From cessationism to joy – how a healing increased Augustine’s understanding of God’s grace

The turnaround from sin to grace, from worldliness to trusting Christ, wasn’t the only change Augustine experienced.  Earlier in his Christian life he had believed that miracles had ended when the first apostles died, but he rejected his former position as untenable following the dramatic and supernatural healing of a friend of his who had cancer. From then on he felt duty bound to publicise accounts of healings.

He was shocked that his close friend had kept her healing a secret and wrote:

“I was indignant that so astounding a miracle, performed in so important a city, and on a person far from obscure, should have been kept a secret like this; and I thought it right to admonish her and to speak to her with some sharpness on the matter.”

Bruce Shelley, Senior Professor of church history at Denver Seminar, writes:
‘Augustine’s hope was that, as apostolic miracles had aided the growth of the early church, miracles in his own day would draw people to Christianity.

Augustine’s exuberance for true miracles in City of God [one of Augustine’s many books] shows that he no longer saw them as sham spirituality but as physical manifestations of God’s work in the world.

He wrote, “What do these miracles attest but the faith which proclaims that Christ rose in the flesh and ascended into heaven with the flesh? … God may himself perform them by himself, through that wonderful operation of his power whereby, being eternal, he is active in temporal events; or he may effect them through the agency of his servants… Be that as it may, they all testify to the faith in which the resurrection to eternal life is proclaimed.”’ (Bruce Shelley, Christian History Magazine, Issue 67)

The Dark Ages

Throughout the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ many evangelising monks spread the gospel, some with signs following (eg, Bede and Cuthbert) and brought the grace of God to many.

At this time fervent Christianity was often found amongst those believers, including monks and nuns, who had personally experienced the grace of God, but their books and documents are not always easy to read being so intermingled with extra-biblical references and practices.

Nevertheless, the light was still shining (see John 1:5) and an increasing number of individuals were beginning to speak up against the growing abuses of privilege amongst the priesthood and a gradual call for reform began to be heard across Europe.

For more on Augustine click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

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Miracles, Morality and the Power of the Local Church

We’ve been enjoying Edward Gibbon’s references to the Christian church in the latter years of the Roman Empire. We’ve seen that he emphasised three factors which assisted the growth of the Church and the influence of Christianity through the Roman world.

Firstly, he mentioned their zeal, their passion. They were on a mission to reach the world. Secondly, he emphasised that their confidence in their eternal security made them courageous even in the face of danger. Thirdly, he noted that these Christians were not only zealous and bold, but that they also prayed for the sick successfully, moved in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and were able to evangelise not with persuasive words of wisdom but in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power that clearly showed to a pagan world that Jesus Christ was indeed ‘Lord’. (see 1 Cor 2:4)

Before we leave Gibbon I want to draw on his further two observations as these will serve as a safeguard to us. Having shown us the impressive nature of their gifts and works, he also mentions the morality of the believers. He notes that there was a harmony of charismatic passion and personal integrity. Indeed, in beautifully quaint language he points to ‘the reformation of manners which was introduced into the world by the preaching of the Gospel.’ (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin Classic edition ibid. p.283)

This process began, obviously, in evangelism: ‘The friends of Christianity may acknowledge without a blush that many of the most eminent saints had been before their baptism the most abandoned sinners.’ (ibid. p.284)

But the conversion of a person to the Christian faith produced not only an immediate moral impact in their lives but an ongoing one, so that they turned from their past sins, sought to support the social and economic structures of the society of which they were a part, became reliable workers, fair in business, honest in labour, modest in behaviour and faithful to both spouse and family. This notably different Christian lifestyle commended itself to those who were living close to them.

Lastly, Gibbon mentions the unity and discipline of the local churches as a factor in the sustained growth and spread of the Christian faith. The believers were locally organised under spiritually qualified elders, who cared for them, teaching them and supporting them in their new found faith. There were miracles but there were relationships and pastoral oversight.

