Sometimes we start our history in the wrong place. It can be tempting to trace our roots back to the origin of our denomination or even the origin of Christianity in our country. But taking a longer view by tracing our roots back to the early church fathers leads to some surprises. We discover that some things, though relatively unusual in recent times, are actually very normal across the broader sweep of human history. Angels and demons would be an obvious example. Or, more surprisingly, miraculous gifts.
There is general agreement today that gifts like languages, prophecy, and healing disappeared early in the church’s history. Among those who believe they have ceased, this confirms the view that miraculous gifts are novel or even unorthodox. Among those who believe they continue, it confirms the view that modern charismatics are the radical heirs of a long-lost flame.
If we start our history at the Reformation, this is understandable. Ongoing prophetic (let alone apostolic) revelation sounded like the Roman Catholic view of the papacy. Miraculous gifts could easily be associated with practices like venerating the relics of saints. Those we call “charismatics” or “Pentecostals” today—people like me—would certainly have troubled many of our Reformation ancestors.
Yet if we take the long view of church history, the picture looks different. The New Testament is obviously full of miracles, but many patristic writings suggest that this continued throughout the first few centuries. Justin Martyr, the first great Christian apologist, put it bluntly in his Dialogue with Trypho (written around A.D. 160): “For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time.” So did Irenaeus of Lyon in Against Heresies (180):
For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe, and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. . . . We do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages.
Tertullian of Carthage (208) threw down the gauntlet to the heretic Marcion, challenging him to produce the same sorts of spiritual gifts. Forty years later, in Against Celsus (248), Origen mentioned those who have received “a marvellous [sic] power by the cures which they perform,” such that “we too have seen many persons freed from grievous calamities, and from distractions of mind, and madness, and countless other ills, which could be cured neither by men nor devils.”
A century later (350), Basil the Great described the work of the Spirit in striking terms: “The Spirit enlightens all, inspires prophets, gives wisdom to lawmakers, consecrates priests, empowers kings, perfects the just, exalts the prudent, is active in gifts of healing, gives life to the dead, frees those in bondage, turns foreigners into adopted sons.” Around the same time, Cyril of Jerusalem catechized new disciples with this: “For he employs the tongue of one man for wisdom; the soul of another he enlightens by prophecy; to another he gives power to drive away devils; to another he gives to interpret the divine Scriptures.” Augustine dedicated an entire chapter of his City of God (426) to miracles, listing an extraordinary range of healings from blindness, rectal fistula, breast cancer, gout, paralysis, hernia, demonization, and even death.
These testimonies are noteworthy for their chronological scope and their geographic reach (their authors hail from the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire and from north and south of the Mediterranean). All this in spite of the fact that the miraculous gifts, then as now, could be used as an excuse for speculation, self-indulgence, sectarianism, and silliness.
Knowing our heritage roots us in history and grounds us in orthodoxy. This makes it crucial, however, that we start the story in the right place.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and the author of Echoes of Exodus (Crossway). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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