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MIRACULOUS GIFTS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT: Differing Arguments (Part 1)

Posted by Gabriel (G²) on November 15, 2007

Miraculous Manifestations of the Holy Spirit:
Their Purpose and Relevance Today

by Andrew S. Kulikovsky B.App.Sc(Hons)

November 1997


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1. Introduction

The ministries of the Holy Spirit and the manifestations of His work have been the subject of much discussion and debate in the church in the last half of this century. Much has been said about the nature and purpose of miraculous manifestations, but the dominating question has been that of continuity. Does the Holy Spirit manifest Himself in supernatural ways today as He did in the first century? And if so, what is the purpose and relevance of such manifestations?

The purpose of this essay is to examine the nature and purpose of the supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the early church and determine the possibility and purpose of the Holy Spirit manifesting Himself in the same way today.

2. Miraculous Manifestations: Then and Now

All who accept scripture as the inspired, inerrant word of God can affirm with no doubt that the early church experienced the Holy Spirit in a very real and supernatural way. The apostles in particular, performed many miracles and the early church experienced the manifestation of the Holy Spirit through the spiritual gifts at work in the church community. However, the purpose of these miraculous manifestations is still a point of contention, especially spiritual gifts such as healing, miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. These miraculous manifestations are also commonly known as the “sign gifts”.

2.1. The “Sign Gifts” in the Early Church

The term “sign gifts” is never actually used in scripture, nor are the gifts ever listed or described in isolation. There is no exhaustive list of spiritual gifts in general, or sign gifts in particular, only ad hoc corrections (Fee 1994, p. 886), so it is difficult to know beyond doubt what each gift was and how it functioned. The spiritual gifts or spiritual manifestations1 which have provoked the majority of discussion are those listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10.

2.1.1. Prophecy

Prophecy is divinely inspired utterance. The Holy Spirit empowers a person to speak an intelligible message given to them by God. However, the content of such prophecies is never described. Fee (1994, p. 170) claims that these prophecies are never raised to the level of inspired text, because Paul instructs that they should be tested, indicating they are ad hoc in nature. But in light of Ephesians 2:20, it is clear that they included new revelation that was foundational to the church. Scripture identifies a number of prophets (eg. Acts 13:1, Acts 15:32, Acts 19:6, Acts 21:8), yet never records their prophecies which suggests they were personal revelations directed at a particular person or group, and therefore not universally applicable (eg. Acts 21:10-11). They may also have simply been restatements of truth that had already been revealed2.

Fee (1994, p. 170) notes that the early church understood the prophecy in Joel 2:28-30 as being fulfilled. The fulfilment of this prophecy and the language of 1 Corinthians 14, implies that prophesying is available to all, which is consistent with what is described elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Romans 12:6).

2.1.2. Message of Wisdom

This gift is only mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8, so it is difficult to determine exactly what it was. Fee (1994, p. 167-168) believes it is an utterance that is “full of wisdom” or “characterised by wisdom” and should be understood in the light of 1 Corinthians 2:6-16. If this is the case, the content of the message of wisdom is the recognition that Christ crucified is God’s true wisdom even though it seems foolish to the natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14). Because this gift is only mentioned once and because the Corinthian church had a problem with worldly wisdom and knowledge (1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16), Fee suggests it should be understood as an essentially ad hoc term used to highlight the Corinthian’s deficient concept of wisdom. Therefore, this gift appears to be a type of prophecy.

2.1.3. Message of Knowledge

Fee (1994, p. 167) suggests that this gift and the message of wisdom should be understood as parallel in some way and therefore is also a kind of prophecy. Carson (1987, p. 38) adds that it is not at all clear how this gift differs from the message of wisdom and that the distinction may have been clearer to the Corinthians than it is to a reader today.

2.1.4. Faith

Fee (1994, p. 168) seems to suggest that this gift could also be identified with performing miracles but Carson (1987, p. 38) states that this is unlikely considering it reflects a view of faith unknown to Paul. He believes this gift enables a Christian to trust God to bring about certain things for which they cannot claim some divine promise recorded in scripture. This would mean that faith is not an overtly miraculous manifestation. This is similar to Wallace’s (1997-3) understanding. He does not consider faith as a sign gift at all.

