Category:History/Apostasy/Loss of spiritual gifts

Loss of Spiritual Gifts During the Apostasy

Parent page: History/Apostasy

Christians felt the loss of spiritual gifts keenly

After the first century, miracles ceased entirely from the church. This has been a much-discussed phenomenon. We have touched on it in these talks, and quoted Bishop John of Bristol's statement: "I perceive in the language of the Fathers, who lived in the middle and end of the second century . . . , if not a conviction, at least a suspicion, that the power of working miracles was withdrawn, combined with an anxiety to keep up a belief of its continuance in the Church."5 This can be illustrated by the instance of the Thundering Legion. When a Roman army was delivered from death by thirst by a timely shower of rain during an expedition in Germany, everybody rushed to claim the miracle for his church: Devotees of Isis claimed that the rain was sent in answer to the prayers of the Egyptian priest Arnuphius who was with the army; on the Antonine column we still see the miracle cited in support of the Roman state religion and attributed to the intervention of Jupiter Pluvius from whose outspread arms the shower pours down; Tertullian, however, attributes the miracle to the prayers of the Christians who were with the army. For Bishop John this eager exploitation by Tertullian of a mere coincidence shows how hard up the church was for real miracles, for in all his extensive writings Tertullian, like other Christian contemporaries, is at a loss to produce a single case of a good contemporary miracle. But more significant than this is the fact that this upright Christian is now competing with the pagan religionists for a miracle to prove his religion: He is speaking their language.

The total absence of miracles in the church in the second century—at the very time when the apologists were looking most eagerly for them—is usually explained as the laying aside of credentials that were no longer necessary. The arguments against this are only too obvious. Why didn't the Christians themselves ever give that explanation? Why did they stubbornly insist on clinging to every old or new miracle they could find? When did the missionary work of the church ever reach completion or come to a halt so that the alleged credentials would no longer be necessary? When did the Christians ever cease to need help against evil spirits or become immune to the effects of poison, snakebite, or disease? The church proceeded to remedy the fatal defect exactly as she made up for the loss of doctrine and authority—by substitution. As might be expected, the substitution followed two lines: the esoteric and the vulgar. Left to human providence, religious things, as has often been pointed out, tend to gravitate to two opposite poles—a purely intellectual on the one hand, and a vulgar and superstitious on the other. So among the intellectuals, Quadratus of Athens was the last man in the second century to insist on the literal nature of the miracles of Jesus;6 those who followed him, Aristides, Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, and Theophilus—though they could not deny the miracles, being among the most fundamental things in Christianity—gave them a more sophisticated appraisal7 and, moving as fatally to a Neoplatonic "spiritual" explanation as a needle to the pole, took the position illustrated by Irenaeus who, when asked "why the Lord rained down manna on the people in the days of the fathers, but now does so no more?" replied: "If you only knew it, he still rains down manna upon his servants—every day, . . . even the perfect bread of heaven, the body born of the Virgin, [etc.] But there is also a spiritual manna, that is the downpouring of spiritual wisdom."8[1]

Loss of spiritual gifts for Augustine

The fathers of the fourth century definitely regard the church as taking over entirely all the functions once reserved to the prophets and to revelation. John Chrysostom said that members of the church were always and everywhere asking him, What has happened to the spiritual gifts? Why do we no longer have the gift of tongues? Where are the prophets? Why are men not chosen for office as they were anciently by direct revelation from above? His answer was always that the church no longer had these gifts because it no longer needed them. They were, he said, like a supporting scaffold which is taken down as soon as the building is finished, or like a prop with which a gardener supports a young tree: as soon as the tree becomes strong and vigorous, the prop is taken away because it is no longer needed.11 Of course neither John nor his hearers were completely satisfied with this answer, for the plain implication of it was that the church of the Apostles was spiritually weaker than the church of their own day—which they knew very well was not the case. Nevertheless, that was the official answer: The church had taken over the offices anciently filled by the Spirit.

St. Augustine has a great deal to say on this subject; we need mention here only his argument that the church has superseded all revelation. Repeatedly he declares that he believes only what the church tells him to believe and only because the church tells him to believe it. This may seem a paradoxical position for the man who himself was prescribing the fundamental theology which the church was to follow for centuries to come, but what other stand can he take, since he insists that revelation has ceased and cannot put himself up as the ultimate depository of divine authority? When we read the gospels, Augustine maintains, Christ, the head, speaks to us through the voice of the church. This is indeed the opposite pole from the claim that he speaks only in the still small voice of the individual conscience, but it is just as far removed from any idea of real revelation. Even though he could speak in his own person, we are told, still, Christ has committed his voice henceforward to the church alone: her voice is his voice.12 In vain you argue! He tells the Pelagians, "for though no reason can explore or speech explain it, whatever is believed by the whole church is true." Since Augustine well knew in his long controversies with various sects that the whole church never saw eye to eye on any doctrine, he falls back again and again on his favorite argument for the authority of his church—it is the true church because it is the biggest; among many competing sects it has the most members and is to be found in the most places—therefore it must be the church. 14 That is his favorite and virtually his only argument for the authority of his church in his long controversy of the Donatists. It is a strangely geographical, earthbound argument leaving no room for revelation.

