Miracles and the telos of nature


I had to put aside Hans Martensen, due to other obligations. But I am now continuing with his Christian Dogmatics, which has been a joy.

Given the time period (mid 19th century), it is expected that he would treat, early in the volume, the controversies surrounding the supernatural in the doctrine of revelation. He affirms the orthodox position, but he wants to articulate it with greater sensitivity to the doctrine of creation. In my estimation, he does a fine job. The supernatural and miraculous is an anticipation of the new creation, completing and fulfilling nature in a perfect freedom given from above. This involves new “potencies” and “forces” that are discontinuous with nature as we generally experience it and observe it, and it is therefore genuinely miraculous, as in the miracles of Christ.

In the context, he is targeting Spinoza’s monism, which rejects any distinction between the divine and the natural, collapsing the former into the latter. Martensen sees this as the template for the naturalism of his own day, as popularized by David Strauss whom he also targets.

Martensen is arguing for a continuity within discontinuity, between the natural and the supernatural. The telos of creation is manifested through the miraculous, but the natural as such does not lend itself to the new creation bestowed by Christ and the Spirit. Nature is susceptible to the supernatural, capable of being molded by the supernatural, but it does not generate the supernatural. There is a real movement from God to us, from the beyond to the here. But this does not overthrow creation; rather, God is bringing creation to its proper end — the kingdom of God. The “lower forces” of nature, as we experience them now, are temporal and temporary. They give a provisional measure of freedom, but God is enacting genuine freedom in the new creation, inaugurated by Christ.

So long as nature is understood as fixed and eternal — or worse, commensurate with divinity itself — then the miraculous is impossible. It would be incoherent. The miraculous would have to be subjectivized, as in existential freedom (Tillich’s “miracle” of faith), which is the sort of thing that Martensen is wanting to avoid. At least, that is how I read him.

I have also provided an excerpt, later in the book, where he treats the bodily resurrection of Christ in similar terms. Herein, he also faults both Hegel and Schleiermacher.


Here we come to the opposing principles of Supernaturalism on the one side, and Naturalism and Rationalism on the other. If a distinction is to be made between naturalism and rationalism—they being in fact only two sides of one and the same thing, each necessarily leading to the other—the former is referable primarily to the objective, the latter to the subjective, side of existence. Both reject miracles; but naturalism directs its opposition chiefly against the miracle of incarnation, because it recognises no higher laws than those of nature; rationalism directs its main attacks against the miracle of inspiration, because it denies that there is any other and higher source of knowledge than reason. But, although there will always be men who affirm that the notions of nature and revelation, of reason and revelation (the latter taken in the positive, Christian sense of the word), are notions that exclude each other, yet within the Christian Church itself this can never be conceded.

We take first into consideration the issue between Supernaturalism and Naturalism. Here the decision of the question depends upon how the system of law and forces which we call nature, is conceived—whether it be conceived as a system in itself, finally and eternally fixed, or as a system that is passing through a teleological development, a continued creation. In the latter case new potencies, new laws and forces must be conceivable as entering into operation; the preceding stages in the creation preparing the way for them, and prefiguring them, though not the source from which they can be derived. This is the Christian view of nature. In terming itself the new, the second creation, Christianity by no means calls itself a disturbance of nature, but rather the completion of the work of creation; the revelation of Christ and the kingdom of Christ it pronounces the last potency of the work of creation; which power, whether regarded as completing or as redeeming the world, must be conceivable as teleological; operating so as to change and limit the lower forces, in so far as these are in their essential nature not eternal and organically complete, but only temporal and temporary. Hence the point of unity between the natural and the supernatural lies in the teleological design of nature to subserve the kingdom of God, and its consequent susceptibility to, its capacity of being moulded by, the supernatural, creative activity. Nature does not contradict the notion of a creation; and it is in miracles that the dependence of nature on a free Creator becomes perfectly evident. But, while nature does not contradict the notion of a creation, the assumption of a creation is quite as little inconsistent with the notion of nature. For, although the new creation in Christ does do away with the laws of this nature, yet it by no means destroys the notion of nature itself. For the very notion of nature implies, not that it is a hindering restraint to freedom, but rather that it is the organ of freedom. And as the miraculous element in the life of Christ reveals the unity of spirit and of nature, so the revelation of Christ at once anticipates and predicts a new nature, a new heaven, and a new earth, in which a new system of laws will appear; a system which will exhibit the harmony of the laws of nature and of freedom,—a state for which the whole structure of the present creation, with its unappeased strife between spirit and nature, is only a teleological transition period.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 19-20]

