Miracles, cessationism, and the “soft, tidal return of your habitual outlook”

October 30, 2013

One highlight of my trip to Kenya in February was leading a worship service alongside my clergy friend Susan. Toward the end of the service, we were told by the locals that the sick were to be brought forward for the laying on of hands, for prayer, and, well, for healing if possible.

Of course, I tried to act as if this were the most natural thing in the world, and I’d done this a million times before, but a voice within wanted to shout: “We American Methodists don’t do this sort of thing!” (Quickly followed by another voice that said, “But that’s our problem.”) The sick people didn’t speak English. I couldn’t find out what ailed them. So I placed my hands on their head, prayed a prayer asking God to heal them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I made the sign of the cross on their forehead.

Liturgically, I performed the rite O.K. If I had oil, I would have anointed them.

So what happened to them after I did this? Did God heal any of them? Beats me.

But here’s what surprises even myself: As skeptical as I am by nature, I’m open to the possibility that healing might have occurred. If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “Yes, but do you mean a physical healing or a spiritual healing?”

I can’t pretend I don’t understand the question, although spiritual healing, if it happens at all, seems far more important than physical healing. And who knows the extent to which a spiritual healing could manifest itself physically. We are, as I learned in seminary, psychosomatic creatures. By that, I don’t mean that our mind tricks our body into thinking it’s sick (as modern psychology might say); I mean that, contrary to the spirit of modern medicine, we are unable to neatly separate body and soul. One always affects the other to some extent.

Regardless, most of us modern Christians happily concede that God could perform a spiritual healing. I wonder why we tend to believe in one and not the other? Is it because, since spiritual means “invisible,” no one can disprove it?

But why be so skeptical? If you believe in spiritual healing—which means you believe that God actively intervenes in some way to change us—how much harder would it be for God to perform a physical healing?

So I guess I’ve made progress over these past 15 years as a Methodist. While I’m hardly a Pentecostal, I’m far more, um, charismatic than I was as a Baptist. Which is exactly as it should be: we Methodists have a more robust pneumatology, theologically speaking: we believe the Spirit is very active in our lives and world world today, and this doesn’t preclude, on principle, even miracles or tongues or prophecy. If you talk to the Kenyan pastors whose testimonies I heard (and believed), the miraculous is positively commonplace in that part of the world where the Spirit is spreading the gospel like wildfire.

Wildfire? Or should I say “strange fire”? Depends on whom you ask, I guess.

John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul, two prominent conservative/fundamentalist Calvinists with large radio followings, have recently thrown down the gauntlet against the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement at a recent conference in California called “Strange Fire.” A favorite blogger of mine, Roger Olson, a Pentecostal-turned-Baptist, wrote a nice piece about it here.

I thought about “Strange Fire” last night as I finally finished the C.S. Lewis book Miracles. I have no idea the extent to which Pentecostalism had spread to England in the middle of the 20th century, or how aware he was of it. But he wasn’t a cessationist, by any means. As far as I know, cessationism isn’t consistent with Anglican theology and worship. Lewis believed miracles still happen, although we shouldn’t expect them to happen to us. If they do, he says, it means we’re probably in the midst of trouble and persecution.

But Lewis put his finger on a potential problem with cessationists like MacArthur and Sproul. Does their firm conviction come from careful exegesis (and I find the biblical case for cessationism very thin and unpersuasive) or from our unreflective modern impulse toward Naturalism, the pervasive belief that miracles don’t happen because nothing happens beyond or outside of Nature. MacArthur and Sproul aren’t Naturalists, of course, but Lewis would say they don’t have to be. Naturalistic thinking is our habit, our default position. Unless we remain vigilant against it, we fall back into it without thinking.

Is it possible that cessationism is just a way of “baptizing” our Naturalistic outlook on life?

Lewis says that he fears this default Naturalism more than any positive argument against miracles:

that soft, tidal return of your habitual outlook as you close the book and the familiar four walls about you and the familiar noises from the street reassert themselves. Perhaps (if I dare suppose so much) you have been led on at times while you were reading, have felt ancient hopes and fears astir in your heart, have perhaps come almost to the threshold of belief—but now? No. It just won’t do. Here is the ordinary, here is the ‘real’ world, round you again. The dream is ending; as all other similar dreams have always ended. For of course this is not the first time such a thing has happened. More than once in your life before this you have heard a strange story, read some odd book, seen something queer or imagined you have seen it, entertained some wild hope or terror: but always it ended the same way. And always you wondered how you could, even for a moment, have expected it not to. For that ‘real world’ when you came back to it is so unanswerable. Of course the strange story was false, of course the voice was really subjective, of course the apparent portent was a coincidence. You are ashamed of yourself for having ever thought otherwise: ashamed, relieved, amused, disappointed, and angry all at once. You ought to have known that, as Arnold says, “Miracles don’t happen.”[†]

I’ll say more about the book later.