Interestingly, Gibbon notes, ‘Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitution.’ (ibid. p.293) Somewhat different from the view that a single ecclesiastical power-structure oversaw all the churches, it seems that the churches were led by their own elders who drew on the wisdom of those who were apostolically or prophetically gifted.

Indeed, as we will later see, the local church has always been a key in the spread of the Christian faith in a nation or time period, and a sustainer of those powerful impulses in revival that have so impacted the world.

But, before we get there, we must look at some questions around the relationship between church and state. Just imagine if you were a Christian living in those days, wouldn’t you have prayed for the conversion of those in authority – and even the conversion of the Emperor himself? Well, early in the fourth century, after so many years of persecution, it happened!

The conversion to the Christian faith of Emperor Constantine brought a sudden and much longed-for release from persecution and an elevation and respect for the Christian faith. This was indeed an answer to prayer – but was it all good? And, what was the nature of his ‘conversion’?

We’ll see next time.

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Iraneaus and a beautiful picture of the early church: Missional and Miraculous!

The prominence of the miraculous in the mission of the church of the first few centuries was not a source of embarrassment to earlier historians. And it shouldn’t be for us either. We believe that God is God, and that He does not change.

In other words, the fact that God should act today in a manner consistent with how we see Him acting in the Bible should be a cause of celebration not surprise, and certainly not embarrassment!

In fact, for those who hold an evangelical view of Scripture, we should actually desire and even expect God to act consistently with the revelation He has given us.

Edward Gibbon was judiciously reflecting the statements of earlier historians. Eusebius (3rd-4th Century) sought to do likewise and quotes theologian and apologist Irenaeus, writing at the end of the 2nd Century:

‘So it is that in His name those who truly are His disciples, having received grace from Him, put it to effectual use for the benefit of their fellow-men, in proportion to the gift each one has received from Him.

Some drive out demons really and truly, so that often those cleansed from evil spirits believe and become members of the church; some have foreknowledge of the future, visions, and prophetic utterances;

others, by the laying on of hands, heal the sick and restore them to health; and before now, as I said, dead men have actually been raised and have remained with us for many years.

In fact, it is impossible to enumerate the gifts which throughout the world the church has received from God and in the name of Jesus Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate, and every day puts to effectual use for the benefit of the heathen, deceiving no one and making profit out of no-one: freely she received from God, and freely she ministers…

Similarly, we hear of many members of the church who have prophetic gifts and by the Spirit speak with all kinds of tongues, and bring men’s secret thoughts to light for their own good, and expound the mysteries of God,’i

This is a stunning picture of the church serving the community in the power of prayer, in the power of the Holy Spirit. While the church in many countries may not always feel she has abundant material resources, she must never ever forget the power and authority given her to bring someone into the presence of God.

‘Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”’ (Acts 3:6)

Such moments not only bring grace to an individual, but can be the doorway to whole communities.

Next time, we’ll look at Gibbon’s further reflections on the church’s impact and see that it wasn’t only miracles, but also a different kind of morality that helped commend the Christian faith to the waiting world.

i Quoted in Eusebius, History of the Church, Penguin Classics [UK Edition] p209-210

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Supernatural Signs – Gibbon’s astonishing third reason for the spread of Christianity in the first 3 centuries.

It’s fair to say that all lovers of the Bible would adhere to the notion that God does indeed answer prayer. He hears our cry (Ps 40:1). However, while desiring to honour God with genuine faith, many believers wrestle with two difficulties.

On the one hand there’s the challenge of apparently unanswered prayer in our own experience, and on the other, there is the religious TV world of health and wealth and extravagant sounding claims, promises and requests. Perhaps good history can help us at this point.

Edward Gibbon, author of ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, lists as a third key reason for the impressive spread of the Christian faith throughout the Roman empire the fact that the church successfully exercised miraculous powers.

This was such a prominent factor in the early centuries of the church that he brings it in before discussing the high moral quality of the believers lives. He specifically lists tongues, prophecy, deliverance, healings and even people being raised from the dead! This supernatural phenomena, accompanying the gospel message, continued on into the beginning of the 3rd century without any apparent evidence of ceasing.

