Doctrine of Creation (Part 14)

December 03, 2012     Time: 00:19:30

We have been talking in our lesson about the doctrine of providence and we looked at God’s general providence in governance of the world. Now we are looking at God’s special providential acts called miracles. You will remember I distinguished between a miracle and what I’ve called a special providence. A special providence would be an extraordinary event which comes about because of God’s governance of the world but doesn’t involve any supernatural intervention on God’s part. Rather, it has completely natural causes whereas a miraculous event will involve the intervention of God into the sequence of natural causes in the world.

Scriptural Data

Clearly, the Bible is a book of miracles. Over and over again in both the Old and the New Testament, you have stories of God’s miraculous acts in history.

In the Old Testament, these tend to center around the Exodus in which God brings his people out of bondage in Egypt and delivers them and then around the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Those tend to be the two foci, as it were, of God’s miraculous acts in the Old Testament. The story of Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 is a classic example where Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to perform a miraculous act and they are unable to do so. Then Elijah calls upon God to reveal himself in this miraculous way and he does so thereby vindicating Yahweh’s existence as the true God.

In the New Testament, you have a sequence of extraordinary miracles associated with Jesus of Nazareth. God’s self-revelation in his Son, Jesus Christ, is attended with miraculous acts on Jesus’ part. The story of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9:30-33 is a great example of the use of miracles in the New Testament in the life of Jesus. You will remember in this story, Jesus heals the man who was born blind and then they keep interrogating him and his parents to see if this was really a miraculous act that Jesus had done. In John 9:30-33,

The man answered, “Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

There you see a perfect illustration of how miracles serve to warrant the message and the proclamation of Jesus and his being a special revelation from God.

So, in the Bible, both the New Testament and the Old Testament, we have stories of God’s miraculous intervention in history.

19th Century Collapse of Belief In Miracles

Unfortunately, the traditional belief in miracles collapsed during the 19th century. I want to say a word about what led to the collapse of the belief in miracles in the modern age.

In his Wahrheit der christlichen Religion (“On the Truth of the Christian Religion”) which was published in 1758, the Göttingen professor of theology Gottfried Less said that there are two steps in establishing that a miracle has occurred. The first step is to prove that the event occurred – that some event actually took place in history. Then the second step was to show the miraculous character of that event.[1] During the ensuing century, the 19th century, the belief in both of these steps laid out by Less came to be regarded with skepticism and that led to a general collapse in the belief in the reliability of the Gospel stories in German theology.

The first to go was actually the second step – the miraculous character of the event. German rationalists in the late 17th and early 18th century were willing, in fact sometimes they were eager, to affirm the historicity of the events recorded in the Gospels. They agreed that these events actually happened. But they went to great pains to explain away these events naturally without any appeal to God’s miraculous intervention. Given that events with supernatural causes do not occur, they felt that there just had to be some natural explanation of these events. So, for example, the theologian Karl Bahrdt – and this is not the same Karl Barth that is the famous 20th century theologian, this was an 18th century theologian – in his book explains the feeding of the five thousand by saying that Jesus and the disciples had a secret stash of bread that they had concealed and then somebody would hand it out to Jesus who would then keep handing it out to the crowds and this is the way they fed the five thousand people. Jesus walking on the water was explained by a floating platform just beneath the surface of the water so that he appeared to be walking across the surface of the lake. As for his raising certain people from the dead, well, these people were actually simply in comas – they were comatose – and Jesus aroused them back to waking consciousness and thereby prevented them from being buried prematurely.

This last natural explanation provided the key to explaining Jesus’ own resurrection. By the end of the 18th century, the old Conspiracy Hypothesis of the English and German deists – that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus and then lied about the resurrection – had pretty much lost conviction. Nobody really believed in that old conspiracy theory anymore so German rationalists had to come up with some better natural explanation of the resurrection. This they found in the so-called Apparent Death Theory. Jesus wasn’t really dead as a result of his crucifixion. He was merely unconscious – he was comatose – and he was taken down from the cross still alive, placed in the tomb, and there he either revived on his own or sometimes this could be combined with conspiratorial overtones to say that they hoaxed the death of Jesus in order to convince people that he was in fact the Messiah. It is a sad note of history, I think, that the so-called father of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, actually embraced this theory of the resurrection of Jesus. Yes, Schleiermacher believed in the Apparent Death Theory. He remained rationalistic with respect to the question of miracles. Miracles do not happen and therefore in his lectures of 1832 on the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History (notice the division there – the Christ of Faith is one thing, the Jesus who actually lived in history is another) he accepts the Apparent Death Theory saying that it is unimportant whether the death and resurrection of Jesus were real or merely apparent. He thought that Jesus just apparently died, he was resuscitated and then he continued to live with the disciples for some time afterwards. That was the explanation that German rationalists gave for miracles – the natural explanation school of thinking.[2]

