The gifts of the Spirit never left the early church

Tertullian was so entirely caught up in the dynamism of God’s Spirit that some have dubbed him as the church’s first authentically ‘Pentecostal’ theologian (although it’s a blatant anachronism, a bit like calling Augustine a ‘Calvinist’). Tertullian loved the Holy Spirit.

31 JANUARY 2015 · 22:50 CET


One of the greatest objections to modern day spiritual gifts (charismata) such as speaking in tongues and prophecy (amongst others) is that they vanished once the apostles died. According to this theory no-one should expect to be endowed by spectacular gifts of the Spirit given that they belong entirely to the past.

This view, however, is rapidly losing credence in our days. Thanks to the great revival of Patristic Studies throughout the last century, contemporary theology has been quick to take note of the ongoing spiritual vitality at work in the formative years of the newly established Church. Key theologians such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Novatian and Cyril of Jerusalem are just some examples of men who were fully convinced that the gifts of the Spirit were still very much operational in their post-apostolic days.

It’s about time that these things went public. So let’s dig up some of their most significant quotes on this grand theme. Are you sitting comfortably? Let the study commence.

In Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, he makes it abundantly clear that the prophetical gifts of the Jews had been transferred to the Christians. He starts chapter 82 of his apologetic book declaring, “For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time.” He continues the same line of reasoning in chapter 87 arguing that the Spirit continues to impart gifts of grace “to those who believe in Him, according as He deems each man worthy thereof.” The following chapter, 88, is also explicitly affirmative of the presence of spiritual gifts: “Now, it is possible to see among us women and men who possess gifts of the Spirit of God.” Justin believed the charismata were plainly at work during his lifetime. 

In his Second Apology he also claims that many believers are still casting out devils. “And now you can learn this from your own observation. For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those who used incantations and drugs” (chapter 6). The Spirit had not stopped working in the second century!

IRENAEUS (130-202)
Irenaeus’ magnum opus Against Heresies also bears witness to the wide range of spiritual gifts on display within the second century church. Irenaeus goes so far as to use the charismata as a clear indication of discipleship of the true Jesus (in contrast to the Gnostic one). 

He writes, “Those who are in truth Jesus’ disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform miracles, so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe in Christ, and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years” (2:32:4). The Spirit, then, does miracles, casts out demons, reveals the future, delivers the sick and even raises the dead! 

Another relevant paragraph to speaking in other tongues is found in 5:6:1 wherein he explains, “For this reason does the apostle declare, “We speak wisdom among them that are perfect”, terming those who have received the Spirit of God, and who through the Spirit of God do speak in all languages, as he used himself also to speak. In like manner we do hear many brethren in the Church who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms “spiritual”, they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit, and not because their flesh has been stripped off and taken away, and because they have become purely spiritual.”

Ireanaeus openly confessed that the Spirit imparted charismatic gifts to his Church.

TERTULLIAN (150-220)
Tertullian was so entirely caught up in the dynamism of God’s Spirit that some have dubbed him as the church’s first authentically ‘Pentecostal’ theologian (although it’s a blatant anachronism, a bit like calling Augustine a ‘Calvinist’). Tertullian loved the Holy Spirit.

In the context of baptism, he urged new disciples to earnestly seek after spiritual gifts. “Therefore, my blessed ones, whom the grace of God awaits, when you ascend from the most sacred font of your new birth [baptism], and spread your hands for the first time in the house of your mother [the Church], together with your brethren, ask from the Father, ask from the Lord, that His own specialties of grace and distributions of gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-12) may be supplied you. “Ask,” says He, “and you shall receive.” Well, you have asked, and have received; you have knocked, and it has been opened to you. Only, I pray that, when you are asking, you be mindful likewise of Tertullian the sinner.” (On Baptism, 20)

Another useful passage in his Against Marcion is recorded in 5:8. Here Tertullian does much the same as Irenaeus in laying a hold of the spiritual gifts to show that his Church was really the true Church of Christ. He challenges the heretic Marcion to produce anything like the gifts of the Spirit that were in clear operation in Tertullian’s Church. These gifts- Tertullian believed- proved that he served the one true God of the Old and New Testament in contrast to Marcion’s modified deity.