And here is how Martensen treats the bodily resurrection of Christ, related to the above discourse:

The denial of the miracle of the resurrection is not, therefore, the bare denial of a single historical fact, it is a denial of the entire prophetic aspect of the world which Christianity presents; which finds in the resurrection its beginning in fact. A view of the world which makes the present order of things perpetual, and which considers the eternal to be only a continual present, naturally allows no room for the resurrection of Christ, which is an interruption of the order of this world by the higher order of creation still future; and which is a witness to the reality of a future life; yea, it is even that future life itself in the actual present; the beginning of “the last things,” concerning which the Apostles witness that we who live after the resurrection of the Lord live “in these last times” (1 Peter i.20), and that it now remains for the risen Savior again to manifest Himself to judge both the quick and the death. This, the Christian view of the world, overthrows the mythical interpretation of the resurrection advocated now-a-days, and the biblical criticism resting thereupon. As Hegel omitted this Christian escatology, it was natural that those who followed in the steps of his philosophy would go on to deny the resurrection as something which had no foundation in fact. And when Schleiermacher, though reverence for apostolic testimony prevented his denying the fact of the resurrection, yet could attribute to it no doctrinal significance, nor draw any inference from it; this in like manner arose from the well-known uncertainty and indistinctness of his teaching in relation to future and final realities.

[pp. 319-320]



  1. In trying to understand the Kierkegaard/Martensen feud:

    I wonder if Kierkegaard was up in arms over Martensen because he could so strongly articulate beyond the philosophical pitfalls of Hegel and Schliermacher/Kant in intellectual terms, all the while robbing the revolution of the Gospel.

    In other words, Martensen’s message seems so right, but is without the demand, ‘Therefore, Repent and believe’ that shatters all our molds of self-assurance. It’s one thing to understand the resurrection, properly even. It’s another to be baptized into Christ’s resurrection.

    I’ve not read Martensen, so I’m not going to allow Kierkegaard to be right. But his thought was that the Devil could be one of the clearest articulators of theology, but in a way that would cover people in a fog of comfortability.

    It might be unfair of Martensen to expect this of him in his work, but perhaps it was his comfortable establishment life amidst the bourgeoisie of Denmark. I sympathize with the perhaps ravings of Kierkegaard against perceived corruption of taking Truth and wrapping it in the purple of respectability.

    My thoughts,

    • I really do wonder about Kierkegaard’s disdain for Martensen. Martensen was clearly not a Hegelian in significant respects, and Jon Stewart’s massive work, Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, makes that clear (p. 58ff.). So far in what I’ve read from Martensen’s dogmatics, he has already repeatedly cautioned against “believing” without regeneration, in a valuable discourse on fides quaerens intellectum, where he faults Hegel yet again for beginning with reason and human autonomy. There are indeed Hegelian bits here and there, as seen above in Martensen’s view of creation as having a telos in the kingdom, but on the crucial aspects of Hegel’s philosophy (dialectic of Spirit as immanent to creation), he parts company with Hegel.

      So, I will be really curious to see where Martensen may falter in the eyes of Kierkegaard. Maybe we’ll see it in his soteriology. Or maybe there are other extenuating factors, namely the state church relations you mentioned, that prejudice Kierkegaard against Martensen. I know that Martensen esteemed a predecessor bishop in the eulogy at his funeral, a bishop whom Kierkegaard despised.

      I have only read a few pages from Stewart’s book, but I am sure that it will shine some profitable light on the question of their relationship.

    • Yes, and moreover he faults naturalism as a failure in grasping the eschatological as essential to the gospel, which anticipates a lot of 20th century theology.

      • Interesting positions to hold for that time and place (I’m assuming Germany or somewhere on the continent). Definitely against the grain to attack both naturalism and the German idealism that was the background for a lot of dogmatics.

      • Yes, yet according to Stewart he taught Hegel with great respect while teaching at Copenhagen, contributing to the popularization of Hegel among Danish theologians and clerics. This resulted in Martensen being characterized as a Hegelian by many, even though he rejected the label, while others (presumably those who actually studied his writings closely) understood him as an anti-Hegelian.

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