Miracle Or Myth Or Both?

Miracle Or Myth Or Both? September 17, 2018

To connect the word “myth” with what traditional Christians have called “miracles” is to court both misunderstanding and disagreement, if not also some disappointment. Luke Timothy Johnson contends that for us to recapture a world in which the miracles of God are alive and well means we have to recapture miracles as myths and to learn to define myth appropriately. We are looking again at Luke Timothy Johnson’s new book on miracles, Miracles: God’s Presence and Power in Creation.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are stirring in their graves.

Let’s give Johnson’s claims a fair description. First, myth and falsehood are connected for empiricists.

Secularists are true heirs of the Enlightenment in their dismissal of myth as a species of falsehood associated with ignorance (of natural laws) and superstition.

The NT criticizes some kinds of myths, but he says they are not aware of how mythic language works at times.

But the derogation of myth actually begins within the New Testament, which opposes the truth of the gospel to the “endless myths” of both Judaism and Gentile religion (see 1 Tim. 1:4; 4:7; Titus 1:14; 2 Pet. 2:16). What the authors of the New Testament were not in a position to recognize is the degree to which its own claims concerning God’s power and presence were themselves mythic in character.

Johnson’s big issue is that too many dismiss miracle when they encounter mythic language.

In any case, the dismissal of myth as a species of falsehood goes hand in hand with the rejection of the miraculous. It was in order to secure a miracle-free version of the good news that “demythologization” of the New Testament itself was regarded as essential to secure a credible faith for “modern man,” who supposedly dwells in a myth-free environment (Kraftchick 2014).

His next claim is the big one: to embrace miracle is to embrace myth. Which will lead next to his definition of myth, on which this whole chapter and book hangs:

It follows, then, that an enthusiastic embrace of God’s presence and power in creation through “signs and wonders” demands a positive appreciation of myth as the distinctive mode of speaking truth concerning realities for which science and philosophy have no adequate language.

So what is myth? It is connected human agency with divine agency in an explanatory frame. Myth then is, if I say so myself, hermeneutics.

By “myth” I mean first-order statements, often but not necessarily in the form of a narrative, that place human and divine persons in situations of mutual agency (Johnson 2014). Since human agency is involved, such statements claim to be about the same empirical world that we all perceive; but because divine agency is also and even primarily involved, such statements also resist ordinary empirical verification.

Now to Paul and his theological redemptive hermeneutic that explains what God did in Jesus as mythic narrative that is simultaneously miraculous:

2 Corinthians 5:19 …Although Paul is undoubtedly referring to the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth, nothing in this statement is empirically verifiable: “Christ,” “God,” “world,” and “reconciling” are not locatable among the material objects of everyday life. The statement is most clearly mythic because it ascribes causality directly to God within the frame of worldly existence. [mine] In 5:18, Paul provides a parallel version: “All things are from God, who was reconciling us to himself through Christ.

Only believers have this hermeneutic.

With such statements, Paul places the intersection of divine and human agency within a distinctive understanding of reality that is shared among those he includes within his “we.”

… by no means does he suggest that such a perception of reality is shared by all.

So Johnson’s big claim is that believers need mythic language to explain what can only be perceived by faith.

Paul’s Letters suggest that mythic language is necessary for the faithful to declare even the most basic convictions of faith. Stating that “Christ died for all” and that “God raised him from the dead” belongs not to historical discourse but to mythical discourse. Christians do well to embrace such language enthusiastically, for without it they must remain mute concerning the truths by which they claim to live.

There are three elements to all mythic explanations:

If we return to our passage in 2 Corinthians 5, we see that the context for Paul’s statement “God was in Christ” contains abundant evidence for all three elements. [1] First, the experience: when Paul states in 5:5 that the one who works in him and his associates to prepare them for a heavenly habitation is the God who has given them the pledge that is the Holy Spirit, he echoes a statement he made earlier in the letter: “God is the one who has secured us with you into Christ [eis Christon] and has anointed [chrisas] us. And he has sealed us and has given us the pledge that is the Holy Spirit in our hearts” (2 Cor. 1:21-22). Fc

In turn, [2] this powerful personal experience of God’s Holy Spirit through Christ grounds the judgment that Paul shares with his readers concerning Jesus’ apparently shameful death by legal execution—a negative historical fact if ever there was one! Paul and his fellows “have reached the judgment” [krinontas] concerning Jesus’ death (2 Cor. 5:14): it was not a death cursed by God (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13), but a sacrifice undertaken for all, indeed, an expression of love “for us” (2 Cor. 5:14).

Participation in the Spirit coming from Christ therefore [3] means also human participation in the pattern of his existence, as Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 6:9: “We are as people dying, and behold, we live.

His summary:

Paul’s Letters show how the experience of a resurrection Spirit out of an empirical death demands the use of mythic language, is the only possible means of expressing the truth, impels a reshaping of the symbolic world structuring the reality of his fellow Jews, and demands proclamation to the world of a new paradigm of power-in-weakness that is the sign of God’s reconciling presence in creation. The use of such mythic language is no less the necessary means of expressing the experience of God’s power and presence in miracles.

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