Charisms of the Apostolic Age


A new era in the kingdom of God is wont to be ushered in with new manifestations of divine agency. To the theophanies of the patriarchal age succeeded the miracles of the Mosaic age. At the bloom period of the Jewish monarchy, the spirit of wisdom expressed itself in psalm and proverb; at the decline of the monarchy, in the serious and sublime utterances of Messianic prophecy. Naturally, therefore, Christianity came with peculiar tokens of an extraordinary divine working.

Paul's discourse upon the subject (1 Cor. xii., xiii.) indicates, that, from the apostolic stand-point, for every department of Christian activity there were corresponding charisms or gifts of the Spirit. Some of these pertained especially to worship, others to the office of teaching, others to that of administration. Some appear more as a simple strengthening and sanctifying of a natural capacity, others as an unmistakable and striking exhibition of divine power.

Doubtless the charism most unique and characteristic of the age was the gift of tongues. This may be defined with sufficient assurance as utterance in a condition of religious ecstasy. The recipient of the gift, moved by an extraordinary afflatus, rapt up into a state of partial unconsciousness as to outward surroundings, in the transport of devotion and joy which filled him, found vent to his emotions in unusual forms of expression, -- possibly in snatches of a language which he could not speak in an ordinary condition, but whose latent impression upon his mind could be raised to the sphere of actual mental operation under peculiar excitation; possibly at times in sounds whose sense was indicated on somewhat the same principle as enables music to be an image of thought and feeling, the key being not so much in any distinct vocabulary as in tones and modulations. The principal use of the charism seems to have been that of an attestation in behalf of Christianity or of a Christian believer. Stopping with the account of Pentecost, we might indeed come to a different conclusion, and regard the gift of tongues as a great missionary instrument, designed especially to facilitate the proclamation of the gospel to nations of unknown language. But the after history fails to confirm this view. In all the subsequent instances in which the gift is mentioned, it appears not as a missionary instrument or means of imparting instruction, but as a seal of the grace already given, or as an incident of worship. Thus Cornelius and his house spoke with tongues after they had been taught by Peter the way of salvation (Acts x.). Thus the subjects of John's baptism whom Paul found at Ephesus spoke with tongues after the apostle had baptized them, and laid his hands upon them (Acts xix.). Thus Paul writes to the Corinthians: "lie that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the Church. If any man speak in a tongue, let one interpret. But, if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the Church" (1 Cor. xiv.). Plainly, such instances and such language forbid the assumption that the gift of tongues was specifically a means of communication. Even on the Day of Pentecost it was more a divine token and means of arresting attention than it was a means of instruction. The great missionary speech of that occasion awas the address of Peter after the speaking with tongues had ceased.

The period covered by the more extraordinary gifts cannot be definitely determined. The impression made by the history is, that already at the close of the apostolic age well-authenticated cases of their appearance were rare. Some of the ante-Nicene writers, notably Irenæus, [Cont. Hær., ii 31, 32.] speak of their continued occurrence. Origen believed that they had not wholly vanished; but, at the same time, he used language implying a conviction that his own age was less fruitful in them than the apostolic era. [Cont. Celsum, i. 2, 46. In the following sentence Origen enumerates the kinds of miracles which he supposed to be still performed by Christians: "They expel evil spirits, and perform many cures, and foresee certain events according to the will of the Logos." Justin Martyr notices especially the first of these (Dial. cum Tryph., xxx.). See also Tertullian, Ad Scapulam, ii., iv.; Apol., xxiii.; Cons. Apost., viii. 1, s.] In general there is but little record of specific instances of miraculous working in the second and third centuries. Not till the time of spiritual declension and monastic aberrations did the Church begin, by its heaped-up narratives, to bring out its parody of the New-Testament miracles. No one, indeed, is authorized to mark off any particular period as the age of miracles, or even to exclude the present age. Still, it is an unfounded expectation, an abnormal craving, which would look for supernatural manifestations in the apostolic mode and measure. The Montanist and Irvingite theories run counter to the plan of the divine administration. They ignore the true goal of Christianity, which is not to emphasize a dualism between the natural and the supernatural, but so to pervade and to sanctify the whole nature of man, that in all his activities God shall work in him both to will and to do of His good pleasure.

It is noteworthy that the same oracles which record the bestowment of these marvellous gifts warn against an overvaluation of them. In words which supremely exalt the ethical stand-point of Christianity, and forbid that the moral should in any wise be subordinated to the marvellous, Paul teaches that love is the highest gift, without which power even to remove mountains is of no significance, and language rivalling the speech of angels an empty sound.