Twin errors afflict a great deal of the thinking about God's activities in the present world. The first error swallows up creation in the miraculous. The second error sequesters the miraculous from the created world as it exists today. These errors are somewhat analogous to the Christological heresies of the patristic era.
There was a tendency, on the one hand, to blend Christ's deity and humanity (Monophysitism); on the other hand, some wished to create virtually two persons of Jesus Christ, thus isolating His deity from His humanity (Nestorianism). The Creed of Chalcedon rightly recognizes that the union of humanity and deity in Jesus Christ is "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation" The relationship of God to the present world is similar.
Merging the Miraculous and Creation
Unfortunately, some Christians, while properly recognizing God's intimate involvement in the world, merge the miraculous and creation. More accurately, they blur the line between the miraculous and the non-miraculous. This is the error of many modern evangelicals, charismatics, and Pentecostals. In the laudable attempt to preserve the miraculous, they conclude by undercutting the miraculous. They discover demons under the bed, experience God's miraculous hand in shifting from third to fourth gear to get through a yellow light, and expect routine healings of everything from migraines to hemorrhoids to ingrown toenails. Their great error is not in presuming that the realm of the present world is the realm of the supernatural; it surely is. Rather, their great mistake is in presuming that the supernatural necessitates the miraculous. This tends to severely diminish the impact of the truly miraculous. The creation of the world in six days, the universal flood, the Exodus from Egypt, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ, and His second coming are all miraculous, non-repeatable historical events. For that matter, so are God's miracles in the modern world - immediate, dramatic, physical healing; preservation from harm in dire circumstances; and unique, subjective promptings. Interestingly, many Calvinists, while correctly opposing the charismatics' (and others') practice of submerging the miraculous in creation, deny in practice the cornerstone of the theology they loudly affirm - the sovereignty of God. The Reformed, however, in exposing charlatans among the divine healers, had better be careful not to repudiate divine healing and God's other miraculous works in the world. To do so is to deny God's sovereignty and succumb to procedural Arminianism - that man calls the shots in all of life.
Their great error is not in presuming that the realm of the present world is the realm of the supernatural; it surely is. Rather, their great mistake is in presuming that the supernatural necessitates the miraculous.
The error against which these Reformed are reacting is nonetheless a real and severe error. If breathing oxygen, eating tofu, and catching baseballs are miracles, the opening of the Red Sea and the resurrection of Jesus Christ lose a great deal of their distinctiveness. Not surprisingly, many of those who embrace this imbalanced view often do not recognize the distinctive character of the great redemptive events of history, particularly those of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. What is important to them is not so much what Jesus Christ did definitively 2,000 years ago; it is what He can do in our lives today. The fact is, however, what He can do in our lives today is fully dependent on what He did 2,000 years ago at Calvary and from the tomb.
Practicing a Functional Deism
A more prominent error over the last 300 years has been a functional deism. The deistic heresy originated on English soil and posited a highly "rational," "scientific" religion. God made the world, and then, for all practical purposes, stepped back and allowed His "laws of nature" to take over. Deism is not Christianity, and no orthodox Christian could possibly espouse it. Nonetheless, professedly orthodox Christians do espouse a diluted version of it. They push God's activities to the far reaches of the universe; miraculous things go on in heaven, not earth. To them, the age of the miraculous is over until Christ returns. They must, of course, necessarily draw the line at regeneration; for, after all, one of the greatest miracles of all is God's resurrecting a dead sinner (Jn. 3:1-8; Eph. 2:1-7). But since regeneration is not observed with the senses, it is a "safe" miracle. But beyond that - and sometimes even regeneration is considered embarrassingly miraculous - there is little interest in God's immediate activity in the earth.
Functional deism pervades many sectors of the church, and it eviscerates the Christian religion wherever it touches it. Some use the expression "dead orthodoxy" to describe it, but that description is a misnomer; a form of alleged Christianity which denies God's miraculous work in the earth is not orthodox in any sense. The Bible teaches that God upholds all things by the word of Christ's power (Heb. 1:3). Every act in dealing with man and the rest of creation is a supernatural act. The fact that it is not miraculous does not mean that it is less than supernatural.1 Creation itself is the province of the supernatural (without immersing the miraculous in creation). God miraculously answers prayer; God heals the sick; God sends His blessings and judgment in miraculous ways. To exclude the miraculous from creation is to deny God.
Let us be careful to avoid the twin dangers of assuming that all of God's work must be miraculous, or that it can never be miraculous. Both are wrong. God's miracles are unique events. Today's creation is not replete with one miracle after another. The God we serve, nonetheless, operates supernaturally - and sometimes miraculously - in this world, and His work is supernatural even when not miraculous.
1. Those of us who are are cessationists (the apostolic gifts have ceased with the age of the apostles) may agree with Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.: "If it is necessary to say so here, the issue is not whether all spiritual gifts have ceased; they have not (what is at issue is whether or not revelatory word gifts continue). Even less is the issue that all who hold to the cessation of gifts, like prophecy and tongues, do so because they are trapped in an Enlightenment, deistic mind-set that has no place for the direct, supernatural activity of God in creation or within believers (although that may be true of some cessationists). . . ," "Challenges of the Charismatic Movement to the Reformed Tradition," in Proceedings of the International Conference of Reformed Churches, October 15-23, 1997, Seoul, Korea (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada, 1997), 176, n. 39, emphasis in original. To argue for strict cessationism (whether Biblically or historically) is not ipso facto to deny the miraculous in today's world.
- P. Andrew Sandlin
P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author. He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California. He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation. He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).