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"Can Demons Work True Miracles?" Ad Mentem Divi Thomae

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Due to the splendor and abundance of miracles working in the Holy Catholic Church, many “Orthodox” (and Protestants) have retreated to the position that the miracles in question are the work of demons. Yet, from the verification process that the Church engages in (e.g., collecting first hand testimony, examining witnesses, analyzing evidence, etc.), we can have certainty (much more than we would have, for example, in a court case) that God has stamped his approval on our Church.

If we take the example of St. Thomas’ canonization process, the accounts are staggering. WM Review has written a fantastic article on this. In fact, John XXII was so overwhelmed by the amount of miracles recounted and verified that he exclaimed “Why should we seek more miracles? He has performed as many miracles as he wrote articles.”

In order to settle this question (or, better yet, to provide resources for those who wish to consider the question on their own), I have collected a litany of texts from St. Thomas that treats this question, either directly “Can demons work miracles?” Or, indirectly, “Can angels work miracles?” or “Can God alone work miracles?”

St. Thomas treats this question in a few places. First, in his Mattew commentary, he writes:

"One should say that they cannot, if miracle be taken properly, for properly a miracle is not that which comes about beyond the order of some particular cause, but when something comes about beyond the order of all creation, and this only happens by the divine power. But it is quite possible that a higher creature not be contained in the order of a lower creature. So, for example, things come about through a higher power which do not come about through the power of the elements: thus among men one man does something through art which seems like a marvel to others. So it is with the demons, for their minds are more subtle, so just as some artisans do something which seems like a marvel to others, so also the demons do some things naturally which seem like marvels to us. But how does this happen? Avicenna’s opinion was that a bodily nature obeys the command of an intelligent one, so that the body is changed to the perception. But Augustine rules this out, because it does not completely obey any creature, but only God. Therefore one should say that there are powers in natural things which are determined toward producing certain things, such as frogs, and such; the demons know these powers better than others do. And Augustine proves this, because the fire which fell on the flocks of Job was natural (Job 1:16). For a demon can arouse bodies, and gather them together, so that they do these sorts of miracles. But a miracle which does not proceed from the power of some natural thing, this they cannot do, for example that the dead be raised. Hence they do such things only in illusions, as Simon Magus made a head move. So they are not capable of those things which do not come about by the power of nature; hence they shall show great signs, i.e., signs which men consider great." (Matt.C24.L3)

Second, in two places in the Summa (first regards good angels, second demons):

"I answer that, A miracle properly so called is when something is done outside the order of nature. But it is not enough for a miracle if something is done outside the order of any particular nature; for otherwise anyone would perform a miracle by throwing a stone upwards, as such a thing is outside the order of the stone’s nature. So for a miracle is required that it be against the order of the whole created nature. But God alone can do this, because, whatever an angel or any other creature does by its own power, is according to the order of created nature; and thus it is not a miracle. Hence God alone can work miracles." (ST.I.Q110.A4.C)

"I answer that, As is clear from what has been said above (Q. 110, A. 4), if we take a miracle in the strict sense, the demons cannot work miracles, nor can any creature, but God alone: since in the strict sense a miracle is something done outside the order of the entire created nature, under which order every power of a creature is contained. But sometimes miracle may be taken in a wide sense, for whatever exceeds the human power and experience. And thus demons can work miracles, that is, things which rouse man’s astonishment, by reason of their being beyond his power and outside his sphere of knowledge. For even a man by doing what is beyond the power and knowledge of another, leads him to marvel at what he has done, so that in a way he seems to that man to have worked a miracle. It is to be noted, however, that although these works of demons which appear marvelous to us are not real miracles, they are sometimes nevertheless something real. Thus the magicians of Pharaoh by the demons’ power produced real serpents and frogs. And when fire came down from heaven and at one blow consumed Job’s servants and sheep; when the storm struck down his house and with it his children—these were the work of Satan, not phantoms; as Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xx, 19)." (ST.I.Q114.A4)

He tries it in passing in two other places:

“Properly speaking, as said above, miracles are those things which are done outside the order of the whole created nature. But as we do not know all the power of created nature, it follows that when anything is done outside the order of created nature by a power unknown to us, it is called a miracle as regards ourselves. So when the demons do anything of their own natural power, these things are called miracles not in an absolute sense, but in reference to ourselves. In this way the magicians work miracles through the demons; and these are said to be done by private contracts, forasmuch as every power of the creature, in the universe, may be compared to the power of a private person in a city. Hence when a magician does anything by compact with the devil, this is done as it were by private contract. On the other hand, the Divine justice is in the whole universe as the public law is in the city. Therefore good Christians, so far as they work miracles by Divine justice, are said to work miracles by public justice: but bad Christians by the signs of public justice, as by invoking the name of Christ, or by making use of other sacred signs.” (ST.I.Q110.A4.Rep2)

