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Volume 7, Issue 6: The Puritan Eye

Miracles of Rome

B.B. Warfield

It would be natural to suppose that the superstitions which flourished luxuriantly in the Middle Ages would be unable to sustain themselves in the clearer atmosphere of the twentieth century. "We shall have no repetition of mediaeval miracles," says W.F. Cobb with some show of conviction, "for the simple reason that faith in God has ousted credulity in nature."

When we speak thus, however, we are reckoning without the church of Rome. For the church of Rome, while existing in the twentieth century, is not of it. Precisely what happened to the church of Rome at that epoch in the history of Christianity which we call the Reformation, was that it bent its back sturdily to carry on with it all the lumber which had accumulated in the garrets and cellars of the church through a millennium and a half of difficult living. It is that part of the church which refused to be reformed; which refused, that is, to free itself from the accretions which had attached themselves to Christianity during its long struggle with invading superstition. Binding these closely to its heart, it has brought them down to the present hour.
The church at Rome, accordingly, can point to a body of miracles, wrought in our own day and generation, as large and as striking as those of any earlier period of the church's history. And when the annals of the marvels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries come to be collected, there is no reason to suppose that they will compare unfavorably in point either of number or marvellousness with those of any of the "ages of faith" which have preceded them. This continuous manifestation of supernatural powers in its bosom constitutes one of the proudest boasts of the church of Rome; by it, it conceives itself differentiated, say, from the Protestants.
We had occasion in a previous lecture to point out that this great stream of miracle-working which has run thus through the history of the church was not original to the church, but entered it from without. The channel which we then indicated was not the only one through which it flowed into the church. It was not even the most direct one. The fundamental fact which should be borne in mind is that Christianity, in coming into the world, came into a heathen world. It found itself, as it made its way ever more deeply into the world, ever more deeply immersed in a heathen atmosphere which was heavy with miracle.
This heathen atmosphere, of course, penetrated it at every pore, and affected its interpretation of existence in all the happenings of daily life. It was not merely, however, that Christians could not be immune from the infection of the heathen modes of thought prevalent about them. The church was itself recruited from the heathen community. Christians were themselves but baptized heathens, and brought their heathen conceptions into the church with them, little changed in all that was not obviously at variance with their Christian confession. He that was unrighteous, by the grace of God did not do unrighteousness still; nor did he that was filthy remain filthy still. But he that was superstitious remained superstitious still; and he who lived in a world of marvels looked for and found marvels happening all about him still. In this sense the conquering church was conquered by the world which it conquered.
It is possible that we very commonly underestimate the marvelousness of the world with which the heathen imagination surrounded itself, crippled as it was by its ignorance of natural law, and inflamed by the most incredible superstition. Perhaps we equally underestimate the extent to which this heathen view of the world passed over into the church. Trede bids us keep well in mind that Christianity did not bring belief in miracles into the world; it found it there. The whole religion of the heathen turned on it; what they kept their gods for was just miracles. As Theodore Mommsen puts it in a single sentence: "The Roman gods were in the first instance instruments which were employed for attaining very concrete earthly ends" and then he adds, very significantly, "a point of view which appears not less sharply in the saint-worship of present-day Italy."

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