365 Days of Faithfulness?

If someone asked you, How many days in a row have you been faithful to the Lord?, what number would you give?

This morning I was reading in Genesis when I came across the Enoch account. It says, “Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years.” It goes on: “Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Gen 5:22, 24).

500px-Figures_God_took_EnochNow interestingly, of his total life, Enoch is accounted with 300 years of faithfulness to God, which, incidentally, began at the age of 65 after he had fathered Methuselah. (Methuselah, you will recall, is the one who is credited as having the longest human life in the Bible—or ever!—of 969 years).

We don’t know what it was that sparked this “senior moment” of faithfulness for Enoch. Maybe becoming a father at age 65 causes one to reconsider one’s life and the legacy one will leave for one’s child! At any rate, the text is clear that God’s accounting of Enoch’s faithfulness started at age 65!

Now as interesting as the beginning marker of Enoch’s faithfulness is, that wasn’t what jumped out at me. It was the number 365—the total number of years Enoch lived. Why?

As perhaps many of you, I’ve been reflecting on my goals and habits and thinking about the 365 days ahead. But as I read about Enoch this morning, I asked myself: Could it even be said of me that I lived faithfully for 365 (or at least 300) days in a row?

This obviously begs the question of whether one can be counted faithful and yet fall into sin. Protestants and Catholics alike are generally convinced that few can make it through a day without sinning. And to be frank, I have to believe that even good ol’ Enoch gave into to temptation once, twice, thrice in those 300 years.

And yet Enoch is credited as having walked faithfully with God.

So what’s this mean for us?

1) It’s never too late to start living faithfully before God. We don’t know what happened in the first 65 years of his life, yet the the Bible indicates that Enoch, after 65, was faithful for 300 years. We may not have as long as Enoch to live out our faithfulness to God, but we are never too old to start. It doesn’t matter if you are 6, 60, or 600 (just covering my bases here), you can start a walk with God today.

2) Faithfulness to God isn’t necessarily defined by sinlessness. I’m convinced by the broad witness of the scriptural narratives of the great heroes of the faith, that the faithfulness they are credited with is not based on perfect records of sinlessness. Just take a look at the Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame to see the line-up of sinful characters there! They sinned, and so do we.

And of course, theologically, we can never be reminded enough that the faithfulness credited to us is only by the faithfulness and sinlessness of Jesus Christ on our behalf. And yet, we cannot ignore the fact that sinning humans are credited as faithful in the Bible.

Here the phrase in Genesis 5 is so important. Remember what it says? “Enoch walked faithfully with God.” Human faithfulness here, and almost everywhere in the Bible, isn’t a statement about sinless perfection, but about walking with God in Jesus Christ. Walking means taking one step at a time, and continuing on, day in and day out. It’s the same word the apostle John uses in his exposition on sin and fellowship with God in 1 John 1. As we walk in the light of Jesus (I John 1:7), it is impossible to say we are without sin or to deny that we have sinned (1:8,10). But as we walk in Jesus, our sins are forgiven and we are cleansed day by day (1:9).

You see, we don’t measure the veracity of journey as to how many missteps, slips, and falls we’ve made, but by how we refuse to stop walking. So if you’ve fallen, slipped up, taken a wrong turn—don’t let that stop your journey with God. Keep on walking. Get on the path, ask God’s forgiveness, and move on.

3) Faithfulness should, however, be marked by greater victory over sin. Faithfulness in walking in the light of Jesus means that our awareness of sin should become ever more acute and our tendency should be to deal with it more and more swiftly and with greater resolve to see it killed in our bodies.

These reflections all started when I asked myself, Could I, by the help and grace and mercy of Jesus, actually live 365 days without sin? I doubt I will, but that doesn’t mean it is worth setting as a perhaps a goal.

This morning I heard about a Saskatchewan man who last January was feeling despondent about his life and he decided to make an audacious goal: To walk across Canada–just because. He wasn’t doing it for charity, but just wanted to see if he could do it. And do it he did.

Now don’t get me wrong: It isn’t about justifying ourselves by our sinlessness before God, but it is asking: Can I, with the abiding Spirit’s help, resist that temptation one more day? Can I stay on the path just another hour? Just as the fellow who walked across Canada needed to take one more step—and do it repeatedly—it is worth asking ourselves why we are unable to get through a day, or an hour, without giving in to temptation.

