Saturday, February 18, 2012

B.B. Warfield on Augustine and Miracles

This a quick follow up to my previous post Places to Go to get the Truth in a Dispute... Augustine Style. This was a coincedence: I found a section where B.B. Warfield commented on the same section of writing that I quoted previously. Here Warfield recounts the miracles alleged by St. Augustine. This extended excerpt is from Warfield's book, Counterfeit Miracles.

Augustine no doubt will serve our purpose here as well as another. In the twenty-second book 3 of the City of God, he has circumstantially related to us a score or more of miracles which had come under his own observation, and which he represents as only a tithe of those he could relate. A considerable number of these were wrought by the relics of "the most glorious martyr, Stephen." The bones of Stephen had come to light in Jerusalem in 415. Certain portions of them were brought into Africa and everywhere they were taken miracles were wrought. Somewhere about 424 Hippo obtained its fragments and enshrined them in a small chapel opening into the cathedral church, on the archway of which Augustine caused four verses to be cut, exhorting worshippers to ascribe to God all miracles wrought upon Stephen's intercession. Almost seventy miracles wrought at this shrine had been officially recorded in less than two years, while incomparably more, Augustine tells us, had been wrought at the neighboring town of Calama, which had received its relics earlier. "Think, beloved," he cries, in the sermon which he preached on the reception of the relics, "what the Lord must have in store for us in the land of the living, when He bestows so much in the ashes of the dead." Even the dead were raised at these shrines, with great promptness and facility. Here are some of the instances recorded by Augustine with complete confidence.

"Eucharius, a Spanish priest residing at Calama, was for a long time a sufferer from stone. By the relics of the same martyr (Stephen) which the bishop Possidius brought him, he was cured. Afterward the same priest sinking under another disease, was lying dead, and already they were binding his hands. By the succor of the same martyr he was raised to life, the priest's cloak having been brought from the oratory and laid upon the corpse. . . . Audurus is the name of an estate where there is a church that contains a memorial shrine of the martyr Stephen. It happened that, as a little boy was playing in the court, the oxen drawing a wagon went out of the track and crushed him with the wheel, so that immediately he seemed at his last gasp. His mother snatched him up and laid him at the shrine, and not only did he revive but also appeared uninjured. A religious female who lived at Caspalium, a neighboring estate, when she was so ill as to be despaired of, had her dress brought to this shrine, but before it was brought back she was gone. However, her parents wrapped her corpse in the dress, and, her breath returning, she became quite well. At Hippo, a Syrian called Bassus was praying at the relics of the same martyr for his daughter, who was dangerously ill. He too had brought her dress with him to the shrine. But as he prayed, behold, his servants ran from the house to tell him she was dead. His friends, however, intercepted them and forbade them to tell him, lest he should bewail her in public. And when he returned to his house which was already ringing with the lamentations of his family, and had thrown on his daughter's body the dress he was carrying, she was restored to life. There, too, the son of a man, Irenaeus, one of the taxgatherers, took ill and died. And while his body was lying lifeless, and the last rites were being prepared, amidst the weeping and mourning of all, one of the friends who were consoling the father suggested that the body should be anointed with the oil of the same martyr. It was done and he was revived. Likewise, Eleusinus, a man of tribunitian rank among us, laid his infant son, who had died, on the shrine of the martyr, which is in the suburb where he lived, and, after prayer, which he poured out there with many tears, he took up his child alive."

Not all the miracles which Augustine includes in this anthology were wrought, however, by the bones of Stephen. Even before these bones had been discovered, miracles of the most astonishing character had occurred within his own personal knowledge. He tells us, for example, of the restoration of a blind man to sight at Milan—"when I was there," he says—by the remains of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, discovered to Ambrose in a dream. And he tells us with great circumstantiality of a miraculous cure of fistula wrought in Carthage—"in my presence and under my own eyes," he says—when he and Alypius had just returned from Italy. A special interest attaches to these early instances, because Augustine, although an eyewitness of them, and although he insists on his having been an eye-witness of them as their attestation, does not seem to have recognized their miraculous character until long afterward. For Augustine's hearty belief in contemporary miracles, illustrated by the teeming list now before us, was of slow growth. It was not until some years after his return to Africa that it became easy to him to acknowledge their occurrence. He arrived in Africa in 388, but still in his treatises, On the True Religion, which was written about 390, and On the Usefullness of Believing, written in 391 or 392, we find him speaking on the hypothesis that miracles no longer happened. "We perceive," he writes in the former of these treatises, "that our ancestors, by that measure of faith by which the ascent is made from termporal things to eternal, obtained visible miracles (for thus only could they do it); and through them it has been brought about that these should no longer be necessary for their descendants. For when the Catholic Church had been diffused and established through the whole world, these miracles were no longer permitted to continue in our time, lest the mind should always seek visible things, and the human race should be chilled by the customariness of the very things whose novelty had inflamed them." Similarly, in the latter treatise, after enumerating the miracles of our Lord, he asks, "Why do not these things take place now?" and answers, "Because they would not move unless they were wonderful, and if they were customary they would not be wonderful." "Even the marvels of nature, great and wonderful as they are," he continues, " have ceased to surprise and so to move; and God has dealt wisely with us, therefore, in sending his miracles once for all to convince the world, depending afterward on the authority of the multitudes thus convinced."

