One argument that seems to arise from cessationists (those who would argue either for the ceasing of particular gifts of the Spirit or that they should not be expected in normal Christian life) is that church history records that signs, wonders, miracles and healings ceased soon after the first century, especially with the formation of the New Testament canon.
They didn’t continue then, so why should we expect them to continue now?
But what does history attest to?
We see that certain church fathers, like John Chrysostom, testified to the reality that such gifts are no longer available. In arguing for the ceasing of particular gifts of the Spirit, cessationists often quote these words of John Chrysostom (AD 347-407):
This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more? (Homilies on First Corinthians, Homily XXIX, 1)
These are some of the first words Chrysostom has on Paul’s thoughts in 1 Cor 12 about spiritual gifts. He is basically arguing that these words of Paul from long ago are quite obscure, the reason being that they were ignorant of these gifts being in action in their time and that they had simply ceased. He then proceeds to answer the question: why did they then happen, and now do so no more?
More evidence to support the cessationist case is shown through such words of the great Augustine (AD 354-430):
In the earliest times, “the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues,” which they had not learned, “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away. (Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Homily VI, 10)
Finally, certain confessions of faith attest to a cessation of particular spiritual gifts. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith makes this statement in its opening section on holy Scripture:
Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.
It might be hard to grasp in old English, but it is basically asserting that a) in former times, God saw fit to use certain special gifts for making his will known, but b) now God’s will is made fully known through the written Scriptures.
And, no doubt, there are other church fathers and variable sources that could be quoted in support of cessationism.
Thus, the cessationist argument could be summarised as this: Signs and wonders, miracles and healings, as well as other such things as prophecy and tongues, were only given in the time of the first apostles to authenticate their message, since the gospel and apostolic writings of Scripture were not yet complete. But, with the completion of the canon of Scripture, and with these writings later being compiled into the New Testament, there was no longer any need for such gifts.
And now it looks like church history supports such a claim – if not theologically, then at least practically. Where are these gifts?
Yet, the story cannot stop there. We cannot find ourselves quoting a few church fathers as giving the final verdict, can we?
Therefore, let’s take a moment to consider the words of some other church fathers and their specific thoughts about the gifts of the Spirit, specifically miracles, healings, prophecy and tongues. While I’ve come across varying quotes in my own reading, some of the church father’s quoted below have been pointed out by other continuationists and their online articles.
Justin Martyr (approx. AD 100-165)
Therefore, just as God did not inflict His anger on account of those seven thousand men, even so He has now neither yet inflicted judgment, nor does inflict it, knowing that daily some [of you] are becoming disciples in the name of Christ, and quitting the path of error; who are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God. (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39)
For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us. And just as there were false prophets contemporaneous with your holy prophets, so are there now many false teachers amongst us, of whom our Lord forewarned us to beware; so that in no respect are we deficient, since we know that He foreknew all that would happen to us after His resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven. (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39)
Irenaeus (approx. AD 120-202)
Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], 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. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practising deception upon any, nor taking any reward from them [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely from God, freely also does she minister [to others]. (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 4)
Nor does she [the church] perform anything by means of angelic invocations, or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error. (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 5)
In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms “spiritual,” they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit… (Against Heresies, Book 5, ch.6, 1)
Novatian (approx. AD 210-280)
…they [the first disciples] were henceforth armed and strengthened by the same Spirit, having in themselves the gifts which this same Spirit distributes, and appropriates to the Church, the spouse of Christ, as her ornaments. This is He who places prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, offers discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggests counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts there are of charismata; and thus make the Lord’s Church everywhere, and in all, perfected and completed. (A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity, ch.29)
Gregory Neocaesarea (AD 213-270)
Consider these words from church historian, Justo Gonzalez, as he chronicles some of the things that took place in the life of Gregory Neocaesarea.
The most famous of these workers of miracles was Gregory Thaumaturgus – a name that means “wonderworker.” He was from the region of Pontus, and had been converted through the learned witness of Origen. But upon returning to Pontus and becoming bishop of Neocaesarea, his great evangelistic success was due, not to his theological arguments, but to the miracles that he was said to perform. These were mostly miracles of healing, but we are also told that he could control the course of a river in flood, and that the apostles and the Virgin appeared to him and guided his work. (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, p99)
In his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green quotes an early church source, The Apostolic Constitutions, making note of the charismata gifts:
A passage in the Apostolic Constitutions crystallizes the point well: ‘These gifts were first bestowed upon us, the apostles, when we were about to preach the gospel to every creature, and afterwards were necessarily provided to those who had come to faith through our agency, not for the advantage of those who perform them, but for the conviction of the unbelievers, that those whom the word did not persuade the power of signs might put to shame.’ The charismata given in the apostolic age [first century] had not been revoked: they continued in the Church in the third century. (Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p270)
Finally, it would be interesting to read some of Augustine’s words near the end of his life. Though many cessationists might look to quote him as proof of a more cessationist view in the early church, as was shown in the beginning of this post, what we don’t realise is that Augustine actually had a change of theology near the end of his life.
Michael Green specifically points to his own study of the early church fathers as a reason why he shifted away from a more hard cessationist view, and he quotes these words of Augustine in his own reflections.
I am encouraged, in my recantation [from his hard cessationist thoughts in his earlier edition of this book], to be in the good company of Augustine who, in his earlier writings, believed that the charismatic gifts had died out in the Church and were no longer needed. But by the time he wrote The City of God, however, he had realized his scepticism was unwarranted. In Book 22 he tells how he changed his mind “once I realized how many miracles were occurring in our day…It is only two years ago that the keeping of records was begun here in Hippo, and already, at this writing, we have nearly seventy attested miracles.” (Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p271)
To read more about the changes in Augustine’s theology, one should read City of God, Book 22, Ch. 8, which is specifically subtitled, Of Miracles Which Were Wrought that the World Might Believe in Christ, and Which Have Not Ceased Since the World Believed. Now, what one will notice is that Augustine specifically refers to healings and miracles taking place through relics, which Protestant-evangelicals have tended to see such a practise as unhealthy.
So the words of Augustine will be challenging to many evangelicals. I am personally not closed to such, not so much to utilise Augustine’s comments to bolster my own theology, but rather because of what we can read in Scripture itself. Things were not always done within our prescribed framework.
For example, consider these: At times, Jesus healed through a ‘spitting ministry’ (see Mark’s Gospel). Isaiah walked around naked for quite a while (see Isaiah 20:1-3). Elisha’s bones raised a man (see 2 Kings 13:14-21). Handkerchiefs and aprons, touched by Paul, were used for healing (see Acts 19:11-12). And, if we will pay attention, we will see God has been doing things ‘outside the box’ from the beginning until now.
Interesting and challenging, not always fitting in our rules, to say the least.
Therefore, church history does not unequivocally support cessationism. No doubt there were some cessationists, but there have always been quite a few continuationists.
It is truly interesting to study church history, knowing that things did not begin with us, and they will not end with us. We are not alone in this. And, with such a consideration of history, we have seen that, in all probability, God never ceased in displaying his goodness and power through signs, wonders, miracles, healings, prophecy and other spiritual gifts.
To end, I point out one other resource that might be of great interest to those who would like to study about the charismata of 1 Cor 12 as seen and testified to in church history. Check out Ronald Kidd’s Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church. I have not yet had the opportunity to read it, but it was suggested in a book written by a friend of mine. This short and easy to read text is entitled The Case For Charismatics, written by Dr Michael Peters.