Friday, December 23, 2011

David Marshall: "Impractical Magic"

For my write-up today on David Marshall’s Jesus and the Religions of Man, I’ll blog about Chapter 11, “Impractical Magic”. I have three items:

1. On pages 238-239, Marshall states the following:

“As Christian apologist Bernard Ramm put it, a miracle in the Christian sense ‘must be a sensible event.’ Intuition and psychic phenomena do not qualify. True, those who believe without seeing are called ‘blessed.’ The Gospels are merely second-hand evidence for us in the modern era. But they are good second-hand evidence. Even as they recorded a sequence of astounding supernatural events, the authors show their commitment to truth in many ways: by basic agreement within differing points of view, attention to detail, an objective tone, by fairly recording the doubts and objections of unbelievers without trying to refute them at every point, and by laying down their lives as an affirmation of their testimony. Paul never asked his audiences to ‘take the Gospel on faith,’ or to pray God for irrefutable psychic experience. Rather, he spoke of historical events: ‘the king knows about these matters…for they have not occurred in a corner’ (Acts 26:26).”

Marshall’s goal in this chapter is to distinguish genuine miracles from magic. So is his argument that the Bible presents genuine miracles that came from God, whereas the miracles of other religions are mere magic, and so Christianity is true because it has divine confirmation? My impression is that this is the general direction in which Marshall is going, even though he emphatically affirms that God can do genuine miracles within non-Christian religions and cultures.

Marshall has criteria to distinguish miracles from magic: that miracles are practical whereas magic is showy; that miracles enhance human dignity, in contrast to such things as spirit possession, which degrade people; that miracles point to God, whereas magic points nowhere; etc. I do not think that these criteria are absolute. After all, one could argue that Saul was pretty degraded when he was ripping off his clothes while prophesying, under the influence of the Spirit (I Samuel 10; 19)! But I do have to concede that, the vast majority of the time, the miracles of the Bible are practical, for we see miracles of healing people, of retrieving lost objects, of stilling a storm so that a ship can arrive safely to the shore, etc. Does that prove that the Bible is true? No, but it does fit how I would expect a reasonable God to act. At the same time, while I agree with Marshall that we see a lot of absurd supernatural occurrences within Christianity and non-Christian religions, I would not say that everything that Marshall considers to be “magic” lacks practical value. Why can’t psychic phenomena qualify as a sensible event? Psychics have reportedly helped people with their gift.

What about Marshall’s remarks on the Gospels being good second-hand evidence? I can see Marshall’s point that the Gospels are straightforward and not flamboyant. But I have issues with some of his bases for seeing the Gospel authors as providing good second-hand evidence:

“by basic agreement within differing points of view”: That depends on how much discrepancy you can tolerate before you deem sources to be unreliable, or at least unreliable in their narration of certain events. For example, did Jesus cast demons out of two demoniacs before he sent those demons into swine (Matthew 8), or was there only one demoniac (Mark 5; Luke 8)? If all of these accounts are based on eye-witness testimony, wouldn’t you expect them at least to agree on how many demoniacs there were?

“by fairly recording the doubts and objections of unbelievers without trying to refute them at every point”: Marshall does not list examples here (though he may elsewhere), but I think of Matthew 28:17, which states that some people doubted when they saw the risen Jesus, and also John 7:41-42, which relates that some did not believe Jesus was the Messiah because the Bible says the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, whereas Jesus came from Galilee, and there is no attempt by John to respond to that argument. In my opinion, this does not necessarily demonstrate that everything narrated in the Gospels occurred in history. Why did Matthew mention doubters? Perhaps, on a homiletical level, he was criticizing a refusal to believe in Jesus. Why did John refer to an argument by non-believers that he did not attempt to refute? Maybe John was simply acknowledging the fact that there were many people in his day who did not believe in Jesus, and he was projecting that situation back onto Jesus’ lifetime. Perhaps the Galilee argument may have been too widespread for John to ignore, and that’s why he mentioned it. Maybe John did not try to refute the Galilee argument because he and his audience were aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and so he saw no need to refute it. Or he may not have known how to refute it, but he felt that Jesus’ miracles were sufficient to demonstrate Jesus’ Messianic status.

“and by laying down their lives as an affirmation of their testimony”: We don’t know what happened to the people who wrote Matthew, Mark, and Luke, whoever they were. As for the author of the fourth Gospel, my impression from John 21 is that we don’t know that he was martyred.

This is not to say that the authors of the Gospels were not committed to truth. They probably believed that they were recording the truth, as they organized sources and traditions into stories that accorded with their own theologies. Perhaps the author of Acts assumed that Jesus made a big splash in history, even though Josephus does not talk much about him. But that does not mean that everything they wrote was what actually occurred in history.

2. On page 254, Marshall states: “Often ‘revealed’ religions look like a hodge-podge of diverse influences with which the spirit medium has come into contact. The God of Muhammad, as has often been pointed out, shows the virtues and vices of Arabia.”

I’d say that the biblical writings, too, reflect their own cultures. For example, the concept of a god defeating a watery chaos shows up in the Hebrew Bible, and also in stories about Baal and Marduk. Much of the Hebrew Bible does not have a rigorous conception of the afterlife, and neither did a lot of the ancient Near East (except for Egypt). Paul talks about the passions of the flesh in a time when philosophers were concerned about taming the body and the passions of the soul. I have a hard time believing that the Bible has one consistent, divinely-revealed truth from beginning to end, for my impression is that the biblical writings reflect the various times in which they were written, and that this accounts for at least some of their diversity. But perhaps God was answering the questions that people were asking! When people were concerned about the passions, God gave his view on the passions, but God did not explicitly offer his viewpoint on that before people asked about them.

3. I like what Marshall says on page 249: “There is something about studying languages, dealing with bureaucrats and gangsters, killing cockroaches and cleaning up vomit on the floor that keeps a disciple’s head from swelling.”


  1. Since I am in Taiwan, this note that Marshall was a missionary here catches some interest. Does he say what group he was with?

  2. He said he was a free-lance missionary, in the book. I really liked his story about running low on food and other supplies, and God providing. I can think back to times when that could have happened to me!


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