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The following is a paper I wrote for Reformation and Modern Church History, divided into two posts, that I thought might be of interest to some. My two main take-aways were that there have always been reported healings and prophecy in the church, and that cessationism, the idea that miraculous gifts ceased with the apostles, was primarily held by the Reformers as a way to defend their understanding of Christianity against the Catholic Church. This isn’t pretending to be exhaustive as the assignment was only 8-10 pages. Craig Keener has written the definitive guide, Miracles, in two volumes.  The best overall resource I found was Ruthven’s On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles, which goes into the Biblical argument more than Keener does.

The doctrine of continualism is the belief that at least some of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit described in the Bible continue to this day. I’ve chosen this doctrine instead of its more familiar antonym cessationism, because I personally subscribe to it.  However, both doctrines will be treated in this paper. Discussion of continualism has become increasingly important with the growth of Pentecostalism in the last hundred years. Pentecostalism is marked by its belief that spiritual gifts, particularly healing, prophecy, and tongues, continue today.  This movement, despite its relative newness, numbers in the hundreds of millions and continues to grow rapidly. Therefore, the history of continualism needs to be carefully considered.  In this paper I will present the doctrine throughout history, giving the opinions of prominent leaders from both the Catholic and Protestant church, particularly the opinions of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Warfield. Warfield will be given the most space as he wrote a book, Counterfeit Miracles, seeking to refute the doctrine that has strongly influenced modern day cessationist believers. As this is a paper about the history of the doctrine, I will not deal with exegetical issues in any great detail.  After presenting the history of continualism I will present my own conclusions and discuss how this doctrine applies to modern day Christian practice, particularly in the West.

As the issue at stake in the doctrine of continualism is the presence of miracles after the apostolic period, I will assume the truthfulness of the miracles as presented in the New Testament and begin my examination with the Apostolic Fathers.  The Didache, which is one of the earliest Christian documents outside of the New Testament extant, offers guidance on itinerant apostles and prophets; including how to evaluate them and how to provide for them if believed to be genuine. The Shepherd of Hermas, from between 70-175 AD and accepted as scripture by early church leaders such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexander and Origen, includes five visions and has a fascinating description of how prophecy was understood to function. The Shepherd of Hermas 43:9 says “the angel of the prophetic spirit that is assigned to him fills the person, and being filled with the holy spirit speaks to the multitude just as the Lord wills.”[1] Although this verse seems fantastic, it at least shows that there was a belief in the much of the early church that the prophetic gift continued to function late into the first century and possibly into the early second. After the Apostolic Fathers, leaders such as Justin Martyr and Origen presented miracle reports, mainly for apologetic reasons..

The earliest expression of the cessationist argument appears to have been made by Victorinus of Pettau who wrote near the end of the third century that “The apostles through signs, wonders and mighty deeds overcame the unbelievers.  After this the faith of the Church was given the comfort of the interpreted prophetic Scriptures.”[2] This is basically the modern day cessationist position – the apostles did signs and wonders during the foundational period and now the church has the New Testament record of these deeds.  Another prominent cessationist was Chrysostom (347-407).  He mentions miracles many times in his writings, almost always negatively.  They were for the weak in faith, and once Christianity took root in the world they were no longer needed.  R.A. Greer insists that “Chrysostom’s opinion that miracles ceased after the apostolic age is certainly a minority view…the miraculous is an important dimension of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries.”[3] Quite a minority view in fact, as reports of miracles soared after the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century.  The miracles were no longer appreciated so much as a sign of Christ’s victory but as an end in themselves.[4]

Augustine early in his life held a cessationist view similar to Chrysostom.  He believed that once the Catholic Church was founded in the entire world, miracles ceased. Somewhere along the line Augustine changed his position.  In The City of God, written in the early fifth century, Augustine defends the occurrence of miracles in his day. Book 22 of that work provides example after example of miracles that he was aware of, apologizing that he does not relate more of them because of his desire to finish the book.

Around the time of Augustine, miraculous activity and holiness became strongly linked.[5]  This idea caused people to venerate objects related to saints such a relics, tombs, and shrines, seeing them as having miraculous power.  This association was given approval by the Catholic Church in the eleventh century when the Church officially began canonization of saints based on their supposed working of miracles.

