the weblog of Alan Knox

Irenaeus and miraculous gifts

Posted by on Oct 23, 2008 in blog links, church history, spirit/holy spirit, spiritual gifts | 5 comments

Irenaeus (2nd century AD – died around 202 AD) is one of the important figures in early church history. He wrote against heretical beliefs, and he pointed to both Scripture and the proper interpretation of Scripture (rule of faith) in his defense of orthodox beliefs.

A few weeks ago, I ran across a blog post on called “Historical Evidence that the gifts didn’t cease when the apostles died“. Reading through this post, and following links to other posts and comments, I found some very interesting information in one of Irenaeus’s important writings: Against Heresies.

To begin with, in Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter 31, Paragraph 2, Irenaeus writes:

Moreover, those also will be thus confuted who belong to Simon and Carpocrates, and if there be any others who are said to perform miracles who do not perform what they do either through the power of God, or in connection with the truth, nor for the well-being of men, but for the sake of destroying and misleading mankind, by means of magical deceptions, and with universal deceit, thus entailing greater harm than good on those who believe them, with respect to the point on which they lead them astray. For they can neither confer sight on the blind, nor hearing on the deaf, nor chase away all sorts of demons [none, indeed,] except those that are sent into others by themselves, if they can even do so much as this. Nor can they cure the weak, or the lame, or the paralytic, or those who are distressed in any other part of the body, as has often been done in regard to bodily infirmity. Nor can they furnish effective remedies for those external accidents which may occur. And so far are they from being able to raise the dead, as the Lord raised them, and the apostles did by means of prayer, and as has been frequently done in the brotherhood on account of some necessity the entire Church in that particular locality entreating [the boon] with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man has returned, and he has been bestowed in answer to the prayers of the saints that they do not even believe this can be possibly be done, [and hold] that the resurrection from the dead is simply an acquaintance with that truth which they proclaim. 

In this paragraph, Irenaeus is writing against false magicians who are performing “miracles” by deception and with the wrong motives. Apparently, motivation is very important to Irenaeus. He says that these false miracle workers cannot actually perform miracles. They so-called miracles do not stand up to evidential exams like the miracles of the Lord, the apostles, and brothers and sisters who are currently part of the church. Apparently, Irenaeus (and the entire church in some localities?) was witness to many of these real miracles.

Similarly, in Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter 32, Paragraph 4, Irenaeus writes:

If, however, they maintain that the Lord, too, performed such works simply in appearance, we shall refer them to the prophetical writings, and prove from these both that all things were thus predicted regarding Him, and did take place undoubtedly, and that He is the only Son of God. Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practising deception upon any, nor taking any reward (Acts 8:9, 18) from them [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely (Matthew 10:8) from God, freely also does she minister [to others]. 

Once again, Irenaeus using living examples. He points to brothers and sisters in Christ who cast out demons, see visions, prophesy, heal the sick, and raise the dead. In fact, in this passage, Irenaeus uses current examples (in his day) of miracles as evidence that Christ actually performed miracles. This would not have been a very good argument if the miracles were not obvious to his readers.

Importantly, in this passage, Irenaeus connects these miracles back to the gifts that Christ gave the church after his death and resurrection. He also points out that these miracles are not performed from deception, and, instead, they were performed for a specific purpose: “the welfare of other men”.

So, if God continued to give people the ability to exercise miraculous (sign) gifts in the 2nd century, after the apostles died and after Scripture had been written, when did these gifts cease?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 10-23-2008

    The gifts haven’t ceased, for I have seen them operate. Most of the church is of the mindset that miracles are a thing of the past. Jesus works through faith; if you don’t believe, then you won’t receive. (I’m not promoting a prosperity gospel, just a practically Biblically based gospel.) If the church would base its faith upon the Word, then miracles would be more common place.

  2. 10-23-2008

    I have seen quite a few most amazing miracles, and experienced several in my own life, but all of them have confirmed the certainty in me that the gifts are given to the Body, NOT the individual. EVERY time they were in response to prayer, offered by the congregation, a few, or an individual.

    Sometimes the recipient of that grace was not a believer.

    I have seen several APPARENT miracles “performed” by those who claimed particular gifting, but all proved to be very temporary.

    Worse, I have often seen the most grievous damage done to both,the walk of people, and their state of mind, by those claiming to personally be able to function in particular gifting. Ministering to them is heart-wrenching.

    Never-the-less, I believe in the immutability of God, and that He still works amazing miracles, which are His gifts to His people, which He presents in the way He chooses.

  3. 10-23-2008


    I’d like to throw out a thought that I think a couple of people have came to already…they haven’t. This actually flies in the face of cessasionists who believe the gifts stopped when Revelation was penned and in the face of restorationists who believe we are just in the last hundred years seeing a restoration of the gifts of the Spirit.

    Jack Deere’s “Surprised By the Power of God” makes a pretty clear argument that these gifts have operated for quite a long time. It’s just whether we have believed they were in operation or not that has changed.

    It seems to me, and this is just my opinion, that most people love the idea of a God who speaks, heals the sick, and raises the dead. They just don’t like the idea of Him doing it through ordinary people. We’re fine when God heals the sick because we all agree to pray for someone in our congregation who is sick. But we are less accepting of an elder (or even more scandalous, an ordinary believer) laying hands on the sick and seeing people recover (even though scripture commands this).

    In the final analysis, God will continue to do these things whether we accept them or not. It’s just a question of whether we will welcome His activity in our midst and partner with Him in it.

  4. 10-23-2008

    I do not think we can support a cessationist view either scripturally or theologically. This information from Irenaeus seems to indicate that we cannot support a cessationist view historically either. I was hoping someone who held a cessationist view would help us understand how they would interpret Irenaeus in these passages. Maybe someone will yet comment.


  5. 10-29-2008

    Thank you; that was helpful.