“Our Lord is speaking there of the miracles to be wrought at the time of Antichrist, of which the Apostle says (2 Thess 2:9) that the coming of Antichrist will be according to the working of Satan, in all power, and signs, and lying wonders. To quote the words of Augustine (De Civ. Dei xx, 19), it is a matter of debate whether they are called signs and lying wonders, because he will deceive the senses of mortals by imaginary visions, in that he will seem to do what he does not, or because, though they be real wonders, they will seduce into falsehood them that believe. They are said to be real, because the things themselves will be real, just as Pharaoh’s magicians made real frogs and real serpents; but they will not be real miracles, because they will be done by the power of natural causes, as stated in the First Part (Q. 114, A. 4); whereas the working of miracles which is ascribed to a gratuitous grace, is done by God’s power for man’s profit.” (ST.II-II.Q178.A1.Rep2)

Third, he treats it in the third book of the Summa Contra Gentiles (c. 102-3)...these sections are very long and provide more arguments in support to the conclusions in the ST (check them out here on your own).

Fourth, he treats it in De Potentia (the two previous articles are also worth reading, which can be found here):

"I answer that just as the good angels by grace can do something surpassing the power of nature, so the wicked angels being restrained by divine power are unable to do as much as they might by their natural powers. The reason of this is that, as Augustine says, some things the angels would be able to do if they were permitted to do them, which however, they cannot do, because they are not permitted to do them. (Hence, the angels are said to be "bound" in that they are prevented from doing things to which their natural powers could extend, and to be "loosed" when by the divine decree they are permitted to do what their nature enables them to do.) While, as he says, some things they cannot do even if permitted to do them, because the kind of nature bestowed on them by God does not permit of their doing such things. Accordingly, God does not give them the power to do things that surpass the faculty of their nature, because seeing that a miraculous work is a divine witness to God’s power and truth, if the demons whose whole will is diverted to evil, were to receive the power to work miracles, God would vouch for their falsehood, which is repugnant to his goodness. Therefore, at times, they perform by God’s permission only such works as seem miraculous to men, and which are within the limits of their natural power. Even so, as explained above, by their natural power, they can produce as art produces things, those effects only that result from the natural forces contained in bodies, which obey them in respect of local movement; and thus, they can employ them in producing an effect in a very short time. Now, by means of these powers, it is possible for bodies to undergo real transformation, inasmuch as in the natural course one thing is generated from another. Besides this, they can by working some kind of change in a body, for instance by disturbing the organ of the imagination, in respect of the various spirits and humours, make things that do not really exist to appear to the imagination, an effect that may be produced by means of certain external bodies, by the application of which things appear different to what they really are, as in cases of delirium or insanity. Accordingly, demons can work wonders in us in two ways: first, by means of real bodily transformation; second, by disturbing the imagination so as to delude the senses. But, neither of these works is miraculous, but is like the work of a craftsman, as explained above; therefore, it must be said simply that demons cannot work real miracles." (QDePot.Q6.A5)

Fifth, he treats it in the Compendium Theologiae:

"The entire order of secondary causes, as well as their power, comes from God. He himself, however, produces his effects not out of necessity, but by free will, as was shown above. Clearly, then, he can act outside the order of secondary causes, as when he cures those who are incurable from the standpoint of natural causality, or when he does something else of this kind that is not within the order of natural causes but is nevertheless consonant with the order of divine providence. What God occasionally does in this way, outside of the order of natural causes, he arranges for a definite end. When effects are thus wrought by divine power outside the order of secondary causes, they are called ‘miracles,’ or wonders: for when we perceive an effect without knowing its cause, we wonder at it. Since God is a cause that is completely hidden from us, when some effect is wrought by him outside the order of secondary causes known to us, it is called simply a miracle. But if an effect is produced by some other cause that is unknown to this or that person, it is not a miracle simply as such, but only with regard to him who is ignorant of the cause. Thus an event may appear miraculous to one person without seeming miraculous to another who is acquainted with its cause. To act in this way, outside the order of secondary causes, is possible for God alone, who is the founder of this order and is not confined to it. All other beings are subject to this order; and so God alone can work miracles, as the Psalmist says: who alone does wondrous things (Ps 72 [71]:18). Therefore, when miracles are apparently worked by some creature, either they are not true miracles, but are effects produced by the power of natural agents, which may be concealed from us, as happens in the case of miracles of demons that are worked by magical arts; or else, if they are true miracles, someone obtains the power to work them by praying to God that he might do such things. Since such miracles are wrought exclusively by divine power, they are rightly appealed to in proof of the faith, which has God alone as its author. For a pronouncement issued by a man with a claim to divine authority is never more fittingly attested than by works which God alone can perform. Although such miracles occur outside the order of secondary causes, we should not simply say that they are against nature, because the natural order demands precisely that the lower be subject to the activity of the higher. For example, effects brought about in lower bodies in consequence of the influence emanating from the heavenly bodies are not said to be simply against nature, although they may at times be against the particular nature of this or that thing, as we observe in the movement of water in the ebb and flow of the tide, which is produced by the action of the moon. In the same way, effects produced in creatures by the action of God may seem to be against some particular order of secondary causes; yet they are in accord with the universal order of nature. Therefore, miracles are not contrary to nature."

