Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hume's Shadow: The Question of Miracles in Modern Colloquy

Brothers and Sisters,

On a cold February evening in the year 1804, the second occupant of what was then called the Executive Mansion (now called the White House), retired to his study with a stack of folio bibles, a blank book, and a razor blade to pursue an evening's labor. The gentleman in question, none other than Thomas Jefferson, was one of history's great compilers and organizers. He was forever assembling and cataloging books, plants, artifacts, scientific instruments and even ideas. His intention this particular night was nothing less than to create his own bible by cutting out the moral teachings of Jesus, what he called "a paradigm of his doctrine," in four languages: Latin, Greek, French and English, and pasting them in something like chronological order in a blank book.

Jefferson's objective was to produce a portrait of Christ freed from, in his words, "the monkish superstitions" of the Gospel writers. In actuality, he sought a Christ without the miraculous events suggestive of His Deity; no healing, no feeding of the five thousand, no virgin birth, and certainly no resurrection. Our third President questioned any and all such events, not because of any antagonism to Jesus, but because he simply could not believe that miracles were possible. ( Interestingly, twenty-two years later while lying on his deathbed, Jefferson selected as his funeral text, John 11:25, "Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me though he were dead, yet shall he live," a verse that he removed from his redacted bible that night.)

Jefferson's philosophical position was directly influenced by the works of Sir David Hume (1711-1776), a philosopher and historian of the Scottish enlightenment, and perhaps the most persuasive thinker of the so-called Age of Reason. Hume casts a giant shadow over the world in which we live, for his writings are the germination of modern skepticism and its disdain for the miracles of the Bible.

Thanks in a large measure to Hume, most modern scientists, scholars, and liberal academicians possess what we call a presupposition of antisupernaturalism when discussing the Bible. (Whew! Try saying that one three times in succession) What in the world does this mean? It means that they suppose before examining the evidence that any event of a supernatural variety cannot be possible. As we stated in the last post, modern science is completely committed to the idea of our universe as a closed system, where nothing can occur beyond the confines of natural law, and that material reality is the only reality. Every event has its cause within the system, and there can be no interference or intrusion from the outside by God or anything else. Phenomena which go beyond the known laws of nature, such as God or miracles, are simply thought to be ridiculous.

This questioning of miracles reminds me of the old story of the former alcoholic who had recently accepted Christ as his savior. He was asked by one his old drinking buddies, "Do you actually believe that this Jesus changed water to wine"? "I sure do," the man replied, "because over at our house He changed the liquor into new furniture." A recent poll suggested that fully eighty percent of Americans do believe in miracles. Miracles, brothers and sisters, are where the battle lines are being drawn in the current war of the worldviews.

Miracles are of enormous significance to Christianity because we are the only major religion that depends upon them. Buddhism and Hinduism report few miracles, and only pay homage to silly myths. Judaism and Islam, of course, concede the miraculous. The Old Testament is filled with such events, but the central philosophy of each faith is legalistic and revolves around no wondrous happening (The Passover notwithstanding). The prophet Mohammed never claimed to have performed a single miracle.

In contrast, everything about Jesus Christ was miraculous. His existence on this planet was miraculous. His birth was miraculous. His ministry involved miraculous events almost daily. The central event of our faith, the Resurrection, is the greatest miracle ever claimed to have been witnessed by man. It is vital to everything we believe. The Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians, "If Christ is not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." The assault on the miraculous is therefore a specific assault on Christianity.

Now, for clarity's sake, let us specify what we mean by miracles. A miracle could properly be defined as a special act of God that interrupts the natural course of events. In the first precept of his most influential work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume turns this definition around a bit. He states that a miracle is "a violation of the known laws of nature," which is the same idea without the theistic implications. The argument that follows is the basic anti-supernatural polemic still invoked by atheists today. It goes like this.

  1. A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature.

  2. We know these laws through repeated & constant observation (empiricism).

  3. The testimony of those who report such miracles contradict the known laws of nature.

  4. Consequently, no one can rationally believe in miracles.

At a glance, we should see a couple of problems with this. First, how can we know the limits of these so-called laws of nature? The human mind is a finite thing. Thomas Edison once said that "we don't know even a millionth of one percent about anything." The more that true science discovers about the boundless nature of our universe the more accurate Edison's statement becomes. The laws of nature simply cannot be defined in any concrete way.

This brings us to another problem with Hume's proof. The second precept suggests that our knowledge of said laws is based upon experience and observation only, what we call empiricism. But as we stated in the last post, many of the ideas within the context of the "laws of nature" cannot be empirically observed. Concerning the origins of life and the universe, nobody was around to see them, but even common events in nature cannot be confirmed empirically. Why? Two reasons: 1) There will always be exceptions, and 2) The number of observations will always be finite.