Just three years after Schleiermacher’s lectures in 1832, a work appeared which sounded the death knell for this natural explanation hermeneutic. This was the book by David Friedrich Strauss called The Life of Jesus,[3] 1835. Strauss explained the life of Jesus and the miraculous elements in it as the product of mythology. The application of mythology to the Gospels, as a category, meant that Strauss denied not simply the miraculous nature of these events but he denied that the events ever occurred. So the first step of Less’ argument for establishing a miracle was now going by the board as well. The rationalists granted that the events had occurred but sought to explain them naturally. Strauss said that the events never occurred; rather, the Gospel accounts are the result of myth, legend and editorial activity on the part of the evangelists. Strauss rejected both the conspiracy theory of the deists as well as the natural explanation school of the rationalists. But he would not accept the traditional view of the supernaturalists that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. Instead, he said that the Gospel accounts are historically unreliable. The Gospels are not historically accurate records of what happened; rather, they are the product of a long evolution in which the original facts were lost and became overlaid with legend, myth and other editorial additions by the Gospel writers.

It is interesting that Strauss claimed, at least, to operate without any religious or dogmatic presuppositions. He thought that he was a perfectly neutral investigator of the Gospels. He ascribed his neutrality to the influence of his philosophical studies. Because he had studied philosophy he felt he could approach these documents neutrally. When you read Strauss, however, it becomes very apparent that the man obviously did have certain philosophical assumptions which determined the outcome of his work. For example, he presupposed the impossibility of miracles. Strauss was an acknowledged pantheist, that is to say he thought that God and the world are identical – there is no transcendent being, no Creator and Designer beyond the world. In later life, he actually embraced materialism – the material world is all there is. So he proceeded on the same assumption that the rationalists had – miracles are impossible. He said this is not a presupposition that requires proof. You just start with this presupposition; you don’t need to give any proof for it. On the contrary, he thought to affirm miracles are possible is a presupposition that requires proof. When it comes to Jesus’ resurrection, in particular, Strauss says that the idea that God has intervened in the regular course of nature to bring about some miraculous event is, “irreconcilable with enlightened ideas about the relation of God to the world.”[4] If you are enlightened, you will recognize that this is simply impossible. Any supposedly historical account of miraculous events can just be dismissed on the basis of this presupposition. He says, “indeed, no just notion of the true nature of history is possible without a perception of the inviolability of the chain of finite causes, and of the impossibility of miracles.”[5] So, the chain of natural causes he says is inviolable – it cannot be interrupted and therefore miracles are impossible.[6]

Although Strauss rejected the so-called natural explanation hermeneutic of the rationalists, he was no more sympathetic to miracles than they were or the deists. Instead, he adopted the mythological application. This work, The Life of Jesus by Strauss, was a watershed in the critical study of the New Testament. The importance of this work simply cannot be exaggerated. Albert Schweitzer, who wrote a history of the Life of Jesus movement during the 19th century, says that The Life of Jesus by Strauss was a watershed, or a division point, in this movement. He says prior to Strauss the main question that occupied students of the life of Jesus was the problem of miracles – how do you reconcile a historical approach to the Gospels with their miraculous character? But he says, “With the advent of Strauss, this problem found a solution, viz., that these events have no rightful place in history, but are simply mythical elements in the sources.”[7] So by the mid-1860s, Schweitzer says, the problem of miracles has lost all importance. Let me quote from Schweitzer’s book The Quest of the Historical Jesus as it is translated in English published in 1906. This is what Schweitzer says:

