The subject of miracles was once a
matter of fierce debate in relation to traditional Christian teaching. One
one side were those who asserted that science has disproved the
possibility of miracles. On the other side of the dispute were the
debunkers of science as narrow and godless.
Now, many decades after the height of the storm, it
seems that the issue is beginning to resolve itself away from the
entrenched positions of the past.
Having said that, it is true that traditional Christian teaching
remains to a large extent dependent on the notion that miracles have taken
place and still do. Many theologians and most so-called "fundamentalists"
(those who think that the entire Bible is good history) still spend
considerable energy arguing the truth of this position.
Similarly, I suppose (as a guess, not having the data to prove my case)
that a majority still thinks that certain events take place in our world
which might be broadly termed "magical" and in that sense "miraculous"
(see 2 Kings 13.20ff for example). This majority lives in cultures which,
though strongly impacted by technology, are essentially pre-modern. They
use satellite telephones and and the same time employ incantations to ward
Miracles are an important part of traditional Christianity. The
complexity of the arguments surrounding them is considerable. They can't
all be dealt with here. I intend to pick out those which seem to be of
particular relevance for the contemporary debate.
But it's useful first to present the primary reason why miracles are
considered important. One writer puts it well: "Much traditional Christian
apologetics concerning the identity and significance of Jesus Christ was
based upon 'miraculous evidences' of the New Testament, culminating in the
To restate the same point in a different way, miracles
are supposed to prove or at least demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of
God. Only God can cancel or break natural laws, so because Jesus performed
miracles he must be coterminous with God (at least in the sense that this
is stated in the creeds of the Church).
The point is no doubt here stated too crudely for
academics. But my experience is that 99 out of 100 Christians would put
the matter in a very similar way. Not only that, but a large majority of
non-Christians would understand the Church's teaching in broadly
the same terms. For better or worse this is the concept which must be
dealt with in the world of ordinary people.
It should be noted, however, that the need to
demonstrate that Jesus is coterminous in some way with God is not
necessarily relevant today. It was no doubt important as long as the
natural universe was perceived as shading into a supernatural realm. If we
think that God constantly "invades" nature to ensure that the divine will
is implemented, and if our world is a battlefield of good and evil
spirits, then Jesus' status as a divine worker of miracles is of some
But if the natural order is a unbounded system of cause
and effect, and if Jesus is God's child just as we all are - though of
huge importance to humanity - then proving his divinity through miracles
becomes of little or no concern. There is a prior question upon which the
debate about miracles depends - namely, what the nature of the universe
What exactly is a miracle? This question has to be asked because so
many differing answers have been given to it.
One author remarks that "If the desk in front of me suddenly turned
into a water buffalo, I would certainly be stupefied. But since such a
fantastic metamorphosis would not appear to serve any divine purpose" it
would not be rightly called a miracle" .
This point is too often underplayed. It is that any event in the
universe, no matter how bizarre or unusual, which is part of the
universe's natural way of operating is by definition not a miracle. To
qualify as such, an event must be divinely initiated and non-natural in
quality and outcome.
The concept of miracle has been put across in many variations of at
least the following generic ways:
- In the New Testament, what used to be translated from the original
Greek as "miracle" is better translated as "sign" or "wonder" or
In some cases the word "miracle" has in the past been inserted even
though it isn't there in the Greek. The King James version of Mark 6.52,
for example, reads, "They considered not the miracle of the loaves" (epi
tois artois) even though a more accurate rendering is, "They did not
understand about the loaves".
The much newer Good News Bible translates as "miracle" the
Greek for "powerful act" (dunamin) in Mark 9.39: "No one who
performs a miracle in my name ..." referring to the casting out of
demons by Jesus.
The same translation is made of the Greek word for "sign" (semeia)
in John 11.47, which comes just after the story of the raising of
Lazarus from the dead: "So the Pharisees and the chief priests ... said,
"... Look at the miracles this man is performing!" instead of "... Look
at the signs done by this man!"
