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Cautious Co-belligerence? The Late Nineteenth-Century American Divine Healing Movement and the Promise of Medical Science


Denied Medical Science’s Ability to Diagnose the Ultimate Cause of Disease

The Divine Healing proponents, consequently, denied medical science’s ability to diagnose the central root and cause of all disease. For them, no physical aspects of disease are foundational but are, instead, always consequential and symptomatic. At the most foundational level, the cause of all sickness and disease is sin. Medical science’s excessive, if not exclusive, naturalism and its understanding of sickness and disease solely as a chain of physical causes and effects prejudiced it from considering this option. This is medical science’s fatal flaw. For the Divine Healing proponents, sin is the ultimate cause of all human suffering, including human disease.46 Sin, as a force in the cosmos, has led to the disruption of the good created order and has resulted in the move to chaos and the disintegration of the created order of which human disease is but one manifestation. Therefore, medical science and its exclusive naturalism, at best, can only identify the symptoms of disease and can never get to the heart of the human predicament. “The doctor’s eyes are often more at fault than his hand,” wrote A. J. Gordon; he continued, “He cannot cure because he cannot comprehend the cause of our plague.”47 Kenneth Mckenzie granted that medical science may make accurate diagnoses, to a degree. It fell short, however, since the heart of the human predicament is supernatural. Science may see the “fruitage” of human sickness, but “the roots of sickness … are spiritual.”48 Given medical science’s naturalistic presuppositions, the Divine Healing promoters asserted that it cannot diagnose the cause of human disease at its most fundamental level. It is not that the human dilemma is “contranatural” but that it is supernatural.49 Therefore, if medical science hoped to accurately diagnose the cause of disease, it must lay aside its exclusive naturalistism. The understanding of sin—a supernatural entity—requires the supernatural means of revelation and illumination.50

Denied Medical Science’s Ability to Treat the Ultimate Cause of Disease

Consequently, the Divine Healing proponents also denied medical science’s ability to provide a cure suitable to the cause of humanity’s ills. By nature, medical science was only interested in the physical treatment of humanity. Consequently, medicine could never be a “sufficient remedy”51 to the root and breadth of human disease. As such, it was an “imperfect institution”52 and must be content with being symptomatic, at best.53 Alleviation is within its grasp, for a time. The finality of cure, however, is not. It may address, to a degree, pain and discomfort but it cannot address and eliminate the root of the disease.54

Divine Healing proponents denied medical science’s ability to diagnose the central root and cause of all sickness and disease—sin.

Sin is ultimately a supernatural matter and, therefore, it demands a supernatural response.55 Like many in the medical profession, the Divine Healing proponents assumed that only “like cures like.”56 The nature of the cure must be of the same kind as the disease. The cause of disease, while manifesting itself physically, is in essence supernatural. Therefore, its cure must be supernatural, too. For the promoters of Divine Healing, only one remedy is suitable to the address both the supernatural aspect and the breadth of the diseased human condition. Only in Jesus Christ can one find relief from consequences of the onslaught of sin. “Christ is the remedy for the Fall, for sin and, therefore, for disease which is the result of sin.”57 Faith in the “Great Physician”58 is not only the only appropriate response to sin, it “is God’s remedy for disease as well as sin”59 (emphasis added).

As important as physical healing is for the Divine Healing teachers, it is not the priority. The need for regeneration and sanctification—the spiritual blessings of Christ’s work—is more fundamental. Consequently, the healing homes and retreat centers operated by some of these individuals focused their work on these essential items early in their regimen.60 In addition, and prior to the exercising of an explicit ministry of healing, these homes sought to ensure that its guests had experienced the regenerative work of Christ and had, subsequently, experienced the sanctifying work of Christ, as well.61 This would often occur through a routine of spiritual therapy that had as its base careful Bible study, pastoral counsel, and the exercise of the “Prayer of Faith” according to James 5. Charles Cullis wrote that his own practice was “to get [those under his care] to give themselves to the Lord Jesus first, and then . . . to pray for them [for healing].”62 As a result, while many found the healing that they sought, many more would find spiritual blessing, even if they were not ultimately physically healed. Cullis boldly reported that while not all who came to his homes were physically healed, “none died until [their] soul [was] healed.”63 This was not seen as underperformance of any measure. Rather, they reported that such was an even greater blessing than the healing that was pursued. In Cullis’ homes, which were exclusively reserved for those who had been pronounced “incurable” by their own physicians, this spiritual restoration far outnumbered the cases of physical healing. Cullis reported that both host and guest considered such a success.64 Those who were fortunate enough to be physically healed also had “as great a blessing … come to the soul as to the body.”65


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Category: Church History, Summer 2010

About the Author: Bernie A. Van De Walle, Ph.D. (Drew University), is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology and theology program convener at Ambrose University College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of The Heart of the Gospel: A. B. Simpson, the Fourfold Gospel, and Late Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Theology (2009), Rethinking Holiness: A Theological Introduction (2017), and contributor to other works including The Spirit Renews the Face of the Earth: Pentecostal Forays in Science and Theology of Creation (2009), Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2011), and The Holy River of God: Currents and Contributions of the Wesleyan Holiness Stream of Christianity (2016). He has served as the President of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship and sits on the Steering Committee of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection. Amazon Author page

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