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This post is the conclusion of my paper on the doctrine of continualism in the history of the church. I don’t think most people know what continualism means so I’ve given it a different title for this blog. Today we continue on from Calvin and Luther to the present. 

Despite the experiences of some Protestants, the cessationist teachings of Calvin and Luther won the day.  Miracles were understood to be for the confirmation of the Christian faith during the foundational period of the apostles. Purported miracle claims by the Catholic Church were counterfeit, designed to take people from the true faith. This understanding held for the most part until the middle of the nineteenth century.  In the interim, philosophical developments would challenge the traditional understanding of miracles. The Enlightenment, in the mid-seventeenth century, created a great shift in how people thought about miraculous intervention. The supernatural began to hold less wonder, and the Protestant critique of Catholic miracle claims shifted from demonic miracles to superstition. Philosophers such as Spinoza and Hume strongly denied the possibility of miracles on logical grounds.

In this age of reason “educated” man could no longer accept supernatural intervention in the world. By the end of the nineteenth century some felt that it was possible to be a Christian without a belief in supernatural intervention in nature. This created a problem for Protestant theology as miracles had been understood, since the Reformation, to serve the sole purpose of vindicating the Christian faith. Now scholars and philosophers were saying it was possible to be a Christian without those miracles.  Catholic John Henry Newman argued “that biblical miracles could only be preserved if the question of post-biblical miracles were reopened.”[1]

At the same time as the intellectual climate was shifting, the practice of the Church was shifting as well. In the late 1800’s faith healing was more frequently practiced in Protestant circles. The Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Church of Scotland established groups to study the subject of faith healing.  In addition to this, Pentecostal revivals took place in Korea, Wales, India, and Azusa Street in the first decade of the twentieth century.[2]

In this setting, the increase of liberalism on one hand and miraculous practice in the Church on the other, B.B. Warfield wrote Counterfeit Miracles. This work was Warfield’s attempt to show that miracles had ceased with the apostles and that all purported miracles were counterfeit.  To do this, Warfield divided gifts of the Spirit into two categories: “non-miraculous, gracious” gifts and “distinctly miraculous” gifts. He then wrote that 1 Cor. 12-14 gives the non-miraculous gifts preference and understands Paul to say “the search after them is represented as ‘the more excellent way.’” [3] After his comments on 1 Cor. he asks how long the miraculous gifts continue. His answer is that they ceased after the apostolic age. This was because “they were distinctively the authentication of the Apostles.” Thus, “their function thus confined them to distinctively the Apostolic Church, and they necessarily passed away from it.”[4]

A popular view among cessationists at the time of Warfield was that the miracles had slowly decreased until the time of the conversion of Constantine when the church was established. Warfield took exception to this saying “if the usefulness of miracles in planting the church were sufficient reason for their occurrence in the Roman Empire in the third century, it is hard to deny that it may be sufficient reason for the repetition of them in, say, the Chinese Empire in the twentieth century.” No, to be logically consistent Warfield wanted to show that miracles were solely for the apostolic age. Warfield wrote that he saw no accounts of miracles in the early post-apostolic church and a steady increase until we see the explosion of miracle accounts in the fourth century. Warfield stated “the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers contain no clear and certain allusions…to the exercise of the charismatic gifts, contemporaneous with themselves.”[5] Given the examples from the Apostolic Fathers cited above this claim seems doubtful. Warfield goes on to mention in addition the miracles accounts in The Martyrdom of Polycarp, another of the letters included in the Apostolic Fathers, but says the miracles serve to cast doubt on “the genuineness of that letter.”[6] He spends the remainder of the book critiquing miracle claims from Justin Martyr to Irenaeus to Augustine through the present day.

There are three especially surprising elements in this book.  First, Warfield’s statement that miracles were solely for the authentication of the Apostles, the belief of which caused him to write the book, is presented without support from Scripture. Secondly, that Warfield would use the arguments of Atheists and Deists, who used their rhetoric to reject the Bible accounts, to reject post-Biblical accounts of miracles. Thirdly, that he is willing to acknowledge the instantaneous healing of Pierre de Rudder’s leg, and yet deny that it was miraculous. Warfield believed that “after a while, it may seem very natural that Pierre de Rudder’s case happened just as it is said to have happened….[T]here may be forces working in nature not only which have not yet been dreamed of in our philosophy, but which are beyond human comprehension.”[7]

Warfield’s position won the day in conservative evangelical circles, so much so that in 1948 theologian Edward J. Carnell could write, “The doctrine that miracles could no longer occur is one of the fundamental canons which separate Protestantism from Roman Catholicism.”[8] This, however, was about to change very quickly. The Charismatic movement, beginning in the 1960s, defended the continued use of the miraculous gifts in the church. Whereas Pentecostal believers tended to separate from their denominations, Charismatic believers often stayed in their denominations.  This movement was embraced by both Protestants and Catholics, blurring the old division mentioned by Carnell.

The twentieth century saw a drastic change in the makeup of Christianity as described in Mark Noll’s book The New Shape of World Christianity. The Church is now more Southern and Eastern than Western. Noll describes the new breed of Christian as “rather more likely to be syncretistic, Pentecostal, strongly papal, neo-fundamentalist or starkly supernaturalist.”[9] With the two largest groups of the church being Catholics and Pentecostal, the twenty-first century church is decidedly continualist, not simply in doctrine but also in practice. The new makeup of the Church radically changes the continualist-cessationist debate. Noll cites a Christianity Today article claiming that “40-60 percent of Nepalese Christians had become believers as a result of a miracle.”[10] Because of the abundance of reports like these Noll believes the “debate has been rendered moot by a tidal wave of Christian practice.”[11]

In conclusion, we have seen that miraculous activity has been reported during most, if not all, of Christian history. The doctrine of continualism was accepted by almost all Christians prior to the Reformation. After that period, Catholics remained continualist while Protestants tended to be cessationist. In the late nineteenth century this slowly changed as some Protestants started to practice faith healing and seek Pentecost-like experiences. Due to the rapid growth of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements the church is, in the twenty-first century, more continualist than cessationist.

The weight of both evidence and scriptural support seems to be decidedly on the side of continualism. While many reported miracles are doubtless dubious, it is unlikely that all of them are counterfeit, especially those accompanying evangelism as the unbeliever has nothing to gain by faking a miracle. Those such as Calvin and Warfield, as great as they were, stated without much argument that the miraculous was for the initial confirmation of the gospel in the apostolic period. While it is true that the NT says that the miraculous served to confirm the word, it also says it strengthens (Rom 1:11), edifies (1 Cor. 14), equips the church for ministry (Eph 4:12), and consoles (1 Cor. 14:3) as well as to convicts and calls unbelievers to account (1 Cor. 14:25). Practically, I would encourage my cessationist brothers and sisters to maintain their strong devotion to the authority of Scripture, but to question if that authority is truly damaged if God delivers someone for an illness and comforts or convicts them through prophecy.

 


[1] Mullen, 263.

[2] Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2009), 124.

[3] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles. (Great Britain: Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 4.

[4] Warfield, 6.

[5] Ibid, 10.

[6] Ibid, 10.

[7] Warfield, 119.

[8] Edward J. Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics: A Philosophical Defense of the Trinitarian Theistic Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1948), 272 cited in Mullen, 260.

[9] Noll, 32.

[10] Noll, 140.

[11] Ibid, 34.

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