I think it's fair to say that the clash between science and myth is still
alive and well, if not in all its former glory. However, the dispute has
been modified in important ways over the last forty or so years.
One of the ways in which the traditional Christian stance about miracles
has been defended is to move the goalposts. I think it's clear what most
people mean (if they think about it at all, that is) when they talk of a
miracle. But if a miracle can be satisfactorily redefined, the sting of
the rationalist arguments may be relieved.
Newtonian science has been superceded by a more flexible model of
what "science" is.
First, we now know that at the most basic levels, the physical
universe is not mechanical. Rather, mechanical cause and effect is
moderated and guided by what is often loosely called "chance" or
"chaos". This is not strictly speaking a randomness but is actually more
like statistical probability out of which regular events arise
Second, our understanding of scientific cognition and method has begun
to change at a basic level .
It has been pointed out that science itself rests upon the assertion
that no truth reached by means of the scientific method is ever final.
That is, all scientific truth is provisional. A scientist can only ever
say "I know this" in a provisional sense.
One implication of such developments has been eagerly seized upon by
some traditional Christians. If the way the universe works isn't after
all as determined as the Newtonians thought it was, might it not be
possible that what we call miracles could happen? There might be more
things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than we could ever dream of.
Even the most extreme miracles such as people coming to life again
after having been dead (most famously Jesus and Lazarus in the Gospels)
might, it is suggested, be statistically possible. A once-only event,
even if monumentally improbable, might emerge against all the odds. So
Jesus might have been the one person in (say) 20 billion dead people
over the ages whose cellular structure revived after what is an
irreversible event in every other case.
But we should note that this supposed window of opportunity for
traditional theology does not answer the central difficulty of how God
intervenes in the universe. If God does modify the chain of cause and
effect which (as far as we can tell) has operated since the Big Bang, we
must attribute everything to God's actions unless we know how to
tell the difference between normal events and those deriving from divine
action. I have found nobody to tell me by what criteria one makes this
We should also note that Christianity rests upon the existence of at
least a significant degree of freewill in human beings. If we can't
choose between right and wrong, we can't sin. And if we can't sin, then
there's no point to Jesus. Who is to know when God is miraculously
manipulating our minds and behaviour and when we are choosing freely?
Recent developments in the study of the New Testament have focused
increasingly on the culture of which Jesus and his early disciples
were part. A number of important conclusions are, I think, gradually
becoming more acceptable.
First, not much of the Gospels is good history. The Gospels are much
more the expression of early theology than we have thought until now.
The degree of first-hand human testimony is much slighter than most
people suppose .
Second, we are gradually realising that the nature of Jesus and his
contemporaries was more determined by the culture of which they were
part than traditional teachings have allowed .
We don't know enough about that culture to be sure about its details.
And even if we did, so different is our modern culture that we are
able to understand first-century Palestine only with difficulty - and
then not in sufficient depth to be completely sure of all our
Third, it has recently been shown that we are all subject to certain
errors of thought which willy-nilly lead us astray. The science of
cognition has since the early 1970s shown that one of the most
powerful of cognitive illusions is our strong tendency to reach
conclusions without using all available information.
So, for instance, we often fail to recognise that the Gospels are only
a small part of the information we should use to judge whether or not
miracles are possible. That many don't use all available
information isn't necessarily their fault for two reasons:
 They believe that the Bible is a special class of information
imbued with greater verity than any other. This is because the Church
almost universally still sells the Bible as God's revelation to
humankind . If this is a credible conclusion
then we are correct in thinking that the Bible is better as a source
of information than, say, the collective system of knowledge about how
the universe works which we call "science".
 When we attempt to make important estimates of probability like
that about miracles our neglect of information plainly available to us
(technically known as a "base rate" type) isn't deliberate but
automatic. Only when it is pointed out to us what we're doing, and
when we accept other information as valid, does this built-in,
genetically determined thought-fault disappear.
It turns out that unless the New Testament is regarded as the literal,
inerrant work of God, the evidence for the miracles it reports is
slight and unconvincing. But such is the way the human mind works,
that very few of us escape the illusion of the "base rates" effect
The human testimony to which David Hume referred above is flawed to
so great a degree that we can't rely on it. We don't know what really
happened in the life of Jesus and his followers. As H S Reimarus and G
E Lessing said , if any testimony
from so far in the past contradicts our present experience (including
the type of experience we call "scientific knowledge") then it should
be given little weight, if any.
I for one can only conclude that the scriptural evidence presented
as miraculous "evidence" for the divinity of Jesus is too weak for the
purpose. An event like the resurrection of Jesus from death is so
astronomically improbable that to be convincing [a] the historical
evidence would have to be far more solidly and widely attested to be
convincing, and [b] our knowledge of physical processes would somehow
have to allow it.
A tenet of traditional Christianity is that there exist certain
unchangeable truths revealed to us by God and that the existence of
miracles is one of them. If these truths appear to change over the
centuries, it is only because we tend to interpret
them differently from time to time.
Until recently, many scientists have thought of their knowledge in
similar terms. Many would say that once we have discovered, for example,
that matter comprises discrete units or particles, the behaviour of
which is broadly predictable, we can rest assured that this sort of
knowledge is absolutely stable.
Both claims to absolute certainty have turned out to be false.
Thomas Kuhn  has shown, I think conclusively,
that no scientific formulation is sacrosanct. Each is merely one way of
regarding the physical world. We evolve paradigms or models of reality
as we go along, changing them - sometimes rapidly - from time to time.