I don’t want at all to set ourselves up for disappointment and guilt and shame in failure. However, I do wonder if we—I—tend to give up or given a little bit too quickly.

And that caused me to wonder: What would 365 days of faithfulness look like this year? Each of us will answer that a bit differently and each of our circumstances will demand different disciplines. Some need to commit to being more faithful prayer. Others to curbing appetites. And others to accountability. And still others to finishing something that they’ve procrastinated finishing in 2018. Whatever it is, imagine the joy of being able to look back at the year, and for God to say, “And _________ [insert your name here] walked faithfully with God for 365 days…”


Three Reasons to Give Bultmann Another Chance

When Stanley Hauerwas was informed that he had been named by Time magazine as one of America’s “best” theologians, he responded as he ought to have responded:  “best is not a theological category.”

Similarly, the word “successful” is not a theological category. So when I say that David Congdon’s little book on Bultmann is successful, I hope I’m not making a categorical mistake.

Nevertheless, I will persist.

There are at least three reasons why Congdon’s book, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Cascade, 2015) should be rightly designated a “successful” theological book–successful because it gives good reason for those who have either given up, or never even looked at him in the first place, to give Bultmann a(nother) chance.



1. Congdon successfully casts into serious doubt, if not demolishes, many of the (mis)perceptions that many have held and taught about Bultmann’s thought. 

I don’t know which friend it was that Congdon is speaking about who “upon finishing the famous programmatic essay on demythologizing for the first time, told me he kept waiting for the sinister demythologizing he had heard so much about but which never arrived” (xv), but I, too, had a similar experience a year or two ago after reading Jesus Christ and Mythology. Clearly, not everything I had been taught or read about Bultmann is true.

That said, let me also say that Congdon’s book will not necessarily transform readers into devoted Bultmannians.That is because defending Bultmann isn’t so much what this eminently readable book is all about–even if Congdon is clearly sympathetic to much of what Bultmann was saying. Rather, the success of Congdon’s book is that he portrays, with great clarity and with excellent primary evidence, a portrait of Bultmann not as one who was seeking to destroy faith–as some conservative critics are still apt to assume–as much as he was seeking to preserve faith in God in the increasingly secularized and scientifically-oriented modern world. Congdon helped me to realize that I need to be much more cautious in teaching others what Bultmann’s program represents.

Most important in re-orienting me to Bultmann were the three chapters respectively entitled “Eschatology” (chapter 1), “Dialectic” (chapter 2), and “Self-Understanding” (chapter 4, which in my opinion, was one of the most clarifying chapters of the whole book). For it was in these three chapters that I discovered how Bultmann was locating himself in the 20th century debate about the nature of the kingdom of God (ch. 1); was seeing himself as a faithful participant, together with the early Karl Barth, in the project of dialectical theology (ch. 2); and was seeking to show that “faith understands God only by simultaneously understanding oneself, because the God [we] encounter in revelation is the God who justifies [us]”(60 – ch. 4).

Here I have to ask: Does this latter statement not sound a whole lot like Calvin in the opening pages of his Institutes?

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (Calvin, Institutes, I.1)

2. Congdon successfully makes the case that Bultmann should not be interpreted only through the lens of his associations and disagreements with Karl Barth.

One of the most clarifying moments I had in reading Congdon’s account was in his chapter on “dialectic” where he highlights, in line with Bruce McCormack, that it is Bultmann, not Barth, who most consistently works out the existential theology first discovered in Barth’s commentary on Romans. In other words, the true “heir” of the early dialectical theological programme inaugurated by Barth is none other than Rudolf Bultmann! As Congdon explains,

Barth would eventually change his mind [after his Romans commentary] about . . . eschatology. In his later dogmatic writings, he grounds the eschaton, and so theology, in the historical person of Jesus, and thus replaces existential theology with a certain kind of christocentric theology. Bultmann, however, consistently develops the theology of Barth’s Romans. . . . If Bultmann remains faithful to the theological position of the early Barth, then it follows that he remains a dialectical theologian, even in his later work.

In other words, in as much as the roots of dialectical theology  can be traced to Barth, Bultmann is more properly the one who seeks to “conserve” these roots. Thus, when Barth later broke publicly and adamantly with Bultmann, it wasn’t because Bultmann had changed, but because Barth had changed! (If you want to get a sense of my own interpretation of Barth’s mature understanding of dialectic, take a look here.)

