Saturday, November 02, 2013

Putting God in a box

I'm going to quote and comment on some statements by Phil Johnson from these three sources:
Let's begin with common ground:
Those claims, that God is routinely doing miracles and He is still revealing new truth, those claims constitute the whole gist of the Charismatic movementBut nothing in Scripture teaches us to expect or believe that miracles should be the normal experience of all Christians. That’s not the case, even in the biblical record.That’s because, the only way the typical charismatic can envision God as active and personal is if He is constantly displaying His presence in creation by miraculous means; through constant, direct, extra-biblical revelation; or with supernatural signs and wonders in the heavens.
Notice how Phil frames the alternative: God is routinely or constantly doing miracles; miracles should be the normal experience of all Christians.
To that extent, I agree with Phil. I think cessationists and charismatics are both guilty of putting God in a box. They put God in two different boxes. Charismatics are cocksure of what God will do while cessationists are cocksure of what God won't do. That's why I disagree with both positions.
Cessationism and charismaticism represent opposite extremes, opposite errors. The cessationist argument is easier to make by targeting the opposite extreme. Cessationists make things easy on themselves by ignoring any mediating positions. 
Miracles are extremely rare—extraordinary. Miracles are not common, everyday experiences. And that is true by definition.
i) It's true by definition if you define it that way, but, of course, that's circular. That begs the question. 
To say any alternative to cessationism is false by definition smacks of special pleading. At best, that shifts the debate back a step. It then becomes an argument about how we ought to define a miracle. 
ii) Phil's framework presents a false antithesis:
Miracles are either
a) common, constant, routine, normal, everyday experiences
b) extremely rare
That positions miracles on either end of the spectrum. But why can't miracles range somewhere along the middle of the spectrum?  "Extremely rare" is not a synonym for uncommon. If something doesn't happen every day, that doesn't make it extremely rare, or even rare. 
iii) The reason Phil says miracles are "extremely rare" by "definition" is that cessationism needs miracles to be extremely rare in order to tightly correlate miracles with revelation. Cessationism requires that definition. But to say that definition is a requirement of cessationism is only compelling on the prior assumption that cessationism is true–which is the very issue in dispute. (In fairness, the truth of contiuationism is also in dispute. It cuts both ways.)
iv) Are miracles "extremely rare"? In Scripture, God is not the only supernatural agent. You also have angels and demons. Perhaps even ghosts (e.g. necromancy). They generally operate behind the scenes. Yet their invisible actions have real-world effects. That would usually be indetectable. 
In fact, here’s a proper definition: A miracle is an extraordinary work of God that transcends or contravenes the ordinary laws of nature. 
i) That's certainly a popular definition. One problem with that definition is that before Phil is entitled to use that definition to defend cessationism, he needs to show that that's how NT writers understood the charismata. It's illicit for Phil to begin with an a priori definition of miracles, slap that onto the NT, then declare cessationism true by definition. He needs to demonstrate that NT writers shared his definition of a miracle. 
ii) Another problem is that many Biblical events which are customarily classified as miraculous–indeed, paradigmatic miracles–would be disqualified by that narrow definition. For instance, in what sense do natural disasters like the flood (Gen 7), destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), plague of boils (Exod 9), plague of hail (Exod 9), and plague of locusts (Exod 10) transcends or contravenes the ordinary laws of nature? 
That's a problem when cessationists begin with an a prior definition of miracles, rather than beginning with Biblical miracles, then deriving their definition from those examples. In fairness, Pentecostals often begin with their experience, then define Biblical terms according to their experience. 
iii) How does Phil classify Jas 5:14-16? Is that natural or supernatural? If a sick Christian is healed by that means, is it miraculous? Or is it equivalent to homeopathic medicine? 
Likewise, it is not technically a miracle when you pray for some need and get an unexpected check in the mail in exactly the right amount.And there are unusual providences as well. The Puritans used to refer to them as “remarkable providences”—startling coincidences; amazing and timely events that rescue people from destruction (or sometimes sweep them into disaster); natural phenomena that seem to have cosmic significance. These aren’t miracles, and we need to be cautious about what kind of significance we read into them.
i) This claim suffers from the same problem. He's drawing a bright line between miracles and "remarkable providences" without first showing that NT writers draw the same line. But if he's going to use that definition, then he needs to take the preliminary step of demonstrating that Bible writers operated with that hard and fast distinction. 
ii) In addition, his own claim is "technically" false, for there's more than one technical definition of miracles. In fact, one type of miracle is a coincidence miracle. For instance:
R.F. Holland (1965) has suggested that a religiously significant coincidence may qualify as a miracle. Suppose a child who is riding a toy motor-car gets stuck on the track at a train crossing. A train is approaching from around a curve, and the engineer who is driving it will not be able to see the child until it is too late to stop. By coincidence, the engineer faints at just the right moment, releasing his hand on the control lever, which causes the train to stop automatically. The child, against all expectations, is saved, and his mother thanks God for his providence; she continues to insist that a miracle has occurred even after hearing the explanation of how the train came to stop when it did. Interestingly, when the mother attributes the stopping of the train to God she is not identifying God as its cause; the cause of the train’s stopping is the engineer’s fainting. Nor is she, in any obvious way, offering an explanation for the event—at least none that is intended to compete with the naturalistic explanation made possible by reference to the engineer’s medical condition. What makes this event a miracle, if it is, is its significance, which is given at least in part by its being an apparent response to a human need. 
Like a violation miracle, such a coincidence occurs contrary to our expectations, yet it does this without standing in opposition to our understanding of natural law. To conceive of such an event as a miracle does seem to satisfy the notion of a miracle as an event that elicits wonder, though the object of our wonder seems not so much to be how the train came to stop as the simple fact that it should stop when it did, when we had every reason to think it would not.
On the face of it, a number of Biblical events which are customarily classified as miracles are better covered by this definition. Take the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That's a natural disaster. It employs natural forces. What makes it miraculous is the specificity of the event in time and place. It singles out that particular locality for divine judgment. 
Same thing with the coin in the mouth of the fish (Mt 17:27). That's a miracle of timing. 
These events reflect divine intentionality. Inanimate nature, operating mechanically, wouldn't be that discriminating. The opportune conjunction of highly improbable, causally independent events reflects a divinely orchestrated outcome.  The miraculous element is covert rather than overt: the evidence of a guiding intelligence behind the scenes.
If miracles include coincidence miracles, then miracles are not necessarily rare, much less "extremely rare." Many answered prayers would be coincidence miracles. 
iii) A further problem if you define or redefine providence so broadly as to include "remarkable providences"—startling coincidences, amazing and timely answers to prayer and other suchlike, then you've only scored a semantic victory. You definition is so expansive that it fails to exclude modern charismatic phenomena. For Pentecostals could change the label, but retain the same phenomena.
But miracles almost totally disappear from the biblical record after Acts 20, when Paul restores Eutychus to life. The final eight chapters of Acts record no miracles, except for two incidents in Malta, where Paul casually shakes off a poisonous viper, and then he heals the father of Publius. For the rest of the New Testament (excluding the book of Revelation) no specific miracles are described…In fact, after the gospels and the book of Acts, no other New Testament writer gives miraculous phenomena any significant mention whatsoever.
I don't know if Phil is making a statement about the canonical order or the chronological order. Is he suggesting that even in NT times, miracles begin to dissipate? 
In any case, his inference is fallacious. We expect the Gospels and Acts to record more miracles because these are historical narratives. The epistolary genre doesn't focus on recording historical events–whether natural or supernatural. 
That's how liberals often pit the historicity of the Gospels against the epistles. Well, if the epistles are silent on something in the Gospels, that's suspect. But, of course, it's not. 
In a Biblical sense “a miracle is an extraordinary work of God that involves His immediate and unmistakable intervention in the physical realm in a way that contravenes natural processes.”Let me make one more distinction: There are two kinds of miracles noted in Scripture.1. Some are remarkable works of God apart from any human agency.2. The other kind of miracle involves a human agent, who from the human perspective is the instrument through which the miracle comes.
There are several problems with that definition:
i) He has given two contradictory, back-to-back definitions of a miracle:
a) On the one hand he defines a miracle in terms of God's immediate intervention which contravenes natural processes.
b) On the other hand, he defines one of the two kinds of miracles in terms of instrumental human agency.
But these two definitions are mutually contradictory. If, by definition, a miracle involves God's immediate agency, which contravenes natural media, you can't turn around and say, by definition, a miracle may employ a human intermediary to facilitate the result. 
ii) In addition, he sets up a false dichotomy between immediate divine agency and mediate human agency. For Biblical miracles somemties employ physical agencies, viz. inanimate natural forces or processes. Personal agency, be it human or divine, is not the only miraculous category. 
Nonetheless, every true evangelical holds to some form of cessationism. We all believe that the canon of Scripture is closed, right? 

