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When Miracles Make Protestants Act Like Atheists

Even in the face of strong evidence, some Christians deny the reality of post-apostolic miracles. Why? Because belief in them seems too Catholic.

Trent Horn

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the topic of miracles and says they were more common in biblical times because their testimonial power was needed to establish God’s various covenants. Aquinas did not deny that miracles had continued after the apostolic age. He even cites these later miracles as evidence for the truth of Catholicism: “Yet it is also a fact that, even in our own time, God does not cease to work miracles through his saints for the confirmation of the faith.” (SGC, 1.6.1)

This led early Protestants to ask, “How could the Catholic Church be in league with the anti-Christ if God had performed so many miracles through its saints?” The answer for some Protestants was that God didn’t perform these miracles— they were either pious frauds or demonic deceptions. Calvin called them “frivolous and ridiculous, so vain and false.” Other Protestants became skeptical of any post-apostolic miracles, even ones that occurred among Protestants.

Scholar Thomas Kidd describes how a woman named Mercy Wheeler was healed at a Protestant revival service in the 1740s from an infirmity that prevented her from walking. Kidd says that many Protestants could not believe the miracle really happened because

to eighteenth-century Protestants, miracles were too closely associated with Catholicism, and anti-Catholicism served as an essential component of British Protestant identity. Opponents of the revivals attempted to associate the revivals with Catholic superstition whenever extraordinary claims surfaced (“The Healing of Mercy Wheeler: Illness and Miracles among Early American Evangelicals”).

As a result, Protestants adopted the same skeptical attitude atheists have long taken against the miraculous foundations of the Christian faith.

Counterfeit Catholic miracles?

Among Protestants, there is a debate over whether miraculous gifts have continued into the present or whether they ceased with the deaths of the apostles. An example of the latter view that strongly denies post-apostolic miracles is B.B. Warfield’s 1918 book Counterfeit Miracles. Warfield dismissed Catholic miracles as being the byproduct of people conditioned to believe miracles were common because of doctrines such as transubstantiation:

The worldview of the Catholic is one all his own and is very expressly a miraculous one. He reckons with the miraculous in every act; miracle suggests itself to him as a natural explanation of every event; and nothing seems too strange to him to be true (100).

Warfield explains away the healings at Lourdes as being the product of “suggestion” and dismisses medieval miracle stories as coming from “the thought of an age so little instructed in the true character of the forces of nature, and especially its deeply seated conception of the essentially magical nature of religion and its modes of working” (66). If you replaced “Catholic” with “Christian,” you might take Warfield for a “new atheist” like Richard Dawkins. Protestant author L. Philip Barnes summarizes Warfield’s various arguments against postapostolic miracles as deriving from the facts that

• They are alleged
• They are not well attested
• They come from secondhand sources
• They are supplanted by the advancement of non-miraculous explanations.

Barnes discusses the self-refuting nature of Warfield’s approach to miracles:

The problem, however, is that a number of these negative points would be equally telling if applied to some of the biblical miracles. For example, as Colin Brown has pointed out in his discussion of Warfield’s position, the raising of Lazarus, as reported in John 11, is not well attested, being recorded only in John’s Gospel, there is no corroborative evidence, other naturalistic explanations could be given, and so on. The point here is not to dispute the veracity of the story; it is rather to note that if the same considerations adduced by Warfield in his dismissal of post-apostolic miracles were applied to some biblical stories, then a similar negative verdict would be required in the latter cases as the former (“Miracles, Charismata and Benjamin B. Warfield”).

Christ’s resurrection and Marian apparitions

One common atheistic explanation for the Resurrection is that the disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus. However, Protestant apologist Mike Licona says it would be a “mind-boggling coincidence” that every member of the twelve disciples would have the same predisposition to hallucinations, which makes group hallucinations essentially impossible.

However, if early testimony from groups of eyewitnesses is enough to show that Jesus was seen alive after his death, then why wouldn’t the same evidence be enough to show that Mary was seen alive after the end of her life in the form of Marian apparitions? Even atheists raise this point, albeit to discredit Protestant arguments for the Resurrection.

Hector Avalos says that Marian apparitions “form the closest parallel to the Jesus apparition stories. . . . Marian apparitions have been reportedly witnessed simultaneously by millions of people, but most evangelical apologists do not see that as proof that Mary is alive” (The End of Biblical Studies, 193).

