by Craig Branch

When most people consider the discipline of apologetics, responding to the objections of non-Christians comes to mind. And indeed that is an important application, but apologetics is for the believer as well, on several levels. Apologetics is for believers who may have doubts or questions, helping them find the answers they seek and learning to understand not only what we believe but why we believe it. Additionally, it also helps provide discernment in the face of heretical doctrine.

The theme of this Areopagus Journal is miracles. The objective is to explain the apologetic significance of miracles as it applies to both non- believers and believers, as well as respond to objections that skeptics have raised to miracle- claims.

 

DEFINING  MIRACLES

It is important that we start with a clear definition of a miracle. There are several ways in which they have been defined. One might characterize a miracle as some event or manifestation that creates a deep sense of aesthetic awe, wonder, or reverence. It doesn’t have to be outside of “science.” It could be something as common as the birth of a baby, for example. This is usually not what apologists and skeptics of miracles mean by “miracle,” though.

The more common definition is a supernatural event or “a special act of God that interrupts the natural course of events.” 1 So understood, in miraculous events the laws of nature are suspended by the intentional action of God. This is a useful definition of miracles and it will play a significant role in the articles throughout this journal.

Alternatively, an event need not run counter to the laws of nature in order to count as miraculous. It might be seen as a special act of God because of  its context.

Examples would be the sudden remission of  cancer, with or without therapy  or  treatment, after a Christian or group prays for a  healing. Natural processes may have been involved but the context and timing of the person’s recovery signals God’s intervention. I had such an experience with my mother who was diagnosed with bone cancer in her back and the Lord  led  me to  pray and fast for her for three days. When the surgeons opened her up, the cancer was gone but scar tissue was on the bones. They were predictably shocked. One doctor said that there was a remotely possible natural explanation, but a better one was that it was a “miracle.”

Miracles defined in these latter two ways are our concern in this issue of Areopagus Journal. 

Miracles and Apologetics

Miracles have traditionally been utilized in Christian apologetics to provide evidences and affirmation for the existence of an all -knowing, all powerful God and the authenticity of His revelation in Christ and the Bible. For example, when one considers the centerpiece of Christianity, the bodily resurrection of Christ (1 Cor.15:3- 19), the importance of miracles as proof and vindication of Christianity should be obvious. Peter used the message and fact of the miraculous, including the resurrection, to open the eyes and convict the hearts of the Jews (Acts 2:22- 37). He  also  shared the event  of the resurrection to the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:34-45). And later Paul used the factual proof of the resurrection in his apologetic to the Greek philosophers at Areopagus (Acts 17:30-34).

The many miracles of Jesus (e.g., raising Lazarus  and  others  from  the  dead, healing many diseases, walking on water,  calming the storm, supernatural knowledge, feeding the multitudes, future predictions) all give significant attestation of the purposeful intervention of  God in His creative order.  In addition, we have Christ’s disciples and apostles performing miracles, attesting  to the validity of the Christian message. We read of numerous claims of healing and raising the dead.

Of course skeptics naturally question the validity of those miracles, viewing them as either superstitious nonsense, manipulations of  nature, concoctions of con-artists, or as otherwise having natural explanations.  Skeptics  also argue that we simply could not have enough evidence for a miracle to override  our confidence in the regularity and orderliness of nature. Some point out that other religions also claim miraculous attestation, yet  Christians claim that those religions are false. Thus, noted atheist David Hume argued that “miracles” in conflicting religions  are self canceling.

We intend  to  respond  to  these  kinds of objections to miracles in this issue of Areopagus Journal. In our first article, ARC’s Steve Cowan contributes, “Discerning the Voice of God,” in which he explains in more detail the role of miracles in apologetics and responds to Hume’s charge that miracle claims from competing religions cancel each other out.

Christian philosopher and apologist Dr. Winfried Corduan responds to other skeptical objections, including those of David Hume and Antony Flew, in “Miracles and Their Omniscient Critics.” As you will see, most arguments against miracles claim that we could not have enough evidence for them to override our confidence in the laws of nature, or that science somehow makes miracles unlikely or belief in them irrational. Corduan aptly shows that all such arguments require that the skeptic be omniscient-which, of  course, is impossible. We must also point out that the inconsistency between miracles and nature only applies to one specific  “scientific” worldview,  a mechanistic view that claims everything   that occurs happens only according to rigid scientific laws which totally  control  everything.  Perhaps we should, with tongue in cheek, reply that it is the scientific naturalists  who demonstrate the most “faith” in order to believe the plausibility of macro-evolution.

Do Miracles Still Happen?

When it comes to apologetics, the primary concern regarding miracles are one that occurred in the past. Given that God gave the prophets and apostles miraculous attestation for their revelations, the apologist seeks to confirm that the miracles connected with that revelation actually occurred.. Nevertheless, there is a secondary issue of great importance to the Christian community.

Some Christians believe that the miraculous sign gifts described in Ephesians 4: 11. and  1 Corinthians 12-14 continue in the church today and  will  continue  until Christ  comes  again. These  Christians  are called continuationists. Other Christians believe that those miraculous gifts were designed to function only during the foundational  period  of  the  Church  (cf.  Eph. 2:20) and ceased with the death of the apostles. These  Christians are  called  cessationists. Both groups of Christians agree that God can and  does  manifest  miracles  today,  but they disagree on whether God endows contemporary Christians with miraculous gifts as he did the biblical prophets and apostles.  Closely related to this question is whether or not prophets and/ or apostles exist today as well.

Given the  significance  of  this debate in the church today, we have decided to include a point/counterpoint exchange between two theologians on the question of the continuation of miracles. Dr. Sam Storms represents the continuationists position, arguing that God does still bestow  miraculous gifts on his people today. Dr. Sam Waldron represents the cessationists position, arguing that the miraculous gifts are no longer given.  Each presenter also provides a response to the other’s article.

The main concern  of the cessationists is that continuationism undermines the sufficiency of Scripture and opens the door for people to be deceived and misled in life decisions. Continuationists, on the other hand, assert that to not seek after and exercise the miraculous gifts quenches the Spirit and hinders the advance of the Kingdom.

Regardless of one’s stance on the continuationism/cessationism debate, we can all agree that the greatest miracle of all is that God had mercy on you and me, overruled our rebellion towards Him, suffered an awful death on the cross, and was miraculously raised for our salvation. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!  Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God would die for me!

Notes

1 Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books: 1999). 450.