Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Reformed Tradition and the Miraculous: Some Reflections

I have been involved in two different churches over the past fifteen years.  These have both been confessional Reformed churches that used the Westminster Confession of Faith as their doctrinal statement.  In reflection upon these churches and the larger Reformed tradition of which they are a part it is important to look to the Gospels and see Jesus’ kingdom proclamation and ministry with the goal of assessing whether they may be, perhaps, a disconnect in vision and praxis within the Reformed community.  To be sure, there are a number of emphases in the Reformed community that line up nicely with Jesus’ teaching and ministry.  However, for purposes of this essay I will look at those areas where the Reformed tradition does not live up to the realities of Jesus kingdom message.  Although there are a number of elements and foci to Jesus’ kingdom ministry narrated in the Gospels I wish to focus attention on Jesus’ miraculous approach to ministry as a fundamental aspect of his kingdom proclamation and how this intersects with hermeneutics and practice. 
            An apt place to start in determining the major aspects of Jesus’ kingdom ministry are his words in Luke 4.18-19:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

The Reformed tradition has read these words and put a particular stress on the “preaching” and “proclamation” elements.  The ministry of the church continues the ministry of Jesus by preaching the word of God to the nations.  There is no small measure of truth in this.  What

is missed, however, is the focus on the miraculous in-breaking power of God for the restoration of the whole person.  Graham Twelftree accurately describes this dynamic when, in commenting on this passage, he writes that “we see Luke balancing the teaching and miracles of Jesus in such a way that they are of equal significance.”[1]  In the conservative Reformed tradition there is little opposition to this as long as this dynamic is restricted to Jesus and his authoritative apostles.  Twelftree, however, goes further as he examines the fullness of Luke’s presentation about the combination of word and deed:
The balancing of word and deed is seen throughout the Gospel and even in Acts.  Near the end of the Gospel, in the story of the walk to Emmaus, those with Jesus state that Jesus was “a prophet mighty in deed and word” (Lk 24:19).  And in the first verse of Acts Luke describes his Gospel as having been about “all that Jesus did and taught.”  Thus not only can it be concluded that Luke saw miracles as part of the whole of Jesus’ ministry… but that these kinds of miracles were to continue among his followers.[2]

It is here that many in the Reformed tradition hesitate.  All sorts of schema are crafted that allow for the miraculous in the ministry of Jesus and among his apostles but disallow them in the continuing life and ministry of the church.  Without getting into the larger issue of the cessation of the miraculous and the theological constructs that undergird this view, I want to note how this view tends to screen out emphases that are in Jesus’ ministry.[3]
            One such emphasis is Jesus’ holistic ministry of salvation.  In the Gospel of Luke the language of “saved” (σώζω) is used in a broad manner.  When Jesus forgives the woman who anointed his feet with her tears he tells her, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7.50).  The linking of forgiveness of sins with being “saved” is standard fare among Protestants of all stripes—Reformed included.  What is interesting to observe is how expansive Luke’s view of “salvation” is in the ministry of Jesus.    In Luke chapter 8 the narration of Jesus’ encounter with the man filled with a “legion” of demons occurs.  After casting out the demons the man is described in verse 36 as one who “had been saved.”[4]  In the same chapter  (verse 48) the language of “saved” is used in reference to a hemorrhaging woman who is healed—“Daughter, your faith has saved you.”[5]  Two verses later the language of “saved” is used when speaking about the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead—“only believe, and she will be saved.”[6]  Thus, forgiveness of sins, healings, exorcisms, and even life from death are all seen to be labeled under the language of being “saved.”  This shows a full and holistic approach to the human plight.  To be sure, healing is not guaranteed to everyone and the language of “salvation”—even in Luke’s presentation—centers on the restored relationship with God through the forgiveness of sins and the cleansing work of the Spirit.[7]  Even so it is significant and challenging to see the holistic emphasis of Jesus.  The Reformed tradition has tended to see only the “spiritual” dimension to the exclusion of a more robust conception of God’s concern for all of life. 
            A further corollary flowing from the above is a failure to properly appropriate Jesus’ view of sickness as manifested in the Gospels.  Within the Reformed tradition there is a strong emphasis placed on the sovereignty of God as coming to expression in God’s all-encompassing eternal decree.  The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of this in this manner: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF 3.1).  In light of this understanding of providence there is a tendency to look through the lens of the decree of God when it comes to the issues of sickness and disease.  Some Reformed Christians may even feel unsure of how aggressively they should seek God’s favor of healing in prayer tending to look for the grace to endure sickness rather than the grace to have sickness healed.  This can result in confusion in that one wonders if praying for the release of sickness is somehow fighting against the hand of God.  I remember well one conversation with a gentleman whose son had been diagnosed with a degenerative bone and skin disease.  As we watched our sons jumping on the trampoline he told me of how he prayed to God and that he knew God was sovereign.  He then asked, “Do you think it’s okay to keep praying and asking God to heal my son?”  In his mind there was a tension that resulted in confusion as to whether God wanted him to even ask anymore for his son’s physical deliverance from the disease.  This is the danger of so stressing the divine decrees.  This can result in a tendency toward acceptance in the face of illness when, perhaps, a more aggressive stance against sickness is called for by the Christian community.  A more focused meditation on Jesus’ approach to sickness can help bring balance.
            Jesus did not like sickness.  The words of popular author Ken Blue are blunt and, perhaps, in need of some nuance, yet they begin to accurately point in a helpful direction:
Sickness is never viewed by [Jesus] as anything but bad, and he never dealt with sickness in any way but to heal it.  Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus sanction sickness for anyone for any reason.  He never counseled anyone to accept sickness as inevitable or profitable.  More to the point, Jesus never inflicted sickness on anyone to accomplish some higher good, although he often healed existing illness for that very reason (Jn 9).  Jesus is clear that sickness is an enemy not a friend.  When possible, it is to be healed and not accepted.[8]

