December 23, 2006
Miracles and New Testament StudiesBy James Arlandson
In an article about Jesus by Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, he asserts that Jesus starts out as a human Jewish prophet, but that the Church in the first four centuries turned him into the majestic Messiah and worldwide Savior. He goes from the Jesus of history to the Christ of faith. Meacham's lengthy title and subtitle outlines the process:
Though Meacham's rationalist version of church history was written recently (March 2005), it has been circulating for over two hundred years, and it will crop up again and again.
Meacham assumes without question that Jesus is merely a man with a prophetic gift, but in an epic battle of ideas, sometimes backed up with the sword of Constantine, the Church promoted Jesus to a deified status, even though history does not support and even cannot demonstrate this status. Meacham says that the Church "made" a great faith; he thus implies that the Church did not receive it from the reliable and non-mythological New Testament that tells us accurately who Jesus is-the Christ, the Son of the living God. Meacham separates off history from faith in his title and subtitle.
Where do Meacham's assumption and dichotomy between history and faith come from? Will modern man or woman accept that Jesus is the Christ of faith and history, during his lifetime, one and the same?
Answering these questions would go a long way in challenging modern rationalistic interpretations dominating certain wings of New Testament scholarship, which is based firmly on an antimiracles presupposition.
The Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800+) shook western civilization down to its foundation. Taking their cue from ancient Greek skeptics, philosophers like David Hume (1711-1776) and François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778) advanced skepticism.
Enlightenment hyper-skepticism influences New Testament scholarship either directly or indirectly, perhaps mostly indirectly. Anthony Flew, a modern defender of Hume, in a chapter fortifying Hume's opposition to miracles, cites an observation from another philosopher, C. S. Peirce.
Peirce is absolutely right about this. Scholars of the New Testament during and shortly after the Enlightenment accepted the closed natural system of cause and effect proclaimed by Enlightenment philosophers. Here are examples of cause and effect: humans talking causes sound (effect). Gravity causes unhindered objects to fall earthwards (effect).
Next, naturalism says that the world of nature-even the entire universe-is the Only Fact, hence the name naturalism (or physicalism or materialism). Can miracles happen in this (allegedly) closed system? Apparently not.
Hume spends a large number of pages in his masterpiece Enquiries concerning Human Understanding discussing cause and effect. The foundation of human knowledge concerning matters of fact (e.g. the sun rises; salt dissolves in water), as opposed to relations of ideas (e.g. proofs in geometry) is experience with cause and effect, he says. And the foundation of this is the accumulation of many experiences with cause and effect. And the foundation of this is mere custom or habit (Hume, pp. 25-47). How do miracles fit into this system?
If miracles happen-and they do not for Hume-then they would be violations or transgressions of the laws of nature. He writes in his essay on Miracles (Section X):
Hume uses, as it were, a two-sided scale, like the scales of justice on the outside of the Supreme Court building. On one side he places our firm and unalterable experience with the laws of nature; on the other he places the reliable testimony for miracles. The first side is always heavier or wins the contest over the reports about miracles. "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence" (p. 110).
Voltaire, in his Philosophical Dictionary and his entry on miracles, discusses the views of natural philosophers. "Here are their arguments." Then he begins with a definition of miracles that is acceptable to them:
However, at the end of the same article on miracles he acknowledges that all Christians (does he include himself?) agree that the miracles of Christ and the apostles are "incontestably veridical" (p. 316). Christians may believe this, but whether Voltaire himself believes this or not, the die has been cast. Many Enlightenment philosophers, and New Testament scholars following them, accept this definition, as well as Hume's.
For such philosophers, then, the world we live in is a closed natural system of cause and effect. Thus, when reports of miracles are written, such as the Virgin Birth found in the New Testament, then we ask this question: Which is more probable? Did the early church uncritically accept legends abounding in the Greco-Roman world, or did the miracle happen? A rationalist accepts the first option as more probable.
So it was up to New Testament scholars like David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), to cite only these two examples, to separate historical fact from "myth" without destroying timeless truths that may be embedded in the "myths" of the New Testament documents, particularly the Four Gospels.
However, can it be rightly said that as the early Christians (allegedly) accepted too much "legend" and "myth," so also modern scholars accept too much skepticism, ironically?
David Friedrich Strauss
Strauss's book Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1846) caused a firestorm, since it was so radical. He was promptly dismissed from his post at Tübingen University. It seems that he absorbs skeptical German Biblical scholarship specifically and western scholarship generally; or perhaps he largely ignites it, as seen here:
From this quotation it seems that Strauss does not exclude a "superior power" completely, but in practical terms this power does not work miracles. Hume would agree with Strauss's belief in a closed system "that suffers no intrusion from without [the outside]." Thus, Strauss offers a criterion by which to distinguish the historical from the unhistorical in the Gospels.
Thus, if an account in the Gospels includes a miracle, then the account is unhistorical. This skepticism about historical reports of miracles is exactly Hume's point, as we shall see in the next article in the series.
But why can we not justly accuse the authors of the Gospels of fabrication? They lived in a different time from Strauss's, he says. Following the (apparently) gullible age of the first century and later, they uncritically accepted too much.
