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The History of Charismatic Gifts and TheologyEssay

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¶ … Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears," (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Although the bible provides no evidence for continued charismatic gifts or sign gifts, claims to the contrary have abounded since the canonization of scripture. Early Christian theologians from Iraneus, Hippolytus, and Origen and modern charismatics alike point to testimonials and supposed evidence that sign gifts are being practiced today by God's will, revealing continuity of the charismatic gifts that Christ provided in order to inspire faith. Although it would seem that God would provide for ongoing sign gifts in order to continue spreading the gospel, the Bible suggests clearly that sign gifts were reserved for Jesus' time only, and also that prophecy -- one of the most critical of the sign gifts -- is apostolic in nature only.

Any attempt to act as a modern-day prophet can be viewed as blasphemy in light of a strict interpretation of scripture. Speaking in tongues, faith healing, and other phenomena attributed to God, classified as sign gifts, can be viewed in one of two ways. The first way to view contemporary sign gifts is as the Pentecostal Church suggests, through the lens of cessationism. This view suggests that the Bible is to be interpreted strictly and that the sign gifts did cease after the compilation of the gospels by the apostles, but that the return of sign gifts like glossolalia is a sign of the End Times. "When completeness comes, what is in part disappears." The second way to view contemporary sign gifts is to dismiss them as being false testimony, albeit employed to judicious ends in that these "signs" attract followers and inspire love of God.

The two approaches to the charismatic gifts debate are generally referred to as the cessationist versus non-cessationist views. Alternatively, the terms continuity and noncontinuity can be used. Cessationists hold to the strict interpretation of the Bible. Calvinists and Lutherans generally ascribe to the cessationist view that miracles and signs of the divine sort occurred only during the time of Christ and the Apostles and ceased thereafter. This viewpoint holds that the purpose of the sign gifts was highly specific and ordained by God, linked with the miracle of Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. Moreover, the sign gifts are viewed as being personalized. "These gifts were essentially poured out on select individuals for the purpose of authenticating that God was doing something new," (Wallace). The cessasionst view precludes any situation where a sudden miracle or charismatic gift can occur because they are reserved for very special situations -- the likes of which would be outlined clearly in the Bible as belonging to the End Time as the Pentecostals suggest. The Pentecostal focus on the End Time is rooted in scripture: "And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well," (Mark 16:17-18). However, unlike the Pentecostals, the strict cessastionists do not hold that charismatic gifts can have any personal implications. "The miracles of the Bible are generally grouped around special events in God's dealing with mankind," ("What Was the Purpose of the Biblical Sign Gifts?" n.d.). Finally, cessassionists hold that other spiritual gifts such as "teaching, mercy, administration, and service," may have been misinterpreted as charismatic gifts (Wallace).

Whereas the argument for cessationism has been grounded in scripture, the argument against it has more spurious spiritual foundations. Scripture does offer the reason for the original sign gifts: "Unless you people see signs and wonders,' Jesus told him, "you will never believe,'" (John 4:48). This passage of the Book of John does not indicate that the sign gifts will be continuously unfolding throughout time as noncessationists believe. Likewise, the Book of Acts is frequently cited as the foundation for the noncessationist point-of-view. The Book of Acts substantiates all of Christ's miracles and charismatic gifts but does not suggest outright that the charismatic gifts will be continuous. Scripture remains somewhat ambiguous on the function of speaking in tongues and prophecy: "Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers," (1 Corinthians 14:22). Clearly, charismatic gifts help believers to solidify and strengthen their faith and draw nearer to God and likewise aid the nonbeliever in finding God. Given the multitude of ways Scripture has revealed itself as the Word of God, and given the importance of evangelism in spreading the gospel, ongoing, continuous charismatic gifts are no longer necessary to attract people to the Gospel. Evangelism and spreading the gospel might not be as sensational as speaking in tongues, but they are the methods that Christ and the apostles preferred and outlined as Christian duties.

Noncessationists hold that "sign gifts are everywhere," which is certainly untrue (Wallace). Some noncessationists also believe that "to the extent that we today are not experiencing these gifts, to that extent we are not experiencing the richness of the Spirit and the spiritual life that God intends for us to have," (Wallace). This point-of-view would seem to suggest that persons who do not experience the charismatic gifts are not true believers, which is patently false and untenable by scriptural standards. Sign gifts and charismatic gifts are not normative in Christianity; they are special. Yet the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, and the Church of England (Anglican Church) all hold to some version of noncessationism. For example, all canonized saints and martyrs exhibited charismatic gifts, proving that the gifts are on going testimony of God's love for humanity. Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, although Protestant, also hold that charismatic gifts may be ongoing since Biblical times (McClymond, 406). Part of the reason for the ascription to the noncessationist view can be located in Christian theologians from the fourth to sixth centuries, whose views were seminal for Catholic doctrine. Irenaeus, Origen, and Hippolytus, a disciple of Irenaeus, all held that miracles were core features of the Christian experience unfolding on Earth. In Contra Celcus, Origin argued that signs and miracles proved God's love and centuries later, Augustine in City of God and especially in On Christian Doctrine argued the same.

Prior to the era of modern medicine and its apparent "miracles," faith healing would have been perceived as a core charismatic gift that could be traced to Christ's example. It is therefore no coincidence that instances of faith healing abounded in the early 20th century when medical science became more mainstream and technologically advanced than ever before. The charismatic preachers of the 20th century such as Oral Roberts drew a theological link between healing and conversion that encapsulated the charismatic view and solidified belief in the noncessastionist outlook among New World Protestants (McClymond 404). In countries where Christianity is still taking root, charismatic gifts are integral to the faith. As McClymond points out, charismatic gifts are particularly important for the social, political, and psychological impact of Christianity in cultures with strong beliefs in the supernatural such as in West Africa. Indeed, charismatic gifts have a strong supernatural component, which is one of the reasons they may remain controversial and difficult to substantiate.

Although not strictly noncessationist, the Pentecostal viewpoint does not deny that charismatic gifts might have emerged since Biblical times. For members of the Pentecostal Church, glossolalia became especially critical for proving the End Times had commenced. Glossolalia imparted a sense of "wonder, joy, and gratitude" and also represented what some charismatic Christians call the "spirit baptism" (McClymond 407). A fundamental difference between other charismatic denominations and the Pentecostal doctrine is that charismatics believe miracles can happen in less dramatic ways, independent of sign gifts (Hassett). Other charismatic churches, including what Anderson calls "mainline" Protestant churches and the traditional churches in Asia and Africa, situate the charismatic gifts in a similar way, as charismatic renewal. Charismatic renewal parallels successive "great awakenings" in American history, aimed at revitalizing and reviving Christian faith in an increasingly secular world. Viewed in this context, charismatic renewal is more a human-led phenomenon than it is a divine one. Sign gifts are of human origin, and although they occur as service to God, they are not of the same divine nature as what are true and authentic "emissaries of God's power" such as prophecy, healing, and miracles (Wallace). Even when Augustine testifies as to the nature and meaning of signs, he refers more to the mystical dimension of a revealed God and not to the dramatic manifestations of supposed charismatic gifts like glossolalia. Bodson and other cessasionists suggest that charismatic gifts can be viewed in a broader context, to show that Christ's love… [END OF PREVIEW]

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