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Did Jesus walk on water?

4 April 2024

Walking on water is impossible, or so we learn in school. The church isn’t as sure. After all, the New Testament does describe how Jesus walks on the waves. How should we read this story? That question has been debated for centuries. Theology student and pastor Jacob Uilkens had a clear opinion about it more than two hundred years ago. 

Assistant Professor of Church History

Walking on water

The boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”(Source: Matthew 14: 25-31, NIV)

It is a well-known story of the New Testament: Jesus walking on the waters of Lake Tiberias. The story is masterfully told in the Bible. You immediately recognise the scene when you see a picture of it. Yet there are great differences in the way this story is read. Some will say: walking on water is impossible. The other: when the Bible tells it like that, I believe it really happened like that.

A modern depiction of Jesus walking on the water: 'Come!'

In the upbringing of many a Christian, at least in my generation, you see both ways. In my Christian elementary school, the story was told in such a way that I thought: this really happened. In my Christian high school, I was taught physics, where it was exactly the other way around. The interesting thing is: these readings coexisted. Apparently, in the Bible you could look things a different way, compared to procedures in math and physics. One complemented the other.

So how exactly does that work? It's a tricky question. There are Bible readers who believe the two readings cannot coexist. Either Jesus walked on water or he didn’t. Especially church youth are confronted with this issue. They are asked to think about it in catechesis as well as in school (physics!). 

Bible and STEAM subjects: revelation in Scripture and Nature

My subject is church history. It can help when problems arise now to see how they were dealt with in the past. The question of whether "Jesus walked on water" became acute in Protestant Holland in the eighteenth century. Craftsmen and doctors adjusted their work to the laws of nature, with good results. That was stimulating, even from a religious perspective: helping others by delivering craftsmanship. Was it not, they wondered, a form of lying to tell children that Jesus walked on water? After all, "bearing false witness" - going against what you know better with your mind - was expressly forbidden in the Ninth Commandment (Ex 20:16). The argument that one "had to" believe that Jesus had walked on water (because this was part of the accepted preaching of the Reformed Church) was less and less convincing.   

An inspired student of theology

At the end of the eighteenth century, this was a subject that was in the center of attention. Jacob Uilkens was a farmer's son from Groningen whose ideal was to become a pastor. For him, Christianity was a matter of faith. Not being afraid, not resigning himself to the natural egocentricity (sin) of man. That could not be done without the Bible. 

Inspired by the Bible that inspires change: Jacob Uilkens

Close friends of his parents were farmer Geert Reinders in Winsum and woolcomber Eise Eisinga in Franeker. Reinders successfully experimented with cowpox inoculation. Eisinga and his famous planetarium showed that the Bible and natural laws could blend together well. Thanks to the laws of nature, an engineer or a doctor could do something for their fellow man. And wasn’t that living faith?

Planetarium in Franeker, built by Eise Eisinga: God speaks by means of both the Bible and natural laws.

Young Uilkens didn't have to be told twice. To him, believing was: daring to jump into the water. He was a patriot. That meant daring to change: putting an end to the privileges of nobility and regents. To encourage people of all backgrounds through church (Bible) and school (reason) to use their talents. Jacob's brother Theo and brother-in-law Marten Douwes Teenstra developed into opponents of the slavery still practiced in the Dutch colonies. Jacob thought it was a good Biblical principle to make sure one's money came from a responsible origin. His ideal was that pastors in the city would also teach at school, and that pastors in the countryside would earn their income as farmers. He did the same himself when he became a pastor, in Lellens and Eenrum.

Again: Jesus walking on water

As pastor in Lellens and Eenrum, Uilkens could be sharp-tongued. Fellow pastors who told their catechists that Jesus had literally walked on water were told that they were sinning against the Ninth Commandment. The other side's judgment was also not lenient. Supporters of the later Secession of 1834 said a pastor who did not believe that Jesus had walked on water had to be a heretic. 

The polarisation over the question of whether or not Jesus walked on water played havoc with church life in the nineteenth century. Those who could no longer believe, often left the church. Within the church, this Bible story became a litmus test to determine whether someone was "orthodox" or "liberal”. 

Discussions on the subject more often than not turned into arguments. The result was often that both church and (Christian) school preferred not to get burned by the subject. The Bible story and the exact school subjects functioned side by side, did not enter each other's territory. It is an understandable strategy, but we have to wonder whether it is the right one. Within the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN), church congregations do their best to retain young people for the church, but in practice, most become alienated from the church during their high school years.

Abraham Hellenbroek and his 'textbook' for catechists

Is it possible to merge both views? Or at least arrive at a conversation between the "yay" and "nay" sayers? Uilkens is understood today as a forerunner of liberalism. But isn't he also someone who could have something to say to the "orthodox"? Interestingly, he had an appreciation for a catechesis by right-wing Calvinists: the textbook of Abraham Hellenbroek (1658-1731). Today, only the ultra-Orthodox continue to use this book for their catechesis. What Uilkens admired was that it treats both the revelation from the Bible and that from nature. Hellenbroek is clear that the laws of nature are basically unchangeable: God does not go against the orders He Himself as Creator has placed in nature. We know from the Bible that reality nevertheless has an open side, that things can be different. That is not simply a miracle. The idea is that something changes when a person lives from the Bible. It is precisely this change that was important to Uilkens.

Can "orthodoxy" and "liberalism" ever come to an agreement on whether Jesus walked on water? So far, they haven’t been able to. Yet it is important to enter into a conversation about this. In Dutch church history, Hellenbroek offers a start. We can know God from both the Bible and from nature. That remains a fitting topic for catechesis in our time.