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In researching the role of miracles in the first three centuries of the church, history points to the Holy Spirit’s empowering of believers to perform miracles, signs, and wonders as being the single greatest factor contributing to the rapid expanse of the Christian faith in the first three hundred years.
Ramsay MacMullen, professor of classics and history at Yale University, exhaustively researched the oldest surviving documents to discover why Christianity was so quickly embraced by five million people within the first three centuries. He noted repeated accounts of “mass conversions” in the early years, which were directly attributed to the miracles performed by the evangelists and saints. “From the very beginning, Jesus’ disciples followed him instantly, without instructions; new adherents, by supernatural actions, were won to instantaneous belief.”1
Eusebius of Caesarea (260–341), the first of the great church historians, observed that the early Christians were “evangelizing . . . with God’s favor and help, since wonderful miracles were wrought by them in those times also through the Holy Spirit. As a result, assembled crowds, every man of them on the first hearing, eagerly espoused piety toward the maker of all things.”2
Apostolic Constitutions, an ancient document attributed to Hippolytus of Rome in AD 235, highlights the early church’s understanding of the role of miracles. “These gifts were first bestowed upon us, the apostles, when we were about to preach the gospel to every creature […] for the conviction of unbelievers, that those who the word did not persuade, the power of signs might put to shame; for signs are not for us who believe, but for the unbelievers, both for the Jews and Gentiles.”3
Irenaeus noted that those who had been cleansed from evil spirits as a result of miracles frequently both believed and joined themselves to the church. Chrysostom, who wrote around AD 390, stated, “Miracles are not for believers, but for unbelievers […] to increase the number of proselytes.”4
In his book Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green wrote, “It is an interesting fact arising from all this evidence that exorcisms were done in an evangelistic context. They were so clearly designed to back up the claims of the preached word.”5
MacMullen and other such notables concluded that the best explanation for the rapid expansion of Christianity in the first three centuries was not due to the church’s strategic use of literature distribution or the friendliness and kindness of the missionaries. It was not the endorsement of the state, the promise of prosperity, or even the church’s care of the poor in the community. Nor was it the loving relationships between believers. People did not choose to become followers of Christ because of the social status or psychological benefits afforded by the Christian faith; rather, they embraced Christianity primarily because of the persuasive influence of the miracles (particularly exorcisms and healings) that were experienced and attested to through the Mediterranean world.6 Even the great church father Augustine is quoted as saying, “I should not be a Christian, but for the miracles.”7 Edward Gibbon, author of the The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, listed five reasons for the remarkable and rapid growth of Christianity. Gibbon, while not a fan of the Christian faith, did mention the role of virtuous Christian living, but he also stated that one of the primary reasons why Christianity “obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth” was due to “the miraculous powers of the primitive church.” He stated further, “[T]he supernatural gifts very frequently brought about the conviction of infidels […] unbelievers.”8 So inseparable was the presence of miracles from the task of evangelism that some historians have noted the Greeks used the phrase, “spectators of a miracle” to define a Christian convert.9
It is important to remember that the explosive growth of the Christian faith took place in an environment that was vehemently anti-Christian, both politically and culturally. It is easy to lose sight of how unreceptive and openly hostile the people of the Roman Empire initially were toward the Christian faith. Professor E. M. Blaiklock wrote that people who lived in the vicinity of the Mediterranean in the early days of the church, generally looked upon Christians as a “plague” on society.10 John Wesley, quoting from various ancient writers, noted that Christians were typically viewed as “despicable, stubborn and even wicked […] stupid […] the very scum of mankind.” He continued by quoting Cornelius Tacitus (AD 55–117), who observed that Christians were “detested” and persecuted because of the “hatred of all mankind.”11
