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The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics (1982)

Preface: Attempts to Avoid the Problems

Keith Parsons


This thesis was originally written by Keith Parsons in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree Master of Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University, 1982. This section, Preface: Attempts to Avoid the Problems, was ommitted from the final thesis but has since been added at the author's request.

Preface: Attempts to Avoid the Problems

In order to understand the emphasis which Christianity has traditionally placed on belief in the occurrence of miracles, it is necessary to examine the Christian conception of God. As with all theistic religions, Christianity has customarily stressed the transcendence of God, i.e. that He is a supernatural being that in some sense exists 'above' or 'beyond' the physical world. Christianity differs from Islam and Judaism, however, by placing a much greater emphasis on the immanence of God. That is, Christianity has insisted that God Himself has entered the realm of space and time by becoming a human being and living in this world. That God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, that he performed numerous miracles during his life on earth, and that he was resurrected from the grave are central elements of the Gospel message. Each of these elements implies divine intervention into the natural universe. Further, the Christian God is traditionally conceived of as a personal being who loves, judges, rewards, punishes, and responds to petitionary prayer. The characteristics attributed to God by this conception thus entail that supernatural agency can affect the course of nature.

Although Christians have always conceived of God as active in the world, the acts of God were not thought of as violations of natural law in the earliest days of the Church. The latter conception became established in Christian doctrine only after a longperiod of development. Professor Van A. Harvey gives a good, succinct account of this development:

In the New Testament, certain events are described as "powerful deeds" (dynameis), "wonders" (terata), and "signs" (semeia). They were, as the words suggest, regarded as manifestations of the power of God believed at work in Jesus. As the Greek idea of natural law took firm hold of the Christian mind in the first centuries after Christ, these three terms increasingly became merged into the one concept "miracle," which was customarily defined as the direct supernatural activity of God working contrary to the known laws of nature. So understood, miracles were regarded as proofs of the divinity of Christ and the Authority of the Bible.

The conception of the miraculous which therefore entered the mainstream of Christian doctrine was the idea of a violation of natural law by the direct action of God. Such beliefs as the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus seemed to require this conception, and it proved to be an indispensible tool for apologetics. Yet it was this very notion that exposed Christianity to skeptical attacks following the rise of modern science.

As science progressed it fostered an attitude that was increasingly hostile to the idea of a violation of natural law. This hostility arose from the conviction that genuine explanations of phenomena can only be discovered through application of the scientific method. A phenomenon is explained scientifically when it is linked to a cause-and-effect nexus which is in turn subsumed under a law of nature. The principle of the uniformity or inviolability of the natural order follows as a corollary of the demand that explanation be in terms of natural law. This principle has become so deeply ingrained in the modern mind that its abandonment is now seen as a rejection of the very standards whereby we comprehend reality. Rather than commit such a sacrificium intellectus we reject as irrational whatever would require this of us. Hence, orthodox Christianity, bound as it is to claims of miraculous intervention in nature, is in danger of being regarded as the relic of an outmoded world-view.

As noted in the Introduction, apologetics is the attempt to provide a rational defense of Christian doctrine. Apologetics must therefore defend the conception of the miraculous as a violation of the laws of nature insofar as that conception is required by Christian doctrine, In view of the above-mentioned difficulties with this conception, the question of immediate interest to the apologist is to what degree Christian doctrine depends upon the miraculous. If a case can be made for Christian belief without making reference to the miraculous, the apologetic task will be made much easier. If, on the other hand, it is conceded that Christianity must rely upon some notion of the miraculous, it might be possible to define a new conception that serves the needs of Christian doctrine and does not conflict with modern intellectual sensibilities. Each of these two attempts to avoid the problems created by the idea of a violation of natural law will be examined in this chapter.

One way of avoiding the problems associated with the miraculous that will not be dealt with in this thesis is the approach that seeks to circumvent all intellectual objections by making an appeal to faith. Such pure fideism has been cogently criticized elsewhere. It will suffice here to note that appeals to faith in the face of overpowering criticisms constitute a retreat into misology and irrationalism. This thesis will be concerned only with attempts to deal rationally with the problems raised for Christian apologetics by the notion of a violation of natural law.

