Re: [asa] Dowd, Miracles, and ID-TE/ASA-List Relations

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Tue Apr 21 2009 - 09:42:18 EDT

Dear Rev. Murphy/Dr. Murphy/George (as you prefer):

Your reply is a good one to get the conversation going, and I thank you for it.

To take your last point first: Granted, there is a difference between saying that a wondrous phenomenon (miraculum) happened, and giving an explanation of the phenomenon. My point was that it is not clear to me, in many cases, whether many ASA list members believe that the wondrous phenomenon in question even happened. So, for example, take the case of Jesus, walking on the water. The first question is: "Is this a description of an actual event?" The second question is, to use your language, "Is this event 'beyond the capacities of creatures', or can it be explained in natural terms?" I have no objection at all to your asking the second question. What I am not sure about is whether you believe that the event described ever happened. I am not sure that you would shrink from affirming that the story was simply made up, by an author who used Old Testament symbolism (about mastery over the unruly waters) to liken Jesus to the Old Testament God. And just so you won't misunderstand me, let me make this clear: I don't care. If you don't believe that it happened, I am not going to call you an infidel and consign you to the eternal flames. My point is that ambiguous statements on the matter are guaranteed to make ID-TE relations worse. Since many ID-Christians suspect that many TE-Christians disbelieve in many of the events described in the Bible, ambiguity will be taken as evasiveness, and evasiveness will be taken as indicative of lack of belief.

Of course, lack of belief in any particular historical wonder is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Many ID-Christians could live with less than 100% assent to miraculous stories. The problem is that, when the reigning atmosphere is ambiguity, there's no way of telling whether someone believes in 90%, 75%, 50%, 10%, or 1% of the stories. My view is that, if it's more like 10%, TEs owe it to their conversation partners on the ID side to let them know the worst; and if it's more like 75%, TEs are foolishly creating unnecessary conflict by hinting that they disbelieve more than they do.

On your first point, I note your qualified language: "some"; "a higher proportion of the latter [NT]"; "there's a historical core to both". Does "some" mean the majority or the minority? Does "higher proportion of the latter" mean 90% of the NT examples, versus 80% of the OT examples? Or 20% of the NT examples, versus 10% of the OT examples? Or 90% of the NT examples versus 1% of the OT examples? Does "historical core" mean "the seemingly miraculous escape of powerless Hebrew slaves from the mighty Egyptian army", or does it mean "the waters of the Red Sea (Reed Sea, if you like) rose up, remained suspended for exactly the length of time it would take for all of Israel to get through, and for the entire Egyptian army to get into position, and then collapsed again"? And again, does "historical core" mean "shortly after the Crucifixion, the disciples experienced an inexplicable sense of their Lord's presence", or does it mean "Thomas felt the nail holes in Jesus's hands and verified empirically that Jesus was alive again"? I repeat: I don't care if you don't believe that certain events happened. I'm not chairing any Committee for the Enforcement of Orthodox Belief in Miracles. I'm merely pointing out that such non-committal language leaves the reader completely uncertain what you believe. And I'm not picking on you particularly, because this sort of qualified and hesitant language abounds in this place (as it abounds in the pulpits of mainstream Protestant churches and in the lecture rooms of their seminaries).

On your second point, it sounds as if you are saying that the founder of your branch of Christianity did not know how to read the Bible, but that you do (or at least, that modern scholars do). That's of course logically possible, but it's a bit of a dangerous position for someone in your shoes to take, isn't it? If Luther didn't know how to read the Bible on miracles, what else might he have got wrong? Sola scriptura? The priesthood of all believers? Infant baptism? Keep in mind that modern Biblical scholarship is a two-edged sword. It may help get rid of miracles, but it may also help get rid of things that you might want to keep. The world-famous Pauline scholar, Ed Sanders, who is in many respects the apotheosis of the post-16th century Biblical scholarship you're implicitly endorsing, thinks that Luther got "the Law" wrong. His work is informed by a detailed historical understanding of ancient Judaism which Luther never possessed. Does such scholarship have the right to put Lutheran theology on trial for a faulty understanding of the Law?

Mark 8:12 is not relevant to the point I am raising, because it is about the desire to see present-day miracles, not about the acceptance of past miracles. Both Jesus and the Pharisees accepted the tradition of past miracles unquestioningly. Analogously, orthodox Christians, prior to the Enlightenment, accepted both Old Testament and Gospel miracles unquestioningly; the only debate was over "cessationism" (i.e., over whether miracles had ceased, or still occurred). In any case, I personally have no "hankering for miracles". I'm merely pointing out that the Biblical writers record them in abundance, and that virtually all pre-Enlightenment Christians, including even most of the ultra-educated ones, accepted the miracles "straight up". It's of course logically possible that the entire Christian tradition misread the Bible, from day one. But while that's perhaps imaginable in the case of the Old Testament, which was written centuries before the Church existed, it strains the imagination in the case of the Gospel stories, since the Gospels were written by the early Church, and the early Church presumably knew what it meant when it wrote them. What are we to suppose -- that the early Church wrote the Gospel miracles with non-literal intentions, but that almost immediately, an inexplicable exegetical blindness came upon the Church, so that it mistakenly started to read all of its own miracle stories literally? Again, that is logically possible. Maybe all those who understood the Gospel stories died of a plague, so that the rest of the Church was left without the necessary hermeneutical keys. But from the point of view of conventional Christians -- and most ID-Christians are conventional Christians -- such a scenario is highly unlikely, and it is therefore the Christian who seriously doubts a large portion of the miracle stories, not the person who believes in most of them, who must bear the burden of explanation. And very little of that burden has been borne in the discussions here.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: George Murphy
  To: Cameron Wybrow ;
  Sent: Monday, April 20, 2009 10:33 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Dowd, Miracles, and ID-TE/ASA-List Relations

  A quick and brief response. I believe that some of the miracle stories of the Bible, both OT & NT (a higher proportion of the latter) are accounts of real historical events. That would include, in particular, the Exodus and the Resurrection of Jesus. (Speaking of the latter as "a" miracle story is somewhat inaccurate - it includes 2 types of accounts, appearances and the empty tomb. I think there's an historical core to both.)

  OTOH I don't think that all the miracle stories of the Bible are historical narratives. & if someone asks why we shouldn't believe them today if Luther did, the blunt answer has to be that we've learned some things about the natural of biblical texts since the 16th century.

  Discussion of the possible "how" of miracles is by no means a diversion. Far too many discussions of miracles fail to deal adequately, or at all, with the question of what a miracle is. The basic meaning of the word is some phenomenon that excites wonder, amazement, &c. (It comes from the Latin mirari, to wonder.) That in itself says nothing about the "mechanism" of the phenomenon - and in particular, about the idea that it is something beyond the capacity of creatures. Possible explanations of miracles range from amazing copincidences through "natural" phenomena so rare that science can't get an observational handle on them to lacunae in the laws of physics required by Goedel's theorem. I discussed miracles in general in The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross, pp.88-91, and the resurrection on pp.189-192.

  It is wrong to deny deny miracles on principle, but a hankering for miracles is dangerous in another way. Mk.8:12 is germane here.


To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Tue Apr 21 09:43:32 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Tue Apr 21 2009 - 09:43:32 EDT