Andrew Murray and the debate on miracles

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In my paper on “The hermeneutics of faith” published recently in LitNet Akademies (Brümmer 2017), I argued that religious belief is a hermeneutical rather than a cognitive phenomenon. It is not a kind of knowledge but a kind of interpretation of the things we know. In this paper I illustrate this point with reference to the debate on the credibility of Biblical miracles that Andrew Murray had in 1869–1870 with the Cape modernist theologians D.P. Faure, J.J. Kotze and T.F. Burgers. Murray defended the credibility of the biblical miracle narratives, whereas the modernists rejected it. This debate is interesting because of its implications not only for the nature of miracles but also for the nature of belief in miracles as well as the nature of religious belief in general.

According to Faure a miracle is “an event that can be viewed as a violation of all natural laws, both known and unknown”. Initially it seems that Murray accepts this definition. As we shall see below, the problem with this definition is that miracles are more than mere violations of natural law, and furthermore that not all miracles violate natural law.

The modernists defended a worldview that today is known as panentheism, which sees the world as part of the Divine. According to the modernists this entailed that the natural order is immutably fixed, because God is immutable. This determinism excludes the possibility of miracles because this would violate the immutable natural order.

Murray rejected this determinism and argued that the modernists failed to distinguish between necessary and contingent truths. Since the natural order is contingent and not necessary, events contrary to natural law are in principle possible. On this point Murray is closer to the current view in modern physics. Since the introduction of quantum theory, natural laws are considered to be statistical rather than deterministic. They enable us to predict the relative likelihood of future events, but not their necessity. Scientific predictions are therefore always fallible. As Karl Popper puts it, they are conjectures that are always subject to falsification.

Murray also rejects the modernists’ deterministic view of God, which according to him follows from a misinterpretation of Divine immutability. More seriously, it has disastrous implications for Christian spirituality. It excludes the free agency of both God and human beings. Since free agency is defining for personhood, it also excludes a spirituality of loving personal fellowship with God. By definition love cannot be coerced. It can only be freely bestowed. Human persons must therefore be able to respond freely to the love of God, and God must be free to bestow his love on human beings.

The question now is whether God’s involvement in the world is limited to miraculous interventions that violate the natural order. If so, such interventions must be very rare. If God were regularly to violate the natural order, the natural order would cease to exist. Furthermore, it is possible that events occur that we cannot explain in terms of natural law. However, we can never be certain that future knowledge of the circumstances will not enable us to explain them in terms of natural law. Would they then cease to count as Divine interventions? This view also does not account for the way in which believers pray for God’s involvement in their lives. Most prayers are for events that are in accordance with the natural order. Clearly then, miracles in the sense of Divine actions in the world cannot be limited to Divine interventions that violate the natural order.

At this point R.F. Holland makes a useful distinction between “violation miracles” and “coincidence miracles”. Violation miracles are felicitous events that seem to be contrary to the natural order, whereas coincidence miracles are felicitous but unforeseen coincidences. However, to count as miracles, both these kinds events must be viewed as Divine acts in which God reveals his love for us.

If we reject a deterministic view of the world, violation miracles are logically possible but very unlikely. Thus in David Hume’s classic argument against miracles, he states that they are so unlikely that it would be highly unreasonable to believe them.

On this Ninian Smart writes:

Image Hume being present at someone’s rising from the dead. What does he say to himself? “Impossible, gentlemen, impossible. This is contrary to all my previous experience of mortality, and to the testimony of countless human beings. It would be a lesser miracle that my eyes deceive me that that this resurrection should have occurred.” Well, perhaps of course his eyes do deceive him. Let him test them. Let him investigate minutely the resurrected body. Can he still doubt? (Smart 1964:34)

If in such a case Hume would have to admit that someone has really risen from the dead, he is still not obliged to interpret this as a Divine miracle. He can also look on it as an inexplicable anomaly and leave it at that. The same applies to coincidence miracles. We need not interpret them as Divine actions but merely take them as unforeseen felicitous coincidences, and leave it at that.

From this it is clear that an extraordinary event can only be seen as a Divine miracle if we interpret it as such in the light of faith. It is only with the eyes of faith that we can experience an event as a miracle. According to Murray, this also applies to the revelatory character of the Bible as the Word of God. Without faith, the Bible is merely a book and not The Divine Word. This explains why so many people fail to recognise the revelatory character of the Bible. In brief, without faith we are unable to recognise divine miracles or revelations in nature or in the Bible.

In my paper on the hermeneutics of faith (Brümmer 2017) I argued that believers look on the world of empirical perception with the eyes of faith. They interpret their sensory perceptions of the world in terms of the comprehensive framework of interpretation handed down to them in a religious tradition. For believers this interpretation bestows meaning and significance on the world. Non-believers perceive the same world, but do not interpret it in terms of faith. The difference is not in the perception but in the interpretation. The interpretation bestows meaning on the perception. Belief in miracles is therefore primarily a hermeneutical and not a cognitive phenomenon.

In his debate with the modernists Andrew Murray wanted first of all to argue for the possibility of miracles. But after that he also wanted to show that they really occurred. To this end he wanted to show that Jesus really rose from the dead. In doing this he makes an unexpected move. Instead of appealing to the Gospel narratives about the empty tomb and the appearances to the disciples, Murray appeals to the apostle Paul’s experience on the way to Damascus. Although Murray probably held a relatively literal view on the empty tomb, it was not his primary aim to prove this. Rather, he argued that Paul really encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, and therefore that Jesus was really alive and had therefore risen from the dead. This strategy has important implications for the way in which we are to understand the resurrection of Jesus.

1. Both Paul and his travelling companions on the way to Damascus saw a strong light and heard a loud sound. However, it was only Paul who took this to be the voice of Jesus calling him to stop persecuting the Christians and to preach the gospel to the heathens. The difference between Paul and his companions was not in what they perceived but in how they interpreted this perception.

2. Paul was well acquainted with the framework of interpretation of both the Christians and their Jewish opponents, and he was a staunch adherent of the latter. His experience caused him to radically change the way he looked on the world and on Jesus. It was, therefore, a conversion experience.

3. Paul claimed that he really encountered the risen Lord on the way to Damascus. However, this encounter was not with an empirically observable person with a material body. According to Murray the risen Lord had a spiritual body that was no longer subject to the limitations of a material body like ours. However, this body was not merely a subjective vision of Paul’s. It was an objective reality.

4. In order to argue for this, Paul appeals to the spirituality of personal fellowship with God in Jesus. Such fellowship is spiritual and not physical. But this assumes that Jesus was really alive. We cannot have spiritual fellowship with a mere subjective vision nor with someone who is not alive but dead and buried. Hence it is a necessary assumption that is constitutive for the spirituality of Christian believers that Jesus is really alive and risen from the dead. For Murray this is the essence of Christianity.

Keywords: Andrew Murray; Cape modernism; freedom and determinism; hermeneutics of faith; miracles; resurrection of Christ

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Andrew Murray en die debat oor wondergeloof

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