As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of arguing doctrine from the Church Fathers (or Patristics) — uninspired, early Christian writers. However, when the argument is made that miracles ending when the New Testament was completed or when the apostles died, that’s a historical claim, and history suddenly becomes relevant.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
Then he [Polycarp] had . . . finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire [to burn him to death]. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we to whom it was given to witness it beheld a great miracle and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within, not like flesh that is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odor, as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there. At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished, and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect (Martyrdom of Polycarp 15–16 [A.D. 155]).
[Heretics are] so far . . . 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 [Catholic] brotherhood on account of some necessity. The entire church in that particular locality entreating 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 (Against Heresies 2:31:2–4 [A.D. 189]).
In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God (Against Heresies 5:6:1 [A.D. 189]).
[When a scorpion stings someone’s heel] we have faith for a defense, if we are not smitten with distrust itself also, in immediately making the sign [of the cross?] and adjuring and besmearing the heel with the beast. Finally, we often aid in this way even the heathen, seeing we have been endowed by God with that power that the apostle [Paul] first used when he despised the viper’s bite [cf. Acts 28:3–5] (Antidote Against the Scorpion 1 [A.D. 211]).
Heaven knows how many distinguished men, to say nothing of common people, have been cured either of devils or of their sicknesses. [Specific examples follow, of persons named and known to his readers.] (To Scapula, chap. 4, [A.D. 196-212])*
[W]e can clearly show a countless multitude of Greeks and Barbarians who acknowledge the existence of Jesus. And some give evidence of their having received through this faith a marvellous power by the cures which they perform, invoking no other name . . . than that of the God of all things, and of Jesus . . . . For by these means we too have seen many persons freed from grievous calamities, and from distractions of mind, and madness, and countless other ills, which could be cured neither by men nor devils” (Against Celsus, chapters 2, 6, 24).*
The citizens of that parish [in Alexandria] mention many other miracles of Narcissus . . . among which they relate the following wonder as performed by him. . . . The oil once failed while the deacons were watching through the night at the great Paschal Vigil. Thereupon, the whole multitude being dismayed, Narcissus directed those who attended to the lights to draw water and bring it to him. This being immediately done he prayed over the water and with firm faith in the Lord commanded them to pour it into the lamps. And when they had done so, contrary to all expectation, by a wonderful and divine power the nature of the water was changed into that of oil. A small portion of it has been preserved even to our day by many of the brethren there as a memento of the wonder (Church History 6:9:1–3 [A.D. 312]).
So take these as an example, beloved Dracontius, and do not say, or believe those who say, that the bishop’s office is an occasion to sin. . . . For we know both bishops who fast and monks who eat. We know bishops who drink no wine as well as monks who do. We know bishops who work miracles as well as monks who do not (Letters 49:9 [A.D. 354]).
[W]e ought not to doubt whether such marvels were wrought by the hand of a man. For it is . . . Jesus himself who saith to His disciples and to all who believe on Him, ‘Heal the sick, cast out demons; freely ye have received, freely give.’ Antony, at any rate, healed not by commanding, but by prayer and speaking the name of Christ. So that it was clear to all that it was not he himself who worked, but the Lord who showed mercy by his means and healed the sufferers (Vita S. Antoni, chapters 83-84).*
Lactantius (died A.D. 320),
And as He Himself before His passion put to confusion demons by His word and command, so now, by the name and sign of the same passion, unclean spirits, having insinuated themselves into the bodies of men, are driven out, when racked and tormented, and confessing themselves to be demons, they yield themselves to God, who harasses them (The Epitome of the Divine Institutions, chap. 51).*
Ambrose of Milan
As I do not wish anything that takes place here in your absence to escape the knowledge of your holiness [my sister], you must know that we have found some bodies of holy martyrs. . . . We found two men of marvelous stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect. . . . Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on, transferred them to the basilica of Fausta, where watch was kept during the night and some received the laying on of hands. On the following morning we translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian. During the translation a blind man was healed. . . . [Arians] deny that the blind man received sight, but he denies not that he is healed. He says: “I, who could not see, now see,” and proves it by the fact. . . . He declares that when he touched the hem of the robe of the martyrs, wherewith the sacred relics were covered, his sight was restored (Letters 22:1–2, 17 [A.D. 388]).
[A woman with three sick children came to Hilarion and] on reaching the saint she said: “I pray you by Jesus our most merciful God . . . to restore to me my three sons, so that the name of our Lord and Savior may be glorified in the city of the Gentiles. Then shall his servants enter Gaza and the idol Marnas shall fall to the ground.” At first he refused and said that he never left his cell . . . [but] the woman did not leave him till he promised he would enter Gaza after sunset. On coming thither he made the sign of the cross over the bed and fevered limbs of each [child] and called upon the name of Jesus. Marvelous efficacy of the name! . . . In that very hour they took food, recognized the mourning mother, and with thanks to God warmly kissed the saint’s hands (Life of St. Hilarion 14 [A.D. 390]).