One classic example is the revolutionary change in the way we think of
the universe as a result of Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. The
Newtonian universe consisted of four dimensions each of which could be
precisely measured. Einstein showed, not that Newton's conclusions were
wrong, but that they were incomplete. Space and time are not "separate"
dimensions but a single space/time dimension which we break into four
parts merely for our own convenience.
The Christian Church similarly maintains that there are unchangeable
truths which have been once and for always delivered to humankind by God
via the process of revelation. These truths may be variously understood
in differing contexts, cultures and ages. But it is claimed that there
are some authorities, of whom the Catholic Bishop of Rome is one, able
to understand and preserve the basic Christian truths regardless of time
In the same way, many so-called Protestant Christians would claim that
the Bible is a repository for absolute, and therefore unchangeable,
truths. God, they would say, has spoken to humankind through its pages.
While these revealed truths can and should be debated for the sake of
clarity, they exist in the same way that scientific truth exists. But
because they are revealed direct from God, biblical truths have
precedence over scientific truths.
I think it has been conclusively shown that both types of claim are
false. Historical studies have shown regular and sometimes dramatic
changes in Christian teachings and understanding of the world
. Biblical studies have fatally undermined the absolutist
There have been many such revisions. One recent reformulation is that
of the Roman Catholic scholar, John R Meier. His three-volume commentary
is an excellent presentation of contemporary biblical scholarship about
the historical Jesus.
Meier asks, "What is a miracle?" . He
A miracle is (1) an unusual, startling or extraordinary event that is
in principle perceivable by any interested and fair-minded observer, (2)
an event which finds no reasonable explanation in human abilities or in
other known forces that operate in our world of time and space, and (3)
an event that is the result of a special act of God, doing what no human
power can do.
Meier's side-step implies, first, that uninterested and biased
observers will not perceive a miracle. Second, a miracle is a mystery by
definition beyond the grasp of human reason. Third, human beings can't
perform miracles. Fourth, God is the agent of a miracle, not nature - one
point at which he agrees with the majority view.
A thinking person might ask why God should act so that only a certain
class of humans can perceive, understand and appreciate a miracle. (Some
think that God performs miracles in order to convert sceptics to become
Christian.) Again, there are many startling and mysterious events in the
universe. Are they to be classed as miraculous because they have
the qualities of mystery and surprise?
And last, how is one to differentiate between a class of non-miraculous
but startling and mysterious events beyond human power to perform, and
another class of events with exactly the same attributes but which are
special divine acts? What characteristics allow us to recognise such a
special act? I have not found a satisfactory answer to this question.
It seems to me that Meier seeks, but does not find, refuge in a
proposal that miracles are in the eye of the beholder. This argument is
essentially the same as that of Karl Barth - that truth resides initially
in rationality but finally only in faith (which he equates with belief)
Another viewpoint hinting at the centrality of "faith" states that "...
divine disclosure invites the response of faith, it does not
demand the response of acceptance ..." as does the empirical nature of
science. When the "supernatural agency is methodologically excluded as an
explanation of such [scientific] data" , then
acceptance isn't a matter of choice as it should be.
A similar approach to miracles as the action of God against the
background of "faith" is that of John Polkinghorne .
He tries to show that "... modern science does not draw those bounds [of
scientific consistency] so tightly that there is no scope for the
particular action of a personal God".
I find Polkinghorne's chain of argument tortuous and difficult to
understand as a whole. As far as I can tell he takes a positive view of
the possibility that God acts in creation - that is, within that overall
system of cause and effect we call the universe. The physical processes of
the universe are more open and flexible than we think, he claims. In a
more open and contingent universe miracles are not as fantastic as some
Objections by sceptics like David Hume are, thinks Polkinghorne, those
of one who is "... an absolutist in the matter, an intransigent sceptic
who would never accept any evidence contradicting his prior
expectation". We should think of the universe as a more fluid reality than
does Hume, and allow things to happen within a loose framework which,
though startling and mysterious, don't violate the natural order set in
place by God.
This is, I think, a clear instance of redefining the notion of miracle.
According to Polkinghorne a miracle becomes an event which, though
inexplicable, does not violate human rationality or the natural order in
the way that traditional Christian teaching says miracles do. In this
case, it ceases to be miraculous in the minds of most.
To sum up:
- Whether or not one concludes that miracles happen depends upon how
one defines a miracle.
- Biblical writers definitely did not think of miracles as we do
today. They had little or no concept of the physical universe revealed
by the scientific method. The idea of equating a miracle with
violation of the natural order would not have occurred to them. They
thought of signs, wonders and powerful acts enabled by God manipulating
a natural order which extends seamlessly beyond the physical realm into
a supernatural one.
- The New Testament witnesses to signs, wonders and powerful acts -
not to miracles. Most translations are inaccurate in this respect.
- Many modern proponents of miracles achieve positive closure by
redefining them as God's action within and through the existing
mechanism of the physical world. That is, miracles are due to God's
action but don't violate the natural order. This begs the question of
how we are to know which is a natural and which a miraculous event.
- The overwhelming weight of evidence and argument is against this
conclusion that miracles as a violation of the natural order do happen.
 Order Out of Chaos, I Prigogine, Bantam, 1984
 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S
 See Is Jesus
 Excavating Jesus,
Crossan & Reed, 2001 and
TheUse and Abuse of the Bible,
D Nineham, 1978
 See Revelation
 Inevitable Illusions, M Piatelli-Palmarini, 1994
 See H S Reimarus and
G E Lessing
 A History of God, K Armstrong, 1999 and
The Idea of Doctrinal Development,
O Chadwick, 1957
 A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, 1994
 See Karl Barth;
Faith; and Belief
 God, Humanity and the Cosmos, C Southgate et al, 1999
 Science and Providence, 1993