February 6, 2012

Magia Bona

Category: Ethics :: Permalink

Said Shakepeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  But what do we do with things, experiences, powers that we can’t explain? J. Douma’s book on The Ten Commandments is helpful in this regard.

In his treatment of the First Word, Douma brings up the question of  “unusual” powers, such as clairvoyance, along with such things as acupuncture, reflexology, yoga, and so on.  How are we to view such things?  He points, first, to the type of people described in Deuteronomy 18:10-11:

If they are indeed false prophets who seek to predict our future and tell us how we should arrange our lives in terms of that future, then they certainly do belong in that category.  If not, however, then although we might still have many other reasons for criticizing acupuncture, reflexology, and the like, we should not allege that they come from “the domain of the Devil.”  If a clairvoyant can help solve a murder, or if a technician applying unorthodox treatments can ease someone’s pain, then we could view these as special abilities that can obviously be used to a good end.  In any case, these have nothing to do with false prophecy (26).

One might think that only a modern ethicist would deal with things such as alternative medicine and clairvoyance.  But Douma goes on to cite the distinction made by the seventeenth century Reformed ethicism, Gisbert Voetius: “He spoke first of magia bona, referring to the art of knowing the hidden properties of natural things.  Using that knowledge, people with deeper insight into nature could effect wonderful things.  But even though they appear supernatural, these are phenomena of nature” (26).

Voetius distinguished this sort of “magic” from magia vana (playful, slight-of-hand magic: the kind of thing that a stage magician does for entertainment) and from magia superstitiosa (superstitious sorcery; the sort of thing condemned in Deuteronomy 18, Leviticus 19, and Acts 13:10, which identifies “Elymas the sorcerer” as a “son of the devil”).

Nor is Voetius alone.  Douma also cites the great Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder, who pointed out that many people condemn these sorts of things “because of their inherent mysteriousness, albeit fallaciously, as nothing short of the work of the devil.”  Schilder’s own view is quite different:

Many individuals seem to have an immediate certainty about something that happened far away, a certainty too remote and too exceptional for the ordinary, everyday paths of knowledge.  Everything in the domain of the so-called “occult,” insofar as it makes use of potentialities present in God’s creation, is nothing more than a very normal employment of what God has put in creation.  In many cases the intention with which people in so-called occult circles operate with such divinely given potentialities may well be wrong, and people may well pursue those things for selfish purposes, so that for these reasons such use and pursuits are worthy of condemnation, but we are dealing here ultimately with things that belong to nature itself (cited 26).

In short, there’s a lot about God’s world and about the capabilities of humans (to say nothing of animals!) that we don’t understand. Used wisely and used well, such things may be received with thanksgiving as good gifts from God.  Or they may be rejected as unhelpful.  But our inability to explain things doesn’t mean that we should view them with suspicion, as if they’re probably evil.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:43 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “Magia Bona

  1. Kata Iwannhn Says:

    […] they magia bona, something Reformed ethicists have given their approval to in the past (see here).  Why should it be a problem if someone wants to try them because he’s heard they might […]

  2. Kata Iwannhn » Enjoying God’s (Sometimes Gluten-Free) Bounty Says:

    […] they magia bona, something Reformed ethicists have given their approval to in the past (see here).  Why should it be a problem if someone wants to try them because he’s heard they might […]

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