St. Augustine: The leading Church Father who dared to change his mind about divine healing

Augustinus 1.jpg
St Augustine of Hippo (image courtesy Wikipedia)

By Spencer D Gear PhD [1a]

She was “a woman of the highest social standing in her community,” but disaster had struck. She was dying from a disease that would not respond to any known medical treatment. Two choices were available to her: she could have surgery, or she could accept no treatment. Either way, death was inevitable.

On the advice of an eminent doctor who was a family friend, Innocentia chose to refuse treatment for her breast cancer. But that doctor didn’t realize this godly woman had access to resources he knew nothing of.

In a dream she was told by the Lord to “wait on the women’s side of the baptistry until the first of the newly baptized women would approach, and then ask her to make the sign of Christ on the affected breast.”  She was instantly healed.

The doctor was amazed. His previous examination showed clearly that the tumor was malignant. What special treatment had she received?  He was anxious to hear about the miracle medication.

When he heard her story, his lips and face expressed nothing but contempt, and she was afraid that he was going to begin blaspheming against Christ. The doctor controlled his anger, but sarcastically said, “I had hoped you might have told me something significant.”

Innocentia was shocked by the doctor’s attitude, but her reply was prompt and penetrating: “Well, for Christ to heal a cancer after He raised to life a man four days dead is not, I suppose, particularly significant.”

What makes this testimony of God’s healing power so remarkable is that Innocentia lived in the fifth century when medical science was in its infancy. Anesthetics had not been invented to give to patients before surgery.

Even more profound is the fact that the one who told this story was Augustine, the famous bishop of Hippo in northern Africa and he had believed miracles did not happen in the age in which he lived. This is one of the classic illustrations of the man who dared to change his mind about healing.

Augustine had a Madison Avenue flare. He was “positively angry” that such a great miracle had not been publicized across the city of Carthage. Innocentia had been so silent about the incident that even her closest friends “had heard nothing of the affair.”

Augustine made her tell her story in detail “while her friends, who were there, listened in immense amazement and, when she was done, glorified God.” [1b]  The important question is: What caused Augustine to change his mind about miracles?

A. The doubter becomes a believer

This famous bishop and theologian of the church was a man with a checkered career. Before his Christian conversion he was wild and reckless.  He  indulged  in  drinking, cheating, stealing, and all kinds of illicit sexual activities. To use his own words, he was “a slave to sex rather than a lover of marriage.” [2]

But he was a searcher for truth. At the age of 32 his life was dramatically transformed through an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Augustine became the most important  Christian  writer and preacher of his time. His teachings profoundly affected the church for about a thousand years. “Salvation by grace alone” was the foundation of his ministry, preparing the way for the Protestant reformers in the 1500s.

Like many people today, Augustine had a problem with the supernatural. He knew that the miracles of Jesus were real, but he had doubts about whether they could happen in the day in which he lived. He believed “miracles were not allowed to continue till our time, lest the mind should always seek visible things.” [3]

But about four years before his death he changed his mind: “What I said is not to be interpreted that no miracles are believed to be performed in the name of Christ at the present time. For when I wrote that book, I myself had recently learned that a blind man had been restored to sight in Milan . . . and I knew about some others, so numerous even in these times, that we cannot know about all of them nor enumerate those we know.” [4]

Augustine the doubter once questioned: “Why, you ask, do such miracles not occur now? Because they would not move people, unless they were miraculous; and if they were customary, they would not be miraculous.” [5]

Later he revised that statement: “I meant, however, that such great and numerous miracles no longer take place, not that no miracles occur in our times.” [6]

B.  Why the change?

At the close of one of his most influential writings, The City of God, Augustine tells of a man who was healed of gout; another was instantly cured of paralysis and hernia; evil spirits were driven out of others by prayer. [7] A youth whose eye had been dislocated from its socket and severely damaged, had his sight restored to perfect condition through the prayers of the believers. [8]

A child, dying after being crushed by an ox-drawn cart, was miraculously “returned to consciousness, but showed no sign of the crushing he had suffered.” [9]

The son of Augustine’s neighbor died, “The corpse was laid out; the funeral was arranged; everyone was grieving and sorrowing.” A friend of the family anointed the body with oil. “This was no sooner done than the boy came back to life.” [10]

In his latter years this prominent church leader was witness to, or heard about, demonstrations of God’s supernatural power that were reminiscent of the New Testament church. He had to admit: “If I kept merely to [telling of] miracles of healing and omitted all others. . . I should have to fill several volumes.” [11]

What caused the dramatic turn around in his beliefs? Augustine explains that it came about when “I realized how many miracles were occurring in our own day and which were so like the miracles of old, and how wrong it would be to allow the memory of these marvels of divine power to perish from among our people. It is only two years ago that the keeping of records was begun here in Hippo, and already, at this writing we have nearly seventy attested miracles.” [12]

