Herb Brooks and a bunch of college hockey players beat the Red Army’s team! Case closed.
All right, maybe there’s a little more to say than that. A minor bruhaha erupted below this post over the possibility of miracles in our day, and it is a question worth addressing.
Let’s start with St. Augustine: “I never have any difficulty believing in miracles, since I experienced the miracle of a change in my own heart.” C.S. Lewis reflects something similar when he writes, “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepared the way for this, or results from this” (Miracles, 173). In other words, Christianity necessarily entails a belief in the possibility of miracles. That much is clear. It’s also where things begin to get murky.
Before we go any further we also ought to define what we mean by “miracle.” The definition I will use here is as follows: A miracle is an event or occurence that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” This is an important definition because, admittedly, lots of things are described by the word “miracle” these days that are certainly not miraculous. Indeed, the word “miracle” has become badly watered-down. The “Miracle on Ice” was awesome, but not a miracle. Beautiful sunsets are not a miracle. They are wondrous. They are marvelous. They are not miraculous. The birth of my children was amazing. Jaw-dropping. Unspeakably fascinating and bedazzling. It was not miraculous, because it was completely explainable by the natural and scientific. So, we would do well to limit our “It was a miracle“-talk to things that really are miraculous, or else we’ll be contributing to the vulgarization of the word.
There are a few other considerations that need to shape any conversation about the possibility of modern day miracles:
1. We should all admit that experience plays a significant role in determining our view on miracles. If you’ve never seen one, you will be less likely to believe in the possibility of one—regardless of what anyone else says. If you are confident that you’ve seen one, you will be much more likely to believe in them—regardless of what anyone else says. A commonly cited historical example of this involves the great Princetonian theologian, B.B. Warfield. Warfield’s wife was struck by lightning on their honeymoon and, despite the earnest and faithful prayers of her husband, remained an invalid for the rest of her life. It is little wonder, however strong his arguments might be, that he famously argued that “[Miraculous gifts] were not for the possession of the primitive Christian as such; nor for that matter of the Apostolic Church or the Apostolic Age for themselves; they were distinctively the authentication of the Apostles. They were part of the credentials of the apostles as the authoritative agents of God in founding the church. Their function thus confirmed them to distinctively the Apostolic Church, and they necessarily passed away with it” (Counterfeit Miracles, 6).
2. We should all admit that our context and culture plays a role in determining our view on miracles. To a certain extent, we are all inescapably shaped by our culture and its predominant epistemology. If you have a Enlightenment-shaped, modernistic mindset, you will have a high degree of confidence in the ability of the scientific method to explain everything observable without the assistance of “miraculous” explanations. On the other hand, if you have a pre-modern worldview (like most of the world outside of Europe and the U.S.) or if you have a post-modern worldview (like a rapidly increasing number of people in Europe and the U.S.) then you will have a lower degree of confidence in the ability of science to explain everything observable in such a way that “proof” can be mustered to explain everything. In other words, if you are the sort of person who demands indisputable proof before you will believe anything, it’s unlikely that you’ll believe in miracles.
3. All believers should admit that God is capable of performing miracles whenever He pleases. This is not a question of whether God is capable of performing miracles through human instrumentality, but whether he continues to do so. For that reason arguments of this sort: “Miracles can to happen, because God is still God and He can do whatever he wants to do!” are not valid. This does not address the question of whether the God that is is still in the business of performing miracles through human agents.
4. We should all admit that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about whether or not miracles have continued past the closing of the New Testament canon. This may be the most important consideration in shaping how conversations about miracles should go. To a certain extent we’re all in the dark and are left to our experience and worldview to shape what we believe about miracles. Let me explain this a little:
On the one hand, biblical arguments raised by cessationists (i.e. those who believe the miraculous gifts ceased after the Apostlic age) are notoriously weak and almost laughable. Some of the “best” (I use that term advisedly) arguments have relied on two passages: 2 Corinthians 12:12 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-10. In the former, Paul, in the course of defending his apostleship to the Corinthians, writes, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” It is sometimes argued (see the Warfield quote above, as well as this post) that miracles are these “signs of a true apostle” and since there are no longer apostles (with which I agree) to perform these miracles, there no longer exists the possibility of miracles.
The massively gaping hole in this argument, of course, is that Paul nowhere says that the ability to perform miracles are limited to apostles. In 1 Cor. 12:28-30 he writes, “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” In other words, Paul is saying that no one group of people has a corner on the market on any spiritual gift. To fill in the answer to Paul’s rhetorical questions: Are all apostles? No, but some are! Are all prophets? No, but some are! Are all teachers? No, but some are! Do all work miracles? No, but some do! Do all possess gifts of healing? No, but some do! … You get the picture. Simply because the gift of apostleship (conferred only on those who have actually seen the resurrection Christ bodily [Acts 1:22]) has ended does not entail that all spiritual gifts have ceased. Which leads us to the next nearly laughable cessationist argument.
