Tuesday, September 22, 2015
The story of what just happened to me last night could be added to the chapters in the back of Eric Metaxas' book Miracles as another example of what he believes that word describes.
I loved Metaxas' book about Bonhoeffer so much that I was thrilled to see this new one at my local library a month or so ago, and I checked it out. I was not so thrilled when I saw some of the content, and have often thought of writing a review of it here on my blog, even to the point of renewing the book a couple times. But I never got around to doing that, and got a notice from the library that it was due the next day and couldn't be renewed anymore, so I grabbed it out of my pile and set it on my desk to remind me to take it back in the morning.
Then the really "miraculous" stuff started happening. I was preparing to teach a class for that next day at a local school and one of the topics raised in the textbook was the different opinions among Christians about whether miracles still happen or not. Thinking through how I would present both sides of that debate made me think of the Metaxas book, which happened to be sitting on my desk in front of me, and made me think again about writing something. Then during a break from my prep I saw a controversial tweet by Metaxas that someone had posted on Facebook, where he quoted Bonhoeffer as saying that every sermon should have "a shot of heresy" and said that he was about to interview the (heretical) author of The Shack on his new book. Which made me think even more about Miracles and convinced me to finally write about it. If I used the kind of language that appears in the book, I would say God gave me this miracle of amazing coincidences and unmistakable supernatural impressions to get me to write this article. So if you don't like what I say, you'll have to blame Him, because He spoke to me and led me to do it through these miraculous signs and promptings, etc.
I don't talk like that, actually, and that's why I didn't like parts of the book. Many of Metaxas' general thoughts about miracles are good, and I agreed with the whole section defending the ones depicted in Scripture. But there are problems with his discussions of modern day miracles, which unfortunately makes much of the book problematic. One of those problems is that he summarily dismisses (in one paragraph) the view of many Christians who do not believe that all the kinds of miracles depicted in the Bible occur today, and he misrepresents them too. On page 72 he describes such Christians as "dispensationalists," but if he would have taken even a modicum of time and effort to look into this further, he would have found out that many "cessationists" are not dispensationalists. In fact, most of the teachers I find persuasive from that perspective are not dispensational, and I myself am not. (See my book Decisions, Decisions at the link on the right for my own discussion of the issue.)
But the biggest problem with the book is that Metaxas hasn't done enough careful work in discerning and understanding the issue of miracles itself. He fails to distinguish (especially in his example chapters at the end) between the "remarkable providences" that God does all the time (and at all times) and the "signs and wonders" that He has only done at specific times in history to usher in new eras of Divine revelation and validate the messengers who delivered it (see Hebrews 1:1-2 and 2:3-4). What happened to me last night is an example of the former, as are many of the examples Metaxas records in the final chapters. But many of the miracles depicted in Scripture are unique and unrepeatable today, precisely because they were intended to be "signs" pointing to the unique and unrepeatable phenomenon of new Scriptural revelation being delivered by God to His people.
Ironically, Metaxas makes a good case for this idea himself on pages 18-19, though he doesn't seem to recognize the impact it should have on his understanding elsewhere:
"The parting of the Red Sea is another example [like the resurrections from the dead] of how atypical and staggering such things were at the time they occurred. God very much meant it to be so. If the Red Sea parted every few years it would have meant nothing when it parted 3,500 years ago so that the Israelites could escape the approaching Egyptian soldiers. We could then regard its parting just in time for the Israelites to escape Pharaoh's army as a happy coincidence of timing. But since the Red Sea never parts of its own accord--it is many hundreds of feet deep where the Israelites would have crossed--we may conclude that God was intentionally doing something inexplicably and toweringly attention-getting. That was plainly the point of it. It is not in any way presented in the pages of Exodus as something that might be taken for granted. It was meant to be taken--and was taken--as epochal, as a hinge in the history of the world."
Compare that to a story Metaxas tells in his example chapter called "The Power of God." in which a friend of his felt a strong impression in a worship service to lay hands on his pastor and "suddenly began to feel what he very distinctly describes as 'a warm sphere' emanating from the center of his stomach. Brad says that he uses the word 'sphere' specifically and deliberately, because it wasn't a vague, 'gooey' feeling. 'No,' he says, 'this was an actual sphere, a ball, an orb that I could tangibly feel.' He describes it as 'warm, round, and pulsating.' Then, while this was happening, he became aware of his prayer for the pastor 'taking on a life of its own.'"
In contradiction to his cogent explanation of the uniqueness of the biblical "signs and wonders," Metaxas believes that the parting of the Red Sea and his friend's worship experience are both miracles, and uses the same word to describe both. And that is the problem with many of the miracles he describes in the last section of the book... I won't deny that people experience such things, but I would call them "remarkable providences" that God does constantly in the lives of His people, rather than using the same terms the Bible reserves for "atypical and staggering" things like bodily resurrections and the Red Sea.
Other examples in that last section of the book, however, raise another concern I have about Metaxas' apparent lack of discernment. He mentions earlier in the book that Satan and demons can do "signs and wonders" as well, but he doesn't seem to realize that could be happening in some of the more obviously supernatural events relayed in his examples (especially when the people involved may be under the influence of false doctrine, like his Roman Catholic friends). Some of these fantastic occurrences may have been merely imagined, of course, because our minds are extremely complex and can convince us of unreal experiences (take dreams, for example). But there are supernatural powers at work other than God, and according to Scripture his enemies actually have a penchant for "signs and wonders" (Matthew 24:24, Mark 13:22, 2 Thessalonians 2:9, Revelation 15:13-14, 16:13-14.)
I know these issues are difficult to fully understand and explain, and that my understanding and explanations may create even more questions than they answer. So in humble recognition of that difficulty, let me end this discussion by throwing out an idea in the form of a question. I've been thinking along these lines lately, especially after studying the passages I just mentioned in Revelation, but I realize I might be missing something and may need someone to correct me...
Are there any New Testament prophecies that say or imply that God will do "signs and wonders" after the Scriptures have been completed? In other words, the NT writers made numerous predictions of things that would happen after the time they were writing. Whether those things would happen soon after they wrote or long after depends on our interpretation, of course, but everyone agrees they were predicting future events beyond the time when the Scriptures were written. And although they predict a lot of "signs and wonders" happening by the power of Satan and his demons, I don't see any prophecies saying that God would be doing those things during the church age. On the contrary, I think other passages imply that He would not be doing the same kinds of miracles any longer (1 Corinthians 13:8, Colossians 2:18, Hebrews 2:3-4). Obviously those "cessationist" proof texts are much disputed, but I'm wondering if the lack of future prophecy about Divine "signs and wonders," coupled with the predictions about demonic "signs and wonders," might corroborate the idea that the only ones occurring during the church age will be counterfeit ones that are the result of either demonic or self deception. And when you study church history, it does seem that most of the movements and individuals who strongly emphasized "signs and wonders" have been theologically heterodox or questionable at best. Remember, please, that I'm not referring here to the many "remarkable providences" that all Christians have experienced, but claims of performing "signs and wonders" just as Christ and the apostles did.
If the Bible does not predict God doing more such "signs and wonders" beyond the New Testament, but repeatedly says counterfeit ones will occur, we should at the very least be extremely careful and even skeptical about those that are reported.