by John M. Frame
[A book review originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 47:1 (Spring, 1985), 140-146. Used with permission.]
Colin Brown: Miracles and the Critical Mind.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984. viii, 383. $18.95.
Colin Brown, Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, has written what is in many ways a definitive treatise on the subject of miracle. It is both a history of thought on the matter and an analysis of many important issues.
The author’s historical research has been remarkably thorough, virtually exhaustive of the literature in English on the topic, and covering well some significant authors who have written in other European languages. I often felt, in fact, that Brown was trying to cover too many figures; I learned more than I really wanted to know about the obscurer writers of the deist period (47ff), and about the nineteenth century “embattled orthodox” (esp. 147ff). (By the way, why are S. T. Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, F. W. Newman, Matthew Arnold and F. D. Maurice included in a section on “Protestant orthodoxy?”) Perhaps Brown sought such completeness in order to give the book qualities of a reference text, but I think his evident (occasional) desire for “total coverage” sometimes detracts from the progress of the book’s substantive arguments. (He rather often describes someone’s idea without any real analysis or evaluation, then leaves it without noting any clear relation to his own theses.) On the other hand, there are also some significant omissions. Dutch reformed theology is not handled well: Brown mentions Kuyper only briefly in a footnote (357), Bavinck and the cosmonomic thinkers not at all. Berkouwer, also, is omitted, though the chapter on miracle in his The Providence of God is one of the more helpful treatments available. Is Berkouwer’s thought not at least as important as that of Thomas Chubb or Viscount Bolingbroke (51)? Brown’s rationale for including one figure and excluding another sometimes escapes me. Still, we must be grateful for the enormous amount of work Brown has put in on this project. The reader needs only to look through the forty-seven pages of rich, concise endnotes to recognize the presence of scholarship of a high order.
The substantive discussion of issues surrounding miracle is interspersed with the historical material and is summarized in a forty-six page “Postscript.” Topics covered cluster around the issues of (1) the definition of miracle, (2) the possibility of miracle, (3) the possibility of identifying an event as miraculous, (4) the evidential value of miracles, and (5) the place of miracles in the four gospels. (These are my titles; Brown divides the material differently.) The question of whether miracles occur today also comes up in the expositions of past thinkers, but Brown offers no analysis of his own on that subject.
(1) Brown’s discussions of the definition of miracle present a somewhat surprising pattern, though he himself does not seem to make very much of it. While the detractors of orthodox Christianity, such as Spinoza (30ff) and Hume (79ff) define miracle as a “violation of the laws of nature” and criticize the concept as such, few if any Christian thinkers have defined the term that way. Aquinas, immersed as he was in natural law and nature/grace problematics, is perhaps an exception: for him, a miracle “properly” speaking is an event beyond the power of any creature, possible only by divine agency (12). That may be equivalent to Hume’s definition, once all the Aristotelian apparatus is made explicit; but that is not obvious. Warfield, too, said that miracles require at some point the “immediate efficacy of God” (199), but he also denied that miracle was “contranatural.” (The contrast between “immediate” and “mediate” efficacy raises some problems- one of the few problem areas which Brown does not address in the book.) Warfield’s idea, and possibly also that of Aquinas, was of a new cause entering the system of nature, leaving all the former causal patterns otherwise intact. (Cf. also C. S. Lewis, “an interference with Nature by supernatural power” (291): note, an interference with nature, not a violation of natural law. A model similar to Warfield’s seems here to be at work.)
And Christians outside the Thomistic tradition have typically endorsed much more “naive” (I would say more biblical) definitions. Augustine’s (which Aquinas, interestingly, endorses) is far from any enlightenment speculation about laws of nature: “whatever appears that is difficult or unusual above the hope and power of them who wonder” (7). Brown finds similar conceptions in John Donne (28), Isaac Newton (75), Joseph Butler (95), John Locke (95), J. H. Newman (138), Blondel (142), Horace Bushnell (164), Ian Ramsey (183), Robert Young (191), Douglas Erlandson (192ff), Norman Geisler (210ff), Louis Monden (216) and Alan Richardson (225ff), and he notes few (if any) clear examples of “violation” definitions (though he discusses R. F. Holland who says that some miracles may be “violations” (174ff)).
I wish that Brown had made some comments about this pattern, for it would seem to be significant. If Brown is right and I have interpreted him correctly, it would seem that many criticisms of the Christian doctrine would have to be at least restructured. The question, then, would not be how testimony for miracle could overcome testimony in favor of natural law (Hume), but rather what grounds we have for denying evidence for something “difficult or unusual” (Augustine), or for denying the possibility of a “new cause” entering the system (Warfield).
