June / July 2015 - Vol. 80 

Have the Gifts of the
Holy Spirit Ceased?

by Jerry Munk


Jesus Christ the Word of Life 
a painting by Michael O'Brien 
based the figure on the oldest known icon of Christ,
a sixth century "Christ Pantocrator" in St. Catherine's monastery, Sinai 

In the New Testament Church we see many overt manifestations of the Holy Spirit: speaking in unlearned languages (languages known and unknown to mankind), prophetic utterance, supernatural healings, visions and dreams, working of miracles, and several others. This is not generally our experience today. In fact, the very gifts which once served as the catalyst for establishing and extending the Church of Jesus Christ, would today be rejected in all but a very few Orthodox parishes. Why?

An Innovation?
I suspect the majority of Orthodox Christians have not given much thought to the place of spiritual gifts in the life of the church. We tend to be a traditional lot and pretty much accept the idea that the way we do things now is the way they have always been done. Since little place is given to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it is easy to assume that this has always been the case, and therefore the charismata (spiritual gifts) must be some Protestant innovation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Indeed, the record of the early church tells us that charismatic ministry was the norm for the first several hundred years. It worked hand in hand with and often overlapped the hierarchical ministries of the church (see Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church by Ronald A. Kydd, Hendricks Publishing Co.). Rather than being a recent innovation, there is a great deal of evidence that the charismatic renewal we see today is, in fact, a restoration of early church, and therefore Orthodox, practice.

Cessation Theology
On the other hand, there are a number of Orthodox Christians (Protestant and Catholic as well) whose opposition to charismatic manifestations goes much deeper. They hold a developed theology that says the gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased, or were severely curtailed, with the close of the Apostolic Age.

Several New Testament passages, at first reading, seem to support this idea of cessation. Also, until the Pentecostal awakening in the early 1900s, spiritual gifts seemed almost extinct, and this argues in favor of cessation. But, as we examine the evidence closely, and bring to the discussion some additional information, a strong argument emerges that it was and always has been God’s intent for his children to exercise the gifts of the Holy Spirit which so typified the New Testament believers.

Orthodox Position
Before we pursue this discussion, however, it would be good to address a point of major concern for Orthodox Christians. That is the question: “what is the position of the Orthodox Church in all of this?”

This question, although it is an important one, has never been addressed by anything close to an Ecumenical Council of Bishops. As a result, people hold a variety of understandings on this issue, but no one can claim to have the Orthodox position.

There are some writings by respected authors that lean one way, but just as many writings by authors equally respected that lean the other. A few bishops have condemned the Charismatic Renewal, several have endorsed it, but most have been silent.

Three Passages
There are three main passages used to support the cessation theory, one from Scripture, and two from Church Fathers: Augustine and Chrysostom.

“…For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (1 Corinthians 13: 8-10).

“The sign [speaking in tongues] was given and then passed away. We no longer expect that those on whom the hand is laid…will speak in tongues” (St. Augustine).

“This whole passage [ref. to 1 Corinthians 12: 1-2] is very obscure, for they [the spiritual gifts] used to occur regularly but not anymore…” (St. John Chrysostom).

Primary weight should, of course, be given to the passage from Holy Scripture. We will examine the first text cited above.

1 Corinthians 13: 8-10
There are three main points in the 1 Corinthians passage; (1) Spiritual gifts are partial; (2) something perfect is coming; (3) the partial will cease.

The first point, that our spiritual gifts are partial or imperfect, is quite clear and direct. This fact can be seen in the record of the New Testament church (in the Corinthian believers), in the early church (the Montanists), and even in our own day among many charismatics. There is little question about its meaning and is accepted at faced value. 

The second point, however, generates a question for the reader which is not directly answered in this passage or in the surrounding material. Just what is this perfect thing?

How you answer this question will determine how you interpret the passage. Because there is no general agreement on the answer, there is also a lack of agreement about what the passage means. In fact, this one passage is used both to argue that the gifts have ceased and that they have continued. 

In my reading I have encountered four different explanations of what this perfect thing might be: the establishment of the church, the New Testament revelation, an eschatological reference indicating the return of Jesus Christ or the close of the age, and personal maturity in a Christian. 

Several Understandings
Some say that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were given to the Apostles for the work of establishing the church (although the Bible records several non-apostles as ministering in the gifts of the Holy Spirit). These people argue that as the Apostles died, the gifts died with them. Others cite the acceptance of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine as the watershed bringing to a close the time of charismatic gifts. 

Others, however, would say that spiritual gifts, especially word gifts, ceased when the written Word of God was completed, but even here people point to two different dates: the Revelation received by John near the close of the first century AD, or the establishment of the New Testament cannon several hundred years later.