Of course, the question remains whether one is persuaded to follow Barth’s christocentric vs. Bultmann’s existential theological center. But after this, I will follow Congdon in pointing out that Bultmann is actually more consistent in carrying out Barth’s earliest form of dialectical theology than Barth himself. It also illustrates yet another place where there was more change in Barth than he often was willing to admit.

3.  Congdon successfully demonstrates that Bultmann, whether one agrees with his approach or not, was not trying to destroy faith, but to understand faith under the conditions of modernity.

It is the case that to this day, Bultmann’s concept of “demythologization” is still commonly understood as simply seeking to” de-supernaturalize” the teaching of the Bible. Take Bultmann’s following oft-quoted statement:

We cannot use electric lights and radios, and in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. (quoted in Congdon, p. 105)

This statement has been regularly used as a key piece of evidence that Bultmann didn’t believe in miracles or that he somehow thought that everything in the Bible needed to be explained in naturalistic terms. However, as Congdon argues,

Bultmann does not think that belief in the wonder world of the NT can be isolated from the cultural context in which that belief comes to express, just as the use of the radio and modern medicine presupposes a distinct cultural context, as missionaries to remote tribes today understand well. Indeed, he would say this spirit and wonder world is not even an element of the NT kerygma, since it was a world-picture shared by everyone in that cultural context. It was as natural to them as our belief today in the capacity of scientists to discover the biological cause of a person’s illness. The early Christian apostles necessarily made use of their world-picture in bearing witness to what God had done in Jesus of Nazareth, but that can be no more essential to the kerygma than the use of Greek or Aramaic. (105-6)

So what, then, is Bultmann trying to do? Congdon convincingly argues that Bultmann was trying to take seriously the fact that we live in a “radically different–even incommensurable–cultural context from the authors of scripture, though this does not preclude intercultural communication since . . . we are not reducible to our cultural situation” (107)

Once again, we may or may not agree with how Bultmann sought to carry out what is essentially the missionary task of translating the Gospel into various 21st century contexts and cultures, but few would disagree that the task nevertheless needs to be done. Few, if any, believe that we can simply read the pages of the Bible in original Greek or Hebrew to a modern audience and expect them to hear and respond to the Gospel. Yet this is what Bultmann, Congdon argues, was simply trying to find a way of doing. In other words, Bultmann wasn’t trying to desacralize an “other-worldly” Bible into a “worldly” Bible, but was actually trying to highlight the dangers of pretending that we can bring the “other-worldliness” of the Bible into our world without risking the loss of its essential other-wordliness altogether! 

Let me conclude simply by commending Congdon’s “little book on Bultmann” to you, especially if you aren’t quite ready to delve into his “big book on Bultmann” quite yet. That is my next task…!

Apathy and Boredom in The Trotsky

On an airplane ride recently (Toronto to Regina), I was able to squeeze in a movie called The Trotsky (2009). I’d seen a trailer of it once, but never saw it in the theatre, so I was glad that I had a chance to see it. Filmed in Montreal  (including some scenes from my alma mater, McGill University) by local writer/director Jacob Tierney, this comedy sketches out the aspirations of a young Jewish high schooler, Leon Bronstein. The 17 year old is convinced that he is a reincarnation of Leon Trotsky (one of the leaders of the Russian October Revolution and friend of Vladimir Lenin) and so has his life all planned out in accord with Trosky’s own life-track (including things like marrying a woman 9 years older than him named Alexandra and finding his contemporary version of Vladimir Lenin). More specifically, the movie focuses in on his desire to create a student “union” to resist the “fascism” emanating from the school’s principal and detention hall monitor.

The movie was a lot of fun and sprinkled throughout with lots of effective little ironies. For example, Leon’s nemesis, the fascist principal  played by Colm Feore, in one scene passes by a poster of Vladimir Lenin, revealing a striking similarity of looks between he and the Russian revolutionary. And whether or not the movie actually was a not-so subtle apologetic for the superiority of communist ideals is overridden by the irony of trying to make such a case in the post-communist era in which we live!

Central to the movie’s portrayal was Leon’s frustrated attempts to motivate his fellow students to follow the cause of making their student union more than just an organization that puts on school dances. But as Leon struggled to convince his classmates of the need to “unionize,” he was faced with the question of whether these students were apathetic, or simply bored. This revelation comes to Leon as he sat in a history class where he was the only one engaging the teacher, when the teacher, in frustration, asks his class whether they are “apathetic” or “just plain bored.”

