NOTE: This is the fifth of a series of articles on common contemporary viewpoints which arc contrary to orthodox Christianity.
Modern Embarrassment About Miracles
The attitude of a great deal of modern religion toward miracles is an attitude of embarrassment, if not of doubt or actual denial. It is said that when the Bible was written miracles were regarded as a help to people’s faith, but today they must be regarded as a hindrance rather than a help to faith. The dominant spirit of modern religion regards the miracles of the Bible as an embarrassment rather than a glory, as a liability rather than an asset, as something to be carefully explained rather than as something to be profoundly thankful for. This type of modern religion eliminates the supernatural from Christianity and yields a product which exists wholly within the framework of natural laws. Miracles, predictive prophecy and real revelation are eliminated or explained away from the Bible; the direct, supernatural working of the Holy Spirit is eliminated from Christian experience. Thus the supernatural Christianity of the Bible is completely transformed into a religion which is natural from beginning to end.
The Miracles of the Bible
Various definitions of the term “miracle” have been given by orthodox Bible scholars. For the purposes of the present article we shall define a miracle as an event which has no cause except the will of God. In this article we shall regard “miracle” and “supernatural event” as equivalent terms. A miracle, then, is an event produced by the direct working of God, in distinction from his ordinary providential working, which makes use of the laws of nature. Jesus’ walking on the water and raising Lazarus from the dead were miracles; his crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat was a natural event depending on God’s ordinary providential working.
It is of the essence of a miracle that it is not a product of the operation of natural laws. A common tendency today is to try to explain away the supernatural character of miracles by saying that they were wrought in accordance with higher natural laws than those known to human science. This amounts to an attempt to take the miraculous out of the miracles. For a miracle is precisely something wrought by the direct, immediate action of God. If it happened according to law, then it was not a miracle; if it was a miracle, then it did not occur as an instance of the operation of law.
Some people say that they do not believe God would establish natural laws and then turn around and break his own laws by performing miracles. This overlooks two important matters:
(1) God did not establish natural laws to bind and limit his own activities, but for the functioning of his creation; God himself is sovereign, that is, he is subject to no law outside of himself.
(2) God established the order and system of natural law precisely in order that there might be a background of nature, uniform and unvarying in its operation, against which God’s direct, miraculous working could appear in strong contrast as an exception to the uniform phenomena of nature. Thus the existence of the God-ordained, uniform system of natural law is no argument against God’s direct, miraculous working in contrast to natural law.
Cycles of Miracles
The Bible is pre-eminently a book of miracles, but the miracles are not uniformly distributed through the Bible. With a few exceptions they are clustered in three great cycles. Each of these cycles occurred at a time of crisis in the history of redemption The first great cycle of miracles occurred in the time of Moses, at the time of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt, their wandering in the wilderness and their entrance to the land of Canaan. The second cycle occurred in the days of Elijah and Elisha, when the false religion of Baal-worship threatened to supplant the worship of Jehovah, the true God. The third great cycle of miracles occurred in the time of Christ and the Apostles, when the work of redemption was being completed and the gospel launched upon the world. Besides these three cycles, there occurred a minor cycle in the time of Daniel, in Babylon, when the covenant people were in exile, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the false system of polytheism seemed to have triumphed over the true religion of Jehovah. In each case, God wrought a series of miracles to vindicate his truth and deliver his people in a time of great crisis and desperate need.
The miracles of the Bible are not incidental, but of the very essence of biblical religion. For biblical religion is supernatural through and through. The very Bible itself, as a book, is a supernatural product, specially inspired by the direct work of the Holy Spirit in the men who wrote its component parts. Take away the supernatural from the Bible and what is left will indeed be very easy to believe, but it will not be worth believing. What is an automobile without an engine, a watch without a mainspring? We may readily agree that it would be easier to believe the Bible if there were nothing supernatural in it. But such a Bible would not be the Book that God has given us, and the religion that might be derived from it would not be Christianity.
Supernatural Christian Experience
The religions experience of a Christian is as truly supernatural as the miracles that are recorded in the Bible. What the Shorter Catechism calls “Effectual Calling” is a supernatural work of God the Holy Spirit. The “new birth” about which Jesus talked with Nicodemus is not a product of the working of natural laws. The science of psychology can never explain it, for it results from the immediate, direct action of God in the human soul. Hence the person who is “born again” is called “a new creature” or “a new creation” (II Cor. 5:17). The same supernatural character belongs to real Christian experience all along the line. Repentance unto life, saving faith in Jesus Christ, justification, adoption, sanctification, and finally glorification—not one of these results from the operation of natural Jaws; not one of them can really be explained by psychology; everyone of them is wrought by the supernatural action of God himself. Even those elements of Christian experience in which the Christian himself is active, such as repentance. faith, good works, depend upon and result from a prior supernatural act of God (Phil. 2:12, 13).
