Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Barth and Schleiermacher on miracles

We’ve been talking about miracles lately—and you might have guessed that my own approach to the question is shaped above all by the Gospel of John and the theology of Schleiermacher. The discussion of miracles has continued on other blogs, with Mike Liccione responding to my last post, and Chris Tilling posting a critique of Hans Küng.

In a fascinating new study entitled The Shift to Modernity: Christ and the Doctrine of Creation in the Theologies of Schleiermacher and Barth (2005), Robert Sherman has argued that Barth and Schleiermacher both had very similar approaches to the question of miracles. For both of them, the crucial point is not the miracle qua supernatural event, but rather the interpretation of the event from the perspective of faith.

For Schleiermacher, Sherman notes, the significance of a miracle “lies not in the means by which it occurs, whether natural or supernatural, but in its source and in the message or feeling that it is able to evoke” (p. 153). The question of the event’s cause (whether natural or supernatural) is thus irrelevant. Indeed, Schleiermacher denies that there is any “supernatural” reality alongside “natural” reality, and it therefore becomes meaningless to designate some events as “supernatural.”

Similarly, Sherman observes that Barth denies the existence of a “divine course of events occurring alongside a broader creaturely history” or of a distinction between “a distinctly natural realm and a distinctly supernatural one.” Thus for Barth, too, it makes no sense to think of miracles as the “occasional interruption of a mundane order” (p. 98). We should therefore acknowledge that the same events are open to different interpretations; “the world and its workings do not interpret themselves, ... they do not supply their own meaning” (p. 101). In Barth’s view, scientists and historians must be permitted to offer scientific and historical explanations of these events, but Christians recognise that there is another “level of interpretation.” Here, Christians situate the event within “a larger, more encompassing framework,” and it is this framework that allows them to perceive the event as an act of God (p. 98).

8 Comments:

Exiled Preacher said...

May I quote Donald Macleod?

God has created the whole system of cause and effect and He sustains and directs it. Every particle of mass and energy has exactly the character which He has imparted to it and behaves exactly as He directs. But in miracle God does something unusual, so that the might of His power becomes evident yo the amazement of men, and they are driven to ask, What does this mean?

Reflecting on Jesus' miracles, Macleod writes:

Had He come with no hint of supernaturalism, that would have been deemed incredible. Now that He has come attested by miracles, wonders and signs, these very attestations are alleged as objections against Him. What eloquent confirmation that the mind of man is enmity against God! It was surely perfectly fitting that the Son of God should heal the sick, cast out devils, still the waves and raise the dead; and quite incredible that He should enter history without causing a ripple.

David Wilkerson said...

I am not a philosopher nor the son of a philosopher, so I am probably missing the point here.

All of this sounds very fine in the abstract, but the problems with miracles are a tad more radical. Naturalists are generally saying the supposed miraculous event did not occur at all. There is no "event" to give a different "interpretation" to. There is only a story.

Jesus did not walk on water, let's say. Is Ben trying to say that Jesus feet coincidentally took on the power of buoyancy at that moment without any divine intervention? Or the water solidified? A neutral observer could have seen that, but with faith we attribute the act to god?

Or the Exodus actually occurred by the force of a strong wind that blew at the exact time by purely natural causes the timing being purely by chance(i.e. it was going to happen by natural law whether the Israelites were nearby or not?

Jesus fed the 5000 with the loaves and fishes using some natural property of food we don't know? Some of the spices in the embalming reversed the death process in Lazarus or Jesus?

Are we trying to give a naturalistic explanation to miracles in 19th century style? As embarrassing as it seems (for me and the Bible) I think supernatural intervention (or something like magic) fits the text better.

The historicity of miracles is not defended with these generalities. If any particular miracle can't be explained this way even hypothetically then it seems we are talking purely about "textual" miracles only and our "ideal" interpretation of them.

It is like we are saying if we believed any particular story to be historical, this is what we think would have to be the scientific case (i.e. no laws were broken, no divine intervention). But don't worry, we don't care to defend any particular one this way. We are just interpreting "as if" they occurred.

Mike L said...

Amen to both of the previous comments.

Ben, I wonder whether the position of Schliermacher as expounded by Sherman meets with your approval. If it does, then you seem to be denying the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, which makes rather obscure the question how to distinguish nature from grace in such a way that the latter is gratuitous and thus grace. If it does not, then what's the point of citing it?

Best,
Mike

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these probing comments.

David, you ask: "Are we trying to give a naturalistic explanation to miracles in 19th century style?" No, on the contrary, I think that scientists and historians should try to provide "naturalistic explanations," and that Christians can accept these explanations on the scientific-historical level. But then Christians should also offer a theological interpretation of the same events.

So to take the example of the Red Sea: yes, the Israelites were able to cross the sea because of natural conditions, so that a purely naturalistic explanation of the event is valid in its own way; but within the context of a specific narrative of salvation-history, the same event is rightly interpreted as the act of God, i.e., as miracle.

Hi Mike: Yes, I basically agree with Schleiermacher here, and I agree that there can be no distinction between two contradictory realms or tiers of "nature" and "supernature" (although I think the conceptual distinction can still be put to good use, as for example in the theology of Karl Rahner or Henri de Lubac).

