A quick reading of The Acts of the Apostles is enough to make one ask, “Whatever happened to the church?” for Ellen White shows a marked contrast that exists between the church of the apostolic era and the Adventist Church today. This great disparity has led some to inquire whether there is a place for signs and wonders in the Adventist Church today. Some people get very uncomfortable each time miracles, signs, and wonders are mentioned. Can signs and wonders still occur today? What purpose do they serve? Do the Scriptures suggest that signs and wonders are a thing of the past? Uneasy as these questions may sound, we should reexamine the evidence as the church engages cultures that have missiological issues identical with those encountered by the early church.
As the Adventist Church extends its worldwide mission, two major missiological issues confront and affect the church’s spiritual vitality: secularism and syncretism. Secularism is the bane of Western churches, which once lit the world with the blazing flames of the Reformation, followed by the great century of missions.1 Presently, the state of many Adventist churches in the West reveals stagnation or decline, except perhaps among immigrant congregations. The reverse scenario is the case with the rest of the world, now referred to by some as the “majority world,”2 where its teeming membership explosion is blighted by growing reports of syncretism (a combination of different beliefs)3 and resurgence of other faith systems.
With the Western churches, secularism is a by-product of rationalism from the Enlightenment era. This has resulted in a mechanistic worldview that robs the gospel of its power. The issue of syncretism seems particularly pertinent for churches in Africa where significant growth has occurred. As a result, in many parts of Africa, two kinds of religious faith are practiced: a formal religious worship of God and a folk religion that embraces the spirit world. This emerging situation, according to mission scholars, is because the worldview concerns of the people have not been thoroughly engaged. In other words, the churches are not responding to the most important questions confronting the people.4
Gailyn van Rheenen, a missiologist, states that an interesting parallel between secularism and animism exists. He explains that both philosophies are rooted in power.5 While secularism employs modern science to meet its power needs, animism utilizes primal science. Careful study of the Scriptures and the history of missions reveals that a theology of signs and wonders is fundamental in responding to the power needs of both Western and majority world contexts.
This article on the relevance of signs and wonders will be limited to the study of the Scriptures, Spirit of Prophecy, and select relevant references. The article will examine the issue (1) in the books of Luke and Acts, (2) in early church history, (3) as a possible mission strategy, and (4) in the Adventist Church.
Signs and wonders in Luke and Acts
The New Testament (NT) uses four Greek words to refer to signs and wonders: ergon, dunamis, semieon, and teras. Ergon means an act, deed, or work—especially a good or evil work. This word could also refer to a supernatural work. Dunamis depicts a manifestation of divine power. Semieon emphasizes miracles as a proof of divine authority. Teras refers to an awe-inspiring or terrifying act manifesting supernatural powers and is always used in connection with semeion, signs and wonders.6
Luke uses the expression signs and wonders more than any other writer. Although this expression alludes to Joel’s promise of “signs” that will take place in the latter days, “wonders” is believed to be an addition made by Luke. As one scholar has observed, in the NT terata (signs) is never found without semeia (wonders).7
Signs and wonders include the supernatural works of God in miracles, healings, dreams, visions, divine visitations, prophetic revelations, spiritual discernment, spiritual deliverance, and exorcism. It is important to remember that they are not limited to miracles alone but also demonstrate the presence and power of God and the advancement of His kingdom. Most interpreters, such as Sobhi Malek, regard signs, wonders, and miracles as synonyms that do not necessarily describe three categories of miraculous acts but three aspects of mighty deeds: (1) as signs they authenticate the message; (2) as wonders they evoke a sense of awe and astonishment; and (3) as miracles they display divine supernatural power in extraordinarily marvelous acts.8
The purpose of the accounts of signs and wonders are several. One author sees them as confirming the claims of the prophets, disciples, and apostles as messengers of God.9 Another deems them as authenticating the Word and leading to faith in the Word of God.10 In Luke and Acts, scholars agree that these signs and wonders are mission-oriented (Luke 24:46–49; Acts 1:8).11 Luke’s gospel is considered as providing a curriculum for dealing with power-oriented cultures long before the contemporary signs and wonders movement of the Pentecostal or Evangelical genre began.12
Important functions that signs and wonders perform in Scripture include serving as “door openers” for the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 3, 4); signal markers of divine presence and power (Acts 19:17–19); affirming the working of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:18–20); displaying the kingdom of God breaking in among humanity (Acts 4:29–31; 7: 35–37; 14:2–4); setting people free from spiritual bondage (Acts 16:16–18); and, leading people to having faith in God (Acts 9:40–42; 13:6–12).
Robert Menzies shows an interesting linkage between the miraculous events associated with Jesus and the disciples and the cosmic portents listed by Joel. From these accounts he posits that “these last days—that period inaugurated with Jesus’ birth and leading up to the day of the Lord—represents an epoch marked by signs and wonders,”13 which would continue to characterize the ministry of the church in the last days. The implication centering on the cessationist view, which maintains that signs and wonders ended with Jesus and the apostles, may not prove tenable.
