Prophets and Miracles
From its very beginning the church of Christ ran into trouble in the world, where it was everywhere regarded as an intruder on the rights and prerogatives of established and going concerns. Its doctrine collided with philosophy; its offices and priesthood aroused the suspicion of governors and politicians; its divine gifts and powers scandalized the schoolmen, Jewish and Greek alike; the inspired preaching of the word had to settle a score with rhetoric as its revelation did with a great heritage of mysticism. We have touched upon all these things in preceding chapters, but there is one important phase of the story which we have not mentioned. God is a God of miracles. Everything he does is marvelous and in the end surpasses the understanding of men. As the gospel with all its gifts and powers was introduced into a world of philosophy, mysticism, and rhetoric—all of which were hostile to it—so too it was introduced into a world of miracles. And just as it is important to distinguish between the gospel and philosophy, the spirit and rhetoric, revelation and mysticism, so it is necessary to distinguish sharply between the kind of miracles that were found among the saints and the kind that enjoyed currency and popularity in the outside world; for here too we have a sure key to the presence of God's church and his prophets in the world.
Among the early Christians, miracles were a common and a useful thing. It is no contradiction of terms, as later Christians claimed, to speak of common miracles. In the restored Church the sick are healed every day, but for all its frequency, that occurrence loses none of its miraculous quality that fills the beholder with joy and thanksgiving. We are told in emphatic terms in the scriptures that the Lord and the Apostles performed very many miracles during their short ministries on earth; in their day miracles were a daily event. More than forty specific miracles are attributed to Christ alone in the New Testament, and on one occasion we are told (Luke 6:17, 19) that "a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem, and from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon . . . came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases. . . . And the whole multitude sought to touch him: for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all." Here was no concern lest the spectacle value of miracles be diminished by making them over-common, for the ancient saints did not value miracles for their spectacular qualities at all. For them, miracles were a supremely useful gift of God to those who believed, and emphatically not a means of impressing the opposition. "And these signs shall follow them that believe," says the Lord at the end of the gospel of Mark (16:17—18); "in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." And in the very last verse (20) of this gospel we read, "And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following." The signs follow the word; they do not precede it. And note just what these signs are: they are the intervention of the power of God in situations in which men need help very badly and cannot help themselves, when they are possessed, poisoned, and sick. In the days when the church had to bear witness within a short time to very many people, the language barrier was an insurmountable one: so the Lord gave them power to "speak with new tongues," as is plainly seen in the day of Pentecost, when every man heard the gospel preached in his own tongue, and Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 14:22) that this particular gift is specifically "for a sign . . . to them that believe not."
But what about the other signs? They are not for unbelievers. The pagan world of the time was, as we have said, a world of miracles and miracle-lovers. Those popular miracles were of the type calculated to excite awe in all beholders and stir up general public interest. Of this type of miracle the Lord strongly disapproved. Not only did he repeatedly instruct those who had been the beneficiaries of his miraculous powers not to spread the news abroad, but in every instance where he was asked for a sign, he rebuked the askers and quickly withdrew from the scene. Father Garrigou-Lagrange in his recent treatment of the subject, defending the thesis that the purpose of miracles was to prove the divine origin of the Christian religion "by most certain signs accommodated to the intelligence of all," cites the instances in Matthew 11:4—6 and Luke 7:18—23 where the Lord answered John the Baptist's question as to whether he was the Messiah by referring him to the miracles he had done.1 But a personal message to his friend and relative John, a righteous man and a believer all his days, can hardly be construed as a policy for converting the heathen; and here John does not ask for a sign—he is ready to take the Lord's word for it. The powerful rebukes administered by the Lord to those who sought signs, Lagrange explains as applying only to the Pharisees, "who were always seeking new signs after they had had other signs." Yet we also read (Luke 11:29): "And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign." Speaking to the whole multitude, he condemns the whole sign-seeking generation. The Lord says those who seek a sign will receive a sign—but it is not the sign they want, it is the sign of Jonah. When the Pharisees asked him for a sign, "he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation. And he left them" (Mark 8:12—13). And yet there were signs all around them, but only those who believed could see them—the signs only follow them that believe: "O ye hypocrites," said the Lord to the Pharisees and Sadducees asking him for a sign from heaven, "ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed" (Matthew 16:3—4; italics added).
Whenever people asked the Lord for a sign, he walked out on them, telling them that to those who ask for a sign, no sign shall be given save one they don't want. (Cf. Luke 21:11—28.) When the Jews pinned him down with the request for a specific demonstration, asking him, "What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?" he evaded them neatly with the challenge, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:18—19), that being a thing he knew they would never do—they brought this against him later as a serious charge, and of course missed the real significance of the remark. In the other passages cited by Lagrange we read (Acts 5:14—15): "And believers were the more added to the Lord. . . . Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets" to be healed, etc. Here they bring out their sick inasmuch as they believe: They believe first; the miracles follow. Does not the Lord in preparation for a miracle often ask the recipient whether he or she believes, this being a prerequisite to the miracle? In his own native district the Lord "did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief" (Matthew 13:58). If the purpose of miracles was to convince the unbelieving, this should have been the very place where the Lord would perform his greatest ones, but the rule is very clear—no belief, no miracles: "Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith" (Ether 12:6—30). Lagrange again cites the case of Simon, who "wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done" (Acts 4:30; 8:13), but that was only after he had believed and was baptized. He was not converted as a result of those miracles, but they followed his belief. In the King James Bible, the twelfth chapter of 2 Corinthians is headed Paul's Visions Are Apostolic Credentials. Yet he never reveals the content of those visions, least of all to unbelievers; what he does in this chapter is to remind the Corinthians, "Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you . . . in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds" (2 Corinthians 12:12). The Corinthians had been treated to this after their conversion as Christians, not as pagans, but even these signs did not guarantee a lasting conversion, for Paul goes on to describe how these same Corinthians are falling away.
