Beyond Medicine, Miracles, Reason, and Science: What Difference Marks the Experience of the Christian?

I was asked this excellent question recently and wanted to share the thoughts it provoked.

“Is preaching all there is to the kingdom of God in this present age? Does God not work miracles through men anymore? Must we have only rational ideas to be in the kingdom of God?”

The word miracle may bear too heavy of a semantic load. Do we mean by the term the sort of unmistakable sign which occurs in the NT or do we mean an act of God that may not directly override nature but which involves something beyond nature?  Might it include someone recovering from a disease from which they would not have naturally recovered? I pray all the time for the second sort of event and believe this can and does occur. I do not pray for a sign type miracle – the raising of the dead or the instantaneous healing of the blind etc. I am not sure what purpose such a sign would serve today. In the NT the miraculous signs were a confirmation that the one who can bring life to the dead and sight to the blind had come to bring about a permanent resurrection and healing toward which the signs pointed. I do not think we should expect such signs to occur or should seek them.  We cannot say this sort of NT miracle has definitively vanished but it would seem that the 400-year silence prior to the coming of Christ and the discussion among the Church fathers as to why the sign miracles of the NT had ceased indicates a special role for this sort of miracle surrounding the appearance of Christ in the first century.

The second part of the question concerns the role of reason. Before we too quickly dismiss the rational, I think we should point out that the rational itself is dependent upon the Kingdom – and not the other way around.  Philosophy, science, mathematics, sociology, psychology, etc., are not self-grounding enterprises. The development of the various sciences and the development of the scientific method per se depends on the fact and belief in the order of the universe and our ability to follow its logic. This depends upon the idea that there is a creator who made both the universe and our capacities to apprehend it. Creation is tied to the notion that the universe is readable – being created in the image of God we can discern his fingerprints. It is accessible through language – the entire universe is subject to a single code of law as there is a single legislator. Trust in human reason is preceded by the belief that human reason is a reflection of the lawfulness of the divine legislator and so is grounded in a transcendent reality. As Christopher Kaiser has put it in regard to scientific reason, “The invariant character of physical laws is grounded in the faithfulness, constancy, and utter dependability of God’s love manifest in all of his creation.” The universe is open to human comprehension (Job 28:26; 38:33; Jer. 31:35f; 33:25), which is not the case in polytheism, religious mysticism, pantheism, etc.

The medical doctor who posed the initial question to me may disagree with me here – but I would suggest that modern medicine has its roots in an ethic of healing and in the recognition of the need and capacity to heal that is partly traceable and dependent upon the healing ministry and teaching of Christ. As Kaiser has described it, “The early Christians believed in the possibility of healing and restoration that would truly benefit the needy.” This belief included faith in a God who had created and who could restore, a Messiah who had initiated God’s final rule over both the forces of nature and the structures of society. The Spirit who had been poured out on believers enabled them to carry on the work of Jesus and to extend it to all nations. Kaiser traces the beginnings of hospital care to the rise of monasticism—which also marks the beginning of technology surrounding time keeping and other technological innovations. As Leslie Newbigin has argued, the work of Christ in the incarnation points to and validates the use of material means for the advancement of human salvation. The church need not follow the Hebrew tradition of rejecting Greek medicine; “instead, it could use Greek medicine in the development of the healing ministry which was to be such an important part of its work in succeeding centuries.” This has been traced as a historical fact by Alfred N. Whitehead, Christopher Kaiser (see his book Creation and The History of Science), Thomas Torrance, and others, and, as far as I can gather, is not a point of controversy.

The nub of the question, though, is whether we can point to something in our immediate experience which is decisively different – perhaps not miraculous and perhaps not contained within the developments of the modern frame of reference? Scripture points to communities founded upon agape love or koinonia. The problem here is that we may use this language without being able to measure it or detect it. Many churches which would claim the reality of this love do not seem to have anything beyond what the local Lions Club or bowling alley might provide in terms of depth of relationship. I think our gatherings need to be able to point to practical elements of doing life together which would include the economic, the social reality of an alternative community made up of people which are not simply a duplicate of the surrounding community. Racial diversity, socio-economic diversity, alternative roles for men and women, a different sort of value. . .. The writer of Hebrews indicates we are to suffer reproach with Christ outside the gates of the city. He then lists the alternative economic, sexual, social, and ethical, practices this would entail. The difference in our immediate experience as Christians should be something we can point to in our practices which is outside the value system of our cities and cultures.

This different community should give rise to a different sort of experiential reality within as well as without. This should be characterized by a direct confrontation with neurosis and mental bondage. These are areas which are simply not addressed by recent theology and church as we know it. Shame, compulsion, addiction, are all the outworking of a particular bondage which the NT directly addresses. Perfect love and communities grounded in this love should be able to point to the internal healing of those whose minds have been restored to health.  Instead, our communities seem to foster sickness and neurosis.  Because of the theological emphasis under which we presently live the psychoanalytic nature of this malaise is left to mental health professionals trained – even when they are Christians – in a secular understanding of what it means to be human.

Part of my work has been to bring theology to bear upon the sickness unto death which manifests itself in neurosis – some form of which I believe the human race is afflicted. In the theological tradition extending from Augustine to Anselm, where a mysterious sin became the lens through which salvation was interpreted, not only sin, but salvation, became impenetrable to real explanation and practical understanding (e.g., salvation as an exchange between God and Christ in which an infinite offence incurs an infinite debt which can only be paid with an infinite surplus). If sin’s system is exposed by salvation this means that the categories of salvation are transparently meaningful as the dynamic displacement of sin.  This explains how Paul can establish the peculiar opposed pairs that occur between Romans 7 and 8 in which hope counters desire, the image of Christ counters the ἐγὼ, the body of Christ counters the body of death, the law of life in the Spirit counters the law of sin and death, God as Father counters God as law giver, and God’s glory counters suffering, as ultimately the Truth of Christ exposes and counters a Subject suffering under deception. The categories of salvation, in their positive fullness, expose and explain sin as the power to negate and pervert these categories (constituting life) with death. In this understanding we can point to the experiential difference which the Kingdom of Christ can make at the most personal level.

To develop this understanding theology must be an applied practical and personal theology. I in no way mean to separate out human interiority from human community so as to elaborate one more pop-psychology. I do, however, believe the NT affords us entry into mental/spiritual health characterized by a freedom from bondage to fear, compulsion, and even depression. I understand I am treading dangerous ground and I understand there are many physiological and mental disorders which should not be included here. Nonetheless, it is a simple statement of fact that we should be able to describe the difference Christ makes in the life of our minds and in the quality of life we experience.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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