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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
William Cecil Duncan
From the book, A Brief History of the Baptists: Their Distinctive Principles and Practices, 1855
Christianity is, and has proved itself to be, "not merely a theory, nor an emotion, nor a collection of moral precepts and actions; but life in the deepest and most comprehensive sense." This community founded during the ministry of Jesus, and fully empowered on the day of Pentecost, was meant to be a world-renewing community; "the basis of every true advance in morality, science, art, social life and outward civilization, as well as the spring of all great events in later history." At first, when it was weak, and just beginning its attacks upon the strongholds of sin, God, through the Spirit, conferred upon the Church special powers or charisms.
Not the Apostles only, but the disciples at large, were, on the day of Pentecost, endowed with power "to speak with tongues;" and they were made able, through faith in Jesus, to perform works of unusual and even miraculous might. This power of working "signs and wonders" was certainly found, and certainly used, in the Church of Apostolic times. Believers in that age could and did perform miracles; and they who, witnessing them, were converted to Christ, were compelled to cry out in the words of the Psalmist, "This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes."
And yet, after all, even in that day of miracle-working, men were brought to Christ, as they are now, rather by the force of the truth commending itself to their consciences, and by seeing in those who already believed "the fruits of the spirit." They saw that the spirit of Christianity is a spirit of gentleness and love; giving peace to the mind, and waking up in the soul hope and joy in the Holy Ghost. Beholding, they first wondered, then adored; and thus the religion of Jesus, exemplified in the lives of its professors, was spread far and wide in the world; and many, embracing it, laid hold on eternal life.
The "Gift of the Holy Ghost" which was granted to believers, in Apostolic times, at their baptism, or, subsequently, on the imposition of the hands of an Apostle, conferred, in some instances at least, the power of "speaking with tongues" and of working miracles. During our Lord's personal ministry, not only "the twelve,” but the "seventy" disciples also, performed miracles in his name, and by his authority. In the same way, after the full empowerment of the Church, other Christians besides the Apostles were endowed with miracle-working gifts.
The writings of the New Testament bear express testimony to this fact; and, while they do so, give no hint that this miracle-working power had ceased in the Church. Yet this Christian charism has departed from the Church. When, then, did it disappear? At what period did "the gift of the Holy Ghost" cease to operate in the Church by "miracles of power" over outward physical nature, and confine itself to the working of inward spiritual miracles of grace?
This question is more easily asked than answered. That miracle-working did not at once and wholly pass away with the Apostolic Age seems too well attested to be denied. The existence and the exercise of the power, at least in the first part of the period succeeding that of the Apostles, are testified to by many credible Christian witnesses,—"grave men, fair and honest, some of them philosophers; men who lived in different countries, and related not what they heard, but what they saw, calling on God to witness the truth of their declarations." And this "unanimous and concordant testimony of the ancient writers" is not denied, but admitted, by heathen opponents of Christianity living at the time; who would certainly, had they been able, have exposed the falsity of the claims set up by the new and hated religion of the despised Nazarene.
To suppose that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to operate at once, and immediately, on the death of the Apostles, is contrary to the express testimony of credible witnesses, and contrary to all historic analogy. They rather disappeared gradually, as the Church was brought more and more under regular and settled training; and as it became less and less necessary to prove the truth of Christianity by external signs, and powers, and miracles. Physical miracles were useless, after the Church had been firmly established; for the Church itself, when established, was a standing miracle, and embraced "manifold wonders in its bosom."
The working of the spiritual-religious power of Christianity is its greatest miracle; and it is a miracle that will continue to operate as long as the Church shall exist. Hence, the outward, physical miracle is called, in the New Testament, "a sign", "a power"; a sign of a higher order of life, a power proceeding from the invisible world. The miracle-working power of the early Church has long since passed away; but the Church itself still stands, a perpetual miracle of God's providence and love.
"How meanly", then, it has been well said by Prof. Trench,
"do we esteem of a Church, of its marvelous gifts, of the powers of the coming world which are working within it, of its Word, of its [ordinances], when it seems to us a small thing that in it men are new-born, raised from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, the eyes of their understanding enlightened, and their ears opened; unless we can also tell of more visible and sensuous wonders. It is as though the heavens should not declare to us the glory of God, nor the firmament stew us his handiwork, except at some single moment, such as that when the sun was standing still upon Gibeon, and the moon in Ajalon."
The miracle-working power was necessary in the early history of Christianity; for then the new faith had to contend against adverse and opposing influences, the force of which we, at this day, can hardly estimate. When the Church no longer needed such confirmation of her divine mission, "when to the wisdom of God it appeared that He had adequately confirmed the Word with signs following", the power of performing miracles ceased to be granted - and the Church, now firmly established in the world, was left to be itself a standing miracle for all coming time.
Beautifully and truthfully has Prof. Hagenbach expressed himself on this point, in his admirable popular History of the Early Christian Church:
"That from a corner of Judea, that from one who was crucified, and from the community of his disciples chosen from the lowest classes of mankind, there went forth a power which proclaimed destruction to the great Roman Empire, and prepared it inwardly before it had been made ready by external circumstances; that neither fire and sword, nor all the wisdom and eloquence of the world, that neither falsehood and calumny nor the alluring prospect of rest and ease, could restrain those who believed from bearing witness to what they had experienced from without and within.
“That a blazing spark was cast into a world of sin and error, and that this spark kindled a fire which no might and no art of men could put out; that the most hardened and the most corrupt hearts were seized and wrought upon by the power of a truth which gave them no rest until they had found peace with God; that the lowliest and the most despised among the people learned to feel themselves a kingly race, called to rule the world and to judge the world.
“All this is a great miracle, a wondrous fact which cannot be denied, which cannot be explained by mechanical and outward influences; but can be comprehended only by admitting the principle which gave it its impulse and power; and this principle is none other than the unlimited principle of the eternal love and mercy of God. God wills that all men shall receive help; that all shall come to the knowledge of the truth, and that all shall attain to peace and to eternal life.
“This is the everlasting law of the divine government of the universe; a law which perfects itself in the history of the Church, in its struggle with the world and its unfriendly powers, but in a struggle carried on in confident expectation of future victory, even perfection in glory."