(2) Brown is more concerned with the possibility of adequate testimony for miracles [see (3) below] than with the possibility of miracles as such. He does, however, refute the suggestion that a basis for miracle might be found in the supposed “randomness” of the universe proposed by quantum physicists (179f, 206ff, 291), rightly pointing out that such a “basis” actually destroys miracle in the biblical sense by explaining it naturalistically. Rather, Brown argues, we should seek the ground of possibility for miracle in the reality of God and the analogy between divine and human activity: as we can initiate and terminate sequences, so can God (291). Thus when we assert the possibility of miracle, there is always an element of faith-commitment involved (183, passim.). Miracle is possible because God exists.
(3) On the question of the identification of miracle, Brown discusses Hume’s arguments, and the various rejoinders to them, in considerable detail. Hume argues, a priori, that testimony in favor of miracle can never overcome the “firm and unalterable experience” we have that things always occur by natural means; then he argues a posteriori that the actual testimony in favor of miracles is questionable because of the incompetence, bias, etc. of the witnesses. Brown gathers a great many replies to these arguments, some quite useful: (a) Hume has no right to speak of a “firm and unalterable experience” without first investigating the testimony for and against miracle; yet he claims to be able to dismiss such testimony a priori because of that “firm and unalterable experience (92).” (b) The argument against miracle is not consistent with Hume’s own account of causation (93). (c) Questions arise in connection with Hume’s definition of miracle as a “violation of the laws of nature” (94ff; see (1) above). (d) Hume is unfair in his criteria for the evaluation of testimony (96ff).
This discussion leads Brown to some broader epistemological observations: “The significance of Hume’s critique lies in the fact that it raises the question of the frame of reference in which any piece of historical data has to be assessed.(98f)” Hume advanced a particular frame of reference, a particular set of presuppositions for the analysis of historical data; but he advanced those presuppositions dogmatically, attempting “to foreclose discussion” on the question of what frame of reference is best. But that question will not go away: “What we call historical facts are not items of data that can be directly inspected but interpretation placed on data that have commanded acknowledgment.(99)”
This denial of brute fact is one of the pervasive themes of the book. Brown presents it not only as his own view, but as the view of most all Christian apologists and theologians through history. Those who know Bishop Joseph Butler only by way of Van Til’s syllabus Christian-Theistic Evidences may be surprised to hear that Butler was a sort of “presuppositionalist”(59). He believed that “all facts are theory laden” (same page). “Butler’s case is built upon the presupposition of ‘an intelligent Author and Governor of nature’ as the necessary condition for the rationality of the universe and objective moral values” (same page). Of course, that sort of presupposition would be insufficient for Van Til, who challenges us to presuppose nothing less than the full biblical teaching. But Butler here does recognize that the facts cannot be rightly assessed apart from some faith commitment, the only question being which faith commitment.
Brown makes similar points about Ian Ramsey (183ff), B. B. Warfield (!) (197ff), John Warwick Montgomery and Norman Geisler(!!) (206ff), Alan Richardson (225ff); cf. his own analysis of the question (279ff). It is illuminating to see the concessions to presuppositionalism within the “evidentialist” tradition. (Cf. in this regard my review of Sproul, Gerstner and Lindsley, Classical Apologetics) in this journal. In the treatments of Ramsey and Richardson, I think that Brown is too uncritical of the rather sharp distinctions these men make between scientific and religious (or historical) reasoning. After Kuhn and Polanyi, to say nothing of Van Til and Dooyeweerd, surely we must recognize that facts are “theory laden,” even “faith laden” in science as much as in theology or history. Perhaps this confusion lies behind Brown’s statement toward the end that “miracles cannot be the object of scientific investigation, for science can only deal with nature as it is left to itself” (292). This statement is curious, first in that it suggests a picture of an autonomous natural order (“nature… left to itself”) which Brown seemed to have rejected in refusing to define miracles as “violations.” Second, it suggests that science can have no dealings with God, when in fact science is as dependent on faith commitments as are history and theology.
(4) The evidential value of miracles likewise turns on the question of faith presuppositions and the relation of facts to theory. Again, the reader may be surprised at how many Christian thinkers through history have been presuppositionalists of a sort. Comparing Brown’s treatment with that of the authors of Classical Apologetics may convince the reader of the influence of presuppositions in historical analysis! As I said in my review of that book, I think the truth is somewhere in between the two views. Still, the frequency of assertions that miracles prove Christianity only to the eyes of faith seemed remarkable to me.