That does not mean that the problem of miracle is solved. From the historical point of view it is really impossible to solve it, since we are not able to reconstruct the process by which a series of miracle stories arose, or a series of historical occurrences were transformed into miracle stories, and these narratives must simply be left with a question mark standing against them. What has been gained is only that the exclusion of miracle from our view of history has been universally recognized as a principle of criticism, so that miracle no longer concerns the historian either positively or negatively.[8]

So as a result of Strauss’ influence, the problem of miracles simply disappeared. He says historians looking at the life of Jesus just assumed that they had to take a naturalistic approach and that miracles were impossible and then the question was just explaining them away. So up until the time of Strauss, it was pretty widely recognized that the Gospels were historically reliable accounts of what had happened. These events actually took place. The question was: how do you explain them naturally rather than supernaturally? But, with Strauss, the miraculous events narrated in the Gospels never really took place – they are just myths. The narratives in the Gospels are therefore unhistorical in character.

I would be remiss if I were to leave it at that and not mention that, although Strauss’ mythological approach to the Gospels remained the dominate viewpoint right up until the mid-20th century, there has now occurred what Craig Evans (a New Testament scholar) has called the eclipse of mythology in New Testament studies. Over the last fifty or sixty years, New Testament scholars have come to realize that, in fact, mythology is the wrong category for interpreting the historical Jesus. This has led to, really, an eclipse or abandonment of Strauss’ mythological approach to the Gospels. It still lingers on in certain radical left-wing groups like the Jesus Seminar but, among mainstream New Testament scholarship today, it is recognized by the majority of scholars that Jesus was in fact a miracle worker and exorcist.[9] That is not to say that they agree that these events were supernatural. The second of Gottfried Less’ steps would still need to be established – the miraculous character of the events. But his first step has been reclaimed, I think, against Strauss. It is widely recognized today that Jesus of Nazareth did carry out a ministry of miracle working however you might want to explain these. In fact, he was also an exorcist who cast demons out of people however you might want to explain that. So we have thankfully seen some reversal of this collapse in the belief of miracles. The events themselves, at least, are back on the table once again as a result of the eclipse of mythology in 20th century New Testament studies of the life of Jesus.


Question: You leapt all the way to the 20th century before there was any significant pushback on this. Was there any that you might be aware of that occurred prior to that that was significant enough to make at least a dent in their arguments?

Answer: There have always been persons who have defended the historical reliability of the Gospels. Particularly, English or British New Testament scholarship I think has always been less critical than German scholarship. German scholarship, as you can see from these names, has been the dominate mode in theology and New Testament studies. So, yes, there were these minority voices but in Germany this was really the predominate approach right up through Rudolf Bultmann in the mid-20th century. It really began to collapse in the second half of the 20th century.

Question: Any thoughts on why it is German more than English? Didn’t deism come from England and not Germany?

Answer: There were deists in Germany as well. One of the very first was the one that I mentioned when I talked about Schweitzer and this was this fellow Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768). Reimarus had written a massive manuscript in the late 1600s criticizing the historicity of the Gospels and advocating the Conspiracy Theory. He thought that the disciples enjoyed the easy life of preaching that they had with Jesus during his lifetime so when he was crucified they stole the body out of the grave and lied about his resurrection so that their easy life could go on that they were enjoying. Well, Reimarus never published his book but there was a librarian at the library in Göttingen named G. E. Lessing and Lessing had this manuscript that had been given to him and he began to publish parts of it in Germany as supposedly a manuscript that he had found in the library when in fact it had been given to him, I think, by Reimarus’ daughter. But without letting on who it was by, Lessing was leaking this thing out piecemeal claiming it was something from the library. This caused a huge firestorm in Germany. It was representative of this same deism. You are right – in England that is also true that there was this deist movement. It was also in France. It was really a sort of European-wide phenomenon. There were great responses to these people. The great English apologists at the time wrote responses to the deists and really buried them. But it is an irony of history that it is the critique of miracles by these deists and their progeny that is remembered by history rather than the fantastic critiques of their arguments that were offered by Christian thinkers in these various countries.

Followup: Yes, it seems that this shows how important it is for us to have control or dominance in philosophy. This kind of liberalism that we find here is not really the result of faulty exegesis as it is the result of just bad presuppositions.[10] When we lose the philosophical war then who cares what exegetical arguments we have? We start with naturalism and this is what we get.

