What is a miracle?
As a result of a discussion in the alt.usage.english newsgroup I’ve become curious about the history of the concepts of “miracle” and the “laws of nature”. Here’s a brief snippet from the conversation:
SH> But isn’t a “miracle” something that prompts you to say “Wow!” It
SH> doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the “laws” of nature.
To which Eric Walker replied:
A “miracle” as used in the old, original, theological sense means some
occurrence impossible under natural law and thus requiring (and
manifesting) direct supernatural influence in the mundane world; looser
uses, meaning any dramatic but quite unlikely event, are transferred
senses. (The original discussion can also be seen here).
I see several problems here.
One is that the “old original” theological sense that a miracle somehow contradicts or goes against the laws of nature seems to be one rooted in the Scholasticism of the 13th century. That may be old, but I’m not sure that it is original.
Another is that I think the concept of “the supernatural” is also rooted in 13th-century scholasticism.
Where did the concept of the “laws of nature” come from?
The main question in the Usenet discussion was whether the “laws of nature” are prescriptive or descriptive. To me it seems that the “laws of nature” are not prescriptive but descriptive. I’m pretty certain that descriptive laws need a describer. In other words, the “laws of nature” are human constructs, based on human observation, experience and description. As our knowledge of how the universe works increases, so the “laws of nature” change, to take this broadened understanding into account.
In another blog post Notes from underground: The decade with no name: I noted “the end of the annus mirabilis, 1989, when democracy was breaking out all over. Dictators fell in many countries: Egon Krenz (remember him?), Nicolae Ceausescu, and P.W. Botha.”
The year 1989 was a year of miracles, an annus mirabilis. Yet the explanations about the causes of communism’s demise differ. Americans answer that it was the result of U.S. policies. A Democrat would say it was the human rights policies put in place by Jimmy Carter, namely “détente with a human face.” A Republican would credit Ronald Reagan’s policies, which initiated an arms race that the Soviet economy could not match.
I don’t know if any “laws of nature” were broken in 1989, but as the writer of that piece says, it was a year of miracles, so that we could say with the Psalmist “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, then were we like unto them that dream; then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with joy.” And that is the appropriate reaction to a miracle.
“Miracle” is a strange word. In English Bibles it is most often used to translate the Greek words simeion, meaning “sign” or dynamis, meaning “works of power”. In the bad old says of apartheid, the Nationalist press used to praise government leaders who were “kragdadig” (mighty-deeded), who “opgetree teen” (took steps or acted against) those perceived as enemies of the apartheid state. This kind of language can give a clue to what Jesus was up to with his “signs and wonders”, not in defence of the State, as the National Party leaders saw themselves as doing, but rather against the status quo. And what was the status quo? It was that “the world lies in the power of the evil one” (I John 5″19), and the signs and works of power that Jesus performed showed that he was being kragdadig in acting against the kingdom of Satan, the “ruler of this world”. When John Vorster performed his miracles by locking up those who criticised his government, he wasn’t challenging the “laws of nature”, he was showing his political opponents who was Boss. And when Jesus healed a woman with a crippling infirmity, so that she could not straighten her back, he was not challenging the “laws of nature”, he was challenging the devil and his power to cause misery on earth: Luk 13:16 And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had bound, lo, these eighteen years, to have been loosed from this bond on the day of the sabbath?
The idea that the essential feature of a miracle is that it contradicts the “laws of nature” is not to be found in the New Testament. The essential feature of a miracle is that it is a sign that in Jesus the Kingdom of God has manifested itself in opposition to the Kingdom of Satan, and Jesus explained this to his critics in precisely these terms: Luk 11:20 But if I by the finger of God cast out devils, then is the kingdom of God come upon you.
That is why, when Jesus was baptised in the waters of the River Jordan, the Church proclaims that “he trampled upon the heads of the dragons that lurked there” (from the blessing of water at baptism). When apostles and other saints perform miracles of healing, they are showing that the Kingdom of God is present in this world.
So the idea that the essential feature of a miracle is that it goes against a “law of nature” seems to me to completely miss the point, and those who say that it does seem to me to be mired in modernity. And that applies both to the “fundamentalists” who argue that miracles happen and that they contradict the laws of nature, and to the sceptics (like Hume?) who argue that since they contradict the laws of nature, miracles cannot happen.
Can anyone point me to any theologians of the pre-Scholastic period who say anything about miracles (or signs, or wonders) and if anyone tries to analyse them or define them in terms of “laws of nature”? I’d really like to know if I’m missing something in this.
PS Since I wrote this, someone has pointed me to this post by Fr Stephen Freeman, which suggests something similar: Miracles and Creation — Glory to God for All Things