N.T. Wright on Miracles

‘The older liberalism, dating back at least to the eighteenth century and in particular to Hume, claimed that ‘miracles’ never happened, or at any rate that there could never be sufficient evidence to believe that they had; hence, that Jesus probably never performed any, hence, that perhaps he was not after all ‘divine’. Bth of these lines of thought, in fact, contain the same non sequitur: the strongest incarnational claims in the New Testament (e.g. those of Paul) have nothing to do with Jesus’ might works, and the accounts of the mighty works in the gospels are not usually offered as ‘proof’ of Jesus’ divinty.’

‘The very word ‘miracle’ itself, and for that matter the words ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, are in fact symptomatic of a very different range of possible worldviews from those which were open to Galilean villagers at the time. The evangelists use terms like paradoxa, things one would not normally exxpect; dunameis, displays of power or authority; terata or semeia, signs or portents. The closest we come to ‘miracle’ is the single occurrence of thaumasia, ‘marvels’, in Matthew 21.15. These words do not carry, as the English word ‘miracle’ has sometimes done, overtones of invasion from another world, or outer space. They indicate, rather, that something has happened, within what we would call the ‘natural’ world, which is not what would have been anticipated, and which seems to provide evidence for the active presence of an authority, a power, at work, not invading the created order as an alien force, but rather enabling it to be more truly itself.’

‘The word ‘miracle’, by contrast, has come to be associated with two quite different questions, developed not least in the period of the Enlightenment: (a) is there a ‘supernatural’ dimension to our world? (b) Which religion, if any, is the true one? ‘Miracles’ became, for some, a way of answering ‘yes’ to the first and ‘Christianity’ to the second. Jesus’ ‘miracles’ are, in this scheme, a ‘proof’ that there is a god, who has ‘intervened’ in the world in this way. Hume and his followers, as we saw, put it the other way around: granted that ‘miracles’ do not occur, or at least cannot be demonstrated to occur, does this mean that all religions, including Christianity, are false, and the Bible untrue? This posing of the question precipitated two possible answers from those wishing to preserve something of the tradition: a non-miraculous ‘Christianity’ on the one hand, and a rearguard anti-critical reaction on the other. Today these questions seem a little lame. Few serious historians now deny that Jesus, and for that matter many other people, performed cures and did other startling things for which there was no natural explanation. But Christian apologetics has moved on as well: ‘miracles’ are not advanced as a ‘proof’ of anything much. What matters far more is intention and meaning. What did Jesus think he was doing, and why? What did his deeds mean to those involved, and to those who passed on the tradition?’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, p.186-188)

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