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).

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