How do you approach the miracles of Jesus? Believing or agnostic or dismissive? A look at the miracles that Jesus did is obligatory during the season of Epiphany, the Church season that we are in now. Because the season's about God making himself known in the world. So the miracle that usually gets most airing is the first that Jesus did, recounted by St. John (chapter 2 verses 1-11) and that is where he turned water into wine at a wedding.
I've spoken quite extensively about miracles before (here and here) So I only want to add to what I've said before, by thinking about how we might approach what we read of these extraordinary, and some would say unbelievable acts of Jesus. How can we cope with what we read about his miracles in our day to day life of faith? Are they relevant to our everyday following of Jesus?
In particular I'd like to say something about whether or not it's obligatory to believe in the miracles of Jesus to be a Christian, or can we be at least sceptical and at most not believe in them at all and still be a disciple of Christ with integrity and not be classed as 'outside' the orthodox faith?
It's a tall order and I'm conscious that I might be going out on a limb too with my own approach to miracles. So with that, here we go. And I'll try to keep it brief!
A majority, perhaps, of Christians would say that you can't be a Christian without believing that Jesus actually did the miracles, that what is recorded in the New Testament is fact, although it can't be proved. You accept them in faith. After all, to doubt what the gospel writers wrote points towards them having falsified the accounts and to be liars. Early on, commentators on the scriptures said that those who wrote them were people of the highest integrity. Eusebius of Caesaria, the first historian of the Church who lived between 260-340 AD said of the gospel writers, 'How could believers of such character ascribe falsely to their own Lord things he never did? That is why I think it has been rightly said that "One must put complete confidence in the disciples of Jesus, or none at all."' I'd say that probably a majority of Christians would hold this position today.
Others, more influenced by a scientific world view and the Biblical criticism of the last couple of centuries would say that the miracles are part of the myth surrounding the Jesus who actually lived. Being myth, the miracle stories still have value in communicating Truth. And because they can't be proved to have happened historically, then belief that Jesus actually did them can't and needn't be sustained. But holding that point of view as a Christian, they would say, doesn't make you any less a Christian or genuine disciple. I remember the then Bishop of Durham David Jenkins, some thirty years ago, saying something akin to whether or not the tomb was empty on the first Easter day, that it's really neither here nor there; that what's more important is the power and presence of the risen Jesus Christ in one's life today.
As I said, we can't prove, historically, that Jesus did miracles. Add to that, we read that Jesus refused to work miracles to prove who he was (e,g.Matthew 12.39) If Jesus refused to work miracles for the sake of proving something, we needn't take them as proof of anything about him ourselves either. Indeed, agonizing about whether or not they really happened can be a stumbling block to our developing faith, rather than simply reading of them in faith, for the good of and development of our faith. We know that God (Jesus) can do anything. Whether or not he did or didn't do something doesn't make him any less God.
I know that for some a problem can arise when we recite phrases in the Nicene Creed such as - 'Born of the Virgin Mary........On the third day he rose again,' if you don't believe that the miracles actually happened as recorded. Each of us has to live with our own conscience on that one and appeal to God's mercy perhaps.
Personally, I've never really agonized about whether or not the miracles that occurred in Jesus's life
healing of people and raising them from the dead, through his walking on water and turning water into wine and on to his resurrection. Some I really doubt, others like the healings, not so much. But I've not let that doubt stand in my way, become a 'stumbling block'.
The way I've gone about following Jesus is, above all, to try as best I can to listen to his teaching, try to understand it, and in my own halting way, at which I mostly fail, to live it as best I can. For now, I read the miracles of Jesus as an affirmation in the form of myth, of the Truth of the power and presence of God then and now, the power and presence of God in mine and other Christians' lives. The miracles may really have happened, but I don't need to believe they did. And I leave it to each one of us to decide where we stand as individuals with the miracles and what we mean when we recite the Creed.
That sort of approach, I think, as I said stops the miracles becoming a 'stumbling block' to faith and allows Jesus' teaching, which can be proved through our own lived experience, to become the foundation of faith rather than some of his unverifiable actions which can't be proved in our own lived experience.
The rest I leave to God and his mercy.