Yet it is within this context that the Christian faith grew wildly. How could this be? How could the Christian faith suddenly and rapidly grow throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, in the midst of vicious persecution and disdain? The Romans had no shortage of religious options from which to choose, so Christianity was generally not considered a viable one. History records Nero’s cruel torture of Christians. Michael Green insightfully states, “Within the thirty years of the founding of the new faith, to join the Christians meant to court martyrdom.” He continues by pointing out that the Jews, by and large, found Christian teaching to be offensive, heretical, and “blasphemous,” and they openly persecuted believers (Acts 8:1).12 Yet even within this violently anti-Christian environment, the presence of miracles, signs, and wonders provided conclusive evidence of God’s existence and the truthfulness of Jesus’ message. People flocked to the Christian faith, although it meant the loss of their property, friends, employment, educational opportunities, and freedoms. Sometimes, it even meant the loss of their lives. To make a contemporary comparison; the rapid and perplexing expanse of the Christian faith in the Roman Empire in the first century, would be like seeing Christianity explode with growth in Muslim-dominated Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia today. Gregory of Nyssa, writing in the mid-to-late 300s, concluded that miracles are the main door through which people come to a knowledge of God.13 John Wesley, quoting Origen, stated that as a direct result of the extraordinary manifestations of God’s power, “many have been converted to Christianity.”14 Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), commenting on the role and importance of these supernatural events, stated, “Miracles encourage men toward their own conversions.”15 Father John Hardon, noting the ministry of Augustine, said, “Augustine shows how reasonably the word of God may be embraced when fortified by miracles.”16 Augustine himself stated, “God has, as it were, reserved to Himself the doing of certain extraordinary actions, that by striking them [the unsaved] with wonder, He might rouse men as from sleep to worship Him.”17 While emphasizing the role of preaching in the success of the spread of Christianity, Green also noted the importance of the miraculous: “These acts of power [miracles] allied to the preaching of Jesus, which had such an impact […] perhaps the greatest single factor which appealed to the man in the street was deliverance, deliverance from demons, from Fate, from magic […] healings and exorcisms […] were factors of incalculable importance for the advance of the gospel in the world.”18
Authors, such as Green, Hummel, Deere, Warfield, and Rowan Greer, who quote extensively from the early church fathers (Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch to name a few) concluded that one of the primary purposes of the miraculous was to “create faith and demonstrate the truth of Christ and His message.” Greer stated categorically that the early church fathers clearly believed that “miracles serve to convert people to Christ.”19 Jaroslav Pelikan, paraphrasing Chrysostom, wrote that Jesus “intended for His moral doctrines and His miracles to convince the hearers that He was the Son of God.”20 And in Chrysostom’s own words, Jesus performed wonders to make Himself “credible and draw men to Him.”21 Clearly there is a connection between Jesus’ commissioning of His disciples to preach the gospel and His empowerment of them to perform miracles (Mark 3:14–15; 6:7, 12–13). In a large part it was the miracles that both drew the crowds and credentialed the messengers, authenticating their message (Luke 5:15; John 6:2; 10:38; 12:9–11). P. H. Davids commented that “these miracles are normally connected to an evangelistic result […] With Peter they initiate evangelism […] With Paul they […] accompany evangelism.”22
Are you interested in learning more about the role of the Holy Spirit in the work of evangelism? Stephen D. Elliott makes the case for the central role of supernatural signs and wonders in the church’s proclamation in By Signs and Wonders: How the Holy Spirit Grows His Church. Get your free copy to sow with your purchase—learn more here.
- Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: A. D. 100–400 (Yale University Press, 1984), 29, 32, 34.
- Ibid., 25.
- Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 192.
- Rowan Greer, The Fear of Freedom: A Study of Miracles in the Roman Imperial Church (University Park and London: Penn State University Press, 1989), 49, 52.
- Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 191.
- MacMullen: Christianizing the Roman Empire, 35, 40.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, sec. 13, “The Miracles.”
- Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol . 1 (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1879), 505–6, 539–40.
- MacMullen: Christianizing the Roman Empire, 3.
- Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 40.
- John Wesley: The Letters of John Wesley, vol. 2 (London: Epworth, 1960), 317.
- Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 31–33, 37.
- Charles E. Hummel, Fire in the Fireplace: Charismatic Renewal in the Nineties (Madison, WI: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 138.
- Wesley, The Letters of John Wesley, 333.
- Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted in Benedicta Ward, Miracles and the Medieval Mind: Theory, Record, and Event, 1000–1215 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 176–77.
- John Hardon, “The Concept of Miracle from St. Augustine to Modern Apologetics” (1998), Real Presence Association, http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Miracles/Miracles_003.htm.
- Augustine, in Greer, The Fear of Freedom, 43.
- Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 110, 123, 188.
- Greer, The Fear of Freedom, 13, 17, 26, 49, 56.
- Jaroslav Pelikan, Divine Rhetoric: The Sermon on the Mount as Message and as Model in Augustine, Chrysostom, and Luther (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 108.
- Chrysostom, in Greer, The Fear of Freedom, 49, 52, 55.
- B. L. Blackburn, “Miracles, Miracle Stories I: Gospels,” The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Daniel G. Reid, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 801, 814–15.