But notice this: if you acknowledge that the canon is closed and the gift of apostleship has ceased, you have already conceded the heart of the cessationist argument.

Unfortunately, that line of argument proves too much. Compare:

I contend that we are both cessationists. I just believe in fewer miracles than you do. When you understand why you dismiss modern apostles, you will understand why I dismiss modern charismata.

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer kind of miracle than you do. When you understand why you dismiss modern charismata you will understand why I dismiss all miracles.

1 comment:

  1. Phil wrote:
    But miracles almost totally disappear from the biblical record after Acts 20, when Paul restores Eutychus to life. The final eight chapters of Acts record no miracles, except for two incidents in Malta...

    But one way some continuationists interpret Scripture is to see that it was common and expected for the preaching of the Gospel to be accompanied by signs and wonders. The Apostle Paul wrote, "18 For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed,19 in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit; so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ." (Rom. 15:18-19).

    They take it that the Gospel isn't fully preached unless it is accompanied by miracles. When Christ commissioned the 12 (Matt. 10:7-8) and later the 72 others (Luke 10:1, 9, 17-20) to preach He commanded them to perform miracles to attest to the Gospel of the Kingdom. The history of the post-Apostolic church testifies to the fact that miracles continued in the church for centuries afterward even though at times they ebbed and flowed. For example, near the end of his life in his retractions, Augustine essentially switched from his earlier position of "cessationism" to "continuationism" (if I can use those terms anachronistically) because in his latter life Christians once again began to believe in miracles and they actually started happening and Augustine couldn't deny it. This was so common in the Christian church that one of the interpolations of the ending of the Gospel of Mark included Jesus (allegedly) saying:

    17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues;18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."
    19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.

    The post-apostolic historical record is clear. Here are some old resources that document that miracles continued after the death of the apostles for centuries.

    The Ministry of Healing by A.J. Gordon

    The Suppressed Evidence: Or, Proofs of the Miraculous Faith and Experience of the Church of Christ In All Ages by Thomas Boys

    As Steve has said, cessationists like to cite experience and history when it suits them. But not when it doesn't suit them or fit into their theory.