In his new book, "A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles: Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ," renowned Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland makes a provocative claim. Ninety-five percent of what the average evangelical church accomplishes in a given year, suggests Moreland, could be explained even if God didn't exist.
In other words, too much of our sermons, programs and worship could be explained away (and perhaps dismissed by outsiders) as due to skillful leadership, public speaking and production quality. No work of God required.
While I would suggest that Christians should strive to see God at work anywhere, including in the mundane and ordinary, Moreland's claim is provocative. His book, as we've come to expect from the professor at Biola's Talbot School of Theology, is carefully reasoned and worthy of consideration. In it, Moreland explores what miracles are, investigates whether they are still happening today and offers guidance to Christians for identifying and experiencing them.
True to his profession, Moreland begins by defining his terms. A miracle is a "supernatural intervention" into the course of natural events, either by God or an angelic being. Included in Moreland's definition would be those answers to prayer that come through what theologians often call "providence," in which God works events together toward specific ends.
In fact, Moreland provides over 40 accounts of supernatural intervention: from miraculous healings, to stunning answers to prayer, to near-death experiences, to spiritual warfare. He even includes stories in which God provided what we might consider being small requests: a pool table, a hot water bottle, even a parakeet. Moreland not only stands by the accounts included in his book, he stakes his reputation on the reliability of the eyewitnesses he interviewed. And he includes accounts of miracles he personally witnessed and received.
In making his case, Moreland does more than simply rely on stories. He offers a biblical case for why Christians should believe that miracles still happen today, perhaps more regularly than we recognize.
Recently, Moreland discussed his book with Shane Morris for the "Upstream" podcast. It's an inspiring and important conversation, especially in a "disenchanted" culture like ours that tends to dismiss the supernatural without due consideration.
As Shane points out in the "Upstream" discussion, not every theologian shares this expectant attitude toward modern miracles. Some critics, such as 19th-century Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield, argued that miracles were "part of the credentials of the Apostles as the authoritative agents of God in founding the church." Because that main purpose has already been fulfilled, Warfield believed that miracle-working as a gift "passed away" with the Apostles.
Moreland disagrees with this view, even though his academic training makes him cautious about supernatural claims. Still, he believes that Christians ought to expect miracles as a regular part of the Church's life. He goes so far as to urge readers to "err on the side of belief."
Perhaps the most unique contribution of this book is Moreland's step-by-step guide on how to recognize a miracle and distinguish it from mere coincidence. Borrowing from the sciences, he employs what he calls the "Intelligent Agency Principle."
A true miracle must meet two criteria: First, it must be very improbable — in other words, not something that typically happens by accident. And second, it must be independently meaningful, or have "specificity." It must answer a prayer or fulfill a need that clearly shows God at work. By applying these two principles, Moreland believes it's possible to distinguish miracles from coincidences with almost perfect accuracy and give God the glory he deserves as a result.
There's much more to the book as well, like the discussion on angels and demons and an exploration of why God doesn't always miraculously answer prayers. It's a must-read for anyone curious about how God works in the world today and how we can experience it.
From BreakPoint, Jan. 4, 2022; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, www.breakpoint.org.