Luke Timothy Johnson is rightly known as one of the more thoughtful New Testament scholars in our country. He is well known for going his own way on issues and calling them as he sees them with a clarity of expression as he does so. This has certainly been the case in Historical Jesus study where he takes on the entire approach as succumbing to standards that cannot deliver what is hoped for. In many ways, Miracles is an extension of that challenge.
The book opens with a critical look at the Enlightenment’s elevation of reason as the core standard for the evaluation of reality, even as he challenges the prominence of secularism with its constant effort to marginalize God and issues tied to religion and faith. The opening reminds us all, as Craig Keener also did in his two volumes on miracles, that for many the idea of God being active in the world is widely received despite Enlightenment orthodoxy. Alongside this opening salvo which is so on target, there is a historical review of how the church has always seen God active in the world, though some in the church were nervous about the presence of miracles while other more skeptical observers have denied their presence at all as these skeptics challenged the reality of the Christian faith. The opening chapters are a reminder that these debates are not new.
Four Flaws Found
Johnson finds four flaws in the Enlightenment restrictions: (1) The arguments that the “laws” of nature are constant is an attempt to define God’s presence out of bounds. Johnson reminds us that these “laws” are a product of human judgment that are really “unintellectual because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess” (p. 33). He is citing G. K. Chesterton in making this point. Johnson adds later on the same page, “The notion that God is constrained to act in accordance with human observations concerning ordinary patterns of occurrence is, once one thinks about it, ludicrous . . . ” The Enlightenment arrogantly oversteps here. (2) The focus on singular acts also skews the situation. Johnson claims, supported by much of the rest of the book, that there is a pattern of activity and a repetitiveness of God’s presence that such a piecemeal evaluation misses. Johnson’s survey of how the Old and New Testaments, as well as Jesus’ ministry, point to an array of divine activity is his effort to make that case. This survey is the core of the book as he often skillfully takes us through the various ways Scripture presents this material. (3) The “entire construction of ‘nature’ as something standing apart from, independent of, both God and humans is questionable” (p. 37). Developments in science and physics means the universe “now seems wilder and more unpredictable by far” (p. 39). (4) “Enlightenment readers cultivated a literalistic reading of texts” (p. 40). These readings he sees as necessarily reductionistic. It is this point that he goes on to elaborate on in the key third chapter of the book where he desires to reframe the discussion. It is in this reframing that is the core of the book where questions remain, even as he makes points that need attention.
Part of Johnson’s concern is what he calls double minded thinking among believers who want to embrace Scripture but insist on measuring Jesus through historical analysis, those who embrace the Lord but bracket out that conviction in ordinary life. As they do so, they find it hard to minister in a world where God’s power and presence are active and where an eye open to miracle seems to be shut, or, at least, produces a kind of embarrassment as a result. This is a complaint about how many denominational leaders are being trained. The focus on historical analysis does not let more conservative readers escape his concern as their apologetic focus on whether events took place misdirects readers away from what Scripture emphasizes. This mirrors a critique I made in my handling of the Lucan infancy material when I stressed that focusing on apologetics alone can get in the way of the unit’s core message that God is active in fulfillment in the events tied to John the Baptist and Jesus.
Four Elements Framed
Johnson offers four elements to his reframing and these are really the core affirmation in his volume (all four elements are reviewed on p. 75): (1) We have to recover “the ability to imagine the world Scripture imagines.” I see Johnson as saying in effect, the Bible in its inspiration is aspirational for us by opening us up to another way of seeing and reaching for the ideals of how life can be lived. (2) We must embrace “a robust theology of creation.” This is seeing God as constantly active, where miracles both big and small are always around us. (3) We need to appreciate “revelation as a process of human experience and interpretation.” Whether this focus on revelation adequately summarizes how God works through it is a question. (4)So it is not so useful to pursue the question of if and how these events took place but to receive them as they are revealed. The reframing means having this understanding of how they have been presented to us. We need to recognize “the truth-telling capacity of myth.” This last point is especially important and bears much weight in Johnson’s reframing as it is this category that dominates when miracle is present in Scripture. The definition of myth is crucial in his conversation. It is not a “species of falsehood,” but “a distinctive mode of speaking truth concerning realities for which science and philosophy [and I might add history] have no adequate language” (p. 68; on history and miracle, see pp. 93-94). Miracles are unverifiable by normal standards of reason. Myth represents “first order statements” but “not necessarily in the form of a narrative, that place human and divine persons in situations of mutual agencies” (p. 69). They are statements beyond science but about the reality of human experience for those with eyes and ears open to sense them. It is a space that the Enlightenment reason standard cannot touch. It is the most effective way to talk about the unseen, beyond-the-senses world.
It is here where questions still remain, though not in the definition of myth but in how to apply it. What Johnson often does is to suggest that something real is present in the miracles Scripture describes but they appear in a hyperbolic (my term) and/or in a symbolic (his term) way (p. 290). So it is not so useful to pursue the question of if and how these events took place but to receive them as they are revealed. The reframing means having this understanding of how they have been presented to us.
A Different Kind of Doublemindedness
The question that remains is whether we have escaped the doublemindedness Johnson is working so hard to avoid, even though it is a different kind of doublemindedness I have in mind.That is the point about which I have real questions, not by rejecting what Johnson raises but by wondering if he has reined it in it too much. In raising this I am not challenging his idea that there are limits to what we can verify in the past, nor even how poorly equipped history is to make such assessments. I am raising the question of if we accept that God is active in the creation as robustly as Johnson affirms, then why are we slow to recognize the possibility that what Scripture describes in these events is more reflective of what did take place than Johnson seems to allow? Reversing the question for the highly skeptical age in which we live, if myth functions by heightening what really took place at a “lower volume,” then what draws anyone into sensing God was really at work? Johnson appeals to a hermeneutic of generosity versus the hermeneutic of suspicion that often drives skeptical readings. This also is a helpful appeal, but at some point the appeal to open one’s eyes and ears can be aided by accepting the unusual nature of some biblical events as being the “signs” Scripture labels them as being. That reality is not merely about a human construct or perception of human experience but is triggered by the description of events outside of their inner perceptions. God is portrayed as generating these distinct events to draw their attention to his activity. So yes, they are pointers and first order acts that should garner our attention, but that is precisely why we should be careful not to demote them too quickly to something seemingly less than what is portrayed.
I know in saying this, the reply will be that I have missed the point of the reframing by asking for something not intended by the Scripture. But, alas, that is the point about which I have real questions, not by rejecting what Johnson raises but by wondering if he has reined it in it too much.
Miracles is an important book, raising precisely the questions one needs to consider in thinking about this topic. It narrows the discussion to the right kinds of questions, for which we can all be grateful.