Modernism’s Assault on Miracles

By Ron Halbrook

For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Pet. 1:16).

But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of (2:1-2).

Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen (3:17-18).

The gospel of Jesus Christ includes facts (1 Cor. 15:1-3), commands (Rom. 10:16), and promises (Col. 1:23). Any teaching which rejects any facts, commands, or promises in the gospel is heresy. No matter how popular or persuasive heresy may be, it is a betrayal of truth and a harbinger of eternal destruction. If we are to escape this destruction, if we are to be loyal to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we must grow in him and oppose the error of the wicked. The purpose of this study is to contrast the gospel of Jesus Christ to a system of religious thought known as Liberalism or Modernism.

Modernism undermines the commands and promises of the gospel by calling the facts of the gospel in question, especially in regard to miracles. The facts of the gospel are held in perpetual doubt by Modernists. They allege an admixture of fables in the gospel story and complain about the foibles of both those who wrote and those who hear the message. Liberalism is in many ways a negative religion: internally in disarray when viewed as a movement, but united in opposition to the gospel as recorded in the New Testament. It is our plan to show that the miraculous is found throughout God’s Word but that Modernism assaults the miraculous element as false or at least nonessential. After discussing the nature and ultimate results of Liberalism, we shall make an appeal for gospel preaching.

Miracles In The Gospel

Miracles are supernatural acts of supernatural power and origin. God is the creator of the natural order and therefore is not limited by it. The power which He exercised in creation may be exercised at other times according to His will. The word often translated “miracle” (dunamis) in the New Testament is the word for “power, inherent ability . . . used of works of a supernatural origin and character, such as could not be produced by natural agents and means” (Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, 111, p. 75). Another term (semeion) used means “a sign, mark, token . . . used of miracles and wonders as signs of Divine authority” (ibid.)-“an unusual occurrence, transcending the common course of nature” (Thayer’s Lexicon, p. 573)-“an event that is contrary to the usual course of nature” (Arndt & Gingrich, Lexicon,p. 755). Often with the word “sign” appears the synonym “wonder” (teras), meaning “something strange, causing the beholder to marvel” (Vine, IV, p. 228). Each of the three words used tells us something about the nature and purpose of miracles: “A sign is intended to appeal to the understanding, a wonder appeals to the imagination, a power . . . indicates its source as supernatural” (ibid.). As J. Gresham Machen so clearly put it, “A supernatural event is one that takes place by the immediate, as distinguished from the mediate power of God . . . in the events called natural, God uses means, whereas in the events called supernatural He uses no means, but puts forth His creative power” (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 99).

God has acted above the limits we call natural in order to create that which did not exist, to reveal messages to men, and to authenticate those messages as Divine. Jesus said that God literally and directly created mankind “at the beginning” as is recorded in Genesis 1-3 (Matt. 19:1-5). Jesus believed that God had spoken through His Spirit to prophets such as Moses and Isaiah, and that such messages at times predicted the future (Matt. 22:31, 43; Lk. 4:1721). Specific miracles recorded in the Old Testament-supply of manna, the brass serpent, God’s gift of wisdom to Solomon, Jonah and the great fish (Jn. 6:31-32, 58; 4:1415; Matt. 12:38-42)-were accredited as true by Jesus in every case. He authenticated His own mission and message with miraculous signs, and provided the same authentication for personal ambassadors whom He sent out preaching (Jn. 20:31-32; Matt. 10:1-15; Mk. 16:15-20). Thus were the Apostles empowered to preach salvation in Jesus’ name, “God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles” (Heb. 2:4).

The gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be preached without treating as literal facts the creation, prophecy, the Old Testament miracles, the virgin birth of Jesus, His personal miracles, the miracles which He performed through His Apostles, the inspiration of Scripture in a supernatural sense, the forgiveness of sins, miraculous power exercised in the establishment and spread of the church, and both the hope of heaven and dread of hell. The God revealed by Jesus Christ is above nature as its creator and sustainer; by the very nature of his being, God can act above and beyond natural limits. This is the God of the gospel. To change Him in an effort to preach Him is to have another God, another gospel, and another religion.