The distinction between apathy and boredom, of course, is a significant one. Apathy means that someone just doesn’t care. Boredom, on the other hand, may mean that someone is simply unaware of something significant to care about. In the end, Leon (and his small group of reluctant disciples) learn that their classmates are less apathetic than that they are simply unaware of something to care about–and therefore bored. This comes clear to Leon especially when he and his cohort successfully organize a “walk-out” of the whole school from class, only to discover that the students quickly become “bored” and end up trying to find something to entertain themselves rather than caring about the cause itself.

This led me to wonder: Is a problem in North American evangelical faith that we struggle more with boredom than with apathy? I have heard plenty of sermons over the years on the dangers of sliding into a lackadaisical Laodicean apathy. But perhaps apathy is not the problem as much as we simply don’t know what to care about. We have been told through a bazillion formats and media that we should care about this or that cause, but because these appeals come to us often without context and isolated from a network of people that we implicitly trust, we actually end up feeling bored with all the appeals and all the information.

It isn’t, I think, that we don’t care. I think most of us do care deeply about matters of faith and we do care that those matters are to be worked out in our context in some way. The problem is that we are so inundated with “de-contextualized information” that is all starts to sound little more than “background noise.” It is a little like the experience I had as I sat in the airport for 5 hours last week with a television monitor only 15 feet away. It is obviously assumed that most passengers sit only an hour or so, because after about the third or fourth 1/2 hour-long loop of combined news and “info-mercials,” such” information” became not only annoying, but strictly speaking, extremely boring. Though some of the “information” being conveyed was in fact about things that I actually care about, the tumult of information became so boring that I was tempted really to feel as if I didn’t care.

And so, the question that The Trotsky raised for me is not, “How do we combat apathy?” but “How do we help people to see through to the things that they really care about when we have become bored of the constant attempts to entertain us?”

Barth, Credo – “In God”

Karl Barth, “In Deum”  Credo, 11-18.

Barth begins his exposition of the content of the creed by paying attention to the phrase “in God” (Latin, In Deum). He argues that this first word of the Creed may also be understood as “the cardinal proposition of Dogmatics”  (11).

So what, then, does it mean to say, “I believe . . . in God”?

The main point of confession of belief in God is to indicate that the God confessed is not someone or something that is already generally known, to which the Creeds adds further information. It is not, Barth says, as if we already know God “in general” and need the creed to give us more details about what this God is like. On the contrary, to say “I believe in God” is already to confess that Who and What God is is entirely based on what God has given in his self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To say, “I believe in God” is to already to utter that God “is absolutely and exclusively He Who exists under these three names in these three modes of being, that is to say, absolutely and exclusively God in His revelation” (14).

Barth here is, not surprisingly, resistant to all forms of natural theology. Barth explains, “When Paul says (Rom. i. 19)  that what can be known of God (τό γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ, cognoscibile Dei) is manifest to them, for God manifested it unto them, the whole context as well as the immediately preceding statement (Rom. i.18) shows that Paul sees the truth about God ‘held down’ among men, made ineffective, unfruitful. What comes of it in their hands is idolatry” (11). Consequently, even the “unknown God” of the Athenians of which Paul spoke, “was, to Paul’s view, an idol like all the rest. Only God’s revelation, not our reason despairing of itself, can carry us over from God’s incomprehensibility” (12)

What are the implications of this confession of belief in the God who reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Barth notes four:

