Monday, October 29, 2012

Miracles And Christian Exclusivism

Earlier in this series of posts on miracles, I addressed how we ought to judge competing miracle claims. In this series and elsewhere, I've argued for the superiority of the Christian system of miracles over its competitors. I want to close this series by considering how much further we can narrow the field. For example, do Christian miracles suggest that God is favoring one denomination or movement within professing Christianity? To what extent do miracles seem to support one particular view of God or system of doctrine?

I can't address every relevant issue. I don't have the knowledge, time, or space to do it. But I'll take up some of the issues involved, especially what Craig Keener addresses in his book that I've been discussing.

We often don't know much about the context of a miracle. We may have medical documentation, but little or no information about the theology of the person healed or the individual who prayed for the healing, for example. Or we know a lot about the theology involved, but we don't know much about the extent to which the miracle was meant to confirm that theology. And so on. Still, the information we have makes some conclusions more likely than others.

One thing we should take into account is what's suggested by the occurrence of a miracle independent of the sort of contextual details I've referred to above. Consider my example involving an individual who prays for a healing that then occurs as an apparent answer to that prayer. Even if we don't know much about the theology of the person who prayed or the theology of the person healed, the occurrence of a healing as an apparent answer to prayer does narrow the field of options to some extent. The healing is more consistent with theism than deism, assuming that the former allows for God's ongoing miraculous activity in the world, whereas the latter doesn't. And if the person who prayed for the healing was a professing Christian, then the field is narrowed further. And if he prayed in Jesus' name, then there's more narrowing. Etc.

Do we find much detailed theology associated with post-Biblical miracles? We usually don't have many theological details to go by, but Craig Keener discusses some cases that are of a more detailed variety. For instance, some of the miracles occur upon the invocation of Jesus or through prayer in Jesus' name (Miracles [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011], n. 215 on 247, n. 45 on 315, 564-565, n. 586 on 596, n. 85 on 800). Keener writes, "Christians [in China] have such a reputation for healing that non-Christians, particularly in the countryside, 'often seek out Christians' to pray for them when they cannot afford medical help or when medical help has proved inefficacious for them." (298-299) While discussing healings in sub-Saharan Africa, Keener notes that the percentage of Christians who claim to have witnessed a miracle there is "significantly higher than among practitioners of other religions" (n. 20 on 313). He gives examples of non-Christians going to Christians for miracles or illnesses being healed in a Christian setting that weren't healed in non-Christian religious contexts (571, n. 441 on 571, 814-815). He writes of cases of demon possession involving an acknowledgement of Jesus' power, even among non-Christian participants (n. 85 on 800). He discusses some cases in which a person's illness that had been healed in a Christian context returned once the individual later departed from Christianity (n. 89 on 519, n. 208 on 531, n. 90 on 726). In a previous post, I mentioned modern power encounters, in which Christians have competed with demons or human followers of non-Christian religions, similar to how Moses competed with the magicians of Pharaoh and Elijah competed with the prophets of Baal. Keener discusses some examples (843-856). Often, the Christian nature of a miracle is less explicit, but is still present. The miracle occurs during a Christian church service, at an event held by a Christian evangelist, where a Christian missionary is laboring, etc. Even if something like a prayer in Jesus' name or an explicit competition between Christianity and another religion isn't involved, the miracle can still be discernibly Christian in nature. That's frequently the case.

In general, conservative professing Christians expect God to perform miracles more than others who claim to be Christians expect God to do so. Some forms of cessationism among conservatives involve a denial of ongoing miracles. But liberals and moderates who don't even believe in the historicity of some or any of the Biblical miracles tend to also have less of a belief in post-Biblical miracles. And the groups most often associated with post-Biblical miracle claims have been more conservative than not (e.g., the patristic sources who reported miracles, the sources behind medieval miracle accounts, the Pentecostal movement, healing movements within Roman Catholicism, modern evangelists associated with healings). Think of the widespread healing reports in modern China, which I mentioned in an earlier post. How many people who convert to Christianity in such a setting are converting to some sort of non-conservative form of the religion? Conservative theology is more supportive of missionary activity than is liberal or moderate theology. And conservative theology tends to motivate more conversions and more of a willingness to suffer for that theology, for example. As I discussed in the earlier post linked above, many of those who convert to Christianity in China do so on the basis of miracles they experience or ones they know about. If you convert on the basis of evidence of the miraculous, then that sort of belief in a God who's supernaturally active in the world and that sort of interest in objective evidence for one belief system over another are more consistent with a conservative than a non-conservative theology. There are reasons why Christian apologetics is associated more with conservatives than non-conservatives. There are reasons why books on evidence for miracles, like Craig Keener's, come from conservatives more often than they come from liberals or moderates. The system of miracles Keener documents is more suggestive of a conservative than a non-conservative theology.