Credentials must be infallible, as the word of the Lord is infallible, but miracles employed for purposes of demonstration never can be, for miracles are not exclusively Christian: one need only recall the vast miracle literature of the Mohammedans. When the question was brought up at an early council in Antioch, "How does it happen that heretics often perform miracles?" the answer was, "It is not proper to enquire into such a matter." 2 The question could not be answered by men who believed that miracles were sure credentials. Like philosophy and mysticism, miracles—real miracles—are found throughout the whole world and are used by practitioners of religion everywhere to bedizen, amaze, and convince the doubters. "There shall arise false Christs," says the Lord, "and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect." In this passage (Matthew 24:24) Christ further explains that a time is coming when many shall claim that Christ is with them, but none, not a single one of them, should be believed, because they would try to convert by signs and wonders. In Mark 13:21 it reads, "And then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ; or, lo, he is there; believe him not: For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect." Here we see plainly enough who it is who employs signs and wonders to convert the unbelieving, "whose coming," says Paul, "is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders" (2 Thessalonians 2:9).
What should people seek, then? The word of life. After declaring that "an evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign" (Matthew 12:39), the Lord explains that the people of Nineveh would condemn such a generation in the judgment, because the preaching of the prophet had been enough to convince them; and that the Queen of Sheba would judge them likewise, since she was satisfied not with a sign but with the wise words of Solomon (Matthew 12:40—42). In the last verse of Mark (16:20) we read that "they went forth, and preached . . . confirming the word with signs following." To prove that miracles were meant to convert, Lagrange cites John 2:11: "This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him."3 His disciples—not the whole multitude. "Many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples," says John, speaking of the time after the resurrection (John 20:30). If the purpose of miracles is to convert, then Jesus wasted his miracles all on believers. Next Lagrange cites John 10:25—27: "The works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep. . . . My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." 4 Father Lagrange could not have picked a better passage to demonstrate that miracles do not convert the unbelievers—"but ye believe not"; well, who does believe? Those, says the Lord, who hear his voice, for whom his words are enough. When the Lord "granted signs and wonders to be done" by the hands of the Apostles in Iconium, the result was that they got kicked out of town (Acts 14:3—6). The miracles did not break down opposition.
Then there is the famous case of Nicodemus, who came to the Lord by night and said, "We know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him" (John 3:2). But this was not the way the Lord wanted Nicodemus converted, for in answer he did not praise those who believed his miracles, but rebuked those who would not believe his words: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?" (John 3:2, 11—12.) To impress people with miracles is one thing; to give them a testimony of the gospel another. As the experience of the Apostles showed, if people will not accept the gospel by the word without miracles, they will not accept it with miracles: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16:31).
After the first century, miracles ceased entirely from the church. This has been a much-discussed phenomenon. We have touched on it in these talks, and quoted Bishop John of Bristol's statement: "I perceive in the language of the Fathers, who lived in the middle and end of the second century . . . , if not a conviction, at least a suspicion, that the power of working miracles was withdrawn, combined with an anxiety to keep up a belief of its continuance in the Church."5 This can be illustrated by the instance of the Thundering Legion. When a Roman army was delivered from death by thirst by a timely shower of rain during an expedition in Germany, everybody rushed to claim the miracle for his church: Devotees of Isis claimed that the rain was sent in answer to the prayers of the Egyptian priest Arnuphius who was with the army; on the Antonine column we still see the miracle cited in support of the Roman state religion and attributed to the intervention of Jupiter Pluvius from whose outspread arms the shower pours down; Tertullian, however, attributes the miracle to the prayers of the Christians who were with the army. For Bishop John this eager exploitation by Tertullian of a mere coincidence shows how hard up the church was for real miracles, for in all his extensive writings Tertullian, like other Christian contemporaries, is at a loss to produce a single case of a good contemporary miracle. But more significant than this is the fact that this upright Christian is now competing with the pagan religionists for a miracle to prove his religion: He is speaking their language.
