Are the Biblical miracles just “a foretaste”, given to the early church? Can we expect miracles today?
Understanding the Biblical miracles as an eschatological “foretaste” is helpful when considering the “consummated kingdom” to which they point, but such an understanding of miracles does not resolve the question of whether they are to be experienced today. This question is vital For someone who is suffering an illness or injury! Correctly setting their expectation is the quintessence of pastoral care.
Probably the most important assertion in this essay is, “As pastors, we must reclaim ‘miracles’ from the deconstructing work of the scholars, and also from the less-than-Biblical practices of the showmen“. I have seen many people badly hurt from both.
An “Apostolic Age?
Derickson says that Paul’s miraculous healing ministry diminished, possibly to nothing, even before he died:
the evidence examined, especially concerning the men Paul was unable to heal, argues for a decline if not an end, of his ability to perform miracles near the end of his ministry … Paul’s own testimony of being unable to help Epaphroditus, having to leave behind Trophimus, and only offering Timothy medical counsel point to his loss of miracle-working ability.
He goes on to label the claims of modern faith healers as “wrong”.
Elbert argues against that “‘apostolic age’ hermeneutic”, observing that the post-apostolic Luke-Acts narrative provides evidence from Luke’s language that the miraculous events are to be considered normative for Theophilus. This is a counter-argument to Derickson, but does not answer the more general “cessationism”, which often refers to canonisation as the end of the age of miracles.
Brown argues from the cessationist perspective, observing that miraculous events appear to be clustered around the grand salvific works of God in history, of which Christ was the fourth and most recent:
In point of fact, miraculous signs are not uniformly distributed throughout the OT. They are largely grouped in three main periods, … These periods were: (i) The redemption of the people of God from Egypt and their establishment in Canaan; (ii) the conflict with pagan religion under Elijah and Elisha; (iii) the time of Daniel during the exile when the supremacy of Yahweh and the faithfulness of Daniel and his companions were vindicated … The same could be said for the fourth period of miraculous signs, the coming of Jesus and the gospel age.
Wenham describes this view as “reputable” and “a convenient way of explaining the absence of New Testament style miracles”, but he puts it in tension with the expectation of others; that the miracles of Jesus’ ministry “can, should be, and often are, seen now.” Wenham discusses the faith-healing ministry of John Wimber in contrast with Brown’s views, observing that, “John Wimber is right in believing that many Western Christians have absorbed the unbelief of their contemporaries”.
Their “contemporaries”, however, are not exclusively marked by “unbelief”. We find Reiki and similar faith-healing practices in our modern world, Islam wrestles with questions about miracles, and even in the Biblical narrative we find Simon Magus, Pharaoh’s magicians, the Witch of Endor, and countless other “wonder workers”. Tucker says that it is the development of monotheism which has led to wonders outside the orthodox faith being called “black magic”.
The Bible Assumes that God will heal
Shogren makes a detailed critique of James 5:14-16a with respect to divine healing, concluding that “The unspoken assumption is that if God does not heal, it will be out of the ordinary”. He nevertheless distinguishes this kind of healing prayer from Wimber’s “charismatic healings”, as does Derickson:
Almost all evangelicals affirm that God can and does intervene today in miraculous ways. The issue for them, however, is whether He does so through human agents, or whether He sometimes performs miracles in answer to prayer apart from so-called “healers” or miracle workers.
A Moderate View
This represents a more moderate path than either of the extremes: on one hand, spectacular, public, charismatic healing crusades; and on the other, the complete cessation of God’s intervention in daily life.
Similarly in exorcism, the extreme position of denying the existence of demonic possession is as unhelpful as the opposite extreme of insisting that every illness is an evil spiritual presence.
Many people today doubt the reality of demons or demon possession. But Christians who have worked with those caught up in the occult can testify to too many strikingly similar incidents that still take place for such skepticism to prove convincing.
