Friday, August 9, 2013

Charismatic Gifts and Church History: Some Comments

Back in 2011 C. Michael Patton and Sam Storms engaged in an informative and cordial dialogue regarding spiritual gifts.  In discussing the historical reality of these gifts Storms argued that at times people may be operating in spiritual giftedness without realizing it.  In other words, someone could be a self-avowed cessationist and yet still operate with a certain gift (or some semblance of that gift).  In the comments section for this dialogue I engaged with a few others on this topic as well as the process of historical research.  Here are those comments:

.                Phil McCheddar says: 
November 15, 2011 at 8:27 am 

Sam . . . thank you for this fascinating history – you make a powerful case.
What I am about to say is not my personal conviction but I am just tossing an idea into the air to see if it will fly.
Just as you point out that some Christians may exercise miraculous gifts without labelling them as such or identifying themselves as ‘charismatics’, some other Christians may do things which look like genuine gifts of the Spirit but are not. They may sincerely believe they are healing, prophesying, casting out demons, praying in a divinely-inspired language etc. but actually it is just wishful thinking and self-delusion. Even though in practice the results don’t measure up to their claims, it doesn’t stop them talking of themselves as exponents of miraculous gifts. How do we know that the many theologians you cited from church history who spoke about miraculous gifts being exercised in their day were not well-meaning but sincerely mistaken, or culpably self-deluded, like some ‘charismatic’ Christians today? Just because they talked about miracles happening as a regular and common feature of the church in their day, doesn’t mean their claims are any more accurate than Benny Hinn’s press secretary.
I find it interesting that the gift of tongues has been understood differently by different groups in different times. Many in the Roman Catholic church in the Middle Ages believed that the gift of tongues is to enable missionaries to preach the gospel to foreigners without learning the language first. Some Protestant missionaries at the beginning of the 20th century held the same opinion, such as Jonathan Goforth, W.P.Buncombe, C.M.Reade, Alfred G. Garr, and Charles Parham. But I do not know of any modern Christians who believe this. If that definition is true, then modern-day tongues-speakers are not exercising the genuine gift. But if that definition is false, then this is an example of a large number of Christians enthusiastically (and probably sincerely) claiming to use miraculous powers and recording their claims in history books who were simply wrong.
I’m just think aloud.

.                NW says: 
November 15, 2011 at 12:20 pm 

Sam’s argument seems to be that perhaps the Holy Spirit has been bestowing the gifts of 1 Cor 12:7-10 throughout all of Church history (and not just in the 1st century) but that the Church has not recognized it as such due to various factors such as widespread Biblical ignorance. Of course, there’s a lot more in the essay, but I think that’s his main idea.  
Anyway, the problem with this argument is that the manifestation of these gifts in the book of Acts is unmistakable. The idea that the Church would not be able to recognize the Spirit’s work in performing such things through Christian men and women throughout the life of the Church seems preposterous to me.

.                Richard Klaus says: 
November 15, 2011 at 1:34 pm 

Phil,You raise the issue of the epistemology of history–how do we know those claiming miraculous occurrences weren’t just self-deluded. Historians have to sift and weigh the historical evidence. Some historians biased by methodological naturalism will, of course, discount every claim to the miraculous in history. All historians have to weigh the evidence which would include the context of the evidence. For example, in her book “Christian Healing” Evelyn Frost looks at the Ante-Nicene evidence for healing. Chapter five is entitled, “A Consideration of the Value of the Ante-Nicene Evidence”. She writes:“Much of the Ante-Nicece literature is in the form of Apologies on behalf of Christianity to the Emperor, Senate or other high Roman authority; evidence submitted in works of this kind would only be such as could stand the test of critical investigation.”Frost goes on to compare the amount of evidence for the Ante-Nicene miracles and the NT miracles. She writes:“If a comparison between these writings (Ante-Nicene–rjk) and those of the New Testament may be made, it would seem, from this consideration alone, that there is more evidence for authenticity for miracles recorded in the former than in the latter, for whereas those of the New Testament were handed down largely by word of mouth for perhaps a generation and then recorded for the Christian ‘populus’, the Patristic writings were produced as contemporary evidence in legal documents or works that were liable to the same scrutiny as would be required of legal evidence.” (pp. 119-120)
  In a similar vein Ronald Kydd in his book “Healing Through the Centuries” writes of Tertullian’s writings regarding exorcism and healing. Kydd writes:
 “An historical aside is appropriate. Tertullian was writing these works to living Roman officials. He based his appeal for clemency on benefits that were coming through Christians to the many people in society. If this were not happening, Tertullian would have simply looked like a fool claiming that it was, making the Christian faith he was trying to defend into a laughingstock. The strength of his argument lay precisely in the fact that anyone could check to see whether there was evidence to support it. If there was no evidence, he would not have dared make these claims.” (p. 24)
  This, obviously, doesn’t deal with all of church history–not by a long shot. But these quotations do show us how these historians begin to assess historical evidence. In other words, we are not simply left with historical skepticism nor undue credulity.