  1. For a person to confess belief in God is to have “the ground of a general faith in God . . . taken away from under his feet in so far as he sees himself, in his confidence that man could of himself believe in God, confuted by God’s revelation. The very fact of God’s revelation signifies: Man cannot of himself really believe in God. It is because man cannot do that that God reveals Himself. What man of himself can believe in are gods who are not really God” (14). In other words, belief is of grace only: “He who believes lives by grace. He who lives by grace knows that he is forbidden to snatch at deity” (15). [I loved that line!]
  2. If general faith is taken away from under one’s feet, however, the person who “believes in God in the sense of the symbol has from God’s revelation absolutely immovable ground under his feet when he thinks of God, reckons with God, speaks of God, points to God, abides by the name of God, and proclaims this name to others. He certainly does not believe in a God whom he has chosen for himself” (15).
    [I find it fascinating that Barth removes all confidence in human reasoning on the one hand, arguing that it leads no where in regard to the knowledge of God, but on the other hand replaces it with a confidence, indeed, a certainty of reasonable faith. To confess belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit gives, as it were, objective certainty–not an objective certainty based on natural reason, but an objective certainty based on gracious faith. Grace enables a kind of certainty which is “certain in the teeth of all uncertainty” (16). What I think is important to note here is that Barth does not advocate for epistemological certainty (the idol of the modern age), but rather for a form of pistemic (“faith”) certainty.]
  3. Belief in God, in the sense of the symbol, is a thankful belief. It is thankful not because God has enabled or gifted us to figure Him out, but thankful because He has given Himself at all! Were God not a self-revealing God, we would know nothing of him. But thanks be to God, we do know him because he has given himself to be known!
  4. Finally, to believe in God, in the sense of the symbol, means to recognize that one stands under God’s commands. As Barth puts it, “That [man] resists [God’s commands], that he keeps transgressing them, that he fails to give honour to God and that he cannot stand his ground before Him, that is …true. But it is still truer that he stands under God’s commands, that in his total foolishness and wickedness he is claimed by God, God’s prisoner, that he must again and again make a fresh start with the commands of God, and return to them. . . [God’s word] continually judges him, but it also holds him” (17). In other words, to stand under the commands of God is to believe in God’s holiness. “Even God’s holiness is not a truth that can be ascertained as such by an observer…[but] is apprehended in the fight of faith, in the sanctification of the believer through God’s revelation” (18).

[I found this chapter to be beautiful in its simplicity, even if jarring in its accusation of man’s (including theologians’!) tendency to toward idolatry. But I wish Barth would have been a bit more explicit about how this informs the “question of dogmatics.” It is as if the connection, which was more clearly spelled out in the first chapter, had almost been lost. Nevertheless, it is implicit throughout, I think, that Barth contends that the work of dogmatics, like the confession of faith, starts:
a) not with a general philosophical conception of God which is then “filled out” with revelation, but rather on the basis of an acknowledgement that our ability to speak of God depends wholly on the fact that God has first given himself to be known;
b) with gratitude to God rather than on a perceived sense of “personal mission” or on a sense self-fulfilment to be accomplished by our gifts and ingenuity;
c) with a clear sense of our subservience to God in the entirety of our work, a subservience that continually forces us to submit both ourselves and our work to be tested and judged by the standard of God’s own Word.]

Thinking about Miracles and Faith

When it comes to miracles, Karl Barth insists that we have one of two options: Either we believe them, or reject them; just don’t try to explain them. In his discussion of the Virgin Birth in the Göttingen Dogmatics, he says:

Concerning the miracle of the conception of the Spirit and the virgin birth, we must also say above all that no matter what stance we adopt we must accept it as a miracle. One can, of course, reject it, as one can reject miracles in general. This is in order. A miracle is an event that one can only reject, only declare to be impossible and absurd, or only believe. Anything that softens or removes this either/or disrupts the concept of miracle. Thus to make the conception by the Spirit plausible by referring to instances of parthogenesis in the lower plant and animal kingdoms makes no more sense than to defend the resurrection with the help of occultism and spiritism. These are nonclassical, second-rate, impure enterprises, as we should see even if we are resolved on rejection instead of belief. Why not come out plainly with rejection instead of engaging in apologetics? An explained miracle is obviously a miracle no longer. It is no longer exposed to rejection. It no longer has to be believed. Those who explain a miracle, even if they do so in a more sophisticated way than we usually find among rationalists, are simply showing thereby that they do not want to have to decide between rejection and belief.
-Karl Barth, Göttingen Dogmatics, 161. (Underline mine)

Is Barth right about this? Are miracles simply believed or rejected? Or let me ask the question in a slightly different way: Is a “rejected” miracle still a miracle? In other words, does a “divine event” which we have traditionally called a “miracle” have an independent ontology–an existence of sorts–regardless of whether or not there is belief?

Let me suggest that it might be good to think about this question similarly to how we might think about the nature of a “sacrament”: Just as the giving of the elements of the sacrament must be coupled with faith in order for it to be properly “sacramental,” so a divine event to be classified as a “miracle” must have “faith” as a co-requisite. It is only a “miracle” when a divine event is recognized as such by faith. Here I want to explore whether this might be a fruitful way to think of miracles in such a way that we get away from two equally inadequate views of the relationship between miracle and faith.

