A new framework is required to remedy an overemphasis on staged healing events in churches. A practice that hampers or even destroys the message of the Good News within the public realm.
If you attend almost any charismatic church meeting, you are sure to hear about supernatural healings. They are usually abstract ones such as headaches banished, a sore back relieved, a short leg lengthened, and many other unusual conditions cured. The majority are scientifically unproven because they are too vague.
There are severe problems with this practice that need clarification. This whole phenomenon parallels the excess of Medieval Catholicism; a state which inspired both the Reformation and the Renaissance.
Mysticism, along with its healing progeny, has paralleled the Christian experience from inception. The call for divine healing may also be as old as humanity.
Certain contemporary christian movements, especially the charismatic and pentecostal ones, have pushed their practices of divine healing to the forefront. Some of these practices and leaders within the movement have brought Christianity as a whole under suspicion. The practice has become a central source for rejection and disrespect in North American society.
There lacks a contemporary ethical compass or strong leadership in these groups to curb abuse. The challenge is establishing a credible alternative.
We have to look at the past to find answers for the present predicament. Bygone theologians and philosophers have already established a framework that allows for the existence of divine intervention in a controlled accountable manner.
Many of the solutions that were applied back then have usefulness for today’s experience. This article delves into a few theologians and philosophers to build a proper framework for 21st-century Christian living.
There is no question that God can miraculously intervene in any given situation. It is a problem of application and abuse that is happening here.
Who are Charismatics
Many readers are probably asking, who is a Charismatic, and why should I care? The following answers these questions.
Charismatics are people mainly from the 1960s onward inspired with the Pentecostal wave that started in the early 1900s. Their central doctrines emphasize a mystic union with God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues and sensitivity to the supernatural.
The Charismatics initially continued attending their Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, and other mainline churches. They tried to bring their spiritual awakening to their traditional brethren but did not succeed. The result was that many of these people voluntarily left or were forced out. As a consequence, these people formed their independent churches.
These collections of independent churches are the substance of the Charismatic Movement. A significant attribute, apart from their emphasis on the supernatural, is the autonomous nature and avoidance of denominational or sectarian features. Because of this, there is a wide range of expressions and practices within the Charismatic Movement. There is no key leader, church, or theologian that represents them. Dialogue and cooperation exist between these independent churches, but no desire to form a hierarchical structure.
Those churches that remain in their denominations but are deeply influenced by the Charismatic Movement are called Third Wave churches. These often emphasize healing services.
One may think that the Charismatic Movement is a small slice of the religious pie, but this is not the case. It is one of the fastest-growing segments of the Christian faith in the world. In the United States alone, the Barna Group states that four out of every ten independent churches are Charismatic based, and 46% of those who attend a protestant meeting are Charismatic. 1
The practice of divine healings is typical of a charismatic liturgical experience and an integral part of their religious identity.
Problems with exhibitions of divine healings
However, there are severe problems with the mystic rite that the Charismatic Movement must address.
First of all, the public exhibition of divine healings strengthens public sentiment that those practicing are radicalized religious fanatics. It scares the general populace more than attracts. This healing practice, which is perceived as a staged act rather than fact by most members of the public, also further alienates the christian faith from being a regular participant in public social dialogue.
Secondly, the staged process of divine healing undermines the credibility of the message. A vocal percentage of the general public is hostile and openly antagonistic to Christianity because of the contemporary healing practices by church leaders and evangelists. Critics usually quote faith healers they have seen on television, the radio, or in print magazines to back up their refusal to discuss any matters of the christian faith.
This criticism leads to an urgent concern. Unless the various branches of the protestant churches seriously confront the problems of perceived fraud and lack of accountability in the practice of divine healing, then a severe public relations problem exists. The lack of discipline may lead to a tipping point; some abuse relating to divine intervention may spark the already existent anti-church sentiment and set a precedent for government intervention. As a result, this will send a terrible message that the church, which is supposed to pursue and encourage moral excellence, instead is an institution that cannot govern itself, nor be considered reputable. Whose fault is that? Is it a war on the church or is it a backlash the church has created for itself?
The historic problem of supernaturalism
This is not the first time in history that an overemphasis on the supernatural within the Christian community has caused problems.
