I Have Not Seen Miracles Here: Between Pentecost And The Parousia

left-quotation-marksAnd suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:3–5).

When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it (Acts 5:5).

Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband (Acts 5:10).

…the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more (Acts 8:39).

But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up (Acts 9:40).

When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god (Acts 28:4–6).

…Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe (John 4:48).

…For false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect (Mark 13:22).

I have not seen miracles here, but I do not disbelieve in miracles as such (Martyn Wendell Jones, April 24, 2016).

According to Holy Scripture after our Lord Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, i.e., after he began his heavenly reign over all things with and for the Father, he poured out his Holy Spirit upon the apostles. This was in fulfillment of what he had promised: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). At Pentecost God the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles and they did mighty works. By the power of the Spirit they spoke in languages that they had not learned, they put people to death, they raised people from the dead, they were transported by the Holy Spirit, and they survived threats that ordinarily killed others. They did all these things not because they had sufficient faith—Peter denied the gospel even as an apostle (Gal 2:11–14)—nor because they sent money to some “ministry,” nor because they attended a revival. God the Spirit did these things through them in order to confirm their office, to establish Christ’s church, and to advance his kingdom through the preaching of the gospel.

Since the death of the apostles, however, there have been periodic attempts to replicate the Apostolic ministry. From the late 2nd century, the Montanists claimed to have apostolic power, revelation, and gifts. Such claims  appeared periodically through the history of the church. In the 1520s, the Anabaptists regularly claimed to speak in tongues, to be filled with and slain in the Spirit, and to receive extra-canonical revelation. Indeed, Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525) taught that the continuing revelation he received was superior to Holy Scripture and he mocked the Reformed pastors as “ministers of the dead letter.” The Scriptures, he argued, are not the Word per se but become the Word in an existential encounter. In the early 20th century a certain well-known Swiss theologian would come to agree not only with his view of baptism but also with his doctrine of revelation. In the early 19th century, there was another claim of renewed, apostolic power at Cane Ridge, KY that inaugurated decades of religious enthusiasm known as the Second Great Awakening. A century later in Topeka, KS (1901) and five years later in the Azusa Street revival in 1906 there would be yet more neo-Pentecostal phenomena virtually identical to that experienced by the Anabaptists in the 1520s. In the 1980s Christians were been enthralled by revivals in Kansas City. In the 1990s it was the Brownsville revival. The latest such episode seems to be centered in Northern California at Bethel Church.

Martyn Wendell Jones is a Toronto-based writer and editor, who attends a PCA congregation in Toronto). Recently he visited Bethel Church and writes about his experience in Christianity Today. The story is carefully and thoughtfully written. The bottom line is that Jones saw no actual apostolic phenomena. He saw glitter on the ceilings and various sorts of enthusiasm but unlike the Peter, Paul, and Philip, there was no genuine apostolic phenomena. There never is. Jones hesitates to judge the episodes but the strongest endorsement he seems to be able to muster is that it has subjective value for the participants.

This is all one really has to know about all the neo-Pentecostal episodes since the Montanists. None of them have ever actually possessed or exercised apostolic power. The signs and wonders performed by the Spirit, through the Apostles, were not mere subjective experiences. They were objective, empirically verifiable saving (or damning) acts by the Spirit in real history (in contrast to mytho-poetic subjective appropriation of a story, Geschichte, that may or may not be actually true). There were as objectively historical phenomena as Jesus’ resurrection. People were actually put to death. People were actually raised from the dead. None of the miracles performed by the Spirit through the apostolic company were dependent upon the faith of the apostles or upon the faith of those involved. When the viper attached itself to Paul’s arm those around him expected him to die because that is ordinarily what happens in such cases. They doubted but Paul lived. Peter’s authority to end the lives of Ananias and Sapphira was not contingent upon Peter’s faith or theirs.

Evangelicals were once strongly critical of the liberal tendency to reduce Jesus’ resurrection to a subjective experience (e.g., treating his resurrection as a metaphor for one’s personal experience). Since the Second Great Awakening, however, American evangelicals have more willing than they should to reduce the work of the Spirit to purely subjective experiences and to redefine the apostolic phenomena and to fudge the difference between the two. In truth, neo-Pentecostal glossolalia is not the Apostolic phenomena of speaking in foreign languages by the power of the Spirit. Call it primitivism, a hoax, mass delusion, or group therapy but do not call it apostolic. What is taking place at Bethel Church, as in the earlier cases, is a classic example of American religious enthusiasm. Since the early 18th century, in the so-called First Great Awakening, American evangelicals have been on quest for an immediate encounter with the risen Christ or with the power of the Spirit. In the Second Great Awakening that quest manifested itself in a remarkable series of episodes including Cane Ridge, Mormonism, and the Millerite Apocalyptic movement. The skeptic H. L. Mencken described such moments as “magic and noise.”

