Lecture 12: Miraculous in Scripture | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 12: Miraculous in Scripture

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Miraculous in Scripture

I would like to share with you one of the areas that involve a great deal of implications in regard to how one interprets the Bible and it has to deal with the miraculous that occurs in Scripture. We are going to talk about the various approaches to the miraculous that have occurred in the history or scholarship. There will be essentially three main approaches that we will look at.


The 1st is the Supernatural Approach. This is the traditional approach of Christianity through the centuries. According to the Supernatural Approach, the events recorded in the Bible really took place. If you were there, you would have seen this happen. And the event happened just as it is recorded. So if you were there, you would have seen it and you would record it the same way it is in the Bible. The event happened just as it is recorded.

Now this text proclaims that this is a divine event in the Bible.  Not a natural event. It is not the normal course of life that has this. This is a divine event and as a result since God performed it, all searches for a natural cause are irrelevant.  There is no sense to it whatsoever. Alright so the traditional approach to this is that an event – a real event took place.  The event happened just as it is recorded. The text provides a divine event and since it is a divine event, God performed, the search for a natural cause is irrelevant.

You know when I was a young Christian, I remember reading an apologetic book which tried to defend the historicity of the Bible and it was intriguing that this event talked about how that at the Fall of Jerusalem /Jericho, what took place was an earthquake in which the walls fell outward and that God worked an earthquake and supposedly this to ??? help me understand and to accept the supernatural nature of the event. But think with me for a minute. Are we saying that when Joshua crossed over and saw Jericho, he was a natural born geologist and he saw that Jericho lay on a major fault-line, and that if the people would march around rhythmically with the same beat this would set up vibrations that could be disastrous to the walls and on the 7th day they did this 7 times and they blew the trumpet and they all jumped up and they caused this earthquake to take place.

If God does something, there is no natural cause.  If it is an earthquake how come it was at that time, at that specific moment, on that specific day when that trumpet sounded? When you talk about miracles you can’t explain them. You say “Well. If I can’t explain it and understand it, it can’t happen.” Well, I am sorry. God is not limited by your ability to understand these things. He does things and that’s it. 

So the Supernatural Approach says when you start looking for natural explanations from it, it is basically foolishness. God has done this. It is a miracle. You can’t explain it. You can’t explain how bread multiplies in the feeding of the four and five thousand. It is a miracle. You accept it.

Now note here the idea that history is a closed continuum of cause and effect is denied. There is a cause for this that lies outside of creation.  It is God and according to this view, history is open to God’s activity and cause and effect in the normal sense in which we understand it is violated here. God would not like the word, “violate”.  He created this. The laws are His. If He wants to step in and do something, He doesn’t violate anyone. Simply does what the Sovereign God can do. 

Now notice also here that the intention of the Biblical author is maintained. The authors believe that this is a miracle.  This understanding is in harmony with the author. What the author intends to say is that this particular event is a miraculous event and that is exactly what the author is trying to say. That is exactly what this interpretation does.

So this approach – the Supernatural Approach – the one that churches used for all its centuries is one that takes seriously the event, takes seriously the description of the event, ??? claims that it is a miracle and does not look for a natural cause.  It denies the attitude that history is closed to God and that God cannot enter into it. History is open and what the author, the Biblical author intended by this is maintained. That is the supernatural/traditional approach.

The Rationalist Approach is different. It starts out with the presupposition: the events described here could not have taken place. How do you prove that? You don’t have to prove it.  This is your presupposition. Miracles do not happen. Therefore this couldn’t take place. It is a miracle. However they see behind this a real event in history.  But of course it has to be different than recorded because it is a miracle in the record and we know miracles don’t happen, but something happened.  There is some event out there but it is different.

That means that behind this text is a natural event. If you were there, something really took place.  If you were there at the feeding of the 4 or 5,000, there were 4 or 5,000 and they were fed.  But it was not a miraculous feeding. There must be some other explanation behind this and this other natural cause of the event can and should be learned.