Bart Ehrman provides similar evidence for Marian apparitions and makes this observation:

It is striking and worth noting that typically believers in one religious tradition often insist on the “evidence” for the miracles that support their views and completely discount the “evidence” for miracles attested in some other religious tradition, even though, at the end of the day, it is the same kind of evidence (for example, eyewitness testimony) and may be of even greater abundance. Protestant apologists interested in ‘proving’ that Jesus was raised from the dead rarely show any interest in applying their finely honed historical talents to the exalted Blessed Virgin Mary (How Jesus became God, 199).

I once debated an atheist on the resurrection of Jesus, and a member of the audience asked me, “What do you think of the miracle claims of Fatima?” This was a reference to the three children who claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. After they reported their encounter, a crowd of thousands gathered on October 13. Many witnesses claimed the sun moved in extraordinary patterns across the sky, changed in color, and that the ground and clothes that had been soaked by rain had become bone dry in a matter of minutes.

I said, “In some respects we have better evidence for the miracles of Fatima than we do for the Resurrection of Jesus. After all, the first account of Christ’s miracle was written several years later, but the first account of the Fatima miracle was recorded in Portuguese newspapers only a few days later.”

My opponent acted as if this was a damning concession, and it might have been—for someone who denies Marian apparitions. In fact, Protestant apologists who have looked at the evidence for Marian apparitions don’t dismiss them as hallucinations. Instead, they are convinced that the people involved saw some kind of extra-mental or actually existing phenomena.

Mike Licona addresses the evidence for Marian apparitions that Ehrman includes in his book on Jesus and says that Ehrman has not disproven Christ’s resurrection through these examples. That’s because, as Licona puts it,

[Ehrman] merely assumes without any argument that visions of Mary are hallucinations. He states that groups had seen her. He admits that many of those experiencing the visions were educated professionals, including doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, engineers, and lawyers. Even Muslims apparently saw her. And the person perceived as being Mary was even photographed.

Demonic encounters?

It makes sense that Protestants wouldn’t explain Marian apparitions as something like an improbable group hallucination, since that would undercut arguments for Christ’s resurrection. Perhaps that’s why one popular Protestant response to Marian apparitions is that they are demonic impersonations of Mary.

Licona says, “Other supernatural forces, such as demons, could be behind some supernatural events in other religions.” This approach goes all the way back to the sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation when authors such as Johann Marbach denounced stories of Marian apparitions as being encounters with the demonic:

She was a false Mary whom the Jesuits conjured up with the form and the appearance of the Holy Virgin Mary. [This they performed] through their sorcery and the company that they keep with the devil (Wondrous in His Saints, 195).

In my debate on the Resurrection with atheist Matt Dillahunty, I said we should operate on the assumption that reality is as it appears unless evidence suggests otherwise. Dillahunty refused to accept this principle, but doing so would lead to all kinds of radical skepticism. But if you do accept it, then it seems clear that it at least appears Jesus rose from the dead. And if that’s true, then one is justified in believing that conclusion unless evidence suggests otherwise.

Even during Jesus’ ministry his critics rejected this principle by denying he was a wonder-working prophet of the true God. They said Jesus “casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (Luke 11:15). In response, Jesus told them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided house falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” (11:17-18).

In other words, claiming Jesus was diabolical violates basic principles of reason. Jesus’ healing of the sick and his firm commitment to serving the God of Israel means it at least appeared he was a prophet. In the absence of any evidence for Jesus’ demonic nature, such an explanation (on par with modern claims that Jesus was a technologically advanced alien) is a weak way of explaining away the historical data instead of providing a genuine explanation for it.

There’s also evidence against that claim, because we should ask: why would an agent of the devil use miracles to motivate people to adopt a belief system ordered toward rejecting the devil? If this explanation works for Jesus, then it works for Catholic miracles, especially Marian apparitions. When it comes to approved apparitions such as Fatima, one can ask why the devil would impersonate Mary to move people to join a Church whose members promise in their baptismal vows to “renounce Satan, and all his empty works, and all his empty show.”

Where are the Protestant miracles?

Just as Protestants can be dismissive of Catholic miracle claims, Catholics can do the same regarding Protestant miracles when they ask, “If Protestantism is true, then where are the miracles of Protestant saints?”

First, the demand for specific miracles can mirror atheists who say that if Christianity were true, then there would be more miracles among Christians. In response, Christian apologists can say that we are in no position to say when God would or would not perform a miracle. The fact that some miracles, such the Resurrection, did happen proves Christianity is true, no matter how many other Christians fail to perform miracles. Likewise, an absence of miracles among Protestants wouldn’t disprove Protestantism.

