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What is a miracle?

2 January 2010

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:

I said:
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.”

Reflections on 1989: Annus Mirabilis:

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

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 January 2010 1:30 pm

    Interesting. I tend not to use the word miracle very often, but when I do, I tend to mean something like “signs and wonders” rather than a supernatural thing.

    I find Jung’s concept of synchronicity more useful – “the acausal connecting principle” – where two events that have no connection nevertheless occur at the same time, thereby creating a connection.

    And then there’s the question of the difference between miracles and magic. (I know that the difference is clear in the Christian paradigm, but others use the words differently.) I was interested to note that various Orthodox saints are called Wonderworker, Thaumaturgos in Greek, and thaumaturgy was a branch of magic in the ancient world.

    To my mind, magic is a little-understood natural power that can be deliberately wielded by humans (like telepathy, healing, etc.), whereas miracles are events not caused by humans that are still inexplicable and full of wonder. I don’t believe in the supernatural (being a pantheist), so if miracles and magic exist, their source must be inside nature and not beyond it.

    • Steve permalink
      3 January 2010 6:52 pm

      Dear Yvonne

      If I may. If you admit to the possibility that miracles and the working of wonders have their source within nature, then you are a Panentheist not a Pantheist.

      If you are a Panentheist, you have arrived at the default position of the ancients; which is to say that you are closer to Orthodoxy than the default position of modernity (if indeed modernity can be said to have any position at all).

      You might thus want to think more in terms of Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relational (which is of course antithetical to the “I-It” of Panentheism).

      And at the very heart of the “I Thou” we find the Incarnation, which is to say we have moved into the very Person of God.

      • Joshua L permalink
        6 January 2010 9:50 am

        It should be noted that Buber was Jewish, although not a conventional one, and did not believe in the incarnation; at least in the Xtian sense.

  2. 2 January 2010 2:14 pm

    Having looked it up, it turns out that the miraculous and Orthodox use of the word thaumaturgos predates its magical use. See

    I had assumed that thaumaturgy was practised by the Neoplatonists (as was theurgy) but it turns out that thaumaturgy didn’t mean magic until the 16th century.

  3. Fr. Ted permalink
    4 January 2010 3:52 am

    Dn. Steve,
    I did write a blog addressing your question at

    Back in July I also wrote a blog called What is a Miracle? in which I quoted Metropolitan Anthony Bloom:

    I also gave a sermon in 1994 which somewhat addressed the question about miracles and natural law:

  4. Joshua L permalink
    6 January 2010 9:53 am

    One Orthodox Jewish perspective on miracles is that nature itself is a miracle, therefore there is no “violating the laws of nature” since the laws of nature are also part of hashgacha pratis (lit. guidance of all the particulars, or “divine providence”). In fact the ethical mussar masters would often say that a big problem in keeping bitachon, or faith, was in treating routine events, such as “nature” as if they are routine rather than also a miracle.

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