This is part 2 of the series on cessationism, miracles, and tongues. The focus here is on why miracles were de-emphasized during the Reformation. Secondly, an analysis on the Protestant revision of miracles in the early church.
The Excess of Miracles in the Medieval World
Cessationism and the critical examination of miracles cannot be fully understood without first understanding the medieval environment they were birthed from. The following gives a brief portrait of the mystical medieval world and why there was an urgent need for correcting the abuse of miracles.
The Gift of Tongues Project has always been a multi-disciplinary approach and the study of the medieval age in relation to the doctrine of tongues has some unique challenges. The tenth to thirteenth-centuries showed an increase in intellectual inquiry. A time where a coherent belief system was developing that included both the rational and the supernatural. This approach was especially apparent in the teachings and writings of Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s. However, after Aquinas, the momentum disappeared in the Western European world along with a coherent universal faith system. There are a variety of factors that have contributed to this. The first one being the plagues that ravaged the European, Asian and African continents. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 60% of the European population was destroyed. This percentage is highly disputed though we do know a considerable amount of the population died or were affected.1
The people behind the traditions, those familiar with the Greek language and culture that Europe rested its identity on along with the guardians of the classical Roman institutions were largely gone. This created a huge social, economic and religious vacuum.
The political and social instability that the plagues created, the real threat of a Muslim invasion, and the ensuing internal wars demonstrated that the social constructs and belief systems of European Christianity were not sufficient in confronting real world problems. In many respects, the plague and its unintentional consequences started Europe on the road to redefining itself.
These factors forced Europe to move beyond themselves and discover new lands, peoples and cultures. It allowed for the interchange of ideas old and new, and opened up commercial opportunities.
The emotional scars caused by the plagues and wars left an indelible impression that the glitter of Christianity was lost. The instability felt by medievalists reinforced the religious sense that a power struggle between the forces of good and evil was happening on their Christian soil. Medieval people believed the elements of nature, wars, plagues, health, weather, agriculture, prosperity, success and lack thereof could be traced back to these powers. Mankind was involved in this cosmic battle and could garner stability in two ways.
Firstly, through a rigorous attempt to purify communities and individuals from any perceived evil, ridding itself of witches, divination, and other works perceived to be of the devil. Satan could employ natural laws against humanity and to defeat him directly could result in ecological, physical and human harmony. Germs, bacteria, hygiene, and pathogens were still yet to be discovered.
There was a heightened sensitivity to personal holiness in this period. There was a subconscious but pervasive assumption that a nation that pursued absolute purity in the form of leading a sincere, upright and pious life with a rigid adherence to church customs could defer the wrath of God and put people in God’s good books. This was believed a precursor that would lead into both physical and economic prosperity.
This was a time where saint veneration was high. Lawrence Cunningham, a University of Notre Dame professor, covers this problem in his book, A Brief History of the Saints . He wrote that there was a certain danger where peoples and countries were simply replacing their ancient deities with saints names. This was a problem highlighted especially by Erasmus and the leaders of the Reformation.2
Sainthood was big business. The canonization of a saint had significant economic and political benefits for the saint’s hometown. This created a concerted effort for communities to promote localites for sainthood. Franco Mormando, a scholar at the The Jesuit Institute of Boston College, described this interplay in his coverage of St. Francis Xavier’s canonization process. He described that there was an enormous cost in both time and money and requiring the patronage of “powerful people in high places”3 in order for this to succeed. St. Francis lived in the 1500s and his missionary exploits opened up the European imagination to new and exotic worlds. He also was a positive representation of Catholic veracity in a time when the church was losing so many followers to Protestantism.
Xavier’s legendary status unraveled after the sainthood process. Part of his sainthood nomination and approval was his alleged speaking in tongues. It was later found in his own letters that he had difficulty learning other languages but the Catholic church officially refused to correct this myth. His canonization demonstrated serious flaws which many Protestants noted and documented later on. It took well over a hundred years before the Catholic Church revised their canonization process in light of this error.
For more information about the myths surrounding the St. Francis canonization see The Legend of Francis Xavier Speaking in Tongues.
The sepulchres of the saints were famous because it was believed the bones of saints could bring healing by simply touching or being near their tomb. For example, the alleged skull remains of Chrysostom was brought out for a brief public viewing in 2007 at the Monastery of Mt. Athos. It was claimed to be healing people who appeared by it.4
The Protestant movement refuted the idea of saint veneration and their supposed miracles.
