June 9, 2015

Augustine and Miracle Reports in Church History

by Nathan Busenitz

AugustineSome time ago, I received the following question by email:

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.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Excellent, thanks!

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  • David Knight

    Thank you for the fascinating insight into this aspect of Augustine’s theology.

  • tovlogos

    Thanks Nathan — I don’t see how anyone can disagree with this assessment.

    “Instead, these accounts are presented as unexpected and providential acts of God which were not dependent on an intermediary healer.”

    That’s where it’s so obvious; yet without the slightest doubt, what can only be determined to be miraculous is a fact.
    On the other hand, modern psychology has an array of categories for mental disease; however, there can be no question that demonic influences still influence human beings directly. Yes, the ruler of this world has been judged, and shall be cast out (John 12:31), a future event; but he is still within those who deny Christ. (1 John 4:4-6)
    It was not in vein that the Spirit informed us that the antichrist is operation and proactive in the world (1 John 4:3; Ephesians 6:10-16, etc.). The problem, as in the case of Augustin, is how people deal with this reality, and take on the mantle of an “exorcist”.

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    When I first became a Christian and finished reading through the Bible a few times, I heard there were other writings out there from early church history. No one had ever told me that. I had no clue who Augustine was or any other church fathers for that matter.

    So I found a seminary sight that offered an online library. It was fascinating reading through all those ancient manuscripts, but I also noticed that as I got past the first and second centuries, it seemed as if mysticism and heresies were creeping in. It made me value the Bible all the more as my standard of measurement. And I have to say, it also makes me very grateful for the writers on Cripplegate who have read and studied all this texts and offer us insight and guidance. Thank you!

  • Adam

    Whether Augustine did actually witness the miracles he attests to in his Confessions, still really has no bearing on the church in the current day except for argumentative sake; that is, those who believe miracles are for today (the continuationist) can point to Augustine and contend that because he witnessed miracles in a post-apostolic era we can also. (The implication being that the apostolic age of miracles has not ceased.) But this is simply a straw man argument; that is, a very weak argument that can easily be refuted by confronting the continuationist with the objective reality of present day conditions – “Why are hospitals still full? Why are amputees not growing new limbs? Why are babies born with severe birth defects not healed? These, and many other conditions, are what we face TODAY. And there is NO OBJECTIVE EVIDENCE that these conditions are routinely being dealt with by God in a supernatural way in the same manner as when Christ walked the earth. Point being, the experiences of Augustine are just that – experiences -nothing more. They therefore cannot be used 1) to teach doctrine and 2) as the basis for an argument that says the era of miracles continues in the present. What Augustine may or may not have legitimately experienced proves nothing except that HE witnessed something. But what are WE witnessing today? I know there are disagreements as to the interpretation of the Scriptures in regards to the texts dealing with miracles, and that is why I go the current day witness of the church as the final piece of evidence in determining the proper interpretation of these texts. And so we ask ourselves: Whose interpretation of Scripture is more consistent with present day conditions? I would say that health insurance, hospitals, and graves are three trustworthy pieces of evidence that prove Jesus hasn’t passed down to the church of the current day His power to heal at will, with His word, those who have the desire to be healed. In the end, Augustine’s 5th century experiences concerning miracles are irrelevant to the church’s 21st century experiences. The final authority is still the Scriptures.

    • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

      Well said. I have always believed that the physical miracles that were seen in the first century (life to the dead, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf) were just shadows of the spiritual miracles of regeneration of those who would believe. As Isaiah 8:18 says, “We are the signs and symbols…”

  • Johnny

    This was good and helpful

  • Rachel

    Late to the party but I’d still like to comment. Point 1 above says “In everything, the Word of God is our authority. Human experiences, whether contemporary or historical, must be evaluated against the teaching of Scripture.”

    Then point 7 says, “But there is still a major problem with Augustine’s report of miracles… replete with superstitious elements… 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….”

    I don’t think there is any reason for a Bible-believing Christian to have the heebie-jeebies about those things, so I will compare them to the Word of God as follows.

    Prayer to the saints: this is a request for holy people in heaven to pray for us. It’s worth doing because “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16) There are too many examples of intercessory prayer in the Bible to list, but one good one is the fate of Job’s friends, since God explicitly told them He would only pardon them because of Job’s intercession for them. (Job 42:7-9)

    Relics: a relic is either a part of a holy person’s body, or an object that the person owned or touched. For a Biblical miracle with the first kind of relic see 2 Kings 13:20-21. For miracles with the second kind of relic see Acts 19:11-12.

    Religious symbols like the sign of the Cross: I don’t see why such gestures should be more objectionable than spitting on the ground and making mud to rub on a blind man’s eyes, or stretching out three times on a dead body, or telling a man to wash seven times in the Pool of Siloam, or making a bronze snake and mounting it on a pole and telling people that if they look at it they’ll be healed.