And so what happens at the Feeding of the 5,000 is that we have a little boy who comes forward and says to Jesus, “I know everybody is hungry here. I haven’t much that my mother sent me but here – here is what I have. I will gladly share this with all.”

And then as people saw this and the report of what had happened took about – came about – Abraham and Sarah were convicted by this and they said, “Sarah. You know this Oxford Barbequing here. It is really more than we two can eat. Why don’t we share this with others? And then there were some who had come with these large buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and they said “Really. We got more than we can handle here. Why don’t we share.” And the word went around and everybody began to share and when they shared they found there was more than enough to go around. And all the people were full and satisfied.

You see – there is a real event. But it is an event that can’t be supernatural. It is a natural event in some ways. Let us try to figure out what lies behind this event. The Rationalist Approach. There are all sort of different approaches when you talk about Jesus walking on the water. He was walking along the shore and in the mist that was rising from the sea, Peter didn’t understand that and he said “Well. If Jesus can walk on the ocean, so can I.” But he sank just like a rock, like his name because he was trying the water and Jesus was on shore and Jesus dragged him on shore and saved him.

Or some of the extreme ones. Jesus was walking on a floating raft and Peter misunderstood this. Now notice this affirms that history is closed to the supernatural. There is no openness here. Openness in history is being denied.

As a result the intention of the text – what the author was seeking to teach by this is being violated. What the author meant is not being accepted. It is being rejected outright.

The Rationalist Approach: Real event but not like the Bible records. Not miraculous and affirms that history is closed. Closed continuum of time and space is maintained. No openness to the supernatural and what the author intended is clearly violated because the author is trying to teach that this is a miracle that Jesus performed this great wonderful miracle and showed His glory.

The Rationalist Approach – dominant in the 1700s till about the middle of the 1800s. Very dominant approach. The Rationalists.

The third approach is the Mythical Approach. Now this has similarities surprisingly enough with both the former approaches, I’ll show them to you.

First like the Rationalist Approach, the presupposition is that this event could not have taken place. Why couldn’t it have taken place? Because it is a miraculous event and miracles do not happen. You say well how do you prove that? That’s the presupposition you start with. Now I hope you can see that if you start out with the presupposition “miracles do not happen.” That kind of affects the way you judge the events being recorded in the Bible, because the Bible is loaded with miracles.

Now this recognizes however that the text does proclaim a divine event having taken place. The mystical approach says, “This is talking about a supernatural event – a miracle.” And because of this, the search for a natural cause is irrelevant.

David F. Strauss in his work, The Life of Jesus, 1835, - this book was a bombshell and it presented this Mythical Approach. He looked at all the Rationalist attempts to explain the miracles and show how desperate and how impossible they were.

Floating rafts? Walking on shore? People sharing food? And you have all of these absurd kinds of explanation and he said, “They just made no sense to him.” This is a miracle. The result of this is that there is no supernatural cause. There is no natural cause. What the text is proclaiming is a myth.  Later on when we talk about the interpretation of historical narrative, several weeks from now, we will deal with this a little more fully and explain this in more detail.

The event could not have taken place just like the rationalist said, but the event proclaims a divine event like a supernaturalist proclaimed. A search for a natural cause like the supernaturalist is irrelevant and since there is not a divine cause and since there is not a natural cause, it must be mythical. Now like the rationalist approach, a closed continuum of time and space is maintained. There is no openness to the possibility of God entering into history.

But now this approach says, the deeper intention of the text – the subconscious meaning of the author, that which was welling up in the author’s soul which gave birth to this myth – that’s what we are after.

So meaning is traced to the author, but not to the author’s conscious willed meaning, but to the sub-consciousness of which he was not aware that gave birth to this kind of myth. We will look at that more in detail later on in this semester but please note here why I have defined meaning as involving what the author consciously willed by these shareable symbols. That avoids this subconscious meaning of the author of which he was unaware which the mythical approach tends to emphasize.