In spite of initial skepticism, Augustine faced honestly what was happening in his parish. He had to admit that God was at work in the power of the Spirit because of what he saw. To other doubters he recommended: “At least, such people should investigate facts and, if they find them true, should accept them.” [13]

For Augustine, the transformation in his thinking was amazing. “It is a simple fact, then, that there is no lack of miracles even in our day. And the God who works the miracles we read of in the Scripture uses any means and manner He chooses.” [14]

But for Augustine, miracles were not sent primarily by God to relieve pain (although that was a benefit), or to create a spectacle that would attract crowds, or to provide stories that would make a national best-seller. “Miracles have no purpose but to help men believe that Christ is God.” [15] Miracles demonstrate that Jesus Christ is alive and well – they validate the resurrection. He said “the miracles were made known to help men’s faith.” [16]

The miracle that left the most lasting impression on Augustine and his congregation was one that took place in their church one Easter weekend. “It was no more remarkable than others . . . but it was so clear and obvious to everyone that no one who lives here could have failed to see it, or, at least, to hear about it, and certainly no one could ever forget it.”

A brother and sister who were both suffering from convulsive seizures came to town. “Throughout the city they were a spectacle for all to see.”

On Easter morning before the service, the young man was in the crowded church when he fell down as if in a trance. Fear swept across the congregation. But in a moment the fellow stood to his feet and faced the congregation, perfectly normal and well.

The believers erupted in a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord. Many reported the events to Augustine, and there was a striking similarity in all of their stories: the Lord had performed a miracle before their eyes.

Three days later Augustine stood before the congregation with the brother and sister (he was well; she was still trembling with convulsions), and read the young man’s statement of healing.

The sermon that followed was interrupted by loud cries from the woman who was praying in desperation about her condition. God answered her prayer at that moment. She had the same experience as her brother, fell to the floor as if in a trance, but rose to her feet healed.

Augustine described the scene that followed: “Praise to God was shouted so loud that my ears could scarcely stand the din. But, of course, the main point was that, in the hearts of all this clamoring crowd, there burned that faith in Christ for which the martyr Stephen shed his blood.” [17]

C.  Implications

Why is Augustine’s change of mind about healing so significant? First, there are many fine Christians today who believe the biblical-style miracles ceased with the death of the original  twelve apostles. Augustine’s writings clearly disagree with that position.

Second, this famous church leader gives a clear example of what Christian maturity involves. He was flexible enough to change his views when presented with evidence that could not be disputed. Like the apostle Thomas (John 20), his doubt was turned to belief by what he saw.

Third, miracles multiplied in Augustine’s ministry and parish when he was open to such supernatural possibilities. There was little to report about physical healings in his writings when he took the position that miracles were not for his time. God requires people to trust Him for the impossible if the miraculous is to occur.

Christians need to stand firm on biblical principles that never change. But there comes a time when one has to be big enough to admit that a personal interpretation was wrong. Near the end of his life, Augustine revised 93 of his writings and changed “anything that offends me or might offend others.” [18] He had the mettle to admit his mistakes in public and make necessary changes. He dared to change his mind about divine healing.


[1] This article was originally published as, “The man who dared to change his mind about divine healing,” in the Pentecostal Evangel, September 11, 1983, pp. 18-20.

[1a]  I completed my dissertation-only PhD in New Testament at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, when I was aged 69 in 2015.

[1b] Saint Augustine, The City of God, translated by Gerald G. Waigh and Daniel J. Honan, volume 24 in the series, The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954), pp. 437, 488.
[2] Mildred Tengborn, “The Saint and His Saintly Mother,” Eternity (January 1983), pp. 46-47.
[3] John A. Mourant, lntroduction to the Philosophy of Saint Augustine: Selected Readings and Commentaries, (University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964), pp. 64-65. Quoting from Augustine’s “On the True Religion,” chapter 25:47.
[4] Saint Augustine, The Retractions, translated by Sister Mary Inez Bogan, volume 60 in the series, The Fathers of the  Church (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1968), p. 55.
[5] Saint Augustine, “The Advantage of Believing,” in Writings of Saint Augustine, translated by Luaime Meagher, volume 2 in the series, The Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1947), p. 438.
[6] Retractions, pp. 61, 62.
[7] City of God, p. 439.
[8] Ibid., p. 441.
[9] Ibid., p. 444.
[10] Ibid., p. 445.
[11] Ibid., p. 445.
[12] Ibid., p. 445.
[13] Ibid., p. 447.
[14] Ibid., p. 447.
[15] Ibid., p. 456.
[16] Saint Augustine, The City of God, an abridged version from the translation by Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan- Edited, with an introduction, by Vernon J. Bourke (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1958), p. 513.
[17] City of God (as in endnote 1), pp. 448-450.
[18] Retractions, p. xiii.


Copyright (c) 2007 Spencer D. Gear.  This document last updated at Date: 9 December 2017.