    There’s no need to suppose that any of the above actions were done in a superstitious way. Praying to saints, touching relics, making various gestures to heal someone, etc, can all be ways of pleading in faith for God’s help, knowing that it is His power that heals. If you think we should never do that stuff when we can just pray to God instead, I’d say your problem isn’t with Augustine but with the Bible, which gives such clear examples of miracles that God chose to work through all sorts of objects and gestures. This article surmises that in this area, Augustine was influenced more by his religious culture than by the actual words of Scripture. I think that conclusion is true not of Augustine but of those who object to his stories and call them “superstition.”

    I still think you’re all cool and Cripplegate is a very interesting blog, though. 🙂

    • Adam

      Rachel, I just have to address your comment about praying to saints. Can you show anywhere, FROM THE BIBLE, where a person of God prayed to someone in heaven other than God? Is there ONE prayer anywhere in Scripture where God exhorts us to pray to someone other than Himself? Jesus clearly taught in Matthew 6:9-13 that we are to prayer to “Our Father in heaven.” He doesn’t mention, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, or any other of the Old Testament saints, neither does he mention any angels. Asking someone on earth to intercede for us is Biblical and there are many examples of this in Scripture, but once we change realms and go from earth to heaven and look for that same intercession, the Bible says that only Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can do us any good. (READ 1 Tim.2:5-6 and Romans 8:26)
      What do the Scriptures teach and what examples to I see in Scripture? These are the questions you need to ask when contending for the idea that (1) we have been granted the right, by God, to pray to other people in heaven (2) Other people in heaven actually have the ability to hear our prayers and then have the power to intercede for us (3) God will hear the prayers of the deceased saints, while they are in heaven, and then do something about it. Human logic and a personal philosophy that says “I believe the saints in heaven can hear my prayers and help me in the same way people on earth can”, does not translate into Biblical truth. The church is rampant today with personal philosophies which cannot be backed up and proven true Biblically.
      “Our Father, which art in heaven…” This is the Biblical model for prayer as taught by our Lord, not “Our dear saints which are in heaven…”

      • Rachel

        Hi Adam, thanks for your answer! It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve done anything to show that people in heaven can’t pray for us. You cite 1 Timothy 2:5-6 and Romans 8:26, which say that Jesus Christ is the one mediator and that the Spirit himself intercedes for us. But no Christian thinks that these statements rule out intercessory prayer. Christians are all part of one body. God wants us to pray for each other, and Jesus’ prayer before he died was that we all would be unified and one. (John 17:20-23) So why on earth wouldn’t Christians in heaven love and pray for Christians on earth? They must be aware of our needs, for the Bible says they’re watching us, a great cloud of witnesses. (Heb 12:1)

        As for saints in heaven being able to pray to God and get their prayers answered, Revelation 6:9-10 shows precisely that! I don’t think anyone should need that example, though, because why on earth would we be *less* able to pray once we’re in heaven with God?

        I feel like I’m really arguing against your engrained religious tradition that says these things are wrong without giving any Biblical reason why. Perhaps you feel the same of me, but at any rate I’m glad the Bible is our common ground.

        • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

          “You cite 1 Timothy 2:5-6 and Romans 8:26, which say that Jesus Christ is the one mediator and that the Spirit himself intercedes for us. But no Christian thinks that these statements rule out intercessory prayer”.

          Rachel, that is exactly what Christians believe. ONE mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. As for the saints mentioned in Hebrews, they were ‘examples of faith’, not a means of intercession. To go beyond that is reading into the text something that isn’t there. And lastly, how does Revelation 6:9-10 equate with saints interceding for us? The fact they asked the Father how long before they were avenged proves nothing with respect to them interceding for us, let alone a directive for us to pray to them. Praying to saints has never had it’s origin in the Bible, but rather in religious tradition.

          • Rachel

            Jane, I don’t know what definition of intercessory prayer you had in mind, but mine is that it’s one person praying for another. I’m sure you don’t rule that out? My point was that if we can pray for each other on earth, we can pray for each other in heaven. Say you have children, and eventually you die and go to heaven– do you think you’ll be less able to pray for your children from heaven than when you were on earth? Wouldn’t God *want* you to pray for your kids?

            I agree Rev 6:9-10 doesn’t “equate” to the saints interceding for us, but I was citing it in answer to Adam’s doubt that Christians in heaven are able to be heard by God at all. I cited Hebrews to show that they’re witnessing our lives. We can then put the two together– if they see what’s happening with us, and they can pray to God, why wouldn’t they care enough to pray for us who are still running the race and definitely need prayer?

