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An Affirmative Pentecostal Theology of the Miraculous

Defining miracle is not merely a theoretical issue. As Rebecca Barlow Jordan mentions, we certainly do not want to miss the miraculous because it does not happen as expected.[17] Accordingly, Don Thorsen offers a helpful if a bit more technical definition of the miraculous: “miracles are thought to represent an extraordinary achievement or event that exceeds natural agency, which attests to a divine power that transcends ordinary human or natural power.” He immediately adds a significant qualifier: “A miracle does not necessarily signify something contrary to nature; we may not yet know enough about how nature works. But a miracle signifies that God supervened in a way for we which we can (sic) account.”[18] However, Railey and Aker argue that, biblically speaking, a miracle may be defined as “any manifestation of God’s power, not necessarily to a rare or unusual event.”[19] These two views can be conceived of as complementary; the latter being a more generalized perspective, the first more specialized.

The charismata, gifts of grace for Christian service, are properly understood as supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power.

A more generalized understanding allows for affirmation of events in which the marvelous nature may involve, for example, timing, rather than some apparently outstanding departure from (or transcendence of) the known laws of nature, as nonetheless having miraculous elements. For example, if an unemployed (or, as is common today, an underemployed) person in dire financial straits is praying for God’s help and intervention when the phone rings with an offer of employment with a significant salary increase, he or she might deem it in some sense miraculous though nothing phenomenal occurred in the realm of nature’s “normal” operations. It could also apply to spiritual gifts or charismata, which are divine manifestations in the sense of having their origin and energy from the Holy Spirit but also involve human receptivity and willing response (1 Corinthians 12:11; Acts 2:4). Thus, the charismata, gifts of grace for Christian service, are properly understood as supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power.[20] This suggestion is undergirded by juxtaposition of the gift of miracles alongside charismatic gifts of the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healings, prophecy, discerning of spirits, different kinds of tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). This entire list of gifts assumes recipients are moving in the realm of the supernatural.

To believe in providence at all, in God’s working in the world, is to believe in miracles.

Larry Hart points out that to believe in providence at all, that is, in God’s working in the world, is in a sense to believe in miracles. The same is the case for practicing the life of prayer. If God hears and answers prayer, as most Christians assuredly believe, then that is a kind of miracle. Even such basic assumptions about Christian belief and practice as divine providence and believing prayer are laden at some level with presuppositions about the supernatural.[21] However, as noted, there is a more specialized notion of what constitutes supernatural miracles. Thus Thorsen’s specialized definition above surely helps keep understanding of the miraculous from diminishing into suppositions of remarkable coincidence or synergistic cooperation and such. In all cases, it is good to keep in mind that “Miracles reflect the freedom, love, and power of God”—not arbitrarily, but—in alignment with God’s “clear kingdom purposes.”[22] In short, it would seem that the miraculous is an elastic concept with clear biblical warrant. And this is as it should be. An inordinate desire to clarify and quantify the miraculous is itself not improbably a residual effect of Enlightenment thinking. In a sense, the miraculous or supernatural by definition defies precise definition. Of course, we naturally need to understand as much as possible but we also need to acknowledge the limits of such understanding.

Resurgence and Increase

Miracles glorify God according to God’s sovereign and wise purposes.

French Arrington helpfully explains that the Greek grammar of 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 29 (energemata dunameon) indicates diversity and plurality in manifestations of miraculous gifts and power. Miracles are closely associated with supernatural healings but the two are not synonymous. Faith is vitally connected to workings of miracles. Arrington adds that the ministry of miracles by Jesus or by his apostles was not for simple displays of power but to glorify God and meet genuine human needs.[23] Therefore, it seems wise to bear in mind that miracles are multifaceted in nature and that proper motivation is at least as important as powerful manifestation. As noted above, miraculous acts cannot be neatly cubby-holed and categorized for analysis and filed away under the appropriate headings. Neither is the Christian ministry of miracles some “magic act” put on for the entertainment of credulous or curious onlookers. Miracles glorify God according to God’s sovereign and wise purposes. Miracles exercise compassion toward the Creator’s beloved creation and its creatures (more below on this particular aspect).

Throughout church history, most Christians have affirmed the reality of the miraculous, yet they have also been suspicious of extravagant claims.

Thorsen makes several important observations. First, biblically speaking, manifestations of miraculous power and spiritual gifts were an important part of early Christians’ relationship with God and their life and ministry. Further, while throughout church history most Christians have affirmed the reality of the miraculous they have also been suspicious of extravagant claims. Finally, contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have led a revival of interest in and experience of a spirituality often characterized by the supernatural, including healings, miracles, and such spiritual gifts as speaking in tongues.[24] Larry Hart suggests that the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements are a “desperately needed corrective” for a church world that has come to lean on human understanding and ability.[25] What is needed in the churches of our day, and indeed in all days, is the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4 NASB). Thus Jon Ruthven suggests that perhaps Pentecostalism’s explosive and unprecedented global growth should be attributed to its acceptance of the miraculous.[26] Perhaps Pentecostals and Charismatics are tapping into the human spirit’s inner yearning for that which supernatural in nature. Perhaps in the wake of post-Enlightenment reductionism the hunger and thirst of the human spirit has intensified and is now demanding to be satisfied.

Arguably, the fate of Pentecostalism is linked to its future attitude toward the realm of the miraculous. If so, I suggest that in the current climate of careful openness Pentecostal theology would do well to articulate a balanced theology of the miraculous. A balanced theology would avoid the extremes of uncritical acceptance of claims to the miraculous, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the uncritical rejection of the possibility of the miraculous. Pentecostals must beware of either triumphalism, that is, exulting winning the war about the reality of miracles, leading to unrestrained and unwise excesses, or accommodationism, that is, allowing an imperceptible erosion of our commitment to the miraculous, leading to practical, if not theological, cessation.

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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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