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Proclaiming the Gospel with Miraculous Gifts in the Postbiblical Early Church

Augustine had a practice of requiring all who had experienced miracles to make both oral and written testimony, so those who had heard would not forget, and those who had never heard would be made aware of God’s power. He also takes his own advice by reporting a variety of contemporary miracles.

Whenever a miracle occurred it was Augustine’s practice to mediate the event to the people. This was so that they would understand completely what had happened, so they would not forget, and so that God would receive the glory, rather than the priest.

Augustine insists that true gifts will bear examination. He even suggests a test to determine whether the spirit is of God: “Therefore by this understand ye the spirit that is from God. Give the earthen vessels a tap, put them to the proof, whether haply they be cracked and give a dull sound; see whether they ring full and clear, see whether charity be there”18 (cf. Mat. 7:20). Furthermore, Augustine warns against the notion that a spiritual work must be accompanied by external proof: “God forbid that our heart should be tempted by this faithlessness.”19

Augustine had a practice of requiring all who had experienced miracles to make both oral and written testimony, so those who had heard would not forget, and those who had never heard would be made aware of God’s power.

Strangely, the same Augustine who provides evidence of the supernatural in the fourth and fifth century Church, also denies on at least five occasions that the gift of tongues is for his generation. “In the laying on of hands, now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look, that they should speak with tongues?” “When we laid the hand on these infants, did each one of you look to see whether they would speak with tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so wrongminded as to say, These have not received the Holy Ghost?” Tongues are no longer needed because “the Church itself now speaks in the tongues of all nations.”20

One can speculate that, in specifically denying glossolalia, Augustine might have been reacting against contemporary enthusiasts of whom we have no historic record. And it is equally significant that he can point to no scriptural passage which demonstrates his assertion regarding the gift of tongues.


Gregory the Great (540?-604): Recorder of Contemporary Miracles

Gregory the Great, the fourth and last of the traditional Latin “Doctors of the Church,” became Pope in 590. His Four Books of Dialogues on the Life and Miracles of the Italian Fathers and on the Immortality of Souls (593-94) simplified the doctrines expressed in Augustine’s The City of God, and was highly influential during the Middle Ages. This work was composed for the single purpose of recording miracles performed by Italian saints in his own time. He understood that miracles were necessary in the Early Church to accomplish the work of evangelism. So too they were necessary in his own time for the conversion of pagans as well as the Lombard heretics. They also were probably intended to deepen the faith of those who were already baptized Christians. While Gregory admits that miracles, with the exception of visions, were not as frequent as they had been in the first century because the number of the faithful had grown considerably, miracles were still a constant of Christian experience.21

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Category: Church History, Summer 2008

About the Author: Stanley M. Burgess received a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has taught history for 57 years and was Distinguished Professor of Christian History, Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia (2004–2011). He has written numerous scholarly articles on church history and the history of Christianity as well as several books, including The Spirit and the Church: Antiquity (Hendrickson), The Holy Spirit: Eastern Christian Traditions (Hendrickson), and The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions (Hendrickson), a documentary history of the Christian Peoples of the Spirit: A Documentary History of Pentecostal Spirituality from the Early Church to the Present (New York University Press, 2011), and was co-editor of the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Religion and Social Justice (Oxford, 2012).

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