When Miracles Ceased

One of the stranger ideas that accompanied the Reformation, was the notion that miracles had ended at the time of the New Testament’s completion. Never stated as a doctrinal fact in the mainstream of Protestantism, it remained a quiet assumption, particularly when joined with an anti-Roman Catholicism in which the various visions, weeping statues, and saints lives were considered to be fabrications of a corrupt priesthood. Stories abounded during the Reformation about how this or that well-known miracle had been debunked. What replaced that Medieval world was the sober thought of the Bible as answer book.

Many held that miracles were quite unnecessary after the Bible was “completed,” since everything necessary for salvation was contained within its covers. Anglican ordinands (to this day) take an oath saying:

“I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation.”

Miracles, visions or revelations from God were considered not only unnecessary but positively dangerous in that the faithful might imagine such things to carry an authority equal to or greater than the Scriptures.

Various groups within the Protestant world have actually codified this idea into a matter of their denominational doctrine. It is known as “Cessationism,” referring to the “cessation” of the gifts of the Spirit. The Modern Project itself, particularly in its secularized perception of the world, is a version of Cessationism. Indeed, the Cessationist ideas of early Protestantism were a primary force in the creation of the secular concept.

A secular worldview holds that things are just that – things. The world consists of a collection of self-existing objects (some of which breathe and think), that live within the bounds and limits of the “laws” of nature. If God is to be known or perceived, then either He must disturb the laws of nature or become an object among objects. The modern world, in the words of Max Weber, is “disenchanted.” It is as if you found your way into Narnia, only none of the animals speak, the trees have fallen asleep, and magic seems to have ceased.

This is the context in which we live. It is also a perception that, to a great extent, shapes how we ourselves perceive the world, whether we intend it or not. Secularism is the default setting for those born into modern culture. The world is mute.

This is in stark contrast to the traditional (Orthodox) Christian understanding. Only God is self-existing. Everything else not only depends on Him for its existence and continuation but is moment-by-moment sustained only by the will and goodness of God. As such, the world itself is a manifestation of the “divine energies” (the actions and working of God). Those actions and working of God are not something done “at a distance,” for His actions and works are themselves God. He is both essence and energies. And though the effects of His actions and works are not themselves God (the tree that He sustains is not Him), nevertheless, the effects cannot exist apart from Him (“in Him, we live and move and have our being” – Acts 17:28). Cessationism would be non-existence. Miracles not only continue, everything we see is a constant abiding miracle (including ourselves). There is only miracle.

The perception of God and our relationship with Him are inherently difficult for a modern or secular mind. For us, the world is mute, and we perceive God to be equally mute. As such, we think that He either does not exist or doesn’t wish to make Himself known. From the position of classical Christianity, just as there is only miracle, so there is only the action and working of God everywhere.

And so, we read such things in Scripture:

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth are full of Your glory!

Confessing this to be the case slowly brings a shift in our perception and represents the renunciation of the Modern Project. Another way of describing this would be to say that the whole of creation is a sacrament. The bread and wine of the Eucharist, as the Body and Blood of Christ, are not exceptions: they reveal the truth of creation. The whole of everything is given to us for communion.

The Eucharist also reveals something of the nature or character of God’s divine energies (His actions and will). The God made known in the Eucharist is Christ crucified and risen. It is the Paschal mystery, the God who empties Himself and enters the depth and emptiness of our suffering that He might fill all things with His love. The modern person, upon being told that everything is sustained by the will and action of God often leaps to the many tragic sufferings within the world – as though they contradict that reality or suggest God’s incompetence. But they imagine a God other than Christ crucified, a God apart from His Pascha.

The Resurrection of Christ is the revelation of the goodwill of God, the promise of the final outcome of all things. The world that is being “gathered together in one in Christ Jesus,” is, through His suffering and death (within them), being united to His resurrection.

This is the context in which we pray and worship and in which we come to perceive God (with what the fathers describe as the “noetic” faculty). We pray and we listen and we think there is only silence. This itself is the secular perception. Everything around us and we ourselves exist, sustained by the voice of God. Their existence is the eloquence of His good will.

But what of miracles? If the whole world is a miracle, then what of those things that are commonly described as miracles? First, they do not belong to a separate category. That someone is instantaneously healed of a disease does not belong to a category of exception: it is a miracle among miracles that happen in a way such that we see the truth that might otherwise seem hidden. The danger in miracles for the modern mind is to think of them as exceptional. In doing so, we imagine the world as divided into the miraculous and the ordinary.

