Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 off witches.

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 resurrection" [1]

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 concern.

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 is.

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" [2].

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 "powerful act". 

    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 people.
  • 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 universe.

    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 divine purposes.

    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" [3].

    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 planet's life.

    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 sense. 

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" [1]

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?

[1]   Christian Theology, A E McGrath, 1994
[2]   Miracles, G N Schlesinger, 2000
[3]  Consilience, Abacus, 1998