excursus: the definition of a miracle

In the style of those old, nineteenth century Biblical commentaries, here’s some supporting evidence for that last post.

In Churches of Christ (of all stripes), a miracle is usually defined as a “violation of the laws of nature.”  This is done without a great deal of reflection and everyone, it seems, assumes its validity in discussions related to the Holy Spirit, the Pentecostal movement, and God’s work in the world.  But where did this definition come from?  Is it truly accurate?  Does it reflect the Biblical concept of miracle?  These are the questions that I will address (briefly, I hope) in this post.


So, where does the idea of miracle-as-violation-of-nature come from?  The idea does not appear in the NT.  Neither Paul nor the Evangelists nor any other NT writer appeals to such a concept.  In the words of Leonard Allen,

“The biblical writers assume that God is at work in all of…history.  Some stories tell of dramatic divine activity, God’s wonders: bushes burn unconsumed, seas get parted, lepers get healed, apostles get freed from prison.  In many other biblical stories no such wonders occur.  But God is seen as just as much at work.  The biblical writers seem little concerned to distinguish or reflect on these different modes of God’s activity.  For them God is everywhere at work in the world, occasionally in notably dramatic ways and often through the more usual means of circumstance and human action.”

This view was a commonplace in Christian theology down to the seventeenth century.  Everything that happened was equally evidence of God’s presence and rule in the world that he created.  I’ll note a few examples that show the general line of thinking.

And now for the usual DISCLAIMER: You are about to read a number of citations from Christian theologians — ancient, mediaeval and modern.  I cite them as evidence of a particular line of thinking regarding the nature of miracles.  In arriving at that understanding, they were attempting to make sense of the Biblical record with as much fervor as we do.  

In other words, I am not simply making an argument from authority (argumentum ad verecundiam).  I am not dropping names just because they sound impressive.  My quotation of Calvin, Augustine, et al. should not be taken to mean that I agree with everything they ever wrote.  On the other hand, just because Calvin or Augustine said it, doesn’t make it automatically wrong.  I trust that my readers will approach these questions with a bit more critical acumen than that.

We begin in the 5th century.

Augustine, De civitate Dei, 21.8: “…we say, as a matter of course, that all portents are contrary to nature.  But they are not.  For how can an event be contrary to nature when it happens by the will of God, since the will of the great Creator assuredly is the nature of every created thing?  A portent, therefore, does not occur contrary to nature, but contrary to what is known of nature.”

So, Augustine says that miracles (portenta) were commonly believed to be contrary to nature?  Who, specifically, thought that way?  In Augustine’s day, teachers in certain philosophical schools (the Epicureans, for example) and those who practiced astrology held forth such a theory.  For Augustine, the idea grew out of their confidence (and pride, according to Aug.) in their own knowledge.  It certainly wasn’t a Christian idea.

In the Middle Ages, as well as in the Reformation, the same idea — that of the NT writers and the early Fathers — holds.  Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 1.105.7) notes that “the word miracle is taken from admiratio.  Now we experience wonder [the definition of admiratio] when an effect is obvious but its cause is hidden.”  He goes on to say that events are most aptly described as miracles when their cause is “hidden absolutely and from everyone.”  Regarding Aquinas and his age, William Placher has pointed out, “[I]n a world where God sustains everything at every moment, what distinguishes miracles is our inability to understand their causes and the wonder that results, not the fact that God acts in them but not elsewhere.”

During the Reformation, although Luther never seems to have engaged with the topic at any length, Calvin discusses the nature of miracles in a number of places in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Like other Christian theologians during the previous fifteen centuries, Calvin did not distinguish one class of events as ‘miracle’ and another as non-miraculous. 

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.14.21: “For there are as many miracles of divine power as there are kinds of things in the universe, indeed, as there are things either great or small.”

Moreover, man has within himself “enough miracles to occupy our minds, if only we are not irked at paying attention to them.” (Institutes 1.5.3)  As Placher aptly summarizes: “The occasional event in radical violation of the normal order of things serves only to ‘renew our remembrance’ that God was directing every event in the normal order as well” (citing Institutes 1.16.2) 

This consensus — that God is constantly at work in the world in both ‘normal’ and ‘extraordinary’ (to us, at any rate) ways — began to change in the late sixteenth century due to a number of factors.  New scientific discoveries (a heliocentric solar system, etc.) called earlier theological ideas about the order of the universe, God’s providence and rule into question.  A new consensus emerged as scientists and philosophers posited regular “laws of nature,” established by God to be sure, but regular enough not to require his constant intervention.  What about miracles?  In order to explain miracles, there developed a distinction (that had not existed before) between “nature” and “supernature.”



I said earlier that miracle-as-violation is not a Christian idea.  But why not?  Because of the assumptions that lie behind it.  What kind of assumptions?  Well…let’s assume for a moment that a miracle is a “violation of the laws of nature.”  What would that say about God and about the world?  For starters, it assumes a Deistic view of God, i.e. that God set up these “laws of nature” and that everything is subject to them, even God himself (if he’s not, why would you say that he had “violated” them?).  Furthermore, it assumes that after he set up these laws, God left the world to run on its own and hasn’t been heard from since.  Some thinkers of this persuasion, like John Toland (Christianity Not Mysterious, 1696) and Robert Boyle (fl. 1772), argued that it would be beneath the dignity of God to intervene in what they called “trivial” matters.  In due course, this view  crowds God out of the picture and renders him distant and unnecessary to the continuing operation of the universe.  Miracles, no longer seen as part of the regular course of a creation that we as humans sometimes do not understand, were set to one side and began to be seen as merely “proofs” of the gospel.  (Among Christians, “set to one side” meant that they were confined to the NT.)  As Placher puts it,

As long as our mystified wonder defined a miracle, it had no more status as “evidence” for the truth of faith than any other event, properly understood.  But if the defining characteristic of a miracle was that it violated the laws of nature, then a properly established miracle constituted good evidence that something existed beyond the (newly defined) natural order. 

