The recorded history of the Church has something to tell us about the sign gifts…Let’s consider this along with every other thing we know.
Admittedly, appealing to Church History or the majority view in church history, while useful in this debate, is essentially an appeal to experience and uninspired testimony (compared to the Apostles & Prophets) rather than to scripture alone. All the same, here are some questions to keep in mind as we take a cursory look backwards:
- Does Church History clearly support a clear line of continuation of the special gifts and offices rather than a cessation?
- Did the biblical miracles continue unbroken in the same quality and quantity as we see in the NT?
John Chrysostom (c. 344–407)
He made THE categorical statement that this was NOT the case:
“This whole place [speaking about 1 Corinthians 12] 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.”(Source: John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 36.7. Chrysostom is commenting on 1 Cor 12:1–2 [Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)] and introducing the entire chapter. Cited from 1–2 Corinthians, in the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, 146.)
St. Augustine (354–430)
“In the earliest times, the Holy Spirit fell upon them that believe and they spoke with tongues, which they had not learned, as the Spirit gave them utterance. These were signs adapted to the time. For there was this betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues [languages] to show that the gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a sign, and it passed away.”(Source: Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, 6.10. Cf. Schaff, NPNF, First Series, 7:497–98.)
It is a known fact that there is no clear line of continuity from the time of the Apostles to date. There was NO CONTINUATION. And this is in terms of both the sheer undeniable quality and quantity of the miracles recorded in the early Church.
The first Protestants were predominantly Cessationists
Cessationism was the original position of the first Protestants/Reformers. Many in the Church today, being ignorant of Church History, think that because of the current popularity and ubiquity of Continuationism, this has always been the norm in the Church. The reverse is the case.
Martin Luther (1483–1546)
“In the early Church, the Holy Spirit was sent forth in visible form. He descended upon Christ in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16), and in the likeness of fire upon the apostles and other believers (Acts 2:3). This visible outpouring of the Holy Spirit was necessary to the establishment of the early Church, as were also the miracles that accompanied the gift of the Holy Ghost. Paul explained the purpose of these miraculous gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 14:22, “Tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.” Once the Church had been established and properly advertised by these miracles, the visible appearance of the Holy Ghost ceased.“ (Source: Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians 4, Trans. by Theodore Graebner [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1949], pp. 150-172. This is from Luther’s comment on Gal. 4:6).
John Calvin (1509–1564)
“Though Christ does not expressly state whether he intends this gift [of miracles] to be temporary or to remain perpetually in the Church, yet it is more probable that miracles were promised only for a time, in order to give luster to the gospel while it was new or in a state of obscurity.” (Source: John Calvin, Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, III:389.)
John Owen (1616–1683)
Gifts which in their own nature exceed the whole power of all our faculties, that dispensation of the Spirit is long since ceased and where it is now pretended unto by any, it may justly be suspected as an enthusiastic delusion. (Source: John Owen, Works, IV:518.)
Thomas Watson (1620–1686)
“Sure, there is as much need of ordination now as in Christ’s time and in the time of the apostles, there being then extraordinary gifts in the church which are now ceased.” (Source: Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes, 140.)
Matthew Henry (1662–1714)
“What these gifts were is at large told us in the body of the chapter [1 Corinthians 12]; namely, extraordinary offices and powers, bestowed on ministers and Christians in the first ages, for conviction of unbelievers, and propagation of the gospel.” (Source: Matthew Henry, Complete Commentary, in reference to 1 Corinthians 12.)
“The gift of tongues was one new product of the Spirit of prophecy and given for a particular reason, that, the Jewish pale being taken down, all nations might be brought into the church. These and other gifts of prophecy, being a sign, have long since ceased and been laid aside, and we have no encouragement to expect the revival of them; but, on the contrary, are directed to call the scriptures the more sure word of prophecy, more sure than voices from heaven; and to them we are directed to take heed, to search them, and to hold them fast, 2 Peter 1:29.” (Source: Matthew Henry, Preface to Vol. IV of his Exposition of OT & NT, vii.)
Interestingly, John Wesley was in favor of the gifts continuing and had sympathies for Montanus. But he admitted that the gifts indeed ceased and gave his own opinion as to why this happened. I don’t agree with his reason why the gifts were withdrawn but here are a couple of quotes from him:
The grand reason why the miraculous gifts were so soon withdrawn was not only that faith and holiness were well-nigh lost, but that dry, formal, orthodox men began then to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves and to cry (Against) them all as evil madness.
The cause of their decline (In the early Church) was not, as has been supposed, because there is no more need for [the gifts of the Spirit], “(Or) because all the world had become Christian“. … The real cause was: the love of many, of almost all Christians so-called, was waxed cold; … The real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit were no longer to be found in the Christian Church [was that] the Christians were turned heathen again, and had only a dead form left.”– (Ascension Feast of John and Charles Wesley, 1791 & 1788)
The overwhelming majority of testimony from Church History was that the existence of these gifts declined and then ceased. While I don’t agree with John Wesley as to the REASON why the gifts were so soon withdrawn like he said, it is most obvious these gifts were no longer around in the church right up to his day.
It is a waste of time to grasp at straws, trying to prove otherwise.