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Miracles: The Patristic Roots of the Reformation (3)

In the prefatory address of the Institutes of the Christian Religion to King Francis I, appended to the work from its first appearance in 1536 (though it undergoes expansion over time), John Calvin gives a full-throated defense of the evangelical cause in France in the tradition of Justin Martyr’s First Apology. In it, he attempts, in the guise of the theological lawyer, to deflect a number of charges against the Protestants, viz.:

They call it new, and of recent birth; they carp at it as doubtful and uncertain; they bid us tell by what miracles it has been confirmed; they ask if it be fair to receive it against the consent of so many holy Fathers and the most ancient custom; they urge us to confess either that it is schismatical in giving battle to the Church, or that the Church must have been without life during the many centuries in which nothing of the kind was heard.

The section on the Fathers deserves treatment in its own right; in this post, I shall focus only on one use of a patristic source, and it is not from the section on the (so-called) “consent of so many holy Fathers”; it is from the section on miracles, and is the only time Augustine is mentioned by name in the preface.

The charge with respect to miracles is more or less as follows: “we” (say the Romanists) “have miracles to confirm our doctrine; you don’t.” Calvin responds to this charge in a number of ways. First, he (sanely) points out that his doctrine is just that of the gospel, and as such is “confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought.”

“But you don’t have miracles now!” “Well then,” Calvin replies (I paraphrase). “Perhaps we should see what miracles are supposed to be for”–in other words, we should look to “the legitimate end and use of miracles.” In Scripture, miracles are “wrought in conformation of” the preaching of the apostolic gospel. Here he refers to Mark 16.20, Acts 14.3, and Hebrews 2.4. If miracles are “seals of the gospel,” then they evidently cannot be used in contradiction of it. They were “destined only to confirm the truth.” For that reason, there is an order to be observed in the discussion of miracles:

The proper course, therefore, is, in the first instance, to ascertain and examine the doctrine which is said by the Evangelist to precede; then after it has been proved, but not till then, it may receive confirmation from miracles.

And what is the “mark of sound doctrine” that of the sort that might be confirmed by miracles?

But the mark of sound doctrine given by our Saviour himself is its tendency to promote the glory not of men, but of God (John 7:18; 8:50). Our Saviour having declared this to be test of doctrine, we are in error if we regard as miraculous, works which are used for any other purpose than to magnify the name of God.

The procedure is simple enough, then. If a miracle promotes the glory of God, it is legitimate and its testimony can be called upon. If it promotes the glory of man, it cannot.

This is precisely the posture we find in the Apostles in the book of Acts. Thus when Peter has healed the man “lame from birth” in the Beautiful gate in Acts 3 (or rather when God has healed the man through the instrumentation of Peter, Peter insists that the miracle be attributed entirely to Jesus Christ:

While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s. And when Peter saw it he addressed the people:“Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name–by faith in his name–has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all. (ESV)

The same occurs in the case of Paul’s healing of a man “crippled from birth” at Lystra in Acts 14. The miracle done, the man from Lystra wish to honor Barnabas and Paul as manifestations of Zeus and Hermes, which horrifies the Apostle such that he rebukes them sharply:

 Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. (ESV)

Once again, the apostolic pattern is clear: miracles are to confirm the glory of God, not of men; and when men misinterpret them as doing the latter, they must be corrected.

This apostolic principle is necessary, because there is such a thing as bad juju out there, as Acts itself illustrates, as does Exodus with its account of the Egyptian magicians. As Calvin goes on to say:

And it becomes us to remember that Satan has his miracles, which, although they are tricks rather than true wonders, are still such as to delude the ignorant and unwary. Magicians and enchanters have always been famous for miracles, and miracles of an astonishing description have given support to idolatry: these, however, do not make us converts to the superstitions either of magicians or idolaters.

It is at this point that he invokes Augustine. For the Donatists, too, used miracles, but for an evil purpose (it is worth noting in passing that Calvin does not dispute that they had they “power of working miracles”). Rather than thinking that such “tricks” should make people become Donatists, however–though this is a very real danger for many people–Augustine connects them with “deceivers of the elect”:

In old times, too, the Donatists used their power of working miracles as a battering-ram, with which they shook the simplicity of the common people. We now give to our opponents the answer which Augustine then gave to the Donatists (in Joan. Tract. 23), “The Lord put us on our guard against those wonder—workers, when he foretold that false prophets would arise, who, by lying signs and divers wonders, would, if it were possible, deceive the very elect” (Mt. 24:24). Paul, too, gave warning that the reign of antichrist would be “with all power, and signs, and lying wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9).

