When Did Prophecy End?
Many theorize that prophecy was received by the laying on of apostolic hands, meaning that the gift ended in the early Second Century. Others believe that prophecy and other miraculous gifts ended when the NT was complete — when the last book was authored. Historians disagree as to when this was, but the early Second Century would seem to be the outside date.
What our theologians sometimes forget is that we have early church writings going back to the late First Century. The uninspired writings from church authors tell us a great deal about life in the early church, and they testify that prophecy continued at least to the Third Century.
F. David Farnell’s “The Montanist Crisis: A Key to Refuting Third Wave Theories of NT Prophecy,” TMSJ 14/2 (Fall 2003) 235-262, reviews how the early church reacted to the Montanist heresy, which included claims by its leaders of the power to prophesy with the same authority as the apostles.
Farnell quotes the Fourth Century author Epiphanius, who quotes an unnamed source from the Fourth Century regarding the refutation of the errors of Montanus in the late Second Century —
[Epiphanius’s source] goes on to separate qualitatively the Montanists understanding and practice of spiritual gifts from that of the orthodox community: “God’s holy church also receives the gifts of grace—but the real gifts, [alla ta ontos charismata], which have already been tried in God’s holy church through the Holy Spirit, and by prophets and apostles, and the Lord himself.”
For Epiphanius’s source, the Montanists’ practice of spiritual gifts differed sharply from the genuine gifts of the orthodox, because the orthodox practice corresponds to that handed down from the NT period. Important, the source affirmed a direct continuity between the current orthodox community’s practice of spiritual gifts and those exhibited by Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets. A NT expression of spiritual gifts was markedly different from that exhibited in Montanism.
(p. 251). Epiphanius’s source plainly believes that the gifts of prophecy were continuing among the orthodox churches. His criticism of Montanism is not that they claim to prophesy but that their prophecy differs from orthodox prophecy.
Epiphanius’s source further argues,
For look here, their religion is itself proof that they cannot keep their contentiously made promises. If we must receive the gifts of grace, and if there must be gifts of grace in the church, why do they have no more prophets after Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla? Has grace stopped working, then? Never fear, the grace of the holy church does not stop working! But if the prophets prophesied up to a certain time, and no more after that, then neither Priscilla nor Maximilla prophesied; they delivered their prophecies after the ones which were tried by the holy apostles, in the holy church.
The source argues in the alternative: either prophecy died with the apostles or else it continues. If it continues, why were the founders of Montanism the last of their sect to prophesy? But the author clearly exults in his belief that that the grace [charis] of the church “does not stop working,” meaning that prophecy continues among the orthodox.
The Shepherd of Hermas (ca. 150 AD) assumes the continuation of the gift of prophecy —
When then the man who has the divine Spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men, who have faith in a divine Spirit, and intercession is made to God by the gathering of those men, then the angel of the prophetic spirit, who is attached to him, fills the man, and the man, being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks to the multitude, according as the Lord wills.
In this way then the Spirit of the deity shall be manifest. This then is the greatness of the power as touching the Spirit of the deity of the Lord.
The following quotations are from Grant R. Jeffrey —
Irenaeus. The brilliant Christian teacher Irenaeus wrote a treatise against heresies called the Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So Called (A.D. 185) that recorded many manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and supernatural miracles that still continued in some churches, including accounts of people being raised from the dead: Some drive out demons really and truly, so that often those cleansed from evil spirits believe and become members of the Church; some have foreknowledge of the future, visions, and prophetic utterances; others, by the laying-on of hands, heal the sick and restore them to health; and before now, as I said, dead men have actually been raised and have remained with us for many years. In fact, it is impossible to enumerate the gifts which throughout the world the Church has received from God and in the name of Jesus Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate, and every day puts to effectual use for the benefit of the heathen, deceiving no one and making profit out of no one.
Similarly, we hear of many members of the Church who have prophetic gifts and by the Spirit speak with all kinds of tongues, and bring men’s secret thoughts to light for their own good, and expound the mysteries of God.
Irenaeus also wrote about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in Against Heresies: “In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:6:1)Justin MartyrJustin Martyr wrote his Dialogue with Trypho in A.D. 165 and clearly referred to many supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit appearing in the daily life of the second-century Church. He wrote, “Daily some of you are becoming disciples in the name of Christ, and quitting the path of error; who are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the 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.
Tertullian. Tertullian was a major theologian and Christian writer ministering in Carthage. In A.D. 215 he described supernatural visions and prophetic gifts of the Holy Spirit as operating normally in the third-century Church. “And thus we who both acknowledge and reverence, even as we do the prophecies, modern visions as equally promised to us, and consider the other powers of the Holy Spirit as an agency of the Church for which also He was sent, administering all gifts in all, even as the Lord distributed to every one.”