Indeed, the most popular book of the Medieval age, Legendae Aurea (The Golden Legend), is a compilation of stories relating to the saints full of hyperbolic miraculous accounts. Not even the original collator believed them all to be true, but this reflects the world that they lived in.5
The overemphasis on miracles, the supernatural, myth, and magic during this period was widespread. The noted Anglican historian, William Lecky (late 1800s) pointed this out in his well-written work, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe:
There was scarcely a village or a church that had not, at some time, been the scene of supernatural interposition. The powers of light and the powers of darkness were regarded as visibly struggling for the mastery. Saintly miracles, supernatural cures, startling judgments, visions, prophecies, and prodigies of every order, attested the activity of the one, while witchcraft and magic, with all their attendant horrors, were the visible manifestations of the other.6
Lecky didn’t differentiate between Catholic or Protestant communities with this problem and goes into great detail documenting such habits.
Professor Jane Shaw, a history buff and an Oxford now Stanford University professor, adds similar sentiments to that of Lecky:
Holy places and objects, and the rituals associated with those material manifestations of the divine, were vital to late medieval piety. Medieval England was a sacred landscape filled with pilgrimage sites and shrines: the tombs of famous saints such as Thomas Becket at Canterbury; the shrines of local saints such as Frideswide in Oxford; and sites of other relics, such as that of the ‘true bloo’ at the Cistercian Abbey in Hailes, Gloucestershire. The shrines at all these and many other places such as Westminster, Canterbury and St Albans were places of pilgrimage to which the sick went to be healed, hoping for a miracle.
. . . The belief system that undergirded this set of religious practices was challenged and many of its material manifestations destroyed at the Protestant Reformation. For many of the sixteenth-century reformers and their Protestant heirs, miracles had ceased with biblical times. Miracles were to be viewed with suspicion precisely because they were associated with intermediary figures and objects — saints, relics and holy places — and all the ritualistic trappings of Roman Catholicism. Most Protestants came to think it wrong to claim that a human institution had the power to work miracles: saints and relics were unnecessary, interrupting the newly privileged relationship between God and the individual, and therefore challenging God’s omnipotence. To rely on anything but this relationship with God was, for the strictest of Protestants, blasphemous. Even petitionary prayer was seen as suspicious by some; a person should not tempt providence for the impossible. Only scripture was to be the bedrock of faith. Signs and wonders were to be discarded for the promises made by God in his Word.7
The powers of light versus darkness was a dominant ideology during the medieval age. This period cannot be understood without inclusion of this thought process. The rational and scientific markers that historians look for in tracing the development of Western thought were but in their infancy at this stage.
There is one more influence that should be noted and that is the improvement of literacy and increased availability of literature. This countered an environment that allowed imagination and credulousness to thrive.
The introduction of the printing press in 1440 brought about a drastic change in Europe. Margaret Aston, in her book, Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion described how the press challenged the traditional role of the church:
Ecclesiastical attitudes towards the role of books and the written word in the church’s main task of making and teaching believers, had been fixed long before and were slow to change. They were geared to a world in which literacy was a preserve of the minority, and the minority were churchmen. The church had developed in a society whose culture was predominantly oral, and in which it had to be assumed that the mass of believers were, and would remain, remote from the world of letters and learning.8
Ms. Aston demonstrates that medieval society was an oral culture that was highly illiterate. Studies suggest that literacy was less than 20% in the 1400s.9 Functional literacy may even be less.
Magic, miracle, and wonder were a part of the medieval psyche. As will be shown, the great abuse of such offices caused a counter-reaction by the early Protestants. Their response was the de-emphasism of miracles, and later an outright denial of any miracles by some.
In order for the English Protestant Movement to justify such a de-emphasis, it had to relook at Christian history and reframe the history of miracles in the church. The following is a brief look at their review.
The de-emphatics and cessationists from the sixteenth-century onwards asserted their doctrine by asserting a silence of miracles in post New-Testament early church literature. Some demonstrated the silence permanently occurred after 313 AD when the Church was established as an accepted religion within the Roman empire. Others argued that it occurred after the Scripture canon had been closed. There were others who believed miracles declined after the Apostles died in the first-century. All of these arguments revolve around early church literature having a decreased emphasis on miracles.
However, this logic has two difficulties. First of all, the cessationists failed to acknowledge that there was a shift in approach to the Christian life in the first four-centuries. This was greatly due to the cultural shift of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome. The fourth-century writers were greatly interested in developing doctrines around a Greek philosophical framework than in emphasizing the miraculous. The stress was on acquiring knowledge in such a way that changed a person’s worldview and applying these life-lessons in everyday life. In fact, if one does not comprehend the Greek philosophical underpinnings in this period, then understanding of the earlier church writers is compromised.