Today I would suggest that probably of most of the interpretations by unbelievers involves this mythical approach. The rationalist approach simply ran out of steam and by the 1850s, people began to say, “No. This doesn’t seem likely or possible.”

I have just one page from a work by a man named Eugene B. Borowitz that I want you to look at at this time and want to share it with you. The author is Eugene B. Borowitz, published by Paulist press in 1980. And he talks about contemporary Christologies and I just want to share some of this with you because I think here is a person who is not an evangelical Christian in any sense of the term and he describes very well the basic issues involved.

Turn with me to the first paragraph on page 40, and he talks in the second sentence, first paragraph, page 40:

“Traditionalists feel validated by their sense of authenticity in the received doctrines of their faith.”

We are traditionalists in that sense. Now skip the next sentence. Three lines down. “Liberals on the other hand, authenticate their spiritual stance in the integration of their belief with the general human knowledge of their time.”

Alright skip the next sentence. Next three lines.

“In our time, the central issue dividing the two groups is whether God or humankind is essentially the creator of religion. Conservatives say that religion is God given. IT comes down from heaven. It is revealed.  The liberals say ‘No. Science, our wisdom and knowledge is the author and origin of our religion.’”

Next paragraph. Page 40,

“Traditionalists and liberals have different standards of truth. From a philosophical point of view theirs’ is an epistemological disagreement.”

Skip the next bracketed four lines.

“Within a religion, as between religions, the debate between traditionalists and liberals, ultimately reduces itself to a disagreement over how one is to know what is true. Is tradition, centered about God reasonably independent of modern thought. Or does contemporary experience centered about human experience, science, tests, experiments and so forth – does contemporary experience fundamentally determine what we should believe.”

Last line.

“For a liberal of one faith – that is me Borowitz – to criticize a traditionalist of another faith such as Karl Barth or vice versa is properly speaking, not have an interreligious discussion at all. It is rather to criticize a faith being described in terms of one epistemology by a different epistemology.”

Next paragraph.

“In the case of the resurrection, there is as good as no difference between liberal Jews and liberal Christians in evaluating the adequacy of traditionalist Christian arguments for its historicity.

And then the very - last four lines of that paragraph. 

“The disagreement of the liberal Jew with traditional Christians is not essentially because the Judaism of the liberal Jews but because of their liberalism. That is their human oriented epistemology. Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians can have religious discussion. Liberal Jews and liberal Christians can have religious discussions.”

But the liberal of one cannot have a religious discussion with a conservative of the other, because their discussion ultimately and fundamentally is an epistemological one. How does one know truth?

So if you want to talk about the resurrection of Jesus, if you are talking to a conservative Jew, you can talk about the evidence for the resurrection. You have a discussion as to whether that evidence is convincing or not. But for a conservative Christian to talk about the resurrection of Jesus to a liberal Jew or to a liberal Christian is not a religious discussion at all. Because they have already determined apart from any evidence that there was no resurrection. They start out with that. So if you want to interact, you have to interact with that epistemology.

So many times, I think we are trying to have an apologetic and our apologetic is trying to deal with the historical evidence for a resurrection which can’t happen in their mind. You need an epistemological discussion. How do we know truth? What does it require to take for you to accept a miracle? For instance if a person said “There is no evidence in the world that would convince me of a miracle.” Well then don’t try to convince him of the resurrection. It doesn’t make any sense.

What you might say then – “It is amazing how fundamentalistic you are. I am much more liberal than that. I am open to look at historical evidence and the irony of this is that as a conservative Christian I am really more open minded than a radical liberal, because I would say, “Let us talk about the resurrection. Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t.”  Let us look at the evidence. You are not willing to make that conclusion. You start out, “It didn’t happen.”  There is nothing in the world that can ever convince me it happened. Now which sounds more open minded?

I think we as evangelical Christians are much more open minded in that area. Now remember, this is being said by a liberal Jew. And he words it so well. If you want inter-religious discussions, they are by people who start out with the same presuppositions. If you want a philosophical discussion on epistemology, then you deal with the presuppositions that you bring to your study.

