Christians felt the loss of spiritual gifts keenly

Christians felt the loss of spiritual gifts keenly

After the first century, miracles ceased entirely from the church. This has been a much-discussed phenomenon. We have touched on it in these talks, and quoted Bishop John of Bristol's statement: "I perceive in the language of the Fathers, who lived in the middle and end of the second century . . . , if not a conviction, at least a suspicion, that the power of working miracles was withdrawn, combined with an anxiety to keep up a belief of its continuance in the Church."5 This can be illustrated by the instance of the Thundering Legion. When a Roman army was delivered from death by thirst by a timely shower of rain during an expedition in Germany, everybody rushed to claim the miracle for his church: Devotees of Isis claimed that the rain was sent in answer to the prayers of the Egyptian priest Arnuphius who was with the army; on the Antonine column we still see the miracle cited in support of the Roman state religion and attributed to the intervention of Jupiter Pluvius from whose outspread arms the shower pours down; Tertullian, however, attributes the miracle to the prayers of the Christians who were with the army. For Bishop John this eager exploitation by Tertullian of a mere coincidence shows how hard up the church was for real miracles, for in all his extensive writings Tertullian, like other Christian contemporaries, is at a loss to produce a single case of a good contemporary miracle. But more significant than this is the fact that this upright Christian is now competing with the pagan religionists for a miracle to prove his religion: He is speaking their language.

The total absence of miracles in the church in the second century—at the very time when the apologists were looking most eagerly for them—is usually explained as the laying aside of credentials that were no longer necessary. The arguments against this are only too obvious. Why didn't the Christians themselves ever give that explanation? Why did they stubbornly insist on clinging to every old or new miracle they could find? When did the missionary work of the church ever reach completion or come to a halt so that the alleged credentials would no longer be necessary? When did the Christians ever cease to need help against evil spirits or become immune to the effects of poison, snakebite, or disease? The church proceeded to remedy the fatal defect exactly as she made up for the loss of doctrine and authority—by substitution. As might be expected, the substitution followed two lines: the esoteric and the vulgar. Left to human providence, religious things, as has often been pointed out, tend to gravitate to two opposite poles—a purely intellectual on the one hand, and a vulgar and superstitious on the other. So among the intellectuals, Quadratus of Athens was the last man in the second century to insist on the literal nature of the miracles of Jesus;6 those who followed him, Aristides, Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, and Theophilus—though they could not deny the miracles, being among the most fundamental things in Christianity—gave them a more sophisticated appraisal7 and, moving as fatally to a Neoplatonic "spiritual" explanation as a needle to the pole, took the position illustrated by Irenaeus who, when asked "why the Lord rained down manna on the people in the days of the fathers, but now does so no more?" replied: "If you only knew it, he still rains down manna upon his servants—every day, . . . even the perfect bread of heaven, the body born of the Virgin, [etc.] But there is also a spiritual manna, that is the downpouring of spiritual wisdom."8[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 16, references silently removed—consult original for citations.