Probably the key phrase there is “properly established.”  Once miracles became detached from the way that God normally works (or doesn’t work) in the world, individual miracles came under the scrutiny of those who sought rational proofs for them.  Often, they failed these tests.  Placher cites the example of Thomas Woolston, an English Deist, who published an argument (Fifth Discourse on the Miracles of our Saviour, 1728) that while there existed a Creator there was no reliable evidence for miracles, even the biblical ones.  Woolston was no isolated case: the pamphlet cited above sold over 30,000 copies (an enormous number for that day) and there were any number of contemporary thinkers who thought in exactly those terms, even if they didn’t have the courage at that point to put their thoughts in print like Woolston did. 

The logical end of this line of thinking applied in a Christian context is full-blown Deism that trends toward atheism — Deism of the sort espoused by Hobbes, Rousseau, Hume, and Jefferson inter alia (but not, apparently by Jesus or Paul or any other Christian thinker for almost 1600 years after their time).  To my mind, this is precisely what we in Churches of Christ have reaped from selling out to certain strains of Enlightenment thought — having safely boxed up God in heaven (somewhere), we have denied his work in the world and have subscribed to a kind of functional atheism.

Your comments, as always, are welcome. 


8 responses to “excursus: the definition of a miracle

  1. Good post.
    I wonder if you might comment on this:

    The minister of the church I used to attend, while not denying God’s work in the world, defined it as such.
    1) Miracles – God’s actions that suspend (or violate) his natural laws.
    2) Provedence – God working through his natural laws to accomplish his will

    He would then teach that miracles have ceased in modern times but that God still works through his Provendence.

    I never liked this line of thinking either, as it limits God.

    Your thoughts? Have you come across this teaching before?

  2. Chris,

    You need to read Tim Enloe’s blog.


    and Kevin Johnson’s


  3. Well, I can’t put my finger on it, but I agree… I don’t like it.

    It seems too neat and tidy, for one thing.

    How would you define providence?


  4. I agree that we can (have?) set up an anachronistic false dichotomy, but at the same time the Bible does refer to miracles qua miracles. They did (do?) exist as something out of the ordinary, and were meant to highlight God’s power in some particular way. It seems to me (and obviously I didn’t originate this idea) that miracles were something that occured in Biblical times in extraordinary times and situations; they are clustered. If miracles aren’t extraordinary then it rather defeats the purpose.

    But then again, I’m not theologically trained. 😉

  5. Alan,

    Thanks for chiming in and continuing to humor me by dialoguing on these posts.

    Anyway, I think you’re right to say that there were extraordinary miracles in the NT (e.g. Lazarus being raised from the dead). (There were lots of ordinary ones as well, it seems.) I think, further, that, for what it’s worth, Augustine and Calvin would have said the same thing.

    What I’m a bit more hesitant to say is that miracles (ordinary or extraordinary — those are modern categories, by the way, not ancient ones) at some point completely ceased. Granted, I’ve not seen any lately (and I don’t think that what your average Pentecostal televangelist is doing counts), but I’m squeamish about absolutely saying that there is a cutoff at some (undefined) point in the first century.

    Does that make sense? I’m not too coherent right now, as I just finished a paper…

    Oh, and I’m sorry about the “theologically trained” comment. I didn’t mean to sound so snippy and looking back at it, that’s probably how it came across. (By the way, I thought I remember you saying that you went to Cincinnati Bible, or am I misremembering?)


  6. Don’t worry about the ‘theologically trained’ comment; no offense was taken. I can handle it! I’m sure I would benefit from some formal training, but I also believe churches can do quite nicely without elite theologically trained guidance. I’m never opposed to education, but I think that you and I have some differences of fundamental approach regarding tradition as it pertains to religion and the church.

    Getting back to the issue at hand, I agree that I cannot categorically state ‘God does not perform miracles today.’ I feel pretty comfortable in saying that there are not human miracle workers today, but God does not need human agency (if I’m using that term in a technically proper way) to do whatever He likes in His creation. I believe that miracles in the NT were performed to confirm the status of of Jesus as the Christ and also the validity of the word being preached. It was something that was needed for a particular period of time, and that there was a built in ‘sunset’ provision for miracles performed by human agency.

    That said, God does have sovereignty over His creation. The Son does sustain the Creation by His will, and I believe can act within it as He sees fit. If He created it and He sustains it, He can act within it. I know that He will not do so in a way that is inconsistent with His nature or with His redemptive plan. Ultimately, though, I do not want to place myself as a creature in the position of thinking I can dictate to the Creator what He can and cannot do.

    (For the record, I did not attend at Cincy. My degrees are in history–Kentucky and South Carolina.)

  7. The question of education is a tricky one. There’s a good deal of mistrust of ministers who are perceived to have too much education. They become prideful or are perceived to be ‘corrupted.’ On the other hand, the most natural response to me, as I have pursued more education, is to realize just how little I know (and how much more there is to learn!)

    I think we’re in a vicious circle in the Church: ministers who don’t use education and training properly create distrust in congregations who then become distrustful of any education at all, even in someone who could use it wisely and maturely.

    Our papers, and the tendency to label, contribute to the problem as well. I’m already concerned about taking a degree at Lipscomb, because of the tendency to believe that if someone has been educated at a particular place, then they must have swallowed everything they were told there.

    OK, I’m on a soapbox now. I’ll get off.


    P.S. Thought your statement about the Holy Spirit was well put. We are largely in agreement.

  8. OMG loved reading this blogpost. I added your rss to my reader!

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