Answer: You know, it is exactly this way with the Jesus Seminar. If you read their book The Five Gospels (which is Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Gospel of Thomas) their introduction begins by listing the pillars of modern scholarship and the first one is the presupposition of naturalism and the impossibility of miracles! They just take it, like Strauss did, as given that miracles don’t occur and therefore any reconstruction of who Jesus of Nazareth was has to be a purely naturalistic account. So you are absolutely right about the importance of philosophical thought and presuppositions. We will look at this a little bit more in detail in the next section.

Question: Is this all what is referred to as higher criticism?

Answer: Yes.

Followup: When you read an article on higher criticism, it begins with Less and goes into this? Or does it begin with something earlier?

Answer: It doesn’t begin with Less. I used him as my springboard because he so nicely delineates the two steps in giving a defense of miracles. Prove the event occurred then prove its natural character. But, as I say, where the collapse really began was with these deists like Reimarus and then came along these German rationalists that I have described culminating in the work of Strauss in his Life of Jesus in 1835. But yes this is the beginnings of so-called higher criticism of the New Testament.

Question: How influential was Gottfried Lessing in all of this and his “broad ugly ditch?”

Answer: Tremendously influential. Lessing was influential in releasing Reimarus’ work which created this firestorm. But he was also very influential in the way in which he attempted to supposedly answer Reimarus in a feeble way so as to undermine Christian orthodoxy. What you mention is Lessing is famous for this expression of the “broad ugly ditch.” What is this “broad ugly ditch” that Lessing says he can’t get across. He thought that the truths of religion were necessary truths that you had to know with absolute certainty and conviction. The truths of religion require a total commitment of your life and therefore cannot be based upon uncertain, shifting, historically contingent truths. The truths of religions have to be these sorts of a priori certainties. But, what we have in the Gospels for the life of Jesus, as shown by Reimarus and others, are these highly contingent historical events for which the evidence is slim or shifting and so how can you base your life and truths of religion upon these contingent, fallible, uncertain truths of history? That is the broad, ugly ditch he said he can’t get across – “How can I give a historical justification for these truths of religion?” That was very influential. It completely undermines the whole project of historical apologetics.

Followup: What was Lessing? Was he a deist?

Answer: Yes, I think it would be fair to call him a deist. I think that is right.

Followup: Did anybody attempt to answer Lessing during his day?

Answer: There were lots of replies to him. Less himself would be an example of a prominent German apologist who was writing against him. There were others as well but these have faded from my memory by now so I am not sure whom else one might mention at that early period. Certainly there were very great German historical defenders later, for example, Friedrich August Tholuck (1799-1877) was one of the greatest of these. He was a professor of theology in Halle which was a hotbed of German rationalism when he came along.[11] Tholuck was a champion of Christian orthodoxy and the historical reliability of the New Testament and achieved great fame and success in his work in defending the historicity of the Gospels.

Question: I wonder if Strauss or any of these other rationalists presented any evidence or arguments for dismissing the historical accounts. It seems that they sort of vaguely dismiss them and then go on as if they didn’t happen. But nowadays the historical arguments are quite strong – it seems like they would need to present some evidence against it.

Answer: This is a wonderful segue to the next point to be discussed. You remember Strauss was able to proceed without offering any justification for the impossibility of miracles. He said this is a presupposition that requires no proof. Why did he say that? When you read him, he says David Hume demonstrated the impossibility of identifying any event as a miracle. Here we see the strong influence of this Scottish skeptic, David Hume, and his essay on miracles on Strauss and on subsequent German theology.

In the next section what we will want to look at are these deeper roots for this skepticism that are in Spinoza, in Hume and in the general Newtonian view of the world at that time as a kind of machine that God had made and did not intervene to tinker with. That is what we will look at next time – the roots of the skepticism which came to fruit in German rationalism and the denial of miracles.[12]

[1] 4:58

[2] 10:04

[3] The actual German title of the book is Das Leben Jesu

[4] David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, trans. George Eliot, ed. with an Introduction by Peter C. Hodgson (London: SCM, 1973) p. 736.

[5] Ibid., p. 75.

[6] 15:02

[7] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 3rd ed., trans. W. Montgomery (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1954) 10.

[8] Ibid., 110-11.

[9] 20:03

[10] 25:05

[11] 30:02

[12] Total Running Time: 32:14 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)