But long before Augustine's day the loss of spiritual gifts in the church had caused grave concern in many breasts. Bishop John Kaye of Bristol has written an interesting thesis on this subject. "The miraculous powers conferred upon the apostles were the credentials by which they were to prove that they were the bearers of a new revelation from God to man. . . . We might therefore infer from the purpose for which they were conferred that they would in process of time be withdrawn." This is Chrysostom's theory, a theory for which neither man can give scriptural authority. Indeed, the scripture says, "these signs shall follow them that believe" (Mark 16:17). Bishop Kaye continues after discussing the gradual loss of gifts in the church, "that the power of working miracles was not extended beyond the Disciples, upon whom the Apostles conferred it by the imposition of hands." As the number of those disciples gradually diminished, the instances of the exercise of miraculous powers became continually less frequent, and ceased entirely at the death of the last individual on whom the hands of the apostles had been laid, at a date which Bishop Kaye places before the middle of the second century.15 The good bishop then proceeds to disprove his own theory of the purpose of miracles by noting that the early Christians were not at all reconciled to the loss of the "spiritual gifts," but missed them sorely. After all, did the missionary work of the church come to an end "before the middle of the second century?" Most Christians would say it was just beginning, and that the specific purpose of miracles was to foster that work. If the church were really being set up on the earth, miracles should not have ceased then of all times! "What, then, would be the effect produced upon the minds of the great body of Christians by their gradual cessation?" our author asks, and answers: "Many would not observe, none would be willing to observe it; for all must naturally feel a reluctance to believe that powers, which had contributed so essentially to the rapid diffusion of Christianity, were withdrawn. . . . The silence of Ecclesiastical history, respecting the cessation of miraculous gifts in the Church, is to be ascribed," Bishop Kaye says, ". . . to the combined operation of prejudice and policy—of prejudice which made them reluctant to believe, of policy which made them anxious to conceal the truth. . . . I perceive in the language of the Fathers, who lived in the middle and end of the second century . . . if not a conviction, at least a suspicion, that the power of working miracles was withdrawn, combined with an anxiety to keep up a belief of its continuance in the Church. They affirm in general terms, that miracles were performed, but rarely venture to produce an instance of a particular miracle. Those who followed them are less scrupulous, and proceeded to invent miracles."[2]

Loss of spiritual gifts for Tertullian

A most remarkable witness to the cessation of heavenly gifts in the church, and especially of prophecy, was the celebrated Tertullian, the first and in many ways the greatest of the Latin Fathers. He seems to have been a convert—joining the church at about the age of forty in Carthage—and was one of the greatest lawyers of his day. Tertullian was not a man to be fooled; he wanted to know things for himself, and he made himself the foremost authority on the nature and institutions of the original Christian church. Like Clement and Justin Martyr before him, he was predisposed by long and laborious study in the schools of the pagans to recognize and appreciate those special characteristics of the Christian teaching which set it off sharply from all other doctrines. He knew, as they knew, that philosophers, administrators, journalists, scholars, orators, and teachers, if not quite a dime a dozen, can be trained up in any desired numbers. But not so with prophets! The gift of prophecy was for Tertullian the strongest recommendation of the divinity of the Christian church, and it was only when painful experience had convinced him beyond a doubt that the main church no longer possessed that gift that he did an amazing thing: Tertullian, commonly called the Puritan of the early church, the man who placed zeal for salvation above all other considerations and who showed by word and deed that no sacrifice was too great provided only he gain that salvation—Tertullian left the church! In doing so he did not change his mind about the gospel. What he did was to join the Montanists, a strictly orthodox sect which differed from the main church in one important thing: They preached that the gift of prophecy must be found in the church if it is the true church. That was what Tertullian was after. At the time of his going over he wrote a remarkable work in which he accused the main church of having supplanted the authority of revelation by the authority of office and numbers. Because they have the teaching (doctrinam) of the Apostles, he reminds the clergy, it does not follow that they have their authority (postestatem). All men are governed by discipline, but power comes only from God by the Spirit. The Apostles worked not by the formal operation of discipline but by direct power from God. "Show me therefore, you who would be apostolic, some prophetic examples, and I will acknowledge the divinity of your calling." It is true, they have ministerium, an official calling, but that is not imperium, the actual possession of power. The spiritual power of the church is that exercised only by Apostles and prophets, for "the Church is the spirit working through an inspired man; the Church is not a number of bishops. The final decision remains with the Lord, never with the servant; it belongs to God alone, not to any priest."17 Tertullian says much more in this vein. Whether one agrees with him or not, he shows us that the issue was clearly drawn at a very early date. Already there were two factions in the church, those who precluded office by spirit, and those who supplanted spirit by office. The only solution to the problem, as Tertullian clearly sees, is the presence of the power of prophecy in the church.[3]