But Christianity at least has the Resurrection to vouch for it. What miracles did Luther or Calvin ever perform? St. Francis de Sales said, “No one should allege an extraordinary mission unless he prove it by miracles” (The Catholic Controversy, 9). There is no record of St. Francis performing miracles, but that didn’t prevent Pope Pius XI from saying, “Francis de Sales was given to the Church by God for a very special mission,” so this assumption is dubious (Rerum Omnium Perturbationem, 4).

Moreover, Luther and Calvin’s response to this objection parallels Aquinas’s explanation for why there was an absence of miracles after the apostolic age. Specifically, that the miraculous was primarily needed during the promulgation of divine revelation and became less necessary when revelation was just being transmitted from one generation to the next. Calvin said that because the Reformers were not giving any new revelation and were merely proclaiming the same Gospel given by Christ and the apostles, no new miracles should be expected. Or, as he put it:

In demanding miracles from us, they act dishonestly; for we have not coined some new gospel but retain the very one the truth of which is confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought (Letter to the King [on the Clergy]).

The other problem with this claim is that some Protestants do claim to have performed miracles. Craig Keener’s two-volume work Miracles describes Protestant missionaries and pastors who were reported to have performed miracles such as healing people and even raising the dead. Some early Protestants even claimed that images of Martin Luther were “incombustible”—they would not burn even when thrown into fires being stoked with Luther’s books.

Granted, some of these stories and accounts are probably apocryphal, but that’s also true of some Catholic miracle accounts that were written centuries after the events allegedly happened. But to say no Protestant miracle claim is authentic because Protestantism is false would be to engage in the same kind of prejudice Protestants such as Warfield practice when they say no Catholic miracle claim could be authentic.

Does that mean miracles (or “mighty works” if we’re reluctant to always call such acts “miracles”) can’t tell us anything about the agents performing them? If these acts involve the suspension of the laws of nature, then, at a minimum, they tell us the agent’s message should be taken seriously because there is a supernatural power behind it. In some cases, this may be a malevolent power bent on deceiving people, as could be the case with some non-Christian miracles. But we shouldn’t rush to a demonic explanation unless evidence suggests it.

God may be the power behind the miracle, but his divine act does not constitute an endorsement of the miracle-worker’s theology. For example, the apostle John told Jesus, “Master, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us.” In response, Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for he that is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49). In other words, the exorcists who did not follow Jesus were ignorant of his identity, but that did not prevent God from giving them the spiritual gift of exorcism.

As a result, God may perform many miraculous deeds in order to confirm aspects of Protestant theology that all Christians affirm, such as the need to repent and believe in the gospel. But what is more difficult for Protestants to explain are miracles involving things such as the Eucharist or relics that seem to confirm not just Christian theology but distinctly Catholic theology. In that respect, if it appears that God is revealing that Catholic practices such as offering the Mass or veneration of relics have faithfully handed on what was first given to the apostles, then (unless evidence suggests otherwise) we should be believe that is what has happened regarding Catholic miracles. Catholic philosophers Tyler McNabb and Joseph Blado make this point as well in the context of events such as Fatima:

We should expect that if a figure who represents a specific Christian tradition appears, then it would give credence to the truth of that tradition (assuming the figure does not denounce said tradition). For instance, if Martin Luther appeared with a message from God, then many would consider this to be evidence that the Protestant tradition is correct over the Roman Catholic tradition. Or if John Calvin showed up with a message from God, then this would serve as evidence that the Reformed Protestant tradition is correct over other Protestant traditions (and Roman Catholicism as well). Likewise, the fact that God chose Mary to reveal his message in a Roman Catholic context, that is, a context where heavy Marian devotion is both common and seen as biblical, gives us evidence that the Roman Catholic tradition is correct.

In conclusion, Protestants should not be dismissive of Catholic miracles lest their approach is used to dismiss biblical miracles as well. And Catholics shouldn’t crow about the alleged lack of Protestant miracles lest they undermine their own case. Instead, Protestants should be open to the existence of Catholic miracles and seriously consider what God may be revealing in these miracles, especially ones that occur in uniquely Catholic contexts such as the consecration of the Eucharist and apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hopefully they will conclude that God has continued to bless his people with signs and wonders for the new covenant he has made with them through Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

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