One of the suspicions evangelicals sometimes have about historical-critical Bible interpretation is that it derives from disbelief in the supernatural, disbelief in miracles. In other words biblical criticism is illegitimate because it is based on a naturalistic philosophy that starts out from a place that is hostile to the interventions of the biblical God. Kenton Sparks, in God’s Word and Human Words, claims to believe both in a supernatural, miracle-making God and in historical criticism of the Bible.
He disagrees with Ernst Troeltsch who gave 3 reasons why, after the Enlightenment, we don’t believe in miracles.
1.We apply Descartes principle of methodological doubt. If it is possible to doubt it, do.
2.We apply the principle of historical analogy. If other events like this one didn’t happen in history, this one probably didn’t either.
3.We apply the principle of correlation. If you cannot trace the cause of an event to earlier historical events, then it probably didn’t happen.
In regard to the first, Sparks says that applying methodological doubt to most of life would cause chaos. Existentialists and pragmatists have also pointed this out. Practical decisions and actions would become impossible if we had Cartesian doubts about everything. In regard to history, cautious optimism about testimony is better than a predisposition to pessimism. Our experience is that testimony usually points to actual events even if it does not give us a precise and infallible information.
About the second, Sparks says that historical analogy rests partly on assumptions about natural law that we all make. Even people who believe in biblical miracles employ common-sense doubt about such claims in everyday life. However the majority of cultures and religious believe there is a spiritual realm which sometimes breaks into the natural realm. Thus, even while recognizing natural law, they leave room for mystery.
Thirdly, Sparks says that the principle of correlation works in reverse if the miracle can be the cause of later events, e.g. the resurrection as the cause of the spread of the church. In other words, although you cannot trace miracles to previous events, you can sometimes trace later events back to miracles.
I am surprised that Sparks does not relate this to the belief in creation. Foundational to biblical faith is the notion that God created all things. This is itself a miracle. It has no correlation or analogy to other events. So, in a world that has been created by a divine act, we should not be surprised by other unprecedented divine acts. Perhaps the misuse of creation by some to refer to a literal seven-day, datable event causes Sparks to avoid this approach.
Also, since creation is the basis for the natural laws, miracles often seem more like fortuitous natural events than utterly supernatural ones. The wind blows back the waters so that Israel can cross the sea. An earthquake frees Paul and Silas from prison. But, by themselves, winds and earthquakes are not supernatural events.
Earlier in the book Sparks seemed to agree with Landon Gilkey’s criticism of the Biblical Theology school. Gilkey said that once they reconstructed the Exodus so that it involved just “ordinary causation” (p. 180), like an East wind blowing the sea back, Biblical Theology could no longer bear the weight of its emphasis on the Mighty Acts of God. Personally, I do not see how this follows. After all, the wind had to blow at just the right time–and stop at just the right time. Our judgments about these biblical miracles will depend, in part, on how we experience life.
In my experience, terminal illnesses have sometimes been cured after prayer. These cures were medically improbable. I know that it is a subjective judgment, but I see biblical miracles through the lens of my gratitude for what I perceive as acts of God in the present day.
So, like Kenton Sparks, I have little trouble using both historical-critical methods and believing in miracles.