Thomas Aquinas, along with Augustine, is the most important pre-Reformation contributor to the understanding of the miraculous. Aquinas, who lived in the thirteenth century, held views that were partly cessationist and partly continualist. On the one hand, he believed that enough miracles had been done by Jesus and the apostles to prove the faith, and therefore no more were needed. On the other hand, if required for the salvation of men, he conceded that miracles might be done by men of exceptional holiness.  Ruthven says this teaching “strengthened the veneration of shrines and canonization of saints via miracles” and resulted in miraculous excess that led to the Reformation.[6]

Due to the proliferation of miraculous reports in the middle ages, the Catholic Church developed a list of questions in the thirteenth century to be asked before the miracle was accepted in the canonization process.  If the evidence proved inadequate or contradictory the report was rejected.[7]  The miracles that were accepted as genuine were used to show the sanctity of the Catholic Church; the lack of miracles among their detractors was taken as a sign of their deception. Calvin wrote, “they ask what miracles have confirmed it” and “In demanding miracles of us, they act dishonestly. For we are not forging some new gospel, but are retaining that very gospel whose truth all the miracles that Jesus Christ and his disciples ever wrought serve to confirm.”[8] For Calvin, the miracles of Christ and the apostles have already attested to the truth of the gospel, and therefore aren’t needed unless a different gospel was going to be preached. This idea is a very similar to what was taught by Victorinus of Pettau and Chrysostom. This argument had incalculable affect on the belief of the church as it was taken up by Protestants from his day to now. What’s interesting is that Calvin himself made very little attempt to support it. He cites four passages stating that miracles confirmed the gospel message, but doesn’t demonstrate that this is the only function miracles serve.[9]

Calvin came down quite hard on reports of miraculous activity calling them “sheer delusions of Satan.”[10] However, Calvin was more flexible than some of his statements suggest. While stating that apostles, prophets, and evangelists were not permanent gifts, he said “I do not deny that the Lord has sometimes at a later period raised up apostles, or at least evangelists in their place, as has happened in our own day.”[11] But he calls this “extraordinary” as healthy churches don’t require their ministry.

Martin Luther, like Calvin, attacked miracle claims harshly. Luther said that the devil used the “tomfoolery” of miracles and pilgrimages for “chasing people hither and yon.”[12] Luther believed that miracles were for the early stages of Christianity and that now God’s power was endowed, invisibly, in Scripture and the sacraments. In response, the Council of Trent renewed the Catholic Church’s belief in the veneration of the saints precisely because of their power to work miracles.

It isn’t true that all early Protestants rejected the continuance of the gifts of the Spirit. Jack Deere lists John Knox, George Wishart, John Welsh, Alexander Peden, Robert Bruce and Samuel Rutherford as Reformed Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who either practiced miraculous gifts or affirmed their use.[13] For example, Deere quotes John Knox praise of Wishart: “he saw not only things pertaining to himself, but also such things as some towns and the whole realm afterward felt, which he forespake, not in secret, but in the audience of many….”[14]

Tomorrow, I will conclude this paper, moving from the Enlightenment to today and offering some conclusions based on this historical overview.

[1] Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Father in English, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2006), 237.

[2] Cited by Jon Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 28.

[3] Ibid, 29.

[4] Robert Bruce Mullin, Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 10.

[5] Mullen, 11.

[6] Ruthven, 33.

[7] Michael Goodrich, “Miracles in the Modern Ages.” In The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History, edited by Robert Benedetto and James O. Duke, (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 434.

[8] John T. McNeill, ed., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion Books I.i to III.xix. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 15-16.

[9] Ibid 16-17. The passages are Mark 16:20, Acts 14:3, Heb. 2:4, Rom. 15:18-19.

[10] Ibid, 17.

[11] John T. McNeill, ed., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion Books III.xx to IV.xx. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1057.

[12] Mullin, 13.

[13] Deere, Surprised by the Voice of God: How God Speaks Today Through Prophecies, Dreams, and Visions, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1996), 69-78.

[14] Ibid, 70.