Some Christians recognise the distinction between a traditional
interpretation of miracles as God suspending the natural order and the
ancient understanding of what we call "miracles" as signs and wonders.
But it's not a distinction generally made and known amongst ordinary
- A majority of Christians and others today understand "miracle" to
mean an action which can be characterised by being supernatural in
origin. A miracle derives ultimately from a dimension or other reality
to which natural laws don't apply. This is, as it were, God's dimension.
God is all-powerful and can therefore do anything from this supernatural
domain - even break the laws of nature which otherwise operate in our
Those who think of miracles in this way often divide the New Testament
accounts of Jesus' miracles into three categories:
- Miracles which use natural laws to rectify something which has gone
wrong. Thus a woman who has suffered vaginal bleeding for many years is
healed merely by touching Jesus' clothes. Jesus the Son has been given
the power by God the Father to heal in this way.
- Events which, though a natural explanation might be found, are
actually miraculous. One such event would be the feeding of the
thousands. One might explain these events by saying that Jesus inspired
the crowds to share what they had so that those without food were fed.
Even if it did happen in this way, it would be said, it is still
something miraculous in the sense that only a divinely inspired person
could persuade people in this way.
- Everything in the New Testament, and indeed the entire Bible,
happened exactly as it it written. Jesus literally walked upon the
water. He didn't, for instance, walk on a hidden shoal of sand. Nor did
the disciples mistake what they saw. Jesus (God) could unambiguously
suspend all normal laws of nature such as gravity and death to achieve
This is the broadly the approach favoured by most Christian
apologists, who claim that Christian tradition has reliable, permanently
true answers to how the universe works.
- Many think of the Bible is a repository of stories or myths
produced to give meaning to life as perceived by primitive
people living in primitive societies.
It would be maintained that our understanding of the world and the
universe has changed since the start of the scientific age. We now know
that the laws of nature don't allow miracles. All the miracle stories in
the Bible must therefore be discounted. They may be interesting (like
the myth of Adam and Eve) but they are essentially useless to life as we
know it today.
This standpoint originally flowed from the fountain of Newtonian
science. The universe was thought of as giant mechanism which operates
rather like a clock. Each part is meshed with every other part in a
sequence which is absolutely determined. Although this mechanism is
extremely complex we can be certain that humankind will one day be able
to understand exactly how it works.
This approach persists to this day, notably in the work of E O Wilson
who writes that "... all tangible phenomena, from the birth of the stars
to the workings of social institutions are based on material processes
that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences,
to the laws of physics" .
When complete understanding of everything is achieved, so the
Newtonian would say, we'll be able to predict the future. When, for
example, we have reduced the weather to its component parts and know how
these parts interact, we'll not only be able to predict next week's
weather but in theory all the weather on earth until the end of our
In this model of reality, miracles obviously can have no place. Not
only is it impossible to break the chain of natural cause and effect,
but if we somehow did so, the universe as we know it would cease to make
The philosopher David Hume, says A E McGrath, emphasises that there are
"... no contemporary analogues of New Testament miracles, such as the
resurrection, thus forcing the New Testament reader to rely totally upon
human testimony to such miracles" .
To put this another way, the entire fabric of Western
scientific knowledge rests upon cognitive foundations utterly different
from those which Jesus himself used. To accept miracles as supernatural
interventions into our natural world is to deny that science is a valid
way of knowing reality.
A note of caution: Is it in fact possible to know when a
violation of the natural order occurs? I think not. Our knowledge of how
the universe works is too fragmentary to be sure that violations don't
happen in areas of nature about which we know little or nothing. Miracles
may be happening all the time without our knowing about them.
Conversely, however, the same argument can be applied to any assertion
that a miracle has occurred. If we don't know everything about the
natural order, how do we know that any startling or mysterious event is or
isn't a miracle?
 Christian Theology, A E
 Miracles, G N Schlesinger, 2000
 Consilience, Abacus, 1998