2.1.5. Healing

This gift is self explanatory. It is the ability to heal someone miraculously. However, from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, 1 Timothy 5:23 and James 5:14-16, it seems that miraculous healing could not be performed on demand. The ability to heal is enabled by the Spirit and is subject to the will of God.

2.1.6. Miraculous Powers

This gift includes the ability to perform miracles other than healings. An example is Paul raising Eutychus (Acts 20:9-12). It would also include casting out demons and other supernatural feats.

2.1.7. Distinguishing Between Spirits

Fee (1994, p. 171) believes this gift should be interpreted in light of 1 Corinthians 14:21, and refers particularly to judging and discerning what is spoken by the prophets. Carson (1987, p. 40) however understands it as discerning the source of the prophecy. Miraculous manifestations demonstrate the power of the spirit world but do not necessarily demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore discernment is required in order to ensure these miraculous manifestations do in fact come from the Holy Spirit.

2.1.8. Tongues

The word translated “tongues” in this passage is glwssai and can refer to the tongue or to spoken languages. It is clear from the context that the tongue is not being referenced here, so the most likely understanding of this gift is miraculously speaking a human language that had not been previously learned. However, Fee (1994, p. 173) believes it is not a human language because of the “tongues of men and angels” analogy in 1 Corinthians 13:1. Because an object rarely resembles its analogy perfectly, Fee discounts the possibility of tongues referring to an intelligible human language. Instead, he views it as a kind of “heavenly” language that is directed toward God (p. 890). However the e&an + subjunctive pattern in 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 indicates that these verses are third class conditions, and probably represent hypothetical circumstances. Wallace (1996, p. 698) points out that Paul seems to be moving from the actual to the hypothetical: Paul could speak in the tongues of men (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:18) but not of angels; he could prophesy (eg. 1 Corinthians 7:10) but not fathom all mysteries and knowledge. The use of the plural glwssai also indicates human languages. Language diversity originated at Babel because of humanity’s rebellion, so it is unlikely that there would be multiple “heavenly” languages. Further, Acts 2:4-11, which is the clearest account of this gift at work, clearly demonstrates that human languages are being spoken (see also Herrick 1997).

2.1.9. Interpretation of Tongues

This gift is fairly self-explanatory. It is clear from 1 Corinthians 12-14 that it involved the miraculous translation of tongues spoken, into a language familiar to the audience, for their benefit. It appears that an interpretation may be given to the speaker of the tongue (1 Corinthians 14:13) or someone else (1 Corinthians 14:27).

The interpretation of the word “gift” can also have a great bearing on how we understand the nature of sign gifts and their continuity. “Gift” is normally understood as a God-given constant ministry, but it could also refer to the actual supernatural event of the ministry ie. the actual prophecy or the actual miracle3. The implications of this will be discussed in the following sections.

2.2. The Purpose of Miraculous Manifestations

The term “sign gifts” is often used to refer to miraculous manifestations because it is believed that they functioned as signs to verify and authenticate the truth and power of the gospel message and the authority of the messenger. Although these manifestations certainly achieve those results, it would be an overstatement to say that verification and authentication are their primary function. The Apostle Paul never pointed to any miracles or other supernatural manifestations, except for the resurrection, as grounds for accepting either the gospel or his ministry and in fact rejected such criteria (Fee 1994, p. 888).

Whenever spiritual gifts are mentioned in the Biblical text, the context always gives a major clue to their purpose and function. The reason why God “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers”, was “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:10-13). Paul tells the Corinthian church that to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good [of the church] (1 Corinthians 12:7). Paul also tells the Christians at Rome that they are one body even though they have different gifts and that each member belongs to all the others (Romans 12:3-13). Peter instructs his readers to “use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:8). Therefore it is clear that God gave spiritual gifts (including the sign gifts) to the church for the common good of the whole church so that they may be encouraged, edified and unified (see also Powell 1996). Note also that it is the exercise of all the gifts as a unit which works for the common good of the church4.

