The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that The Princess Bride (1987) is a cinematic masterpiece, and a virtually limitless source of helpful quotations, from scene after scene.
About two-thirds through the film, Inigo and Fezzik take the (mostly) dead Man in Black to Miracle Max asking for, well, a miracle: the resuscitation of their friend. Max and his wife Valerie provide them with a chocolate-coated pill that will do the job; in other words, we think that the “miracle” is the product of “medical technology” that only a specialist like Max can understand how to use. As the three leave, Max and Valerie wish them luck storming the castle. Valerie asks, “Think it’ll work?” Max replies, “It would take a miracle”—which surely means, a greater “miracle” than Max can offer; perhaps, the implication is a real miracle, and not simply advanced technology.
Is There A Meaning In This Term?
This scene shines some light on one of the questions I had when I read Luke Timothy Johnson’s book, Miracles: Just what do we mean by that term?
But before I get to that, let me make a few observations about the book as a whole. One of the first things to discern about any book is who the author sees himself addressing; that enables a reader to adjust himself or herself to the manner of presentation. And I note that Johnson is speaking to “the most educated and sophisticated of Christians” (p. 20), and speaks as a member of that group (see also pp. 105, 285). These would be the scholars, clergy, and laypersons in the mainline churches, whom Robert Yarbrough has called the “elitists” as over against the “populists” (who adhere to more traditional approaches to the Bible).Robert W. Yarbrough, Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2019). I am going to take Johnson’s characterization as a captatio benevolentiae rather than an empirical claim, since there are plenty of scholars, clergy, and parishioners among the “populists” who are quite accomplished and erudite—he is speaking more about enculturation in a particular worldview than he is about intellectual achievements. But this helps me, a “populist,” both in seeing how the audience likely perceive themselves (and me!), and in grasping how and why the argument takes the shape that it does.
Once I recognize that, I find that, all in all, there is much for me to appreciate. Johnson wants his fellow elites to see that the miraculous is bound up in the very structure of Christianity, and that “the culturally most influential forms of Christianity have capitulated to a worldview that effectively eliminates the miraculous from serious consideration” (p. 19).The elite audience are those who see themselves as representing “the culturally most influential forms of Christianity,” an empirically contestable assertion that we here overlook. And he insists, not only on the actual resurrection, but on God’s ongoing miraculous activity, not only in the Bible, but also today. He also reckons it likely that actual events lie behind much of the biblical narratives.
The Question of Metaphysics
So, my overall take is that the glass is half full. I give some thoughts here that I think would help further Johnson’s project. If I were giving a full assessment, I would touch on several areas of philosophy and theology, terminological choices, and some exegetical decisions, but the forum format, my own finitude, and the gentle reader’s patience all prevent that.
In this forum, therefore, I will focus on some matters from philosophy and theology. My basic position here is that Johnson, in trying to marry some form of Christian traditionalism, or populism, with his location among the elites, introduces tensions into his work—tensions that are better resolved by a more full-orbed traditionalism.
My chief concern here is with the question of metaphysics; that is, what understanding of God and humankind and nature, and their relation to each other, does he think lies behind the biblical portraits? Johnson does not make his answer to that question clear, at least not to me. At times he wants to insist that “God creates the world new at every moment and is totally present to the changing world” (p. 59, see also 61); does he mean for us to read this as a In this forum, therefore, I will focus on some matters from philosophy and theology. form of occasionalism? I don’t think so, since he later acknowledges that “human agency alone could account neither for the fact that a band of wandering people should come into possession of a body of law, nor for the character of that law” (p. 105)—an indirect way of recognizing that there are some things for which human agency can account. His notion of “miracle” is primarily some event that “made the presence and power of God manifest within creation” (p. 109 and elsewhere). He tells us further that “humans are called to see the miraculous everywhere and in everything. Everything that exists is wondrous and ultimately inexplicable in worldly terms” (p. 62).
I do not think this approach gains us anything over the conventional understanding that includes: creation, by which God imparts natural properties to the things he has made; preservation and concurrence, by which God keeps his creatures in being and confirms the interaction of their properties; providence, by which God orders all things in his world according to his purposes; and supernatural occurrences, in which the outcome goes beyond the natural properties of the components involved.
In this framework, all providences are “special,” because they reflect God’s particular interest in each of his creatures; but some make God’s governance especially clear, and some of these are recognizably supernatural (such as the resurrection of Jesus). It is true that many of the biblical depictions of God’s “great works” do not distinguish between visible expressions of God’s presence and power that employ “ordinary providence,” and those that include a “supernatural” component. However, some of these depictions do.
The Conventional Approach
This conventional approach has many virtues: it is intuitive; it does justice to the biblical presentation (which builds on the intuitive experience of the world); it shows how God is always directly active in every event (divine and creaturely action are not a zero-sum game); and it points the way to criteria by which we may discern some events as actually supernatural.I have written on this topic in C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, & Truth in Genesis 1–11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), chapter 10. An example of this discernment would be the resurrection of Jesus: Bodies that are “all dead” (to use Miracle Max’s taxonomy) do not rise, unless some great power is infused into the ordinary natural processes. For that, it would take a miracle in the fullest sense. As Johnson notes, the event itself does not answer the question of who supplied that power; but it certainly sets a lower limit on the level of power needed!
I suggest that a key step in responsibly deepening the imagination is to recognize that a secularist vision is simply inadequate to account for the world and its events.
Johnson seems to minimize the value of historical apologetics, but in the traditional framework (and with due modesty about what we can and cannot demonstrate, and by what means), the apologetic enterprise makes sense—and this explains why, for example, the resurrection has figured in traditional Christian presentations, from the earliest stages, as an event open to public verification or rebuttal (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:6; Acts 26:26).In this connection I note the absence of any mention of N. T. Wright’s monumental work on The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), even if only for Johnson to distinguish himself from Wright. Further, Johnson seems to downplay the persuasive value of such displays of power, finding their persuasive effect primarily in the disposition of the onlooker; but in the biblical presentation, sometimes these displays have the effect of changing the onlookers’ disposition (e.g., Exod. 8:19; 14:22; Josh. 2:10–11; John 10:25, 37–38; 14:11; 20:29).This is why, by the way, traditionalists would not accept Johnson’s suggestion that “Christian faith would survive even if all the miracles attributed to the human Jesus were somehow discredited” (p. 170): rather, these function as attestation of his special person and role (cf. Acts 2:22; Deut. 18:21–22). Johnson wants secularized mainline Christians to deepen their imagination, and I certainly second that; I suggest that a key step in responsibly deepening the imagination is to recognize that a secularist vision is simply inadequate to account for the world and its events. An adequate vision can be built on a traditional metaphysic.
Apparently, Johnson mostly means by miracle, “that which makes you marvel.” He applies that by asking us to marvel at everything. But if everything is a miracle, that is just another way of saying that nothing is (to paraphrase Dash, from The Incredibles). And this is true, whether we follow Johnson’s non-engagement with metaphysics, or if we prefer a more traditional understanding of nature and miracle. The traditional understanding, however, has more advantages, and resolves the tensions within the Johnsonian approach. I am hard-pressed to see that Johnson’s view of the world can be maintained by anything other than a kind of fideism, and it would be helpful if Johnson were to explain whether he thinks otherwise.
I can think of a number of other ways in which a closer adherence to a traditional perspective would relieve tensions in Johnson’s presentation, but they must await another occasion. I am grateful for the book, and grateful as well for the opportunity to interact with it, and to learn something in the interaction. I offer these thoughts as ways in which Johnson’s project can realize its laudable goals more fully.