 A couple of points:1. I think you miss the “main point” of Sam’s essay. The point you highlight was mentioned (it was point #4) by Sam at the beginning and the end but I think the main point was to highlight the amount of historical evidence there is and then to explain why there may not be more.2. You write, “The idea that the Church would not be able to recognize the Spirit’s work in performing such things through Christian men and women throughout the life of the Church seems preposterous to me.” You don’t interact with Sam’s examples (Spurgeon and the Scottish Covenanters). Is it really so hard to believe that people’s theological and philosophical pre-commitments might affect the interpretation and articulation of their experiences? What you find “preposterous” seems quite reasonable to me–especially given specific examples in church history.

.                NW says: 
November 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm 

I would advise that you go back and reread those accounts in the book of Acts that record manifestations of the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Cor 12:7-10 and try to imagine the possibility of such things happening throughout Church history but without the Church being able to recognize them for what they are (i.e. manifestations of the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Cor 12:7-10). I, for one, cannot imagine it.
Here’s Sam’s dilemma: If the gifts listed in 1 Cor 12:7-10 have not been operative throughout the greater part of Church history then why should we pursue them today? On the other hand, if they have been operative throughout Church history then how could the Church have been so ignorant of that fact for so long?

.                Richard Klaus says: 
November 15, 2011 at 3:14 pm 

NW,May I playfully say, your failure to “imagine it” may simply show a failure of imagination! More seriously, you have yet to deal with the specific examples given by Sam that I pointed to in my other post. Also, we have scriptural precedent for philosophical pre-commitments affecting ones interpretation of one’s experiences. For example, consider Matthew 28.17 when Jesus presents himself risen from the dead. The text states: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some were doubtful.” Someone could possibly say, “I can’t imagine someone seeing the risen Jesus and still being doubtful.” And yet here it is. Theological pre-commitments do affect the way we interpret data. Again, what you “cannot imagine” I find very easy to imagine–especially in light of the specific examples given from church history.
In regards to the dilemma you pose for Sam I think that it, too, is able to be surmounted rather easily. You write: “If the gifts listed in 1 Cor 12:7-10 have not been operative throughout the greater part of Church history then why should we pursue them today?” Two answers to this come to mind. One, it is not the case that the gifts have not been operative in the history of the church. See the bulk of Sam’s post. Second, even if it was true (for the sake of argument) then why would this historical fact entail the conclusion that we today should not seek the gifts? This doesn’t follow logically or biblically. Regarding your second pole of the dilemma: the gifts may have been operative and the church was aware of them but didn’t articulate their understanding of them correctly. And, of course, your dilemma can be split by offering other alternatives such as maybe the gifts haven’t been uniformly operative (for any number of reasons) but this doesn’t entail not seeking them today or being able to find precedents for them in church history. As Sam pointed out, this is the case with other doctrines in the history of the church.

.                NW says: 
November 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm 

Whether it’s a failure of imagination on my part or an excess of imagination on yours is a matter opinion. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point.  
In either case, I’m the sort of preterist for whom the “perfect” has come and can credibly use 1 Cor 13:8-13 as part of an argument for hard cessationism.

.                Phil McCheddar says: 
November 16, 2011 at 7:49 am 

Hi Richard,
Thanks for your interesting response in post #4. I take note of what you say and can’t refute it . . .
. . . except, some Christians today make staggering claims of performing miracles without any fear of being contradicted in public. A while ago I saw an advert for a local Pentecostal church which audaciously said “Come to our 6:30pm service on Sunday and you will see God heal people miraculously!” I went along expectantly but all I saw was a large group of Christians singing and dancing joyfully.
Suppose in 1000 years time someone wanted to know if God was distributing miraculous gifts to his church in 2011AD. That person could dig out videos of a Benny Hinn meeting and see all sorts of wonderful testimonies of sick people claiming to have been healed. He could find this discussion on the P&P blog and read many people such as yourself asserting the ongoing existence of miraculous gifts. But why are we having this discussion at all if the reality of miraculous gifts in the church today is obvious? Why are so many Christians not convinced? Why aren’t unbelievers flocking to churches in their thousands to gawp at the supernatural? It seems to me that the evidence of people’s attestations in historical records isn’t always self-evident to other people living at the same time & place.
You quoted Kydd writing about Tertullian:“The strength of his argument lay precisely in the fact that anyone could check to see whether there was evidence to support it. If there was no evidence, he would not have dared make these claims.”I could name several contemporary Christian “healers” who have not been able to produce any confirmatory evidence when challenged by sceptics but they still dare to make bold claims.