Up to the third century, new revelation was seen as possible

It is significant that it is the intellectuals of the church who have always insisted on the apparently fundamentalist doctrine of a complete, perfect, final, and unalterable Bible; R. H. Charles can tell us why this is so: "God had, according to the official teachers of the Church, spoken His last and final word," and the policy of the doctors "so far as lay in its power, made the revival of such prophecy an impossibility." 29 The theory of complete, finished, and absolute scriptures was simply a door banged in the face of future prophets by the doctors. In a recent and important study Van Unnik has shown that until the third century the Christians had no objection whatever to the idea "that someone might still add revelations to the writings of the Gospel."30 There was originally no moral objection or mystic principle barring the production of more scriptures whenever God should see fit to reveal them; it was only when "the Church believed that the time of Revelation and therefore also the time of bringing forth new holy scriptures had come to an end with the Apostolic Age," that the expectation of more holy writings was discouraged and condemned.31 After that it was to the interest of the scholars to cry out with alarm at any suggestion of going beyond the Bible and the human mind.

There are just two sources of revelation, the Roman Catholic Church declares: "No other source of [public] revelation exists except the canonical books and the apostolic tradition."32 The Protestants go even further: "We believe . . . that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with all teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments alone."33 So an eminent Protestant divine declares today: "I boldly assert, therefore, that God does not speak today because of the supreme character of His revelation of Himself made once for all in His Christ. . . . We must . . . recognize His voice in his final written Word."[4]

The Bible does not interpret itself, and its interpreters do not agree

But just as scientists insist that the evidence speaks for itself, only to discover that it speaks with different voices to different scientists, so those who maintain with Irenaeus, that the Bible speaks its own message clearly, directly, and unequivocally to all soon discover themselves in wild disagreement as to what it says. Vincent of Lerinum, author of the famous Vincentian canon, notes that "although the canon of the Scripture is complete, 'and of itself is sufficient and more than sufficient for all things,' yet tradition is needed for a proper understanding of the Scripture."35 Already we are questioning the vaunted self-sufficiency of the holy page to convey its own message; yet the churchmen dare not change their position, lest they lower the bars to revelation. But how can they presume to add their comments and explanations to the Bible, supplying that information without which, they assure us, the holy Word cannot be understood, and at the same time insist that they are adding nothing, but simply letting the book speak for itself? Like the scientists, they are not letting the evidence alone at all; they are officiously helping it to say the things they think it should say. But how, short of revelation, will we ever know the real word of God? That is a question that greatly exercised St. Hilary. "We are quite aware," he says, "that most people think the mere sound of the words or the letters are enough," but of course that won't do: Scripturae enim non sunt in legendo sunt, sed in intelligando—The Scriptures don't consist in what you read but in what you understand.36 But how can our weak intellects, our humana imbecillitas, ever be sure of understanding aright? Only by revelation, is Hilary's sensible conclusion.37

Now surely the fat is in the fire, but Hilary deftly snatches it out again by defining revelation as the reading of the Scriptures "not as men interpret it, but as it is," with no private human opinions allowed to color or distort it, and "no human interpretation stepping an inch beyond the bounds of what is divinely constituted."38 Since our fatal weakness lies in our inability to interpret the Word of God, Hilary will simply dispense with all interpretation and read the Word as it is. But the same Hilary has just announced that the Scripture is not as you read it but as you understand it; on what ground, then, would he interpret it? He is good enough to tell us: our "revelation" should be founded on right reason, good historical knowledge, and a sense of correct doctrine.39 To this day the clergy have never been able to solve the problem of how to enjoy inspired guidance while renouncing all claim to revelation.40 "The Word of God," writes E. C. Blackman, "is in the words of the Bible, but is not to be identified with them . . . but interpreted out of them. . . . The Bible is not itself revelation but is the record of revelation."41