Most healing stories make no mention of demonic influence and very few evil people are portrayed as demonised
Wenham suggests that the key to the tension in these views consists in the premise of Brown’s definition of miracles as constituting a contravention of the natural order, which our eschatological “foretaste” definition possibly implies. The phrase “foretaste of the consummated kingdom” implies a dichotomy between our normal expectations in the “natural” order, and the “supernatural” experience of a “miracle” from a (necessarily) different order. Pre-rationalism thinkers did not conceive of such a dichotomy. Tucker labels the view “anachronistic”:
[The] definition of miracles as breaking the laws of nature is anachronistic. The concept of immutable laws of nature was introduced only in the seventeenth century, thousands of years after the Hebrews had introduced the concept of miracles.
It is generally acknowledged that the concept of physical laws of nature arose in the early modern period, when the longstanding notion of a natural moral law was applied to the material realm. Prior to this, miracles cannot have been understood as events that contravened the laws of nature.
Categories of Miracles
Tucker offers a categorisation of the Biblical miracles, as: resurrections, transmutation of fluids, cure of sicknesses, military victories through divine interventions, and prophesy. His point, as part of a polemic against Hume, is that none of them violates the laws of nature. But he leaves out exorcisms, feeding the 5000, walking on water, and many others which would not so readily fit his argument.
Tucker is not denying that “miracles” ever happened, quite the opposite, but he questions the definition of what constitutes a “miracle”. He points out that winning the lottery is sometimes called “a miracle”, in which case it may not be a “limited foretaste” of anything, just a subjective response to what we interpret as God’s provision.
Limitation of the Eschatological Foretaste view
Understanding miracles only as part of a limited eschatological “foretaste” would tend to affirm the cessationists view, that since such miracles are observed to mainly occur around salvific historical events, the scriptures warning of counterfeits should inform our attitude towards reported miracles today.
However, such a view would deny believers the hope which is promised in James 5:14-16a that God will heal. It similarly dampens any anticipation of God’s provision in other areas, which Jesus explicitly told us to expect. It allows for hope only in the future consummation to which the miracles point, discouraging prayer about our immediate needs. The “foretaste” understanding, by itself, is therefore potentially unhelpful as a pastoral foundation. It can obscure the incomparably valuable privilege we have in prayer, in that we have received the right, as children, to ask for, and to anticipate good gifts (Lk 11:13) from God today. Not because of a future event, but because of an historical one: The Advent-Crucifixion-Ascension-Pentecost event.
Where is our faith?
Our faith is to rest, not merely on the “promises of God”, but on the faithful God who made those promises (Heb 10:23), and who does not change (Heb 13:8). If we teach and encourage this approach, then our congregation will appreciate that we can, and indeed ought to, pray wholeheartedly with an expectation of God’s provision, mercy and compassion. But that we also must accept that God’s will is not always to remove suffering. Sometimes He wishes to journey with us in suffering, and bless us there. Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, as well as Matt 5:10-11, Romans 5:1-5, Philippians 4:11-13, and many similar passages make no sense if we see God’s blessing merely as an absence of suffering.
The Pastoral Imperative
As pastors, we must reclaim “miracles” from the deconstructing work of the scholars, and also from the less-than-Biblical practices of the showmen. The Lord has a people and He provides for them now, as ever before. That provision sometimes appears mundane, sometimes “miraculous”, and sometimes it even appears inadequate, but the distinction is our own. Our faith is to remain in Christ, accepting His grace as we suffer, even while praying expectantly for relief, trusting that God is being glorified over all. The temporal sicknesses and other personal needs of the congregation will always exist, and we must relieve them in practical ways, even as we pray for divine relief and celebrate when it is granted. This is our corporate spiritual role as the ‘body of Christ’.
The Purpose of Miracles
St John describes the miracles, not as a “foretaste”, but as a means to an end, which is “that you may believe”, and therefore “have life” (Jn 20:31). Having responded to acute practical needs in deed and in prayer, the best service that we can provide our congregations is in discerning and expounding all of the ways in which God has been working among them through their corporate journey-of-faith, so that they may know the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom He sent (Jn 17:3).
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