Signs of God: Miracles & Their Interpretation. Mark Corner and How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study. Stephen C. Roy


Pp.viii, 219 , Aldershot/Burlington , Ashgate Publishing Ltd , 2005 , £50/£16.99, $94.95/$29.95,€79.29/€26.67.

Pp. 312 , Nottingham/Downers Green , Apollos/Inter-Varsity Press , 2006 , £14.99, $22,€61.56.

Corner tackles a thorny topic for philosophy. He examines the place of miracles as central to belief in God, arguing that they are not necessarily to be dismissed as pre-enlightenment and unscientific. Although he considers the nature and place of miracles generally in world religions (and amongst the non-religious), primarily he examines their place in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, approaching miracles from an historical as well as philosophical perspective. Corner's work is in three parts: ‘Miracles in Philosophical Perspective’; ‘Miracles in Historical Perspective’; ‘Miracles in a Non-Christian and Contemporary Perspective’. Part one opens with a discussion on the nature of a miracle - miracles as wonderful events, or as coincidence, or as God's intervention - which inevitably brings up questions about the laws of nature and the problems inherent in recognizing miracles; Corner then proceeds to give a workable definition of a miracle (p.13f), workable, that is, in the context of his study. This leads into an analysis of the sceptical philosophical considerations of David Hume. He then considers miracles as acts of God - initially in Biblical exegesis - then posits a distinction between ‘general’ and ‘special’ divine action (GDA & SDA, p.33), the role of human beings in these acts, and how the need arises to distinguish divine from human action in relation to internality in the world/nature. Inevitably Corner devotes much space to miracles and modern science; he considers how scientific thinking has changed - specifically the place of Newtonian and post-Newtonian thinking - and the question of SDA and the universe. This leads into a consideration of the anthropic principle, quoting Barrow and Tippler, Peacock and Polkinghorne amongst other so-called ‘scientific’ theologians, which opens to a reflection on transcendental Thomism. Corner then turns to the problem of evil, which raises questions about selectivity and the limits to our knowledge, also theodicy and the parenthood of God. Part two looks at miracles in an historical perspective: the miracles of Jesus the reluctant miracle worker and reluctant messiah: ‘The gospel accounts of Jesus' miracles present them less as a deliberate policy of self-aggrandisement and more as an almost incidental part of his ministry, towards which he is moved by compassion or even persuasion.’ (p. 86). Corner then considers miracles after Jesus: Paul, the apostles, the role of miracles in the conversion of ‘barbarians’, and the relationship between ecclesial power and claims to the miraculous in ecclesial history. Miracles after the Reformation leads Corner into a consideration of the enlightenment and the concept of a self-sufficient universe. He then turns to the central question in Christianity, the Resurrection (p.127f), and what this tells us about the nature of God. Part three considers miracles in a non-Christian and contemporary perspective: miracles in non-Christian religions and miracles in the modern world. Corner's work is inevitably wide-ranging; he concludes that miracles ‘within Christianity alone involve central theological and philosophical issues concerning the relation of God to the world, the way in which God acts and the goodness of God’ (p. 197); Corner's conclusion reassesses what he has established throughout his work by drawing on wisdom from Rabbinic Judaism, which warns against the importance of miracles, considering them ‘less as a physical impossibility than as a possible source of corruption … the tradition concentrated its fire on those whose miracles are a means of self-aggrandisement’ (p. 204). Corner concludes that whether or not miracles happen it is difficult to see how religious belief could survive without them; however, he ends by quoting (p.205) again from Rabbinic Judaism that ‘the height of folly is to place reliance upon miracles; the depth of wisdom is to know that miracles take place’ (Neusner and Neusner The Book of Jewish Wisdom: The Talmud of the Well-Considered Life, 1996 p. 171). Does Corner's work advance our understanding - our acceptance or rejection - of miracles? In a general sense this is a valuable philosophical work, and would make good reading for theology and philosophy undergraduates, though he does not really advance thinking on miracles beyond a cautious but open-minded scepticism; applying the same hermeneutic of suspicion to a scientifically grounded so-called ‘enlightenment’ would perhaps have been progress.