When we pray, if we expect the “miraculous” (in the modern sense), we will grow weary with the ordinariness of our experience. We imagine that we hear nothing, for we have already decided that the sound of the ordinary is nothing miraculous. I always caution inquirers and catechumens in the Church to be prepared to be bored. Though Orthodox services can be beautiful and profound, they are no more beautiful and profound than the world around us. The modern mind becomes bored by the so-called “ordinary,” because it has become accustomed to distractions that play to our passions. “Boredom” is what you get when you are not being entertained – it is a modern phenomenon.

Christianity does not begin as a discussion of the inner life. The Christian faith begins with the death and resurrection of Christ. That reality, which spans and unifies all things, is both present as a point in history with abundant testimony of eye witnesses, and as an eternal and ever-present moment that exists before all things and for which all things exist. Regardless of our subjective questions, the concrete reality of Christ’s death and resurrection remains.

Subjectivity itself, the world as we experience it inside our heads, is notoriously changeable and fails every test of reliability. It is the chimera of our existence, and can never be its foundation.

Years ago, when I was in college, I suffered a severe bout of depression. I was hospitalized for a week. After the hospital, I “white-knuckled” my way through the world and found a path back to sanity. One of those paths was to distrust my subjective experience. Nothing “sounded like fun” (that’s the nature of depression). But I reasoned that I needed to have fun and decided to treat fun as an objective activity. My now-wife and I began doing things that were the “kind of things people do for fun,” in an effort to teach my brain and body how to do something they had lost. It was very therapeutic.

It is a great joy when our inner and outer world agree. The tradition describes a pattern of life that strengthens “noetic” perception, and thus our awareness of communion with God. Largely, that pattern consists of the quieting of the passions and the acquisition of inner stillness. But this pattern, or its result, is simply a description of something within the spiritual life that is of value – it is not its basis or foundation.

To a great extent, modern skepticism presumes a world whose “ordinary” existence has nothing to do with the miraculous. Our existence and the providential character of the world are thus reduced to the random workings of chance. The world is inert and opaque and says nothing about God. As such, only the extraordinary, the “miraculous” (in the modern sense), can reveal God. It is a demand that God should agree to be a secular God, to reject His world as sacrament.

The Orthodox life is a consent to the world as sacrament, inasmuch as it is revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Christ. We do not believe in the death and resurrection of Christ because we see the world as sacrament, but the other way around. It teaches us that the fullness of our existence reaches beneath the surface into the providence of God’s goodwill at work everywhere and in all things. That we “see” this is always a gift and a joy. It is also a difficult thing in a world whose self-explanation has been 500 years of unrelenting disenchantment and anti-sacramentalism.

Will wonders ever cease?

 

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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Comments

222 responses to “When Miracles Ceased”

  1. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    I have just read the exchange between Father and Matthew Lyon and found it to be quite edifying, to say the least. This kind of exchange is what I am here for. I started to read this blog many years ago and have learned much not only from Father’s commentary, but from the exchanges between Father and commentators, and exchanges between the commentators themselves. I would not be Orthodox but for this blog. My wife will not even set foot in an Orthodox church, so this blog is still my primary Orthodox community. Thank you all, especially Father Stephen, for all you do for me and the many, many others who read without commenting. Glory to God for all things, indeed!

  2. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    David and Dino,
    I want to join you thanking Matthew and Father for this conversation.

    Matthew,
    These sentences in your comment are some of the most beautiful words I have ever read on this blog:

    “Why would we not want to have their mind if we could? So, no return to a golden age, but a recovery of the Apostolic mind that gave us everything.”
    …..
    “Thanks for your time and effort with me. If you truly believe I’m in the wrong place, pray for me. God knows I don’t want to be wrong about who He is.”

    Thank you so much for these words…

  3. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    No, I did not find anything problematic. I have concerns when issues regarding the goodness of God put us in a place of judgement over the Scriptures by steering us in interpretive directions – often when the dilemma is unnecessary due to not having the context or worldview of the original hearers. I suppose we are all prone to do this, but I am very concerned about balance and I trust you are as well. Do I wish everyone to be saved, yes, but I don’t know how that could be possible without denying free will – yet I don’t consider it an impossibility, but it runs contrary to a robust notion of free will. I gave up a rigid Calvinism to become Orthodox which affirmed free will but said it was useless when it came to salvation.

