Modernism and Miracles

By Cecil Willis

Miracles are a definite part of Biblical teaching, both in the Old and New Testaments. They are inextricably interwoven into the framework of God’s revelation of Himself unto man. Revelation itself is a miracle. When God inspired the ‘men of Old who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit in delivering and preserving His Word, this constituted a miracle. As the Word of God, the Bible stands or falls upon this very point. Either the Bible was miraculously given and miracles actually occurred as stated in the Bible, and the Bible is the Word of God, or miracles did not happen at all, and the Bible is not of divine but human origin. If miracles did not occur, then the Bible is not a special divine revelation. There is no compromise in this matter. Furthermore Jesus Christ, His birth, resurrection, and atonement for our sins, constitutes another great miracle. So the Bible abounds in statements of miraculous events.

A Miracle Defined

But before we proceed further into our thoughts on miracles., we need to pause to ask ourselves, “What is a miracle?” One’s definition of a miracle is of supreme importance. The modernist defines a miracle in such a way that it is no miracle at all. For example, a man by the name of Schleiermacher has been called the “father of modernism.” He defined a miracle as the “Religious name for any event” (Carnell, The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 18). To him, “A miracle was simply the natural seen through consecrated eyes” (Carnell). Such a definition as this says that really there is no such thing as the occurrence of a miracle, but it is merely religious fanaticism or superstition that leads one to think of a purely natural event in terms of the supernatural.

I think that a good portion of the denominational people of today would be rather shocked to learn what modern denominational preachers really believe about miracles. I sincerely believe that if some of you people would press your preacher to express his conviction on miracles, you would find that in the final analysis he believes that there never has been a miracle. Many denominational preachers mince no words in denying the virgin birth. Listen carefully while I read to you a modernistic explanation of Biblical miracles from one who at least pretends to believe the Bible. In fact, he would call himself a Christian. Yet he is no different in his attitude toward miracles than many denominational preachers. I am quoting now from H.R. Mackintosh, Types of Modem Theology, p. 16. “The Resurrection, for example, was no more than recovery from apparent death; the feeding of the multitude is erroneously set down as if it implied a marvel, whereas the real facts were much more simple-the crowd following the lead of Jesus and the disciples, took provisions out of their pocket and handed them around. At the Transfiguration, an unknown friend of Jesus, hidden in the morning mists, called out in the hearing of the apostolic three ‘This is my beloved Son.'”

Certainly some of you would be shocked to hear your preacher make statements like these, but they would not likely make such open and rash statements. Any modernistic leanings would likely be clothed in more subtle language. Not too long ago, I talked with a preacher of a denominational church who denied the resurrection. Oh, he said the resurrection was a fact, but that it was real only in the mind of the disciples. Jesus’ body was yet resting beneath the Palestinian stars. Yet with a distorted conviction as this, he had the audacity to preach a sermon on the Resurrection on “Easter Sunday.” He would not tell me what he was going to say. I asked, for I wanted to know. But with this conviction, he would either have to deny his actual belief and preach that Jesus was raised, or deny the resurrection in toto, or preach in such ambiguous language that the people never knew that in his heart he believed the resurrection belief was a hoax. I am not indicting every denominational preacher as a Modernist, for there are many of them who are yet very fundamental. But the vast majority of modern denominational preachers hold views on miracles that are foreign to the Bible. Many of them are evolutionists. Yet they are not willing to come out to attempt to prove their conviction. They would just rather that other people say nothing to the people about what they believe.

Biblical Terminology

In Acts 2:22, we have three terms that give us some insight into the miracle. It reads: “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, even as ye yourselves know.” Notice the words, “mighty works,” “wonders,” and “signs.” Briefly, let us study each of these words to see what we can learn about Biblical miracles. Each of these terms is applied to the miracles worked by Christ, and aids us in understanding the miracles. First, let us observe the term, “mighty works.” Why is this expression applied to a miracle? I think we may safely say that this refers to the divine energy or power necessary to perform a miracle. Man, unaided by divine power, cannot perform a miracle. So a miracle is a “mighty work.” Secondly, a miracle is a “wonder.” This term is descriptive of a miracle because it relates to the astonishment or the amazement produced in the minds of the viewers. Thirdly, a miracle is a “sign.” This is in reference to the token of God’s presence that the power to work miracles indicates. It shows God’s sanction of the teacher and/or the things taught.

