A close friend recently told the story of his daughter coming home from a kindergarten class in a mainline Protestant Christian school. Her teacher, also a pastor in the church, had taught the children that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand was that because of Jesus’ influence, people shared their food with one another even though it appeared there was not enough to go around. This pastor was so convinced of the scandal of the miraculous even in a room filled with five-year-olds, she felt the law of conservation of matter needed to be maintained over a God-with-us Jesus Christ.
Westminster John Knox, 2018
I deeply appreciate Luke Timothy Johnson’s purpose in Miracles: God’s Presence and Power in Creation to confront the closed, secularized worldview underlying events such as this. This pastor not only eviscerated the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, but she also stole (from children!) the wonder of a God who is miraculously active with his people. I agree that the modern Christian needs to be joined with “the majority of Christians [who] have celebrated the presence and power of God in creation through signs and wonders, not only in the stories of the Old Testament and New Testament, but also in their own lives” (p. 8).
Below, I will suggest two improvements, which I believe more comprehensively limit the impacts of a secular worldview. First, I will suggest that Hume has been misread. While he is no friend to miracles, he is even more powerfully antagonistic to any effort to set miracles in opposition to inviolable laws of nature. Second, I will suggest Christians need some word for those specific miracles which are also clearly contrary to “normal” nature, even if we accept that none of the biblical words signs, wonders, or even miracles should be that word. Finally though, even with a broad, clear understanding of where and how God acts, I will show where I suspect Dr. Johnson and I disagree on how to teach pastorally on providence and miracles in reference to God’s activity.
An Accidental Ally
Johnson uses Hume as the standard-bearer for Enlightenment bias against miracles, but even though he appears to fit the task, in reality Hume’s attack on the idea that we know causes and can be certain of their effects (i.e., “necessary connection”) is worse for the secularist worldview than his epistemology is for miracles. Johnson initially treats Hume’s attack on miracles as epistemic ethics, which is correct.The upshot of all of this is that the secularist worldview which masquerades as reason’s requirement and the fruit of the Enlightenment is neither. “We ought not ever believe in miracles,” says Hume. The secularist, though, claims that miracles cannot happen (and that we know that). However much Johnson is correct that Hume believes “the miraculous does not exist at all” (p. 16), Hume cannot claim miracles are impossible. He cannot agree with the secularist prohibition on ontological terms.
This correction would be pedantic if the point was only to say Johnson had slightly missed Hume’s argument and should have picked a different philosopher. It is much more than that. Hume lays out a still unmet challenge to the secularist’s known, closed system of nature just a few chapters prior to his treatment of miracles. Hume allows that we can infer laws of nature from nature’s regularities, but he shows we never know those laws themselves.See David Hume, “Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion,” in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Selections from a Treatise of Human Nature (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1921), 61–81. Since we cannot know the laws, we cannot know what would constitute breaking them. Law implies necessity, and Hume makes clear that even where all personal and human experience has been the same on a particular relationship of events, no matter how constant and consistent the evidence, one does not have proof, but only “regards past experience as a full proof.”Ibid., 116. My emphasis on the word “regards,” and I removed Hume’s on “proof.”
The upshot of all of this is that the secularist worldview which masquerades as reason’s requirement and the fruit of the Enlightenment is neither. Hume invalidates any statement suggesting that, “science has shown that miracles are impossible.” There is no need for Johnson to discuss the differences between hard sciences and social sciences, for example. The predictive successes of the former do not make them less amenable to God’s activity. No matter how “hard” the science, no matter how constantly correct its predictions, no matter how reasonable the inference of underlying law, at the bottom (or edges) of scientific theory will be a word like “gravity,” or “electron” which may seem to name a thing but actually only names a set of past, repeatable behaviors. Hume liberates Johnson to allow God’s actions in all areas of nature, and, reflectively, avoid the impression God is not active in the regular necessities of everyday events. Everywhere is where God can and does act. Even at their very best, physics and the hard sciences have not passed Hume’s embargo on knowledge of necessity, so no secularist can be justified in saying “that is impossible,” whether the miracle is walking on water, cleansing a leper, rising from the dead, foretelling the future, or feeding thousands with a tiny supply of loaves and fishes.