St. Paul noted this when he stated the Jews look for signs and the Greeks for wisdom.10 Miracles still appeared, but were considered a tertiary phenomenon in the christian life.
Secondly, the later cessationists omit a wide swath of alleged miracles that abound in ecclesiastical literature. These miracles are all rejected, carte blanche, because they are Catholic in origin. They are rarely mentioned, not even negatively, or even referred to as a myth or legend. This total disregard in Protestant histories, commentaries, and references makes it appear that the church was silent on miracles during this period when it was not. This has misled many later Bible students on the topic.
John Chrysostom and Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, were considered the patrons of cessationism according to the later protestant-based historians. More recent analysis have found Cyril of Alexandria* as part of this historical connection.
In almost every piece of tongues literature referencing the Church Fathers, the following quote from Chrysostom is sure to be cited:
This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity has produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?11
This is a leading statement by those of the cessationist movement who believe the supernatural era was completed at the founding of the church. This belief concludes that the miracle of tongues did not perpetuate itself after this. Therefore, it is not necessary to trace the definition, or evolution of the doctrine of tongues because anything defined after the first-century is based on a false supposition.
Did Chrysostom really believe miracles had ceased? A superficial reading will garner a yes. A closer examination will result in a no.
If one reads his works, he demonstrated an openness to miracles happening through an anointed person. Perhaps he is following in the same line of thinking as Origen that the decline in miracles was due to the lack of altruistic, pious, and holy individuals in his generation.12 He never named anyone in his lifetime ever achieving this status. This was likely why Chrysostom venerated deceased saints who had achieved a high spiritual status in their lives that very few could ever achieve. He believed that they had miraculous powers even after they died and those attending by their graves could muster restorative power.
See Chrysostom on the Doctrine of Tongues for more info.
Chrysostom demonstrated a cautionary approach to miracles. His response reflected a man who lived a very ascetic and restrictive lifestyle. He believed the goal of every Christian’s life was not the outward activity such as healings or miracles, but the purity and selflessness of the inner soul. He minimized individualism and espoused corporate good.
In one of his homilies On the Holy Pentecost, he bluntly dived right in, stating that believers do not need signs. External things are insignificant. He knew his audience would not completely buy into this and added about the nature and continuation of Pentecost: “But I see that to be a teaching extending out for a long time. On which account I am going to bring an end to the word while adding a few thoughts.”13 He never completely finished the topic. It would have been helpful for posterity that he did. So he left us with a lot of question marks as to what he meant.
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354 – 430 AD), stated in De Vera Religione that miracles had ceased once the Church was established. Thirty-seven years later, he realized his original work was being taken out of context and revised this comment, stating that while he first wrote De Vera Religione there were incredible miracles of the Christian faith happening within his world. However, he believed the penchant for miracles was a distraction from the building of true Christian character. He felt that if miracles were continually practiced and emphasized as a primary vehicle for propagating the Christian faith people would become bored with this form of entertainment and disregard the greater message behind it. Jan Den Boeft, an emeritus professor of Latin, Free University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University, found that Augustine believed that Pentecostal tongues along with some other miracles would no longer be repeated.14
Augustine also thought along the same lines as Chrysostom that those individuals who strongly promoted miracles were in a place where great pride could sweep in.
For more information see Augustine on the tongues of Pentecost Intro.
Cyril of Alexandria*
Cyril of Alexandria* in the fifth-century believed tongues had ceased. In the Alexandrian-based Commentary on Zephaniah it is stated that those endowed with the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages a the first Pentecost had it for the rest of their lives but the miracle did not persist after these persons died.15
The asterisk here indicates an authorship problem about the fifth-century Alexandrian passages relating to speaking in tongues. The texts available today are attributed to Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria (376–444 AD) but some are mixed together with texts from the famous theologian and teacher, Didymus of Alexandria (313–398 AD). We can’t really properly ascribe proper attribution because of this. So an asterisk will suffice. Not all Alexandrians took this stance as the earlier church leader, Pachomius (292–348 AD), was described as one was granted the ability to speak in tongues.16
Why Cyril of Alexandria* was excluded from the cessationism debate is perplexing. Perhaps the reason was his Alexandrian Greek heritage. His works never made it into the Latin-based Roman Catholic world—an institution the Protestants greatly relied upon for information. Or that Protestants had excepted Chrysostom and Augustine from their anti-Catholic bias. Cyril of Alexandria failed to make the cut.