Origen. Origen was a Christian theologian who lived and taught in Alexandria, Egypt, from A.D. 185 to 254. In his book Against Celsus written in 250, Origen described the gifts of the Holy Spirit as still continuing in the life of the Church. “Traces of the Holy Spirit who appeared in the form of a dove are still preserved among Christians. They charm†demons away and perform many cures and perceived certain things about the future according to the will of the Logos.
Origen noted that these charismatic gifts were gradually diminishing, although some “traces of His presence” were still evident. “Moreover, the Holy Spirit gave signs of His Presence at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, and after His ascension He gave still more; but since that time these signs have diminished, although there are still traces of His presence in a few who have had their souls purified by the Gospel and their actions regulated by its influence.
Novatian. The Christian theologian Novatian (A.D. 270) of Rome wrote a strong defense of the doctrine of the Trinity and died as a martyr during the second last wave of persecutions by the pagan Roman emperors. Novatian wrote about the key role of the Holy Spirit in supernaturally empowering the Church. “they were henceforth armed and strengthened by the same Spirit, having in themselves the gifts which this same Spirit distributes, and appropriates to the Church, the spouse of Christ, as her ornaments. This is He who places prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, often discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggests counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts there are of charismata; and thus make the Lord’s Church everywhere, and in all, perfected and completed.
St. Augustine. Augustine (354ñ430), bishop of Hippo, was the greatest theologians of the early medieval Church and systematized much of the theology that governed the teaching of the Western Church for over a thousand years. Although in his early years Augustine believed that all miracles had ceased by the end of the lives of the apostles, his view was transformed by the compelling evidence of many well-attested miracles that occurred during a powerful revival that occurred throughout the churches of North Africa that were under his supervision. In the last section of his epic work The City of God, Augustine wrote about numerous miracles that he had personally witnessed and investigated, including remarkable miraculous healings involving breast cancer, paralysis, blindness, and even people who were resurrected from the dead. He wrote, “For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ.
Professor Peter Brown wrote in his book Augustine of Hippo that Augustine carefully collected the evidence of a variety of supernatural incidents and miracles “until they formed a single corpus, as compact and compelling as the miracles that had assisted the growth of the Early Church.
For example, Augustine reported on a person healed of blindness, “The miracle which was wrought at Milan when I was there, and by which a blind man was restored to sight, could come to the knowledge of many; for not only is the city a large one, but also the emperor was there at the time, and the occurrence was witnessed by an immense concourse of people.
The Venerable Bede. The great early English Church leader known as the Venerable Bede, the father of English history, quoted a letter sent by Gregory the Great, the bishop of Rome, in A.D. 601 to Augustine of Canterbury, a missionary sent from Rome to England. Gregory acknowledges the fact that miracles were occurring and that they were very effective in drawing the English natives to faith in Christ: “I know, most loving brother, that Almighty God, by means of your affection, shows great miracles in the nation which he has chosen. Wherefore it is necessary that you rejoice with fear, and tremble whilst you rejoice, on account of the same heavenly gift; viz., that you may rejoice because the souls of the English are by outward miracles drawn to inward grace.
Gregory also acknowledged in his letter that Augustine personally had “received the gift of working miracles.”
Continued Supernatural Miracles. If space permitted, I could quote from a variety of Church authorities over the centuries that followed who witnessed the continued operation of supernatural miracles. These other sources include the famous Bernard of Clairvaux (A.D. 1190-1153) and Martin Luther (A.D. 1483-1546). In addition, there is overwhelming evidence of supernatural miracles that have occurred during the last few centuries during the Welsh Revival and remarkable healings and other miracles witnessed by many reliable sources in the tre mendous growth of the Church around the world in the last few decades. There are many scriptural promises of Jesus Christ regarding His continued supernatural empowering of the Church through His Holy Spirit. “For the Father loveth the Son, and showeth him all things that himself doeth: and he will show him greater works than these, that ye may marvel” (John 5:20). Jesus promised that His faithful followers would be able to do “greater works” because He was empowering the Church with His Holy Spirit. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father” (John 14:12).
There are other authors, such as Payson Johnston, who’ve reviewed the same materials and reached the opposite conclusion. And I would readily grant that some of the descriptions of miracles and prophecy in the post-apostolic age sound more like legend or magic than the miracles founds in the Bible. But this cannot be said of all of them, nor are all the miracles easily dismissed as based on rumor or the like. Some, yes, but not all.
The bottom line is that those arguing for an end of the work of the Spirit at the end of the apostolic age cannot prove their case from church history. There were some within the church, beginning around the Fourth Century, who declared that the age of miracles was over, and yet there are accounts from very credible men, such as Augustine, that miracles continued. But, evidently, the miracles that the church experienced were not to be found everywhere.