The reference is to Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John 13.17 (misidentified in the Beveridge translation as Tractates 23). Just as Augustine had opposed the miracles of the Donatists, so does Calvin oppose the miracles of his opponents, and on the same grounds.

Rhetorically, this is a brilliant move. Why? Remember what Augustine’s problem with the Donatists was: not that they were heretical, but that they were schismatic. The accusers of the evangelicals have accused them of being the same; recall the passage quoted above: “they urge us to confess…that it is schismatical in giving battle to the Church.” Calvin, in siding with Augustine, makes his opponents the real schismatics given the terms of the analogy. He seeks unity in the true faith as Augustine did; his adversaries do not, and thus they are responsible for schism. He makes his position clear later in the preface. In reference to the dispute between Eugene IV and Amadeus VIII over the papacy at the Council of Basel (later Florence) and in support of his own point that “the church is not tied to external pomp,” he says:

But if they are sincere, let them answer me in good faith,—in what place, and among whom, do they think the Church resided, after the Council of Basle degraded and deposed Eugenius from the popedom, and substituted Amadeus in his place? Do their utmost, they cannot deny that that Council was legitimate as far as regards external forms, and was summoned not only by one Pontiff, but by two. Eugenius, with the whole herd of cardinals and bishops who had joined him in plotting the dissolution of the Council, was there condemned of contumacy, rebellion, and schism. Afterwards, however, aided by the favour of princes, he got back his popedom safe. The election of Amadeus, duly made by the authority of a general holy synod, went to smoke; only he himself was appeased with a cardinal’s cap, like a piece of offal thrown to a barking dog. Out of the lap of these rebellious and contumacious schismatics proceeded all future popes, cardinals, bishops, abbots, and presbyters. Here they are caught, and cannot escape. For, on which party will they bestow the name of Church? Will they deny it to have been a general Council, though it lacked nothing as regards external majesty, having been solemnly called by two bulls, consecrated by the legate of the Roman See as its president, constituted regularly in all respects, and continuing in possession of all its honours to the last? Will they admit that Eugenius, and his whole train, through whom they have all been consecrated, were schismatical? Let them, then, either define the form of the Church differently, or, however numerous they are, we will hold them all to be schismatics in having knowingly and willingly received ordination from heretics.

Calvin’s procedure here is one small instance of a much broader phenomenon found throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Protestants are happy to take their stand on the supremacy of the Word, but if challenged on grounds of history and heritage, that too is a debate they are more than eager to engage. Not only so, but they are eager even to take up what their opponents would consider the patristic quotations least promising for them and use them to turn the rhetorical and doctrinal tables on their accusers such that they become the defendants instead. This is only one aspect among many of the way in which the Reformers employed the Fathers; but it is one that should not be missed.



By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

3 replies on “Miracles: The Patristic Roots of the Reformation (3)”

But Catholics of course claim that their miracles glorify God rather than man. Would Calvin have agreed with Augustine’s view that the miracles that God works through the relics of saints glorify God rather than man?

e.g., from City of God: “When the bishop Projectus was bringing the relics of the most glorious martyr Stephen to the waters of Tibilis, a great concourse of people came to meet him at the shrine. There a blind woman entreated that she might be led to the bishop who was carrying the relics. He gave her the flowers he was carrying. She took them, applied them to her eyes, and immediately saw. Those who were present were astounded, while she, with every expression of joy, preceded them, pursuing her way without further need of a guide.

Lucillus bishop of Sinita, in the neighborhood of the colonial town of Hippo, was carrying in procession some relics of the same martyr, which had been deposited in the castle of Sinita. A fistula under which he had long labored, and which his private physician was watching an opportunity to cut, was suddenly cured by the mere carrying of that sacred fardel, — at least, afterwards there was no trace of it in his body.

Eucharius, a Spanish priest, residing at Calama, was for a long time a sufferer from stone. By the relics of the same martyr, which the bishop Possidius brought him, he was cured. Afterwards 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.”

And since Augustine held that the Donatists’ miracles were not true miracles because they lacked unity with the Church, another question arises concerning Calvin’s unity with the Church. Would Calvin have shared unity with Augustine’s belief, expressed in the same Tractate you cite, that Christians who vow and keep virginity of the body are especially honorable members of the Church (13.12)?

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