.                Phil McCheddar says: 
November 16, 2011 at 10:38 am 

John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) wrote that gifts of tongues “used to occur but now no longer take place.” (Homily XXIX on Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians)
I wonder if Chrysostom would dared to have written that if all his contemporaries knew it was false, and I wonder if he would have jeopardised his ecclesiastical reputation by inviting his peers to laugh at him for making absurd remarks?
If I looked hard enough I might be able to compile an impressive list of other church fathers and theologians who wrote similar things, but it wouldn’t prove anything except that this issue has always been unproven and controversial in the post-apostolic church (but significantly not in the apostolic church).
“When did the gift of tongues cease? . . . To support their views, both sides turn to the church fathers. In citing patristic literature, they attempt to demonstrate either the cessation or the continuation of the charismatic gifts (depending on their perspective).” Nathan Busenitz ‘The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism’ in The Master’s Seminary Journal 17/1 (Spring 2006) 61-78.

Phil,I agree with much of what you write. My point is that historians have to weigh the evidence. Your example of a 1000 years from now an historian seeing video of Benny Hinn needs to be counter-balanced by the fact that such future historians would also have access to critical reflections on Hinn. It is not simply a one-to-one correspondence between Tertullian and Hinn. Historians weigh the contextual factors. Let me give an example. Yale historian Ramsay MacMullen has written a fascinating book “Christianizing the Roman Empire: A.D. 100-400″. He looks at the explosive growth of the church and examines the various factors that contributed to that growth. He comes to see that the chief factor is precisely what the early church said–namely the power displayed in exorcisms and healings. At one point he discusses Gregory “the wonder-worker.” He writes:
“Clearly some very large part of the population, one region in the province of Pontus, was won over to the church by Gregory the Wonder-worker in specific and identifiable decades–our only surviving account of any such event, however many others there may or must have been just like it. He succeeded perhaps in part through speaking publicly to groups. He is shown speaking like that, but confirming and instructing. No conversions are said to result. Rather, and expressly, conversions result from his supernatural acts; and, by implication and by position in the narrative, they are presented as the cause of the whole grand picture of his success in his campaigns against demonic hosts.
“The logic offered to account for the conversions he produced–that he or the divinity he invoked was of greater authority than the daimones, and that that power could both greatly help and greatly hurt one–fit altogether naturally with the logic described earlier (above, pp. 26ff.). No alternatives equally natural suggests itself, and none is attested.” (p. 61)
Again, I quote an actual historian to show some of the reasoning employed when they interpret the historical data. Not only is there the claim of supernatural activity but there is also the real historical circumstances that need to be explained. In this instance, the widespread conversion to Christianity in the first few centuries of the Roman Empire. Historians weigh all these factors–not just the claims to supernatural activity. My guess is that this is what would happen for any future historian 1000 years from now.
You make a few other comments about why the contemporary church is debating this and why isn’t is more obvious but I’ll have to get to those later (time permitting)–I do think there may be some answers to those questions.

Phil,I came across this on Chrysostom–you might find it interesting.
“But if you attack our [beliefs], O Jew,[*] what will you say in defense of the Old [Testament]? If someone were to say to you, “Why are the things of Moses true?” What would you say? “Because we believe them.” Certainly this is not any better than us, for we also believe, and you are but one nation, but we are of the whole world! You are convinced by the things of Moses, just as we are convinced by Christ, and what you make the end, we make the foundation. Do you believe because of the prophecies? But we have many more! So if you do away with ours, you overshadow your own as well. Do you believe because of miracles? But you have none to show except the signs of Moses, and these have come and gone. **But we have the miracles of Christ, which are varied and abundant, and which happen even to the present day, and we have prophecies that surpass the brightness of the sun!** Do you believe because of the laws? But our philosophy is superior to these. Why then? Because he led you away from the bondage of the Egyptians? But this is not equal at all to the hostile world, which the Egyptians by themselves do not surpass.”
John Chrysostom, Homily on Psalm 109 (LXX), from Patrologia Graeca 55.266-267, my (Alex Poulos) own translation.
This came from Alex Poulos at his website
Alex adds:
“I bolded (I added ** to mark this off–rjk) the part that jumped out at me. John’s line of reasoning is pretty interesting here. He doesn’t simply cite the miracles of Christ recorded in the gospels, but he cites the miracles that “happen even to the present day,” which is a much bolder claim. This also makes me wonder if the “prophecies that surpass the brightness of the sun” might include more than the prophecies of Christ in the OT. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple in mind. He may even have Christian prophets in mind as well, though that would be difficult to argue from this passage alone. The “but we have many more” would lead me to think he’s referring to prophecies that the Jews wouldn’t accept, which would include anything in the NT, but also extra-canonical Christian prophecy.”

