Luke Timothy Johnson, unlike any author I know, connects miracles to experience, not to dismiss an empirical reality but to focus on the life-in-connection-to-supernatural that is characteristic of earliest Christianity.
We are talking here about his book Miracles: God’s Presence and Power in Creation.
While the Gospels are known for their miracles and signs, there is a lack of attention to the overwhelming belief in the power of God at work in what is said in the letters.
Similarly, in the narratives of the Gospels (and Acts), which recount events of the past, miracles are attached to characters in the story, above all to Jesus and the apostles, as acts that they perform. In the Epistles, written in response to current circumstances, the presence and power of God is the implicit premise of all discourse.
The whole NT is a witness to an experienced reality, not just facts that happened.
If the character of the New Testament writings is properly to be appreciated, then they ought to be approached as a set of witnesses to a range of experiences and convictions concerning the presence and power of God made possible through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We forget this: what did Jesus and the apostles and early church offer to the world? Redemption as a new reality in which they actually lived.
The Christian movement did not offer the world then (or now) a comprehensive interpretation of the world more logical or verifiable than that offered by its competitors; it did not present then (or now) a moral vision that was purer or saner than that found in other schools and other philosophies. It certainly did not then (or now) contain a vision for the ordering of society, the management of economy, the deployment of resources, or the education of the young, as its rivals sometimes did.
What the nascent Christian movement did offer (and sometimes now still offers) are claims to having experienced, within the context of ordinary human existence, the extraordinary presence and power of God. The New Testament s enduring ability to compel attention owes much to the way in which it shows how such extraordinary claims to the miraculous intersect with, and complicate, the mundane lives of those making those claims.
Miracle then is not an adjunct to the Christian faith; it is its only reality.
If we want to understand and appreciate discourse concerning miracles in the pages of the New Testament, then from the start we must grasp that the miraculous is not an incidental or disposable component of the Christian religion; it is rather the heart and the entire point of the Christian religion.
Johnson explores the claims of the earliest Christians:
Believers claim to play a pivotal role in the worlds present and future. They participate in the reconciliation of the world with God (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:19), and they anticipate the rebirth of the entire cosmos into liberty (Rom. 8:20-22). … They spoke, for example, of having been released from the cosmic forces that, in the perceptions of that age, otherwise dominated human existence: they were no longer subject to such “powers and principalities” (Rom. 8:38; 1 Cor. 2:6-10; Eph. 2:1-10; Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 3:22) or to the “elemental spirits of the universe” (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8, 20), or to the repressive systems of law that those forces had used to keep humans in bondage (Rom. 6:15-23; 2 Cor. 3:6-18; Gal. 3:23-4:7; Col. 2:8-23).
How to explain this? Johnson says the word is “power.”
When we scan the language expressing these experiential realities, we quickly become aware of how frequently, even consistently, such speech intersects language about power. The fundamental Christian claim was to have been touched by an awesome force that had given them new and unexpected power, a particularly paradoxical claim given their worldly circumstances.
In a potent paragraph, Johnson points to this experienced reality, this miracle-experienced reality, through the word “now.”
The distinctive experiential basis for the existence and success of the Christian movement can be shown by tracing the use of the simple word “now” throughout the writings of the New Testament. In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that now Gods righteousness is being revealed (3:21, 26), now they have been made righteous (5:9), now they have been reconciled to God (5:11), now they are freed from sin (6:22), now they are discharged from the law (7:6), now there is no condemnation for God’s people (8:1), and now the mystery of God is being revealed (16:26). Paul says in another place, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2, emphasis added; see also Gal. 4:9; Eph. 2:2; 3:5; Col. 1:22, 26; 2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 9:26; 1 Pet. 1:12; 2:25; 3:21; 1 John 3:2).
No “now” and no miracle apart from the resurrection of Jesus as something also experienced by the early Christians:
The resurrection experience, I argue, is the fundamental miracle that brings Christianity into existence and provides the basis for all the claims made by the first believers. A full grasp of this thesis, however, requires making a distinction between (1) narrative accounts, which place an emphasis on the resurrection as something that happened to Jesus, and (2) the discourse of epistolary literature, which places an emphasis on the resurrection as something that happens to believers through the power of the Holy Spirit. The neglect or denial of either sort of witness threatens to distort the full truth of Christianity’s original and most provocative proclamation.
The experience of Jesus’ powerful presence was possible because he was alive and caused it. We can define the resurrection experience that gave birth to Christianity as the experience of the continuing presence of a personal, transcendent, and transforming power within the community.
No Christianity apart from this miracle-experienced reality. None.
Indeed, of all the distortions of the gospel that Christianity has accomplished over the centuries, and there have been more than a few, none is greater than the shift that made the resurrection into an event of the past that could be celebrated liturgically once a year at Easter, rather than the existential truth concerning the present that forms the basis of all proclamation and Christian practice (Johnson 1994).