Christians and the Miraculous : Are We Living Below Our Means?
Two Sides of the Same Coin
With regard to the present experience of the miraculous, modern Christians fall into a number of different camps. The most outspoken of these camps, however, are Pentecostals/Charismatics on the one hand and Cessationists on the other.
Pentecostals and Charismatics (or at least the most stereotypical Charismatics) may disagree about things like when the Holy Spirit enters into the Christian life or whether or not speaking in tongues is the necessary initial evidence of that entrance, but they share an eager expectation of the miraculous, both in the so called Spiritual gifts (mostly focused on manifestations of the prophetic Spirit of God in inspired speech) and in sovereign acts of God breaking into human history and experience (especially divine healing of physical ailments). They also generally share a belief that those miraculous experiences are less pronounced in the modern Church than they were in the time of the Apostles.
Cessationists, on the other hand, believe that the time for Spiritual gifts and (for the most part) miraculous healing acts of God passed with the Apostolic generation. The purpose of miraculous manifestations of the Spirit was to validate the message of the Apostles about Jesus, and they have ceased (hence “Cessationism”) because they are no longer needed (since the Apostles are no longer around).
These two positions, which seem to be diametrically opposed, ironically share a common assumption that rarely if ever is articulated let alone challenged: modern Christianity experiences less of the miraculous than ancient Christianity. This assumption, in fact, is the whole reason Cessationism exists: it is assumed that the manifestations of the Spirit have ceased and that this cessation requires a theological explanation. Early Pentecostals saw themselves as recovering something that had been lost (or almost entirely lost): the experience of the infilling of the Holy Spirit and the accompanying signs and wonders. Many, if not all, modern Pentecostals (and many Charismatics) share this assumption and see themselves and guarding the Church against a new Spirit-less dark age. Unlike Cessationists, the proto-Pentecostals believed that God would do the miraculous, but like the Cessationists they believed that God no longer did. If the early Pentecostals had believed that God was still doing the miraculous in the manner of the Apostles, it is doubtful that Pentecostalism would have exploded the way it did. In other words, I would suggest that Cessationism with its anti-supernaturalist assumptions was the necessary fertile ground for the germination and springing up proto-Pentecostalism.
The two positions are, therefore, opposite sides of the same coin. This coin is essentially one of the most questionable parts of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century inheritance from the Enlightenment, namely logical positivism (or pure empiricism). On a very basic (and, admittedly, not entirely accurate) level, logical positivism can be summed up in this way: unless I see it and can measure it, it isn’t happening. In reality, it was more about whether or not a statement could be accepted as meaningful if it could not be verified through logic or observation. But the way logical positivism has been received on the popular level relates more to existence than the meaningfulness or propositions.
The Failure of Logical Positivism
The thing is, despite the fact that many scientists (and those who claim to be fans of “science” but who fundamentally misunderstand what exactly science is) continue to live as though pure empiricism can be the foundation of a coherent world view, logical positivism has been rejected by philosophers (including, especially, philosophers of science). The ostensible reason for this is that logical positivism falls apart under its own weight. If only propositions whose truth can be observed can be counted as true, how does one observe the truth of the proposition that only propositions whose truth can be observed are true? But this is merely the ostensible reason, or the technical reason. What really discredits logical positivism is the reality of lived experience. We all know that things exist and conditions are true and meaningful of which we have no awareness. Just because I personally have never laid eyes on Halley’s Comet is not positive evidence against the existence of Halley’s Comet. Of the 7+ billion people alive in the world at this moment, I will only meet a few thousand at most in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I readily admit the existence of the vast remainder of the human population. To deny their existence is ridiculous, not reasonable.
As a side note, this is why “science” is not itself a world view. It is at most a portion of a world view. Science is regulated empiricism, or inductive research, accompanied by careful and limited rationalism, or logical deduction. Science, therefore, has a horizon, a point beyond which it is no longer applicable. Science can never disprove the existence of something, because in order to disprove the existence of something one has to show by logic or by observation that the thing cannot exist in any place or at any moment. All science can do is say, “Object/Phenomenon X has never been observed under scientific conditions, and the observed effects typically attributed to Object/Phenomenon X can be explained as a result of an alternative object/phenomenon.” In other words, science can say that something is unnecessary or that something is unlikely, but it cannot say something is nonexistent or impossible.