One inadequate view of the relation of faith and miracle  sets up a “cause/effect” relationship between faith and miracles, especially in some of the “word of faith” movement’s teachings on miracles, which practically makes faith the cause of a miracle. I’m dubious about this whole movement’s emphasis, but to its credit, this view at the very least recognizes how regularly faith is associated with the miraculous in the Bible, especially in the Gospels. However, the connection between the two in this view is too close, such that the “miracle” becomes so tied to faith that the miracle actually becomes  an “anthropological event” where the faith of the human individual is a more significant factor than God’s own sovereign free act.

On the other hand, another inadequate view so disconnects faith from the miraculous that miracles are viewed as events which can be independently verified apart the exercise of faith. The “evidence that demands a verdict” kind of apologetic might fit here. “Miracles are miracles are miracles!” these proponents might argue, whether or not one has faith. E.g., Jesus’ resurrection can be so proven to have taken place that one must, in the face of empirical evidence, accept it as a “miracle.”

But perhaps there is a third way–a way signalled (but perhaps not yet understood?) by Barth in the passage above. That signal comes in the underlined statement: “An explained miracle is obviously a miracle no longer. It is no longer exposed to rejection. It no longer has to be believed.” I might paraphrase and expand it as follows:  

An event that is explained as coming from any source other than the divine is obviously by definition no miracle. While the event may be explained through other means, it ceases to be a miracle precisely because it is not accompanied by faith. Just as the reception of bread and wine may stand as an event, it is not by definition a sacrament if there is no faith (either of the one giving, or of the one receiving, or both) present.

Thus, in order to find a third way between the alternatives as presented, we need to add a “third term” to the discussion. Rather than simply speaking of the relationship of “miracle” to “faith,” I want to suggest 1) a divinely enacted event, along with 2) human faith, results in 3) a miracle.  So the equation becomes: Divine Act + Faith = Miracle. Let me expand a bit on this. 

You will recall the story of Jesus being at his home town of Nazareth (Mark 6:1ff). There we read that the people there took offense at Jesus (Mk 6:3) and consequently, the Evangelist says, “[Jesus] could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them” (Mk 6:5). It is noteworthy that here the emphasis is the reverse of what we might expect. It is not that 1) a miracle occurs, and then 2) the people have subsequently to decide to reject or accept the miracle as such. Rather, it is that the people of Nazareth have already taken offense at Jesus–have disbelieved him–and so he is constrained not to do any miracles (except a few) on account of the people’s lack of faith.

So how might Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ “constraint of miracles” be understood? Why does Mark say that Jesus “could not do [ουκ εδυνατο] any miracles”? One could (as some do) say that Jesus was literally unable to do miracles because there was no faith, that he was bound not to do miracles in the absence of faith. That is a possible reading, though Matthew’s account (cf. Matt 13:58) gives a bit of different rendition when he simply says that Jesus “did not do [ουκ εποιησεν] miracles,” giving the picture that this was Jesus’ own choice. At any rate, this reading places far too much weight upon human faith as the main factor behind a miracle, and Jesus becomes captive to human whim and belief.

So rather than thinking of faith and miracles in this “cause/effect” relationship (i.e., “If faith, then miracle”), I wonder if we might understand Mark’s way of putting it this way: Where there is no faith in the divine act, there can be, by definition, no miracle. For in order for there to be truly a miracle, divine act AND faith must be both present. Mark is not saying that Jesus can’t display some divine power or work: if that were true, his authority would be called entirely into question and the lack of the faith of the people would be the mitigating factor that prevents Jesus from acting. On the contrary, the lack of faith in Jesus by the occupants of Nazareth  meant that any divine action Jesus could or might do would fail to be recognized as a miracle. And miracles, in the biblical frame, are always enacted by God as a witness to his own glory. So in this passage, Mark is wanting to say that Jesus knew that the exercise of that spiritual power in Nazareth would take place in a faith vacuum. Consequently, even if Jesus did a divine act, without faith there would be no “miracle” per se–there would be no recognition by the people of Nazareth that THIS divine act is a sign and witness to God’s glory through Jesus.  Another way of putting it is that if “miracle” is understood as an divinely enacted “Word of God,” “Jesus could not do miracles” in Nazareth, not because he lacked ability, but because he knew that such acts would return return to him void–as an unheard, unbelieved word, rather than the  Word of God which does not return void and empty (cf. Isa 55:11).

