Romans 8:7-10 ~ “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
Section I: Metaphysical Antisupernaturalism & The Historical Critical Method
Do Miracles Exist? Aside from all the arguments that are currently waged in the theist-atheist- agnostic-skeptic debate, there is one linchpin that is the equivalent of the “gulf of great divide” that has been raised by philosophical thinkers as an impasse that seemingly cannot be bridged to create a common understanding and agreement.
This impasse has to do with understanding miracles and miraculous events throughout the whole of human existence, but especially as recorded in the pages of the Bible.
Eighteenth Century Scottish Philosopher David Hume defined miracles as
“the transgression of a law of nature by a particular violation of the Diety, or by the interposition of some invisible agents.” “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding” ed. L.A. Shelby-Bigge(1748;repr.,Oxford:Clarendon, 1902) p.115
Hume further stated,
“There must therefore be uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise it would not merit this appellation. And as uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the experience of any miracle.” “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding” ed. L.A. Shelby-Bigge(1748;repr.,Oxford:Clarendon, 1902) p.115
The philosophy that undergirds this sort of thinking is called Naturalism. Naturalism is the thought that everything in the world and history can be explained by natural means.
As stated, the Eighteenth Century introduced many philosophies and methodologies concerning the study of the Bible, history and miracles. Form Criticism and Documentary Hypothesis were among the sciences that discovered the Bible and Biblical history as a target. Another such development in interpreting history was known as the Historical-Critical Method.
The Historical-Critical Method implores the application of scientific method to the study of history. The basis and priori (a methodological bias) on which the historical-critical method operates is called Methodological Naturalism. Methodological Naturalism has an extreme priori rejection of the supernatural built into its premise. Therefore, this system suggests that historians should be methodologically committed to looking for natural explanations for all historical events without regard to any supernatural interventions. What this leads to is encouragements to sometimes “create” a natural explanation for historical events which are construed as anything other than natural.
One of the champions of this theory was Ernst Troeltsch. In his 1898 essay, “Historical And Dogmatic Method in Theology” Mr. Troeltsch offered 3 principles of critical historic investigation.
- The Principle of Criticism. This principle states that all claims about the past are more or less probable and not certain, and situations with natural causes are always more probable than supernatural causes.
- The Principle of Analogy. This principle states that our understanding of the past must always be rooted in our experience of the present. i.e.: “If it occurs now, it occurred then, if it doesn’t happen now, it didn’t occur then.”
- The Principle of Correlation. This principle states that every event must be understood within the nexus of cause and effect.
In short, the presupposition (something assumed or supposed in advance of investigation or research) according to the adherents of naturalism and naturalistic philosophy, is that all history is governed by Natural Law which, in their minds, is the only thing that makes a scientific approach to history possible.
Adherents to antisupernaturalism hold the following or similar sentiments:
- Humanity exists in a closed system. Every cause has a natural effect.
- There is no God or there is no God for all practical purposes.
- There is no supernatural.
- Miracles are not possible.
One of the apostles of form criticism and the historical-critical methodology is New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) Mr. Bultmann who is widely read and distributed within Naturalist circles because of his position of metaphysical antisupernaturalism. He stated the following:
“A historical fact which involves the resurrection of the dead is utterly inconceivable” “Kerygma And Myth: A Theological Debate” 1954 p.39
Additionally he adds:
” The historical method includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect…””Kerygma And Myth: A Theological Debate” 1954 p.291
“…This closedness means that the continuum of historical happenings cannot be rent by the interference of the supernatural, transcendent powers and that there is no “miracle” in the sense of the word.” “Is Exegesis Without Presupposition Possible?” In existence and Faith 1966 p291-292
Bultmann’s philosophical construct further suggests that if the closed continuum were “rent” by interference of the supernatural it would violate the working assumption of the historical-critical method. The historical-critical method as stated does not allow the intervention of God through supernatural events at any time in history, present or future. He further states,
“modern man acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of natural order of the universe. He does not acknowledge miracles because they do not fit into his lawful order.” “Jesus Christ and Mythology” 1958 p.37-38
It should be no surprise that the position of antisupernaturalism is to reject the Gospel message in its totality. Bultmann and a co-author Herman Ridderbos say this,
“It is at the same time implied that the conception of Christ, as a pre-existent heavenly being, and of the removal of man into a heavenly world of light, and the clothing of man in a heavenly body, is not only rationally unthinkable but also is meaningless, it says nothing.” (H. Ridderbos pg. 18)
Proponents of this sort of belief system often say that “no testimony” or “no amount of evidence” could convince them of a miraculous claim. I have personally witnessed many atheist book and blog writers and proponents say these statements exactly. Other statements may go like this, “If God exists we can’t know him.” Once again, this is metaphysical antisupernaturalism “in spite of” the evidence.
Another proponent of historical-critical methodology is Van Harvey. Mr. Harvey set forth a theory supposing that people of antiquity were more inclined to myths and mythological beliefs than modern individuals and therefore could not distinguish the difference between natural law and natural order. In his book “The Historian and The Believer” 1966, he says that supposed supernatural events in history were merely natural events misunderstood and attributed to supernatural beings of all kinds.
Mr. Harvey’s arguments are further summarized as following:
- All miraculous claims are myth, legend or intentional fabrication regardless of the evidence.
- Accepting any miraculous claims places the mental development of man back in the “naïve and mythologically minded” stage of human development.
- That for Westerners it is impossible to revert to a pre-critical mindset.
- Even if the laws of nature were temporarily suspended, we modern Western people would have no way of historically assessing them because all miracles are “absolutely unique” and have no analogy parallel.
Van Harvey also believed in cultural incommensurability. This is an essential element metaphysical naturalism as espoused by most naturalist adherents. A summary of this belief is found in the following statement:
“it is impossible to escape from the categories and presuppositions of the intellectual culture of which one is a part” Van Harvey “Historian and The Believer” p.114
This is the gulf of great divide. If a person is not willing to consider all evidence including testimonial evidence, or presupposes what evidence there is out of existence, there can be no true understanding gained because there is a deliberate attempt, at least on one side, to exclude material facts and testimony.
Another such proponent of historical-critical method is Burton Mack. Mr. Mack in his book “A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins” 1988 p23 states:
“The emergence of Christianity and its literature can be understood without recourse or caveats with regard to miracles, resurrections, divine appearances, presences, or unusual charismatic phenomena”
Of assurity, it is apparent that any system based upon the presupposition of historical-critical methodology or metaphysical naturalism is a system that leaves much to be desired if the objective is truth and discovery of actual historical events. Although there are elements of this method that deserve attention, the overall unobjectivity of such a method must be discovered, discussed at length and avoided at all means. There must be reasonable ground agreed upon before progress can be made in discovering and understanding historical truths, the God of the Bible and the God of modern times.
Section II: Problems with the Critical-Historical Method and Metaphysical Antisupernaturalism (Naturalism)
As observed, there are a number of problems with the historical critical method. Now, I will address some of the more important areas as it pertains to understanding the Bible, God, and the Jesus of history in particular.
We will answer the following questions:
- Do we live in a closed continuum?
- Do miracles meet the principle of analogy?
- Were people of antiquity more inclined to believe myth and folklore?
- Do miracles violate natural laws or are they an extension of natural laws?
- Does metaphysical naturalism affirm or break with the culture?
- Is metaphysical antisupernaturalism scientific?
- What are the social problems associated with metaphysical antisupernaturalism and the closed historical-critical method?