Sixth, he treats it his” Responsio ad Lectorem Venetum de 36 Articulis:”

“In the fifteenth article, the question is raised whether God brings miracles about by the ministry of the angels. I deem this to be true, yet in such a way that the activity of the angels is not able to extend itself to the principle effects in all miracles.” (36Articuli.A15)

Seventh, he treats it in his Commentary on Second Thessalonians:

“And he says lying. Miracles are called lying either because they fall short of the true nature of the supposed deed, or because they fall short of the true nature of a miracle, or because they fall short of the due end of a miracle. The first is what happens in illusions, when the senses are duped by demons so that things seem other than they are, as when Simon Magus caused a ram to be decapitated and later displayed it alive. A man was also decapitated, and later the man, whom all believed had been decapitated, was shown to be alive, and was thought to have been resuscitated. And men do this by rearranging phantasms and deceiving. In a second way, those are called miracles in an improper sense which are full of wonderment because, although the effect is seen, the cause is unknown. Therefore, things that have a cause hidden to somebody but not hidden simply speaking are called marvels, and not miracles simply speaking. But things whose cause is hidden simply speaking are called miracles in the proper sense of the word, and their cause is the glorious God himself, because they transcend the whole order of created nature. But sometimes marvels come to pass which are not beyond the order of nature yet have hidden causes, and this is much more the kind of thing demons do. The demons know the powers of nature, and they have determinate abilities to work particular effects. So the Antichrist will work these sorts of things, but they will not have the true nature of a miracle because the demons have no power to work what goes beyond nature. In a third way things are called miracles according as they are ordered to bearing witness to the truth of the faith, to leading believers to God. The Lord working with them and confirming their words by the accompanying signs (Mark 16:20). But if someone has the glory of miracles and does not use them for this purpose, they are miracles indeed as regards the nature of the thing done, as regards the nature of a miracle, but they are false with respect to their due end and God’s intention. Yet the Antichrist’s works will not be of this sort, because no one works true miracles against the faith, since God is not a false witness. Hence someone preaching a false doctrine cannot work miracles, even though someone leading a bad life can.”

Eighth, he treats it in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard

“I answer that concerning this there can be two errors. One was that of the pagans who believed that the demons, by whose power the magicians worked, were gods. And thus they believed that they could produce new effects after the manner of creation. And this is the second way that the Master lays out in the text. The other is that of Avicenna, who posits that corporeal matter much more strongly obeys the thought of a separated substance than contrary qualities acting in nature, since natural agents only dispose to the form, which is infused by a separated substance. Hence on the basis of what the separated substance conceives of, even apart from the order of the motion of heaven, an effect follows in lower things. And he gives the example of the human soul, which by conceiving of something moves the whole body either to lust by imagining a beloved woman, or to falling by imagining and fearing a fall. And this is the first way that is touched on in the text, that corporeal matter serves the demons at their whim. But this position is contradicted both by philosophers and by theologians. It is contradicted by philosophers, since they say that the motion of heaven is the instrument of the moving intelligence. Hence only by its mediation can an effect come to lower things from the intelligence. And it is contradicted also by theologians, since corporeal forms are not infused by demons, but rather are infused by God, who placed them in the potency of matter and who can reduce them to act without the assistance of a lower agent, insofar as they are reduced to act following the course of nature on the basis of determinate natural agents. Hence this position rests on a false foundation. And thus we must say that the demons by the power proper to them cannot infuse any form into matter, either incidental (that is, accidental) or substantial. Nor can they reduce it to act, except with the assistance of a proper natural agent. For just as a craftsman heats something not by his own proper power ,but by the power of a fire that is applied, so also the demons can join active qualities to determinate passive qualities in such a way that an effect follows from the natural causes, though apart from the usual course of nature, on account of the multitude and strength of the active power of the things brought together and on account of the aptitude of the passive qualities. And thus they cannot produce effects that are not in the power of a natural active power, such as raising a dead person or anything of this sort, in truth, but only as an illusion, as will be said below.”

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