In writing to Timothy the Apostle Paul counsels him to exhort the Christians under his care “that they strive not about words (logomachein) to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers.” With this exhortation in mind, we observe that rarely if ever in the history of the Christian Church has there been a more important battle of words going on than at present. But this battle is not “to no profit”; it concerns the very essence of our Christian faith. The issue centers about the word “miracle.” This word, which has been precious to Christians from the earliest times, has been called in question for a century or more and is now the subject of vigorous debate. The debate deals also with such words as historical, Historic, Geschichte, suprahistorical, metahistorical, myth and legend, kerygma, and existential; but the key word is miracle.
When the writer was a seminary student, he was given this definition: “In the narrowest biblical sense, miracles are events in the external world, wrought by the immediate power of God and intended as a sign or attestation.” The words, “in the narrowest biblical sense,” are intended to exclude from the definition such spiritual experiences as regeneration, sanctification, faith, and prayer, which are all miraculous in the broad sense of supernatural. In the narrow sense, then, a miracle has three characteristics: (1) It is an event, not an isolated phenomenon. It forms an integral part of the stream of history. As such it is a phenomenon that takes place “in the sphere of the observation of the senses” and is cognizable by them. (2) Its occurrence results from “the immediate power of God”; it is not the necessary consequence of prior events, however closely it may be connected with them. It is an act of divine power and cannot be accounted for by the ordinary laws of nature. (3) It is intended as a sign or attestation. Its occurrence in the external or phenomenal world has evidential value for the human beings who witness it. It can be observed by men and should be recognized as significant by them.
Consider a notable example. The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle performed by Jesus that is recorded in all four Gospels. It was an event that five thousand men both witnessed and benefited from. It had a definite occasion and was connected with preceding events. Jesus had gone through Galilee preaching, and the common people had heard him gladly. On this occasion the people had sought him out in a desert place. When evening came they were hungry, and the only food available was five barley loaves and two small fishes that a young boy had with him. With this Jesus fed five thousand men, and twelve baskets of fragments were taken up afterwards.
How this took place is very simply stated. Jesus “took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude” (Matt. 14:19).
All that we can say is that this was an immediate act of God, an act inexplicable by natural laws. It was a miracle. But it was also and just as much an act that directly affected a multitude of men, both mentally and physically, and they were fully competent to judge its occurrence. “They did all eat, and were filled.” So gratifying was this repast to the multitude that Jesus withdrew from them because they were about to “come and take him by force, to make him a king.”
So much for the event itself; now for its meaning. We read that the next day the multitude that had been fed took boats and came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him, Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles [signs], but because ye did eat of the loaves and were filled. Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you …” (John 6:26, 27).
Here we are told two things; the feeding was intended as a sign or attestation; and the multitude that partook of the material tokens of divine power failed utterly to understand and profit by their real significance. That the miracle was “an event in the external world” is obvious; that it took place “in the sphere of the observation of the senses” is also clear. These people had seen, touched, tasted, smelled; they had eaten of the loaves, and their hunger had been appeased. They were filled with amazement when they saw the loaves and fishes multiplied before their very eyes. How they explained it to themselves, we do not know. But Jesus’ reference to the manna and to himself as the bread of life fell on deaf ears. The significant lesson of the miracle escaped them completely.
Here, then, we have an event recorded in the Bible that is a miracle in the narrowest biblical sense of the word. What shall we of today do with it? Broadly speaking, in the history of the Christian Church miracles have been accepted as evidence of the truth and divine origin of our religion, by which it accredits itself as such to all men and demands their acceptance of it. Not only so, but in the past Christians have gloried in the miracles as convincing proof of the truth of their religion. Is there any reason for the Christian of today to take a different attitude?
The Scope Of Reality
We are often reminded that we are living in a scientific age, one that has made amazing progress in the study of the phenomenal world, the world of temporal sequence, of cause and effect. It naturally follows that many conclude that this world of sense perception is all that there is; that the cosmos is a closed, self-contained, and self-operating system that has not had, does not now have, and cannot receive stimuli of any kind from without. As opposed to the theistic view set forth in Scripture, this view is either naturalistic, deistic, or pantheistic. It may look upon the universe as a self-originating and self-operating continuum; it may see the universe as a mechanism created and set in operation by God and then left, like a well-made clock, to run itself; or it may stress the doctrine of immanence so much that the difference between man, nature, and God disappears and materialism becomes pantheism or idealism. Nature, whether spelled with a small letter or a capital, becomes the be-all and the end-all of human study and attainment.
The conflict is ultimately between theism and antitheism, between the thoroughgoing theism of the Bible and the naturalism that ignores God or denies him completely. The issue is clear-cut; shall we meet it squarely, or shall we compromise or surrender? If we meet it squarely, then in facing, for example, the great fact of the Resurrection, we will say to the unbeliever, “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” We will then proceed with Paul to recount the post-resurrection appearances and conclude with the confident affirmation, “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept.” In other words, we will confront the unbeliever with a confident faith based on what we hold to be known facts. That is what the Christian Church has been doing for nearly two thousand years. It has stood firmly on the supernatural fact, the miracle of the Resurrection, and all that this great central fact means and involves for the believer.
But many today are unwilling or afraid to take that uncompromising position. Either they are not sure it is defensible, or they are afraid of giving offense or of appearing ridiculous to the worldly wise. Of the several current alternative positions, let us consider three of the most common.
