BOOK REVIEW: B.B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles

The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972, 327 pgs.

Summary: A series of lectures on counterfeit miracles given in 1917 to 1918. The book is divided up into six chapters: the cessation of the charismata, patristic and mediaeval marvels, Roman Catholic miracles, Irvingite gifts (cf. review of The Life of Edward Irving), faith-healing, and mind cure.

Warfield’s basic argument is that with the passing of the apostles and those on whom the apostles laid their hands the charismata subsided in history. He believes that the purpose of the miraculous gifts was to confirm the truthfulness of the apostles’ gospel.  Once the apostolic message was written the miracles ceased.

Or as Warfield notes with approval, “It is unreasonable to ask miracles, says John Calvin—or to find them—where there is no new gospel. By as much as the one gospel suffices for all lands and all peoples and all times, by so much does the miraculous attestation of that one single gospel suffice for all lands and all times, and no further miracles are to be expected in connection with it” (27).

Warfield then delves into history to show that this position is supported by the data. And then reviews the claimed miracles of his day, including some cults and quacks.

He also makes the important point from Deut 13:2 that the inexplicable cannot be called a miracle of God if it somehow invalidates the revealed truth of the Bible or reason within the confines of revelation (53, 122-123):

It is at least very commonly supposed that we are bound to examine carefully into the pretensions of any alleged miracle produced in support of any propositions whatever, however intrinsically absurd; and, if these alleged miracles cannot be at once decisively invalidated, we are bound to accept as true the proposition in support of which they are alleged. No proposition clearly perceived to be false, however, can possibly be validated to us by any miracle whatever; and the perception of the proposition as clearly false relieves us at once from the duty of examining into the miraculous character of its alleged support and invalidates any claim which that support can put in to miraculous character—prior to all investigation. (53)


A helpful overview of the historical data. For most intents and purposes, I accept Warfield’s assessment as correct. Rhetorically, however Warfield’s argument doesn’t carry a lot of punch because it’s based on the intended purpose of the gifts rather than direct scriptural testimony as to the cessation of the charismata. The argument is not directly scriptural in the sense that there is no verse stating with the passing of the last person on whom the apostles laid hands the miraculous gifts will cease, but it is biblical if Warfield has correctly identified the purpose of charismata—to directly validate the apostolic message to the first generation of Christians.

The second weakness is definitional; he makes a careful distinction between special providences and miracles (162), but he doesn’t explain the difference or define them systematically. From the context he seems to define miracle as something that does not use physical means and which confirms God’s revelation, and special providence seems to be defined as events orchestrated by God in response to prayer yet using physical means. If I’ve understood these definitions aright, this leads to the possibility that the crossing of the Red Sea was not a miracle but a special providence, because the natural cause was a blowing wind (Exod. 14:21).

The final issue is that it is not clear to me from Warfield’s review of Christian history that we can discount the occasional miracle. Occasional miracles would not validate the unscriptural claims to charismata in the modern church, but would allow for some events to be miraculous rather than merely providential.

Shane Walker is preaching pastor at First Baptist Church in Watertown, Wisconsin. This post appeared on the blog of Andover Baptist Church in Linthicum, Maryland.