What Would Augustine Say?
The fifth-century theologian answers five crucial twenty-first-century questions.
Signs & WondersMiracles Ended Long Ago— Or Did They?by Bruce L. ShelleyDuring his pastoral ministry, Augustine came to know a woman in Carthagenamed Innocentia. A devout woman and highly regarded, she tragicallydiscovered that she had breast cancer.A skillful physician told her the disease was incurable. She could opt foramputation and possibly prolong her life a little, or she could follow the advice of Hippocrates and do nothing. Either way, death would not be put off for long.Dismayed by this diagnosis, Augustine reports, "she turned for help to Godalone, in prayer." In a dream, Innocentia was told to wait at the baptistry for thefirst woman who came out after being baptized, and to ask this woman to makethe sign of Christ over the cancerous breast.Innocentia did as she was told, and she was completely cured. When she told herdoctor what had happened, he responded with a contemptuous tone, "I thoughtyou would make some great discovery to me!" Then, seeing her horrified look,he backpedaled, saying, "What great thing was it for Christ to heal a cancer? Heraised a man who had been dead four days." This story, reported in City of God, shows how dramatically Augustine hadchanged his mind on the subject of miracles.In North Africa in Augustine's day, belief in miracles was as widespread astoday's obsession with angels in America. Early in his ministry, Augustinemocked these popular claims.In On True Religion, written in 390, he asserted that miracles like those in theBible ended in the apostolic era. "These miracles," he wrote, "were no longerpermitted to continue in our time, lest the mind should always seek visiblethings, and the human race should be chilled by the customariness of the verythings whose novelty had inflamed them."But later in Augustine's ministry, some of his colleagues traveled to Jerusalemand returned to North Africa with relics of the body of an apostle. Little chapelscalled memoriae containing sacred dust sprang up in country estates aroundHippo. As biographer Peter Brown puts it, Augustine had to deal with miracles onhis own doorstep. The bishop, who had once scoffed at such folk religion, now found himself preaching to huge crowds drawn by a little bit of dust. He saw the power of theshrines: he knew of a thief in Milan who was compelled to confess his deeds atthe tomb of the saints. He needed to modify his earlier, anti-miracle stance.So Augustine, late in life, decided to examine and record the miracles that he