So I think we should neither set up a cause/effect relationship between faith and miracle, nor so disconnect faith from miracle so as to make the miracle having an independent ontology unrelated to faith. Rather, we need clearly to acknowledge that biblically there is a clear correlation between faith and the miracles everywhere evident in the Gospels (and, indeed, throughout the Bible). Faith is not the cause of a miracle; yet there is, in very real sense, no “miracle without faith.” For to disbelieve a divine act as a sign of God’s glory is to receive it as something other than God’s Word. It reduces the understanding of the “divine act” to a “secular event.” A divine act with no faith means no miracle. There is no miracle without faith–no sign of God’s glory with the believing eyes to see it as such. Whereas for those with faith a divine act is seen as a miracle, for unbelieving others, the divine event is perceived as nothing more than a secular event with some other explanation. This differentiation between a divine act being recognized as a miracle vs. a phenomenon begging another explanation corresponds to what Barth later (in the Church Dogmatics) called the problem of the “the wall of secularity” in his discussion of mystery:

Mystery is the concealment of God in which He meets us precisely when He unveils Himself to us, because He will not and cannot unveil Himself except by veiling Himself. …

The speech of God is and remains the mystery of God supremely in its secularity. When God speaks to man, this event never demarcates itself from other events in such a way that it might not be interpreted at once as part of these other events….

Even the biblical miracles do not break through this wall of secularity. From the moment they took place they were interpreted otherwise than as proofs of God’s Word, and obviously they can always be interpreted in a very different way. The veil is thick. We do not have the Word of God otherwise than in the mystery of its secularity.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, 165.

So I wonder whether it would be good to think of a miracle not as something caused by faith (i.e., “miracles happen when you have faith”), nor even something that causes faith (i.e., “miracles help to build faith.”) Rather, a biblical miracle is a divine act of God which is recognized as such only in and through faith. This does not negate the real occurence or “ontology” of an act of God apart from faith, but it does indicate that faith is the only sufficient instrument by which the divine occurence can be recognized as a “miracle” per se. In sacramental terms:  a miracle is the recognition of a divine act as a divine act in conjunction with human faith.  The implication is that even a divine act like the resurrection of Jesus is not an event that can be spoken of as a “miracle” independently of faith, but only as an event which, when recognized by faith as the ultimate act of God and the Spirit in raising Jesus from the dead, becomes a miracle–a sign of God’s glory–that enlivens and illumines the person with eyes to see it.

An analogy that might help to illustrate what I mean has to do with the composition of water. A water molecule, you will recall, is the combination of two hydrogen atoms together with one oxygen atom. Now as a long as we are thinking only in two terms (hydrogen and oxygen), it is difficult to define the “before” and “after” relationship of the H atoms and the O atoms. It is clearly not the case that the hydrogen causes the oxygen, nor vice versa. Nor can we said that hydrogen or oxygen are independent causes of water. Rather, water (H20) is the conjunction of H and O.  Water (analogous here to “miracle”) is the conjunction of Hydrogen (divine act) and Oxygen (faith). There is no need to deny that divine acts (cf. hydrogen) are able to “exist” independently of faith (cf. oxygen) or even vice versa. But it is only in the conjunction of divine act and faith  that a “miracle” has its reality. The equation is not: Faith causes Miracles, nor is is, Miracles cause Faith. Rather, Divine Act +  Faith = Miracle.

Of course, there is one more important qualifier that is needed, a qualifier I think the Barth of the Church Dogmatics saw more clearly than the Barth of the Göttingen Dogmatics. This is that Jesus Christ is himself the “object” of faith who gives himself as “subject” to us. It is not that the people of Nazareth lacked an abstract faith–some kind of “faith in faith.” Rather, it was Jesus himself who appeared in their midst who was cause for their stumbling. It was their failure to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the prophet come from God which meant that the co-requisite faith needed to become witnesses of the miraculous was absent. In other words, Jesus could not do miracles in Nazareth not only because they lacked some inward compulsion to believe in something, but because they refused to believe the Someone who stood in their midst.

He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.