by J.V. Fesko; TABLETALK MAGAZINE
“A book forged in hell . . . by the devil himself” are the words that were used to describe Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. Critics characterized the book as godless. Why were the reactions to this book so hostile? Spinoza was a seventeenth-century philosopher who rejected the claims of Christianity. He believed that Christians had misunderstood the Scriptures because they had erroneously concluded that miracles had occurred in the biblical narratives. Spinoza offered a twofold argument for dismissing the Bible’s account of miraculous events and actions.
First, he claimed that the Bible was written in a style to excite and inspire human imagination, not to persuade the intellect. Second, a proper reading of Scripture requires peeling back the layers of phrases and metaphors. In other words, the Bible did not record miracles but reported events robed in hyperbole and exaggeration. The seeds of Spinoza’s doubts later blossomed in nineteenth-century liberal interpretations of the Scriptures. Some New Testament scholars claimed, for example, that Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand was no miracle. Rather, Jesus stood before an opening of a cave, which was concealed by His long, flowing robe. His disciples then fed loaves of bread through the sleeves of His robe. The feeding was no miracle but rather a sleight of hand—a well-intentioned ruse meant to inspire selflessness.
In his Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza argued that the will of God is synonymous with the laws of nature. On the other hand, a miracle is a violation of the law of nature. God’s will is unbreakable; therefore, miracles are impossible. Some philosophers, such as David Hume, simply dismissed miracles because of disbelief. Hume maintained that the testimony of Christ’s resurrection, for example, was likely false. Such testimony was therefore invalid for establishing the historicity of the resurrection. In the present, New Testament scholars such as Bart Ehrman make similar claims. Ehrman defines a miracle as improbable. Historians, however, can establish only what probably occurred in the past. Thus, a historian can never ascertain the historicity of a miracle. Regardless of the variations, the simple truth behind the rejections of miracles is unbelief—a rejection of God’s Word.
If doubters do not believe God’s word revelation, then they will certainly reject His act revelation—namely, miracles.
A second reaction to miracles is to relativize their significance. For all the claims of secularization and living in a disenchanted world, people are still as religious as ever. On her talk show, Oprah Winfrey would regularly beam, “Remember your spirit!” She believed that we are all connected to the energy of creation, that we are a part of this energy, and that this energy is a part of us. Winfrey is just one example of a growing religious demographic that has been labeled the “nones.” In her recent book Strange Rites, Tara Isabella Burton documents that the nones do not associate with any institutional religion. Think back to the heyday of the shopping mall. The main retailers anchored the mall: Sears, J.C. Penney, and Macy’s. Now malls have been displaced by shopping promenades with dozens of retailers. Instead of going to Macy’s to buy your clothes, now you might shop at six different stores to assemble your wardrobe.
This shift in retail helps us understand the cultural change in the West. Rather than belonging to one of the institutional faiths, such as Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Mormonism, or Islam, people now assemble their own curated religions. Burton observes that today’s nones might combine a Christmas hymn, themes from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, mysticism, and a dash of social justice to create their own form of spirituality. Rather than purchase the album of historic Reformation confessional Christianity, the nones shop in the digital music store to create their own spiritual playlist. Nones are therefore open to the reality and historicity of miracles, but miracles coexist in an enchanted world where other miraculous, mystical, and meaningful events transpire and inspire, so they cannot help us single out one faith from others. While less aggressive, the nones’ attitude toward miracles still pulses with the heartbeat of unbelief in the overall message of God’s Word.
What, then, is the nature and purpose of miracles? The answer to this question comes in two parts: the nature of divine revelation and the specific purpose of miracles. First, the Bible shows that God reveals Himself through the creation: what theologians call general revelation. The Apostle Paul, for example, states that God’s invisible attributes, “his eternal power and divine nature,” are revealed “in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). God reveals knowledge about who He is in things—in nature and conscience. God also reveals Himself in words, what theologians call special revelation. The opening lines of Hebrews memorably capture this truth: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1–2). God reveals knowledge about Himself in things and words. When God reveals knowledge about Himself, His revelation also follows a common pattern of a word, followed by an act, followed by an interpretive word. In the creation account, God first says, “Let there be light,” which is followed by His act of creating light (Gen. 1:3). And then the Genesis account gives us an interpretive word: “And God saw that the light was good” (v. 4). The pattern is word-act-word. This configuration repeatedly recurs in the Scriptures but is writ large in the incarnation of Christ—the Old Testament is the preparatory word, the incarnation is God’s revelatory act, and the New Testament is the interpretive word. God reveals Himself in things and words (general and special revelation), and He speaks, acts, and then interprets His actions and words. In the simplest of terms, God is His own interpreter.
Second, general and special revelation and its word-act-word pattern provide the framework for understanding the purpose of miracles. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He anticipated His miraculous act by telling Mary, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). This is the anticipatory word. Jesus then miraculously raised Lazarus from the dead (v. 43). This was a miraculous act of divine revelation. John then provides the interpretive word: “The man who had died came out” (v. 44). Within this context, the miracle is a form of God’s revelation in action, in things. Miraculous acts confirm God’s word—they authenticate that Jesus is truly who He claims to be. Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead proves that He is who He claims to be—the Son of God, the resurrection and the life. Miracles, therefore, demonstrate that the triune God of creation who made the laws of nature and sustains the cosmos by His providence is also the same God who saves sinners by this same power. The Westminster Confession of Faith succinctly explains this truth: “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure” (5.3). In other words, miracles attest to the sovereignty, power, and authority of the triune God. The miracles are the same power of God at work in salvation that are also at work in upholding the creation. They are also seals upon His word revelation that authenticate His message. Miracles attest that the God who speaks is also the God who acts.
Some have argued that in a world of electricity and advances in technology and medicine, people cannot believe in a three-tiered cosmos inhabited by angels and demons, where people die and are raised from the dead. But has science disproved the legitimacy of miracles? Strictly speaking, no. There has been no series of experiments that disprove miracles. Thus, those who dismiss the possibility of miracles do so on the basis of prejudice and disbelief, as Spinoza and Hume did. The best scientists, however, are supposed to be open to unexplained phenomena and arrive at conclusions only after repeated experimentation. The problem with those who reject the possibility of miracles is not a lack of data but rather a lack of faith both in the Word of God and also in their own scientific method. How can they reject what they have not disproved through experimentation and testing?
If doubters do not believe God’s word revelation, then they will certainly reject His act revelation—namely, miracles. God’s miracles are revelatory testimony of who He is and what He has done to save a sinful people through Christ and the Holy Spirit. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles” (Heb. 2:4). Our prayer must be that God would give us eyes to see and ears to hear so that we would receive God’s word and act revelation unto salvation—that we would stand in awe at His power to create and marvel at His miraculous power to save.
Dr. J.V. Fesko is professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss., and author of the forthcoming book The Christian and Technology.