June / July 2015 - Vol. 80
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?
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.
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.
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.
“…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).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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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
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