For example, one of the most prominent fossils discovered by early paleontologists were of an order of fish called the coelacanths. For decades, they were studied, classified, and widely believed to be extinct since the end of the Cretaceous period, supposedly about 65 million years ago. Then, in 1938, a South African fisherman hooked a living coelacanth out in the Indian Ocean and reeled him in. Now that's a fish story. So much for the extinction theory. What this tells us is that we cannot know an infinite truth from finite observation. Even Hume insisted that we cannot be 100% sure that the sun will rise on the morrow.

All such arguments against miracles can be similarly refuted. Yet, they are persistently offered. Why? Because ultimately they are arguments against the existence of God. If miracles occur, then God exists. That is why I say that miracles represent the battle lines. "Miracles are improbable," said Hume, "and their possibility is so remote that no thinking person should consider them." But, we can make a great argument that, not only are miracles possible, they are indeed probable, and as we shall see, actual.

Modern atheists put forth the notion that the universe sprang into being randomly, by chance (one of their favorite terms). But chance can only tell us about the likelihood of events. It is a concept of statistics and probability. Only a force or a power can cause an event. Chance has no power, and thus cannot cause anything.

When we study life and its limitless boundaries, we see system upon system of sophistication and complexity beyond our ability to comprehend. Every minute thing in this maze of incredulity is the product of some cause. Even Jefferson said that "it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consumate skill, and indefinate power in every atom" of life. Creation represents the effect of some greater reality. An effect cannot be greater than its cause, nor can it be more complex or more intelligent.

We as Christians call this cause God. The atheist will respond with countless intellectual absurdities as to why He cannot be, but the fact remains that the great design of our universe implies a Designer. This incredible process of design is an act, and if there is an God who can act, then there are clearly acts of God. Because of this, it should be imminently more logical to look at human history with the clear expectation of the miraculous, rather than a dim, unwarranted skepticism of the same.

Following this line of thinking, let us examine three famous miracles of the New Testament which are routinely considered preposterous by modern skeptics. First of all, would the God who spoke the universe, with all of its irreducible complexity, into being, have any particular difficulty in by-passing a single biological component of conception (a process which He, too, created) to produce one very unique child. "What! A virgin birth? No way, not possible," The skeptic stammers in reflex. But, look at who we are talking about here. Can not the Designer tinker with the design? When you think of it that way, there is nothing improbable about it.

How much of a problem would it be for such a being, who created everything we see ex nihilo, from nothing, to produce a large quantity of food from, say, five loaves and three fishes. Does it really seem like such a stretch?

And what of the Resurrection? "Could not possibly have happened," says the atheist. "No sir ree Bob." The separation of the Resurrection from the Gospel is the founding principle of modern Bible criticism. But, again, given that the Creator we are discussing brought a complete human being from the dust of the ground, just how difficult would it be for such a being to simply re-animate a body previously formed and whole? Hmmm?

We human beings have a particular tendency to ignore the common place and to question the unique. The miracles of the Bible are unique. An event such as the sun standing still in the sky in Joshua 10:12-14 (In actuality, the earth pausing in its rotation) goes against the normal pattern of nature. Those who witness such an event marvel and wonder. But when they attempt to tell others of what they have seen, it is normal to expect skepticism and ridicule.

The truth is, there are miracles about us each moment, everywhere we look. We could spend every waking second, if we desired, in the close observation of these wondrous things. But, because there are so many that take place at any given time, they appear commonplace to us, and sadly, are taken for granted. We do not notice them.

The great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoeyevsky, once observed that everywhere he saw people praying and hoping for a miracle so that they could have faith. But "it is not miracles that generate faith," he wrote, "but faith that generates miracles." In many ways, miracles are a problem of perception. If we disavow God, then we have already precluded the miraculous. But if we believe in an omnipotent Creator, then we should see the specific miracles of the Bible as confirmation of His message to us, and we should perceive the miracles of the natural world as evidence of His eternal power and majesty.

Love in Christ,



Anonymous said...

My professor Dr. Noland and I met about a month ago. It was the first time I talked to him since I graduated from college. We started talking about prayer and he wanted to know how I knew that God answers my prayers. I told him that what I prayed for actually happened. That is, when I was raising support for Slovakia, all of it came in and therefore I knew God answered my prayer. He said "Nathan how do you know it wasn't a coincidence?" I believed God answered my prayer, Dr. Noland might call it a coincidence. As you said it can "be defined as a special act of God that interrupts the natural course of events." Everything worked out for me to go.