Miracles Not Explainable

A simple definition of a miracle is an effect produced by a supernatural power that cannot be explained by natural forces. Two points in this definition are significant. First, it is produced by a supernatural power. Man is not capable of performing a miracle. That which man, unaided by God, can do, by definition is not miraculous. Secondly, it cannot be explained by natural forces. The laws of nature originated with God. But we do not think of that which transpires daily as being miraculous. A miracle cannot be explained in terms of natural law. Actually, a miracle explained is a contradiction. A miracle is not explicable in terms of natural law.

A Contradiction of Natural Law?

Sometimes people define a miracle as a contradiction of natural law, but this is not a proper definition of a miracle. Miracles do not contradict natural law, they supercede it. David Hume automatically ruled out the possibility of miracles when he defined a miracle as a contradiction of natural law, because he already had postulated the premise that nature is uniform. If nature is uniform, then a contradiction, or a violation of the uniform laws would be impossible. A miracle is not a contradiction of natural law, but is a superceding of natural law by the Power that formulated the natural laws. He, who established the principles that make it possible for the scientific investigator to predict the mathematically assured conclusions as to what will occur under a given circumstance, could also suspend these principles and superimpose different ones. This action results in a miracle as defined by man.

Reasons For Denying Miracles

We have already pointed out that the modernists deny the possibility of miracles. Of course, the atheists do also. Several years ago, there was a statement of the death of Dr. Ernest Barnes in The Indianapolis Star. He was a former Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, England. The reports say: “He rejected belief in miracles …. He doubted the validity of the virgin birth and Christ’s physical resurrection.” Now, why would a modernist or an atheist deny the occurrence of miracles? Let us suggest two reasons why miracles are denied. First, they deny miracles because they have never experienced one. They are foreign to their own experiences. I must admit that I have never witnessed a miracle first hand, and I deny that anyone living today has witnessed a miracle. But to say that because we have not experienced a miracle, therefore they never occurred is absurd. This would necessitate one denying all of the annals of history that do not come within the narrow scope of his personal experience. Not long ago, I heard a young atheist state that he denied the resurrection of Christ because he did not witness its happening.

Secondly, they tell us that miracles are precluded because they are contrary to natural law. But this is merely to state the same problem in different language. If miracles did occur then, they obviously are not contrary to natural law. As a Christian, I certainly would be glad to weigh the evidence for Biblical miracles on the same scales that these modernists or atheists use to weigh any other historical event. We have precisely the same kind of evidence for Christ’s resurrection that we have for any other historical event. A close personal friend of mine several years ago discussed the proposition, Resolved: “There is good evidence for the resurrection of Christ,” with a University of Illinois professor. He demonstrated that to deny miracles, one must either be inconsistent, or deny history. For to deny the historical testimony for miracles, one must likewise deny the testimony for all history.

The fact of miracles in times past does not imply that miracles are yet occurring today. The Bible denies this, and so does the very purpose for which miracles were previously performed. MacCartney made a very curt expression while speaking of the possibility of miracles. He said; “When you face this question of miracles, it all depends upon what kind of a God you believe in, and whether or not you spell his name with a Capital G.” (MacCartney, Christian Faith and the Spirit, of the Age, pp. 70, 7 1). If one believed in some god that is equal or only slightly superior to man, he may have occasion to deny the possibility of miracles. But if one believes in the God that created this universe, that even now upholds all things by the word of His power, One infinite in power, then miracles are possible. Admit God and miracles are possible, acknowledge sin and miracles are probable, recognize the need of salvation and miracles are necessary. For God’s message to man is a miracle.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:38, p. 3-5
August 1, 1974