Again, Blue may be a bit lopsided in that there are other types of perspectives drawn from the full canon to be taken into account when developing a full theology of sickness and healing.  Nevertheless his point about Jesus should not be missed.  Reading through the Gospels it is evident that Jesus is often healing due to his being moved by compassion.  Matthew 14.14 is illustrative: “And when he went ashore, he saw a great multitude, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick.”  This motivation of compassion is often overlooked when considering the healing ministry of Jesus.  There is a tendency in much of the Reformed tradition and even in the broad evangelical tradition to think of Jesus’ healings as solely signs or pointers to Jesus’ divinity.  But focusing again on what the Gospel texts so clearly speak of, namely Jesus’ compassion, allows one to seek the compassionate hand of Jesus in the midst of the illnesses that beset us.  By stressing the compassion of Jesus this helps us to avoid an unhealthy separation of the historical Jesus from the ascended and exalted Christ at the Father’s right hand.  Sam Storms captures this important point for understanding and practice when he writes:
Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the great multitude he had compassion for them and healed their sick (Matt. 14:14).  My question is simple: As the exalted Son of God looks down from the right hand of the Majesty on High, does he feel differently toward the sick and infirm?  Is he now apathetic toward their pain?  No one denies that miraculous healing now is less frequent than it was then.  But what shall be our response to this?  Personally, I am not content to deal with this problem by minimizing, if not denying, compassion as a preeminent factor in why God heals the sick.  I would rather ground my confidence in the immutability of God’s character, lay prayerful hands on the sick with the unfailing assurance that whereas the church may have changed, God has not, and live with the mystery of unanswered prayer until Jesus returns.[9]

What is particularly noteworthy is that Sam Storms is a Calvinist who has written in defense of the Reformed doctrine of providence.
            The disjunction between the pre-cross Jesus and the post-ascension Christ also effects the way the Gospels are read.  The hermeneutical implications are brought out by Paul Elbert in his review of John Christopher Thomas’ work The Devil, Disease and Deliverance: Origins of Illness in New Testament Thought:
[B]ut it is clear that within much Evangelicalism today there is the unarticulated presupposition that, aside from the supposed non-paradigmatic nature of Lukan characters (especially regarding their involvement with the Holy Spirit), even the historical Jesus is not paradigmatic with respect to the activity of the spiritual Lord Jesus Christ, i.e., what the historical Jesus did in his healing ministry should not be expected in prayer for believers today.  I believe this approach, with its hidden stimulus towards reinterpretation with respect to the miraculous is at odds with the understanding of the primitive church and with the expectations NT writers had for their readers.  Thomas’ solid results make this ingrained speculation gap between the historical Jesus and the spiritual Jesus who pours forth the Holy Spirit in healing less likely, indeed they reduce it to disfavor, paving the way for a new scholarship to further challenge this corrosive and unevangelistic impulse from data in the text themselves.  Indeed, the essence and ultimate helpfulness of Thomas’ work is that the NT characters are emblematic or paradigmatic with respect to their illness and healings or non-healings, so that, properly understood the NT reality is apropos for applications to Christians today.[10]

These thoughts of Elbert offer a hermeneutical challenge to the Reformed tradition that often refuses to see Jesus’ ministry and that of the early followers as having any direct relevance or application today. 
This is a particularly North American and European problem in that these cultures read the narratives of the Gospels from a viewpoint heavily influenced by the Enlightenment.  The Reformed tradition tends to read the Gospels for its enduring message about Jesus but often fails to read them for any sort of modeling for the miraculous in the life of the church today.  This is not the case with those portions of the church in the Majority world that have not been touched by Western views of the Enlightenment.  As Craig Keener argues:
Readings of Scripture in the Global South often contrast starkly with modern Western critics’ readings.  These readings from other social locations often shock Westerners not only because others believe the early Christian miracle narratives to be plausible; they astonish many Westerners because these readers also often take these narratives as a model for ministry.[11]

The Reformed tradition with which I am most familiar simply cannot read the Gospels in this way in that its commitment to cessationism entails that the miraculous is all but non-existent today.  It is interesting to note that in the Keener article referenced above he cites a 2006 Pew Forum Survey that looked at ten countries.  Keener summarizes the reports findings:
In these 10 countries alone, and for Pentecostals and charismatics in these countries alone, the estimated number of people claiming to have ‘witnessed divine healings’ comes to 202,141,082 (i.e., about 200 million).  What may be more interesting in this survey, however, is the category of ‘other Christians’, with somewhere around 39 per cent in these countries claiming to have ‘witnessed divine healings’.  That is, over one-third of Christians worldwide who do not identify themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic claim to have witnessed divine healings.[12]