In alot of ways I consider that a miracle because I had a short amount of time to raise the money and I raised all. I considered it special. I don't know if you said this in your blog or not, but do miracles occur when people have faith that God will do them?

To go back to Dr. Noland's question, then he said "Nathan I don't like the idea much of me asking God to do something and Him doing it. It seems like controling God." I wasn't sure if he already knew the answer to that question and was just saying it, or if he really meant that. I don't know how God answers prayers, but I know that I could never ever control God just because I'm not God and I am a human. Regardless of how miracles and answered prayers work, God does work, even if we don't understand. I probably wouldn't pray if I didn't need some serious help.



Brad Livengood said...

Your professor has it exactly backwards. The power of prayer is not in the person praying, as if, like he said, one is controlling God, but rather in the God who controls everything. Answered prayer is never a coincidence. A coincidence is an accident that seems like it was ordained. Nothing is accidental about answered prayer. The Bible is filled with accounts describing the power of prayer to ovecome evil, bring about healing, defeat demons, open eyes, change hearts, heal disease, grant wisdom, and overcome the power of death itself.
I would venture to say that most of us within the small parameters of Greenwood Baptist Church have seen miracles through prayer. For one thing, our salvation is a miracle of prayer, for how else but through prayer do we ask God to forgive our sins, make us new creatures in Christ, and give us the salvation we ask for. The transformation that occurs, within our hearts and within our lives, is the miracle.
James 5:16 says the "effectual prayer of a righteous man availeth much." 1 John 5:14 says that "if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us." Jesus said that if we have faith as a mustard seed (the smallest possible seed), then we could move mountains.
The truth is, we all need serious help. We each need a miracle. That is why the Bible teaches us to not hold back, but "in everything by prayer and supplication, let our requests be known to God." (Phil 4:6.

Anonymous said...

You are spot on. Miracles are at the center of the debate. Of course the real core of the debate is the existnse of God. A rational person cannot deny miracles. Just as you said they surround us everyday. The second a person conceedes miracles they are conceeding there is a God. If there is a God they find themselves under His will. They must admit that they are not in control and bow the knee to the sovereign creator of all things, even miracles. Great blog. We have got to get more people reading your stuff!!! By the way I love the story of the colecanath (sp?) fish. I have used that one teaching about fossils.

Brad Livengood said...

Thanks for the comments. It is indeed sad to see supposedly rational people refuse to examine the Bible objectively simply because it contains miracles. In doing so they undermine their own rationality and expose themselves as being narrow-minded. This denial of miracles is based upon a false view of the universe. As you say, a rational person cannot deny miracles, further proof that most of modern science has abandoned reason, one of its founding principles.

Anonymous said...

If we believe that God answers prayers and performs miracles then that's a big deal. The fact that God changes man from a sinner into a man completely changed in character is a miracle. Brad, I guess you are hinting at the fact that we don't have the same awe and wonder for amazing things happening in nature or in the transformation of our lives?

What do you(or any other readers) think people can do to have an awe of the simple miracles of nature and also the miracle of Christ changing us?

Brad Livengood said...

I cannot understand how anyone who has been transformed through the work of the Holy Spirit can misperceive the miraclulous in it. Too much is changed within us to provide any other explanation.
True, the miracles in the Bible are specific miracles, but when we evaluate them closely and compare them to events that occur every day, sometimes within our own hearts, the line of separation from the specific to the natural is very thin.
One of the big problems we have with regard to "awe" is that we live in such a synthetic world. Everything that most people see and touch is artificial, fabricated, or imitation. The wonder of God's Creation is clearly seen, but sadly, we have isolated ourselves from it. We lock ourselves behind walls on a daily basis.
The New-agers and the pantheists are right to sense the spiritual in nature, they are just totally wrong about the source.
I'm an advocate of being outdoors, where we can hear God's still, small voice, where we can see, first hand, the miracles of His Creation. I believe alot of us would do well to take the same attitude.

Anonymous said...

As I ponder miracles a thought keeps coming to mind. Will it take a miracle for you to post again?!? Come on Brad, we need a new post!!

Brad Livengood said...

OK, OK, OK...I get it already. So I'm dragging my feet on this one. It has been a wild few weeks in Drabland. I could offer a truly creative excuse for the delay. My seventh-grade teacher once told me that I had more excuses than Carter has pills, but only a curator in a pharmacological museum would understand that one. I can only attribute the deferment to visions of flying bricks and crashing metal. Seriously, thanks for the nudge. It's coming.