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

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Tue Apr 21 2009 - 22:01:21 EDT

Cameron -


(& George is fine for me, at least for adults. )


A couple of general points first. To begin with, you should realize that I am not a typical member of the ASA. There are not many Lutherans in the organization while I am not only a Lutheran but one of the evangelical catholic variety who is not entirely happy about being called a protestant (though I don't make a big deal of it). I am, I hasten to add, in agreement with other ASA members on the aspects of the faith dealt with in the organizations statement of faith. But no one should cite my views on something like an understanding of biblical miracles as representative of the ASA's position.


Then since you set the discussion about miracles in the context of ID-TE discussions, it's worth pointing out that when I've raised theological concerns about ID, proponents of ID have fended them off with the claim that what's at issue is just science and/or philosophy, not theology. For them to question my theology because of what I may think about whether or not Jesus turned water to wine while refusing to consider any theological criticisms that bear directly on ID claims would be odd, to say the least.


Or to put it another way, why do "TEs owe it to their conversation partners on the ID side" to tell them what percentage of biblical miracles they think were historical, something that is peripheral to debates about ID, while the IDers themselves refuse to discuss theological questions that touch directly on their claims?


Then to take your points in order, though not in complete detail.


There are few biblical miracle stories which I will say with certainty did happen as real historical events, and also few that I would say with certainty did not really happen. In no case is my hesitation about saying that a miracle really did take place because of a belief that "such things just don't happen." Hume was wrong. The problem is rather that there usually are in fact other ways of understanding the theological thrust of the text and at the same time few instances in which we have independent historical evidence.


I could, I suppose, go through all the miracle stories in the Bible and check off for each "Certainly did happen," "Probably happened," "Don't know," "Probably didn't happen," "Certainly didn't happen," but I'm not sure how much value there would be in that. I believe "with the certainty of faith" that Jesus was raised from the dead, and will say more about that later. I think there's little question that many of Jesus' healings took place as well as the feeding of the multitude (but probably once rather than twice). I think that a group of Hebrew slaves escaped from Egypt in a way that they saw as miraculous - again, more on that later. OTOH, I don't think that the story of Jonah and the great fish is historical because there's good reason to think that the whole book of Jonah isn't historical.


Please do not read between the lines and conclude that I don't believe that Elijah called down fire from heaven, that Paul survived a snake bite on Malta, or that any other story is not historical. There are a lot of cases in which I'd have to say "I don't know," and not from any desire to be evasive. I understand what you mean about the waffling of protestant preachers. Many of them, when the Gospel for the day is a miracle story, will quickly look at one of the other lesson. I've criticized that myself. OTOH I'm not going to assert something just for the sake of looking decisive.


I did not say that Luther (& I could have added Calvin and many others) did not know how to read the Bible but that we've learned some things since the 16th century. The insistence on the "plain meaning" of the text was quite understandable in view of excessive patristic and medieval allegorizing, but it was another matter to assume that the plain meaning was always an account of "history as it really happened."


It goes too far to say that I "am endorsing" the whole direction of critical biblical study since the 16th century. I think too much of it is pervaded by implicit denial that scripture is in any meaningful sense inspired and that the canon has any significance and belief that miracles can't happen.


Then something about three specific miracle stories you bring up - Easter, the Exodus and Jesus walking on the sea.


In my earlier post I was quite brief and thought that my affirmation of the empty tomb would make it clear that I thought that I believed that Jesus was raised bodily, and that the Easter gospel is not just "the cause of Jesus continues" or something of the sort. But I'm happy to be explicit: The resurrection was something that happened to Jesus and not simply something that happened to his disciples. And what happened to Jesus was that he was raised bodily. "Wohlverstanden, leibliche Auferstehung," as Karl Barth said to Thomas Torrance a few weeks before his death.


I immediately have to add that this does not mean that Jesus simply returned to the same type of bodily existence that he had before. The whole way Paul speaks of the resurrection in I Cor.15 points toward transformation - "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body." And that's consistent with the brief accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ in the gospels.

There's more that could be said about the resurrection but I hope that's sufficient for now. Let me note though that if somebody is going to ask for precise adherence to the texts as historical accounts, it's important to be careful about what those texts say. The Gospel of John does not say that Thomas did touch the nail holes in Jesus' hands, just that Jesus invited him to do so.


Then the Exodus. I think it extremely likely that this event, so pervasive in the OT & so fundamental to the faith of Israel (it is the OT counterpart of the resurrection) really happened. I suspect that you consider the brief statement I made about it earlier ("a group of Hebrew slaves escaped from Egypt in a way that they saw as miraculous") quite minimalist, but that's the way it looks. For a start, ~ 2.4 x 10^6 (4 x 6 x 10^5 - cf. Ex.12:37) men, women and children together with their flocks & herds passing through the sea would take a long time. At a rough estimate it would take just the people, 4 abreast and at quick march, upwards of two weeks to pass a given point. It wouldn't have been hard for the Egyptian chariots to catch the great majority.


Which doesn't mean that an escape through some body of water of a group of Hebrews never happened. It simply means that a good deal of the imagery of Ex.14 & 15, which is so wonderful to read for the Easter Vigil and which gives the dramatic "Ten Commandments" footage, is hyperbolic. & that's hardly surprising.


That doesn't mean that we shouldn't pay attention to what the text says. In particular, there's the statement (24:21) that the immediate cause of the parting of the sea was the wind. & that suggests that what was involved was a providential meteorological event, one not "beyond the capacity of creatures" but also not one strictly determined by the laws of physics (butterfly effect). And that means we can picture God operating within the framework of the laws of physics but nevertheless having the freedom to do what he wants to do to create his chosen people.


"You mean it wasn't a miracle?" some would ask. I didn't say that. It was one of the "mighty acts of God" even though one we may be able to get some scientific grip on it, every much as if God transcended the laws of physics in order to bring it about.


Finally, Jesus walking on the sea. The common description of this as Jesus "walking on the water" falls far short of the meaning of the story. Mk, Mt & Jn all say consistently that he was walking "on the sea" (epi ten thalassan). It's hardly a pedantic distinction. One is just a magical balancing act & the other is a sign that in Jesus there is present the creator of the world, the one who is pictured in the Chaoskampf texts of the OT as defeating primordial sea monsters, the forces that threaten creation. & the point there is that focusing on "Did it really happen?" can miss the deeper significance of the text.


Well, did it really happen? I see no reason to say "No." The fact that it's in both the synoptic and the Johannine traditions is in its favor.


Finally on Mk 8:12. It's appropriate to cite this in connection with biblical miracles rather than present-day ones when people are insisting that all (or nearly all) the biblical miracles were historical as a condition of faith, or that acceptance of them is a test for someone's orthodoxy. I realize you're not doing that but some of the ID folks you refer to seem to.


But even more relevant to the ID context you've noted is that the fundamental claim of the ID program is that some phenomena (bacterial flagellum, blood clotting cascade) must be miraculous. Of course that isn't the language ID proponents use, but when they say that those phenomena cannot be explained in terms of natural processes, & when one recognizes that the Intelligent Designer is a rather transparent disguise for God, then what is being spoken about is a classic definition of miracle. And when ordinary Christians believe these arguments, use them to support their faith and resist scientific arguments that those phenomena can be explained in terms of natural processes, we have a situation not unlike that in the Marcan text.


That will have to be it for now. I probably won't be able to write much tomorrow since I'll be involved in grandkid care.



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.





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Received on Tue Apr 21 22:02:18 2009

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