In fact, in this very essay Keener provides data regarding resuscitations from the dead from his extended family on his wife’s side![13]  The testimonial evidence is pervasive but a commitment to cessationism does not permit much of the North American Reformed community to see this evidence.  This not only produces a stilted view of the rest of the world but also creates a failure to read the Gospels with an eye for how narratives containing the miraculous might function as models for ministry today. 
            As a fascinating counter-perspective Tod Vogt in an essay on the Gospel of Mark sets out to compare the different ways in which different cultures read the narratives containing the demonic.[14]  Vogt worked among the Fon Christians of Benin, West Africa and he interviewed various church leaders about how they read specific narratives in the Gospel of Mark (1.21-28; 5.1-20; 9.14-29) regarding the demonic.  He contrasted this with a selection of commentaries written by scholars in the West.  In looking at Mark 1.21-28 he summarizes the comparison in this manner:
For modern Western Christians, salvation is primarily spiritual but for the Fon Christians salvation has very real physical dimensions.  This exorcism demonstrates this physical dimension of salvation.  Salvation and liberation from the forces of evil are synonyms.  Salvation for animistic peoples, including the Fon has the immediate result of providing power with which they can fight against the evil spirits or evil forces that torment them.  They focus on verse 24.  “And he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’”  Where Western theologians give emphasis to the identity of Jesus, Fon Christians give emphasis to the power of Jesus.  Their concerns are earthly versus the predominantly cosmic concerns of Western theologians.[15]

This should not be taken to endorse every single interpretative or hermeneutical judgment made by non-Western interpreters.  It does, however, raise an interesting question.  Which readings of the Gospel narratives—Western Reformed or non-Western—more accurately capture the intention of the Gospel writers themselves? 
            The Reformation tradition of which I am apart has a number of positive elements and benefits the larger Church in a number of important ways.  The largely negative assessment here ought not to be construed as a wholesale dismissal of this tradition—I am, after all, still part of that tradition!  Nevertheless, when it comes to assessing this tradition against the life and ministry of Jesus in regards to the miraculous there are problems.  Those elements of the Reformed faith that emphasize a strong cessationism miss crucial themes in the Gospels both at the hermeneutical and practical levels.  Michael Green’s words about the Western Church are appropriate for the Western Reformed tradition in particular:
Instead of being a community demonstrating the Lord’s power, we have become one which talks incessantly.  We need to remember that “the kingdom of God is not talk, but power.”  Where churches have regained dependence on God’s Spirit, where they have believed that God is active among his people today, where they have prayerfully asked him to give them not only qualities of character but spiritual power, then those same gifts which we see in the New Testament have appeared today… It has long been fashionable for us to dismiss these gifts as unnecessary or unattainable today.  We would be unwise to do so.  They are part of God’s equipping of his church for Evangelism.[16]

There is hope.  For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit may suffer himself to be quenched for a season but he is always the “wildcard” in the midst of the body of Christ.  He may yet assert his gracious sovereignty and bestow gifts as he wills—even if the church isn’t always ready or willing.

     [1] Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1999), 146.
     [2] Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 180-181 (emphasis added).
     [3] For one work that analyzes the cessationist argument of B. B. Warfield see Jon Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).
     [4] Greek: σώθη; 3rd person, singular, aorist, passive, indicative.
     [5] Greek: σέσωκεν; 3rd person, singular, perfect, active, indicative.
     [6] Greek: σωθήσεται; 3rd person, singular, future, passive, indicative.
     [7] Ben Witherington, “Salvation and Health in Christian Antiquity: The Soteriology of Luke-Acts in its First Century Setting,” in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts (ed. I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 161.
     [8] Ken Blue, Authority to Heal (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1987), 29.
     [9] Sam Storms in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (ed. Wayne Grudem; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 323-324.
     [10] Paul Elbert, “The Devil, Disease and Deliverance: Origins of Illness in New Testament Thought—An Appreciation and Critique” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 3 (2000): 143-145.
     [11] Craig Keener, “Cultural Comparisons for Healing and Exorcism Narratives in Matthew’s Gospel,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 66 (2010), n. p. [cited 12 December 2013].  Online:
     [12] Keener, “Cultural Comparisons for Healing and Exorcism Narratives in Matthew’s Gospel,” Online.
     [13] Keener has subsequently published his two volume work entitle Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011) in which he details numerous accounts of the miraculous throughout church history and today.
     [14] Tod K. Vogt, “Jesus and the Demons in the Gospel of Mark: Contrasting Secular and Animistic Interpretations” Journal of Applied Missiology 7 (1996), n. p. [cited 12 December 2013].  Online:
     [15] Vogt, “Jesus and the Demons in the Gospel of Mark,” Online.
     [16] Quoted in J. P. Moreland, The Kingdom Triangle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 172.