dove_fireThe missing Holy Spirit

I couldn’t help but notice that Matthew’s article, arguing that giftedness does not provide authority, never once mentions the Holy Spirit or even uses “Spirit” or “spirit” in any form. How can someone write an article dealing with the question of giftedness and omit the member of the Holy Trinity — that part of God — who gives gifts?

Matthew tells me that he accepts the teachings of H. Leo Boles in The Holy Spirit: His Personality, Nature and Works (1942) (I can’t find an electronic version), a book that, along with J. W. McGarvey’s commentary on Acts (free download), has had a huge influence on Church of Christ thinking regarding the Spirit.

The present work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian

I want to spend a few words addressing the theory that gifts of the Spirit are received solely by the laying on of hands of the apostles, and therefore died out in the late First or early Second Century. This theory is not unique to the Churches of Christ, but likely has found more adherents among us than anywhere else.

    1. The best source on this question is Frederick Bruner’s A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Any questions I don’t cover are covered there.
    2. In the OT, there was no requirement that gifts of the Spirit be dispensed by laying on of hands.
    3. The church in Corinth, Paul carefully refrained from baptizing members so that no one would feel better than other Christians because they were baptized by an actual apostle. Selecting some members for gifts and not others by apostolic hands would have been an ever greater source of division — and yet Paul never mentions laying on of hands as a potential basis for division, although he does discuss baptism. If gifts came by the choice of the apostle, it’s hard imagine the Corinthians, who boasted over who baptized them, not boasting even more over who gave some but not all miraculous gifts of the Spirit!
    4. No apostle had ever been to Rome, and yet that congregation was filled with members who had gifts of the Spirit (Rom 12:6-8).
    5. 1 Cor 12 says that every member in Corinth has a spiritual gift — and yet Paul had not been to that congregation in many years and surely some had been baptized after Paul left. See 1 Cor 12:6 (“in everyone”); 12:7 (“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit.”); 12:11 (the Spirit “apportions to each one as he wills”); 12:13 (“all were made to drink of one Spirit”); 12:18 (“God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”).
    6. There is no record in the Early Church Fathers of an end of spiritual gifts when the apostles died or when the generation after the apostles died. In fact, the history we have reflects continuous actions of the Spirit for centuries after the apostles. The earliest record of the theory that gifts ended the generation after the apostles is from Augustine in the Fifth Century — but he later recanted when he found overwhelming evidence of an active Spirit four centuries after the apostles.

On the other hand, if we read the NT accounts in chronological order, we do find that the earliest books (1 Cor is the first or second earliest book written) have more spectacular miracles recorded than that later books. 1 Cor speaks of “healings” and “miracles” (1 Cor 12). Ephesians speaks of the gifts of pastors and teachers (Eph 4). The gifts of the Spirit in Rom are along the lines of encouragement, liberality in giving, and leadership. So it appears that the Spirit chose to begin with a splash, to help in the founding of the church, and then later chose to focus on gifts that are less spectacular but of the essence for a healthy congregational life. A church without liberal givers, encouragers, and leaders will not thrive, no matter how many healings might take place.


Now, I need to pause here to talk about “miracles” and “gifts.” In the modern vocabulary, we would generally not consider the “gift of leadership” as miraculous. A “miracle” to us requires an obvious violation of the laws of nature — such as a healing or moving a mountain. But this is an Enlightenment perspective that neither Jesus nor Paul would have agreed with. If God chooses to give someone the gift of encouragement, then the laws of nature have been violated even if it’s not easily measured by laboratory equipment. In fact, even the laws of nature are “laws” solely because Jesus, the Logos, wills them to be true. Hence, there’s no bright line difference between a sunrise and the earth standing still — both are acts of God — and we need to re-learn the wonder of it all.

Nonetheless, when the scriptures say that someone has, by the hand of God, the gift to be a pastor (elder, shepherd, overseer), then we should see a miracle — that this person has become the person he has become because God has willed it — not just merely because of heredity and environment. 1 Cor 12 could not be more clear that the choice of who receives which gifts of the Spirit is made by the Spirit — not an apostle. And because this is an act of will by God the Spirit, it’s something that would not have happened had nature run its course. The Spirit changed things — and it’s true even though modern science is incapable of measuring and testing such things.

