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William De Arteaga: Agnes Sanford and Her Companions, reviewed by Jon Ruthven

William L. De Arteaga, Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), ISBN 9781625649997

William De Arteaga has created a ground-breaking, major contribution that is foundational to the evolving understanding of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement projected to reach 811 million in only four more years.

The author offers a surprisingly sympathetic narrative of one whom he regards as the foremost, and ultimately, most influential theologian of the charismatic renewal, a woman nonetheless maligned as a “new age” heretic, Agnes Sanford.

De Arteaga’s work employs two metaphors to express its thesis that Sanford’s ministry overcame cessationism (the “Galatian bewitchment” 3:1-3, replacing the miracle power of God with human effort), by a series of “Marcion shoves” (a reference to a heretic pushing a truth into error in order to bring that truth to the attention of the mainstream). In Sanford’s case, hers was a trial-and-error sampling of various contemporary positions on healing, being dialectally “shoved” into a thoroughly biblical understanding.

In the early 1930s, the loudest voice against healing, however, was the heretical consensus doctrine of Protestantism of that time: cessationism, that is, miracles of healing simply do not happen today. Sanford began her God-given quest by having to reject the “Galatian bewitchment” of her cradle faith, Protestantism. In this De Arteaga showed how Sanford, in the total vacuum of Christian biblical scholarship on healing, was compelled to search a variety of fringe groups for any possible insight into the truth about the healings she had received from God. Through all this, Sanford held to the centrality of Jesus and his scriptures, but only gradually, with no help from the church, discovering how central was healing to the biblical mission and message of Jesus and the New Testament.

Agnes was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China, educated in the US, who as an adult continued their ministry back in China briefly until she met and married an Anglican missionary, Ted Sanford. Against the growing destabilization of China by competing warlords in the 1920s and by the insurgent communists, the new family moved to the USA to minister in Anglican churches near Philadelphia. Upon the healing of her baby son of a severe ear infection and of her own deep depression by a fellow Anglican clergyman, Agnes Sanford’s life course was set. It was discerned that her depression derived from “violating her God-given nature” by trying to be an excellent housewife instead of the writer and minister of healing that God had called her to be.

At this point, since the Christian tradition at that time was unanimously cessationist (the “Galatian bewitchment”) Sanford decided to test (ever alert to the “Marcion shove”) the variety of competing ideologies on healing, Christian Science, occult “science,” spiritism, “New Thought,” New Age, etc. against the “standard” of Jesus described in the four Gospels.

Since she had personally experienced such miracles, Sanford’s curiosity was drawn to the only voices of the time, who seemed to affirm what she had seen so clearly. She skimmed Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health but found “it did not make sense.” She twice attended a “Christian” spiritist séance, “carefully keeping an open mind,” but discovered the leader himself was plagued by spirit-induced headaches. When Sanford prayed for the spiritist’s sick mother, she found herself in “deep depression” and “could taste in [her] own mouth” the foul odor on the breath of the spiritist. On top of that the spiritist’s mother immediately died. Sanford promised the Lord that she would “never go near a séance again.” Unwittingly, she came to understand that her prayer was mixing the “energy” of the demonic with that of the Holy Spirit. Thereafter, she would screen out for special attention and prayer anyone who admitted to involvement in spiritism. Despite her strict and clear repudiation of her experiment with “Christian” spiritism, critics pounced on her account as evidence of her “demonic” ministry, instead of it serving as a “Marcion shove” toward biblical truth. Sanford’s “scientific” and biblical process of “Do not quench the Spirit . . . test all things, hold fast to that which is good” (1Th 5:19-20) proved inflammatory for her critics.

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Category: Church History, Fall 2015

About the Author: Jon M. Ruthven, Ph.D., spent his entire adult life in ministry, starting with David Wilkerson in Boston and New York City in the mid-60s. After spending a dozen years pastoring, a couple a years as a missionary in Africa as the head of Bible school, he ended up teaching theology in seminary for 18 years. Always interested in training and discipleship, Jon is developing a radically biblical approach to ministry training that seeks to replicate the discipling mission of Jesus in both content and method. Jon has written numerous scholarly papers and books including On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles (1993 and 2009) and What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology? Tradition vs. Biblical Emphasis (2013). He continues to emphasize the biblical grounding for a practical ministry of healing, signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit. Facebook.

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