The total absence of miracles in the church in the second century—at the very time when the apologists were looking most eagerly for them—is usually explained as the laying aside of credentials that were no longer necessary. The arguments against this are only too obvious. Why didn't the Christians themselves ever give that explanation? Why did they stubbornly insist on clinging to every old or new miracle they could find? When did the missionary work of the church ever reach completion or come to a halt so that the alleged credentials would no longer be necessary? When did the Christians ever cease to need help against evil spirits or become immune to the effects of poison, snakebite, or disease? The church proceeded to remedy the fatal defect exactly as she made up for the loss of doctrine and authority—by substitution. As might be expected, the substitution followed two lines: the esoteric and the vulgar. Left to human providence, religious things, as has often been pointed out, tend to gravitate to two opposite poles—a purely intellectual on the one hand, and a vulgar and superstitious on the other. So among the intellectuals, Quadratus of Athens was the last man in the second century to insist on the literal nature of the miracles of Jesus;6 those who followed him, Aristides, Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, and Theophilus—though they could not deny the miracles, being among the most fundamental things in Christianity—gave them a more sophisticated appraisal7 and, moving as fatally to a Neoplatonic "spiritual" explanation as a needle to the pole, took the position illustrated by Irenaeus who, when asked "why the Lord rained down manna on the people in the days of the fathers, but now does so no more?" replied: "If you only knew it, he still rains down manna upon his servants—every day, . . . even the perfect bread of heaven, the body born of the Virgin, [etc.] But there is also a spiritual manna, that is the downpouring of spiritual wisdom."8
Later on, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and especially St. Ambrose have a great deal to say about how much superior these mystic and spiritual miracles are to the crass physical article of the primitive Christians. For a while, as we have told before, the Gnostics tried to fake miracles of the old kind, but that was a strenuous program: A far richer source of substitute material lay near to hand in the fullblown cult of miracles that flourished throughout the ancient world. A great deal of research has been done on the adoption of local and general cults, legends, liturgies, vestments, rites, etc., by the Christian church. The local hero cults, the trips to healing shrines, the lovely old legends, the brisk cult of relics, such things were firmly rooted in popular devotion; they were thousands of years old and commanded the unshakable devotion of the masses. This is no time to explore this fruitful and colorful field, but we might refer our listeners to Franz Josef Dölger's study of the adoption by the church of the ancient and wide-spread pagan practice of throwing coins into holy fountains in hopes of getting a blessing. Dölger has produced many stout volumes packed with evidence to illustrate this transition from popular pagan to Christian miracles.9 Such well-known classics as Livy, Dio, Virgil, Pausanias, Hyginus, etc., provide plenty of description of the kind of popular miracles that were taken over by the Christians. Heavenly visitations and manifestations are common among them, but one thing they all have in common: they have no real message to convey; they have nothing to say; they are essentially just "eye-wash." The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus arose from their century-long sleep, praised God, and promptly fell dead again. We talked once about letters from heaven and the tremendous impact they had on medieval society—what was wrong with them? They had nothing to say.
The gifts and miracles all go together in the true Church and are taken as a matter of course. Where you have the one you have the others, for they are really but manifestations of the same power—the power that made and sustains the world. We see that miraculous power at work all around us, and the Lord has told us that he is displeased with those who fail to see his hand in all things. That power is operated directly through the priesthood; and where you have the priesthood, as Tertullian long ago observed, you must necessarily have the powers and the miracles that go with it. "He that believeth on me," said the Lord to Philip (John 14:12), "the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father." The Lord then continues with the promise of the Holy Ghost, whom the world cannot receive, who will teach the saints all things. These things are not for the world, they are promised to the saints and them alone. And the greatest of all these things promised is the Holy Ghost. Now it is a significant thing that the Christian world loudly proclaims the gift of the Holy Ghost, but just as loudly denies the presence of any of the lesser gifts that accompany it. If one has the Holy Ghost, the other things are there as a matter of course—it does not supplant them; here it is explicitly promised along with them. To deny literal miracles, as one part of the Christian world does today, or to look for faith in rare, theatrical, stunning, and sensational displays—in a word, to seek after signs—as the rest do, is to miss the whole point of miracles. They belong to the church; they are a useful, natural, necessary part of it. They are not something to be handled in the abstract with the precious affections of the academicians; nor are they something to be spread abroad in hushed and excited whispers or written up in popular magazines for their publicity value. Since we say we know that God can do these things, it is a poor demonstration of faith when he actually does them to act as if he were a magician trying to make our eyes pop out. Where you find the true Church, there you will find true prophets and the priesthood in all its authority; and where you have that, all the signs and wonders will follow as a matter of course.
1. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, De revelatione per ecclesiam catholicam proposita (Rome: F. Ferrari, 1931), 2:335.
2. Quaestiones ad Antioch Ducem, in PG 28:665.
3. Garrigou-Lagrange, 2:331.
4. Ibid., 2:335.
5. John Kaye, Ecclesiastical History of the Second and Third Centuries Illustrated from the Writings of Tertullian (London: Griffith-Farran, 1893), 93—95.
6. Robert M. Grant, Second-Century Christianity (London: SPCK, 1946), 14—15.
8. Cited by Ambrose, Epistle 64, in PL 16:1271—72.
9. Franz Dölger's important works, Antike und Christentum, 5 vols. (1929); Ichthys: der heilige Fisch in den antiken Religionen und im Christentum, 5 vols. (Münster: Aschendorffs, 1910); and Sol Salutis (1925).