Did I mention I was a young and impressionable Charismatic at one time in my life…a true believer on the glory train to the next great thing?
It so happened that I attended a Southern Baptist college where for a couple of years at least I was enrolled in their ministerial program…New Testament, Koine Greek, Bible Lands, etc. I soon learned that a substantial cross section of the ministerial association did not think very much of speaking in tongues, or Spirit Baptism, or lively, very informal worship, or anything else closely associated with the Charismatic movement…in the catalog of undesirables for some of the ministerial association Charismatics ranked right above flaming sexual deviants, and they said so.
Many of them took the cessationist position regarding spiritual gifts, namely that at some point shortly after the end of the apostolic era supernatural gifts faded away, unneeded since the New Testament was complete. Now given that these same cessationists tended to be theologically conservative, and believed the Bible to be the Word of God, not a few of them believing in nothing less than the plenary verbal inspiration of the Scriptures (basically meaning that the Apostles were just God’s dictaphones and their personality and experience really didn’t enter into what they wrote in any important way) it did not seem to me and other Charismatics that their view squared with the Scriptures that declared that He doesn’t change and is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. They, of course, were some variety of dispensationalists, believing that a number of the “rules” changed about how God worked with men during each dispensation….hence for them (if they were true to their principles) the Gospels mattered less than the letters of the New Testament since the Gospels belonged to the previous dispensation.
Anyway this group had a lot of influence on campus, and to be honest, since we were convinced we Charismatics were on the bleeding edge of a new move of God whose job it was to complete the restoration that was started in the Protestant Reformation, expanded upon in the early Methodist/holiness movements, energized by the early Pentecostals, and now shared with the world without denominational constraint…through us. They couldn’t see that. We showed them miracles and they poo-pooed them as psychological delusion, trickery, or Satan acting as an “angel of light” to deceive many…or else just plain ignored what was right in front of their faces in favor of other bookcases of dusty arguments…that was the most irritating. Something had to be done about it…they had to be met on their own turf and bested.
That was easy enough to do with Scripture…there was lot to draw upon to oppose the cessationist argument. But that was also the problem. Both of us had our batteries of arguments and counter-arguments, our rebuttals and counter rebuttals. We were on a dialectical merry-go round….and nobody was getting off first.
What was needed was a supplemental argument…one out of history. After all, if miracles ceased, then it should be easy enough to show from ancient records roughly how long it took from the time of the Apostles to early succeeding generations where Apostolic caliber miracles had effectively gone away. If the cessationist interpretation was right, then it should be borne out in history, as should ours if our argument was right.
Little did I know what I was in for when I first began reading the writings the late Apostolic era and early post Apostolic era Christians…the things I learned were things I was not quite prepared to confront. Certainly, I found what I was looking for…plenty of evidence of miracles continuing century after century…not quite as much as in Apostolic times to be sure, but definitely continuous.
The thing is this, I went digging through early Christian writing looking ammunition for my pet arguments…and found more than ammunition…I found a mirror in which I and our times didn’t reflect very well at all.
My first pay-dirt was the Didache, the teachings of the 12 Apostles that dated either from late apostolic times or early post apostolic times. It spoke plainly of how to test and regard itinerant prophets who came through…”see there were still prophets”…but one could also see the beginnings of a more structured Church experience for day to day Christians in the absence of a genuine prophet. Then there were the letters of St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius, St. Ireneus, and St. Clement. Clement was the disciple of St. Peter, Sts. Polycarp and St. Ignatius were disciples of St. John the Theologian. St. Ignatius had the further distinction of being ordained by St. John in A.D. 69 to pastor the Church in Antioch, and further there was a strong tradition that he was the very child Christ had pulled up into His lap in His “Suffer, the Little Children” admonition. St. Irenaeus was a spiritual child of St. Polycarp, and one can see from his writings much of where the Church stood in terms of doctrine and practice in the mid to late 2nd century.
As for Polycarp…wow what can you say about Polycarp. Having read how he became a Martyr for Christ in his mid 80s…his narrative dripped with Biblical caliber miracles. The Romans had to run him through with a sword because the fire they bound him in refused to hurt him.
