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Prophecy 101: The Gift of Prophecy Throughout Church History

Prophecy 101: The Gift of Prophecy Throughout Church History

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Published by Rob Wilkerson
Part 1 in the Prophecy 101 Series

It is a commonly held belief today by many Christians that God does not move in and through the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit the same way He did in the early church. The assumption is often these gifts of the Spirit, such as prophecy in particular, "died out" after the apostolic age. This article seeks to challenge this assumption with historical facts and data about the gift of prophecy throughout church history.
Part 1 in the Prophecy 101 Series

It is a commonly held belief today by many Christians that God does not move in and through the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit the same way He did in the early church. The assumption is often these gifts of the Spirit, such as prophecy in particular, "died out" after the apostolic age. This article seeks to challenge this assumption with historical facts and data about the gift of prophecy throughout church history.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Rob Wilkerson on Sep 02, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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The Gift of Prophecy Throughout Church History Page |
1
The Gift of Prophecy
Throughout
Church History
It is a common notion that the gift of prophecy “died out” along with either the apostles after the close
of the first century, or when the last book of the Bible was written, or when the canon of the Bible wasformulated in the fifth century. But this would be to ignore the clear examples given to us throughoutchurch history about the manifestation and usage of the gift of prophecy. This session is designed totake a quick tour through church history to examine some of these examples.
Examples from the Early Church
There are two issues at play here when appealing to the church fathers for evidence of the gift of prophecy in the early church.First, too many scholars and theologians dismiss what the early church fathers have to say, and they doso too quickly. Citing examples of writers of who have done this very thing, D.A. Carson has writtenmasterfully that,
“There are enough loose pieces to make us fearful that the historical records are
being handled
(or mishandled) on the basis of a strong commitment to a predetermined conclusion.”
 
Showing the Spirit 
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), p. 165.
Rob Wilkerson
Lead PastorChurch in the Boro
www.churchintheboro.com
 
 
The Gift of Prophecy Throughout Church History Page |
2
The second issue is an allowance to these scholars based on what all scholars agree regarding the
church fathers: they are like prisoners of war; if you torture them long enough they’ll tell you anything
you want to hear! The fact is that there were major doctrinal variations that frequently distort andfracture what little witness we do have to the operation of the charismatic gifts. What we
cannot 
dowhen studying the early church fathers is, as Carson continues,
“to milk what evidence there is without evenhanded weighing of the
proportion, frequency, theology, and influence of the groups theye
xamine” (ibid).
 Now as far as the facts go, it appears that tongues were extremely rare after the beginning of the 2
nd
 century. Prophecy, however, was known and welcomed in the church until the rise of the Montanistheresy. Montanists were charis
maniacs
, who claimed to enjoy Spirit-given, prophetic gifts of thehighest authority so much so that they confidently dismissed much of Scripture. This caused thechurch to respond by stressing the stability and immutability of the faith once-for-all handed downfrom the apostles to the saints. The result then was that if prophecy was being abused by the
Montanists, then somehow prophecy must be as suspicious as they are. This is the classic “geneticfallacy” of logic which discredits something legitimate because it’s connected to something illegitimate.
From that time on prophecy was held in suspicion from that point to the present. According to
Carson…
 
“…it must be remembered that this theological stance was an
ecclesiastical
reaction
. The fact that the church made room for prophecyuntil the Montanist abuse strongly suggests that what the church
understood by ‘prophecy’ up to that time
did not in any way jeopardizethe apostolic deposit 
. It was the authority claim of Montanism that wasso profoundly dangerous, ultimately threatening the numerous cardinal
doctrines of the church” (p. 168).
 So what
can
we conclude from the historical evidence? There are four things D.A. Carson says we canglean.1.
 
There is enough evidence that some form of “charismatic gifts” continued sporadically across
the centuries of church history that it is useless to insist out of doctrinal persuasions that everyreport is either doubtful or demonic.2.
 
From the death of Montanism until the turn of the 20
th
century, the charismatic gifts werenever a part of any major movement. In each case that can be observed, the groups involvedwere small, fringe groups that were generally marginalized.3.
 
The great movements of holiness, piety and reformation that refreshed and renewed thechurch we
re never seriously crippled because their leaders didn’t speak in tongues. Athoughtful reading of the Puritans, for example, reveals that their drive to live for God’s glory
was no less powerful and effectual without the charismatic gifts. What is more, the preaching
 
 
The Gift of Prophecy Throughout Church History Page |
3
movements of Howell Harris, George Whitfield, the Wesley brothers, and others has no parallel
in the charismatic movement. So it’s foolish to think that those who practiced charismatic gifts
were somehow on a higher plane of spirituality than Augustine, Balthasar Hubmaier, JonathanEdwards, Count von Zinzendorf, Charles Spurgeon since none of these men spoke in tongues.4.
 
Very often those groups that did practice charismatic gifts were either heretical or else they
quickly pushed their “gifts” to such extremes that their practice proved dangerous to the
church.
Justin Martyr (A.D. 150)
§
 
Early Church Father, Justin Martyr, lived around the year 150 A.D., just a few decades after the deathof the 12 Apostles.In his famous
Dialogue with Trypho
, he speaks of the fact that Jews continue to leave theircommunities in order to become Christians. In this context, he makes the following comment:[some] are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined throughthe name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding,another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God.It is interesting to note some of the similarities between Justin's list here, and Paul's list in 1Corinthians 12.It appears that the charismatic gifts of the Spirit were alive and well in the early Church, decades afterthe 12 Apostles had already passed away.
Ireneaus (A.D. 180)
§
 
Early Church Father, Irenaeus, was the Bishop of Lyons. He lived around 180 A.D., nearly a centuryafter the death of the last of the 12 apostles.Irenaeus testified to the continuation of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit in the Church.Here are a couple quotes from his famous work,
 Against Heresies
:. . . for which cause also his [Christ's] true disciples having received gracefrom him use it in his name for the benefit of the rest of men, even aseach has received the gift from him. For some drive out demons withcertainty and truth, so that often those who have themselves beencleansed from the evil spirits believe and are in the church, and somehave foreknowledge of things to be, and visions and prophetic speech,and others cure the sick by the laying on of hands and make them whole,

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