There is, within the Churches of Christ, a strong bias against the present, direct, supernatural working of God among us. Oddly enough, this is the same position taken by the true liberal theologians, such as Rudolf Bultmann, who worked to “demythologize” the scriptures, removing the supernatural elements. These Church of Christ preachers only differ with Bultmann in that they allow miracles to have happened pre-100 AD, but their worldview is too Enlightenment to believe that God gives gifts of the Spirit today. We’re too modern to believe such things, I guess. And it’s always a bad sign when our preachers are lining up with the atheists and theological liberals.

But what about …? 

Don’t the scriptures say that gifts of the Spirit are given by laying on of hands?

Well, not exactly. Here’s an alternative theory proposed by Bruner —

But aren’t there other examples of gifts of the Spirit coming when hands are laid on a Christian?

Actually, every example we have, other than the three mentioned above, have to do with gifts being received immediately after baptism, which is when hands were laid on the convert. For example, the Ephesians in Acts 19 began to speak in tongues and prophesy immediately after baptism and the laying on of hands. These sorts of accounts are very parallel with Numbers 11, when Moses appointed 70 men to serve as judges, and God confirmed their appointment by giving them the Spirit, evidenced by their prophesying. This was a temporary phenomenon (Num 11:25). Evidently, to demonstrate the presence of God’s Spirit, God gave them an immediate but temporary gift of ecstatic utterance. It sounds very much like Acts.

Notice that there is no example of the apostles (or anyone else) laying hands on someone to give gifts of the Spirit other than immediately after baptism. And the gifts were inevitably tongues and prophecy — not healing, leadership, the ability to be an elder, generosity, etc. It was gifts that were obvious and spectacular enough that there could be no doubt that these people had been accepted by God and saved.

Isn’t it hard to imagine an apostle laying hands on a new convert to give the gift of leadership or shepherding? And given that apostles were hardly in ready supply in most churches, how would God adequately equip each church with spiritual gifts if gifts were to come only by the hands of the apostles? If so, very few congregations would have had spiritual gifts, and yet churches such as Rome, never visited by an apostle, were filled with spiritual gifts.

Now, it’s not necessarily an either-or sort of thing. God may well have empowered apostles to give gifts through their laying on of hands (consider Rom 1:11; 2 Tim 1:6), but that hardly means that this is a limitation on how God may give gifts through the Spirit. If God wants a certain person to be gifted to be an elder, what law says he must do so through an apostle?

Consider —

(Eph. 4:8-12 ESV) 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”  …  11 And he [God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,  12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

Shepherds and teachers are themselves gifts of God, given to the church to equip them for the work of ministry. We immediately see that apostles and prophets are specially empowered by the Spirit for their gifted roles. But Paul says the same is true of evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. Just because their gifts aren’t as spectacular as those of an apostle or prophets, we can’t impose an Enlightenment assumption that evangelists, shepherds, and teachers are made by heredity and the environment rather than by God through his Spirit. Surely Paul is making exactly the point these church members are given this task — and should be honored and allowed to fill the roles assigned to them by God.

Then why don’t we have gifts of healing and tongues and such like in our church?

As we’re going to study in more detail in the next post, the Spirit decides these things. Gifts are given as God, through his Spirit, wishes for the benefit of each church. We don’t need a law that says that God may no longer do miracles to explain the absence of miracles. There are two really good explanations that stand on their own two feet —

But here’s the thing. God still answers prayer. And every answered prayer is a change in what would have happened if we’d not prayed. And therefore it’s a violation of the laws of nature and supernatural — and a miracle. That means that everyone of us who’s ever uttered a prayer only to see God answer “yes” — well, God did a miracle at our request, and if that’s not a gift of the Spirit, I don’t know what is.

And in every church I’ve ever attended, if you could just get the members to feel like they’re in a safe place, they’ll tell stories of answered prayers, visits by angels, and miracles that will build your faith and encourage you far more than anything I could ever write. We don’t tell each other these stories because we’ve been told they can’t happen. We think we’ll be laughed at. Scorned. Thought crazy. But they do happen. I know. I listen to my brothers and sisters when they tell me, and I believe them. You should, too.

But aren’t there bogus gifts done by charlatans and con artists?

Absolutely. There are con artists, and we are taught to test the spirits, and we should. We should not be naive. Neither should be so cynical that we can’t see God working among us when he really is.