No study on the subject of the church and miracles can avoid this thirteenth-century Dominican friar, Catholic priest, philosopher, theologian, and mystic. Aquinas took Augustine’s idea that the miracle of tongues had shifted from the individual to the corporate church. He further concluded that this office was no longer needed because the institutional church now had the availability of interpreters and native speakers of almost every language in the world—a miracle was no longer necessary.17
Aquinas’ commentary on the Book of Matthew 10:18 is sure to be cited about the cessation of miracles:
But if you ask why that power is not given to preachers now, Augustine answers that already visible is the greatest miracle, namely, that the entire world has been converted. Therefore, either there were miracles performed, and then I have proved my point; or if there were not, that is the greatest, because the entire world has been converted by fishermen, the lowliest of men.18
This quote is indeed very puzzling because Aquinas very much believed in the miraculous and the supernatural. Any cursive reading of his works will easily demonstrate this. His description of miracles in another writing called Contra Gentiles demonstrated serious attention to the issue in the present tense and not as an historical antecedent.19 An in-depth reading of his lectures in I Corinthians also supports the infusion of Christian mystical living. He portrays the supernatural gift of prophecy still in use.20 It is difficult to understand Aquinas without the sense of the Divine interaction in both corporate and personal affairs.
Jon Ruthven, a professor at Regent University, took a deep look at the question of Thomas Aquinas and miracles. He concluded:
According to Aquinas, the central function of miracles was to serve as a signum sensibile, a testimonium to guarantee the divine source and truth of Christian doctrines, particularly the deity of Christ. To explain the lack of visible miracles in his day, Aquinas asserted that Christ and his disciples had worked miracles sufficient to prove the faith once and for all; this having been done, no further miraculous proof of doctrines could be required. In a number of other places, however, he vitiates this position by maintaining that miracles can recur if they aid in confirmation of preaching and bringing mankind to salvation. But even beyond this, Aquinas suggested that believers of great sanctity may exhibit miraculous gifts of the Spirit, a doctrine that strengthened the veneration of shrines and canonization of saints via miracles. A widespread belief in these last two exceptions, which essentially contradicted cessationism, resulted in the excesses surrounding miracles which precipitated the Reformation.21
The Matthew 10:18 commentary quote about cessation just seems too out of step for Aquinas compared to the majority of his writings. He was always attempting to fuse the supernatural within a Greek philosophical framework.
Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria*, and Aquinas’ supposed similar stances on the gifts and especially speaking in tongues never took hold nor became a universal thought in the christian faith. Speaking in tongues, the gift of healing, prophecy, visions, exorcisms and more were encouraged and hoped for throughout the medieval age.
Continuance of perceived miracles is outside the purpose of this series, though it is clearly found in the majority of christian literature throughout the centuries. In respect to speaking in tongues, this perception can be found exercised sporadically through the ages. See A Catholic History of Tongues: 30 to 1748 AD for more information.
- Next: Cessationism, Miracles, and Tongues: Part 3 The question of miracles from Martin Luther to the Church of England.
- Previous: Cessationism, Miracles, and Tongues: Part 1 Introduction and general summary.
- Lawrence S. Cunningham. A Brief History of the Saints. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 2005. Pg. 25
- Franco Mormando. Francis Xavier and the Jesuit Missions in the Far East. An Anniversary Exhibition of Early Printed Works. Franco Mormando and Jill G. Thomas ed. Massachusetts: The Jesuit Institute of Boston College. 2006
- Read the Golden Legend itself or follow Lawrence S. Cunningham’s brief synopsis in: A Brief History of the Saints. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 2005. Pg. 32
- William Lecky. History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe. Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1919. Pg. 27–28
- Jane Shaw. Miracles in Enlightenment England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2006. Pg. 21
- Margaret Aston. Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion. London: The Hambledon Press. 1984. Pg. 105
- Literacy by Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina
- I Cor. 1:22
- Homily 29 on First Corinthians. Translated by Talbot W. Chambers. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/220129.htm.
- see Origen on the Gift of Tongues for more info.
- My translation. Homily on the Holy Pentecost 1:4(b) to 5
- Jan Den Boeft. The Apostolic Age in Patristic Thought. Leiden: Brill. 2004. Pg. 58
- See Cyril of Alexandrian on Tongues Part 1 My translation taken from Migne Patrologia Graeca. Vol. 71. Col. 1005ff
- Pachomius on Speaking in Tongues
- Summa Theologica. IIa IIae q. 176 a. 1 The “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Second and Revised Edition. 1920.
- Jon Ruthven. On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Post-Biblical Miracles. 2008. Pg. 20–21