Back in 2006, I posted a brief essay on anointing with oil. I entered into a brief discussion of it recently on Adrian Neal’s blog. A preacher brother there set forth some views against symbolic oil and favoring medicinal oil. Rather than making extended posts there, I have brought most of my rebuttal here to my own blog. The following italicized quotes are from two different posts on Brother Neal’s blog (which can be viewed at the above link).
History seems to show that families did not have every-day pediatricians or family doctors. Instead, their pastors acted in a medicinal sense. Historical references show early church bishops as the family "doctor". Not that he was trained in the arts of medicine (if you can call what they did back in that day medicine). But rather that physicians were not common for people that were not rich. The bishop did often assume this roll, since he was called for when someone was sick.
If you have found some references that show early bishops acting as the family doctor, I have no argument with that. Probably some of them were doctors (consider Luke of NT times, and John Clarke of Rhode Island). Perhaps some were not. Such historical occurrences do not govern the interpretation of James 5:14-15. Ultimately it is the Bible, not history, which is inspired, accurate and authoritative. Were doctors common and affordable? Were doctors reliable? Job’s expression in the reply to his friends (13:4 physicians of no value) implies there were also physicians of some value. Statements such as in Jeremiah 8:22 and Matthew 9:12 also imply that the sick finding a physician – and being healed – was not that unusual. And Jesus surely wouldn’t recommend that the sick need physicians if all physicians in that day were quacks. Surely Luke wasn’t, but was rather a beloved one (Colossians 4:14).
Back then, oils were some of, if not the only, medicines they had that actually helped. Similar to a Vicks Vapor rub, different kinds of oils had different effects. Different herbs were crushed and mixed into the different oils. Thus, when someone was sick, they would call for the pastor. He would pray for them, but also anoint them with the oils for healing.
There were different kinds of oils and oil mixtures used for different purposes. Some soothing of skin, some soothing of muscles, some keeping pests out, some for constant inhalation (like Vicks Vapor Rub today).
If the medicinal interpretation of James 5:14-15 is correct, then surely oil is the universal medicine. But again, both history and the Bible show that oil was not the universal medicine, however good it may be. Quacks or no, doctors living in the early New Testament period not only used oils, but even performed surgeries. In an entirely makeshift situation, the Good Samaritan did not use oil alone, but poured oil and wine into the wounds of the man beaten by thieves. As to different kinds of oils, historically I don’t question that different oils and different herbs were used medicinally. That is still true today. But, where, oh where, do we find the different oils and herbs in James 5:14-15? There are no herbs there, and the oil is probably only olive oil, since the Greek word ἐλαίῳ (olive oil) is used.
The pastors carried the oils with them when called. Indeed the sick were healed by the LORD, but it shows that God doesn't disagree with church members relying on Him, and at the same time using soothing medicines. Thus, take a little wine for thy stomach sake, right? If God just wanted people to be anointed with some symbolic oil and wait for healing, then why would He command this of Timothy?
There was and is no argument from me against using medicines. I just don’t believe that medicine is what is in view in James 5:14-15. I do believe the medicinal value of the wine is in view in I Timothy 5:23.
We have no other place in the Bible oil was used for magical healing, or for pastoral prayers.
We find other places where oil was used for anointing; more than where it was used for medicine. One specifically connected to healing is Mark 6:13. And no one has suggested any “magical” healing here – unless you suppose God healing in answer to prayer is “magic”. Does God heal people we pray for, whether or not they use medicine? If not, why do we pray for the sick? Just go to the doctor and be done with it.
This type of interpretation that the oil was NOT medicinal would seem to ALSO take away from the idea that God is the one who heals. As a matter of fact, it would seem to suggest one must have the oil for God to do the healing.
But, in fact, it is only in a medical interpretation that the oil has any effect on healing. In a symbolic interpretation it is only symbolic. It produces no effect. It only answers to simple obedience to a literal reading of the Scripture. This idea which you foist upon my interpretation, I suspect you are not willing to apply to your own. That is, that one must have the oil for God to do the healing. If this logic “must” applies to the text, then you are pierced by the horns of your own dilemma. One must use medicine for God to do the healing. If not, why not?
Why not? Because either way is an anemic look at only one incident in the whole of Scripture. The whole Scripture gives the full look at the subject of God healing. I would sum it up roughly by saying God does not object to the use of medicine (cf. Luke 5:31), but that it is sinful to rely on doctors to the exclusion of faith in God (cf. II Chronicles 16:12).
An interesting observation of the medicinal interpretation of James 5:14-15 is this: Of all those who assert this interpretation, I have not yet seen even one obey it. I do not know of a single Baptist who has asked pastors and come rub oil and herbs on them while they pray for them. Oh, you say, I don’t really believe it means that. Do tell.
[Note: some uses of oil that I find in the Bible – offering, fuel for light, anointing, food/cooking, ointment, gift or payment/barter, product to sell, purification, perfume, moisturizer, medicine. The most references seem to be anointing; there is a lot concerning light, offerings and food – and the symbolic representation of wealth, God’s pleasure on His people – but not that much about medicinal use, it would seem to me.]