Subsequently at the close of his life, reviewing these passages in his Retractations, he supposes it enough to say that what he meant was not that no miracles were still wrought in his own day, but only that none were wrought which were as great as those our Lord wrought, and that not all the kinds our Lord wrought continued to be wrought. "For," says he, "those that are baptized do not now receive the Spirit on the imposition of hands, so as to speak in the tongues of all the peoples; neither are the sick healed by the shadow of the preachers of Christ falling on them as they pass; and other such things as were then done, are now manifestly ceased." What he said, he insists, is not to be taken as meaning that no miracles at all were to be believed to be performed still in Christ's name. "For I myself, when I wrote that book "—the book On the True Religion—"already knew that a blind man had been given his sight at Milan, by the bodies of the martyrs in that city; and certain other things which were done at that time in numbers sufficient to prevent our knowing them all or our enumerating all we knew." This explanation seems scarcely adequate; but it suggests that the starting-point of Augustine's belief in contemporary miracles is to be sought in Milan—although it appears that some time was required after he had left Milan for the belief to ripen in his mind.

A sufficiently odd passage in one of his letters—written in 404—seems to illustrate at once the Milanese origin of his miracle-faith and the process of its growth to maturity. There had been a scandal in the household; one member of it had accused another of a crime, and Augustine was in doubt which of the two was really at fault. "I fixed upon the following as a means of discovering the truth," he writes. "Both pledged themselves in a solemn compact to go to a holy place, where the awe-inspiring works of God might much more readily make manifest the evil of which either of them was conscious, and compel the guilty to confess, either by judgment or through fear of judgment." God is everywhere, it is true; and able to punish or reward in secret as He will. "But," continues Augustine, "in regard to the answers of prayer which are visible to men, who can search out the reasons for appointing some places rather than others to be the scenes of miraculous interpositions?" The grave of a certain Felix suggested itself to him as a suitable place to send his culprits. True, no supernatural events had ever occurred there. But, he writes, "I myself knew how, at Milan, at the tomb of the saints, where demons are brought in a most marvellous and awful manner to confess their deeds, a thief, who had come thither intending to deceive by perjuring himself, was compelled to own his thefts and restore what he had taken away." "And is not Africa also," he asks, "full of the bodies of holy martyrs?" "Yet we do not know of such things being done here," he confesses. "Even as the gift of healing and the gift of discerning of spirits," he explains, "are not given to all saints, as the Apostle declares; so it is not at all the tombs of the saints that it hath pleased Him who divideth to each severally as He will, to cause such miracles to be wrought." As late as 404, then, there were as yet no miracle-working shrines in Africa. Augustine, however, is busily at work producing them. And twenty years later we see them in full activity.

It was naturally a source of embarrassment to Augustine that the heretics had miracles to appeal to just like his own; and that the heathen had had something very like them from time immemorial. The miracles of the heretics he was inclined to reject out of hand. They never happened, he said. On the other hand, he did not dream of denying the actual occurrence of the heathen miracles. He only strained every nerve to put them in a different class from his own. They stood related to his, he said, as the marvels wrought by Pharaoh's magicians did to Moses' miracles. Meanwhile, there the three sets of miracles stood, side by side, apparently just alike, and to be distinguished only by the doctrines with which they were severally connected. A passage in the thirteenth tractate on John on Donatist miracles (he calls them "miracle-ettes"), is very instructive. This tractate seems to have been delivered subsequently to 416, and therefore represents Augustine's later views. "Let no one tell you fables, then," he cries, "saying, 'Pontius wrought a miracle, and Donatus prayed and God answered him from heaven.' In the first place, either they are deceived or they deceive. In the last place, grant that he removes mountains: 'And have not charity,' says the Apostle, 'I am nothing.' Let us see whether he has charity. I would believe that he had, if he had not divided unity. For against those whom I may call marvelworkers, my God has put me on my guard, saying, 'In the last times there shall arise false prophets doing signs and wonders, to lead into error, if it were possible, even the elect. Lo, I have foretold it to you.' Therefore the Bridegroom has cautioned us, that we ought not to be deceived even by miracles." Similarly the heathen and Christian miracles are pitted against one another, and decision between them sought on grounds lying outside the miracles themselves. "Which, then, can more readily be believed to work miracles? They who wish themselves to be reckoned gods by those on whom they work miracles, or those whose sole object in working any miracles is to induce faith in God, or in Christ also as God? . . . Let us therefore believe those who both speak the truth and work miracles." It is not the empirical fact which counts—there were all too many empirical facts to count—but the truth lying behind the empirical fact.

What now are we to think of these miracles which Augustine and his fellows narrate to us in such superabundance?

We should perhaps note at the outset that the marvellous stories do not seem to have met with universal credence when first published. They seem indeed to have attracted very little attention. Augustine bitterly complains that so little was made of them. Each was known only in the spot where it was wrought, and even then only to a few persons. If some report of it happened to be carried to other places no sufficient authority existed to give it prompt and unwavering acceptance. He records how he himself had sharply rebuked a woman who had been miraculously cured of a cancer for not publishing abroad the blessing she had received. Her physician had laughed at her, she said; and moreover she had not really concealed it. Outraged, however, on finding that not even her closest acquaintances had ever heard of it, he dragged her from her seclusion and gave the utmost publicity to her story. In odd parallelism to the complaint of his somewhat older contemporary, the heathen historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who in wistful regret for the portents which were gone, declared stoutly that they nevertheless still occurred, only "nobody heeds them now," Augustine asserted that innumerable Christian miracles were constantly taking place, only no notice was taken of them.

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