    I cannot help seeing universalism as a byproduct or sister to a Calvinistic mindset because both systems negate the functionality of free will as having (over even having the capability of having) a determinative value in their salvation; people get saved whether their will is involved or not in both systems. So, surely this all colors my thinking. I think it is likely, very likely, that people who lean universalist would more readily allegorize “hard” passages because it is inconsistent with their prejudice. I would have a much easier time embracing annihilation because it leaves free will in tact and the rationale flowing from man’s goal in theosis: man had conditional immortality but never reached the goal. Hell would be non-existence, an eternal loss, an end to an opportunity for theosis. But still I feel outside the bounds of Orthodox theology, though I have this hopefulness – it does steer my interpretations I’m sure, but more so, free will guides them.

    I would think that an annihilationist and someone who believes in an eternal hell (whatever that may be) would not be as likely to feel a need to allegorize hard passages – but this is not because of a lack of love, or due to a desire to see God be vengeful since I would be the first to deserve justice. It would really come down to seeing man and his decisions carrying extreme weight – and at the same time these “stakes” are part of what establishes man as different from the rest of creation and worthy of respect and sacrifice. But I have to look my kids in the eye, one of which asked me if we could die in hell. I asked him if he thought he would go to hell and I think it was an open question for him (he is 9). I assured him of God’s love, that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and that he is constantly patient with us :”If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us.” The greatest challenge to your theology is how it applies to your children I am inclined to think.

    But coming to a belief in real free will (as opposed to an artificial distinction raised by Reformed theologians) was a radical shift coming from my background. Sometime, if you want to acquaint yourself with a good introduction to Reformed soteriology, and I’m sure you could quickly see the flaws, pick up a used copy of Lorraine Boettner’s, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (and then think hard about how every Evangelical and Protestant once held this theology and then only modified it). I did think the other day though, and maybe this is worth pursuing even though it is sci-fi, but in a multiverse (which I don’t believe in, this is just hypothetical) you could have universal salvation if God chose the correct “us” out of each world. So, I don’t lean that way theologically, but emotionally I do. I believe that God loves everyone equally and it is our calling to do the same and to hope/strive for every person’s salvation indiscriminately.

    Again, I want to thank you for the time and effort you give to this blog. I know my Priest puts in quite a workload so to do this on top of your other responsibilites is commendable. I am in full agreement that our hearts should never withhold or resist the active of love that is to move through us from God towards all his creatures, including those who are still without knowledge of Him – whether or not that is a difficult or an easy thing.

    I felt quite relieved and satisfied after your post, myself having some investment in the conversation time-wise. So, thank you again. I’m going to take a little break from posting but will return before long.

    God bless you Father,
    Matthew

  4. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew Lyon

    I don’t know what to think of it and am sometimes almost suspicious of its ‘niche’, but there does exist a free -will-retaining-universal-apokatastasis in St Isaac the Syrian. He sees Hell as a truly unbearable suffering who’s function is eventually purgatorial, making even Satan come to his senses and repent in free will. I have heard solid argumentation from saints both ways though.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew Lyon and Dino,
    Dino is correct (thanks, by the way). I think there is a difference between an apokatastasis (final reconciliation of all things) as an eschatological outcome, and an apokatastasis as a final necessary outcome. St. Isaac’s view is rooted in God’s patience and goodness, but not any way in a lack of freedom, etc. It is a statement of what the St. believed will happen rather than must happen. It is St. Isaac’s thought that undergirds a notion of hope. The other take, would be the sort of thing that has been condemned by the Church.

  6. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Mathew,

    Regarding free will, the type of Christian Universalism I have seen in no way postulates God’s override of the unrepentant will, but rather its transformation through the sufferings of Hell. Those who hold this understanding also point out there is a problem with our modern voluntarist notions of “freedom”, where that is defined as the choice between options. Fr. Stephen will have to correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is the biblical and genuinely Christian understanding is that a sinful state represents not freedom, but the bondage of the will and a darkened mind from which Christ came to set us free, since we could not save ourselves. True human freedom of will is when we will in accord with the true good and purpose of our own human nature.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I may be wrong but if one has had a meeting with the Lord and maintains a conscious rememberance of that meeting a goo d bit of the theology is moot.

    It can be helpful in setting boundaries that must not be crossed and helpful in directing one’s thoughts and beliefs and actions but it too shall pass away.