Rudolf Bultmann, one of the most influential New Testament Scholars of this century, is the most prominent exponent of a non-miraculous Christianity. He identifies the miraculous as an aspect of the mythological world-view that has been supplanted by the world-view of modern science. For Bultmann, the scientific world-view has rendered the concept of the miraculous untenable for contemporary humanity: "Modern men take it for granted that the course of nature and of history, like their own inner life and their practical life, is nowhere interrupted by the intervention of supernatural powers." He adds "...modern man acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of the rational order of the universe. He does not acknowledge miracles because they do not fit into this lawful order."

In recognition of this problem, Bultmann recommends that Scripture be reinterpreted on the basis of a hermeneutic that allows the literal, mythological meaning to be transcended and the true message of the Gospel made clear. According to Bultmann, the true message of the Gospel is the Kerygma -- the call to renounce all worldly security and live in radical faith and commitment to the unseen God. Only when the Kerygma is refined from the dross of mythology does it become palatable for present-day humans. Hence, the program of "demythologization" has as its purpose ". . . to make clear the call of the Word of God. It will interpret the Scripture asking for the deeper meaning of mythological conceptions and freeing the Word of God from a bygone world-view."

The first thing to note about Bultmann's defense of a non-miraculous Christianity is that, when considered in the context of the history of Christian doctrine, it is definitely a minority viewpoint. The argument from miracles has traditionally played a central role in the defense of the Christian Faith. For example, as Antony Flew observes, in God and Philosophy, there was during the Eighteenth Century a standard program of Christian apologetic that typically consisted of two stages:

The first required us to establish the existence and certain minimal characteristics of God by appealing only to natural reason and secular experience. The second proposed to show how this rather sketchy religion of nature might be supplemented by a more abundant revelation. This part of the case rested on the claim that there is ample historical evidence to show that Biblical miracles, including crucially the resurrection of Jesus bar Joseph, did in fact occur; and that this in turn proves the authenticity of the Christian revelation.

Further, it is not at all clear that demythologized Christianity exerts a more powerful appeal to present-day humanity that does the approach outlined by Flew. The fact that the writings of C.S. Lewis have sold more than fifty million copies indicates that a more traditional form of apologetic, including an unabashed supernaturalism, continues to exert a powerful appeal. This consideration alone makes Bultmann's pronouncements about what modern humanity can and cannot believe seem rather cavalier.

Lewis and other conservative apologists would contend that one can be fully "modern" in the sense that he accepts the need for a strong conception of natural law, and yet believe that a supernatural order exists which occasionally impinges on the natural. The bone of contention is with the presupposition that the course of nature is entirely uniform and inviolate. This assumption, which is held by Bultmann to be the cornerstone of the modern world-view, is rejected by the conservative apologists. They see this assumption as a pernicious dogma wholly unwarranted by, and in fact inimical to, the legitimate demands of science. They take the view that Christianity must insist that, on at least certain key occasions, the usual course of nature was miraculously interrupted. Belief in such miracles does not require a scrificium intellectus because reason leads us to hold that a Power exists which is superior to and capable of controlling nature. It it is objected that belief in miracles requires the abandonment of the modern world-view, Lewis et. al. readily could reply that it is precisely the changing of world-views that they are attempting to bring about.

From the preceding two paragraphs we see that it is neither certain that demythologized Christianity has more appeal to present-day humanity nor that a more conservative interpretation is necessarily at odds with the requirements of rational thought. For the apologist, however, the chief deficiency of demythologized Christianity is its inability to provide any evidence or reasoned argument in favor of God's acting in the world. This is freely admitted by Bultmann:

. . . an action of God cannot be thought of as an event which happens on the level of secular (worldly) events. It is not visible, not capable of objective, scientific proof which is possible only within an objective view of the world. To the scientific, objective observer God's action is a mystery. . . The action of God is hidden from every eye except the eye of faith. Only the so-called natural secular (worldly) events are visible to every man and capable of proof. It is within them that God's hidden action is taking place.

