Hume, England Hath Need of Thee

In light of my comments on the covenanters embarrassing the modern Reformed…

I have no problem with people critically evaluating miracle traditions.  But in our fear of Rome and Charismania, we must be careful not to do so in a way that completely surrenders the Faith to David Hume.  Hume would have made mincemeat of a recent thread discussing this.

NeoPuritan:  God doesn’t work extraordinarily like that any more.

David Hume: I agree, but I will raise you one:  Do you really believe God doesn’t work in such extraordinary manners?

NP: Yes.

Hume:  Further, would you not agree also that a miracle is an irregular occurrence (earlier in my career I said “violation,” but that was too strong a term) in nature?

NP: Yes.

Hume: What constitutes an “irregular” occurrence?

NP:  Something outside of God’s normal providence?

Hume:  What constitutes “normal?”

NP: Something outside the laws of nature.

Hume: And we shouldn’t believe God works that way?

NP:  Correct.

Hume:  What about Jesus’s Resurrection?

The Covenanters Embarrass Modern Reformed

I do have some critical questions, not necessarily of the original Covenanters, but of those who take up the mantle today, but it is interesting to watch modern, respectable Reformed interact with claims by the Covenanters.   Normally, someone would post the Covenanters’ political theory, and a bourgeoisie Reformed would cry over Protestant Inquisitions or something.  There is a thread on Puritanboard on whether the fact that Rome’s miracle-claims negate the Reformed continuationist.  To put it in perspective, I am not really a continuationist.  I think the arguments for cessationism are horribly bad and fallacious, but beyond that I really don’t care.

Still, I posed the question, “What about the miracles of the Scottish Covenanters?”   The responses were hilarious.  Some them outright denied them.   That’s one option, I suppose, but those kind of moves began to build up massive levels of cognitive dissonance.  Others took a better route, “Yeah, well that might be true, but what about Rome?”  To which I replied, “Who cares?  Paul says Antichrist will work signs and wonders.”

See the problem with openly distancing and disagreeing with the Covenanters, at least for Anglo-American Presbyterians, is that you run the risk of theological bastardization.

How to evaluate “dreams and vision”

Theologically, if someone comes to you with a “vision” from God, it’s not always easy to make sense of the situation. A lot of conservative evangelicals will write off any claim to dreams, prophecy, and visions as “well, we have a complete canon so that’s wrong because it, being a revelation, will contradict the revelation in God’s canon.” Before I get to the point of the post, I need to respond to this type of reasoning:

  1. This isn’t even a Reformed position. Many of the Puritans and covenanters believed in continationism.
  2. Not all of God’s revelation is written. The OT writers appeal to books that are no longer extant in writing; Paul appeals to oral tradition, and Jude thinks Enoch is inspired, which we probably don’t have.
  3. I don’t exactly see how it necessarily “contradicts” other Revelation. A contradiction is “A is ~”A, not “A is ~~A”. For example, if I say it is “both raining and not raining outside” that is a contradiction. If I say “it is raining and the table is green” that is not a contradiction.
  4. Apropos (3) the critic needs to show that the new revelation is a contradiction, and this is almost never done.
  5. Finally, as Wayne Grudem has shown, NT and post-NT prophecies never intended to function as on par with the canon.

So if someone comes to us with a vision, what do we make of it? Well, it depends on both what they are saying and what they urge, if anything the body of Christ to do as a result. I have two examples, and this illustrates one of the differences between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy (and some parts of Evangelicalism).

In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Virgin supposedly appeared to some women in Portugal. This is the origins of “Fatima.” While the exact contents of it are unknown in their entirety (see Malachi Martin, The Jesuits), one of the major points was that Russia must be dedicated to the Lady (or the Sacred Heart; I can’t remember which, but my point is the same). Never mind the ignoring of a thousand years of doctrinal controversy, this is a negative example of my point: someone’s (or people’s) private vision is being made binding on all of the church. Most importantly, doctrine and church practice are being normatized, not on the basis of Scripture or Church Councils, but on someone’s private interpretation.

This raises the obvious question: if church doctrine and visions are to proceed like this, how come we didn’t have any warning at Nicea (or any other council), or during the Eastern Schism or during the Time of the Three Popes?

A Roman Catholic could then respond, “Well, you guys hold to stuff like Diveyvo and the Elders’ Prophecies about the Revolution, what makes your visions different?” It’s an excellent question. Here goes:

  1. St Seraphim of Sarov and the Elders are merely saying what will happen. They are not actually making doctrine and practice binding on the Church apart from an Ecumenical Council.
  2. To the degree that the visions/prophecies urge practical living, it’s fairly basic stuff (repent; don’t put trust in human power structures, etc).
  3. Even the parts that seem to give concrete interpretations to the Apocalypse really aren’t arguing anything about doctrine and life that a Christian would reject, except perhaps the chronology.
  4. The visions actually happened, but they happened in a way that 1) proved and vindicated the holiness of the elders, but 2) didn’t violate the liturgical life of the church by binding everyone by a few visions.

The essay is no longer extant online, but many of my thoughts are extant from Fr Johnson’s essay on “Miracles and Easter.’ I am borrowing the criticisms of Fatima specifically from him. The thoughts on the Elders are taken from Seraphim Rose and others.

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.