Wait, No Miracles? … Wright On! (RJS)

Last Thursday I put up a post that focused on N.T. (Tom) Wright’s  response to listener questions posed by Justin Brierley on the radio show Unbelievable. The link to the show: NT Wright on Paul, Hell, Satan, Creation, Adam, Eve & more – Unbelievable? – 01 November 2013, or the entire Unbelievable audio feed with more shows and more information on each show.

At another point in the show (this segment runs from 44:30 to 47:55 in the mp3 file) Justin poses a question:

Is there any evidence for miracles claimed by the New Testament other than the resurrection, for example, Jesus feeding the five thousand? Now are we supposed to go looking for tell tale clues that these miracles also have some sort of evidentiary basis?

Tom Wright responds:

We are still with these questions, like the others, we are still in the world of modernism, which is to say we’re trying to live as eighteenth century rationalists. Please folks, let’s give that up.

(Justin – But isn’t that what you’ve done with the big book on the resurrection?)

No, it precisely isn’t. That is how some people use it. The real argument of the big book on the resurrection is to say, to challenge the skeptics, to say as we look at all the evidence that is out there, and it’s a big book because there is a lot of evidence of different sorts of worldviews etc. etc., then you will see as you ask the question “Why did Christianity begin and take the shape it did?” that the answer the New Testament gives is Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead. But the skeptics have said oh no we know that this really happened or that really happened or some other solution. And actually, what history is very good at doing is unmasking all of those and showing that all the alternatives are wildly implausible.

This doesn’t prove in some mathematical sense that Jesus rose from the dead. What it does is create a context in which the challenge comes back “are you prepared to believe that maybe there is a living creator God who actually has raised Jesus from the dead?” You can’t fit the resurrection of Jesus into the modern rationalistic worldview. It explodes that worldview and gives you a new sort of rationality the other side of that. … You don’t abandon reason; you’ve still got rationality at the end of it. But what you lose is the rather tight nervous eighteenth century rationalism. Hence the point about the word miracle.

Here is the bit I’d like to focus on today:

Let’s give up the world miracle because the word miracle comes to us now in our culture from that Epicurean or deist worldview which envisages a God who is outside the process and occasionally reaches in and does something funny and then pushes off again. Now, that is not what the New Testament is talking about. So when people say can we believe in miracles I say no, because the word miracle gives us this sense of a normally absent God sometimes reaching in, that’s not the God of the Bible. What we have, and I talk about this in Simply Jesus, is the launching of space, time, and matter in a new mode. And it’s not discontinuous with our present space, time, and matter, but this is God’s new creation. And the thing about what we call the miracles, is not … wow! there seem to be radical abnormalities within the old world. No. The point is that these are the things that are starting to be normal in the new world which we see close up and personal with Jesus and then which, through the ministry of the gospel thereafter, start to happen in different ways in the wider world. It’s about the launching of new creation not about an invasion into the old creation.

Listen to the show if you are interested in the topic. A flat transcript of Wright’s comments doesn’t really capture the conversational tone or his points of particular emphasis. Wright’s answer here contains an incredibly important point – and one that underlies the majority of the conflicts between science and the Christian faith.  I’ve written on this several times, including what is perhaps my favorite post on the topic, A Miraculous Creation.

We cannot fit the resurrection of Jesus into a modern materialist worldview.

We cannot fit incarnation and life of Jesus into this modern materialist worldview either.

An interesting example to consider is the incident  in Mark, chapter 6, Matthew chapter 14 and John chapter 6 where Jesus walks across the sea of Galilee over stormy waters to rejoin his disciples who are crossing in a boat. This is an amazing incident. “Walk on water” has become something of a catch phrase for extreme ability, a person who can accomplish what seems humanly impossible. A particularly impressive candidate for a position “almost walks on water” and when a weakness is discovered “he doesn’t walk on water after all.”   Back in 2006 a report, published in the ever popular Journal of Paleolimnology, investigated the question Is There a Paleolimnological Explanation for ‘Walking on Water’ in the Sea of Galilee?. News articles following this report remain readily available thanks to the internet, for example: Did Jesus Walk on Water? Or Ice?. This question misses the point – the science may be quite good and interesting. But a “natural” explanation for the incident where Jesus walked across the sea is irrelevant to the incident itself. Sometimes God works through “natural” processes (a wind parting water at the Red Sea) and at other times the connection is less obvious. But in all cases the impact of the events is not natural. The miraculous events portray a Creator God in relationship with his creation and his creatures.

We cannot fit the story of God calling his people, created in his image, through the sweep of the Old Testament story and the Gospel proclamation that Jesus is God’s Messiah, into a modern materialist or naturalist worldview.

This doesn’t mean that we have to reject the science of evolutionary biology, geology, paleontology, or astronomy to shoehorn observation into a favored interpretation of Scripture. The scientific study of process and past can reveal the hand of God in a way that the original ancient Near Eastern Hebrews would have never understood.  But it does mean that we affirm as fundamental the existence of something beyond the material and natural as well.

In every case the challenge that comes back to us in Scripture as twenty first century “materialists” is not a quest for natural explanation but “are you prepared to believe that maybe there is a living creator God who actually interacts in relationship with his people?” And with the New Testament gospel it the challenge leads us to the question as phrased by Wright “are you prepared to believe that maybe there is a living creator God who actually has raised Jesus from the dead?

Do you believe in “miracles”? If so, why?

What message do you take from the miraculous acts of Jesus?

If you wish you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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