In our generation, in the case of him who surpassed all in ungodliness, I mean [the emperor] Julian, many strange things happened. Thus, when the Jews were attempting to raise up again the temple at Jerusalem, fire burst out from the foundations and utterly hindered them all, and when both his treasurer and his uncle and namesake made the sacred vessels the subject of their open insolence, one was eaten with worms and gave up the ghost, and the other burst apart in the middle. Moreover, the fountains failing when sacrifices were made there and the entrance of famine into the cities together with the emperor himself was a very great sign. For it is usual with God to do such things when evils are multiplied (Homilies on Matthew 4:2 [A.D. 391]).
In the same city of Carthage lived Innocentia, a very devout woman of the highest rank in the state. She had cancer in one of her breasts, a disease that, as physicians say, is incurable. . . . This lady we speak of had been advised by a skillful physician, who was intimate with her family, and she betook herself to God alone in prayer. On the approach of Easter, she was instructed in a dream to wait for the first woman who came out of the baptistery after being baptized and to have her make the sign of Christ upon the sore. She did so and was immediately cured (The City of God 22:8 [A.D. 419]).
For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by his sacraments or by the prayers or relics of his saints. . . . But who but a very small number are aware of the cure that was wrought upon Innocentius . . . a cure wrought at Carthage, in my presence, and under my own eyes? . . . For he and all his household were devotedly pious. He was being treated by medical men for fistulae, of which he had a large number. . . . He had already undergone an operation but clearly needed another. . . . He cast himself down . . . and began to pray; but in what a manner, with what earnestness and emotion, with what a flood of tears, with what groans and sobs, that shook his whole body and almost prevented him speaking. . . . [And when the] surgeons arrived, all that the circumstances required was ready; the frightful instruments were produced; all look on in wonder and suspense. . . . [But the surgeon] finds a perfectly firm scar! No words of mine can describe the joy, and praise, and thanksgiving to the merciful and almighty God, which was poured from the lips of all with tears of gladness. Let the scene [of rejoicing] be imagined rather than described! (ibid.).
A gouty doctor of the same city, when he had given his name for baptism and had been forbidden the day before his baptism from being baptized that year by black woolly haired boys who appeared to him in his dreams (and whom he understood to be devils), and when . . . he refused to obey them but overcame them and would not defer being washed in the laver of regeneration, was relieved in the very act of baptism, not only of the extraordinary pain he was tortured with but also of the disease itself (ibid.).
What am I to do? I am so pressed by the promise of finishing this work that I cannot record all the miracles I know, and doubtless several of our adherents, when they read what I have narrated, will regret that I have omitted many that they, as well as I, certainly know. Even now I beg these persons to excuse me and to consider how long it would take me to relate all those miracles, which the necessity of finishing the work I have undertaken forces me to omit. . . . Even now, therefore, many miracles are wrought, the same God who wrought those we read of [in the Bible is] still performing them, by whom he will and as he will (ibid.).
The fact that the canon of our Scriptures is definitely closed brings it about that the original miracles are everywhere repeated and are fixed in people’s memory, whereas contemporary miracles . . . seldom become known. [Augustine then cites specific examples, naming individuals involved.] . . . It is a simple fact that, that there is no lack of miracles even in our day. And the God who works the miracles we read of in the Scripture uses any means and manner He chooses. The only trouble is that these modern miracles are not so well known as the earlier ones . . . (ibid.)*
And so we have a fairly continuous record of miraculous events up through the 5th century. However, I’m sure most readers will share my doubts as to, at least, some of these. I just can’t imagine God choosing to do miracle through relics, that is, items touched by holy men or women or even body parts of diseased martyrs. The Martyrdom of Polycarp just sounds more legendary than real.
However, the accounts by Augustine are different. Augustine was clearly a genius for the ages. His impact on Christianity and Western culture is incalculable. He is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful men ever to walk the earth. Serious apologetics regarding science and Genesis can’t overlook arguments made by Augustine, long before the age of science.
As explained below, Augustine originally doubted that miracles had continued until his time — the 5th century — but his position changed when he saw them with his own eyes.
Even Augustine of Hippo (a.D. 354- 430), who had originally adopted the view that miracles had ceased with the apostolic age, changed his opinion during the last two or three years of his life. This change of viewpoint was precipitated by a revival in North Africa, where Augustine lived. Suddenly, miracles seemed to proliferate. Augustine quickly decided to publicize the miraculous healings in North Africa, and as bishop in Hippo, he examined and recorded each report that came to his attention. He gave verified reports of healings a maximum of publicity, and he insisted upon receiving a written report from every person who claimed to be healed. This report, or libellus, would then be read publicly in church, in the presence of the writer, and would later be stored in Augustine’s library. He attempted to persuade his colleagues to use the same system, but without great success. In the case of the healing of a noble lady in Carthage, Augustine was disappointed that she failed to use her rank and influence to publicize a miracle of healing that she had experienced. A renowned twentieth-century specialist in Augustine, Peter Brown, stated that Augustine attempted to bring together various incidents of miracles “until they formed a single corpus, as compact and compelling as the miracles that had assisted the growth of the Early Church.”1 Some of the material that Augustine collected appears in the last book (Book 22) of his work, City of God, the eighth chapter of which contains a very lengthy description of miracles which he had either witnessed himself, or about which he had heard from those whom he considered to be reliable witnesses. [Augustine, City of God, book 22, chapter 8, in Roy J. Deferrari, ed., The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954), vol. 24, pp. 431-450.]
