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§ 88. Observations on the Miracles of the Nicene Age.


Comp. on the affirmative side especially John H. Newman (now R.C., then Romanizing Anglican): Essay on Miracles, in the 1st vol. of the English translation of Fleury’s Ecclesiastical History, Oxford, 1842; on the negative, Isaac Taylor (Independent): Ancient Christianity, Lond. 4th ed. 1844. Vol. ii. pp. 233–365. Dr. Newman previously took the negative side on the question of the genuineness of the church miracles in a contribution to the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, 1830.


In the face of such witnesses as Ambrose and Augustine, who must be accounted in any event the noblest and most honorable men of the early church, it is venturesome absolutely to deny all the relic-miracles, and to ascribe them to illusion and pious fraud. But, on the other hand, we should not be bribed or blinded by the character and authority of such witnesses, since experience sufficiently proves that even the best and most enlightened men cannot wholly divest themselves of superstition and of the prejudices of their age912912   Recall, e.g., Luther and the apparitions of the devil, the Magnalia of Cotton Mather, the old Puritans and their trials for witchcraft, as well as the modem superstitions of spiritual rappings and table-turnings by which many eminent and intelligent persons have been carried along. Hence, too, we should not ascribe to this whole question of the credibility of the Nicene miracles an undue dogmatic weight, nor make the much wider issue between Catholicism and Protestantism dependent on it.913913   As is done by many Roman Catholic historians and apologists in the cause of Catholicism, and by Isaac Taylor in the interest of Protestantism. The latter says in his oft-quoted work, vol. ii. p. 239: “The question before us [on the genuineness of the Nicene miracles] is therefore in the strictest sense conclusive as to the modem controversy concerning church principles and the authority of tradition. If the miracles of the fourth century, and those which follow in the same track, were real, then Protestantism is altogether indefensible, and ought to be denounced as an impiety of the most flagrant kind. But if these miracles were wicked frauds; and if they were the first series of a system of impious delusion—then, not only is the modern Papacy to be condemned, but the church of the fourth century must be condemned with it; and for the same reasons; and the Reformation is to be adhered to as the emancipation of Christendom from the thraldom of him who is the ’father of lies.’ ” Taylor accordingly sees in the old Catholic miracles sheer lying wonders of Satan, and signs of the apostasy of the church predicted in the Epistles of St. Paul. From the same point of view he treats also the phenomena of asceticism and monasticism, putting them with the unchristian hatred of the creature and the ascription of nature to the devil, which characterized the Gnostics. But he thus involves not only the Nicene age, but the ante-Nicene also, up to Irenaeus and Ignatius, in this apostasy, and virtually gives up the unbroken continuity of true Christianity. He is, moreover, not consistent in making the church fathers, on the one hand, the chief originators of monkish asceticism and false miracles, while, on the other hand, he sincerely reveres them and eloquently lauds them for their Christian earnestness and their immortal services. Comp. his beautiful concession in vol. i. p. 37 (cited in the 1st vol. of this Hist § 46, note 2). In every age, as in every man, light and shade in fact are mingled, that no flesh should exalt itself above measure. Even the most important periods of church history, among which the Nicene age, with all its faults, must be numbered, have the heavenly treasure in earthen vessels, and reflect the spotless glory of the Redeemer in broken colors.

The most notorious and the most striking of the miracles of the fourth century are Constantine’s vision of the cross (a.d. 312), the finding of the holy cross (a.d. 326), the frustration of Julian’s building of the temple (a.d. 363) the discovery of the relics of Protasius and Gervasius (a.d. 386), and subsequently (a.d. 415) of the bones of St. Stephen, with a countless multitude of miraculous cures in its train. Respecting the most important we have already spoken at large in the proper places.

We here offer some general remarks on this difficult subject.

The possibility of miracles in general he only can deny who does not believe in a living God and Almighty Maker of heaven and earth. The laws of nature are organs of the free will of God; not chains by which He has bound Himself forever, but elastic threads which He can extend and contract at His pleasure. The actual occurrence of miracles is certain to every believer from Holy Scripture, and there is no passage in the New Testament to limit it to the apostolic age. The reasons which made miracles necessary as outward proofs of the divine mission of Christ and the apostles for the unbelieving Jews of their time, may reappear from time to time in the unbelieving heathen and the skeptical Christian world; while spiritual miracles are continually taking place in regeneration and conversion. In itself, it is by no means unworthy and incredible that God should sometimes condescend to the weakness of the uneducated mass, and should actually vouchsafe that which was implored through the mediation of saints and their relics.

But the following weighty considerations rise against the miracles of the Nicene and post-Nicene age; not warranting, indeed, the rejection of all, yet making us at least very cautious and doubtful of receiving them in particular:

1. These miracles have a much lower moral tone than those of the Bible, while in some cases they far exceed them in outward pomp, and make a stronger appeal to our faculty of belief. Many of the monkish miracles are not so much supernatural and above reason, as they are unnatural and against reason, attributing even to wild beasts of the desert, panthers and hyenas, with which the misanthropic hermits lived on confidential terms, moral feelings and states, repentance and conversion914914   Comp. the examples quoted in § 34, p. 177 f. of which no trace appears in the New Testament.915915   The speaking serpent in Paradise (Gen. iii.), and the speaking ass of Balaam (Num. xxii. 22-33; comp. 2 Pet. ii. 16), can hardly be cited as analogies, since in those cases the irrational beast is merely the organ of a moral power foreign to him.