    Bad theology does more harm than correct theology does good, I think. Even good theology can be a block in some people’s hearts to actually encountering Jesus Christ.

    The actual meeting and inter-relationship confirms the good theology in a synergistic manner.

    Jesus is really who He says He is. He is faithful, merciful and just as is His Father even when He temporarily brings destruction. A destruction that even the most innocent among us is heir to except for the Cross.

    Wow unto me when I forget or am neglectful of my Lord. Worse yet when I rebel.

    Our world is both a fore taste of hell even in it’s highest pleasures and of the Kingdom even in deepest suffering. We can only serve one master.

  8. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father et al,
    What you wrote made me reflect how St Isaac’s view of apokatasis is of a piece with his utter trust in God’s providence that: the Lord always allows evil (born of free-wills) only inasmuch as good can come from it (Genesis 50:20). So, even the most unbearable suffering, even gehenna is part of this for him. It is eventually proved, only with the benefit of hindsight, to have been pedagogic. St Isaac is sublime.

    (On a very different note:)
    Of course, philosophically, there is a whole different aspect to all this that one can (philosophically) get really badly caught up on: that of time (and the different types of it if you like) and how intelligible beings’ participation in it, or not, affects their eternal state…
    Lossky covers those notions in some detail: Eternity (created) for the intelligible world is “aeonic” (from aion/ αἰῶν) eternity. It began as time, passing from non-being to being, to a non-temporal immutable existence. For Maximus, the interpenetration of the aion is “immobile time”, and of time is “the moving aion”. The interpenetration of the two can make time thinkable.
    The angelic world and human beings both partake of time and of the aion, but in different manners. Human condition is temporal, but in a time rendered intelligible by the aion. Angels knew of the free choice of time only at the moment of their creation: a type of instantaneous temporality from which they left for an aion of praise and service, or else of revolt and hatred. However a process exists in the aion, since angelic nature can ceaselessly increase in acquiring eternal benefits but without temporal succession.
    As for divine eternity, it cannot be defined either by the change proper to time or by immutability proper to the aion. It transcends both. It is apophatic for us, as we cannot even think of the living God according to the eternity of mathematical laws.
    The uncreated surpasses all oppositions.
    So, the creation from nothingness of ‘other-than-God’ time-space-matter beings, called to enter His eternity according to the divine will, makes our current understanding of what might be in the eschata always speculative (due to this added problem that we cannot know what sort of time/change/immutability etc we are talking about).
    Now what some God-seeing saints have had revealed to them is clearly of interest, but this is one of the areas where there is disparity.

  9. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Michael Batman – Amen, my friend. Amen.

  10. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Michael, I don’t think you’re wrong. 🙂

  11. Esmée La Fleur Avatar
    Esmée La Fleur

    Beautiful Michael, thank you!

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    This is over my nous.

  13. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman/Dino,

    What you are describing is a purgatorial view of hell. I’ve read defenses of it and I sympathize with it. For me, the “hiddenness” of God is explained by his desire to uphold our free will. If God overwhelmed us with “proof” of his existence, we would be forced to believe, and would probably see him as brute force – we would believe unwillingly. God, if he appeared to us as such a “force” would more resemble a love-crazed stalker, constantly loving us, trying to convince us that life with him is best for us, and he wouldn’t give up until we were convinced – regardless of if we wanted him or not. It seems this is the reason he does not overwhelm us by forcing us to believe, either instantaneously or over a long, indefinite period of time. Instead, he expects our synergy with the measure of revelation we have. Yet we have the example of what became the demonic realm who enjoyed such a closeness (in what measure we do not know) with God and yet did not want him in the end – the experience of God was not enough to keep them. So, imaginatively, I cannot see how a purgatorial hell, could result in a completely universal reconciliation. If God is hidden from us to uphold free will, so as not to force our obedience, he upholds synergy. At the same time, when God is manifest to the non-terrestrials, it is not enough to keep them. I cannot help but feel that synergy is destroyed by universalism – but at least a purgatorial view upholds free will to a much better extent that an instantaneous, born-again moment for everyone.

    My other concerns with universalism are practical. Since most laity, and I feel I have to include myself in their lot, are still in “purification”. Most of us will never reach glorification, at least according to history few do. So, preaching that comes from a presupposition of universalism (which affects the entire reading of Scripture, which Fathers to gravitate towards, which theories of this or that we adopt) will be less likely to warn, exhort, create moments of crisis which lead to repentance and lead us to illumination. I don’t mean scaring people with hell and judgment as a tactic for a holier flock, but the realization of the holiness of God: Peter in the boat saying, “Depart”, but a God who doesn’t depart. When the Church is described as hospital, it means ER and ICU just as much as a physical.