If God's actions can only be seen by the 'eyes of faith,' however, then they cannot be seen at all by the unbeliever. Bultmann should not speak of God's actions as being a 'mystery' to the objective, scientific observer. Rather, such an observer will see no reason to think that God acts in the world at all. But if God cannot respond to prayer, give us strength or courage, punish the wicked, raise the dead etc., why should we commit ourselves to Him in faith and obedience? In short, if God cannot affect the least circumstance of our lives why should we become Christians? Demythologized Christianity does not offer a single reason for the unbeliever to abandon a completely secular understanding of reality. True, the skeptic might be convinced by some sort of a priori argument that God exists. He will not be able to see, however, how such a God could be relevant to the world. Since, therefore, the task of apologetics is to provide arguments that can convince the unbeliever, demythologized Christianity is utterly useless for this purpose.

If it is conceded that apologetics cannot dispense with the concept of the miraculous, the problem arises of how to make that concept rationally acceptable. One attempted solution is to redefine the concept so that its most offensive element - the notion of a violation of natural law - has been omitted. Some recent writers have held that any remarkable event, even though it may be shown to have a natural explanation, may be properly termed a miracle if it has the effect of increasing human awareness of God. R.F. Holland, for instance, proposes that certain extraordinary coincidences might be properly termed miraculous. He gives the example of a child in the path of an onrushing train who is saved when the train halts for reasons wholly unrelated to the child's presence on the tracks. This occurence is a miracle because, counter to all expectation, a life has been spared. Hence, it is an occasion for God to be thanked and His mercy praised. It does not matter that a natural explanation could be advanced that accounts for why the train stopped where it did. The crucial thing is that the event is received as one in which the power and goodness of God are revealed.

A conception of the miraculous that augments and supports Holland's conception can be found in Paul Tillich's monumental Systematic Theology. Tillich recommends a return to the New Testament understanding of miracles as events that serve as signs (semeia) - wonderful occurrences that point to the divine. He holds that this conception was transmuted into the one that implies a supernatural overriding of natural law by a kind of anti-rationalistic rationalism:

While the original naive religious consciousness accepts astounding stories in connection with divine manifestations without elaborating a supernaturalistic theory of miracles, rationalistic periods make the negation of natural laws the main point in miracle stories. A kind of irrationalist rationalism develops in which the degree of absurdity in a miracle story become the measure of its religious value. The more impossible the more revelatory!

According to Tillich a miracle should not be construed as a subversion of the rational structure of reality, nor should the rational intellect be required to overthrow its own principles in order to recognize the occurrence of a miracle. Miracles are events that occur within the natural order, but which evoke an 'ecstatic' awareness of the 'mystery of being.' Thus Tillich offers three criteria whereby a miracle may be identified: "A genuine miracle is first of all an event which is astonishing, unusual, shaking without contradicting the rational structure of reality. In the second place it is an event which points to the mystery of being, expressing its relation to us in a definite way. In the third place, it is an occurrence which is received as a sign-event in an ecstatic experience."

A critique of Holland and Tillich can be structured along the same lines as the one applied to Bultmann: Whatever significance the occurrence of a miracle in accordance with their definitions might have for the believer, it could carry no weight for the unbeliever. Thus from the standpoint of apologetics such definitions are entirely otiose. In order to serve the purpose of apologetics a miracle must be so defined that if an instance of it occurred it would validate the claims of Christian doctrine. Yet for Holland and Tillich, faith is a prerequisite for the belief that a miracle has occurred. From a secular viewpoint Holland's amazing coincidence is, as he himself admits, to be interpreted as a great stroke of luck or a favorable turn of fortune. It is a miracle only for those who already believe in God. Likewise for Tillich, an event can serve as a 'sign' only if it is conceded beforehand that there is something for the 'sign' to point to. Otherwise the event will be considered fully explained when all of its natural causes are ascertained. A tacit premise of Tillich's position is that an event can somehow remain mysterious when all of its natural causes are known. Yet it is precisely this premise which the naturalist emphatically rejects.

It follows that for both Holland and Tillich the criteria whereby they designate an event as miraculous derive from a prior religious commitment. As with Bultmann's acts of God , only the 'eyes of faith' are capable of seeing such 'miracles.' If it is admitted that an event has an explanation in terms of natural law, the skeptic will see in that event no indication of the existence of a supernatural entity. Hence, only an event which violates natural law can prove the existence of a supernatural agency superior to nature and capable of overruling it. The next question to be dealt with is therefore what is meant by the expression 'violation of natural Law.'

"The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics" is copyright © 1982, 1997 by Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All Rights reserved.