On why academic protestantism has no miracles

I am not talking about conservative Protestantism that actually believes the Bible. I am talking about mainline churches and “academic” Protestantism. (On the other hand, I have watched a conservative Federal Vision guy debunk the miracle stories of the holy fathers along similar lines).

Of course, there are always exceptions, but the general rule is that Protestantism is a religion of the word, not the miracle. Granted, the charismatics have abused (ruined?) the notion of miracles. And with our scientific hermeneutics (which Protestantism accepts, albeit inconsistently), there is no place for miracles.

Of course, the Protestant will retort that miracles do not prove the legitimacy of a movement and are often used by demons to deceive the faithful. Very true. However, if that standard is applied across the board, we have to rule out Jesus and the apostles.

Am I saying that Protestantism disbelieves in the miraculous? No (well, mainline Protestantism doesn’t believe in miracles, but that’s another story). I am saying that their worldview often does not have a place for them.

This is revealed in their scholarship. This morning I finished the biography of St Martin, written by Sulpicius Severus, a fantastic read full of the supernatural. The Protestant scholar who edited that volume (volume 11 of Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene series), no doubt an erudite man, was clearly embarrassed by Severus’s credulity (Severus, it must be noted, was very intelligent and classically trained in the Latin language). Now, to the passages in question.

In chapter 24 Severus relates how the devil appeared to St Martin in order to trick him. Martin resists the Devil and the Devil vanishes, leaving the smell of sulfur in the cell. Severus writes,

This event, as I have just related, took place in the way which I have stated, and my information regarding it was derived from the lips of Martin himself; therefore let no one regard it as fabulous.

Several things to note: 1) Severus was a very intelligent man and well-versed in classical and ecclesiastical literature, so he is likely one not easily fooled; 2) St Martin, as the editor admits, was a very godly and pious man, quite remarkable in many ways; godly people do not simply “make up stuff like this.” 3) While not eye-witness evidence on Severus’ part, it’s origin is clearly not “pious legend.” What does the editor, who claims the name of Christ (and I believe him), say of this?

In spite of the combined testimony of Martin and Sulpitius here referred to, few will have any doubts as to the real character of the narrative.

While this is definitely not normal happenings, it is clearly not uncommon if miracle stories have some truth. A similar remark is made at the end of the biography. Severus recounts, in a rather lucid manner, the level-headedness of St Martin, along with his piety. This clearly establishes St Martin as a credible witness. Severus writes (chapter 27),

I am conscious to myself that I have been induced by belief in the facts, and by the love of Christ, to write these things; and that, in doing so, I have set forth what is well known, and recorded what is true; and, as I trust, that man will have a reward prepared by God, not who shall read these things, but who shall believe them.

Indeed. What does the learned editor say?

It seems extremely difficult (to recur to the point once more), after reading this account of St. Martin by Sulpitius, to form any certain conclusion regarding it. The writer so frequently and solemnly assures us of his good faith, and there is such a verisimilitude about the style, that it appears impossible to accept the theory of willful deception on the part of the writer. And then, he was so intimately acquainted with the subject of his narrative, that he could hardly have accepted fictions for facts, or failed in his estimate of the friend he so much admired and loved. Altogether, thisLife of St. Martin seems to bring before us one of the puzzles of history. The saint himself must evidently have been a very extraordinary man, to impress one of the talents and learning of Sulpitius so remarkably as he did; but it is extremely hard to say how far the miraculous narratives, which enter so largely into the account before us, were due to pure invention, or unconscious hallucination. Milner remarks (Church History, II. 193), “I should be ashamed, as well as think the labor ill spent, to recite the stories at length which Sulpitius gives us.” See, on the other side, Cardinal Newman’s Essays on Miracles, p. 127, 209, &c.

Of course it seems difficult if you are stuck in Enlightenment Anglo-American hermeneutics. But if we apply this reasoning consistenly, will you be fair and disregard the miracle stories in the Bible? This is where Cardinal Henri de Lubac can help us out. How do we understand the interaction of the miraculous in history? De Lubac writes,

The supernatural is not a higher, more beautiful, or more fruitful nature…it is the irruption of a wholly different principle. The sudden opening of a kind of fourth dimension, without proportion of any kind to all the progress provided in the natural dimension (466).The Drama of Atheist Humanism.

For Medieval man, the cosmos was porous and the heavenly and created worlds interpenetrate one another. For Enlightenment modern, the cosmos and heaven are walled-off. They are not connected. Secularism rules the day. Miracles cannot happen because the Scientific and Academic Establishment says they cannot happen. Why are they correct? Because the Scientific and Academic Establishment says they are correct? (ad infinitum). Now, given the godly, consistent (and quite mentally respectable) life of St Martin and his awe-inspired reality over against Academic/Scientific Man, who is the more credible? I rest my case.