top of page
  • Daniel Klassen

Book Review: Counterfeit Miracles

The history of the church is a fascinating one. From the Apostles to the early church fathers; the Roman Catholic Church to the Reformed Church; the doctrines of the Lord’s supper and Baptism to the doctrines of the Sovereignty of God and man’s free will, many debates and controversies have been had. Benjamin Breckenridge (B. B. for short form) Warfield enters the fray toward the end of the 19th century. Widely regarded as the great Princeton theologian, Warfield put most of his efforts to the battle against the emotionalism and revivalism of the religious movements emerging in his day. Most of this battle centered on the inspiration and authority of the Bible and the streams which flow from that river. Amongst those streams was the cessation of the charismata – counterfeit miracles and signs, so B. B. Warfield, with great form and brilliant style, delivered six controversial lectures regarding miracles and the church movements of his day which embraced them. They have since been compiled into one book, Counterfeit Miracles.

Warfield’s scholarship is impressive. The amount of citations he uses is astounding and helpful. It can be easily seen that Warfield read many books on various topics and from various times. The way he quotes history makes the reader feel as though Warfield was a fly on the wall during those times, and able to observe how events truly transpired. His insight to the Roman Catholic Church is just as amazing as his insight to a small Irvingite movement which rose and fell during his time. The arguments he produces are clear and seemingly irrefutable – even those who try to refute them in our day and age seem to fall short.

His first lecture is on the early church fathers and how they all gave testimony to miracles. Interestingly enough, most of the early church fathers thought that raising the dead was a common practice. The only problem with this was that no one could ever produce a testimony of it actually happening. Miracles, on the other hand, were quite popular, only most of them were being done by the heathens and their magic. He quotes German theologian Ernst Von Dobschütz when he says:

We cannot help seeing, however, that only another form of magic, a Christian magic, steps here into the place of the heathen. The name of Jesus serves as the all-powerful spell, the cross as the irresistible charm, by which bolts can be sprung, doors opened, idols overturned, poison rendered harmless, the sick healed, the dead raised.

Warfield warns us with a chilling conclusion to Von Dobschütz’s words: “Something new entered Christianity in these wonder-tales; something unknown to the Christianity of the Apostles, unknown to the Apostolic churches, and unknown to their sober successors; and it entered Christianity from without, not through the door, but climbing up some other way. It brought an abundance of miracle-working with it; and, unfortunately, it brought it to stay.”

From history, Warfield could see that the miracles of the church were only the magic of the heathens masquerading as a work of God. He makes a helpful observation that the early church fathers, although they witnessed miracles, saw that the apostles had something different. Their gifts were unlike the rest of Christianity; something had ceased with them. This observation does well in setting up the rest of the arguments Warfield makes in his other lectures.

Connecting the history of the cessation with the Roman Catholic miracles and marvels is a lecture on the Patristic (early church fathers) and Medieval marvels. The focus in this lecture rested on heathen magic and the romanticism of that time. Both of these worked together to create a great evil for the church. The romantics of this time period would write folk tales, but not like we would expect. They did not describe the way life really was, but what they wanted it to be. This would include many supernatural tales, many of which were quite outrageous. The interesting thing was, much like today with reality television, the readers would wish for the imaginations of these writers to become a reality – to the extent that they would fabricate their lives in such a way to make these tales their own. This would lead to the use of magic and the telling of false tales to propagate an idea which Christianity was not familiar with.

The Roman Catholic Church didn’t do much to stop this phenomenon, rather it can be observed that they gave it fertile soil to grow. Relics of saints and apparitions of the Virgin Marry with shrines dedicated to her only fueled the use of heathen practices in the church. This meant that much of what they practiced (and still do) was based on these romanticized stories and heretical magic. What can be said of the Roman Catholic Church is that much of their spirituality turned into superstition. Warfield quotes C.F. Arnold’s warning against such superstition: “From a practical point of view this superstition wrought great evil because it hindered fighting against physical ills with the weapon with which they should have been fought—that is, by God-trusting labor. Sickness was fought as if it had been sin, with prayer; while, on the other hand, sin was fought as if it had been sickness, with diligence in ascetic practices.”

These first three lectures lead as a brilliant precursor to the next two lectures where Warfield discussed the inconsistencies and failures of both the Irvingite movement and the Faith-healing movement. Both of these play an influential role in the birth of Pentecostalism which happened in the early 20th century. Edward Irving led a small movement during the early 19th century in which those who joined the movement earnestly desired the gifts of healing, tongues, and prophecy (the sign gifts). Warfield does a brilliant work a disassembling the beliefs of Irving, and, in a sense, leaves him out to dry. Such a deviation did the Irvingites and Faith-healers become that to argue against them brought a man down to their level, his arguments muddled by their contradictions and folly. Yet Warfield rises above them to prove to anyone listening that the road you travel, if you follow these ideas, is one which leads away from reality, and away from the true gospel. It is as though this movement of the supernatural erects an enormous amount of scaffolding around the brilliant architecture of the gospel so that it is hidden from the onlooker’s sight.

The last article deals with mind-cure which is found along the path of faith-healing. It is very similar to faith-healing, but rather than basing it all on faith, the focus became the mind. Mind-cures were not popular but those who trusted in them soon could not understand reality. The more in depth Warfield went into the beliefs of those who practiced mind-cures, the more contradictions were revealed. I will already say that most of what is dealt with in this chapter would be immediately labeled as wild and irrational from myself. Yet Warfield, with much grace and patience, seeks to learn their view in order to discern what is right and what is wrong. B. B. Warfield understood the reality of Romans 8. He understood that real people experience real sorrow and pain; much of which will never go away. In somewhat of a different approach, Counterfeit Miracles is an argument against that which would deter the reality of pain to be dealt with according to the truth of the Bible. The ultimate question we must ask is, “Why do you wish to be healed?” We all know the correct answer is, “That we may glorify God.” But what if God has ordained for us to suffer that we might glorify him in our suffering?

Warfield by no means discredits the supernatural. Rather, he seeks to understand history in light of the scriptures to determine what is supernatural and what is not. I believe when the supernatural work of God is properly understood, we will fly to that healing fountain, not for our bodies which wither and die, but for our spirits to be made alive unto a living hope which will never fade away.


Counterfeit Miracles By: Benjamin B. Warfield, New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page