I asked you to read the Rudolph Bultmann article on Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible? It is a question. How does he answer? Yes or no? The answer is both ways, that’s right.

Yes, it is possible if you don’t presume the results of your outcome. No if you mean that you simply approach it neutrally and you don’t have any presuppositions with it. There are a number of things he says in the article that are interesting. He refers to 1 Corinthians 9:9 where Paul quotes an Old Testament passage which says, you shall not muzzle an ox as he treads out the grain and says, that refers to ministers being able to receive and live off the Gospel they preach and Bultmann says, “No. It doesn’t  talk about ministers. It talks about oxen as they are grinding out the grain.” 

Well, I wonder if Paul might see something that Bultmann was not seeing and that is that the meaning of that statement may have implications.  And the meaning of a statement like that I think is clearly that if animals work and should deserve some of the labor of their works, how much more should those who are God’s servants live off this way. And so his ridiculing of that I think loses sight of the fact that this is a legitimate kind of implication.

Now he says “Yes. We have to have presuppositions.” Do you have a presupposition or any presupposition when you interpret the Bible?

It is true. Ok. What else?

God exists. Alright?

Language is intelligible – that the events recorded in Scripture are true and took place. You can understand it. That we should aim for the author’s intended meaning.

No text. When you open the Bible, just remember I want to be interpreted by what I said originally by this word. You don’t hear that. That is something you bring to a text. Now he brings some presuppositions and we need to know what the presuppositions are and here we go back to Borowitz and his view of the liberal.

He says it belongs to the historical method of course, that a text is to be interpreted according to the rules of grammar and the meaning of words. Exactly.  In other words a text is to be interpreted in light of – let us use one of our expressions – the _____ … we should interpret the text according to the norms of language and then specifically the utterance right?
No problem with that. You are right on. Well there are a lot of people who don’t do that. They are not interested in an author’s meaning, they allegorize, they read into text meanings and so forth.

So here is a traditional approach that I think all of the Reformers would say “Absolutely.” And the rules of grammar and the meaning of words mean the rules of the grammar that they use and the meaning of the words in their day. Alright. That’s fine.

Now he also says that we need to apply this Historical Method but here now is the definition of the Historical Method that parts the waters. The Historical Method includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect. This closed-ness means that the continuum of historical happenings cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural transcendent powers and that therefore there is no miracle in this sense of the word.

Such a miracle would be an event – an event whose cause did not lie within history. Now that is the presupposition that Bultmann sets forward. It is the presupposition of all liberal approaches to the Bible.  He says you must start with this before you open the text to the text. This is what you start with.  Now if you start with this, should it be surprising where you come out. It is predetermined.

Now that was the dominating view in Germany in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s – it is still the dominating approach. We have here last year, Dr. Peter Stuhlmacher who had retired here from Tubingen. He was the disciple –finest pupil of Ernst Kaseman who was a leading Bultmannian. When Kaseman retired, his chair was given to Peter Stuhlmacher and Peter Stuhlmacher then gave as is traditional in Germany, his opening address as to his conception of what he waNew Testaments to do in occupying this chair. As the tradition was Ernst Kaseman walked down and sat in the front row.

Peter Stuhlmacher stated in his address, “I believe we need to take an approach to the Bible, an approach of openness to the text. Kaseman stood up and walked out.”

There is a world of difference. Two totally different worlds. If you are open to the supernatural, you are in one camp. If you are closed, you are in another. It is like taking two radical forks on the way and this is the fork of the presupposition you take. And if you are over here and you talk to someone over there, you are not talking to one another. If you want to talk to each other, you have to talk back here and you talk about your presuppositions.

Remember what Borowitz said and remember what Bultmann said. Ok.

Biblical Training

The BiblicalTraining app gives you access to 2,300 hours of instruction (129 classes and seminars). Stream the classes, or download and listen to them offline. Share classes via social media, email, and more.