On Heterodox Signs and Miracles

Leontius of Jerusalem ca. 485-543

But some people invent a different justification… for their disobedience to the truth. This is what they say: ‘When certain people who hold the same opinion as they do – some of them living in the flesh, and some who have passed on – have been seen to possess the gifts of healings and signs from God, how could the opinion held among them not be pleasing to God? It’s clear, after all, that divine powers operate on the basis of hearing and teaching God’s correct faith.’

What’s to be said against that argument is the following: to the really reputable judge of divine doctrines, this [working of miracles] is not sufficient grounds for confidence. In the first place, this [phenomenon] is to be found more rarely among our opponents, and ‘one swallow doth not a summer make’. On the contrary, even Arians (found to this day among the Lombards), and Nestorians (found among the Persians) sometimes work just as great miracles, but that doesn’t all on its own have the effect of justifying their choosing against us. Rather, such is the power of Christians’ faith over and against those entirely outside the faith when the Spirit’s made manifest. Moreover, it is often possible to observe gifts of miracles among orthodox and heterodox persons alike, not on account of orthodoxy alone – for then; truly, there’s truth in opposite definitions and contradictions! – but on account of the individual’s natural simplicity and humility (and even more, innocence of soul), or on account of his gentle and sympathetic disposition and, to put it simply, his greater personal fitness for so great a gift over the others who share his faith. If the capacity for a miracle-working really is present in anyone on account of his opinion alone, then everyone who took the same doctrinal stance must always have worked miracles in the same way. To tell the truth, though, teachers of the faith often aren’t miracle-workers; it’s those they’ve taught who perform signs.

One and the same Spirit doesn’t give all the miracles He works to one and the same person, for to one is given a word of wisdom, but to another a word of knowledge, to another gifts of healing, to another the working of miracles, to another faith according to the same Spirit. It’s remarkable how the one who speaks in tongues doesn’t receive the most closely related gift to speaking in tongues at all, and interpret tongues. It’s therefore possible for some people who’ve received neither a pure word of wisdom, nor a word of knowledge, nor lofty faith, to have the gift of miracles, and there’s no sound reason for deciding about one of the Spirit’s gifts on the basis of another. Let me make my point more clearly: If gifts of miracles existed solely among these people, or if they were observed to a greater extent among them than among us, then their view really has a prima facie case for its orthodoxy over against ours, since the Lord has confirmed only their message by the signs that followed, as it is written, just as He also once commended the preaching of the Apostles to all nations, and just as He made Moses’ and Aaron’s signs triumph over those of Jannes and Jambres against the Egyptians. If, however, greater and more numerous miracles from the Spirit are to be seen among us throughout the world, how is t that they’d have their doctrine be more trustworthy on the basis of miracles alone? Don’t let them propose this line of argument, then, as being any advantage to them in the way of offering some kind of defense for their superstition!

If Sceva, though a Jew, drove out demons with his sons by adjuring them in the name of Christ, yet isn’t counted among the Lord’s disciples for that alone, it’s clear that our opponents don’t have an excuse for their sin on that basis either. On that day, He says, many shall say to me, ‘Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons, and perform many wonders?’ And then I shall declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’ It’s clear then, that the manifestation of a miracle is not sufficient grounds distinguishing between those who are known, and those who are disowned, by Christ; often the miracle happens through faith (more correct than the miracle-worker’s) of the one to about to receive the benefit, or through the onlooker’s faith, to enhance their simple confidence about religion. Sometimes, too, it happens by means of foreknowledge on God’s part of a general need of the moment and the district, and by agency of whatever person brought it to pass.

In our own times and places the story is told of a certain actor from a theater company who, being charged with riot and murder, tried to escape from the judge in the deserts near what is called the barbarian border, and was captured by Christian Arabs. Because he seemed to them to be a monk on account of his shaved head, and to be able, like the monks who consort with them, to perform the mystery of the bread of life, he was earnestly entreated by them with signs to celebrate the liturgy of the divine offering, and was set apart from his fellow prisoners on his own. He found no way to convince them by argument of his own unfitness, and he was impotent to resist their demand any longer. He made for himself an altar out of sticks in the desert, spread a fine cloth, set out newly baked bread, and mingled wine in a wooden chalice. Offering the gifts, he made the sign of the cross over them as he looked toward heaven, and glorified the Holy Trinity alone. Then he broke [the bread] and distributed it to them. Afterwards, they took away the cup and the cloth with reverence, as being sanctified, so that they would no longer be used for any profane use. The only thing that they overlooked was the altar. Without warning a great fire fell from heaven! It struck none of them, and hurt no one, but it burned up the entire altar of sticks, and destroyed it so completely as to leave behind not even their ashes. The barbarians, given complete confidence in the man who performed the ritual by the marvel they’d seen, insisted that he ask for some gift of them in return for the liturgy. He asked that all those captured with him be released with him; his wish was granted, and he freed all his companions from their unfortunate situation. Now this man was of our persuasion only in that, when he went to church, he gathered with us, thought to tell the truth he did so without realizing there was a difference between Christians. The Arabs, however, traditionally shared in the heresy of the Jacobites, who themselves give pride of place to one nature in the Lord. These Jacobites were the first to make the practice of traveling with the Arabs in the desert and ministering to them in every way. These men neither knew of, nor taught, precision about the comparison between the doctrines held by different Christian groups. Rather, they were converted by the ideas of Jacob [Baradatus], taking the imprint of these ideas without any examination, much in the way the Persians were converted by the ideas of Nestorius. (“Testimonies of the Saints”.  Leontius of Jerusalem edited and translated by Patrick T. R. Gray pp. 157-161)