I’ve recently begun reading a biography of Saint Peter by the Cambridge historian, Michael Grant (Saint Peter: A Biography, 1994). Its first chapter is a typical exercise in modernist question-begging. Grant makes the perfectly true and important point that the miracles of Jesus and Peter are primarily signs. That is, their main purpose was to point to the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus or of its presence later in the work and community of Peter. Grant also perfectly truly notes that the New Testament miracles are meant to show the reader how Jesus and Peter and other early Christian leaders fulfilled. Old Testament prototypes. If Grant had left matters there with these positive conclusions, all would be well. Grant, however, goes on to reach some negative conclusions which annoy me very much:
…[D]id the miracles of Jesus, and of Peter for that matter, really take place? We are naturally very ready to conclude that they did not….The answer, ‘Yes, they were only symbolical’ seems obvious enough to us….[T]he miracles, although not events in a rational sense, were exceedingly meaningful all the same…. (pp. 7, 10)
‘Naturally’, ‘only’, ‘obvious’, and ‘rational’ all should be noted. I am afraid I am not willing to concede any of these modifiers, especially since Grant presents no argument to show that a traditional view of miracles is irrational.
Grant tells us that most people in the days of Jesus and Peter and of the generations immediately following them seemed to agree that Jesus worked supernatural wonders. Obviously the disciples of Jesus and his later followers did so agree. Christians still do. More interestingly, according to Grant himself the Jews of Jesus’ day and of the century following also thought that Jesus worked signs and wonders, although they, unlike the Christians, attributed these wonders to evil magical, diabolical powers rather than to God. Even a pagan writer such as Quadratus, writing around 125, took the Jewish view and did not doubt the reality of the wonders. For Grant this agreement among Christians, Jews, and pagans, does not indicate, as one would think, that everybody then was right (Jesus did work miracles), but rather merely shows that Jesus more or less had to be seen as working miracles because everybody expected it. This view causes Grant to bring forth the following statement, now quoted in full:
The miracles, although not events in a rational sense, were exceedingly meaningful all the same, because they illuminated the pictures of Jesus which contemporaries envisaged – and in consequence they guided the sequence of events that followed, and indeed they helped to produce these events.
Something came from nothing. People believed Jesus to be a person full of mysterious and miraculous power and authority, so they attributed miracles to him. That (false) attribution then caused those who (irrationally) so attributed miracles to a non-miracle worker, to view him as mysterious and miraculous, which then – well, you get the idea.
But why in the first place did people think Jesus was a mysterious person with miraculous and wonder-working powers? Grant would answer, ‘Because their culture and society predisposed them to see such people (charismatic, itinerant rabbis) in such a way.’ But were all rabbis thought to work miracles?
Oh, hang it. What it all really boils down to for Grant is that Jesus didn’t in truth work any miracles, because miracles are impossible. So we have to explain away the attribution of miracles to Jesus (and Peter). Fortunately, if we are clever Cambridge historians – or modern people clever enough to agree with clever Cambridge historians – we can make such explanations. On Grant’s view we must, it is true, rule out the simplest explanation: that Christians and Jews and pagans all thought something happened because it did happen. But that need not disturb people, because it is rational to agree with Grant, not with everybody who knew Jesus.
If God created the world and its astonishing variety, immensity, beauty, and order, then he is perfectly able to suspend its normal laws. If Jesus rose from the dead, then he was certainly capable of healing people and of doing the other wonders attributed to him. It is as rational to believe in a creator God as to disbelieve in that. That God cannot work miracles is not obvious, rational, and natural, but is a rationalistic and naturalistic presupposition contradicted by the experience and testimony of many.
I believe now what I have always believed: that people with such a naturalistic world-view begin with presuppositions and end with conclusions that are no more intellectually respectable and defensible than the traditional Christian view. The really important point, however, is that when self-proclaimed Christians embrace Grantian views, they are committing themselves to opinions which are essentially contrary to our religion. It’s no shame for a non-Christian to believe such things. When clergy, however, and active laymen begin with such a thin-gruel faith, their churches are in big, big trouble. Nothing much will grow from such rocky religious soil.