Strauss goes on to say how much power the person of Jesus worked on the imagination of his followers. The popular hope of the Jewish people generally in a Messianic era was "to be full of signs and wonders" (p. 84, section 14). Miraculous events and prophecies were expected of the Messiah, and Jesus was that Messiah; therefore these things happened to him.
This fits into Strauss's critique of a founder of modern theological liberalism: The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History: a Critique of Schleiermacher's Life of Jesus (1865). Note how the Christ of faith is separated from the Jesus of history in the title. This move is based squarely on an antimiracles presupposition noted in the excerpts above and here. Strauss writes:
If Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is too traditional for Strauss, then this clearly reveals how radical Strauss really is. Schleiermacher is known as the "father of modern liberal Protestant theology." In any case, one cannot find the divine Christ in "a truly critical treatment of the Gospels." The Christ of the church and the Gospels is an "illusion." Such theology blocks the harbor from "rational science."
So Strauss conforms to his own skeptical age, whereas the early Christians conformed to their (allegedly) naïve age. He has a strong motive to make Christianity appealing to his modern times, so miracles must be excluded or at least reinterpreted as myths containing timeless truths. We today know better than the ancients, especially the primitives in first- century Israel, whose desperation for a Messiah propelled them into fictions that for them were nonetheless true. Strauss must break the chain that hinders "rational science" from intruding into theology and New Testament studies.
Bultmann picks up where Strauss (and others not dealt with here) left off. Bultmann was one of the most prominent and influential New Testament scholars of the twentieth century. For him the New Testament worldview that includes miracles is no longer believable.
In the article "New Testament and Mythology" (1941) he states that science and technology makes the "world picture" (read: the myths) of the New Testament implausible:
He adds in the same vein on the same page:
In the same article he says that we should not believe in the Resurrection:
In a series of lectures delivered at US seminaries in 1951, he reinforces the presupposition that the New Testament worldview is mythical.
The central idea found in that quotation may or may not be borrowed from Hume directly, but it is surely Humean in spirit. Then Bultmann dips his feet into philosophy about cause and effect, a dominant theme in Hume's epistemology (how we acquire and define knowledge).
Hume would need clarification on the phrases "cause-and-effect nexus" and "chain of cause and effect," but Bultmann's declaration is clear. Miracles actually happening should be excluded from any interpretation of the New Testament-even a theological one, not to mention an historical one-because modern science renders such primitive conceptions obsolete. Hume would agree.
Finally, Bultmann says in "On the Problem of Demythologizing" (1952) that a being that works a miracle is conceived as a worldly power projected onto the plane of worldly occurrences.
So what is the goal of demythologizing? It is to know the "benefits" of Christ. Bultmann writes in the same article:
Demythologizing does not destroy the biblical writings, so says Bultmann, but winnows out the chaff of myths and miracles from the wheat of transcendent truths. But is the wheat a strictly human apocalyptic Jesus and the chaff the deity of Christ? If so, then the reversal is based squarely on an antimiracles presupposition.
Both Strauss and Bultmann were motivated to reinterpret the New Testament for the modern times they lived in, the scientific age. Maybe they can be commended for good intentions, but maybe not.
Regardless of their motives, the underlying assumption of Strauss's and Bultmann's viewpoint is hyper-skepticism about the supernatural. Though they may not deny God's existence, miracles simply do not-or cannot-happen. Why not? Because the age of science and technology denies them. Theirs is a closed system, though perhaps some sort of (divine?) work may be done in the human heart through an encounter with the Christ of proclamation.
Nevertheless, the question remains: who is this "demythologized" Christ of faith / Jesus of Nazareth now? A dead "non-resurrected" spirit being who is somehow alive? A feeling? A pleasant thought or idea? Is he a Bodhisattva who can be reached only by long meditation or a whispered prayer? The wizard in the Wizard of Oz? Whoever we make him out to be? How does one have an encounter with such a being, if he or it exists, whatever or whoever he or it may be? Perhaps, though, if you believe in him or it, then your belief is not a lie. That is a paraphrase of the words of George Costanza in the sitcom Seinfeld. Costanza was informing Jerry Seinfeld on how to beat a lie detector test. If you believe it, it is not a lie, he told Jerry.
Truth-in-humor aside, let's step back and look at the big picture. What if some miracles described in the Bible happen today? What if the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk, immediately after prayer in Jesus' name? So decried by Strauss and Bultmann and others like them, these miracles, resembling Biblical miracles of healing, would in turn support the unique miracles of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, if miracles happen. They would certainly not disconfirm them. Modern miracles-in the age of science and technology-may turn on its head the demythologization of the New Testament. What if the healing miracles recorded there are all true or have a strong possibility of being true? Why would such miracles not soften or even flatly contradict the hyper-skepticism embodied in Strauss and Bultmann, if miracles indeed happen today?
Thus, can we challenge Strauss's and Bultmann's strong rationalism about the New Testament worldview that includes a "three-story cosmos"? What if the modern age of science and technology does not preclude miracles a priori (before investigation)?
The next four articles in this series explore these possibilities.
James Arlandson is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.