I remember when I was at Lipscomb, a Bible student had attended a charismatic event and he quoted some biblical koine Greek to the crowd, only to hear it mistranslated by a “translator” present. He concluded that tongues are bogus. He might have been right. That’s a very scientific approach to the problem. Or maybe the tongues are ecstatic utterances that aren’t languages at all but nonetheless given by God. Read —

(1 Sam. 19:19-20:1 ESV)  19 And it was told Saul, “Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.”  20 Then Saul sent messengers to take David, and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.  21 When it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. And Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also prophesied.  22 Then he himself went to Ramah and came to the great well that is in Secu. And he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” And one said, “Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.”  23 And he went there to Naioth in Ramah. And the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah.  24 And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

This sort of “prophecy” that took control of the prophets doesn’t sound much like they were saying the words of God. No one wrote down what they said and called it “scripture.” It sounds like ecstatic utterance very much like modern tongues, doesn’t it? And it came from God. And we learned this from scripture. So it’s true.


I’m not reaching a conclusion. I’m just saying that before anyone reaches a conclusion, he should —

13 Responses

  1. I might point out, Jay, that many feel that there is a difference between the gifts of the Spirit given to every Christian and the miraculous gifts given to some. Just as miracles tended to be grouped in the Old Testament (centered around the time of Moses and the activity of Elijah/Elisha), so miraculous gifts seem to be grouped in the way that you have observed (more at the start, fewer later on). Aside from the exceptional cases of Pentecost and Cornelius, the miraculous gifts seem to come by the laying on of hands of the apostles.

    Nowhere is this stated directly, so it’s no more than a hypothesis which should not be dogmatically taught. But it does seem to fit the evidence. Spiritual gifts, such as those mentioned in Romans 12, available to all; miraculous gifts, such as those mentioned in Corinth, given through the laying on of apostolic hands.

    1. Tim,

      I struggle to understand a difference. If God gives someone the gift of leadership, isn’t that a miracle? If God empowers someone to teach, isn’t every lesson a miracle?

      When we are saved, Paul says we become a new creation — an allusion to Gen 1 and the greatest of all miracles. It’s a foretaste of the new heavens and new earth, yet another miracle. I think his point is that our salvation brings about a miraculous transformation in us all. It’s no mere change in legal status.

      Therefore I think our tendency to divide life between the miraculous and the natural sucks much of wonder and joy out of our Christianity. We want God to live only in the gaps, leaving most of our lives to naturalistic cause and effect — which is contrary, I believe, to a Christian worldview.

      1. There is an interesting parallel to Saul here. You pointed out the end of Saul’s tenure as king and his prophesying but the beginning of his reign started with prophesy too…and more,

        “The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person.” – 1 Sam 10:6

        That is not all. There is more,

        “As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day. 10 When he and his servant arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he joined in their prophesying. 11 When all those who had formerly known him saw him prophesying with the prophets, they asked each other, “What is this that has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?”

        Saul was changed into a different person with a different heart along with the gift of prophesy on these occasions. That is interesting. I think there is a parallel here. I am not sure if it is intentional or not on the Paul of the New Testament Saul or not but I could see him making that connection with his OT namesake.

      2. Jay,

        Forgive me if my use of the word “miraculous” didn’t convey what I wanted it to. I believe that Jesus walking on water was miraculous. I also believe that his walking anywhere on this earth was miraculous. They’re just two different kinds of miracles.

        I’ll also admit that I struggle with understanding spiritual giftedness. We talk about someone being a gifted speaker or gifted song leader, yet I’ve heard of few cases of people who couldn’t speak well or sing well before their conversion that suddenly could afterward. I believe firmly in God’s indwelling Spirit and the gifts he brings; I don’t know that we always can recognize them well.

        But I do know that there were certain gifts that are commonly seen to be “miraculous” (I’m open to a better term) that are unlike the others. There is the gifted preacher who can open God’s word and bring a powerful message. Then there are prophets like Agabus who could foretell the future. Those things are not the same. Please give me the appropriate word to distinguish; let’s not sidetrack the discussion over semantics!

        Speaking in tongues was also seen as miraculous, which is one reason the Corinthians desired that gift over others. There is a power of healing that goes beyond merely praying and asking God to work a miracle; when someone can raise the dead, that is in a different category of giftedness.

        Does that help you understand the difference I’m talking about? I’m not denying the wonder of everyday miracles done by our God. I’m talking about the sort of things that Elisha could do after seeing Elijah taken to heaven that he couldn’t do before.