The account in City of God is too lengthy for detailed treatment here, but included in it are reports of healings of blindness, multiple rectal fistula, cancer of the breast, gout, paralysis, hernia of the scrotum, and other diseases. Augustine recounts other miracles in which farm animals were cured, demons were cast out of certain individuals, and the dead were raised. In one case, a poor man who lost his cloak prayed, and later found a huge fish squirming upon the beach. He sold it to a restaurant, where a gold ring was found in the gullet of the fish and given to him. In another case, a cart drawn by oxen ran over a child. After his mother prayed, the child not only returned to consciousness, but he showed no sign of the crushing he had suffered.
One of the greatest early works of church history is the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in A.D. 731. This is a valuable source, known for its separation of historical fact from hearsay and tradition.3 Bede was a very careful scholar, and did his utmost to find reliable source material for his work, often sending emissaries to various places like Rome to gather important source materials. Throughout Bede’s work there are accounts of miracles. In fact, the entire work is so saturated with accounts of miracles that if one were to discount them, one would have to discount the entire work, which would be impossible, since the events it describes are woven so unmistakably into the tapestry of history.
It must also be noted that there are examples of miracles occuring among heretical sects (and, of course, many would consider the church to have already become heretical by the time of Augustine).
Alan Rouse notes in a comment, “Eusebius wrote harshly of Montanus and the Phrygian heresy, characterized by unintelligible tongues:
Montanus became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning. Some of those who heard his spurious utterances at that time were indignant, and they rebuked him as one that was possessed, and that was under the control of a demon, and was led by a deceitful spirit, and was distracting the multitude; and they forbade him to talk, remembering the distinction drawn by the Lord and his warning to guard watchfully against the coming of false prophets.
But others imagining themselves possessed of the Holy Spirit and of a prophetic gift, were elated and not a little puffed up; and forgetting the distinction of the Lord, they challenged the mad and insidious and seducing spirit, and were cheated and deceived by him. In consequence of this, he could no longer be held in check, so as to keep silence. Thus by artifice, or rather by such a system of wicked craft, the devil, devising destruction for the disobedient, and being unworthily honored by them, secretly excited and inflamed their understandings which had already become estranged from the true faith.
In the same comment, Alan notes that Jerome considered Joel’s prophecy of miracles to have been fulfilled at Pentecost —
In 385 AD, Jerome rejected the prophecy of the Montanists. After quoting Peter’s sermon including Joel’s prophecy of gifts being poured out, Jerome wrote:
If, then, the apostle Peter, upon whom the Lord has founded the Church, has expressly said that the prophecy and promise of the Lord were then and there fulfilled, how can we claim another fulfilment for ourselves?
The fairest conclusion I can reach is that —
* There is no record in history of miracles ending when the last apostle died or when the last man on whom the apostles laid hands died.
* There is no record in history of miracles ending when the last book of the New Testament was written or when the canon was compiled.
* By the late 4th Century, Jerome considered miracles to have ended — writing in opposition to heretical sects claiming to have been validated by miracles. For a time, Augustine was of the same mind, but was later persuaded to the contrary by extensive evidence of continuing miracles.
* So far as we can tell from history, more Christians believed the age of miracles to have never ended, as evidenced by what they considered to be ongoing miracles among the orthodox.
Do I believe that everything recorded in history as a miracle really is a miracle? No, not at all. It’s not hard to discern an element of superstition or legendary embellishment here and there. I’m confident that many claims of a miracle are not true.
Moreover, the scriptures predict that there will be miracles done by false prophets, so it’s hardly surprising that the Montanists claimed miraculous powers. So did Pharoah’s wizards.
Now, it’s possible that the evidence is all bogus — psychosomatic illnesses “healed” by the placebo effect. Maybe none of it happened. But we can’t just assume. And what’s clear is that the early church didn’t notice miracles ending. It seemed to most of them that God continued to work miracles among them. Nor did they think that 1 Cor 13 or other New Testament passages predicted the end of miracles.
Do I find a convicing case in history that the “age of miracles” ended with the apostles or shortly thereafter? No.
Now, the readers may properly ask what point I’m trying to make, and the answer is I’m not arguing. I’m investigating. I’m checking the facts, the history, and the scriptures to see what conclusion — if any — they might lead me to. [I’m not kidding. I’ve not written the final posts yet. Among other things, I’m waiting to see what the readers add to the discussion.]
* Thanks to an earlier comment from Edward Fudge.