Experience Or The Bible?

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
29th January 2010

Tagged: experience miracles prayer roman catholicism saints

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What are we to make of Mary MacKillop’s miracle cure?

En route to declaring Mary MacKillop as Australia’s first Saint, the Pope’s advisors have thoroughly tested the medical evidence of the cure of a cancer patient.  It has been investigated very carefully to make sure that the doctors saw no hope of cure and that the cure has been complete.  No doubt, the people involved are sincere and are not making financial gain from their testimony.

Recently, on the Sydney Anglican website, Mark Gilbert wrote a helpful article on how to talk to our Roman Catholic friends about this miracle.  But what are we to make of it ourselves?

Should we rejoice in answered prayer?  Should we doubt the evidence before us?  Should we learn from this to pray to the Saints for their assistance in prayer to God?  Should we see this as evidence that Mary MacKillop is a ‘Saint’, who has already been accepted by God into his presence?  Should we pray to, or even for, the dead?
Secularist commentators have been deeply offended by the suggestion that prayer changes anything or that God ever cures people.  Their view of the world does not allow the possibility of God’s intervention into the physical reality of disease.  So in order to attack the supernatural, they ask: “Why should God cure one person when thousands are dying of hunger or disaster, like in Haiti?”  Or they point to the number of people who have automatic remission of their cancer without prayer, or the number of people who pray and are not cured.

But Christians believe that God answers our prayers as he determines is best for us.  That as the sovereign ruler of the universe there is nothing impossible for him (Luke 1.37, 18.27).  So God curing somebody of an apparently incurable cancer, while extraordinary, is not unbelievable for us.  We may not know why God answers the prayer of one person and not another, but we always pray for everything and rejoice with thanksgiving whenever we see God giving us the things we have prayed for.

But what about asking Mary MacKillop to pray to God for us - will God hear the prayers offered in her name, or offered by her on behalf of other people?  Was the woman healed because God listened to Mary MacKillop?  And what is the wisdom of praying to somebody who has not yet been declared a Saint? Can a non-Saint, or someone who has been declared a Saint for that matter, hear and assist in our prayers?

At this point there is a conflict between experience and the Bible – a conflict that is increased by the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.  It poses for us the choice of whether our belief, about prayer and life after death will be determined by the Bible or by our experience.  In this case the experience is being interpreted by Roman Catholic teaching.

The controversy between Bible believers and Rome over prayers for the dead, or prayers to the saints is a well worn track that I do not wish to follow in this article.  Anglicanism is Protestant in its doctrines.  Therefore on this matter, the Book of Common Prayer does not pray to, or for, the dead but studiously avoids such practice.  You may remember in the Lord’s Supper that we pray for the whole state of Christ’s church “militant here in earth”.  And Article 22, of the 39 Articles describes praying to the Saints as “a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

However, the argument from experience is very common amongst Christians today and needs to be seriously questioned.  For miracles are not self-explanatory.  Neither do they authenticate the godliness of their workers.  The Old Testament talks of false prophets doing miracles (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).  Jesus warned of false Christs and false prophets who would “perform signs and wonders to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” (Mark 13:22).  We are also warned of the coming of the lawless one “by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing” (2 Thessalonians 2:9-11).

The question of the miracle then is not whether it happened (though of course it is important to avoid rogues and charlatans by checking the facts carefully) but what is its significance or meaning.  This question is not answered by the miracle itself but the belief system in which it occurs and the purpose to which it is put.

A miracle that is made in response to prayers to a dead person is contrary to the Bible’s view of the centrality, uniqueness and resurrection of Christ as well as the nature of death and the significance of ‘Saints’.  Consequently, Bible believers may well believe the testimony that the miracle happened, but will quite significantly disagree with the Roman Catholic interpretation of its meaning or significance.

That a woman, who prayed to Mary MacKillop, was cured of her cancer is quite possible and believable.  That Mary MacKillop heard her prayer and prayed to God on her behalf or that God answered the prayer of Mary MacKillop is an entirely different matter.  Biblical understanding would firmly deny that such things happened.  The Bible warns us not to draw such conclusions from such an experience. 

However, drawing false conclusions from experience is not limited to Roman Catholicism.  Many Protestants today also draw false conclusions from their experiences.  Strange and ‘miraculous’ experiences like ‘slaying in the Spirit’ or the ‘Toronto blessing’ or ‘words of prophecy’ or ‘power encounters’ – are not self-interpreting and do not authenticate ministries as being from God.

While truth needs to be weighed and evaluated in the light of experience, experience itself is a very poor guide to truth.  Experience needs to be understood and interpreted in the light of the truth, taught to us in God’s word.