Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination

Article excerpt

Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination. By Robert Bruce Mullin. (New Haven, Connecticut:Yale University Press. 1996. Pp. xi, 322. $30.00.)

Robert Bruce Mullin has crafted a very smart study of the idea of miracles in the English-speaking world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; his book, in fact, should contribute in important ways to reshaping the scholarly conversation about the theological fault lines that defined Gilded Age religion.

On one level, Mullin's study is about the collapse of the revered Protestant idea of a "limited age of miracles." For 300 years, English-speaking Protestants had agreed that miracles-direct divine intervention in the course of nature and history in response to personal, petitionary prayer-had been limited to the apostolic church, and were granted then for only two reasons: to highlight biblical revelation and to aid in the establishment of Christianity. This idea had achieved something close to doctrinal status in the centuries after the Reformation in the Anglo-American world because it performed three essential functions: it helped to define the crucial dividing line between sober, Bible-believing Protestants and the magical, pagan world of Catholics; it anchored the unique authority of the New Testament in "mighty acts" different from all subsequent, post-apostolic "wonders"; and-especially after the rise of the "New Science"it allowed Protestants to combine a belief in the biblical miracles of Jesus with the Enlightenment vision of regular, orderly"Nature "

By the mid-nineteenth century, this pan-Protestant belief was under attack from a number of positions: from Protestant exponents of higher criticism like Charles Briggs; from agnostic practitioners of evolutionary science like Aldous Huxley; from Christian advocates of faith healing like John Alexander Dowie; and from "romantic" religious thinkers like Horace Bushnell. Mullin argues that by the final period of his study (1850-1930) the belief in the "limited age" had lost it hegemonic role in defining the beliefs of Protestants, and was limited to outposts of the older orthodoxy like Princeton Seminary.

But Mullin's story is a nuanced and sophisticated tale eschewing the heavyhanded traditional interpretation pressed by some intellectual historians-that the assault on the miraculous was part of an inevitable evolution of naturalistic principles of "modern science" after Darwin. …

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