I understand that it is hard to accept that we live in a time between Pentecost and the Parousia but we do. We need to accept that fact. No one at Bethel Church has apostolic power just as no one in Kansas City, or Brownsville, or Azusa, or Topeka, or Cane Ridge had it. I understand that it hurts to give up this dream. It is like losing a friend. When we realize that these episodes really just “magic and noise” we may grieve for what we have lost but that sense of loss is salutary and good. In it we should look for that which is real: Christ, his gospel, and his promises made visible in the holy sacraments. In place of the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience, that euphoria once felt at certain chord progressions or when the first row of people began to collapse to the floor, look to Christ who saves sinners and to the solid promise of the constant presence of the Holy Spirit, through whom Jesus said, “Behold, I will be with you always.”

Further Reading

18 comments

  1. Only people who have not served Christ as His witness to a demonised society can maintain such things. Read the great missionary lives, where power encounters were experienced and Christ’s Lordship and victory vividly demonstrated to the Satan-ruled peoples.

    • Alan,

      This is the reply I was expecting. This is the reply that Neo-Pentecostals have been making since the early to mid-19th century. Take a look at Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles where he documented this problem.

      1. The phenomena that we see in the book of Acts was not in an undeveloped region. It happened in the “civilized” world, where it could be observed and documented.

      2. I understand that there is a perception the spirit still works apostolic phenomena “over there.” That is the beauty of such claims. They cannot be verified. They are always second hand: “so-and-so says…” or “I heard.”

      3. If people today really have apostolic power, let us see it.

  2. What do you think of Walter Chantry’s view, as stated in “Signs of the Apostles”? You must have read the stories that come from the Scottish Covenanters – The incidents I remember reading about involved people like Alexander Peden, Donald Cargill and John Welwood. Later an English former soldier named Luke Heywood made at least one amazing prediction. Other testimonies I’ve heard or read came from people with their backs to the wall, when if God hadn’t moved in a miraculous way, would have been done for (e.g., the cod liver oil bottle in Corrie Ten Boom’s Ravensbruck, the porridge in that Thailand orphanage I heard about in a missionary meeting, some of George Muller’s experiences). We do not have to disbelieve the experiences of those who really have been walking really close to the Lord. And the last thing any of them do is claim any miraculous authority.

    • There is no question that God is quite capable of doing whatever he will. What is in question is the interpretation of what God has done after the apostolic age or what God is doing now.

      What I resist is the identification of post-canonical phenomena with the apostolic phenomena.

    • So we are agreed that God can perform and has performed, does perform, and will perform miracles according to His Sovereignty. When they are of God, they will point to the Word of God, which is what remains now of the Apostles and their authority. We may not seem them ourselves, but we need not be surprised if they occur “out there”.
      We need not forget that in terms of science and medicine the “civilized world” of the Apostles was pretty third world, compared with what we now have in the West.

    • John,

      We agree that he has performed creative and canonical (i.e., redemptive-historical) miracles. He certainly can (de potentia absoluta). I am not positing a closed universe. He continues to do marvelous things. It is probably not helpful to describe them as miracles, if by that we mean, “the same sorts of supernatural acts performed during the canonical redemptive-history.” The great difference between marvelous and inexplicable things (e.g., healings that might occur) is that the do not occur at the behest of or through the instrument of apostolic office or power nor do they occur in confirmation of the gospel nor are they on the scale of the apostolic wonders. So then we get to finding ways to identify our modern “wonders” with the apostolic phenomena. The dead are not yet being raised and church discipline no longer includes death as a penalty. All the pentecostals use jets—some of them quite expensive!

      What is in question is whether he continues to perform such. I doubt that and am quite persuaded from Scripture (the text-critical problems with the longer ending of Mark are insuperable) and history that we live between Pentecost and the Parousia. The age of canonical miracles ended with the death of the apostle John. We await the next great miracle of redemptive history: the bodily and blessed return of our Lord Jesus.

      Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

  3. ‘At Pentecost God the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles and they did mighty works.’

    But not just on the apostles, but on the whole 120, and several times later to others, and clearly upon the non-apostles such as the deacon Philip.

  4. Suggested reading:
    Miracles by Craig Keener
    http://www.amazon.com/Miracles-Credibility-New-Testament-Accounts/dp/0801039525/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1462387917&sr=8-1&keywords=craig+keener+miracles

    Documented accounts by first-hand witnesses of Christians speaking in recognizable human foreign languages they had not learned (not “my pastor’s cousin’s neighbor saw”)
    http://www.amazon.com/Global-Witnesses-Pentecost-Testimony-Tongues/dp/1935931326/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1462388025&sr=8-1&keywords=global+witness+to+pentecost

    That said, there is no new Scripture being written. Striking A&S dead was, even in Scripture, a one-off. Warning sign from God to maintain the purity of the nascent church.

    As for commanding healings “at will” I’m not sure even the Apostles did that. More likely is that the Holy Spirit prompted them to command healings and resuscitations when God wanted to perform that miracle. Yes, many in the neo-Pentecostal/Charismatic camp are all zeal and no knowledge. But there are a few of us “Pentellectuals” out here who are serious students of the Word and believe the gifts are still for today.

    • The NT miracles are not in question.

      Re: alleged contemporary post-apostolic miracles, why does the Spirit work, apparently, only among neo-Pentecostalists? Why only occasionally? Why not among confessional Presbyterians?

    • Brian I see mention of Oral Roberts in your second reference. He preached a prosperity gospel – called it “Seed Faith” or something. Some “Holy Spirit” inspiring HIS tongues!!!

  5. Are you familiar with Keener’s two-volume work? Even if you haven’t read it (it’s massive), have you listened to any of the interviews he did back when it was published? He documents modern-day miracles specifically to rebut the arguments of those like Hume who tried to say the NT miracles couldn’t have occurred because we don’t see miracles now. The fact that miracles do still happen kills the claim that they couldn’t have happened then (not an issue for believers, but a great apologetic when dealing with skeptics).

    Pentecostals may expect the miraculous more, but I know there have been occurrences among those who would have considered themselves at least soft cessationists before they witnessed them.

    As for why only occasionally? The Spirit moves as He wills. He is sovereign, we are not.

    Why not among confessional Prebyterians? I heard a lecture from Dan Doriani from Coventant Theological Seminary (on their world-wide classroom) where he spoke about a miraculous healing his then-infant daughter received.

    • Brian,

      Only vaguely familiar.

      Attempting to leverage Hume with appeals to anecdotes seems ill-advised. I’ll take a look but I’m skeptical.

      As I keep saying, it’s not helpful to fudge the boundary between canonical miracles and post-canonical providences. God is free to do as he wills. What is in doubt is whether apostolic phenomena still occur.

      We seem to disagree about whether the apostles did things at will. It seems quite clear to me that they did. Peter knew what he was doing with Ananias and Sapphira and they knew what they were doing when they raised the dead.

    • Dr Clark, I don’t see in the Scripture that Peter knew before it happened that Ananias would be struck dead. Once that had happened, he would, of course, know spiritually that the same thing would have to happen to Sapphire (Why did our translators have to put an “a” at the end of that name?), so he tested her in a way in which he hadn’t tested Ananias, to make sure, and then prophesied her immediate death.
      You remember the warning that John Welwood sent to Archbishop Sharp? The relevant scripture there might be James 5:17-18, an encouragement not confined to the apostolic age.

    • Well, we are both drawing inferences. One danger is two over interpret but another is to miss what’s there. I think that Peter’s expression, his language to Ananias is loaded.

  6. If I had a say I will say that:

    The answer to whether apostolic gifts are still in operation or not should lie in Scriptures and not on whether some experience it or all does. We cannot build an argument on experince.

    I am a cessationist. I happen to belong to a local church in India where they believe in the operation of apostolic gifts. They feel I am proud and disobedient, because I would not do certain things I am asked to do or say. It will go against my conscience.

    What does the Scripture say about miracles and revelations after the canon? If the Bible is silent, then let’s all be quiet, if it comments about it, I will like to know.

    Nothing can convince me, except proven to me from Scriptures. My own experiences, people’s, cannot and will not undo what I believe to be Truth in Scriptures.

    Clinton Yeboah
    21 years☺
    Forgive me if I should offend, still a boy!

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