Miracles and modernity’s strange bedfellows

July 7, 2011

How do we understand the authority of scripture in a world in which its authority is constantly questioned or attacked? This post doesn’t answer the question, but it talks about a couple of wrong answers that some Christians have come up with over the past 200 years—and they have a lot in common. The following is an excerpt of something I wrote in the comment section of Tuesday’s post.

But I actually do strongly agree with you that if you believe that God created the world in the first place, and God raised Jesus from the dead, how much harder is it to believe in the other miracles of scripture? I made that point in a sermon last Advent regarding the virgin birth. I’ve also said that about angels and demons, too: If we believe that God created the world and human beings, how much more difficult is it to believe that God also created these invisible, spiritual creatures, some of whom, like human beings, disobeyed God and experienced a Fall?

It’s mostly difficult because of our modern bias. We may tell ourselves, “It’s very hard to believe in things that I can’t see—or at least that a scientist can’t see in a microscope, telescope, or supercollider, or infer from theories and equations. If I want to be a Christian, however, I have to believe in at least one ‘thing’ that I can’t see—God. And in that regard, Christianity is a bit tougher than the other Abrahamic faiths because God is also Trinity!

“And I also have to believe in one hard-to-believe event—the resurrection. Or maybe I don’t… Maybe I can interpret it in a strictly spiritual way—that the apostles just had an inward spiritual experience. Because lots of people have those, and those aren’t nearly so hard to believe.”

Regardless, in a well-inentioned effort to make our faith more palatable to a modern sensibility, we may try to minimize the number of hard-to-believe things that we Christians have to believe in. This was exactly the impulse behind the birth of liberal Christianity in the 19th century—to make Christianity respectable in the modern world. It was a well-intentioned but terribly misguided effort to accommodate modernity.

The conservative side of the spectrum made an equal and opposite mistake in regards to inerrancy. Inerrancy was a well-intentioned effort to defend Christianity against modernist assaults on the authority of scripture. It did so, however, by accepting the premises of modernity: that if every jot and tittle doesn’t make sense from a strictly modern historical and scientific point of view, then we can throw the whole thing out.

Inerrancy accommodates modernity by subjecting the authority of scripture to the modern playbook: in order for the Bible to be true as we understand truth today, it must conform to these standards of modern scientific and historical methodology. I reject that. An “error” as we define it today wasn’t necessarily an error when the Bible was written. These categories of thought didn’t necessarily exist back then. So inerrancy is hopelessly beholden to modernity—and modernity has mostly been a sum-negative for humanity.

Even current debates about Genesis, evolution, and Creation accept the premises of modernity: If science can explain something, then there’s no need for God. It’s either/or. It’s either evolution or God, but not both. I reject that kind of binary thinking. First, because it limits God’s role in the universe mostly to a one-time intervention at the beginning. It’s a Deistic god who winds it up (or doesn’t) and sets it in motion. Once it’s in motion, the universe is on its own. Maybe there are occasional, miraculous interventions here and there, but mostly God is absent.

The Christian understanding of Creation, by contrast, is that God is currently, at this moment, actively sustaining it into existence. We wouldn’t be here now if God’s Spirit weren’t enabling us to be so. Therefore every moment of life is an ongoing gift.

And, let me add, every moment of life is an ongoing miracle, because it’s made possible only by God’s direct involvement.

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