How do we get the Church back to how it once was?
Are there still apostles in the Church?
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There is a great focus today on apostles. Some look at the title – The Acts of the Apostles – and say, hey, it was the apostles who did all the exciting stuff and surely they are not around any more? Interestingly, early manuscripts suggest that the actual title was Acts of Apostles, suggesting that the “acts” recorded were not the only acts and that it wasn’t just the apostles that were doing them. Were the apostles at that time unique in world history, endowed with powers and insights that never have and never will be repeated?
There are some who believe that is so and they would take it further. They suggest that the Church of the first apostles was so special that God ensured it could never happen again by pulling the plug on the spiritual gifts once the last apostle had died. And what a can of worms is thus opened. To say this is a contentious issue is a whopping understatement. This is a battleground far deadlier and extensive than any that I discussed in my book, How the Church lost The Truth. It has big hitters on both sides, with an arsenal of long words and torturous definitions. It is cessationism vs continuationism, with the former boasting as many flavours as an ice lolly; classical, full, strong, moderate, principled or empirical; you pays your money, you takes your choice.
Do we want to go there and analyse each nuance? No, we don’t. First we look at what would motivate those folk who believe that God would take away His gifts from His Church, once the anchor was securely in place. Imagine you were living in Europe in the 16th Century and were writing an essay on The Catholic Church and the Spiritual Gifts. Here are some observations you would have made:
There were mortal men on Earth, called Popes, apparently uniquely authorised as God’s representatives, to interpret His word and to formulate Church policy. The Church also claimed the authority to buy and sell indulgences, providing an easier path in the hereafter in return for hard earned cash. Miracles were apparently rife in Catholic history, specifically in the lives of “saints”, especially holy people who operated within the realm of supernatural signs and wonders. Saint Joseph of Cupertino used to fly around while praying (patron saint of pilots). St Anthony used to preach to fish and mules (who responded). St Nicholas of Tolentino used to bless pieces of bread, which would then heal people. And the list goes on and on.
While you were making your observations, others were reacting in more direct ways. They were protesting, the Reformation had arrived. Many of them reacted fiercely against these Catholic excesses and strange claims and a great thrust of this attack was on theological grounds. If they could prove Biblically that all spiritual gifts had ceased since the age of the first apostles, then the whole foundation of Catholic belief – with its strange doctrines and even stranger miraculous claims - would be exposed as false. Thus was born cessationism.
Yet this was a reaction to the very real corruptions in the mainstream (Catholic) Church of the day. It was always going to be a case of, this can’t be right so let’s go back to the Bible and try to prove this. This approach was always going to attract accusations of eisegesis, the act of reading your own thoughts and ideas into Scripture, even if you have a just cause and are just seeking to defend the very Bible itself.
We, too, can fall into the same trap. We can also see the excesses that, ironically, have been birthed from within the protestant denominations, namely the growth of self-proclaimed “apostles” and “prophets”, particularly from what has been termed the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), in the USA. Here are a group of folk who, despite declaring themselves a Reformed movement, are closer than they realise to the medieval Catholic Church, in terms of hierarchies of authority and “new revelations”, ranging from promised revivals (that have been just round the corner since the 1980s!) and miraculous claims every bit as wacky as Catholic saints of old.
This may tempt us to make the same sweeping proclamations as the early Reformers. There are currently many “apostles” taking authority, making proclamations and building hierarchies and personal empires, so if we can prove that the office of apostle was done away with in the 1st Century ... that will show them!
More about this next week …