Interpreted, but how? Well might the Catholics challenge the Protestant position with the argument: "The Bible is a difficult book, it is full of dark places and apparent inconsistencies. How do you Protestants think you can manage without the authoritative guidance of the Church when you come to interpret it and to build doctrine upon it?"42 To which the proper answer is: "How do you Catholics think you have solved the difficult problem of interpretation simply by agreeing (after centuries of hot debate) on who is to do the interpreting, without the vaguest idea of how he is to do it, apart from the normal fallible processes of human intelligence?" For Catholic theologians often repeat St. Augustine's lament that "men of the most outstanding piety and wisdom very often disagree in their interpretation of the Scriptures."43

We have noted above that Augustine knew of no higher court of appeal; but even in much later times "the medieval mind, indeed, was much perplexed by the possibility of error in the interpretation of the will of God." 44 At present Catholic journals are full of articles on "The Inerrancy of the Scripture," "The Consequent Sense of the Scripture," "The Sensus Plenior of Scripture," etc., with one scholar asking, Do the Scriptures "perhaps contain a deeper meaning expressed by God and left to the ingenuity of the human mind to detect?"45 And another proving that Genesis 3:5 refers to Mary with the observation: "The text, if paraphrased, reads simply enough, once cleared of the unnecessary accretions which have been read into it."46 Here we see both the ultimate appeal to the human intellect and the way it is answered—by a critic who removes from the text what annoys him personally and then proves his case by paraphrasing what is left. Aquinas insisted that the Bible is "the only sure and binding authority. But one uses the authority of canonical scripture properly and in arguing from necessity,"47 that is, by employing the old techniques of the schools. St. Thomas warns us especially against getting any fancy ideas about revelation: "For our faith rests upon the revelation given to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, but not upon revelation, if such there were, given to other teachers."48 It is learned, not inspired, exegesis, which is recognized: "In the philosophical interpretation of its eschatological hope," an eminent Catholic theologian has very recently written, "Christian theology from the very beginning clings to Aristotle." 49 Aristotle was not a prophet, but a scientist; what would a pagan professor know about the "eschatological hope"?[5]

Return of a sense revelation is needed

A French Protestant scholar reminds us that in the Middle Ages there were so many legitimate ways of interpreting the Scriptures that they really meant nothing at all—since they could mean anything you pleased—and boasts that it was the Reformation "which was to give its objectivity and its dignity back to the sacred text."50 But that was no solution to the problem of interpretation, as the rapid multiplication of conflicting Protestant sects demonstrated, and today the words of a leading Protestant theologian are strangely reminiscent of Hilary: "The Bible has to be interpreted from its own centre. It is not concentric with Aristotle, as Roman theology posits, nor with modern rationalism, as theological liberalism has assumed. . . . It . . . authenticates itself . . . to the man who comes in faith and prays for the inward witness of the Holy Spirit."51 The old double-talk again: it authenticates itself, but it does not authenticate itself—a higher authority is needed, "the inward witness of the Holy Spirit." Why not break down and call it revelation?

Today there is cautious but unmistakable edging toward an acceptance of the long-forbidden idea of modern revelation. This has followed upon a growing realization that the Bible alone is not enough. The Apostles, we are now being told, had no intention of writing all their knowledge down in a book; what they did write "was only meant to complement the spoken word: they had no intention of supplanting it."52 Furthermore, what they wrote was meant for the initiated alone and may never be deciphered by the learning of men.53 They wrote, moreover, with no idea of canonicity in mind: "The idea that any book was written with the conscious purpose of securing a place in the sacred corpus," says Rowley, "rests on the most unreal conception of the process of canonization."54 Nay, the New Testament, we now learn, was only a sort of substitute for living witnesses and for a long time remained a very plastic document.55 So today we find Catholic and Protestant scholars agreeing that "the inadequacy of the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture has demonstrated itself"—that favorite official doctrine of Protestant and Catholic alike!—"It is too narrow to fit the facts; it cannot be carried through in the exegesis of Scripture without resorting to special pleading; it does not explain the admitted imperfection of the Old Testament; it involves a materialistic notion of the truth. Above all, in being a negative word, it is quite inadequate to express the glory of the revelation of God in the Scripture."56 But even if the Scriptures were inerrant, where is their inerrant interpreter? That is the question, and D. M. Mackay assures us that we won't find it among the scholars or scientists when he writes: "Our position, then, in attempting to make any comprehensive or systematic statement about God, is logically very insecure. It is just no good quoting a series of inspired scriptures and then supposing that the guarantee of inspiration will extend infallibly to all our apparently logical deductions from them."[6]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 16, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 28, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  3. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 28, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  4. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 31, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  5. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 31, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  6. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 31, references silently removed—consult original for citations.

Pages in category "History/Apostasy/Loss of spiritual gifts"

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