How much further can we go, beyond noting that the miracles point to Christian theological conservatism? Here's what I wrote in the comments section of an earlier post in this series, regarding Roman Catholic miracle claims:

Miracles can come from a variety of sources and can be produced for a variety of reasons. Biblical miracles sometimes occur among individuals who are unbelievers or immature in the faith (e.g., Balaam, Naaman, people in the gospels who disobeyed what Jesus told them to do just after being healed, the revelation Cornelius received prior to his salvation, Satanic agents in 2 Thessalonians 2 and Revelation 13). God could perform a miracle in the life of a non-Christian out of compassion, to demonstrate His generosity, to benefit a Christian who is or will be associated with that non-Christian, or for some other reason (Acts 14:17).

One category we should keep in mind, which people often neglect, is paranormal human phenomena. There's a lot we don't know about human capabilities, whether abilities some or all humans have throughout their lives or abilities they attain at some point. As some people have artistic or intellectual skills, for example, others may have a skill of a paranormal nature. They may have been given the ability directly by God or Satan. (I'm including associated agents, like angels and demons, under "God" and "Satan".) Or they may have received it by some other means, such as inheriting or developing it in some way that doesn't involve being given it directly by God or Satan. Somebody could have a paranormal capability that has the potential to be used for good or evil. How it's used, and even whether it's used at all, varies from one person to another.

We have to judge miracles case-by-case, but we can also make broader observations. For reasons I've addressed elsewhere, my sense is that the most significant concentration of miracles occurred during the Biblical era. As we move out from that centerpiece of miraculous activity, the second highest level of miraculous power is found among post-Biblical professing Christians. We find less, but still a lot, among non-professing-Christians.

Among post-Biblical Christian miracles, a large number occur among Roman Catholics. My sense is that a larger number and higher proportion occur in other circles, but the Catholic numbers are significant. For reasons I've explained elsewhere, I think many Catholics are Christians, even though Roman Catholicism teaches a false gospel. The potential reasons for the occurrence of a miracle in a Catholic context would have to be judged case-by-case. I suspect that many of the miracles are Divine and are done for the benefit of Catholics who are Christian, for the benefit of Christians who are associated with non-Christian Catholics in some way, or out of compassion for non-Christians, for example.

Catholic miracles, such as the ones at Lourdes (though non-Catholics have been associated with Lourdes as well), are significant largely because of the evidence for those miracles that's available to us. We have such evidence because of the efforts of the Catholic hierarchy and others who have been concerned to collect that sort of information. Anybody could do that. It's not something unique to Catholicism. But many people don't do it. For reasons Keener discusses at length in his book, there are many obstacles to collecting evidence under a lot of circumstances (a lack of technology in some parts of the world, unfavorable hospital policies in some places, etc.). The largeness of the Roman Catholic denomination and the efforts Catholics have made to document some of the miracles that occur in their circles are significant factors. (A factor like the largeness of the denomination will also affect other things, like the amount of funding available to produce documentation, the willingness of doctors and others to get involved, and media attention.) Those factors could be duplicated elsewhere and sometimes are to some extent.

I'm not aware of any good argument that post-Biblical miracles validate one particular denomination to the exclusion of all others. Even if we look to movements, such as Pentecostalism or charismaticism, rather than denominations, there's still some significant ambiguity. An apparent larger presence of the miraculous among movements like the ones I just mentioned could validate their belief in God's ongoing miraculous activity without validating other aspects of their theology. Even their view of miracles could be wrong to some extent, yet they're right in having more of an openness than others have to God's ongoing performance of miracles.