Origen and Chrysostom on miracles
Both Origen in the second and John Chrysostom in the fourth-century touched on it. They agreed that very few pious people would ever achieve the status of producing miracles.2 Chrysostom especially did not want to attach miracles to the Christian identity. He felt that superstition and magic would be an obstacle to personal growth. He also stated that there was a certain danger of pride with those who were miracle workers. He de-emphasized such a ministry because of this.3
Chrysostom shifted the realm of miracles and healings from the individual to the corporate church and its symbols as a solution. This alternative has its strengths, but, overall, it does not adequately address the issue.
Aquinas on Miracles
Thomas Aquinas especially comes to mind. He lived in a world rife with mysticism and didn’t have a problem with it. However, he felt the urgency to add structure to this practice. His combination of both the intellect and heightened awareness of the spiritual realm sets him apart. The title Patron Saint of Charismatics and Pentecostals is one that seems appropriate in this circumstance. However, Sainthood is only granted by the Catholic Church, not by any independent Charismatic or Pentecostal institution. But if these two mystical groups did have this authority and the structure to do so, they probably would. Charismatic leaders have yet to build a framework close to Aquinas. The present christian mysticism is still in its infancy. Every leader within this movement should have him for reference.
He realized there was a fundamental problem and wrote out basic principles for defining a miracle. Although his work is almost 800 years old, it still has value for today.
Thomas Aquinas dwelt deeply on the topic of miracles and formulated the definition into various degrees in the thirteenth century. He cautions against improperly assigning a natural phenomenon as a miracle. One example he used was an eclipse. To the astronomer, it is part of a regular pattern, but to the thirteenth-century layman, it was out of the natural order and, therefore, a miracle.
He describes miracles as something out of the natural order of nature, such as the sea temporarily parting so that people can walk through it. The more the event goes against the laws of nature, the greater the miracle. The healing of a blind person, paralysis, etc., are actions that nature cannot do, and, therefore, are categorically a miracle. Another kind of miracle is where God intervenes where nature could have done the same thing, such as curing a fever or bringing on rain. He deems these as a lesser miracle.4
There is more to Aquinas on this subject, but I will save this at the end with the formulation of a new framework of miracles for Charismatics.
David Hume on Miracles
The eighteenth-century English philosopher, David Hume, among others, noted that superstition and adherence to mysticism were too strong a social constant in his society. It permeated all the theaters of decision making. From this perspective, he produced this powerful sweeping statement.
The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events.5
He further added that miracles should not justify a system of faith.6 This statement has an important application today. The Charismatic Movement symbolizes miracles as an expression of their divine authority within the world. They see themselves as a God-ordained movement superior to any other institution. This attitude would anger Hume. Miracles are not to legitimize a movement.
Although Hume hardly liked the idea of miracles, one could add a mystical extension to his intent. It is for the benefit of the ordinary person who is suffering or is in pain, and for those who witness such an intervention, hope for the now, and the life to come.
Any religious leadership that uses miracles to promote their brand may have short-term gain by preaching to their loyal audience, but in the long term, create more public animosity.
William Lecky on Miracles in Europe
Nor are most Charismatics aware that they are merely reinventing the wheel. The topic of divine healings, mysticism, and the supernatural was a central core of European society for centuries. It dominated the political and social landscape. William Lecky, in his book, History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, described the circumstances in the 17th to 18th centuries as this:
Nothing could be more common than for a holy man to be lifted up from the floor in the midst of his devotions, or to be visited by the Virgin or by an angel. There was scarcely a town that could not show some relic that had cured the sick, or some image that had opened and shut its eyes, or bowed its head to an earnest worshipper.7
He saw no difference in the attitudes of either the Protestants or the Catholics on the subject.
The improper application of miracles and the supernatural was one of the factors that forced a social revolution that regaled against any perceived spiritual intervention. The de-supernaturalizing also had another critical factor. It deprived the Church of its authority and transferred it to a new entity. As a consequence, it enabled society to establish a new set of laws, selection processes for civic leaders, systems of government, and a different framework for scientific exploration. This correction was an overreaction that downgraded the realm of miracles and supernatural into the place of myth; a piece of history that should remind present-day Charismatics to tread carefully.
There is also a theological and common-sense problem. If a church has regular weekly healing meetings based on the premise that miracles will happen, then this means they can suspend the laws of nature for an hour or two every week. Such a proposition displays a predictable pattern of health recovery and, therefore, a standard procedure. Such a custom is not consistent with what constitutes a miracle. A miracle is something that cannot be controlled or predicted in any way. This staged event is not a realistic premise to encourage or practice.