But back to the issue at hand. Both Cessationists and stereotypical Pentecostals make the assumption that we are not experiencing the supernatural in the same way that the first generation of Christians did because they do not observe it. This is actually logical positivism in action. There are all sorts of explanations for why you might not see the supernatural, so assuming that your lack of awareness means nonexistence is presumptuous, especially when we hear reports from all around the world via our missionaries of amazing manifestations of God’s sovereign activity and of his indwelling Holy Spirit.
Expectations Shape Perceptions
But someone will say, “Yes, but we don’t see those kinds of miracles in the Western world.” Do we not? Or are we simply not giving the proper credit for what we do see? Perhaps our eyes are heavy and our vision is clouded by hearts preconditioned by Enlightenment principles and biased against seeing the miraculous. Even if we do not see the miraculous, it does not mean that the miraculous is not occurring.
It is worth dwelling on this: the single most miraculous event in human history, the resurrection of Jesus, was “not seen” by the majority of those dwelling in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. By “not seen”, I don’t simply mean not observed, but the witness of those who did observe it was not believed. The Jewish authorities, according to the Gospel of Matthew, chose to explain it away as Jesus’ disciples stealing the body of Jesus. They did not believe the account of the Roman soldiers. They chose instead to believe their own lie. Their hearts were preconditioned with the assumption that the resurrection of Jesus could not happen. This is similar to the assumption Cessationists make today: the manifestations of the Holy Spirit reported by Pentecostals and Charismatics cannot be legitimate because they assume such things no longer happen.
Oddly, it is also similar (albeit less so) to the assumption many Pentecostals make today that we do not experience the miraculous on the same level or at the same rate as the early Church did. What miraculous things are reported just aren’t given the weight they deserve. Not that these Pentecostals deny these reports, but despite these reports they continue to work under the assumption that such reports do not compare with what the early Church experienced.
But what if we assumed, on the contrary, that God had never stopped working miracles the way the early Church experienced. How would that shape our perception? Expectations shape perception. We usually see what we expect to see. It is possible, but quite a bit harder, to see things that you do not expect. Pentecostals talk a lot about expectations: expect that God is going to do great things in the Church today. That’s all well and good, but perhaps we should say it this way: expect that God is doing great things in the Church today. Look for the miraculous where others would look for the mundane. Expect God to bless you with unexpected blessings, big and small.
The truth is, there are many Pentecostals and Charismatics who see the miraculous everywhere. “God blessed me with a great parking spot today!” “God held off the rain until I got to my destination!” “God helped me find the right doctor/medicine!” And yet many still somehow think that there is a higher level to be attained. What could this level be? All sicknesses healed? Surely not. Even in the time of Jesus and his Apostles not all sicknesses were healed. Did Paul’s thorn in the flesh reveal some flaw in his faith? Was he living beneath his means as a Kingdom citizen? If you read 2 Corinthians that way, you are reading very much against the grain, because according to Paul God allowed the thorn in the flesh to persist because He was glorified by being strong in Paul where Paul was weak in himself. Paul also elsewhere in 2 Corinthians (among many other places) talks about how our sufferings build things in us that cannot be built otherwise: the eternal weight of glory. God allows sufferings to persist in our lives for important reasons, and really knowing Christ can happen only when we follow him both in his resurrection AND in his sufferings. We cannot expect that we were intended on this side of the return of Jesus to be able to live lives completely free of suffering and sickness.
What more are we looking for, then? Why does this belief persist that we are not experiencing the full benefits of the Kingdom of God? It persists not based on the Bible and not based on experience but merely on the strength of assumptions that shape our perception of what the Bible says and of our experiences in false contrast. The enemy would keep our eyes on a far off point so that we will live our Christian lives with a sense of dissatisfaction and inferiority. Let us thrown down this stronghold of the enemy by dispensing with a needless and false assumption that God is not working the miraculous among us today the way he did among the Apostles. He most certainly is, if we only have eyes to see it.