Keep in mind the hierarchy of miracles I referred to above. The Biblical miracles have priority over later ones, because of the greater power they involve and the higher significance of the messages attached to them, for example. And the large majority of people associated with post-Biblical miracles claim to be acting in submission to Biblical revelation. There's no competition involved. It's not as though the typical church father or modern evangelist who reports a miracle is claiming to be equal to or superior to Jesus or the apostles, for instance.

If post-Biblical miracles suggest some form of conservative Christian theology, a form that allows for ongoing miracles, how much further can we go? Is there some more detailed form of conservative theology we can single out? The large majority of conservative professing Christians have beliefs like Trinitarianism, the virgin birth, and Jesus' resurrection in common. But what about beliefs that aren't as common among conservatives, yet are often considered highly significant? What about justification through faith alone, for example? Since so many miracles occur among groups that deny the doctrine or are inconsistent about it, should we take those miracles as evidence that sola fide is false or not of much concern to God?

Again, keep in mind what I said above about the hierarchy of miracles. The most significant miracles are the Biblical ones. The Bible teaches justification through faith alone, and the concept has been more widespread in the post-Biblical era than people often suggest. It's not just that the Bible teaches justification through faith alone. The Bible also emphasizes the concept a lot and assigns a lot of importance to it. So should we.

Furthermore, as I wrote elsewhere:

People who are Christians sometimes later become unfaithful to the gospel temporarily, as we see with Peter and the Galatians in the New Testament. (And Paul anticipated such unfaithfulness as a possibility with the Corinthians, as we see in 2 Corinthians 11.) People are often inconsistent. They hold inconsistent beliefs at the same time or change beliefs from one period of their life to another. They contradict themselves knowingly, as they waver between two views, or unknowingly. A person can throw himself entirely on the mercy of God, like the tax collector of Luke 18, without having a high level of knowledge about doctrines like justification through faith alone and imputed righteousness. Even though he's seeking justification through faith alone, he isn't giving that fact and its implications much thought. People can have a mixture of good and bad motives, wanting to defend a bad decision they've made (such as reverting to Catholicism), even though, at the same time, they want to be right with God and understand a doctrine like justification correctly. They have conflicting desires.

John Duncan is said to have remarked, regarding some elements in Charles Wesley's hymns that seemed inconsistent with Wesley's Arminianism, "Where's your Arminianism now, friend?". I think a similar question can be asked of many people who profess to reject justification through faith alone. It's so obvious that we have to approach God like the tax collector in Luke 18, without works, and people are surrounded with reminders of that fact in a nation like the United States, where there's such easy access to Bibles, Evangelical churches and other Evangelical ministries, etc. Many people who profess some form of justification through works at some point in their life are brought to a more realistic view of things by something they experience later in life. The absurdity of justification through works is difficult to live with, and many people who profess belief in such a false gospel could be asked, in a time of difficulty or on their deathbed, "Where's your works righteousness now, friend?". Thankfully, the gospel is, in that sense, easy to understand and appealing. There's reason to think that more people accept justification through faith alone than explicitly say so, especially in a nation like the United States.

Even groups that deny sola fide can unintentionally promote it. They read, and they encourage their people to read, a Bible that teaches the doctrine. They encourage people to believe in Jesus, then add works to that faith as a further effort to attain justification. But some people will trust Christ to save them before they get to any of those later works. Even if they're inconsistent with their initial faith later on, there was a conversion at that earlier point. People sometimes trust in Christ, then are unfaithful to the gospel (e.g., the Galatians).

Let's assume that miracles happen in a modern group that denies sola fide or is inconsistent on the issue. Maybe an individual in that group who was miraculously healed doesn't understand the theology of that group or doesn't agree with it. Maybe he's inconsistent about it. Maybe he understands and accepts that theology, but God was gracious to him in spite of his error. There are other possibilities. I'm just noting a few examples.

I just mentioned God's graciousness. The gospel of justification through faith alone is a gospel of grace. It's consistent with the character of a God who's so generous with salvation to be generous with other miracles as well.

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