    When people are not motivated initially by the fear of God during the first stages of Christian development they see their sins as trivial, optional indulgences in something “unhealthy” – like eating too much cheesecake. This is why Chrysostom is so practical and probably never revealed much of his theological genius – his desire was to awaken repentance in a “worldly” congregation. As long as people are in purification, we need to be awakened to our sinfulness – not for guilt – but for a proper understanding of our relation to God in his holiness. If a universalist tendency deadens this concern for purification, it should be seriously examined. I don’t typically listen to Fr. Freeman’s homilies except when I have AFR playing via stream so I’m not pointing any fingers – but I feel I have experienced it for myself in Orthodox settings. And again, this is very much a Protestant/liberal Protestant concern just as much as it is a conservative Catholic/progressive Catholic or conservative Orthodox/whatever you call it Orthodox, one.

    If anything leads a Priest to deaden the concern for purification in their flock (whether physchology, philosophy, their beliefs in hell and how those beliefs require them to interpret the Scripture according to them, whatever) the flock will often be reassured in their sin, saved in their sins.

    Again, these are the concerns, they are warranted but they may not apply broadly – but a belief in universalism is a presuppostional one, and all presuppositonal views affect the rest of thinking – unlike a belief in something like a literal millenium.

    Matthew

  14. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father,
    I know! those things make the little hair left on my head ache…

    Matthew Lyon,
    I often hear that practical argument against the strong assertion of universal apokatastasis too. Although to me it is not a crucial concern. Mainly because I perceive any chastisement that goes by the name of unbearable gehenna/hell, whether (1)purgatorial/temporary or (2)eternal, as more than capable of doing that job to those who listen (and neither of the two does anything as a thought to those who don’t.)

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    I well understand the concerns. As both preacher and confessor within a congregation, I think I get a very accurate feel for what is or isn’t being engendered in the life of the congregation. I do not mean that defensively. What I think I see is that sin creates its own misery and that people are largely motivated towards repentance for the same reasons that we are motivated towards health in our lives. Nothing sends us to the doctor quicker than a bout of misery. A difference, and a concern, is that I sometimes encounter people who, nurtured in a culture of Christian “warning,” do not feel that God is on their side. Instead, particularly in American culture, they feel that their spiritual lives are just one more place where they need to measure up and are falling short.

    I am unrelenting in the proclamation of the goodness of God and that He wants our healing far more than we do and that He gains nothing by our illness and sin. I preach against sin and for God.

    I do not preach universalism – or really even deal with the topic in my preaching. It is one for discussion (such as these), but I’m not sure how I could preach it as such with authority – since that authority has not been given.

    But, I will say that over the years, those who see their Christianity (or their purification) as largely dependent on them, make miserable Christians. Most, I think, when they invoke synergism are closer to Pelagian than not. Our efforts consist in saying “Yes,” to God. But only grace can purify or deify. Our efforts of repentance and asceticism are efforts to yield ourselves to God – they do not create purity or divinity – nor can they.

    Frankly, I’ve seen more damage done in the name of purification than otherwise…but that is mostly based on my experience as a confessor and through my correspondence with people over the years. I’m not sure if this is because of the history and mindset of our culture. I simply know that the preaching of Christianity has been so distorted in our land as to produce rampant atheism. At least, that’s my experience.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Universal reconciliation or Full restoration of God’s order in a newness of all things that is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful with out confusion?

    Do not know the Greek.

  17. Albocicade Avatar

    Thank you Fr Stephen for your paper ! It has been translated into french by Claude Lopez-Ginisty, and it is a good thing. Thank you again

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Albocicade,
    Many thanks. I am always grateful to hear of translation efforts.

  19. Jeff Avatar
    Jeff

    As I read all these comments (not quite done) I see Jacob wrestling with God. Pondering that picture, I realize it’s not sin to wrestle with God. In fact, God says, “Bring it. I can go all day. It is in struggling with me that you find me. Fight with me and I will give you rest. I am rest. I am love.”

  20. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    I saw that as well, Jeff. Thank you. And God bless.☦️

  21. Jeff Avatar
    Jeff

    And God bless you, David. May He ever be praised.

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