A Word in Edgewise

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Are the Miracles in the Bible Simply Myths and Legends?

 

I want to summarize and respond to chapter six in Craig Blomberg’s book, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Baker Academic, 2014).  The chapter has to do with the miracles in the Bible.  For many people miracles are a stumbling block to trusting in the reliability of the Bible.  Because they have never seen one or experienced one for themselves, some people conclude miracles can’t occur.  Others think science itself and philosophy have proven miracles are impossible.  Still others think they can explain the miracles in the Bible as myths and legends.  It is this last group—those who think the biblical miracles are simply myths and legends—that most interests Professor Blomberg.Blomberg book

Now Craig is not disinterested in the question of science and miracle.  He deals it with throughout the chapter as he engages the broader question of how to understand the miracles in the Bible.  Indeed,

“Philosophers of science are also increasingly stressing that the miraculous by definition lies outside the bounds of science because it cannot be tested or experimentally reproduced in a laboratory” (p. 179).

I’m sympathetic with Craig’s straightforward statement that miracles cannot be defined out of existence as a violation of nature law.  While Craig seems amenable to the notion that a miracle involves the temporary suspension of natural law, I’m more comfortable with the claim that a miracle involves the invocation of a higher law.  Craig mentions this as a possibility early in his chapter. To offer a simple and probably flawed example, everyone knows that gravity is what keeps our feet firmly planted on mother earth.  But Bernoulli’s principle and the laws of aerodynamics make it possible for us to leave the ground and wing our way to new places without suspending or violating gravity.  Gravity is still at work on us and on the plane (otherwise flight would be impossible).  Temporarily and with a great deal of energy expended, these other laws of the physical universe make air travel possible.  I suspect that the miracles we see in the Bible belong more to this category than any other.  God, as the maker of nature and its laws, invokes a higher law for a higher purpose for a brief time.  Frank Tipler, a physicist who teaches at Tulane, appears to make this argument in The Physics of Christianity (Doubleday, 2007). Physics of Christianity

After introducing the chapter, Blomberg points to the exhaustive collection of modern miracle accounts in Craig Keener’s book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011).  Keener has brought together hundreds of reports of well documented healings of people with serious, chronic conditions from across the world.  Modern medicine appears to have no explanation for these healings.  Keener concludes that New Testament-like miracles are happening today all over the world.  Blomberg agrees and points to several events near to him which appear to him to be miraculous.  But the fact that miracles occur among people who practice faiths other than Christianity does not bother Blomberg; in the end these reports call into question the claim that atheism and naturalism are the best explanation for the world as it is.  In fact, Blomberg memorably states:

Even the occurrence of just one extraordinary event that naturalism cannot explain demonstrates that naturalism is not a comprehensive worldview that can account for all that happens in the universe. . . . But atheism has to be able to account for every scientifically inexplicable event apart from God for it to be necessarily true. Thus it takes at least as much if not more faith, not founded in empirical evidence, to be an atheist than it does to be a Christian.

Blomberg spends the bulk of the chapter rehearsing many of the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, showing how unique they are from the kinds of legends and myths found in ancient literature dealing with gods or God.  After cataloging most of the Old Testament miracles, Blomberg categorizes them into four groups: (1) events that show Yahweh’s superiority to other so-called gods; (2) interventions at critical moments to protect God’s people and demonstrate God’s covenant faithfulness; (3) judgment against rebellion in Israel serious enough to jeopardize God’s people; and (4) events that authenticate something new in God’s dealing with his covenant people.  In each case, Blomberg distances these OT accounts from the kinds of claims made about other gods in the ancient near east.Craig Blomberg

He does much the same with the miracle stories in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.  After briefly relating many of these stories, he shows how these are different from the kinds of miracle stories found in Greco-Roman religion and culture.  According to Craig, the claim that this or that legendary account is parallel to what is found in the New Testament is not convincing.  The only convincing parallels come from post-New Testament sources where it is more likely that stories about Jesus have been borrowed in order to build up the reputation of another.  The closest parallels to New Testament miracles are found in the Old Testament.

Blomberg points to the resurrection as the miracle which could not be mythical or legendary.  It is the very nature of myths and legends that they take time to develop, often generations. Yet within a very short period (no more than a year if not less) reports of an empty tomb and resurrection appearances were central to the gospel.  Paul, our earliest writing theologian, says it is of primary importance that Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day and that he appeared to hundreds of witnesses  (1 Cor 15:3ff.).  This is the gospel he preached, but it was also the gospel he opposed no more than a year or two after Jesus’ execution.   The speed with which the resurrection stories circulated demonstrates they were not legends as traditionally understood.  If the chief miracle of the New Testament was not a myth, then we may well question whether accounts of Jesus healing the sick and feeding the multitudes ought to be classified as legends.

In the end Craig hopes that believers will avoid two extremes.  One the one hand, he is concerned about those who claim miracles ceased at the end of the apostolic age.  Miracles continue today, he says, all over the world.  They are not occasional and random. They are happening regularly especially in the Majority world.  On the other, Craig warns that abuses and “quackery” (209) often follow powerful and influential religious movements.  Charismatics need to be careful not to try to imitate the Spirit by their own strength and in their own flawed wisdom. Cessationists should be mindful not to try to limit how God is working in the world today.  Both need to examine themselves carefully in light of Scripture.