The following YouTube video This Bible is Leaking Oil by the Gallons! Is it Proof of End Time Miracles? reminds me of classical Medieval mysticism. It appears like we are reinventing the mystic wheel.
Building a proper framework
The following is a modification from Thomas Aquinas’ writing on miracles especially in his work called Summa Theologiae. Question VI addresses miracles.8 It is a difficult text to read, and one has to meditate on the words a considerable time before they make sense. The time and labor spent reading are worth it.
Back then, even in a heightened mystical environment where supernatural realities were considered a natural part of the human existence, Aquinas saw excess. “I answer that, Some miracles are not true but imaginary deeds.”9
Miracles do happen, but the definition should be purposely narrow and only declared when something occurs, that is obviously outside the laws of regular nature. The cure for a common cold or a back feeling better is too subjective. An amputated arm that grew back, or somebody clinically defined as dead and then suddenly brought back to life while someone was praying over the coffin, are miracles of substance. However, I have never seen anything like this happen.
churches who emphasize faith healing must have a clear policy in place. An independent third party must empirically prove any miracle. Therefore, meetings that encourage divine healings should state that only a health care professional declares whether a miracle has happened.
It would be difficult to describe something as spontaneous healing with many ailments. Diabetes, most cancers, multiple sclerosis, or any other afflictions are all conditions that are difficult to assess. Some can heal through natural means or can even go in remission. They can hide for long periods and then surprisingly reappear.
These states can lead to potential problems if either the faith healer states the person is healed or the person interprets the prayer as a healing one. The circumstance creates false hope and potentially to premature death because a sick person who believes that a divine intervention has occurred may fail to take prescribed therapies or refuse medical treatment.
There is no such thing as too much Aquinas, especially on this topic. Here are a few more details on his idea of miracles. All healings and miracles should be listed according to his system: wonders of nature, greater miracles and lesser miracles.
- A wonder of nature is: “a miracle is described as something difficult and unusual, surpassing the capabilities of nature and the expectations of those who wonder at it.”
- greater miracles are: “that the sun’s course be reversed or that the human body be made glorious. Since nature can in no way achieve such things, these have first rank among miracles.”10
- lesser miracles: “For example, a person may be cured by divine power from a fever which could be cured naturally, and it may rain independently of the working of the principles of nature.”11
I think Charismatics have exclusively delved in the realm of lesser miracles but this is even stretching many instances.
The short of it is this: any miracle must be visibly or scientifically outside the bounds of natural law. If not, then claim it a wonder or a divine gesture. Anything that remains unproven is not a miracle.
A Charismatic Response
Some would counter that the positive affirmation of community prayer heals a broken spirit and can alleviate emotional suffering. This state then can cross over into the bodily realm and help those with healing.
Many divine healing services succeed in encouraging people by instilling a sense of hope. Hope is hard to grasp for those who continually struggle due to a physical malady, lack financial means for the most elementary of provisions such as medications, dental work, food, or employment, or hurting through a divorce, death, or many other reasons. These are situations where many have quietly given up on life and live in the shadows. Many testimonies in healing services attest to overcoming such obstacles and finding the experience as a place for a new kick-start in life.
The psychological help and inspiration of a divine hope appear to be an excellent argument for divine healing services. However, these aren’t miracles. They are words of encouragement.
These last two arguments gloss over the severe trust broken by faith healers and ignore the ominous task of rebuilding it.
A structural framework is required to re-establish trust, and Aquinas is a good beginning. If the present stage events continue without any revision, the marginalization and mockery by the greater society will increase against Charismatics. A grievous place to exist. It especially negates all the other positive social contributions made by Charismatics to society in other areas.
- Origen, Against Celsus. As found in The Writings of Origen. Translated by the Rev. Frederick Crombie. Vol. II. Origen Contra Celsum. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1872. Pg. 426. For Chrysostom, see the footnote below
- Homily on Matthew 9:32 See also: Chrysostom on the Doctrine of Tongues which covers Chrysostom’s beliefs regarding miracles.
- Thomas Aquinas. Contra Gentils. 101 “On Miracles.” http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#101
- David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Reprinted from the posthumous edition of 1777 with introduction, comparative tables of contents, and analytical index by L.A. Selby-Bigge. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9662/9662-h/9662-h.htm
- IBID Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
- William Lecky. History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1888. Pg. 157
- Summa Theologiae: Question 178
- This quote plus the one above found at: Summa Theologiae, Pars I, q. 105, aa. 6-8
- Contra Gentiles: 101