St. Ignatius had profound things to say about the nature of the Church, its governance, and its worship…stuff very different from the congregationalist worship experience, that had I thought about it at the time i would have realized that his time of ministry overlapped the end of St. John’s by about 25 or 30 years…if he had been off base in anything he believed and taught, The Apostle John had nearly 30 years to correct him, and did not…there were also the spiritual sons of the other apostles still living, and they are silent on any error he may have harbored…so the only reasonable conclusion was that what St. Ignatius believed was the faith of the Church as it was known in the late Apostolic and early post apostolic eras. One thing I noted, what he taught regarding the Church bore very limited resemblance what I knew of Church life first as a Baptist, and later as a Methodist and then Charismatic. But I was oblivious and only took out of his letters a general instruction toward’s holiness and and admonition to frequent communion.
That was not the end though…the one early Christian text that really challenged me t a gut level was one written by a guy named Hermas, who some believe was both a Christian prophet and brother of the person who was bishop of Rome circa 150 AD…that would have made him a spiritual son or grandson of St. Clement, the disciple of St. Peter. So with Hermas we were about 1 to 2 generations past the latter Apostolic era. Hermas received a series of angelic visitations which left him some parables…similitudes as they are called. Their main focus is on the duty of the Christian to live an uncompromised and holy life.
The book entitled “The Shepherd of Hermas” was a theological body blow. It crumbled me, drove me to knees in repentance like nothing I had ever read before. Gobsmacked is not big or too weird a word. No old timey hell fire and brimstone preacher could hold a tiny flickering candle to Hermas…I read him in conjunction with the letters of St. Clement and the letters of St. Peter from the New Testament. Without exaggeration I was in what I can only call spiritual shock for at least two or three days.
I learned quickly how my quaint latter day salvic sureties could erode into near despair in the face of genuine holiness. The scriptures say that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom…the Shepherd of Hermas will teach a soul to fear God if that soul is the least little bit open to correction and healing. In short Hermas…scared me…scared me hard…but in a good way. It sobered much of my easy breezy enthusiasms about spiritual things.
No big buddy Jesus in Hermas…just the Mighty, Holy and Immortal God of the universe and the Judge of all mankind, and that God was served by ministering spirits of fire, holy angels who had a task to do in building up the Church until the time of the Lord’s return, and that did not involve indefinitely suffering fools and dilettantes who refused take their own repentance and salvation seriously.
In my search I also learned there were a number of early Christians writings not written by Apostles which were used by local Churches as scripture for almost 500 years after the time of Christ…and one of those writings that was considered Scripture by many Christians for hundreds of years was The Shepherd of Hermas. I most definitely understand why.
I found my miracles…more than enough to make my case twice over…but in the face of what I was discovering, my argument, though I still believed it, seemed less and less important than the question of holiness. Being right argumentatively speaking didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as being right(eous).
Slipping forward in time I came to a book on the history of the Irish people, and this particular book had an extensive section on St. Patrick and his disciples. After reading about him, I had not been so impressed since reading about the martyrdom of St. Polycarp…Here was a saint’s Saint. St. Patrick had his share of miracles as one might expect…but there was something more about him…something that I never encountered in a Christian life outside the pages of the New Testament….namely transfiguration such as that experienced by St. Stephen before his accusers.
St. Patrick knew the hour of death, which came when he was a very old man. Around midnight, knowing his time was upon him, he sent his personal attendant away to fetch something while he went to the chapel to pray. As the cell attendant returned he saw the little chapel ablaze with light that disappeared the moment he entered, and there near the altar was St. Patrick, reposed in Christ. For the next 30 days his body was taken on tour of all the monasteries he had founded so the brothers could pay their respects. According to witnesses of the time, his body, even at the end was not bloated or foul smelling, but he looked like a man asleep.
I marveled at that grace, that power in God’s saints like Patrick knew in their lives. It seemed so much more “potent” if not so common as the power we Charismatics believed we were reclaiming. When I looked at Patrick I saw how far we had yet to go to get back all that was lost. It was invigorating to consider what glories must be to come….little did I know another little knobby sprout of Orthodoxy had just popped up in my life…I had found what I needed to prove, at least to my satisfaction, that Apostolic life had not ceased with the Apostles…had I been wiser I would have kept thinking about what the rest that I had found implied.
But alas, I was not wise; I was 21.