Roy's book is in many ways comparable to Corner's work on miracles - both are about the relation of God to the world, both draw on the Hebrew-Judaeo-Christian tradition, and is it not so that questions about Trinitarian omniscience often fall into the same categories as questions about miracles? However, methodologically this work is biblical theology; more pertinently, it is by a systematic theologian producing a comprehensive biblical study; Corner's work is essentially philosophical. Questioning God's foreknowledge may on the surface seem blasphemous to many Christians; however, such inquiring and searching is valid and will lead to wisdom about God's purposes. Like Corner's work this study is wider than a single religious perspective, and essentially draws from both Judaism and Christianity. Roy's work leads off from what he terms the current debate about omniscience (specifically, foreknowledge), which, he asserts, has not given full consideration to the biblical revelation. As a correction to this perceived imbalance, Roy analytically cites scores of passages - both from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures - to be used for worship and prayer, guidance and suffering, and for teaching on theodicy and evil, though, ultimately, to engender hope in God's triumph. Roy poses two questions: ‘Does the Bible teach that God's foreknowledge is exhaustive and infallible?’; and ‘Does Scripture affirm that God foreknows the free decisions of human beings?’ He defines the problem as arising ‘when this doctrine of God's exhaustive, infallible foreknowledge is combined with an indeterministic, libertarian understanding of human freedom’ (p. 13). Central to his study is so-called ‘open theism’, the open view of divine foreknowledge, which is in effect a variation on classic Armenian theology: that God is personal and significant (in terms of libertarian human freedom), and is perceived through an initiating and responsive love. Open theists hold to an ‘open view’ of foreknowledge, yet they also affirm omniscience and claim that God is ignorant of certain details about certain elements of the future - or more critically, this must be what we term ‘the future’, within what we perceive to be temporal reality. Roy argues that this ‘openness’ is reflected in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

His introduction sets the scene well for his study by immediately positing a workable definition of God's omniscience, thereby identifying and defining the problem and citing how the dilemma has been solved in the past; he then explains the position of ‘open theism’ and evaluates its strengths within a proposal of God's limited omniscience. He then examines in depth the ‘Old Testament Evidence of Divine Foreknowledge’: initially this is through an exegesis of Psalm 139, then by examining what he terms predictive prophecy, for example, seen in the promise and fulfilment of 1–2 Kings. A key section of scripture - the evidence of divine foreknowledge in Isaiah 40–48 - is exhaustively analysed, emphasizing the ‘utter superiority of Yahweh over all the gods of the pagan nations’ (p.43), which inevitably leads into a consideration of the Old Testament messianic prophecies, which Roy regards as essential to ‘open theism’ as a matter of predictive prophecy. He then turns to the ‘New Testament Evidence of Divine Foreknowledge’: initially this is through a consideration of the New Testament language of foreknowledge (for example in a consideration of Acts 2:23, Romans 8:29 & 11:1, 1Peter, etc.), which opens up the question of divine foreknowledge and prayer - in particular in Jesus' exhortation to his disciples. It is then necessary to consider foreknowledge, or limited omniscience, in Jesus: for example, in predictions of his passion, or the behaviour of his disciples, which raises the question of the purpose and value of Jesus' predictions. Having considered the biblical evidence Roy then posits ‘A Different View of Divine Foreknowledge’: ‘In spite of the kind and amount of biblical evidence citedopen theists do not affirm that God infallibly foreknows free human decisions. In addition to philosophical arguments offered in support of their position, they also appeal to biblical texts to support their nonexhaustive view of divine foreknowledge’ (p. 125). In pursuing this line of thought Roy considers the repentance of God in the light of human sin and as a response to intercessory prayer; also the evidence of creedal statements - but also considers biblical passages that assert God does not repent (!). This allows Roy to present metaphorical models and anthropomorphisms (p.159f), raising other texts to support ‘openness’, particularly in the testing of God's chosen people, the Hebrew-Jewish nation, and the use of ‘perhaps’ attributed to Yahweh (p.185f), concluding with consideration as to whether God's questions are rhetorical. He then widens the base of his study to consider ‘Two Critical Interpretive Questions’ (p.195–228): ‘Has our analysis of the biblical evidence been so shaped by the influence of Greek philosophy that we have not read these scriptural texts fairly?’ and ‘Does the Bible teach a twofold understanding of the future and of God's knowledge of it?’; much of the remainder of this section is devoted to wrestling with these questions, and Roy does consider whether conceptual similarities necessitate a causal influence, and whether causal influences as a Greek philosophical category must be viewed negatively; however, this still leaves the question unanswered as to whether our future - from God's perspective - is fixed or partially open. It is at this point that Roy could have extended his work with a systematic study of time-temporality and cause-effect, acknowledging the fallen, paradoxical and incomplete nature of our knowledge, our epistemic limitations, in respect of temporal and divine matters; such a consideration may have released the philosophical log-jam, so to speak, which remains in his work; and, of course, there are also considerations of free will and grace (Augustine). Perhaps he continues to focus too much on ‘open theism’? It is this absence of a full consideration of time-temporality, and for that matter, a full systematic consideration of free will and grace in relation to such an understanding of God's omniscience that leaves me unconvinced of an open theistic perspective, despite his discourse through scripture. He does, however, move on to consider the ‘Practical Implications’ (p.229–278) of his developing argument - essentially from an ecclesiological and pastoral perspective.