In this series of posts I want to explore the idea prevalent among the conservative Churches of Christ that miracles ended with the end of the apostolic age. Now, there are many among the progressive Churches who would reject the idea of modern-day miracles as well, but the opposition to modern-day miracles is much stricter among the conservative congregations.
It would be a mistake, of course, to charge all within the conservative Churches with taking the identical view. They don’t. But it appears to me that the dominant view today is that miracles ended within a generation after the apostles — and “miracles” means any violation of the laws of nature.
Now, to understand the significance of this doctrine, it’s important to study it in a bit a more detail. You see, the definition of “miracle” usually given among the conservatives is —
MIRACLES DEFINED. … Correctly, a miracle occurs when the natural laws of the universe are restrained by the hand of God so that an otherwise unexplainable phenomenon results. If a baseball released from a skyscraper rose in the air instead of falling, that would be a miracle because the law of gravitation requires that it descend. On the other hand, should a sick person, given only six months to live, gradually recover, that would be not a miracle since the recovery would have been effected through the natural laws instead of in opposition to them. While we might be unable to explain the recuperation, this is not a miracle as the natural laws have not been restrained.
I borrowed this definition from a 1977 correspondence course by Monroe Hawley, and it’s entirely typical of conservative Church of Christ thought. Notice the contrast Hawley (normally a very sensible writer) makes: if God restrains the natural laws, it’s a miracle. If God does not — if the event happens by purely natural laws — then it’s not a miracle.
Similarly, Wayne Jackson makes much the same definition in the Christian Courier,
A miracle is a divine operation that transcends what is normally perceived as natural law; it cannot be explained upon any natural basis.
Jackson is, at least, consistent in his thinking, asserting in another article,
Since there is no Holy Spirit baptism today (Ephesians 4:5; Matthew 28:19,20), and as there are no living apostles, it is obvious that, so far as biblical evidence is concerned, no spiritual gifts are being given to believers today.
On the other hand, Jackson asserts that God does act via providence even today.
The New Testament is filled with promises which affirm that God will answer the prayers of his people and work in their lives. But since Jehovah is not functioning miraculously (see 1 Corinthians 13:8-10), obviously he is operating providentially. Things that may appear perfectly natural, from the human point of view, may be being directed by Jehovah!
Other writers distinguish between miracles done by man, by the power of God, and miracles done by God.
For God to answer prayer would not be a miracle in the sense we are studying. God in His providence can answer prayer. What the writer is affirming is that the miraculous gifts which were bestowed upon men in the early church that enabled them to perform miracles have ceased.
This what we lawyers call “a distinction without a difference.” When Elijah prayed to God to consume his sacrifice with fire, and God answered with fire, was this a “miracle”? Or an answer to prayer? Obviously, it was both. Just so, Jesus spoke of some miracles coming about by the power of prayer (Mark 9:29). Surely, the argument is more than: it’s okay to heal by prayer but not to heal by laying on hands!
And how do we distinguish between God acting miraculously and God acting providentially? Jackson argues,
Here is another case in contrast. When the Assyrian army threatened the city of Jerusalem, God supernaturally destroyed 185,000 enemy soldiers in a single night (Isaiah 37:36). Over against this, Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, was dealt with in a different fashion. Jehovah caused him to “hear tidings” that prompted his return to Assyria (Isaiah 37:7); there, in accordance with divine prophecy, he was killed by the hands of his own sons (cf. 37:7,38). Unquestionably, providence was implemented! In each instance, Heaven was guiding certain events. In the one case, divine activity was direct, independent of means. In the other case, it was indirectly employed by the use of means.
And so … “indirect” operations of God are providence and direct operations are miracles? But Jesus healed through an indirect means — placing mud on a blind man’s eyes, for example — and surely that’s was a miracle! Just so, God’s returning Jonah to the Palestinian coast via the means of a fish was a miracle — despite the use of intermediate means.
And there’s another problem here. The laws of nature are deterministic — or, at least, not susceptible to change by prayer unless God himself intervenes. If I pray for my sick friend to get better and he gets better solely “though the natural laws instead of in opposition to them,” then not only would no miracle occur, God would not have answered my prayer. If my friend gets well, it’s because the laws of nature caused his recovery, not because God heard my prayer and made something happen that othewise would not have happened. Right?
You see, I think my conservative brothers are making a category mistake, assuming that providence does not violate the laws of nature — and, of course, it does. If God did not providentially intervene to, for example, cause the surgeon to heal, nature would have taken its course and the surgeon would not have healed.
And because the conservatives are teaching a self-contradictory doctrine, their followers are quite understandably confused. Because their followers can’t consistently tell the difference between a “miracle” and “providence,” they are reluctant to credit God with answers to prayer — outloud. But if you give a group of Christians — even quite conservative ones — a safe place in which to say what they really think, you’ll soon be overwhelmed with stories they’ve personally experienced that sure sound like miracles.
As a result, our members often speak as though God is inactive, and yet they see and believe in a very active God. And that should tell us something about our doctrine.
If you think about it, the denial of modern-day miracles necessarily denies several other things as well —
* The Holy Spirit could not work on the heart of the Christian in any way. The Spirit could work through the Bible, of course, but not by doing anything after the Bible is complete. In other words, the Spirit works only in the sense that readers are persuaded by the Spirit’s words on the pages. If the Spirit had died in, say, AD 150, history would be unchanged.
* There’s no providence. In other words, if God is influencing events today, then he is necessarily violating the laws of nature. If not, then what form does his influence take?
* Prayers are only answered if they require no divine activity on earth. If we ask for our sins to be forgiven, no problem; but if we ask for a friend’s illness to be cured, tough luck.
* We cannot see God’s actions other than through the pages of the Bible. Therefore, we can’t be witnesses and so can’t testify (or witness) to the work of God in our own lives. Rather, for nearly 2,000 years, God has done nothing on this planet other than keeping books on who is saved and who is not. And this leads us to sneer at the “Baptist” practice of witnessing — and causes us to condemn those among the Churches of Christ who think they’ve experienced something worth sharing.
It’s a dismal, depressing religion.