In 1 Cor. 13:8-10, Paul writes, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” There is considerable debate over what “the perfect” (v. 10) refers to. But no reputable New Testament scholar or theologian in the last 80 years has made a serious argument that “the perfect” refers to the close of the canon of Scripture, as some cessationists have. There is zero biblical (or extra-biblical) support for arguing that τέλειος refers to the finished Bible, after which the miraculous gifts will cease. The word almost certainly refers to the return of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12).
On the other hand, it is also nearly impossible for continuationists, like Wayne Grudem, to muster much convicing biblical support for their position either—at least in terms of evidence that will convince cessationists. The reason for this is simple: The New Testament was written by the apostles or under the direct influence of apostles. Cessationists insist that miracles ceased with the death of the last apostle (likely John the son of Zebedee, around 100 A.D.), which means that, by necessity, no miracles are recorded in Scripture after the Apostolic Age. Cessationists can always insist that miracles have clearly ceased because “no miracles are recorded in Scripture after the Apostolic Age.” This argument is, of course, a non sequitur. No camels are recorded in Scripture after the Apostolic Age either. That doesn’t mean they no longer exist. At any rate, cessationists can always claim that references in Scripture to miraculous powers are limited to the original time and context into which they were spoken (i.e. the Apostolic Age).
So, where does this leave us?
1. I think 1 Cor. 1:7-8 is worth considering: “So that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This seems to be an instance where Paul points well beyond the Apostolic Age. Paul’s words seem to refer beyond just the Corinthians to those who will be waiting for the revealing of Christ at the Day of the Lord. He says that they will not lack any spiritual gift as they wait. I take this to be inconclusive, but considerable, evidence that Paul cannot conceive of a time before the coming of Christ when any of the spiritual gifts will be unavailable to the bride of Christ as she waits for her Groom.
2. It’s worth asking why God would cease performing miracles through human agency. The answer will certainly be subjective, but it is, frankly, silly to assume that God ceased miracles merely because the church was viable and established by the end of the apostolic age. Nonsense. The church was still very much vulnerable and faced considerable persecution until the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.). Moreover, the Great Commission is still ongoing and miracles, if they exist, could still be employed powerfully as a means to spread the gospel today. On the other hand, was the mere proclamation of the gospel any less effective in bringing people to faith in Christ during the Apostolic Age? Didn’t people believe without the performance of miracles during the Apostolic Age? Do we really believe that God just felt the need to give the Great Commission an extra boost by using miracles? Is God so weak that he cannot save “about five thousand” people in one day without the use of miracles (cf. Acts 4:4). So, why would miracles be any more necessary in the Apostolic Age than they are now? The gospel is the same now as it was then and the power of the Holy Spirit to shatter hearts and open eyes is the same now as it was then. This cessationist argument makes no sense whatsoever.
3. Proof should not be demanded for things that are unprovable. Miracles are, by definition, events or occurences that are not explicable by natural or scientific laws. To furnish proof of a miracle based on scientific observation is therefore a logical impossibility. “Prove to me that a miracle is possible today” is exactly analogous to saying “Prove to me that God exists.” You can’t. No one can. Does that make believe in God foolhardy? Not unless you have a strictly modernistic worldview that allows for nothing supernatural. Furnish me proof that miracles do not continue to happen. It seems to me that the burden of proof is on the cessationist to prove that God fundamentally changed the way he operates in the world merely because the apostles died.
4. Respectable and trustworthy eyewitnesses should be believed. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a miracle. But I have plenty of good friends who claim to have—men whose powers of observation I have no reason to doubt, who have proven themselves trustworthy and reliable, and who have no reason to lie or deceive. I was the best man in the wedding of a friend who worked for several years in West Africa and personally witnessed healings that were scientifically inexplicable. Why would I doubt him? Nothing in Scripture contradicts his testimony. Should I doubt him because I’ve never seen it happen? I’ve never seen my congressman. But I’m pretty sure he exists. I’ve never seen a black hole personally. I doubt I ever will. But I don’t doubt that they exist. I think it’s a mark of maturity and honor to extend lucid and trustworthy people the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, I think it is the epitome of arrogance to deny what someone else claims if you have no sturdy evidence whatsoever to support your denial.
5. No uninitiated and unbiased reader of Scripture would conclude that miracles have ceased. This is another admittedly subjective argument. But I think it’s a valid one. An unbiased reader, who believes that the Bible reflects the way the world “is,” would certainly believe that all of the miraculous gifts, and all the ways and workings of God, including miracles, continue. There is nothing to persuade one otherwise in the book we’ve been given to govern our belief and practice as Christians.