Modernism’s Assault on Miracles

Centuries of apostasy from New Testament teaching prepared fertile ground for infidelity. The monolithic corruption and stagnation of the monolithic church-state known as Roman Catholicism spawned not only religious reformation in the 1500-1600s but also revolution in the 1700-1800s. In rejecting the supernatural superstitions perpetuated by Catholicism, and in embarking on the age of reason, many people dismissed the Bible teaching on miracles as a part of the evil to be escaped. Men failed to see that New Testament Christianity and its miracles were distinct from Roman Catholicism and its superstitions. The ebb and flow of these religious reactionary movements, increased in force by the strong currents of scientific and industrial advances, produced a tidal wave of naturalism between 1875 and 1925. The twentieth century has never recovered from the wreckage of the flood. Naturalism made twentieth-century man self-confident to the point of arrogance and self-sufficient to the point of infidelity. This naturalism was evidenced in the rise of evolution, applied to every phase of man’s thought including religion, and the rise of so-called higher critical studies applied to Scripture, treating it as of human origin. To this day, the assumptions of Liberalism or Modernism persist in much of American religious faith and practice.

Machen identified the root idea of Modernism as “the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity.” Modernism claims to mediate Christianity to the modern world but relinquishes “everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is in essentials only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came upon the scene” (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 7). In other words, what remains is the same sin, unbelief, guilt, despair, and hopelessness, the same rebellion and confusion, to which is “attached the terminology of traditional Christianity” (John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology, p. 28). Carl Henry clearly identified the major assumption of modern thought which makes all miracles suspect if not incomprehensible: “the space-time universe is viewed as ultimate and only within that broader context can room be made for a deity” (Remaking the Modern Mind, p. 208). This is immediately seen in a classical definition of Modernism given by spokesman Shailer Mathews in The Faith of Modernism: “It is the use of the methods of modern science to find, state and use the permanent and central values of inherited orthodoxy in meeting the needs of a modern world” (pp. 22-24). God must pardon the inconvenience, but His friends must put Him under the microscope and analyze His Word by the canons of Science! If He and His revelations do not seem to fit into the laboratory where the whole natural universe is studied, they can be made to fit.

Once Modernism starts its work, there is no stopping place until God Himself has been remade to order to fit the assumptions of Liberal research. The avowed atheist replaces God Himself with evolution; in order to make the gospel believable to modern man, the Liberal retains God but replaces the Genesis account of creation with the theory of evolution. In discussing the foundations of Liberal theology, proponent W. P. Montague pointed out how the acids of Modernism must eat deeper and deeper into Scripture:

When once the nose of the camel of doubt is permitted to enter the tent of faith there is no assurance as to where the invasion will stop. If any of the miracles of the Bible are rejected, the others become open to question (David E. Roberts and Henry Pitney Van Dusen (eds.), Liberal Theology, An Appraisal, p. 155).

Professor D. R. Dungan confided to J. W. McGarvey in 1908 and 1909 that at Drake University the faculty no longer believed “that Genesis represents the beginning of things correctly” and was ready to approve a B.D. thesis on the Messianism of Isaiah which denied all predictive prophecy in the book. Old Testament miracles such as Jonah and the whale are smiled upon as fables or parables. Jesus is made not an object of faith but an example, a “symbol,” an “illustration of the essence of religion” (Lyman Van Law Cady in Liberal Theology, An Appraisal, p. 147). His virgin birth and other miracles are explained away on naturalistic principles. His death for our sins and his bodily resurrection are given figurative meanings-they simply cannot be events beyond the meaning of the natural order of things. Miracles in connection with the establishment of the church and both the hope of heaven and dread of hell in a literal sense, all must be dismissed.