Still others hold that Paul was referring in this passage to the second coming of Jesus Christ. In this case, the perfect thing would represent the realized kingdom of God. The surrounding verses support this interpretation: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we see shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13: 12). Proponents of this view argue that spiritual gifts will not be needed in heaven since we will then know Jesus face to face, but until then they continue. 

St. John Chrysostom, on the other hand, sees this passage as a teaching on spiritual maturity (the word translated “perfect” can also be translated “mature”). There is support for this interpretation in surrounding passages. The following verse, for example, says, “When I was a child, my speech, feeling and thinking were those of a child; now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways.”

Before we leave this passage, we must also examine the third point: that something partial or imperfect will cease. Even here, there are two possible options; the spiritual gifts themselves will cease, or the imperfection of the spiritual gifts will cease, i.e. an individual’s gifts will be made pure. Either understanding could be acceptable depending on how one understands the preceding point. 

Clarity Needed
What have we determined by this discussion of the First Corinthians passage? Essentially this, that the passage is not clear. It could mean that the gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased many years ago, that they will be perfected as we mature, or they will continue until Jesus comes again. 

If we look to the rest of Scripture to clear up the confusion, we find that no other passage says that spiritual gifts should cease or will cease. We have several different lists of spiritual gifts, pages of instruction about their place and use, even a lengthy correction for misuse of God’s gifts, but nowhere else is there any indication that such gifts will cease. If Paul, or any of the other writers of the New Testament, had understood that spiritual gifts would come to an end, they never came out and said so. Rather, one gets an impression that they felt charismata constituted an important aspect of Christianity, one that would be essential to the body of Christ into the foreseeable future. Surely, if Paul intended to communicate cessation, he would have done so much more clearly. 

The Fathers
Let us now turn to the quotations of Sts. Chrysostom and Augustine. Here I would make only one observation; while both comment that spiritual gifts are not a common or expected phenomenon, they do not develop a theology which excludes them. In fact, John Chrysostom acknowledges that the situation is confusing, and in his commentary on Romans longs for the days past when “the Spirit controlled all things.”

Actually, all that we can safely determine from these quotations is that spiritual gifts were not common during the time or in the vicinity of the authors.

Ongoing Gifts
Of course, one of the greatest arguments against cessation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the fact that the gifts did not cease. To be sure, spiritual gifts became the exception rather than the norm, but even so, from time to time, throughout the history of the church up to this present day, the Holy Spirit has worked powerfully giving his gifts for the edification of the church. 

Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century, testifies “we see among us today men and women who possess the gifts of the Spirit of God.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the fourth century, also speaks of contemporaries who possess the gifts of the Holy Spirit: “I know the deeds of our fellow men who walk in the Spirit and give evidences of the power of healing…and have great power against the demons.” As late as the fourteenth century, Nicholas Kabasilas speaks of charismatic ministries, “Even in our day…some possess such charismata and they have predicted the future, expelled demons, and healed diseases with prayer alone.”

Expectant Seeking
Indeed, if the gifts of the Holy Spirit passed away with the Apostles, to what are these saints testifying?

In fact the faithful have exercised the gifts of the Holy Spirit in every age. At times there have been many charismatics and at other times few, but the simple fact of their presence and their acceptance by respected fathers of the church stands as evidence that such gifting should be expected, sought and approved of in our day. 

Life and Virtue
In his commentary on First Corinthians, John Chrysostom teaches, “the present church is like a women who has fallen from her former prosperous days and in many respects retains only the symbols of that ancient prosperity… and I say this not in respect of the gifts, for it would not be notable if it were this only, but also in respect to life and virtue.”

In times past, the faithful had great expectation of what the Holy Spirit would do when he entered a consecrated believer. Healing, prophecies, the expulsion of demons, and spiritual prayer, if not the norm, was a very present possibility. At the very least, a life changed to glorify Jesus Christ was expected. 

Today, we are less comfortable with supernatural manifestations. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, so many think, belong to another time, to the saints, to the monasteries – a nice safe distance from any impact on my life. 

Is the Church Richer because of this Rejection?
Does it present a more powerful witness to the reality of Jesus Christ? The real issue, as John Chrysostom points out, is not whether the gifts of the Spirit are exercised, but rather, is the Holy Spirit free to work in and through the lives of the faithful as he wills. Perhaps, by closing ourselves to the gifts of the Spirit, we have also limited his work of producing the fruit of life and virtue. 
Jerry Munk is a member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Lansing, Michigan and a coordinator of the Work of Christ Community in Lansing, Michigan, USA. He is the author of Life in the Spirit Seminar for Children [available from Tabor House].

This article was originally published in Theosis Newsletter, October 1986.


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