C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 270-1.

5 Responses to “Miracles, cessationism, and the “soft, tidal return of your habitual outlook””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I read Olson’s piece that you tagged. It is interesting, but I think it may be flawed. Here is what I commented there which I think would be pertinent here as well:

    “Another passage that can be read to support cessationism is Hebrews 1:1-2 conjoined with Hebrews 2:1-4. It was those who heard Jesus whose message was authenticated by signs, wonders, miracles. That aside, I think Church history supports the cessationist view–where do we see reports of the sometimes wild accounts of miracles in the “charismatic” fellowships during the 1,800 or more years between the close of Revelation and the rise of the Pentecostal movement? Did all those generations have a lack of sufficient faith? Also, many of the miraculous reports I have heard of really do sound outlandish. It is easy to see how someone could become skeptical of the “whole ball of wax” when there are so many “excesses.” I’ve been to charismatic and “healing” services myself on a number of occasions and never witnessed what struck me as an actual miracle. And I lived in the home of a “fast-growing” church field in Korea as a missionary kid and never saw a miracle there either. So, I think jumping on John McArthur so hard for his belief in cessationism is being about as charitable as what many here are accusing him of being.”

    Also, why would miracles happen “in Kenya” and not here? Aren’t there Christians in dire need of healing here as well? Do the “Kenyans” really have more faith in God than we do? I think cessationism is based on what scholarly men of God have concluded from their own view of scripture, Church history, and common observation. Sure, God can heal people, and James says to confess sins and lay on hands, but I don’t think such healings arise to the truly “miraculous” level of being raised from the dead, sight to those born blind, etc., that the Bible conveys as miracles.

    • brentwhite Says:

      C.S. Lewis actually addresses the question of why miracles “don’t happen here” in his book. He argues that we shouldn’t normally expect to see them—just as we shouldn’t expect to be present at the moment of some great scientific breakthrough, or we shouldn’t expect to see a train pass by if don’t live near train tracks. But that doesn’t mean they never happen anymore.

      For all I know, 999 out of 1,000 (or far fewer) reports of miracles are false, but that doesn’t disprove the one. It’s not as if many Christians in the Book of Acts saw miracles, either.

      And it’s not the case that there were no reports of signs and wonders and conspicuous gifts (even of tongues) in the intervening 1,700 years between the Apostolic age and the Pentecostal movement. Again, for all I know, the vast majority of miraculous events reported by Pentecostals could be false or exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean all of them are.

      • brentwhite Says:

        But you do see the danger to which Lewis points? We modern Westerners easily fall victim to a reflexive naturalism that casts doubt on God doing much of anything in our world. Why believe he does “invisible” things like heal us spiritually?

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, the problem I have with “1 in a 1,000” is that if the report of that “1” is so far “alone,” then I have a reason to be doubtful of it. (You indicated once before that a position of mine is “so far out in left field” from established theology [so to speak] that it might do for me to reconsider my position.) I think “1 in a 1,000” is certainly the type of claim that should be subject to suspicion. Also, I think there is a clear difference between what happened in apostolic times and ours–even the Jewish leaders could not contest that a “notable” miracle had happened, and miracles were happening quite frequently in the gospels and Acts (people were bringing the sick and demon-possessed to Peter so that just his shadow would heal them, and multitudes of people flocked to Jesus as well). We just don’t have anything of the sort now. God does “bring healing” to people now, but no “notable” miracles.

    I do agree that there is a danger of falling into naturalism. But that does not mean we should believe in physical miracles happening now just to get them to believe in spiritual ones. “Blessed are those who have not seen, but still have believed.” I think “fake” claims of miracles are more likely to make the skeptics even more skeptical. That’s how I see it, at least.

    • Joseph Flores Says:

      Amen, and let me add. It seems that people have a bad definition on what cessationism is, cessationism does not deny miracles, we deny that specific people with gift of healing, tongue speakers and prophets are for today. We do not deny that God still can heal, we deny that we need to go to brother “David” to receive healing.

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