            Let me know what you think. 🙂

          • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

            Rachel, while the Bible exhorts us to pray FOR one another, it never tells us to pray TO one another. That is idolatry. Not only that, but prayer is a form of worship and worship is reserved for God alone.

            You mentioned earlier that the Bible was our common ground, so please provide specific scriptures where we are instructed to pray to saints or seek their intercession.

        • Adam

          Rachel, it is important we keep the Bible as the final authority on matters of faith. Reread these arguments from my earlier post:

          What do the Scriptures teach and what examples do I see in Scripture? These are the questions you need to ask when contending for the idea that

          (1) We have been granted the right, by God, to pray to other people in heaven
          (2) Other people in heaven actually have the ability to hear our prayers and then have the power to intercede for us
          (3) God will hear the prayers of the deceased saints, while they are in heaven, and then do something about it.
          My challenge to you, then, is to take these 3 points and attach Scripture verses to them in order to prove they are true. Formulating an argument preceded by the words, “I think…” doesn’t prove anything except that YOU have a personal belief system concerning a particular subject matter. In this case, prayer. But this does not mean you have proven that the Bible is in agreement with YOUR personal philosophy. When we say something is “Biblical”, we are invoking the text of the Bible as an authoritative source to back up what we are saying. You have not done that unless you can take the 3 points I have given above and show from Scripture these points are true.
          Concerning Revelation 6:9, the simple rule of CONTEXT tells us this has absolutely nothing to do with intercessory prayer or praying for people on earth. It is clear these saints have passed on and now reside in the same realm as God in heaven, and are addressing Him concerning their own martyrdom. Their concern is not for people on earth, but themselves and what happened to THEM.
          Second, the text in Timothy and Romans certainly does disprove the idea that saints can pray for us in heaven. The right granted to Jesus to intercede for us in 1 Tim. 2:5 is based upon the statement that follows in verse 6 – “Who gave Himself a ransom for all.” This is a position exclusively occupied by Christ. No other person has given themselves as a ransom for our souls which automatically eliminates the possibility for anyone who has died and gone to heaven to have any intercessory power between God and man. The book of Hebrews addresses this in greater and 1 John 2:1-2 addresses the same principle as 1 Tim. 2:5-6
          Concerning the text in Romans that tells us the Holy Ghost makes intercession for us, this also disproves your belief. The Holy Spirit also occupies a position we as human being do not and never could – that of indwelling another person. His indwelling presence allows for HIm to take what is in our hearts and bring it to God, but once again, only through Christ “Who gave Himself a ransom for all.” Romans 8:26 reveals a weakness in us when it comes to the matter of prayer, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, in the words of John Wesley, is to “form” our prayers when we are unsure how to pray concerning a particular issue.
          MY BIGGEST CHALLENGE TO YOU, is to take the three points I have singled out above and prove these things are true SCRIPTURALLY. I have cited at least 3 verses and made reference to the book of Hebrews, and then explained the verses and how they relate specifically to the topic we are discussing. You have not done that. You gave me a text from Revelation that, as I showed using the RULE OF CONTEXT, has nothing to do with people in heaven having the ability to pray for people on earth. The same applies for the verse you cited in Hebrews 12:1.
          As far as my “engrained religious tradition” on this matter, if my “traditions” are consistent with what the apostles believed, taught, and practiced, and the Bible bears witness to it, I have no problem with that.

          • Rachel

            Hi Adam, thanks for the response! Of your three numbered points, #2 really contains two separate points, so I think you should break that apart and number them as follows:

            (1) We have been granted the right, by God, to pray to other people in heaven

            (2) Other people in heaven actually have the ability to hear our prayers

            (3) Other people in heaven have the power to intercede for us

            (4) God will hear the prayers of the deceased saints, while they are in heaven, and then do something about it.

            To answer your whole post would take more time than I have tonight (alas…), so I’ll confine myself to this for now. If you’re willing, would you tell me which of those four points you currently disagree with?

          • Adam

            Rachel, none of these 4 points can be supported Biblically. Somebody on earth Interceding for someone else on earth is Biblical. Somebody in heaven (other then Christ)interceding/praying for someone on earth is not Biblical. You can pick any of the 4 points above and you will find not one Scripture reference proving these propositions are true.
            I do have something more important to ask however: Why would you want to pray to somebody else in heaven other than Jesus Christ? WHAT PURPOSE WOULD IT SERVE? HOW COULD THEY HELP YOU OUT ANY MORE THAN JESUS? Jesus said, “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth.” (Matthew 28:18) This does not apply to saints in heaven, and with that being said, with that type of power at Christ’s disposal, we need no other intercessor. Put your focus on Christ…alone!

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