This chapter, as well as the other chapters in Blomberg’s book, is well worth reading if you have questions about the Bible’s reliability and concerns about the miracles.  While I find myself in friendly agreement with much of what Craig writes, there are a few places where I must stand in friendly disagreement. I’m not sure Blomberg’s arguments will convince many close-minded skeptics who have concluded a priori that miracles cannot happen.  What I do think he accomplishes is a fresh challenge to those open-minded enough to reconsider the quality and quantity of biblical and modern miracles.

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What is the “Big Idea” behind N. T. Wright’s Big Book on Paul?

Recently I sat down with N. T. Wright, Research Professor for New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.

Me:

Professor Wright, I tell my students that every good book, every important book has a “big idea.” What is the “big idea” behind your book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress 2013)?Paul and Faithfulness of God

 Wright:

The big idea is to see how Paul does something which I think he is not usually given credit for, which is that he basically invents something which in hindsight we could call Christian theology.  Now that may seem rather odd, because didn’t the Jews have theology?  Well they did and they didn’t.  Didn’t the pagans have theology?  Well not really.  They talked about the gods but that wasn’t a big topic of analysis.  Paul has this vision that because of who Jesus is, because who the Holy Spirit is, everything that they had known about God as in the Jewish Scriptures has to be reworked from top to bottom, particularly for this reason: that Paul believes that what has happened through Jesus, his death and resurrection has radically defined the people of God so that the people of God are no longer defined as they were in Israel by circumcision and the Sabbath and the food laws and the things which marked out Jewish people from their non-Jewish neighbors.  So if you are going to have a community which is a single community which is very important for Paul, the unity of the church is very, very important for Paul–not for us and that’s a problem by the way but a topic for another conversation.   If this community is to be united and holy but without those markers to keep it place, how are you going to do that when Paul’s answer is that the whole community needs to be involved in this prayerful, worshipful, Scripture-soaked reflection on who God is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for God’s world.  So in a sense this book is about Pauline theology and I expound all the details of Pauline theology, but back of that is this sense that Pauline theology as a whole is something which he is doing with his congregations because he realizes that without that they are not going to be able to be the people they are called to be.

They way I put it is this.  You know this saying: “Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” Paul isn’t content just to give people dogmas: “Here is a true doctrine which you ought to believe.”  He does that and that will help for a while.  What he wants people to do is to grow up in their thinking, to mature as Christians in their thinking, so that then they will be able to sustain their life and the life of the church in days to come because he won’t always be just to tell them: “believe this, don’t do that, whatever.”  So teaching people to think Christianly which then emerges as Christian theology.   That is the heart of it.

Can We Still Believe the Bible

I’ve taken the title of my blog post from a new book by Craig Blomberg.  The full title is Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Baker Academic, 2014).  Craig is a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and a prolific writer.  I’ve used a  number of his books over the years in my classes at HBU.  Craig is well worth reading and this book is no exception.  Over the next couple of weeks I plan to engage different aspects of this book.  For now, let me give you a sense of what the book is about. Blomberg book

While Craig admits there are a lot of important issues out there—the challenges of pluralism and the new, militant atheism, for example—he gears this book in a more personal direction: “why I still believe the Bible as I write these words in 2013.” To some degree the book is a reaction to his undergraduate education in a private, Christian liberal arts college.  Essentially, the professors offered challenge after challenge to historic Christian faith and never helped the students deal with those challenges.  To borrow a line from Jeremiah: these professors felt it their duty “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow” but not to “to built and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).  In many ways Craig’s academic career and his writings have taken seriously these challenges while at the same time seeking reasonable, coherent answers.

So this book deals with six questions which Craig judges to be central to the kinds of questions which confront his students and others.  They are:

1. Aren’t the copies of the Bible hopelessly corrupt?

2. Wasn’t the selection of books for the canon just political?

3. Can we trust any of our translations of the Bible?

4. Don’t these issues (the three issues above) rule out Biblical inerrancy?

5. Aren’t several narrative genres of the Bible unhistorical?

6. Don’t all the miracles make the Bible mythical?

While I wish I had time to engage each of these questions over the next couple of weeks, I plan now on looking carefully at two: (a) the question of biblical translations (since I was the lead scholar on a new translation called The Voice [Thomas Nelson, 2012]); and (b) the question of miracles.

As I read through the book, I find myself in friendly agreement with many of Craig’s arguments and ideas.  Still, there are points where I’d probably characterize my own position and thoughts on the topics as in friendly disagreement.  Still Craig’s approaches to a number of these questions have surprised me.  These aren’t the same old arguments drawn from a well-worn evangelical playbook.  For that reason alone I think I can recommend this book without any hesitation. Although it is written against the backdrop of Craig’s personal story, I imagine many people will find this book a good read and faith-affirming.  If the talking heads on History Channel have ever stirred your curiosities about the Bible and the origins of Christianity, this book will help satisfy many of the key curiosities. If you wonder whether you can still take the Bible seriously, this book is definitely for you.