Miracles, creation, worldviews – and the gospel

A lively discussion has been continuing at the Boar’s Head Tavern for some days on the subject of extra-biblical miracles, prompted by Fearsome Comrade’s blog post on Eastern Orthodox miracles a few days ago.

Now, I’ve not been following the BHT discussion, partly because I missed the start of that party and don’t feel I’ll ever be able to catch up, but mainly because I find the whole discussion – not just one side or the other of it, though I won’t pretend to be neutral – personally unsettling and disturbing.

I am troubled by too sceptical an approach towards extrabiblical miracles, as it is a little too congenial to the sort of modern, rational, scientifically-inclined mind I sometimes like to think I have: “Yes, God may have done the occasional miracle in the past, but don’t worry; they’re all safely locked away in biblical times, well out of harm’s way”. However, I’m even more troubled by many extrabiblical miracle stories, whether involving Desert Fathers, medieval Europeans or modern-day charismatics, and by arguments that scepticism towards those stories logically entails an equal scepticism towards biblical miracles (in particular those recounted in the Gospels).

My own attitude towards accounts of miracles is similar (mutatis mutandis) to C.S. Lewis’ view on the appropriate response to stories of demonic activity:

[O]ur attitude should be that of the sensible citizen in wartime who believes that there are enemy spies in our midst but disbelieves nearly every particular spy story. (C.S. Lewis, Miracles)

However, the really important point for me is this: whether one takes an intensely sceptical (or outright rejectionist/cessationist) approach towards extrabiblical miracles, or whether one is more accepting (or outright credulous) concerning such accounts, what matters is that we keep our views on these issues separate from the gospel.

It’s a similar position to the creationism vs evolution discussion, where what troubles me is not so much that many Christians take a creationist position, but that so many of them insist that without a “literal” approach to Genesis 1-3, the whole gospel is brought into question. This seems analogous to those who argue that a sceptical approach towards extrabiblical miracles necessarily encourages a sceptical approach towards biblical miracles.

Equally, those on the pro-evolution or miracle-sceptic side of the debate need to ensure they are not making the gospel dependent on their position, whether on the level of their arguments themselves (such as when Ken Miller suggests that God’s nature obliged him to create using evolution) or the more general fear that creationism or enthusiasm about miracles brings Christianity into disrepute in the eyes of its “cultured despisers”.

All these views are, in the end, expressions of particular worldviews. Worldviews come and go, and if we lash the gospel to the mast of one worldview, we risk seeing the gospel get taken down with the ship when it sinks. Arguably, the history of modern western thought is, at least in part, the history of what happened when the gospel was lashed to the mast of a medieval worldview that has now sunk without trace.

I’m not even all that interested in playing the game of asking which worldview is more “biblical” than another. Just as the task of reformation is (in the Lutheran view) not to reconstruct the first- (or sixteenth-) century church, but to bring the gospel to the church as it is today, so our task is not to reconstruct a “biblical worldview”, but to bring the gospel to people in the worldviews they have today. That will almost certainly involve challenging aspects of those worldviews – the incarnation, atoning death and resurrection of Jesus are a direct challenge to pretty much every worldview on the planet – and indeed we should expect people’s worldviews to change as a result of their coming to believe the gospel.

But if we get too enmeshed in trying to put forward an all-encompassing “biblical worldview”, the danger is we end up constructing something that is overly dependent on other ways of looking at the world – ways that can perish sooner and more thoroughly than we realise – while at the same time getting distracted from proclaiming the undeniably miraculous nature of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection by arguments for and against particular interpretations of Genesis 1 or for and against differing levels of scepticism concerning other, extra-gospel, miracles.

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5 Responses to Miracles, creation, worldviews – and the gospel

  1. Chris Jones says:

    As is often the case, my views on this are close to yours.

    As I tried to say in a comment at Josh’s (which Josh hasn’t approved/published yet), I don’t think the rejectionist/cessationist view is Biblical. At the same time, I agree with you that skepticism is in order for any particular claim of the miraculous — not because the occurrence of a miracle within the life of the Church is a priori unlikely, but because of the danger of spiritual delusion, which the Scriptures often warn us against.

    I also agree with you that it is important to keep our views on issues like this separate from the Gospel. I would go further than that and say that it is important not only to keep our view of the matter separate from the Gospel, but also to realize that the miracles themselves are not the Gospel (even if they are genuine), nor are they “evidence” of the Gospel. A genuine miracle is a manifestation of the reality that we are indeed living the life in Christ (“It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”), but it is not evidence that Christ is who He says He is, nor that His death and resurrection give us forgiveness of sins. If you do not already believe the Gospel, you won’t experience the miracle in the first place.

    I once knew a priest who experienced a miraculous cure through a relic of St John Chrysostom. He had suffered from severe and chronic back pain for decades, and had been given to understand that there was no cure — he would suffer from it the rest of his life. While on a pilgrimage to Mt Athos, he had the opportunity to venerate the relic of St John; once he had done so, the pain left him, never to return. I am inclined to believe this man’s story for a number of reasons: he didn’t go to Mt Athos and venerate this particular relic because it was famous for healing (he venerated the relic because it was there and that is what Orthodox Christians do); I had known him for a number of years and knew him to be a level-headed guy not given to hyper-piety or extravagant claims; and he didn’t shout this story from the rooftops, but only told the story when someone (it may have been me) specifically asked him if he had ever had any such experiences.

    My point in telling the story is that nobody confused this story with the Gospel. The experience didn’t make a believer of Fr Morbey; he was a believer long before having the experience. Hearing the story didn’t make a believer out of me or any of us who heard it. And nobody said “if you don’t believe St John Chrysostom cured Fr Morbey, you’re no better than a heathen.”

    So yes, a good deal of caution is in order about any particular claim of the miraculous. But we ought to take care that we are not so afraid of being thought credulous that we are no longer aware that the life in Christ is radically different from life in the world. That becomes a species of unbelief.

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  3. I think this is pretty level-headed. I think that the insistence that I must accept every medieval legend and miracle story that retains any sort of popularity is a demand that we must reclaim a medieval worldview.

  4. Chris E says:

    This is one of those topics which can make me incredibly angry. Partially for the reasons you and Chris allude to above. Additionally, there are plenty of Christian circles where any sort of doubt or questioning becomes a sin.

  5. Craig says:

    Well said; Thanks!

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