Monday, November 11, 2009

The Decline of Public Miracles

Read this article in a longer print media version in The Fourth R 23.5 (September-October, 2010): 23.
This column was published in the Springfield Newsleader on November 13, 2009.
Read a published response to the Decline of Public Miracles.
Read/Post Comments (2)

The word “miracle” does not appear in the Bible. The words usually translated as miracle are wonder, sign, and power. In early Christian antiquity these powerful acts were seen as one proof of Christianity (Acts 2:22)—but “Jesus” was not the only name that healed and drove out demonic spirits (Luke 11:19). Extraordinary deeds were also performed under the auspices of other powers.

     What is a “miracle”? In Jewish and Christian antiquity and until the Renaissance, it was the popular belief that God governed and regulated all aspects of the natural world—the four seasons, famine, pestilence, and plenty were all due to the work of God. The world was a closed system that operated either on the basis of God’s care—or irritation. In this kind of world a “miracle” was an unusual outpouring of divine power. After the modern scientific revolution of the 18th century, however, the universe has come to be regulated by a system of natural law. A “miracle,” in the modern world, is an as yet unexplained event—an extraordinary deviation from the usual regularity demanding explanation.

     A “miracle,” as understood today, was not possible until we had given up the biblical view that God controlled the world and adopted a scientific view of a universe operating on the basis of physical laws. An anomaly in this kind of system doesn’t indicate God’s presence; rather it becomes a ponderable needing explanation. Nevertheless in 21st century America biblical miracles still form the basis for popular thinking about extraordinary events. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus performs mighty deeds of healing, manipulating nature, and exorcism, as miracles are still categorized today. Another way of categorizing miracles, however, is whether they are public or private miracles. A biblical public miracle was God causing the sun to stand still for a whole day (Joshua 10:12-14), or Jesus cursing the fig tree and having it wither immediately (Matt 21:18-19). Examples of private miracles are the healing of the woman with a hemorrhage (Mark 5:24-34), and the raising (or awakening) of the synagogue ruler’s daughter (Mark 5:35-42)—was she dead (Mark 5:35, 38) or only asleep (Mark 5:39)? Public miracles are immediately obvious even to a casual observer. Private miracles are subject to interpretation. Someone’s cancer is suddenly cured, but that God did it is only true if you believe it.

     Miracles we hear of today seem to fall into the category of private miracle—i.e., the miracle lies in the interpretation of an event, rather than in the event itself. Is there a decline in public miracles like the sun standing still? So it seems. There have recently been many missed opportunities for God to perform extraordinary public miracles—for example, 9/11 or the destruction of New Orleans. Why, do you suppose, God would pass up opportunities for extraordinary public miracles (i.e., obvious to a casual observer) and choose instead to perform miracles that are only visible through the eyes of faith?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 12:57pm

Congratulations on your fine article in the December issue of Biblical Archaeological Review about the “secret” Gospel of Mark….Donn Kaiser
Posted by Donn Kaiser on 11/10/2009 at 9:43am
Thanks for the compliment! My job in that series was to be as neutral as I could on the issue of forgery. But my view is that the guild has not yet gotten around to discussing the real issues about this text and has unfortunately centered on the character of Morton Smith. I have an article coming out (I hope soon) in Perspectives in Religious Studies entitled “Evaluating Morton Smith: Hoaxer Outed or Colleague Slandered.” My argument against Carlson is that he has not proven his case against Smith and if that is the best argument that can be made that Smith forged the text we should abandon that avenue and start discussing the text seriously. In my view Secret Mark may be a forgery but if it is, it is an ancient forgery and Smith only had the misfortune to discover the text. Thanks for writing and now that I know you are out there please don’t be a stranger to the blog.


Posted by Charles Hedrick on 11/11/2009 at 9:02am

Thanks, Charlie, for a thought provoking posting. Best wishes to you and your family. Love you. Gracie
Posted by Grace Menhel on 11/9/2009 at 7:04pm