Loss of spiritual gifts for Augustine

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St. Augustine has a great deal to say on this subject; we need mention here only his argument that the church has superseded all revelation.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."[1]


  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 28, references silently removed—consult original for citations.