In Acts 2 the disciples were specially filled by the Spirit and began to speak in foreign human languages as the Spirit enabled them. When foreigners heard their own language being spoken by Galileans they were amazed. Note that there is no mention of interpretation in this passage – the hearers clearly understood in their own language. Then Peter stood up and preached (prophesied) to the people resulting in many conversions. In this account, tongues served as a tool for arousing people’s attention. When they asked what was happening, Peter had the opportunity to prophesy to them. Therefore it appears that the purpose of tongues was to get people’s attention and arouse their interest, so that upon hearing prophecy, they may repent and believe and the whole church benefits because the body is enlarged. This fits in with 1 Corinthians 14:21-25, which states that tongues are a sign for unbelievers not for believers5. It would be better for an unbeliever to come in and hear prophecy so that they may repent and believe. If it is accepted that the purpose of tongues is to draw attention and arouse interest, then an unbeliever who comes in to the church already has an interest and their attention is directed at the church, so it would seem foolish and senseless to hear lots of foreign languages being spoken that no-one understood. It would be much better for them to hear prophecy. This is why Paul forbids speaking in tongues without an interpretation.

In Acts 3, the same thing happens as in chapter 2, except this time Peter and John perform a miraculous healing. Therefore, manifestations such as tongues, interpretation of tongues, healings and other miracles appear to draw people and prepare them to hear prophecy.

2.3. Spiritual Gifts in the Church Today

Various Christian groups today affirm that the Holy Spirit is still at work in a supernatural way through spiritual gifts such as healing, miracle working, prophecy, tongues and interpretation of tongues (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-10). This view is called noncessationism and sees a continuity between the work of the Holy Spirit today and the work of the Holy Spirit in the first century. Others argue that these miraculous manifestations were exclusive to the first century, in which they served a very specific purpose, but are no longer relevant and do not occur today. This view is called cessationism and sees a discontinuity between the work of the Holy Spirit today and the work of the Holy Spirit in the first century. Another view, concentric cessationism is built upon the notion that the gospel is moving like the waves produced by dropping a stone into a still pond, expanding outwardly in space and time from first century Jerusalem. This view holds that the sign gifts are still present on the cutting edges of the spreading gospel but are no longer active in the “worked over” areas (Wallace 1994).

2.3.1. Noncessationism

The main argument for noncessationism is that the Holy Spirit was overtly active in the first century and there is simply no prooftext that states that any spiritual gift or miraculous manifestation has ceased. The main passage used to support noncessationism is 1 Corinthians 1:4-8 (Powell 1996). This verse appears to indicate that the possession of all spiritual gifts continues until the revelation of Christ6. Powell considers this strong evidence for non-cessationism but does point out the Corinthian church is not necessarily a paradigm for all local churches.

2.3.2. Cessationism

Although there is no prooftext for cessationism, this is not unexpected since the men who wrote the New Testament exercised these gifts and would have had no reason to state that these gifts had ceased. Also, the apostles basically expected the Lord to return in their lifetime (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15), so it is unlikely that they would have expected the gifts to cease because they did not know the Lord’s return would be delayed (Wallace 1997-2).

Hebrews 2:3-4 is a passage that is often used as a proof for cessationism. Wallace (1997-2) argues for the translation: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was at first declared by the Lord, and was attested to us by those who heard Him, while God was also bearing witness with them with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”7 The inference here is that only “those who heard him” (ie. eyewitnesses) were the ones who actually performed these signs, wonders and miracles. This would imply that once the eyewitnesses died off, so did the sign gifts. On the other hand, Powell (1996) argues that e*bebaiwqh, being an aorist, refers only to the fact of the event not to its beginning, duration or completion. Even if it does refer to a completed act in past time, its reference is “to us”, which means it is past time only to the Hebrews8. Powell states that “to say that God bore witness to the gospel with miracles in the past is not to say that He could not continue to do so.”9 Wallace also argues that if the sign gifts were still present then the author of Hebrews would not have missed a perfect opportunity to remind the audience of the reality of their salvation because of the current manifestation of the sign gifts. However, this argument is not convincing and Wallace himself admits it is an argument from silence and that this text alone does not solve the problem of the duration of these gifts.