“Let Marcion then exhibit, as gifts of his god, some prophets, such as have not spoken by human sense, but with the Spirit of God, such as have both predicted things to come, and have made manifest the secrets of the heart (1 Corinthians 14:25); let him produce a psalm, a vision, a prayer (1 Corinthians 14:26)- only let it be by the Spirit, in an ecstasy, that is, in a rapture, whenever an interpretation of tongues has occurred to him; let him show to me also, that any woman of boastful tongue in his community has ever prophesied from among those specially holy sisters of his. Now all these signs (of spiritual gifts) are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty, and they agree too with the rules, and the dispensations, and the instructions of the Creator; therefore without doubt the Christ, and the Spirit, and the apostle belong severally to my God. Here, then, is my frank avowal for anyone who cares to require it.”

Tertullian believed that the spiritual gifts at work in his congregation (and the lack of them in Marcion’s sect) proved once and for all that he was in line with the God of Scripture. He also spoke much about the gift of prophecy. He dedicated the whole ninth chapter of his book A Treatise on the Soul to testify of the powerful prophetic experiences of a godly sister in the Lord. “For, seeing that we acknowledge the spiritual charismata, or gifts, we too have merited the attainment of the prophetic gift, although coming after John the Baptist.”

ORIGEN (185-254)
Origen was also conscious of the charismata. His most well-known book On First Principles is the first attempt that any Christian writer had ever made at presenting a comprehensive systematic theology. He severely warns against the misuse of spiritual gifts. This leads us to believe that they were in operation in his generation.

He thunders, “When, whether by baptism or by the grace of the Spirit, the word of wisdom or the word of knowledge or of any other gift has been bestowed upon a man, and not rightly administered, i.e. either buried in the earth or tied up in a napkin, the gift of the Spirit will certainly be withdrawn from his soul, and the other portion which remains, that is, the substance of the soul, will be assigned its place with unbelievers, being divided and separated from that Spirit with whom, by joining himself to the Lord, it ought to have been one spirit.” (2:10:7). 

If one has a spiritual gift, it must be used diligently and in the fear of the Lord. God does not impart His gifts lightly. Each grace entails great responsibility. He also reports that: “There are still preserved among Christians traces of that Holy Spirit which appeared in the form of a dove. They expel evil spirits, and perform many cures, and foresee certain events, according to the will of the Logos” (Against Celsus 1:46). 

NOVATIAN (200-258)
Novatian the ‘Puritan’ (yet another anachronism) was persuaded that the Spirit of God granted fullness to Church of Christ. Whereas the Old Testament had only known the Sprit in a partial sense, the redeemed in Christ experience manifold blessing thanks to the office of the Holy Spirit. His testimony is the following:

“This is He who places prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, often discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggests counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts there are of charismata; and thus make the Lord’s Church everywhere, and in all, perfected and completed.” (On the Trinity, 29). 

Novatian, thus, adds his voice to those of Tertullian and Origen to confess the ongoing work of the spiritual charismata in the third century. Church was an exciting and energetic place to be!

The last writer worth mentioning is Cyril of Jerusalem who recorded various comments about the Spirit’s work in his Catechetical Lectures during the fourth century. He promises the faithful that, “If you believe, you shall not only receive remission of sins, but also do things which pass man’s power. And may you be worthy of the gift of prophecy also! […] All your life long will your Guardian the Comforter abide with you; He will care for you, as for His own solider; for your goings out, and your comings in, and your plotting foes. And He will give you gifts of grace of every kind, if you grieve Him not by sin […] Be ready to receive grace, and when you have received it, cast it not away.” (17:37). 

He also makes an allusion to the casting out of evil spirits in the preceding chapter, explaining, “If you be counted worthy of the grace, your soul will be enlightened, you will receive a power which you had not, you will receive weapons terrible to the evil spirits; and if you cast not away your arms, but keep the Seal upon your soul, no evil spirit will approach you; for he will be cowed; for verily by the Spirit of God are the evil spirits cast out.” (17:36).

The Spirit gives various gifts (prophecy included) and He also casts out devils.

This brief study of the second, third and fourth centuries reveals that the church’s greatest thinkers were in unanimous agreement that spiritual gifts were still to be found in the body of Christ. There was no conviction that the gifts had somehow died out alongside the apostles. That concept was an invention of two late fourth/ early fifth century theologians, namely, John Chrysostom in the East and Augustine of Hippo in the West

The insistence of some brethren today that the gifts vanished once the book of Revelation was penned is therefore historically untenable and unsustainable. Who would dare to disagree with six heavyweights such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Novatian and Cyril? Not me...

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Fresh Breeze - The gifts of the Spirit never left the early church