The center of Modernism’s assault is the verbal inspiration of Scripture, such as is affirmed in 1 Corinthians 2:13 (“things” and “words” which “the Holy Spirit teacheth”) and 2 Timothy 3:16 (“all scripture is given by inspiration of God” or breathed out from God). Such an authenticated and guarded text in the original manuscripts would guarantee the historical reality of each recorded miracle! The one unifying hope for different branches of Liberalism is “that tomorrow some fresh evidence of the unreliability of the Scriptures may be found” (I. M. Haldeman, A King’s Penknife or Why I Am Opposed to Modernism, p. 163). In one of the most celebrated blasts of Modernist warfare, Charles A. Briggs delivered The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address, castigating “Superstition” in the form of “Bibliolatry, ” “Verbal Inspiration, ” the “Authenticity” of Scripture, its “Inerrancy, ” “Violation of the Laws of Nature” (i.e. miracles), and “Minute Prediction” or “Predictive Prophecy. “

Ultimately, the God of the Bible and the God of Liberalism are two different deities. Infidelity is unbelief in the God of the Bible and Modernism is one form of infidelity. It denies the supernatural in Scripture, or dismisses the supernatural as non-essential, or explains the supernatural away. Modernists have a god but not the God of Scripture. Like the infidels of ancient times, they have “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” (Rom. 1:23) and are therefore “without God” (atheoi, Eph. 2:12). Liberal advocate and editor C. C. Morrison admitted as much in his 3 January, 1924 Christian Century article “Fundamentalism and Modernism: Two Religions.” He might as well have been a prophet of Baal distinguishing himself from Elijah, in the following barrage:

There is a clash here as profound and as grim as that between Christianity and Confuscianism. Amiable words can not hide the differences. “Blest be the tie” may be sung till doomsday but it can not bind these two worlds together. The God of fundamentalism is one God. The God of the modernist is another. The Christ of the fundamentalist is one Christ; the Christ of modernism is another. The Bible of fundamentalism is one Bible; and the Bible of modernism is another. The church, the kingdom, the salvation, the consummation of all things-these are one thing to fundamentalists and another thing to modernists.

In like manner, Modernist educator W. C. Morro found J. W. McGarvey’s literal approach to the restoration of New Testament Christianity difficult to adjust “to reality or to a reasonable conception of God” (Brother McGarvey, pp. 133-34).

Gospel Preaching: The “Foolishness” of God

Modernism is the practical repudiation of God’s grace, while speaking much of grace. Everywhere miracles appear in connection with Christ, the Bible, the church, heaven, or even the Father Himself, doubt and denial reign supreme in naturalistic Liberalism. Like those who rejected Christ in the first century, Modernists discount the gospel as “foolishness,” label its miracles as insufficient for faith, and proceed as if human wisdom were all sufficient. Modernism is Ancientism: the world seeking God by means of its own wisdom, an experiment doomed by past attempts!

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God …. For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe (1 Cor. 1:18, 21).

Let us not lose confidence in the New Testament message, but preach it, preach it, preach it.

When we preach the facts of the gospel as true, we certify its commands and promises as true. Pressing the demands of the gospel in contrast to the doubts of Liberalism, W. W.Otey said in his Christ orModernism,

For three days the hope of the world hung on three words: I will arise.

For nineteen hundred years the hope of the world has hung on three words: He is risen (p. 72).

Because he arose, the gospel commands and promises are true. Knowing the gospel is true, we preach it with confidence that it will accomplish God’s purpose and satisfy man’s need. “There is no more perfect adaptation of light to the eye, food to hunger, water to thirst than the adaptation of Christ and the gospel to satisfy every need and desire of man’s spirit” (Otey, p. 13). Preach the gospel of Christ because it is eternal truth. Preach it because it heals the broken-hearted, delivers the captives, gives sight to the blind, frees the oppressed, and proclaims the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk. 4:16-21). Preach it without fear. Preach it without compromise. Preach it till death stills the tongue.

Truth Magazine XXII: 42, pp. 676-679
October 26, 1978