Wallace (1997-3) also presents other arguments for cessationism and proposes two theses: (1) to the extent that we see discontinuity between the first century and the twentieth in terms of sign gifts, to that extent we are cessationists, and (2) the more we see discontinuity, the more we affirm that the purpose of the sign gifts was authentication rather than a display of normative Christianity.

Wallace goes on to argue that since the canon has closed then God is no longer inspiring people to write scripture and therefore there is a measure of discontinuity between the first century and the church today. Because much of scripture is prophetic in nature then it can be said that prophecy (at least prophecy that reveals new universally applicable truth) no longer occurs today as it did in the first century. Affirming the continuation of the sign gifts forces one to also affirm that the scriptures are not sufficient. Therefore whenever someone prophesies, there should be a discussion about whether the prophecy belongs in scripture. Some have attempted to overcome this problem by proposing that error-free apostolic prophecy no longer takes place but error-prone non-apostolic prophecy still does. Apart from the pragmatic problem of determining whether the prophecy is true or not, Ephesians 2:20 poses a problem for this view. This verse states that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The Greek construction indicates that these are two distinct groups: apostles and other prophets. This implies that the church was in fact partly built on the foundation of the non-apostolic prophets. Therefore, affirming that non-apostolic prophets were error-prone results in an untenable position.

However, as Powell (1996) points, this does not mean that all prophets are foundational. The prophets at Corinth and Thessalonica as well as other local churches founded by Paul were second generation Christians and were not witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. Non-foundational prophets were those who proclaimed truth that had already been revealed, or proclaimed prophesies of a private and personal nature, regarding practice rather than new revelation.

2.3.3. Concentric Cessationism

If we view gifts as the supernatural manifestations themselves, rather than a specific ministry then this view becomes even more appealing. The apparent discontinuity comes about because God in His sovereignty has decided to restrict the occurrences of these supernatural events to times, places and circumstances as determined by Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:11, Hebrews 2:4).

In summary, Wallace (1997-3) makes an important point: there is in fact an obvious difference in the way the Spirit manifested Himself in the first century and the way He has manifested Himself in subsequent church history up to the present day. This discontinuity – at least in the Western world – is inescapable and implies that wholesale non-cessationism is not a tenuous position. Only full cessationism or concentric cessationism make any sense in the context of the modern church and the view accepted depends largely on the understanding of the purpose of the sign gifts.

3. Conclusion

From scripture it is clear that sign gifts and supernatural manifestations in general, served as tools for drawing attention to and arousing interest in the gospel message. Therefore, there still remains the possibility that the Holy Spirit will manifest Himself in supernatural ways among His people for the purpose of furthering the gospel. This implies that miraculous manifestations are more likely to occur on the cutting edge of the spreading gospel. Therefore, concentric cessationism is the most sensible position because it fits with scripture and accounts for what is observed in reality.

The problem today is that many Christians have become completely polarised in regard to the miraculous. Most charismatics give a higher priority to experience than to relationship (Wallace 1997-1) and most non-charismatic evangelicals give a higher priority to knowledge than to relationship. Generally, charismatics believe not only that God can heal but that He must heal. They essentially deny God’s sovereignty. On the other hand, although non-charismatics claim that God can heal they act as if he won’t. It seems they don’t really believe that God can heal. They essentially deny God’s ability and goodness (Wallace 1994, his emphasis). Fee (1994, p. 888) adds: “The Apostle Paul was born and raised in a culture that viewed God as an all-powerful and personal being, who took an active interest in the universe and the affairs of His people and would graciously intervene in their daily lives. Yet there are many today who hold that God is the creator and sustainer of all, but balk at the miraculous both past and present. These people have created positions that are both theologically unsustainable and out of line with the Biblical perspective.”

However, to consider miraculous manifestations as normative is also out of line with much of church history. There have been great revivals as well as the reformation, yet none of these overtly miraculous manifestations has ever taken centre stage (Wallace 1997-3).

Ultimately the source of these miraculous manifestations is the Holy Spirit, who gives them to who He desires and when He desires. If the Holy Spirit wishes to miraculously manifest Himself today as He did in the first century, He will. Fancis Schaeffer (1985, p. 18) summarised the issue beautifully: “…He is present to work in any part of it [the universe] at any time He wishes. There is no place in the far-flung universe where the hand of God cannot work.”

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