I don’t understand, therefore, why Brown structures his discussion in terms of a controversy between a faith-commitment view and a “hard evidentialist” position “which regards evidential data in and of itself as sufficient proof of the conclusions to be drawn”(145). In my study of this volume, I could not find a single thinker who could be classified as a “strict” evidentialist. Locke is not one of them (58), nor is Butler (59), nor Paley (144ff). Nor (perhaps to the surprise of some) were Archibald Alexander (163f), W. G. T. Shedd (166), Charles Hodge (166f).(Brown thinks Hodge was too much an evidentialist, but not a consistent one, and therefore, I would judge, not a “hard” or “strict” one.) Nor Warfield, Carnell, Montgomery, Geisler (198-215). But strangely, after showing that all of these “evidentialists” conceded in effect the presuppositional point, Brown concludes: “Geisler’s work may represent the end of the line of the strict evidentialist approach to the Gospel miracles. It is a line that Roman Catholic and British Protestant writers on this subject have already passed”(215). Geisler a strict evidentialist? I thought Brown had just finished proving the contrary. And I honestly don’t see in Brown’s discussion any evidence that the Roman Catholic and British writers were any more sophisticated in these matters than the theologians of Old Princeton or modern American evangelicalism; the comparison seems quite gratuitous.
Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that Brown regards as an “evidentialist” (however “hard” or “strict”) anyone who claims that miracles “prove” Christianity. To him, that claim is incompatible with the view that knowledge of God comes by faith and that miracles themselves cannot be rightly assessed apart from faith. Although he does not say so, he seems to be trying (like many evidentialists!) to avoid circular argument in Christian apologetics. One may see miracle as part of our faith commitment, or as a proof of Christianity, he seems to be saying, but not both. Here, he could learn much from Van Til, who argues that all proof, all argument for Christianity presupposes faith, but that this circularity is inevitable. Argument for an ultimate criterion of truth (such as the God of the Bible) must always be circular, presupposing for its own intelligibility the criterion it seeks to establish. But that fact does not detract from the argument’s evidential value. God has made man’s mind to reason in a theistic way. Even the unbeliever knows at some level that what this circular argument says is true; and to reiterate that argument is to press the truth upon him in the most cogent way.
(5) Brown’s discussion of the place of miracle in the gospel accounts (293ff) makes some interesting points. The works of Jesus, he argues, are not straightforward proofs of his divinity. They are works of the Father, works of the Spirit, works of the Word (logos). Rather than being proofs of the Christian message, therefore, the miracles are “more like the prophetic signs of the Old Testament the prophet performed to illustrate and embody his message” (323). Miracles can harden as well as convince; the difference is faith (323f). All of this reinforces Brown’s position on “evidence” [see (4) above]. Here, therefore, I continue to have a problem with his too-sharp contrast between proof and faith commitment.
The discussion of the role of the Father, Word and Spirit in miracle leads Brown to some reflections on the doctrine of the Trinity (324ff). He wants to deny that the persons of the trinity are each “autonomous” from the others in a tritheistic sense. Thus he repudiates the tendency in Christian thought to “relate the miracles to the exclusive personal action of Jesus and…treat them in isolation from the activity of the Father and the Spirit” (325). I confess to some confusion here. He gives no examples of this tendency, and I really have no clear idea of what he has in mind. Further, although I too repudiate tritheism and understand that “person” originally did not designate an autonomous individual, I am unsatisfied with a mere statement to the effect that “The three persons of the trinity are three ways in which God is God” (325). Without qualification, that statement could be pressed in a Sabellian direction. As he says, “these must remain questions for other studies” (325). I wish he had saved them for later, for a time when he could present them in more cogent form.
In the preface, Brown indicates his plan to write another book on miracle, focussing on exegetical questions. That is welcome news, for the chapter on Scripture in the present book is inadequate as it stands. For one thing, it deals only with the four gospels, not with the O.T. or Acts or with miracle terminology elsewhere in the N.T. Further, of the many substantive issues discussed in the historical portion of the book, very few of them are raised in the exegetical chapter. Only the point about “proof” and “faith” arises in a direct examination of scripture. But many other problems cry out for exegetical study: What definitions or concepts of miracle adequately reflect the biblical data? Is there a “biblical standard of possibility” for historical events? How did the people of God in Scripture identify events as miraculous? Surely as the Christian faces these questions his first concern must be to find answers coherent with biblical teaching.
Still, we can hardly fault Brown for including too little in this immensely rich volume! More needs to be said, to be sure, but that can wait. It will be some years before we absorb all that he has taught us here. We have gained herein much information, and also much edifying instruction about the place of faith in the Christian’s knowledge of God.