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Theology of Miracles in the History of the Church

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Francis of Assisi casts out demons from a city

Francis of Assisi casts out demons from a city

I’m writing a minor thesis about belief in miracles, where I compare a charismatic, Lutheran and Catholic church leader (namely Surprise Sithole, Swedish Archbishop Emeritus KG Hammar, and Pope Francis). This is and extract from the theoretical background:

Theology of Miracles in Church History

The New Testament describes how both Jesus and his disciples experienced “wonders” (Greek: τέρας) and “works of power” (δύναμις), such as healings of blindness and deafness, casting out demons, hearing the audible voice of God and raising the dead. These were not new claims in the Jewish culture, since the Old Testament talks about “wonders” (Hebrew: פֶ֑לֶא) like parting the red sea, healing the sick and raising the dead (Ps 77:14, Ex 13:17ff., 1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 5). The apostle Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit bestows miraculous gifts to all believers (together with non-supernatural gifts like wisdom or faith), and encouraged his readers to seek such gifts together with love (1 Cor. 12:4-14:1).

Fathers in the early church believed that miracles were possible, and many argued that they or their church members had experienced them. Justin Martyr argued that the prophetical gift had remained with the church to his day, and that “numberless” persons plagued by demons had been healed by Christian exorcists (II Apol. 6, Tryph. 82). Origen made parallels between the miracles of the Bible and Christians of his day who “expel evil spirits, and perform many cures, and foresee certain events” (Cels. 1.46). Similar claims were made by many other church fathers.[1]

The great African theologian Augustine was the first to argue that one of the miraculous gifts had ceased, namely xenolalia – to be able to speak an existing language one has never studied like the early disciples did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4-12). Augustine did however argue that other Biblical miracles were still happening in his days, in his City of God he gives numerous examples of people being healed from blindness, breast cancer, paralysis, demonic possession and other torments, and he gives four examples of Christians in the area who were raised from the dead (City of God 22.8). Augustine argued that miracles are not contrary to nature, but what we know as nature – hence he did not want to differentiate between the natural and supernatural (City of God 21.8).

During medieval times, stories of miracles abounded in both the Western and Eastern Church, connected to various saints. Even to this day, two verified miracles are required for each canonization of a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. During the reformation, many Catholics argued against the Protestants by saying that their teaching could not be from God, since they did not experience miracles to the same extent that Catholics did. Faced with this, Protestant theologian John Calvin argued that since Protestants preach the original Gospel, their miracles are found in the New Testament. Since the Bible was written miracles were no longer needed, and thus the miraculous gifts of the Spirit ceased with the apostles. The claimed Catholic miracles are in fact the delutive work of Satan, Calvin argued. (Williams p. 159) Martin Luther also argued that “the day of miracles is past” and that Christians of his day may experience something greater than the blind seeing or dead raising, namely “spiritual miracles” in a person’s soul when Christ brings salvation and the Word of God. (Ibid. pp. 158f.)

This theology, known as cessationism, became dominant in the Protestant movement for several hundred years.[2] After the Enlightenment and scientific revolution, many were skeptical towards religion and belief in miracles. Atheist philosophers like David Hume rejected all miraculous claims as highly improbable, and Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann argued that we must “demythologize” the miraculous claims of the Gospels, since things like walking on water or being raised from the dead is impossible according to a “modern” worldview.

However, during the 20th century the Pentecostal and charismatic movement, which expresses a strong belief in healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues and other miraculous phenomena, has grown extremely fast and now claims over half a billion people in all sorts of Christian denominations. Charismatics like Gordon Lee and John Wimber say that all Christians can experience the baptism or filling of the Holy Spirit, which will release supernatural gifts in their lives to spread the Kingdom of God.

References:

Keener, Craig: Miracles

Williams, J. Rodman: Renewal Theology

[1] For example Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Eusebius, Athanasius, Cyril, the Cappadocian fathers and Ambrose. See Doles 2008 pp. 22-55.

[2] Smaller movements like Anabaptism, Quakerism and Methodism, however, were more charismatic.

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1 Comment

  1. […] As you may know, I’m writing a thesis in systematic theology about belief in miracles according to three church leaders: Surprise Sithole, K.G. Hammar and pope Francis. This is what I’ve found concerning the pope’s view on miracles: […]

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Micael Grenholm - a Swedish charismactivist residing with the Jesus Army in the UK.

Micael Grenholm - a Swedish charismactivist residing with the Jesus Army in the UK.

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