        Grace and peace, my brother.

  2. We need to be careful in understanding the difference between the gift (dorew) and the gifts (charismata). If Rome already CHARISMATA in Romans 12, why does Paul: (Rom 1:11
    For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established
    NASU) long to see them to impart “some spiritual gift”?

    Just thinkng. . . . .

    And yes, I’ve experienced things that only an active Spirit of God can explain. And yes, God can do whatever He wishes whenever and wherever He chooses — He is not limited to our understanding.

  3. Tim and John,

    The Bible sternly resists efforts to distinguish charismata from miracles, at least as the Western mind thinks. For example, listed in 1 Cor 12:28 among the charismata are “miracles” and “healings.” Most of us would see healings as a subset of miracles. Paul then lists helping and administrating right next to healings and miracles. He draws no distinction in kind or process of receipt. To him, they’re all given by the Spirit. To him, they are of the same genre.

    I agree with John that Paul understood that his physical presence would allow him to give some sort of gift to the Romans associated with the Spirit. But then Rom 12 lists many gifts that he attributes to the Spirit, after speaking at length about the Spirit leading each Christian in Rom 8.

    Personally, I find it easier and simpler to drop the distinction between Spirit-given miraculous powers and non-miraculous powers. I think if it’s from the Spirit, it’s by definition a supernatural event changing what would have otherwise happened naturally.

    Therefore, I find the “hands” theory a bit forced, rather like seeking a Newtonian mechanic to fit God within a law of nature. We can control what happens through apostolic hands, and so we like that theory better. But it doesn’t fit the evidence. And it doesn’t make sense. Why on earth would God limit himself so that certain gifts might be given only by apostolic hands? Why only give certain gifts for a generation? Why don’t we have an account of the death of the last of the great prophets and miracle workers? Why didn’t the gifts end a generation after the last apostle died? There’s not the least evidence that they did.

    What the text says is that the Spirit, like the wind, blows wherever he wills and that the Spirit himself decides who receives what gift. Jesus said,

    (Jn. 3:8 ESV) 8 “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

    The points seems to be that the Spirit’s work cannot be predicted or controlled.

    We hear its sound, watch the swaying grasses, see the clouds scudding by, hide in fear before the worst wind storms. So it is with the Spirit. We can neither control him nor understand him. But that does not mean we cannot witness his effects. Where the Spirit works, the effects are undeniable and unmistakable.

    How is this relevant to the nature of the new birth? Having drawn the implicit analogy through the ambiguous term ‘wind/spirit’, Jesus applies it to the new birth by creating a further explicit analogy: So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. The person who is ‘born of the Spirit’ can be neither controlled nor understood by persons of but one birth.

    D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), n.p.

    So, to me, it’s not a vocabulary issue. It’s a worldview issue. Do we assume a naturalistic world, allowing the Spirit to be credited in none but the most obvious cases. Or do we assume a world in which the supernatural is everywhere?

    1. Jay,

      I’m sure a lot of this seems obvious to you. Please recognize that many honest Bible scholars see things differently. When you claim “the Bible resists,” you’re saying that your interpretation of the Bible resists such things. When you claim that “the hands theory” doesn’t fit the evidence, well, that really depends on how you are looking at the evidence. It fits well with the evidence of the New Testament, unless you’ve decided to see it differently.

      You’ve decided to drop the distinction between charismata and other gifts. That’s your choice, but it’s less than helpful in this discussion. It confuses what’s going on in the New Testament. There’s a reason why tongue speaking, healing, etc., don’t show up in the list of gifts in Rome. We can differ over that reason (need for apostolic transmission or different stage in a church’s life or…). But we see that the Corinthians were living a different set of spiritual gifts than were the Romans (and seemingly most of the other churches… but that’s another topic).

      Let’s look at your last paragraph:
      ” Do we assume a naturalistic world, allowing the Spirit to be credited in none but the most obvious cases. Or do we assume a world in which the supernatural is everywhere?”

      Now here’s an interesting twist. I see the supernatural everywhere. I credit God with many seemingly “mundane” things. I think he still heals, still changes hearts, still does many things. But I don’t see the miraculous gifts in the church today, while I see many spiritual gifts. I’m not sure if your dichotomy of worldviews fits the difference created by mere word choice.

