The following 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
Traditionally, a belief in the occurrence of miracles has been considered an important element of Christian faith. The miracles of Jesus have been taken as signs of his divine nature and the proof of the authority of his teachings. Further, Christian doctrine itself has included the claims that certain miraculous events – e.g. the virgin birth and the resurrection – have taken place. Since the Enlightenment, however, the concept of the miraculous has come under heavy criticism, chiefly due to the fact that miracles have been construed as violations of the laws of nature. Such a conception has been seen as antagonistic to the scientific quest to explain all phenomena in terms of natural law. It is likewise difficult to reconcile this conception of the miraculous with the methodology of the critical historian. In constructing the most probable account of what happened in the past, the historian must employ criteria that incorporate current conceptions of what is possible and impossible. If, therefore, an accepted law of nature rules out a certain event as impossible, there seems to be no way that the historian could confirm its occurrence. Philosophers focus on the epistemological problems involved in assessing the reliability of reports that laws of nature have been violated and on the difficulty of identifying genuine instances of such violations. The cumulative effect of these criticisms has been that doubt has been cast on the rationality of belief in the miraculous and, consequently, upon Christianity itself.
Christians have responded to these criticisms in a variety of ways. Some of this century’s most noted theologians have conceded the cogency of the arguments against the miraculous and have reacted by reformulating Christian doctrine so that it no longer relies upon the notion of a violation of natural law. Ruldolf Bultmann’s method of “demythologization” provides a hermeneutic that allows the Gospel to be interpreted in a manner that makes no reference to miracles. Paul Tillich argues that miracles should not be defined as violations of the laws of nature.
In sharp contrast to the approach of Bultmann and Tillich is the conservative style of apologetics exemplified by writers such as C. S. Lewis. Lewis and other conservatives insist that the conception of the miraculous as a violation of natural law is the one required by Christian doctrine and that this conception is rationally defensible. Rather than seeking to accommodate the demands of modern thought, they prefer to meet their critics head-on with an unabashed defense of supernaturalism.
This thesis will assume that the topic of the miraculous should be approached in the manner of Lewis and the conservatives rather than in the style of Bultmann and Tillich. No attempt will be made to justify this assumption since such an attempt would lead far afield into theological issues that could not be dealt with adequately within the scope of this thesis. Rather, it will be taken for granted that Christian doctrine, if it is to be rationally defensible, must presuppose the definition of “miracle” as “an event, caused by a supernatural agent, that occurs in violation of a law of nature” (hence it will be this definition that is intended whenever the word ‘miracle’ is used in this thesis) Various criticisms of this conception of the miraculous will be considered and the efforts of some Christian apologists to deal with these difficulties will be examined. The answer being sought by this thesis is whether the attempts to refute the philosophical criticisms of the miraculous succeed or fail – with the result that a cogent Christian apologetic cannot be produced. In other words, if the miraculous is an indispensable element of Christian doctrine, it might generate philosophical problems so great that it renders impossible the entire apologetic enterprise. The purpose of this thesis will simply be to determine whether or not this is the case.
The first chapter deals with the charge that the conception of the miraculous is self-contradictory. Briefly, the argument is that natural laws, by definition, cannot be violated; hence, if we define “miracle” as “a violation of natural law,” we have a contradiction. It will be concluded that this objection fails and that the conception of the miraculous is consistent.
The second chapter takes up the old Humean problem, i.e., can any degree of evidence confirm that an event has taken place contrary to an accepted law of nature? This chapter will conclude that there are several ways that it could in principle be confirmed that an event has taken place even though that event conflicts with an accepted natural law.
The third chapter will examine three sorts of criticisms of the miraculous and will judge each of these criticisms to be sound. The first objection is that tremendous practical difficulties stand in the way of ever actually confirming the occurrence of a miracle. Such difficulties as the unreliability of testimony, the origins of miracle-claims in pre-scientific cultures, and the conflict of miracle-claims will be examined and the attempts of apologists to mitigate the force of these difficulties will be criticized. Second, it will be argued that no event can ever be identified as a miracle because there are no criteria for classifying any event as scientifically inexplicable. Third, it will be contended that there are no grounds for considering any event to be the effect of a supernatural agent. The conclusion of the thesis will be that the criticisms developed in the third chapter preclude the possibility of ever knowing that any event is a miracle. Hence, on the assumption that Christian doctrine requires that certain miracles be known to have occurred, it is impossible to construct a cogent Christian apologetic.
“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.