Christianity is a supernatural religion, from beginning to end.14 From the story of Creation to the Exodus, Incarnation, and Resurrection—these all demonstrate the mighty acts of God. Each of these mighty acts has the unmistakable signature of God. The church from the time of ancient Israel to the New Testament also witnessed the display of the mighty power of God in its inauguration, sustenance, and propagation. Against a backdrop of great opposition and warfare posed by God’s enemy (Rev. 12), only by the power of God has His church been preserved through the ages. Also, without the mighty display of God’s power, the spread of the gospel would have been affected in regions steeped in idolatry, animism, and even secularism. The apostle Paul confronted such situations as he took the gospel message into the great cities of Europe. Consequently, his epistles address the critical nature a gospel of power plays in the life of the church.
Signs and wonders in early church history
Early church history is far from devoid of signs and wonders as the gospel advanced into the major centers of civilization. As one writer puts it, “miracles, mainly of healing, and dreams, such as Arnobius’s, share an important place in the Christianization of the Greco-Roman world.”15 Some of the early church fathers who affirmed the working of signs and wonders in diverse ways in their times include Eusebius, Hilary, Cyril, and Justin. So, also, was the Montanist movement in Asia Minor.16 The gifts of the Holy Spirit evidenced during the first four centuries of church history debunk claims that signs and wonders ended with the apostles: healing, exorcism, and prophecy.17 Hence, scholars conclude: “Church history and the testimony of contemporary missionaries suggest that when the gospel first breaks into a people group or geographic area, the miraculous is frequently present.”18
The logical question that comes to mind next is, if signs and wonders were present, then why can they not happen now? One explanation offered is the church’s alliance with the state, beginning from the time of Constantine—a shrewd politician who used the church to hold his empire together.19 David Pytches proffers five reasons why signs and wonders are not witnessed today: (1) materialism and rationalism of the Western worldview tend to reject the possibility of signs and wonders; (2) the idea of ministering in signs and wonders sounds presumptuous to many; (3) general confusion over the phenomenon; (4) our own sense of powerlessness and the difficulty to think of the supernatural; and (5) the absence of any idea as to how to minister in power.20
Signs and wonders as a possible mission strategy?
Since the nineteenth century, a period considered in mission circles as the “golden age of missions,” mission strategy has become a predominant concern for the Christian church. Men like William Carey and Hudson Taylor are considered pace-setting pioneers in this endeavor, articulating coherent plans to mobilize the church for the task of missions.21 Another significant contributor to this subject was Ralph Winter, whose speech at the International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne in 1974 witnessed another landmark in mission strategy.22 What Winter said was a shocker: even if every Christian was mobilized for effective witnessing, there still would be nearly two billion persons without access to the gospel.23 If this were true back then, how much worse the situation today because, clearly, the rate of accession to the faith has not kept pace with world population growth. His study underscored the significant challenge Christians face in taking the gospel to regions with the world’s largest religions—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other faith communities.
Granted, reports indicate insider movements are beginning to achieve heart-cheering success in recent times. Nevertheless, the pace is far from earthshaking among peoples that we often have labeled “resistants24 to the gospel. It is apparent that if the church has to succeed among those people groups, it will not happen without supernatural intervention. The good news is that this has already begun occurring. There are constant reports from Muslim-dominated communities indicating that visions and dreams of Isa (Jesus) have led people to Christ in dramatic stories of conversion.25Other factors listed in the survey, carried out by the reputed scholar Dudley Woodberry and his associates, include divine healing and miraculous answers to prayer.26 Malek also strongly considers miracles a viable missiological strategy to overcome resistance because (1) they witness to God’s love; (2) they confirm the claims of Christ; (3) they prove the truth proclaimed; (4) they are a weapon for spiritual warfare; (5) they manifest the kingdom coming in power; and (6) they provide a live encounter with Christ.27
As with the early church in The Acts of the Apostles, God seems to be taking the initiative while the church struggles to catch up. Kwame Bediako, an African missiologist, states, “The early chapters of Acts indicate that the Jerusalem Church was often overtaken by events, and the whole book can be read as a process whereby the early Christian leaders, predominantly Jewish, were brought to understand the mind of Christ which they initially failed to grasp, as they inquired “ ‘Lord, will you at this time give the kingdom back to Israel?’ ” (Acts 1:6). Within the life span of that early apostolic leadership, Jerusalem became periphery.”28
Is there a lesson for us to learn as we review mission initiatives directed by God in the early church? We may need to cautiously pray and ponder the workings of this “unpredictable God” lest we be found fighting against Him (Acts 11:18). For, as Adventist scholar Jon Paulien has astutely observed, “no matter how familiar we may be with scriptures, we cannot totally predict how God will act in any given circumstance.”29
Another noteworthy factor that provides a window of opportunity for witnessing to billions to whom Christian witness seems almost impossible is the realization that the majority of these people practice folk religion. It is reported that about two-thirds of Muslims in Africa are involved in a blend of formal Islam and pre-Islamic animistic beliefs and practices.30 People involved in such folk religious practices “are primarily concerned with existential problems like healing for their children, guidance for decisions, and protection from a world perceived to be dominated by evil spirits and forces.”31 What these people are interested in is not a gospel simply of words but one amply demonstrating the power of God (1 Thess. 1:5) and heralding the coming of the kingdom among them.