.       Phil McCheddar says:
Thank you for your gentleness in picking my argument apart! I accept your point about historians interpreting all the evidence in a balanced way. You said that future historians would have access to [negatively] critical reflections on Hinn. Agreed. But do historians today have access to the responses of the Roman officials to whom Tertullian wrote? Would those Roman officials have bothered to reply to Tertullian’s appeal for clemency by rebutting his claims about miracles even if they thought Tertullian’s claims were rubbish? And even if they did, would they have published their rebuttal in a medium that would have been preserved as carefully as Tertullian’s own writings? Isn’t it more likely that in their arrogance the Roman officials would have felt no need to respond to Tertullian and may simply have ignored him as a crackpot, especially since (unlike Benny Hinn) there was no internet, blogosphere, MSM, Twitter, etc. where the merits of Tertullian’s arguments could be analysed and appluaded/rebutted by the general public? It will be interesting to see if CMP produces a list of quotations from the primitive church similar to the list Sam compiled but pointing in the opposite direction, as I’m not sure whether Sam garnered his list by cherry-picking or by making a comprehensive survey of all the historical evidence and distilling a balanced overview from it.
I am fascinated to find out more about Gregory the wonder-worker. I will google him later. Contrary to Ramsay MacMullen’s analysis, I don’t see the need to posit a rationale (such as miracles) for the copious conversions in Pontus. Can’t God’s Spirit convict and convert masses of people with or without secondary causes?
I cannot find any reference in the church fathers or in any Christian writing before the early 20th century that regarded the gift of tongues as a private intimate prayer language. It seems to have always been described as speaking a real human language that the speaker hadn’t learnt the hard way, and was primarily for the purpose of communicating to other people rather than God. Such a view of tongues seems to be extinct these days. Does that mean the gift of tongues has not been used as God intended for 1900 years?
.       Richard Klaus says:
First, thanks for the interchange of ideas. It is helping me formulate my thoughts. As I’ve read your comments on other threads here at P&P I have found them to be consistently helpful and charitable.
Again, there is much that we agree on. We are probably not that far apart theoretically (maybe even practically!) on these issues.
Regarding the discussion regarding Tertullian: I agree that historians may not have access to the Roman responses to Tertullian. My point was (and is) that historians weigh the contextual evidence for the claims. Does is make sense for Tertullian to appeal to alleged exorcisms and the public help rendered by them if they didn’t happen? Remember that he is appealing to a Roman magistrate—someone who has the power to persecute the church. In his letter to Scapula, who was the Proconsul of Carthage, Tertullian writes to him to avert persecution. He writes:
“All this [that is, evidence of Roman authorities not following up the case against Christians to persecute them-rjk] might officially be brought under your notice, and by the very advocates who are themselves also under obligations to us, although in court they give their voice as it suits them. For the clerk of one of them who was liable to be thrown upon the ground by an evil spirit, was set free from his affliction; as was also the relative of another, and the little boy of a third. And how many men of rank (to say nothing of common people) have been delivered from devils, and healed of diseases! Even Severus himself, the father of Antonine, was graciously mindful of the Christians. For he sought out the Christian Proculus, surnamed Torpacion, the steward of Eubrodias, and in gratitude for his once having cured him by anointing, he kept him in his palace till the day of his death.” (“Ad Scapula” iv)
Tertullian is not only claiming miraculous events but seeking to provide documentation suitable to his time and context in naming names of even ranking Roman officials that verify what he is saying. Of course, all this can be doubted and other explanations can be offered if one is seeking to dismiss Tertullian. Nevertheless, this is the kind of historical record that some historians find very compelling. I fear that sometimes people want the kind of evidence of which we do not have and so what is available is never good enough. I’m not saying you do this but historical questions can always be doubted since the discipline is not a science of certainty.