The topic of miracles concerns God’s presence and power within creation and the capacity of humans to experience that presence and power. As such, it pertains not only to the signs and wonders found in the Bible, but also to those experienced by our contemporaries. So understood, the topic involves more than discrete acts of healing and exorcism then and now, dreams and visions then and now, tongues and prophecy then and now. Rather, it also involves the most fundamental truths by which Christians live and die: the reality of the Incarnation and the power of the Resurrection. Adequately “interpreting miracles,” then, requires more than biblical exegesis; it demands a coherent and consistent construal of reality within which both the exegesis of ancient texts and the discernment of present-day life make sense. I propose that our difficulties with miracles have much to do with our lack of such a coherent and consistent construal of reality.
Such a construal must not be reserved to academic experts in ancient languages and cultures, or proponents of literary-critical theories, or scholars occupying one rung or another of academic advancement, but rather to them and others in their capacity as committed believers who seek to be faithful teachers and transmitters of the tradition while still employing the critical skills that such disciplines require. How to teach and how to preach—in whatever sort of setting—the reality of God’s presence and power in creation? And how to do so in a way that illuminates not only the accounts of the Bible, ranging from the plagues of Egypt to the exorcisms of Jesus, but also—indeed perhaps above all—the healings and exorcisms and prophetic utterances and unexpected transformations happening all around us even now?
It is appropriate to ask these questions in an academic setting because the difficulty with miracles is greatest among those who have been most affected by modernity’s epistemological reductions, and most committed to the practice of historical criticism. Note that I speak of “our” difficulties with miracles. Yet countless Christians today, especially in Catholic and Pentecostal traditions, pray for, proclaim, and give thanks for the miracles they perceive to be happening in their lives. In contrast, those Christians most thoroughly schooled in the historical-critical study of the Bible suffer from the same double-mindedness that afflicts scholars themselves. With one side of their minds they profess the Creed, read the Scriptures, and celebrate the sacraments; but with the other side—the side influenced by university or seminary education—they possess a level of doubt and unease that prevents a single-minded embrace of Scripture, Creed, and sacrament.
Problems with miracles did not begin with the Enlightenment, to be sure. Within Greco-Roman culture, the Epicurean tradition notoriously challenged every sort of appeal to the actions of the gods in the world. In early Christianity, despite the celebration of miracles in apocryphal literature and in hagiography from the second century through the Middle Ages—think of the Golden Legend—all the way down to Medjugorje and Padre Pio, there existed a countervailing suspicion of miracles among many early apologists and among bishops, a suspicion later sharpened by Protestant reformers. As early as Augustine and Chrysostom, we find the assertion that biblical miracles were part of a special dispensation, and such phenomena as prophecy and tongues were no longer to be expected in the lives of believers. In short, the way to explicit Cessationists like Benjamin Warfield was well paved by centuries of ecclesiastical incredulity toward claims concerning the continuing experience of God’s presence and power in creation.
But it was the Enlightenment that initiated a frontal attack on miracles and set the intellectual framework within which their denial became a badge of the well-educated person. Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and above all, David Hume—all members of the Enlightenment pantheon—dismissed claims to the miraculous with remarkable ease, suggesting that only the backward and benighted could seriously accept them. Such easy dismissal was made possible by an epistemological reduction that defined real knowledge in terms of the empirically verifiable—a criterion that disqualifies not only healings and exorcisms, but also the central propositions of the Christian faith. The subsequent efforts of Toland, Chubb, and, most notably, Strauss, to render a historical Jesus by stripping away from him any suggestion of the supernatural was in great part driven by the quest for a Jesus who fit within this newly constituted intellectual universe. Defining the Resurrection solely in terms of the disciples’ psychology by Renan and Loisy—and, yes, eventually Bishop Spong as well—followed naturally, as did labeling the mystery of God’s embrace of humanity “The Myth of the Incarnation,” with the term “myth” used not positively but pejoratively.
Modernity took the epistemological framework set out by Enlightenment thinkers, harnessed it to science and technology, and brought into being a world that purported to be—and seemed to be—explicable on human terms alone. The success of this materialist premise has been astonishing, enabling us to reach the stars and to penetrate the puzzles of the genome. But together with such advances in empirical knowledge, modernity has also maintained a consistent hostility toward all things supernatural (or, in its terms, superstitious) in its effort to construct a totally secular society in which the very idea of God’s presence and power seems increasingly alien. This project of cultural secularization, whose most obvious recent manifestations include the proselytizing “New Atheism” and the scouring of piety from public places, has been powerfully effective. I believe that none of us, living as we do in a culture whose premises of secularism are propagandized through arts, entertainment, advertising, and education, is entirely secure in our traditional beliefs; those of us who teach Scripture or theology to the young are all more than a little double-minded, in the way I mentioned above, and in all likelihood we hand on to our students the same double-mindedness.
The way toward singleness of mind (and heart)—and therefore toward a construction of reality within which the miraculous makes sense—must involve not a flight from all that is good in modernity, but rather a positive and powerful assertion of those dimensions of reality that modernity ignores and often actively denies.