonders evidenced in the New Testament are not for today. The reasons given by cessationists are varied, and the internet is full of websites dedicated to this doctrine. However, many scholars have written in favor of signs and wonders being for today, and they have shown that the arguments against signs and wonders today are weak and biased. Some of the most impressive examples of polemical writings in favor of signs and wonders today include The Kingdom and the Power, edited by Dr. Gary Greig and Kevin Springer; Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, by Dr. Jack Deere; Confronting Powerless Christianity, by Dr. Charles Kraft; On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Post-Biblical Miracles, by Dr. Jon Ruthven; just to name a few.

In this article, I want to take you back in history and present to you an argument for signs and wonders revealing that the miraculous works done by Jesus and the apostles were also done by the early church—thus showing that the main thesis of cessationists, signs and wonders passed away with the last of the apostles, is false. I will limit my discussion to exorcism and healing, and I will quote writers from the 1st-3rd centuries who have written about continuing signs and wonders. I will also add commentary where I feel it may be helpful and relevant for today’s church.

All of the quotes are from the 10 volume The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson between 1885-1887.1 They are cited in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, edited by David W. Bercot.2 The citations use the convention of “volume number. page number”; thus 1.200 indicates a quote is from volume 1, page 200. I will use the notation of ANF 1.200 to designate a quote’s location.

 

Exorcism

One of the main themes I found in the early church writings I examined was exorcism. In the New Testament, exorcism is a sign, wonder, or miracle, bringing deliverance to an individual who is demonically oppressed or possessed. Let’s first examine some of the evidence that exorcism continued on, past the apostolic age.

Justin Martyr
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Justin Martyr, c.155 (or shortly thereafter)

“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.” ANF 1.190

“We call Him Helper and Redeemer. Even the demons fear the power of His name at this day, when they are exorcised in the name of Jesus Christ, … they are defeated.” ANF 1.209

“He said, ‘I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions.’ … And now we have all the demons and evil spirits subjected to us, when we exorcise them.” ANF 1.236

The miraculous works done by Jesus and the apostles were also done by the early church.

Justin Martyr shows quite clearly that exorcism was being practiced around the mid 100s, which is well beyond the life of the last apostle John. What strikes me as important in these quotes is how Justin shows ordinary Christians performing exorcisms. For example, his statement, “many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ”, reveals a ministry that was not confined to Christian leaders, elders, bishops, pastors, or any other Christian authority figure. They were being done by “Christian men” and this appears to indicate an authority that all believers shared.

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Category: Church History, Spring 2009

About the Author: Frank A. DeCenso, Jr. is the author of Presence Powered Living: Building a Life of Intimacy and Partnership with God (Vineyard International Publishers). He is also the compiler of the multi-author compendiums Amazed by the Power of God, and God’s Supernatural Power in You from Destiny Image Publishers. Frank and his wife Denise reside in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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