2. They serve not to confirm the Christian faith in general, but for the most part to support the ascetic life, the magical virtue of the sacrament, the veneration of saints and relics, and other superstitious practices, which are evidently of later origin, and are more or less offensive to the healthy evangelical mind.916916   Is. Taylor, l.c. vol. ii. p. 235, says of the miracles of the Nicene age: “These alleged miracles were, almost in every instance, wrought expressly in support of those very practices and opinions which stand forward as the points of contrast, distinguishing Romanism from Protestantism ... the supernatural properties of the eucharistic elements, the invocation of saints, or direct praying to them, and the efficacy of their relics; and the reverence or worship due to certain visible and palpable religious symbols.” Historical questions, however, should be investigated and decided with all possible freedom from confessional prejudices.

3. The further they are removed from the apostolic age, the more numerous they are, and in the fourth century alone there are more miracles than in all the three preceding centuries together, while the reason for them, as against the power of the heathen world, was less.

4. The church fathers, with all the worthiness of their character in other respects, confessedly lacked a highly cultivated sense of truth, and allowed a certain justification of falsehood ad majorem Dei gloriam, or fraus pia, under the misnomer of policy or accommodation;917917   So especially Jerome, Epist ad Pammachium (Lib. apologeticus pro libris contra Jovinianum Ep. xlviii. c. 12, ed. Vallarsi tom i. 222, or Ep. xix. in the Benedictine ed.): “Plura esse genera dicendi: et inter caetera, aliud esse γυμναστικῶςscribere, aliud δογματικῶς. In priori vagam esse disputationem; et adversario respondentem, nunc haec nunc illa proponere, argumentari ut libet, aliud loqui, aliud agere, panem, ut dicitur, ostendere, lapidem tenere. In sequenti autem aparta frons et, ut ita dicam, ingenuitas necessaria est. Aliud est quaerere, aliud definire. In altero pugnandum, in altero docendum est.” He then appeals to the Greek and Roman classics, the ancient fathers in their polemical writings, and even St. Paul in his arguments from the Old Testament. Of interest in this connection is his controversy with Augustineon the conduct of Paul toward Peter, Gal. ii. 11, which Jeromewould attribute to mere policy or accommodation. Even Chrysostomutters loose principles on the duty of veracity (De sacerdot. i. 5), and his pupil Cassian still more, appealing to the example of Rahab (Coll. xvii. 8, 17, etc.). Comp. Gieseler, i. ii. p. 307 (§ 102, note 17). The corrupt principle that “the end sanctifies the means,” is much older than Jesuitism, which is commonly made responsible for it. Christianity had at that time not yet wholly overcome the spirit of falsehood in ancient heathenism. with the solitary exception of Augustine, who, in advance of his age, rightly condemned falsehood in every form.

5. Several church fathers like Augustine, Martin of Tours, and Gregory I., themselves concede that in their time extensive frauds with the relics of saints were already practised; and this is confirmed by the fact that there were not rarely numerous copies of the same relics, all of which claimed to be genuine.

6. The Nicene miracles met with doubt and contradiction even among contemporaries, and Sulpitius Severus makes the important admission that the miracles of St. Martin were better known and more firmly believed in foreign countries than in his own.918918   Dialog. i. 18.

7. Church fathers, like Chrysostom and Augustine, contradict themselves in a measure, in sometimes paying homage to the prevailing faith in miracles, especially in their discourses on the festivals of the martyrs, and in soberer moments, and in the calm exposition of the Scriptures, maintaining that miracles, at least in the Biblical sense, had long since ceased.919919   This argument is prominently employed by James Craigie Robertson (moderate Anglican): History of the Christian Church to Gregory the Great, Lond. 1854, p. 334. “On the subject of miracles,” says he, “there is a remarkable inconsistency in the statements of writers belonging to the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries. St. Chrysostomspeaks of it as a notorious and long-settled fact that miracles had ceased (v. Newman, in Fleury, vol. i. p. xxxix). Yet at that very time, St. Martin, St. Ambrose, and the monks of Egypt and the East are said to have been in full thaumaturgical activity; and Sozomen (viii. 5) tells a story of a change of the eucharistic bread into a stone as having happened at Constantinople, while Chrysostomhimself was bishop. So again, St. Augustinesays that miracles such as those of Scripture were no longer done, yet he immediately goes on to reckon up a number of miracles which had lately taken place, apparently without exciting much sensation, and among them seventy formally attested ones, wrought at Hippo alone, within two years, by the relics of St. Stephen (De Civit. Dei, xxii. 8. 1, 20). On the whole, while I would not deny that miracles may have been wrought after the times of the apostles and their associates, I can find very little satisfaction in the particular instances which are given.” On Augustine’s theory of miracles, comp. above, § 87 (p. 459 f.), and the treatise of Nitzsch jun. there quoted.

We must moreover remember that the rejection of the Nicene miracles by no means justifies the inference of intentional deception in every case, nor destroys the claim of the great church teachers to our respect. On the contrary, between the proper miracle and fraud there lie many intermediate steps of self-deception, clairvoyance, magnetic phenomena and cures, and unusual states of the human soul, which is full of deep mysteries, and stands nearer the invisible spirit-world than the everyday mind of the multitude suspects. Constantine’s vision of the cross, for example, may be traced to a prophetic dream;920920   Comp. above, § 2 (p.25). and the frustration of the building of the Jewish temple under Julian, to a special providence, or a historical judgment of God.921921   Comp. above, § 4 (p. 55). The mytho-poetic faculty, too, which freely and unconsciously produces miracles among children, may have been at work among credulous monks in the dreary deserts and magnified an ordinary event into a miracle. In judging of this obscure portion of the history of the church we must, in general, guard ourselves as well against shallow naturalism and skepticism, as against superstitious mysticism, remembering that


“There are more things in heaven and on earth,

Than are dreamed of in our philosophy.”



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