      Thanks again for thought-provoking articles. I’m afraid I write more often to point out differences, but I’m challenged to think and grow by everything you write. God bless.

      1. Tim,

        To me it boils down to a simple question: if miraculous gifts come solely by apostolic hands, what gifts are miraculous and hence no longer available to the church? And where in the text do we find this doctrine?

        It’s easy enough to argue that gifts were received by apostolic hands, but to say certain gifts came ONLY this way seems to me very hard to demonstrate.

        There is a subsidiary question that is rarely addressed: why? Church A has been visited and encouraged by an apostle. What a blessing! And they receive miraculous gifts to build up the church and demonstrate the reality of the Kingdom to the lost. But church B never sees an apostle. They receive no miraculous gifts. They have to make do without either an apostle’s testimony or prophets or other miracles. This puts them at a severe disadvantage. Why would God so limit his church?

        Finally, why does Augustine report the presence of miraculous gifts in the Fifth Century?

        1. Jay,

          I would note what I said in my initial comment: “Nowhere is this stated directly, so it’s no more than a hypothesis which should not be dogmatically taught.” I still agree with myself on this point. 🙂

          As to the why, this remains conjecture. But Paul talks about signs, wonders, and miracles being the marks of an apostle (2 Corinthians 12:12). Apparently he didn’t think miracles were every day occurrences… but I digress.

          Why would God do this? Quite possible to use the signs to confirm the authenticity of what was being taught. One sign that someone had been with the apostles and learned from them was the presence of signs, wonders, and miracles. Not the typical spiritual gifts available to all Christians, but those things that were “marks of an apostle.”

          This would fit with what we see in the Old Testament, where the largest groupings of miracles were around the work of Moses (the Law) and the work of Elijah and Elisha (the Prophets). Mark 16:20 talks about miracles confirming the preaching of the apostles. Hebrews 2 talks about this confirmation in the past.

          Again, I’m not wanting to be dogmatic about this. If God decides to give the gift of healing today, I won’t tell him no. But I do see that the early church saw a difference between the “wondrous gifts” and the gifts given to each and every Christian. It doesn’t resist such a distinction; it actually makes it on several occasions.


  4. Tim,

    I have to concede that there are gifts that are entirely natural in origin, that is, that people had before they were baptized but which they later re-purposed for Jesus. On the other hand, the ability and willingness to repurpose what God has given by natural means (so far as we can tell) is a gift in itself. There are plenty of Christians with talents and abilities that they refuse to use for the cause of Christ. They lack the gift of generosity.

    And I wouldn’t put it past God to give someone a talent pre-conversion in anticipation of the need arising for the sake of Jesus. Paul was trained by Gamaliel before he was converted, and he put his training to good use as an apostle. Did God arrange that? Or did God just notice it and later use it? I think God was working in Paul long before he was Paul, but it’s entirely unprovable.

    I guess the point is that if we’re willing to see miracles in the ordinary, “naturalistic” events of our lives, we might just find one or two.

    I’m not one for crediting God with every parking place I find or every bargain I dig out on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the hand of God moving in my life and the lives of those in my congregation. Nothing so spectacular as a healing or a resurrection, but plenty of changed lives and great good done for those in need.

    1. Hi Jay.

      Please note the complications as we words in multiple way. Note what you said:
      “On the other hand, the ability and willingness to repurpose what God has given by natural means (so far as we can tell) is a gift in itself.”

      Our ability and willingness to use what God has given us is a gift? So we get a gift, then we get the gift to be able and willing to use the gift? Am I the only one that finds that a bit confusing?

      Frankly, I think this is where we run into problems. When someone has a talent, we want to relabel that a gift and say that it’s something they HAVE to be able to use in the assembly because it’s from God. Because we call it “giftedness,” anyone who opposes that is going against the Holy Spirit.

      It makes for nice argumentation, but poor theology.

  5. PS – This worldview does lead to a serious problem regarding theodicy. That is, if God is so active and involved, why don’t things turn out better? It’s a fair question and I promise no answers. But whatever answer there is has to be from within a worldview that sees God as capable of acting in supernatural ways even today. To “solve” the theodicy problem by pretending God doesn’t have the power to do good because there’s some rule that ties his hands, well, he’s the one who makes the rules. So that’s cheating.

    I’m now moving over the theodicy comments to see if I can solve one of the most intractable problems ever to confront a theologian. I doubt that I will succeed.

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