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An Affirmative Pentecostal Theology of the Miraculous

Enlightenment Skepticism

Combat lines between Enlightenment skepticism and biblical Pentecostalism are bold and sharp.

Anglican theologian Alister McGrath rightly points out that a result of the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason, 1650s- 1780s) turn to a reductionist form of rationalism was the rejection of the possibility of the miraculous.[4] Of course, this rejection eventually came to include not only dramatic healings and inexplicable manifestations of power over nature in the Bible, and expectations of such happenings in contemporary life, but also the very resurrection of Jesus Christ himself. No wonder Charismatic theologian Larry Hart says an Enlightenment mentality of “unbelieving rationalism and skepticism is an offense to the Spirit of Christ.”[5] The central tenets of Christian faith all involve miracle: creation, incarnation, resurrection, and consummation. As Hart says, “Christianity is rife with supernaturalism.”[6] Accordingly, combat lines between Enlightenment skepticism and biblical Pentecostalism are bold and sharp. I note two interesting details. First, the rationalist rejection of the miraculous was in large part a repudiation of the credibility of human testimony. Second, after centuries of predominance Enlightenment rationalism and its derivative modernistic mindset itself has recently been found largely wanting. One might note on the first point that consistent repudiation of the validity of human testimony would destroy both the foundation and fabric of any human society. For example, no judicial or legislative system could survive in such an arid environment. The casual dismissal of the credibility of human testimony on this point alone while depending on it in almost all other areas of human activity and history is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical.[7]

One cannot subtract the miraculous from Christianity and still have anything left that can be properly called Christian.

On the second point I note that Enlightenment modernism has failed miserably to live up to its own early, and now, obviously, overly optimistic, Utopian promise. Thus postmodernism now replaces it without too much ado.[8] After centuries of rationalism, humanities’ deepest dilemmas and problems are, if anything, more acute and chronic than ever. Educational and technological advancement have not made any noticeable strides toward the Utopia promised by starry eyed advocates. Without denying or even downplaying the real and wonderfully helpful work of science in many areas of human life, for example, health and medicine or communication and transportation, it is all too evident that underlying issues have not been significantly alleviated. We now live in a world dominated by terrorism and disease as well as prejudice and poverty. Science is not, and should not be expected to be, the solution for the overall human condition. Science itself cannot stand the strain of that unrealistic and misguided expectation. It is, in my opinion, pseudoscience which attempts to hang on to naturalistic rationalism in a panic stricken but mistaken notion that it is essential to its survival. Well, perhaps it is essential to the survival of pseudoscience (and its close cousin, scientism[9]) after all; but not to robust science, not to a real and healthy science. Pentecostals need have no aversion to real science.[10] Cannot we understand how hypocritical it appears to others when we enjoy the benefits of science in our everyday lives while railing against science from our pulpits on Sundays? However, it is only false science predicated upon faulty knowledge which Pentecostals believe the Bible rejects (1 Timothy 6:20).

Those who deny Christian miracles, though they claim to be Christians, often appear to have already abandoned parts of Christian doctrine and are perhaps in danger of relapsing into mere religion.

Christian thinkers have handled the modernistic rejection of the miraculous in vastly different ways. Much of the debate ultimately leads to a consideration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the identifying signifier of the Christian faith. The notorious New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann basically accepted rationalism’ rejection of the miraculous, including rejecting Christ’s resurrection as historical event; he reinterpreted such biblical descriptions in terms of “demythologization”. Karl Barth’s affirmed the resurrection as an actual event but placed it beyond historical inquiry, which McGrath describes as “highly vulnerable”, while Wolfhart Pannenberg argues (more substantively) that skeptics reject Christ’s resurrection through presupposition rather than through rational conclusion, and that Christ’s resurrection may be viewed as a historical event which is a “prolepsis” of the eschaton.[11] These comparisons suggest that how Christians approach the concept of the miraculous can be diverse. A straightforward mindset is best. Blatant attempts to “bite the bullet” (i.e. concede defeat ala Bultmann) or “dodge the bullet” (i.e. dig into a hole ala Barth) are inconsistent and unconvincing. Honest efforts to address underlying issues (i.e. carefully weighing the facts from the standpoint of faith ala Pannenberg) seem most on target. Pentecostals should learn this lesson too.

Christianity is by nature miraculous. It is the story of incarnation and resurrection.

In any case, I am inclined to agree with C. S. Lewis’ astute observation that those who deny Christian miracles, though they claim to be Christians, often appear to have already abandoned parts of Christian doctrine and are perhaps in danger of relapsing, at best, into mere religion.[12] Of course, this statement derives from Lewis’ underlying conviction that one cannot subtract the miraculous from Christianity and still have anything left that can be properly called Christian. For Lewis, there is no such thing as—indeed cannot be any such thing as—“naturalistic Christianity”.[13] Christianity is by nature miraculous. It is the story of incarnation and resurrection. While some struggle to understand how anyone living in the twenty-first century can believe in miracles, Pentecostals are much more prone to wonder how anyone who is recognizably Christian can doubt the miraculous.

An Elastic Concept

Miracles do not violate nature’s laws so much as they supersede them.

At the outset it is essential to have a clear understanding of the definition of miracle. A classical definition of miracle is “things which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature.”[14] Biblically, miracles can be described as manifestations of God’s power which evoke wonder in observers as signs of God’s reign with focus on Christ’s works.[15] Miracles do not violate nature’s laws so much as they supersede them. The prefix “super” in “supernatural” does not mean that which is against or contrary to but that which is above or beyond. Even this significant qualification is further qualified by limitations of finite human understanding regarding, as I might say, the nature of nature. A massive jetliner taking off on a runway to soar away into the sky may seem to violate the law of gravity but in fact the law of aerodynamics has simply superseded the law of gravity. Thus it is when in sovereign freedom and infinite power God chooses to supersede what we know about nature with what is to us only known as supernatural.[16] In discussions such as these it quickly becomes apparent that a major part of the task is seeking to understand just what constitutes a miracle in the first place.

Image: Ahmadreza Sajadi

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Category: Spirit, Spring 2015

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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