I was wondering what your thoughts are on Augustine’s “City of God”, book 22, chapter 8 where he records many miracles taking place in Carthage. Some sound doubtful — making the symbol of a cross over the malady. I’ve always found Augustine trustworthy but am sensing some overtones of superstition. Are there other sources that might shed some light on his testimony?
I’ve been asked similar questions before, regarding miracle and healing accounts throughout different eras of church history. Though each instance is different, Augustine’s testimony in The City of God provides an interesting case study.
From a cessationist perspective, here are a few thoughts in response to Augustine’s healing accounts:
1. In everything, the Word of God is our authority. Human experiences, whether contemporary or historical, must be evaluated against the teaching of Scripture. Augustine is one of the most well-known church fathers. Yet, he is neither inspired nor authoritative. Thus, his teachings must be measured against the truth of Scripture. (cf. 1 Thess. 5:21–22)
2. Unlike the record of miracles in the Bible – which are absolutely true – the report of supernatural phenomena throughout church history is impossible to verify and subject to human error. Augustine was undoubtedly sincere when he claimed that various miracles occurred in Carthage during his lifetime. But that does not mean his interpretation of what happened was correct. Being centuries removed from the situation makes it impossible for us to fully investigate all that he describes; but we can still evaluate his conclusions against the truth of God’s Word.
3. It is important to note that, generally speaking, cessationists do not deny the possibility that God can (and does) work miracles in the world today, in the broad sense of special acts of providence and answers to prayer. (The miracle of regeneration, for example, is a supernatural act performed by God each time a sinner comes to saving faith.) So, the mention of “miracles” in church history sources does not — in and of itself — undermine the cessationist position. (For more on this point, see here.)
4. Cessationists teach that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit (such as the gifts of healing, tongues, and prophecy) ceased shortly after the apostolic age. Biblically defined, the gift of healing involved a human agent who – by God’s power – miraculously delivered sick people from real diseases in a way that was undeniable and instantaneous. It was given as a sign to authenticate the ministry of Christ and the apostles at the foundation stage of church history. Cessationists are convinced that there are no miracle-workers or healers in the world today like there were during apostolic times.
5. Importantly, Augustine’s miracle accounts do not involve miracle workers who possessed the gift of healing. Instead, these accounts are presented as unexpected and providential acts of God which were not dependent on an intermediary healer. In that sense, they are categorically different than the type of healing miracles that are described in the Gospels or the book of Acts. Nothing in Augustine’s account suggests that the “gift of healing” was involved in the episodes he recounted.
6. As a side note, in response to those who wish to categorize Augustine as a continuationist, it is helpful to note that he clearly states that certain charismatic gifts (like the gift of tongues) had ceased after the time of the apostles. For example, regarding tongues-speaking, he states:
In the earliest time the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spoke with tongues which they had not learned ‘as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ These were signs adapted to the time. For it was proper for the Holy Spirit to evidence Himself in all tongues, and to show that the Gospel of God had come to all tongues [languages] over the whole earth. The thing was done for an authentication and it passed away. (Ten Homilies on the first Epistle of John VI, 10).
7. But there is still a major problem with Augustine’s report of miracles. His description is highly mystical and replete with superstitious elements. In recording these healings, he attributes them to things like prayer to the saints, the power of relics, and the use of religious symbols. Such descriptions are deeply troubling and call into serious question the veracity of his supposed miracles. Added to that, most of what he reports is from second or third-hand sources, which again casts doubt on the factual accuracy of his interpretations.
8. Generally speaking, the superstition that characterized medieval Christianity gained a foothold in the church after the Roman Empire became “Christian.” As pagans were forced to become Christian they synthesized their paganism with their Christianity. The church became contaminated. Even someone as notable as Augustine (in the 5th century) was affected by it. (For more on that, see here.)
So where does that leave us?
A. On the one hand, cessationists would affirm that God can heal people providentially in sudden and unexpected ways — both today and throughout church history. While the gift of healing is no longer active (meaning that the “faith-healers” of the modern charismatic movement are frauds), God can and sometimes does answer prayer in providentially extraordinary ways. Sometimes people refer to these special acts of providence as “miracles” — though that label is not always helpful in light of the contemporary charismatic movement’s abuse of the term.
B. On the other hand, with regard to Augustine’s account in particular, the superstitious elements that he highlights (like praying to the saints and finding healing power in relics) are completely unbiblical. They find their source in pagan influences, and ought to be rejected outright.
C. Those superstitious elements call into question the veracity of all of Augustine’s miracle reports — since his interpretation of the events was prejudiced by the religious superstitions of fifth-century Roman society (which was actively looking for miracles at every turn). Augustine himself seems ready to label anything and everything a “miracle,” even if there are other explanations for what took place. In that way, his miracle reports seem somewhat similar to modern Roman Catholic or Pentecostal miracle reports — in which superstitious and mystical presuppositions produce dangerously flawed conclusions.
D. While we appreciate Augustine for many wonderful contributions to historical theology (such as his articulation of the doctrines of grace), his report of divine healings is one area in which he is considerably less helpful. In this case, his reporting of the events is so riddled with superstition that it casts a shadow of doubt over his interpretation of those events.