Reading his description of the ‘post-apostolic’ church is like being plunged back into the gospels. He writes:

‘The Christian church, from the time of the apostles and their first disciples, has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision, and of prophecy, the power of expelling demons, of healing the sick, and of raising the dead…The design of the visions was for the most part either to disclose the future history or to guide the present administration of the church…

The expulsion of the demons from the bodies of those unhappy persons whom they had been permitted to torment was considered as a signal though ordinary triumph of religion, and is repeatedly alleged by the ancient apologists as the most convincing evidence of the truth of Christianity…

But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate [long-standing] or even preternatural [beyond the normal] kind can no longer occasion any surprise when we recollect that in the days of Irenaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event;

that the miracle [of raising a dead person to life] was frequently performed on necessary occasions by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place; and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterwards among them many years.’i

It is deeply challenging to our faith that the churches frequently organised to pray and fast and successfully saw those they considered to have died prematurely actually raised to life again!

But that is perhaps to focus on the most challenging aspect of Gibbon’s account. Perhaps we should begin by merely embracing the reality of the supernatural dynamic of the Christian faith once more as a central apologetic in our mission to present the grace of God to a needy world around us.

See next post here

i Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Abridged), (Leicester 1982: Penguin) p279-281

© 2008 Lex Loizides

The Missional Impact of Knowing your Sins are Forgiven

We are examining reasons that 18th century historian Edward Gibbon gives for the impressive and somewhat surprising spread of the Christian faith through the Roman Empire in the first 3 centuries.

His first suggestion is quite simply the passion of the early generations of followers of Christ. They were zealous. They were unapologetically on a mission to bring the message of the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

A Secure Salvation
His second suggestion lies in the fact that these Christians believed that their salvation was absolutely secure. They did not fear that they would lose their forgiveness, or that they could somehow be ‘unsaved’ after coming to Christ. They believed they were eternally saved by the work that Jesus did for them on the cross. This belief in their eternal security in Christ enabled them to persevere in the face of difficulties, displacement, hostility and even the threat of death.

Their eternal security made them courageous. Just as the persecution in connection with Stephen (Acts 7) had the opposite effect of silencing the church, so later persecutions caused the church to multiply and grow! This seemingly unshakable faith enabled them not only to endure but even to triumph in the face of severe persecution.

The updated version of A.M. Renwick's 'Story of the Church'
The updated version of A.M. Renwick’s ‘Story of the Church’

Historian A.M. Renwick writes:

‘The Christians refused to conform to many accepted customs.  They would have nothing to do with idolatry, and condemned the public games where gladiators fought in mortal combat to make sport for the spectators…

They refused public office and certain public duties such as the burning of incense to the gods, or the pouring of libations…The result was that they were regarded as a morose and intolerable people.  Matters came to a crisis when, in 64 A.D., the emperor Nero accused the Christians of setting fire to the city of Rome.

The public feeling against them was such that they were universally reviled.  Even a writer of the eminence of Tacitus, who disliked Nero intensely, writes of Christianity as a ‘most mischievous superstition’.  He accuses them of ‘abominations’, and declares that ‘they were put to death as enemies of mankind’.

The cruelties perpetrated at Rome in the Neronic persecution were unspeakable, and a vast number of Christians perished.  Some were wrapped in the skins of wild beasts so that they would be more savagely attacked by dogs.  Some were crucified; others were placed in barrels of pitch, or smeared with pitch and set on fire, and these living torches were used by Nero to illuminate his gardens as he drove about, enjoying the dreadful spectacle.’i

Nevertheless the good news continued to spread. What was intended to silence the followers of Jesus, seemed to have the opposite effect, and multitudes were won by their gracious and godly example, by the miracles that accompanied them and by the message itself.

Next time we’ll look at the example of the zeal and assurance one of the great Christian leaders of the 2nd century, Polycarp.

i Renwick, The Story of the Church (Leicester: IVP) p.17

© 2008 Lex Loizides