Cover Image: Signs and Wonders Then and Now

Signs and Wonders Then and Now:
Miracle-working, Commissioning and Discipleship

Lionel Hacking (Apollos, 2006)

Blurb Review by Rev. Graham Beynon

Review by Rev. Graham Beynon

This is a revision of the original review.

The so-called ‘Third Wave' of charismatic renewal has made contemporary signs and wonders a mainstay of its theology (probably best known and exemplified by John Wimber). At its best it is argued persuasively from Scripture, especially from the synoptic gospels and Acts which are seen to be paradigmatic for ministry today. Keith Hacking's book examines this area paying particular attention to the relationship between signs and wonders and Christian discipleship.

Hacking's concern in his examination is not so much to question whether signs and wonders continue today, but more what place and shape they should have. As a result while the cessationist position is acknowledged very briefly in passing, interacting with it is not Hacking's direct concern.

A major element of Hacking's interaction with the Third Wave proponents is methodological: he feels that many Third Wave writers have adopted a homogenising approach which fails to pay attention to the particular ways different biblical writers present signs and wonders. By contrast Hacking takes a critical approach that is concerned to understand what each writer is saying about Jesus and discipleship, before asking how the miraculous fits with this.

One result is that a lot of space is devoted to themes within the gospels and the particular presentation of discipleship they each have. There is also significant interaction with the secondary literature. This is good and necessary work but readers need to be aware that this is not a popular level read (it is in fact a re-presentation of doctoral work) and much ground has to be covered before conclusions are drawn.

Hacking's examination of each of the synoptic writers draws the following conclusions.

Matthew is seen to present ongoing signs and wonders as part of the authority of Jesus entrusted to the church but only as performed by those who are true disciples concerned with obedience to Jesus' words. Passages such as Matthew 7:21-23 are a warning against miraculous activity that is not rooted in obedience.

Hacking writes, ‘Healings and exorcisms continue to have a part to play in the community's experience of the delegated exousia entrusted to all disciples, but they must by no means be the predominant characteristic of those who follow Jesus' (p101).

The understanding of Mark focuses on his presentation of discipleship as following Jesus in service and humility rather than spectacular activity. Examination of Mark inevitably involves discussion of chapter 16:9-20 which Hacking concludes is not an original part of the gospel.

Signs and wonders in Mark are seen to be particularly related to the missionary activity of the church. Hacking writes, ‘... for Mark, signs and wonders are to be regarded as being given primarily to authenticate the (pioneering?) evangelistic mission of the church its gospel message rather than being an integral, everyday part of his paradigm for discipleship' (p151).

In the analysis of Luke/Acts Hacking shows how Luke's focus is on the person of Jesus rather than on promoting signs and wonders as characteristic of the ministry of Jesus and his followers. Within Acts itself signs and wonders are seen primarily as ‘validating' the person concerned, but also as bringing a time of salvation.

Examinations of Acts with regard to signs and wonders usually focus on the limitation of the ability to perform signs and wonders to the apostles and a few others. In contrast to this approach Hacking examines the idea of ‘commissioning' in Acts and argues that those who perform signs and wonders are all commissioned by the Lord Jesus or by the church. He ties this with the idea of authenticating the ministry of a few as the church is established and links it specifically with the laying on of hands as an act of commissioning. So he says that Luke, ‘... reserves attributing deeds of power to a limited number of accredited individuals whom he presents as having been commissioned, with it's attendant notion of the conveyance of authority to act on behalf of another' (p236).

So he concludes that Luke/Acts sees signs and wonders as an ongoing phenomenon but limits their performance to comparatively few who had an authoritative role in the church rather than expecting them to be common place for all Christians.

Each of these three examinations is exceptionally thorough. I found myself wanting to question some points of exegesis but overall these conclusions are drawn from detailed and persuasive argument.

Hackings conclusion from all three synoptic writers is to significantly draw into question ways in which the Third Wave exponents have presented their case and their subsequent practice. Hacking writes, ‘the models of discipleship presented to us in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts do not encourage the expectation that the manifestation of signs and wonders is to be considered normative in the experience of all who seek, through the leading and presence of the Spirit in their lives, to follow Jesus and to model his teaching and example' (p258).

This conclusion did leave me with questions as to exactly what is expected in practice. Clearly Hacking argues against the normative expectations of the Third Wave. However to my mind there is some inconsistency in the way expectations for today are presented. For example in his examination of Matthew while the miraculous is put in its place with respect to obedience to Jesus' words it is still seen as part of the delegated authority of the church. So one could conclude it would be a not uncommon feature of church life. Similarly in his examination of Luke's view of commissioning it is clear that such commissioning and hence performance of the miraculous should or at least could continue.

However in his conclusion Hacking says that signs and wonders cannot be considered commonplace but that the church must remain open to God's sovereign activity which ‘may on occasion extend to the validation of individuals and their ministries through signs and wonders.' I don't disagree with the conclusion but thought that previous work mentioned above had argued for more than that.

In summary while I felt unsatisfied with the precision of the conclusions this is a piece of work that makes a significant contribution to the ongoing debate of signs and wonders today. It does so primarily by taking us back to the Biblical texts and making us listen carefully to their distinctive voices and that is a most welcome move.

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