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Tongues and Other Miraculous Gifts in the Second Through Nineteenth Centuries, Part 3: From the 5th to the 13th Centuries


Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

One of the greatest early works of church history is the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in A.D. 731. This is a valuable source, known for its separation of historical fact from hearsay and tradition.53 Bede was a very careful scholar, and did his utmost to find reliable source material for his work, often sending emissaries to various places like Rome to gather important source materials. Throughout Bede’s work there are accounts of miracles. In fact, the entire work is so saturated with accounts of miracles that if one ere to discount them, one would have to discount the entire work, which would be impossible, since the events it describes are woven so unmistakable into the tapestry of history. A summary of the contents of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History would be far beyond the scope of this article, but a single sample from it would be helpful for purposes of illustration. At one point, Bede quoted extensively from a letter, dated A.D. 601, sent to Augustine of Canterbury by Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome. The content is as follows:

I know, most loving brother, that Almighty God, by means of your affection, shows great miracles in the nation which he has chosen. Wherefore it is whilst your rejoice, on account of the same heavenly gift; viz., that you may rejoice because the souls of the English are by outward miracles drawn to inward grace; but that you fear, lest, amidst the wonders that are wrought, the weak mind may be puffed up in its own presumption, and as it is externally raised to honour, it may thence inwardly fall by vain-glory. For we must call to mind, that when the disciples returned with joy after preaching, and said to their heavenly Master, ‘Lord, in thy name, even the devils are subject to us;’ They were presently told, ‘Do not rejoice on this account, but rather rejoice for that your names are written in heaven.’ For they place their thoughts on private and temporal joys, when they rejoice in miracles; but they are recalled from the private to the public, and from the temporal to the eternal joy, when it is said to them, ‘Rejoice for this, because your names are written in heaven.’ For all elect do not work miracles, and yet the names of all are written in heaven. For those who are disciples of the truth ought not to rejoice, save for that good thing which all men enjoy as well as they, and of which their enjoyment shall be without end.

It remains, therefore, most dear brother, that amidst those things, which, through the working of our Lord, you outwardly perform, you always inwardly strictly judge yourself, and clearly understand both what you are yourself, and how much grace is in that same nation, for the conversion of which you have also received the gift of working miracles. And if you remember that you have at any time offended our Creator, either by word or deed, that you always call it to mind, to the end that the remembrance of your guilt may crush the vanity which rises in your heart. And whatsoever you shall receive, or have received, in relation to working miracles, that you consider the same, not as conferred on you, but on those for whose salvation it has been given you.54

This letter is one of the most precious records in all of the history of Christian literature. In it, Gregory does not marvel at miracles or revel in the them. He accepts them as a fact of life and goes on to warn Augustine of Canterbury of a very real danger. The letter expresses genuine concern for the well-being of a Christian brother. Its marks of authenticity are unmistakable. The letter is manifestly not an attempt to convince others that miracles have been taking place.., for this is not the slightest concern of the author. The facts of history are all in accord with the content of the letter. Nobody can deny that Gregory the Great was bishop of Rome from A.D. 590 until A.D. 604, that Augustine of Canterbury was sent by Gregory to England as a missionary, and that Bede would have had access to such a letter in his assiduous efforts in writing a careful history of Christianity in Britain. Gregory was known to be preoccupied constantly with the problem of pride in himself and in others, but particularly within himself. To deny the authenticity of the letter, one would have to tear it out of the very fabric of history, and one would be left with countless loose ends which could never be fitted back together.


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Category: Church History, Spring 1999

About the Author: Richard M. Riss (as of Fall 1998) is Assistant Professor of Church History at Zarephath Bible Institute in Zarephath, New Jersey. He holds a Master of Christian Studies degree from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia (1979) and a Master of Arts in Church History from Trinity Divinity School (1988). He is currently finishing a Ph.D. degree in Church History at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Richard M. Riss has authored several books including The Evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1977), The Latter Rain Movement of 1948 and the Mid-Twentieth Century Evangelical Awakening (1987), A Survey of 20th-Century Revival Movements in North America and with Kathryn J. Riss, Images of Revival (1997).

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