The first is the course of absolute surrender. According to the existentialist philosophy, to state it in Old Testament terms, every man may, indeed must, do that which is right in his own eyes. The thoroughgoing existentialist will say with W. E. Henley, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” The existentialist may be an out-and-out atheist or an agnostic, or he may have some faith; but he rejects all external authority. Nevertheless, there are existentialists who would call themselves Christians. Thus Bultmann rejects the supernatural content of the Bible in toto. He relegates its miracles to the realm of myth and legend, hangovers from an old-fashioned world view that is unscientific and absurd in the eyes of the modern man. But he takes an inconsistent position. Denying the factuality of the Resurrection, for example, he claims that by the kerygma, the Church’s preaching of the Resurrection, the hearer is forced to make a decision for or against Christ, and that this is the Gospel. Although this sounds quite simple and profound, it amounts to saying that salvation, if we may use the word, consists in believing what isn’t so. The kerygma, the preaching of the Gospel, becomes a story like Little Red Ridinghood and the Wolf. A child may learn the lesson of obedience and other things from this goody-goody story. But when he becomes old enough to discover that wolves don’t talk, the story loses much of its meaning and influence, for it does not then square with the facts of life as he has come to know them. In a word, faith must rest on and build on objective fact; it cannot create the fact. Such objectivity is purely illusory. Such so-called faith is superstition.
A second and somewhat similar position is that of Paul Tillich. Like Bultmann, he rejects the miraculous element in Christianity as such. But he treats the miracle as symbol, and his aim is to get beneath the symbol to an underlying reality. Thus he speaks of the quest for “the God behind God,” by which he apparently means the God who remains or who lies behind the God of the Bible when all the supernaturalism revealed in the mighty acts of God has been stripped off. Tillich tells us we must have a “deep faith” to discover this God. But he leaves us with the distinct impression that while he may be a deep thinker and is undoubtedly an earnest seeker, he has not found and does not know the God who is behind God. His “courage of faith” will land most of those who follow him in exercising “the courage to be” in “the courage of despair.” For who by searching can find out God? God must reveal himself, and the Christian believes that He has revealed himself in his wonderful works, recorded in the Bible. If these works are denied, the God who wrought them is denied also.
Clouding God’S Revelation
A third modern attitude toward miracle is that of Barth and his many followers. It is commonly called neo-orthodoxy or the theology of crisis. In sharp reaction against the emphasis placed by the theological liberals of the nineteenth century on God’s immanence, Barth stresses his transcendence. Man can know God only as he reveals himself. He must break through to man, if man is to know him. This God has done in the Bible. But this revelation is not direct; it is indirect. It is made through man and is man’s witness to God’s revelation. This witness, being human, is fallible. Consequently, the Bible contains both truth and error. It is not the word of God as such; it contains both the word of God and human error which cannot be the word of God. Furthermore, this revelation in Scripture is not historical in the ordinary sense of the word. It belongs to Geschichte, a suprahistorical sphere which cannot be brought under the norms of history as it deals with mundane affairs. It is both factual and supra-factual. This teaching cannot fail to undermine the confidence which the Christian is entitled to have in the Bible as the word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
This Barthian teaching is not only difficult and complicated as a theory; it has the most serious practical consequences in its bearing on human life and conduct. To take a simple and practical example, is the Decalogue the Word of God as such? Or does it only become the Word of God to the individual by a special activity of the Holy Spirit? Suppose a minister has in his congregation a man who is determined to disregard the command, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” If the minister believes that the Bible is the Word of God, he can say simply and positively, “The Bible says, It is not lawful for you to have her.” But if they both believe that the Bible is a human book and contains much error, what can he say if he is told by the would-be breaker of the Seventh Commandment, “That command does not come to me as the Word of God. It is a word of man, a human ordinance that does not meet the conditions of life today.” He has no final word of authority to appeal to. Both he and his parishioner have made the law of God of no effect by the traditions and opinions of men, by which a principle of relativism, subjectivism, and existentialism makes it possible for every man to be the judge of his own conduct and a law unto himself.
The fiftieth Psalm describes a judgment scene in which Almighty God pronounces judgment on the wicked. After a brief listing of the sins of the wicked, the explanation is given: “These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself. But I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes.” This charge, “Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself,” is at once the description and condemnation of all natural man-made religions, whether it be the gross idolatries of the heathen or the sophisticated cults of the modernist of today. It is when God keeps silence or when man refuses to hear that this terrible situation arises. Only when God speaks through his word to the heart and consciousness of man is man rebuked and the situation rectified.
In reply to a “hard question” raised by the Sadducees, the problem of the woman with seven husbands, Jesus asked, “Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?” He then answered the question with the solemn warning, “Ye therefore do greatly err.” Here we have Jesus’ solution of the problem of the miraculous, especially as it concerned the heavenly, the supernatural world. Or as it is stated even more plainly in the words of John the Baptist: “He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all. And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth.” And like Jesus, John the Baptist adds this solemn warning, “And no man receiveth his testimony.”
In these days of controversy and contradiction, the organization of the Evangelical Theological Society is a hopeful sign. Since its founding in 1950, about a thousand biblical scholars have joined the society, and in so doing have subscribed to its doctrinal basis: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and therefore inerrant in the autographs.” This states in brief compass the historic faith of the Christian Church. With this Bible, the sword of the Spirit, the Church has won its victories in the past, and it can face the conflicts of the present and of the future with that same confident faith in God and in his Word that overcomes the world.
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