My second suggestion is that this discussion would be aided by an additional term for those special acts of God which defy the secularist’s closed world. Johnson refers to the Augustinian Protestant “shaped by the bias of the early Reformation against miracles,” using the word miracles to refer to “distinctive manifestation[s] of God’s power during the period of the New Testament but . . . not to be credited today” (p. 11).A name for those particular, divine actions that break the normal regularities of the universe and run afoul of the secularist worldview would simplify the discussion of the reality, frequency, and purpose of miracles generally. I claimed that Johnson’s bifurcation between the social and statistical versus the mathematical and hard sciences empowered naturalistic presumptions about the events described by the latter fields. I am vulnerable to a similar critique, because I have treated the biblical word miracle as a technical term for events contradicting the secularist worldview. In doing so, I too have inadvertently empowered that worldview, allowing it—rather than the participants and observers of God’s actual activity—to determine what constitutes special divine activity. In this I am not only Protestant and Augustinian, but I am even further restricted by secularism’s demands.There is more I would say on this topic than can be included in this short response. I am conflating some issues here for the sake of space.
A name for those particular, divine actions that break the normal regularities of the universe and run afoul of the secularist worldview would simplify the discussion of the reality, frequency, and purpose of miracles generally. Miracle needs to be freed from that use except as a general word, of which those events are a type. If Johnson empowered secularism by restricting it to the hard sciences, I empowered it by letting it restrict the language of miracles. If all of creation is God’s active realm, we both benefit by an improvement in this area.
The name should not be supernatural or any other comparative to natural as such would imply that there is such a thing as “nature” which stands over against divine activity. Consider Christ walking on water. I recall my professor, Diogenes Allen, asking, “What could be more natural than that water would uphold its Creator?” I love this question. It expresses the intimate connection between Creator and creature while simultaneously exposing the implied opposition between these two in how we normally use the word nature. Notably, it also exemplifies Hume’s point regarding the limits of our knowledge of causation. We know nothing of the underlying nature of atoms to say whether or not this is what they would always, everywhere do (naturally) as servants of their Creator. All we can say is Christ walking on water is unlike all of our prior experience. To describe this event as a “violation of the laws of nature,” is unadorned hubris, a claim surviving on a circular hegemony-by-acceptance rather than analysis or evidence.
Unless we use natural and ordinary synonymously, we cannot say whether walking on water is super-natural. But if not supernatural, then what? Extraordinary means just the right thing, but that word is too washed out by common use to be sufficiently extravagant. If a hamburger can be extraordinary, then signs and wonders that break the all-but-universal ordinary patterns that result in scientific theory need something better. Nevertheless, lacking a better term, I will call these extraordinary miracles to distinguish them from miracles more generally considered. By this term, I mean those events which are miraculous—wondrous and/or signatory—and that are miraculous by virtue of happening outside of all normal regularities in the universe.
Providence and Miracles
I agree with Johnson that the secularist impulse against miracles specifically and divine activity generally, and the resulting demythologizing of Christianity, is disastrous. I hope he would agree that by widening the church’s response to secularism to all events, no matter how “hard” the science describing them, we better set the Christian free to see God in all of his world.Providence as well as the miraculous is victim to secularism. He confronts secularism’s harm to the church’s regard for God’s activity by disallowing miracles; I think it is equally important to confront the harm of rendering normal events merely ordinary and mechanical. Providence as well as the miraculous is victim to secularism.
Here though, I suspect we diverge. Should providence or miracle be the larger pastoral emphasis? If I understand him correctly, even with the word miracle set free from the supposed limits of science and a Protestant and Augustinian restriction to biblical times, Johnson would claim I restrict miracle too much in everyday life. Meanwhile, I am surprised he does not make more use of providence to empower the Christian to see God in the everyday world.
The difference is visible, for example, in the homily provided as an example of applying his book in pastoral ministry (pp. 288–293). Johnson says to his audience, “We can hardly help wondering, ourselves, at the apparent contrast between the way God seemed to act so directly and powerfully in biblical stories and fails to act that way in our stories” (p. 289); and, regarding Moses on the mountain and the transfiguration, these “may have occurred, and I think probably did occur, in ways closer to our own experience” (p. 291). I expect both occurred in ways wildly divergent from our own experience and that the best aid to the worried wondering would be teaching on God’s providential activity everywhere. Set free from secularism, I would suggest that pastorally we do better to say that those biblical examples were extraordinary miracles, special divine actions intentionally made wondrous for the sake of unmistakably demonstrating God’s power and activity by contradicting normal human experience. Set free from secularism, we can also help the church recover a strong and comprehensive sense of providence, of God working everywhere always. And in the middle, so to speak, we rejoice at God working specially and miraculously in the Christian life now as throughout the past.