On the other hand, though, I certainly agree with you that there's a distinction between nature and grace. And to my mind, that is a different distinction altogether, since grace is not the antithesis or contradiction of nature (much less an antithetical ontological "realm"), but it is God himself acting in creation for the good of his creature. Or, in other words: gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit!

Steve Blakemore said...

Ben,

Thanks for your site and for good thoughts; and thanks for driving a good discussion on this particular topic.

Might it not be a better to describe the existence of the miraculous as follows. God acts in the world via secondary causes (what you call natural conditions), but God interacts in a directing manner on and through the secondary causes to bring about God's saving purposes. Hence, a purely naturalistic interpretation is possible from within the world in which the miracle has occured (even if we don't yet have the capacity to understand what the natural mechanism would be.) So, a miracle is not a disruption of the "laws of nature" (this is a Newtonian construct), but is God's interaction with and on the created order to providentially care for people.

The issue, then, is not what "interpretation" that one puts on an event that is otherwise natural. Rather, what is denied is the Newtonian universe as a "closed system," (which Schleiermacher was want to affirm without denying miracles.) The world is open to God, one could say instead, because the world "lives and moves and has it being in Him." Or as St Paul says in anothe context, "all things hold together in Christ." And God as the source of all the orderings in creation maintains them by his presence to them and, therefore, can work in them purposively to acheive the providential desires in concrete settings.

Hence, a miracle is "simply" and act of God in the world acheiving his saving purpose, but it can only be recognized, as such, through the eyes of faith as grace makes such revelation possible.

kim fabricius said...

Miracles are not "violations" of the laws of nature. That is indeed a dated Newtonian concept, based on a closed mechanistic view of the world. As I said in a previous post, the laws of nature do not prescribe, they describe.

The particle physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne observes that "It is clear that science has not demonstrated the causal closure of the natural world. . . nor can science forbid religious believers to hold to their belief in God's providential interaction with the history of the world." And Polkinghorne defends "the idea that God may act causally within the openness of the created order, rather than in some ineffable way unique to the deity." Whatever a miracle is on this view, it does not turn on an otiose distinction between nature and supernature but on a concept of nature as dynamically open rather than mechanistically closed.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me that whether or not an event is a miracle does turn on whether or not it is completely reducible to a causal scientific explanation. Put simply, if an event can be explained naturalistically, it cannot be a miracle.

If, for example, it were to turn out that liberal preachers are right, and that the "real" miracle of the loaves and fishes was that people took out their picnic baskets and shared what they have, I'm afraid that the feeding of the four and five thouand would no longer do it for me as a miracle.

On the other hand, although all miracles are inexplicable events, not all inexplicable events are miracle. That is, inexplicableness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an event to be a miracle. The necessary condition is the event's narrative framework and theological context.

If, for example, my PC were suddenly to levitate, and a voice declare that I put my mortgage on England for the World Cup, now that would be inexplicable (especially the tip for England!), but in my book it would not be a miracle because it lacks a religious framework of significance.

A final example. Imagine a statue of the Virgin Mary apparently weeping from time to time. The skeptics say it is easily explained by condensation. If they are right, this cannot be a miracle. But if condensation actually fails as an explanation, and no other cause can be found? Would that prove that the church folk who claim that the weeping is a miracle are right? Only if the phenomenon has religious significance within the story of the church. The issue would not be, "There is no scientific explanation, it must be a miracle,", but rather "Why shouldn't the Holy Virgin weep over the sins of the world?"

The point, as D.Z Phillips puts it, is "that miracles do not determine what is and what is not of religious significance. On the contrary, what it held to be religiously significant by the community determines what is and what is not a miracle."

Mike L said...

I concur with Steve and Kim but would qualify Phillips' dictum as quoted by Kim. Being held to be "religiously significant by the community" is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a miracle. Irreducibility to scientific explanation is also necessary.

Ben, I think you've posited a false dichotomy: you accept the distinction between nature and grace but reject that between the natural and supernatural. As a Thomist I cannnot but agree that grace perfects rather than takes away nature, but it does so precisely as supernatural: i.e., "above and beyond" nature. To say that grace is supernatural is not to say that it somehow "contradicts" or "opposes" nature, but rather that it does not arise from nature and is not owed to nature qua nature.

Also, while it is true that grace is "God himself acting in creation for the good of his creature," that holds of God's final causality of nature in general, by which he acts through secondary causes to orient all of nature to his goodness. It's clearer to say that grace, in the primary sense, is God himself elevating the rational creature to a share in his life. Secondarily, grace is the effect of such elevation on both the rational creature and on creation in general. That's what the scholastics considered "created" grace.

A miracle would be a manifestation of the latter, and through it the former. Miracles are intelligible only within the framework of orthodox confession of faith.


Best,
Mike

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for these very perceptive comments, which have given me so much to think about.

Mike: As a Protestant I guess I'm on shaky ground when I try to enter the whole remarkably complex discussion of "nature and grace" -- so I really appreciate your input on this.

Sorry I can't muster any more detailed responses just now -- I have a bothersome head-cold at the moment, which inhibits thinking. But thanks again for the very helpful conversation!

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