Christian History Home > Blog > 2009 > January > Signs and Wonders: The Charismatic Power of Early Christianity
Signs and Wonders: The Charismatic Power of Early Christianity
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When we teach about the early church, we frequently omit the story of spiritual gifts.
Cessationism is the belief that the miracles of Jesus' lifetime and the apostolic period happened solely to attest to the authority and inspiration of the apostolic writings, and that miracles and extraordinary spiritual gifts ceased after the writing of the apostolic documents was concluded.
As writers such as ex-Dallas Seminary professor Jack Deere have argued, this is a position with no biblical foundation. But it also has a problem with the historical record. That record shows clearly that the early church was quite active in the charismatic gifts at least through 200 AD. There was a decline in the 3rd century, and then again it became active.
Sadly, many writers and teachers who are not cessationist continue to give the impression that miracles and extraordinary gifts were phenomena limited to the apostolic period. The way the early church is usually taught, we hear much about martyrdom and persecution; much about Gnostics and Arians and doctrinal disputes; much about how bishops and clergy roles evolved, and how the apostolic tradition was passed down and the canon of the New Testament evolved.
We hear how Tertullian scoffed at those who tried to translate the gospel into the categories of Greek philosophy; how Origen of Alexandria nearly single-handedly invented the systematic study of the Bible; how Irenaeus defended the faith against a host of heresies and spoke of the Work of Christ in illuminating new ways; how Cyprian insisted on the unity of the church and its necessity for salvation.
What we don't usually hear is how these same august teachers and bishops from the 100s and 200s AD and beyond - Tertullian, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and many more - talked about miracles of healing, prophecy, and exorcism as everyday occurrences in the church. Tertullian is typical when he says "God everywhere manifests signs of his own power - to his own people for their comfort, to strangers for a testimony unto them" (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul).
In other words, we are usually not told that the early Christian church was a charismatic church. I use this term in its technical sense: the community of Christians in the 100s and 200s continued to experience the charismata, the spiritual gifts, described by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.
The 19th-century church historian Adolf Harnack, in his Mission and Expansion of Christianity, explored this seldom-seen side of the early church. From the mouth of the influential bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, for example, we hear this:
In Christianity there is conferred (upon pure chastity, upon a pure mind, upon pure speech) the gift of healing the sick by rendering poisonous potions harmless,  by restoring the deranged to health, and thus purifying them from ignominious pains, by commanding peace for the hostile, rest for the violent, and gentleness for the unruly, by forcing - under stress of threats and invective - a confession from unclean and roving spirits who have come to dwell within mankind, by roughly ordering them out, and stretching them out with struggles, howls, and groans, as their sufferings on the rack, by lashing them with scourges, and burning them with fire. This is what goes on, though no one sees it; the punishments are hidden, but the penalty is open. Thus what we have already begun to be, that is, the Spirit we have received, comes into its kingdom. (Harnack, 142-3)
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