The person who is really a Christian has a religious experience which takes place apart from the framework of natural law, and which cannot he explained by reference to natural law. This supernatural character is of the very essence of truly Christian experience, and differentiates it from all other human religious experience. Without the supernatural there is no distinctively Christian experience, no truly Christian life. Any attempt to eliminate, minimize or explain away the supernatural from the Bible or from Christian experience is spiritual sabotage and theological treason. Yet this is exactly what is done by the dominant trend of popular religion today.
The Modern Revolt
Modern religion is largely a revolt against the supernatural. This trend did not begin yesterday; it has its roots farther back in the past. In 1793 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant published a book entitled “Religion Within the Bounds of Pure Reason.” Kant’s philosophy was utterly destructive of the Christianity of the Bible. Through the philosophers and scientists who have followed Kant, it has had a tremendous influence upon the modern world. Immanuel Kant and his successors were the builders of the modern anti-Christian world-view. The preacher or religious author of our own day who tries to apologize for and explain away the supernatural in the Bible and in Christian experience, is reflecting this modern scientific view of the world which has come down to us from Kant and his successors.
Many Bible·believing Christians fail to realize how prevalent this naturalistic, anti-miraculous view of the world and of religion has become today. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick can state confidently that Fundamentalism has been defeated, and remains only in the backwaters of religious life. Another very popular present-day religious writer has made the statement that all religions are basically the same. This means, of course, that the supernatural features of Christianity must be regarded as nonessential even if their truth is not actually denied. This idea that all religions are at bottom the same implies, of course, that Christianity is not the only true religion; it cannot be unique; it may be better than the rest, but it is only one among others. Thus the denial of the supernatural inevitably reduces Christianity, so far as its essential nature is concerned, to the general level of the religions of mankind.
In one of the major Protestant denominations of our country, more than twenty years ago, a paper was circulated and signed by more than twelve hundred ministers of the denomination. In this paper they listed five doctrines of supernatural Christianity, namely: (1) The inerrancy of the Bible; (2) The virgin birth of Jesus Christ; (3) The substitutionary atonement of Christ; (4) The bodily resurrection of Christ; (5) The supernatural miracles wrought by Jesus Christ. The paper declares that the first of these doctrines (the inerrancy of the Bible) is a harmful teaching, and that the other four are only theories, not essential to Christian fellowship, and not even essential as doctrines to be believed by those ordained to the gospel ministry. The position taken in this paper (called “The Auburn Affirmation”) has since become the dominant position in that denomination. Many signers of the paper have been honored with the prominent, key positions in the church; not one of them has ever been disciplined for his action in signing the document. The trend of a number of other prominent denominations in our country has been along the same general line.
Modern religion believes in a natural God, a natural Bible, a natural religious history of mankind (including Israel), and a natural religious experience common to all humanity. It regards Christianity as differing from other religious systems not in essence but only in degree or in nonessential features. This modern type of religion is prevalent and popular, but it is not Christianity.
A Subtle Attack
We should realize, too, that in our day unbelief has become extremely diplomatic and subtle. The crude, blatant denials and scoffing of Robert Ingersoll and Tom Paine are scarcely to be heard anymore today. Modern religion’s unbelief in the supernatural is just as real and thorough as theirs was, but it is much more refined and gentle in it’) mode of expression. Blatant, downright denial of the supernatural is seldom heard today outside of atheist circles. Modern ecclesiastical diplomacy has found a better way, which it can use with greater effectiveness. Instead of denying miracles and the supernatural outright, the tendency is to affirm belief in them and then turn around and explain them as merely natural; that is, as depending on natural law, but law which human science has not yet been able to penetrate and comprehend. Thus “miracles” become mere “wonders,” and the “supernatural” becomes merely the “not-yet-scientifically-explained.”
Many Christian people who have not made any special study of the history of modern theology are led astray by the smoothness and seeming reverence of the handling of miracles and the supernatural by the modern unbelieving preacher, only to be disillusioned in the end by finding that the road has led them far away from the faith of their fathers and the gospel of their youth. The naturalistic worldview is all around us today. Although by no means universal, yet it is dominant in most of the larger denominations. In some of these denominations the struggle against it has practically ceased; in others it is still being carried on. Many religious broadcasts on the major networks are pervaded by modern naturalism and its products. It permeates many popular religious and secular journals and magazines. Almost always it is appealingly presented and skillfully camouflaged so that its real Bible-denying character is not at all obvious. For these reasons modern “non-miraculous Christianity” is something to be taken seriously by every Bible-believing Christian.
This present-day counterfeit of the Christian religion can be successfully combatted, for there is real power in the Christianity of the Scriptures. To combat modern “non-miraculous Christianity” effectively, however, two things are absolutely necessary. In the first place, its real meaning and character must be correctly discerned; that is, we must realize that “non-miraculous Christianity” is not simply a variant form of the Christian religion, but a hostile, competing, anti-Christian system, not a branch of the gospel but an enemy of the gospel. In the second place, there must be no compromise with this system of unbelief. The Truth of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit can overcome all errors, but only by refusing to compromise with them. God’s Truth is sure to win over error in the end.