Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

Why St John Was Not Boiled In Oil

Andrew Nimmo

Perhaps you are thinking as you read the title that I am going to demythologise the tradition that St John the Evangelist was miraculously preserved from death in boiling oil. Not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. This article presupposes that the miracle did take place and seeks to understand the nature of the miracle that occurred.

First of all, it is held that St John, who was especially beloved of Our Lord, was sentenced to be executed in a cauldron of boiling oil, but when placed in the oil was not burnt or killed. Nothing natural could account for it. It was an event of supernatural origin. St John is counted a martyr, however, because he underwent the act of martyrdom which would ordinarily have led to death.

Some might ask how it was that the boiling oil did not burn the apostle when it is in the nature of it to do so. Since fire is a common cause of heat and burning, let us use it as the example for explanation. Whatever is said about fire in this respect can be said of boiling oil and anything else capable of heating.

Is it not in the nature of fire to heat? I doubt that there is any objection to this notion. How then could something "heatable" not be heated when coming into contact with fire? For example, how could paper exposed to a naked flame not burn? I am here excluding any natural impediments such as dampness etc. The answer lies in a refinement of the statement. It is in the nature of fire to have the power to heat. How does this help? It helps because it leads to the very distinction of when miracles are possible and when they are not.

When we speak of the natures of things and the properties of those natures we are dealing with what is known as the essential order. It is also known as the metaphysical or necessary order. Miracles are not possible in this order because natures cannot be changed. Natures are immutable. Why? Because they reflect the immutable nature of God. To give examples: by nature a square must have four sides. Take a side away or add one and you no longer have a square. By nature an animal must have at least one sense or it is not an animal. A man must have reason and will or he is not a man - they are essential to human nature.

But natures and the properties which belong to them do not make up the whole of created reality. The order of natures or essences tells us what things are, but knowing what they are is not enough to make them exist. We can know the natures of fictional beings or of things yet to be made (as in inventions) which do not actually exist. So besides the order of essences there must be the order of 'be' (existence). For essences to be real they must receive their 'be' or existence, for they are not their own 'be'. This is not the order of natures, of what things are, but of existence, of whether things are:


The natures of things are based on the divine nature. But the existence of things, whether men or trees or clouds exist, depends on the divine will. If God is going to make a man He has to give him an intellect, but whether He is going to make one or not is up to His free will. God is utterly free about whether to create or not. That is, He can choose whether or not to confer existence or 'be' on a nature. Created beings are contingent (the opposite of necessary) - they can 'be' or 'be-not' - their creation and continued existence depend completely on the creative and conserving will of God. Now, as 'do' follows 'be', just as the 'be' of creatures is contingent, so too is their 'do'. Just as creatures depend on divine conservation to continue in existence, so too do they depend on divine concurrence for their acts.

What do I mean by this? The acts that we perform, such as seeing, walking, thinking, eating, talking and so on, flow from our nature and its powers but are not identical with them. My power to see is not my act of seeing. If it were, having the power of sight would mean actually seeing all the time, but we know that this is not the case. My power of sight, though ordered to the act of seeing, is really distinct from it. I can close my eyes or go to sleep and I do not see while still having the ability to see. This is the real distinction between the power (the 'can-do') and the act (the 'does-do'). Now since the power is not the act (although ordered by nature to it), something must be required to move the power into act.2 This is because of the principle so well enunciated in the Living the Truth series that nothing can ever give what it has not got. I can't give you ten dollars if I have only five. Non-livings things cannot of themselves give rise to life. Creatures without senses cannot (by reason of being what they are) evolve into sensitive life. Irrational animals (by reason of being irrational animals) cannot develop into human beings. Non-being cannot give rise to being (because it is not being). Less cannot of itself give rise to more. 'Can-do' cannot of itself give rise to 'does-do'. Non-livings things cannot of themselves give rise to life.

In His ordinary providence God cooperates with creatures in their acts3 - this is divine concurrence. So in our experience the power of sight results in the act of sight, the corrosive power of an acid succeeds in corroding the metal it makes contact with and the fire heats the coals to cook the barbecue. But God can, if He wishes, refuse to cooperate with moving the 'can-do' to 'does-do', the 'can-see' to 'does-see', the 'can-heat' (of the fire) to 'does-heat'. When this happens it is a source of a wonder to us because it is out of the ordinary - it is a work, in fact, of God's extraordinary providence. This is one type of miracle. Just as God can withhold existence, that is, create or not, so also can He can withhold 'does-do' or act. They are both contingent realities. Natures are based on God's nature and are therefore unalterable, but creation, conservation in be and concurrence are effects of God's will and He is free to cause them or not.

So when St John was thrown into the boiling oil, God simply refused to cooperate with the 'can-burn' of the oil in the ordinary production of burning and no 'does-burn' or burning of the Evangelist occurred. Deo gratias.

1 By "physical" here is not meant "bodily" but "in the order of actual existence".
2 Another way of putting it is that following the principle that "not of themselves are the diverse united", when you find two diverse realities united, and power and act are diverse by relative opposition, there must have been a third which united them, i.e. God.
3 Creatures are secondary causes - they are caused to cause - and depend on the Prime Cause for their causative power. The Prime Cause, God, is necessarily the Uncaused Cause.

Andrew Nimmo

Andrew Nimmo is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted November 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 10 (2001).
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