Recognition of the existential needs confronting Christian witness should call for a new paradigm of ministry that responds to these issues from a biblical standpoint. Perhaps this may be what Peter Roennfeldt meant when he advocated for a “Holy Spirit praxis” for doing ministry in our age. This radical model, he avers, would challenge the institutional church “to acknowledge that the mission activity and power of the Spirit must always define God’s people and redefine their eschatological identity.32 For, he concludes, “being bound to historical precedent may in fact blind the church to God’s eschatological plans, and preferences, producing stagnation in institutionalization.”33
(Part 2 will appear in the December 2014 issue).
1 See Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 152.
2 A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 13. See also Timothy C. Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 10.
3 Charles H. Kraft, Worldview for Christian Witness (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008), 488.
4 Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy C. Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 254.
5 Gailyn van Rheenen, “Animism, Secularism and Theism: Developing a Tripartite Model of Understanding World Cultures,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 10, no. 4 (1993): 169, 170.
7 Robert Sloan, “ ‘Signs and Wonders’: A Rhetorical Clue to the Pentecost Discourse,” Evangelical Quarterly 63, no. 3 (1991): 233.
8 Sobhi Malek, “Overcoming Resistance Through the Paranormal,” in Reaching the Resistant: Barriers and Bridges for Mission, ed. J. Dudley Woodberry (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1998), 195.
9 Ibid., 149.
10 John Michael Penney, “The Missionary Emphasis of Lukan Pneumatology,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 12 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 122.
11 Edgar Krentz, “Turning the World Upside Down—Preaching Luke’s Story,” Currents in Theology and Mission 36, no. 6 (2009): 435; Penney, “Missionary Emphasis,” 122.
12 Rick Love, “Teaching Them to Obey All Things: A Lukan Perspective on Confronting Magic in Power-Oriented Societies,” in Teaching Them Obedience in Al Things: Equipping for the 21st Century, Evangelical Missiological Society Series no. 7, ed. Edgar J. Elliston (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1999), 69.
13 Robert P. Menzies, “A Pentecostal Perspective on Signs and Wonders,” Pneuma: The Journal ofthe Society for Pentecostal Studies 17: 2 (1995), 268.
14 Daniel L. Migliore, The Power ofGod and the Gods ofPower (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 42.
15 W. H. C. Frend, “The Place of Miracles in the Conversion of the Ancient World to Christianity,” in Signs, Wonders, Miracles: Representations of Divine Power in the Life ofthe Church, ed. Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory (Suffolk, UK: Ecclesiastical History Society, 2005), 18.
16 Nigel Scotland, “Signs and Wonders in the Early Catholic Church 90–451 and their Implications for the Twenty-First Century,” European Journal ofTheology 10, no. 2 (2001): 157, 158.
17 Ibid., 159–165.
18 Ott, Encountering Theology of Mission, 252.
19 Scotland, “Signs and Wonders,” 166.
20 David Pytches, “Signs and Wonders Today,” International Review of Mission 75, no. 298 (April 1986): 139–142.
21 Ralph D. Winter, “Three Mission Eras,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 4th ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), 271, 272.
22 Timothy C. Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010), 354, 355.
23 Ibid., 358.
24 Gorden R. Doss, “Resistance, Receptivity and Mission Among Muslims,” in A Man of Passionate Reflection: A Festschrift Honoring Jerald Whitehouse, ed. Bruce L. Bauer (Berrien Springs, MI: Department of World Mission, Andrews University, 2011), 485.
25 J. Dudley Woodberry, Russell G. Shubin, and G. Marks, “Why Muslims Follow Jesus,” Christianity Today, October 24, 2007, 2, http://www .christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/october/42.80.html.
27 Malek, “Overcoming Resistance,” 197–204.
28 Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), 116.
29 Jon Paulien, “Dealing with Syncretism in Insider Movements,” in
Faith Development in Context, ed. Bruce L. Bauer (Berrien Springs, MI: Department of World Mission, Andrews University, 2005), 243.
30 J. Dudley Woodberry, “The Fullness of Time for Muslims,” in A Man of Passionate Reflection, ed. Bruce L. Bauer, 51.
32 Peter Roennfeldt, “The Holy Spirit Praxis: A Frame for Contextualization,” in A Man of Passionate Reflection, ed. Bruce L. Bauer, 83.